Call it greed if you want, but sometimes American audiences just can't appreciate the music talent we have in front of us. We're exposed to so much musical authenticity in the birthplace of jazz, soul, blues, house, rock 'n' roll, as well as tons of subgenres that it's hard to differentiate between good musicians and really good musicians. Let's face it, both are in abundance.
There are thousands of great bass players, drummers, pianists, DJs, tweakers, and lounge singers working clubs across the U.S., and a lot of them feel about as valued as a ham sandwich at a kosher convention. We're spoiled musically and we know it. Hell, it's almost impossible not to be. But with all of this audiophile arrogance comes a price. Sometimes, we let our hometown music savants feel underappreciated for too long. And it stings when they pack up and leave.
South Florida's homegrown prodigy LaGaylia Frazier was one of those frustrated savants. She was born and raised in Miami the daughter of accomplished local singer Hal Frazier, who was one of the first black performers to appear on the Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin television shows. She moved to Fort Lauderdale as an adult to establish her own career. Some may recall her tenure working local clubs throughout the '90s as a singer or as the standout in stage productions such as The Wiz and Cabaret. She's most remembered, however, as a regular house artist at Coconuts in Fort Lauderdale in the late '90s, wowing crowds with her theatrical stage presence, large vocal range, and ability to nail dead-on covers of rock standards by Annie Lennox and Aerosmith, to name a couple. Her prowess at the club was uncontested, and New Times even labeled her Best Diva in 1999 because she wore the title well. All style and grace, Frazier was sure to be a star, it seemed. But fame continually eluded her.
She spent some time signed to Island Records, then Crescent Moon, but she never got to release any material. Aside from a small role as a singer in the 1994 film The Specialist, she never made a dent in the national recording market except for the movie soundtrack. Frustrated, it seemed that no matter how much progress she made as a local talent, she still managed to fall through the cracks. By 1999, when she was "discovered" at Coconuts by her current manager, Marie Schröder, who was visiting from Sweden, Frazier had hit a wall.
"Creatively, I was tired at that point, and there wasn't much else I could do here," Frazier says during a recent interview. After Schröder started booking gigs for her in Sweden, often two or three per week, it was only a matter of time before the diva who called Fort Lauderdale home would leave to test the waters abroad.
"It was an easy jump," Frazier says. "You go from playing local clubs with 200 people to venues with thousands and thousands and thousands of people, and it's like, this is it."
The story isn't that unfamiliar, and it mirrors similar experiences by other black female performers, from Josephine Baker to Abbey Lincoln and others, all of whom felt stifled by trying to impress American audiences. Like her predecessors, Frazier hit Europe and became a bona fide star. She has performed numerous times in front of the Swedish royal family at their request and she routinely sells out large venues. She appeared on numerous television shows and recently funded the release of her debut album, Uncovered something that, financially speaking, she thinks would never have happened if she were still living in the States.
Of course, I can write about all of this because, after six years of life in Sweden, Frazier is back. She's performing locally this week for the first time since 2001 and mustering up a buzz for the Stateside release of Uncovered.
"This album is me," she says beaming. "I've spent so much time doing covers and singing what audiences wanted me to sing, it feels good to finally put out my own material that I wrote."
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Covers? Of course she must be talking about the old days at Coconuts, right?
"In Sweden, they have this idea of how black women should sound, and they want you to stick to it," she says. "They wanted me to sing gospel and I've never sung gospel in my life because that's what they think black American singers do. So I sing it."
Interestingly, she's made strides and achieved stardom since leaving town, but she continues to hit some of the same walls abroad that she encountered in Fort Lauderdale. Her shining beacon of creative freedom, however, is the new album which is pop and rock and soul and all Frazier. The diva has had a long journey in her quest to be a success in her own right, and as she prepares for three gigs at Mangos Restaurant and Lounge in Fort Lauderdale on May 10, 16, and 17 and a fourth at Tarpon Bend on May 24, things are coming full-circle. After thinking about her first moments back on a Fort Lauderdale stage, she pauses, closes her eyes to envision the moment, and smiles.
"It's gonna be intense, and I can picture myself crying when I look around and see my old bandmates and everything hits me again," she says. "There might only be 50 people there, but it'll remind me of where I came from, everything I've been through, and after I cry, it'll be all right."