The resurgence of R&B girl groups is arguably one of the '90s' greatest contributions to music history. By 1992, an impressive cluster of releases from established artists like En Vogue and newcomers like TLC, SWV and Jade led to an irrefutable spike in record sales. In the following years, burgeoning talents like Xscape, Changing Faces and Zhané continued the winning streak of funky grooves and sultry slow jams with their album debuts; so by 1995, the bar was set pretty high. Three aspiring vocalists -- Monica Doby ("Mimi"), Charmayne Maxwell ("Maxee") and Nichole Gilbert ("Nicci") -- rose to the challenge and forever changed the course of their lives.
After meeting each other at various auditions in the Los Angeles area, the trio formed Brownstone and caught the attention of megastar Michael Jackson, who wasted no time signing them to his MJJ Music label. With a slew of producers on board, they set about to record a debut album. Eager to test the waters, "Pass the Lovin'" was released in the fall of 1994. Led by Nicci's powerhouse vocals, the assertive proposition was a rump-shaking number bursting with New "Jill" Swing. Turning a famous Bell Biv DeVoe lyric on its head, the girls had no problems telling their men what to do in the bedroom ("Smack it / Flip it / Rub it down," in case you missed it). Nicci, who along with Maxee had a hand in writing the song, further showed out by nimbly spitting a hot verse towards the song's end.
Firmly securing a spot on the radar of radio DJ's and music lovers alike, the warm reception and modest success of the lead single was just a drop in a bucket compared to the floodgate response that came with the follow-up, "If You Love Me." With a funky backdrop, crisp harmonies and riveting lyrics, the ladies stood their ground as they demanded men to show and prove their love. Once again, Nicci's robust vocals were front-and-center, starting off with tender pleading tones and then belting out bold commands. But as we soon found out, Nicci wasn't the only one who could sang. Maxee's smooth, refined approach was the perfect counterpoint to Nicci's raw energy. Embellished by sassy ad libs, the song delivered impassioned vocals capped by a crescendo of their flawless blend, "And if you care / You gotta show it, baby / True love to share."
Naturally, after making us groove with back-to-back releases, the next single needed to showcase their other strengths. Dialing back the tempo for the jazzy composition of "Grapevyne," the women effectively slowed things down to send a message to an ex-love. Employing gospel-like techniques that infused the ballad with the same fire that they gave on the previous tracks, the ladies delivered timeless advice ("Never do something that'll catch up to ya"), showed empathy ("Deep in my heart I feel sorry for ya") and left the relationship with their dignity in tact ("Oh, boy, you had my faith, you had my trust, you had my love / But now I have to take it back, it didn't work for us"). The song also marked Mimi's "debut" as a lead and she held nothing back, giving us confidence, sass and melodic charm.
As with many albums from the decade, a cover song was bound to make the tracklisting of their debut. While many artists chose soul/R&B legends, Brownstone made the decision to cover The Eagles' soft rock classic, "I Can't Tell You Why." The surprising song choice paid off, appealing to a wide audience while using their signature harmonies to give a refreshing take on the 15 year-old song. With Maxee stepping more fully into the spotlight, we were able to get a better sense of what she was vocally capable of and it was an emotive masterpiece. While the album version included guest male vocals for some soulful interplay at the end, the a cappella version was all Brownstone, allowing their polyphonic blend to fully envelope the listener.
Aside from their dynamic voices, one thing that really set Brownstone apart from their contemporaries was that they each had a hand in writing the album's songs. Nicci in particular co-wrote 11 of the 12 songs on the debut (in addition to co-producing three tracks), but make no mistake, Maxee and Mimi made significant contributions as well. We can hear it in the coy advances of "Party Wit Me," the reggae riddims of "Sometimes Dancin,'" the heartfelt poignancy of "Don't Cry For Me," the street-yet-sweet edge of "Wipe It Up," the simple beauty of "Half of You" and all throughout the rest of the album. With the ladies playing such a major role in their premiere, it helped give a sense of cohesion despite the myriad of producers (Dave "Jam" Hall, Soulshock & Karlin, Jorge "G-man" Corvante and others) involved.
In addition to a GRAMMY nomination and Billboard Award win, From the Bottom Up, went platinum and spent 37 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart. Twenty years later, it's held up remarkably well and makes us wish they could bless with a comeback tour as many girl groups have done in recent years. Granted, they tried a few years ago when Nicci was a cast member of the inaugural season of the R&B Divas franchise, but it was short-lived. Sadly, Charmayne "Maxee" Maxwell died earlier this year in a tragic accident shortly after the 20th anniversary of the album's release. Ironically, she met her husband of 20 years (producer Carsten Schack of Soulshock & Karlin) while he was working on the album. Monica "Mimi" Doby left the group after their first tour, citing "health reasons" which were later revealed as code for "creative differences." She opted for a more traditional path, becoming a teacher in the L.A. school district. Despite a public legal battle stemming from her role as executive producer of R&B Divas, Nichole "Nicci" Gilbert is still making powerful moves in her career. In addition to launching a clothing line, she recently released a new single ("Phoenix") as a preview to her new album SoulTronic BombShell (due in early 2016) and also created/executive produced the appropriately titled From the Bottom Up (a six-part docu-series that follows the journey of five women as they rebuild their lives after falling from grace), set to air on Centric starting December 5th.