La da dee la da da, la da dee la da da...
And with that refrain Crystal Waters managed to captivate (and slightly annoy) the music listening population back in the early '90s. For five-year-old me, "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)" was the perfect song that fell in rhythm with me singing Top 40 and Disney tunes loudly while fleeting down my driveway on my hot pink Skip It. No doubt embarrassing my parents and waking the neighbors in the process. While the song pleased me to no end during its popularity, I have learned in later years that there were various levels of apprehension towards Waters and her seminal hit, "Gypsy Woman" because, well, it can become mind-numbing after repeated listens. The most prevalent sneer to it was the comedic backlash as we can all admit to exuding chortles towards the infamous In Living Color sketch with Kim Wayans giving a sarcastic droll performance to infer the song was "mindless" and that "yabba dabba doo" bested "la da dee" any given day. Aside from all the jokes, covering of the ears, and complaints of the song's classic repetitious refrain and overall make-up, "Gypsy Woman" is a landmark for house music culture. Not to mention it throws Waters into the conversation of how the genre came from the underground to the light of the mainstream in the early '90s.
Waters rise to fame as a singer happened purely by accident. As a former in-house songwriter for Mercury Records and co-pilot to the Maryland-based production team, the Basement Boys, Waters happened to write "Gypsy Woman" with another vocalist in mind. In its earliest form "Gypsy Woman" was pegged for fellow house diva Ultra Naté, but to Mercury executives, Waters demo of the track fared better, which led her to snag a record deal of her own.
Packed with a flat, idiosyncratic tone that feels like the cold shoulder that Grace Jones gave audiences in the '70s and '80s, Waters released her debut, Surprise, in the spring of 1991. Though Waters was late to the burgeoning house scene, a scene that had already sowed its roots in Chicago in the early '80s, she was one to bring the genre to the mainstream as Surprise, even in all of it's DJ-In-A-Bottle feel, is highly accessible even for dance music snobs. It has a "cool like dat" atmosphere, it's relaxed yet crisp, with hints of jazz experiments that keep the experience somewhat vintage and icily soulful. No doubt these jazz touches are Waters way of giving a homage to her great-aunt, the legendary singer/actress Ethel Waters. Tracks like the scatting/vocalese exercise of Wardell Gray's "Twisted" and the snaking in of a sax on the nine-minute jaunt "Tell Me" further display her attention and love for the genre.
With the Basement Boys in the production seat, Surprise does tend to border on being too saturated in the repetitious motifs that house music is based on, which, for some, can be tedious. Also Waters isn't the best of singers, but she makes up for some of the album's drags with her entrancing compositions as she holds the pen credit on the majority of titles on it. Underneath all the pulsating pleonastic grooves, Waters touched on a myriad of hot button issues giving it leeway to it being club music with a concise message. Waters, a Howard alumni, is no stranger to prose, as she was the youngest person to be inducted into the American Poetry Society at age 14 -- and that wordsmith talent shines through here. In addition to putting a face to the homeless on "Gypsy Woman," Waters put the timely topics of spousal abuse (the deceptively bouncy title track and jarring "Deepest Of Hearts"), child abandonment (my favorite, "Small Cry"), interracial romance ("Good Lovin'"), and sexual freedom (the succulent stepper, "Makin' Happy") under a microscope and under a rhythmic guise. A bold move, but it's also a treat to unwrap as Waters' intriguing voice and her attention to lyrical detail keeps the album from sinking into its own genre trend.
Waters was just getting warmed up with "Gypsy Woman" and Surprise. Her follow-up to Surprise, 1994's Storyteller (her best album) managed to score one of the longest running singles with "100% Pure Love" and placed her in good company of house deities such as Deee-Lite, CeCe Peniston, Robin S., and countless others. In recent years, I've seen that Waters is still immersed in the club-dance scene as she still frequently tours and has currently dropped the club single, "Masquerade," giving note to those that she's not out of the game yet. Still I gladly surrender to the "la da dee" of yore and with every spin of Surprise that I do, little bits of memories drift on in as warmly as ever. I just wish I still had that Skip It, you know, to make the nostalgia more complete.