When the soul diva Vesta Williams delivered the arresting opening line ("Your name is Dracula, you suck the life right out of me") on her UK Top 20 debut single, "Once Bitten Twice Shy", and appeared on Top of the Pops in 1986, she seemed destined to not only become a regular fixture of the R&B and dance charts, but also to cross over to the mainstream.
Unfortunately, her follow-ups, the club hit "Don't Blow a Good Thing" and the ballad "Suddenly It's Magic", barely reached the UK Top 100 the following year and, despite making the US Top 60 in 1989 with "Congratulations", a quiet-storm favourite that anticipated her own experience of seeing a former lover marry another woman, Williams fared as badly as Phyllis Hyman and Gwen Guthrie. Like them, she struggled with weight issues and was eclipsed by the more marketable Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and Vanessa Williams.
"When I lost my record deal, and my phone wasn't ringing, I realised that I had to reassess who Vesta was and figure out what was going wrong," she told Ebony magazine in 1996. "I knew it wasn't my singing ability. So it had to be that I was expendable because I didn't have the right look." With the help of a personal trainer and a strict diet that avoided the waffles and fried chicken she had binged on, Williams lost 100 pounds and got her life and career back on track. She campaigned for the prevention of childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes and emulated her disc-jockey father as she co-presented a radio show on the Dallas/Fort Worth station KRNB in the Noughties.
A songwriter who had a hand in most of the tracks on the five studio albums she issued between 1986 and 1998,she was a versatile vocalist with afour-octave range, and shone equally on the smooth sizzlers "Sweet, Sweet Love" and "Special" and the fiery floor-fillers "Something About You" and "Do Ya". In 2007 she released a collection of soul covers entitled Distant Lover, and earlier this year the slinky single "Dedicated".
Born in Coshocton, Ohio in 1957, she grew up in Los Angeles and began performing in her teens. In the late 1970s, she joined Wild Honey, the short-lived group assembled by Ron Townson of The 5th Dimension, and became an in-demand backing vocalist for Bobby Womack, Stephanie Mills and Chaka Khan, with whom she was often favourably compared. While working on a Klique album, she came to the attention of the arranger and producer David Crawford, who helped her land a deal with A&M Records.
Her versatility enabled her to continue session-singing with label-mates Jeffrey Osborne and Sting and to record radio spots and TV commercials for McDonald's, Nike and Diet Coke. In 1993, she portrayed Vera, a Mae West-like saloon singer in Posse, a "black" Western directed by and starring Mario Van Peebles as well as Stephen Baldwin and the rappers Big Daddy Kane and Tone Loc. She later had a recurring role in the US sitcom Sister, Sister.
"I've always felt that to deliver a song successfully, you have to be an actress," she said. "A good actress becomes the part, just as a good singer becomes the song." Williams was found dead in a Los Angeles hotel room. The autopsy was inconclusive.
Mary Vesta Williams, singer, songwriter and actress: born Coshocton, Ohio 1December 1957; one daughter; died El Segundo, California 22 September 2011.