Critically acclaimed as a success by music industry insiders and culture writers of the time period, Forever My Lady was released on May 28, 1991 by Uptown/MCA Records. At the time, the genre of R&B was being dominated by the infusion of Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing style and it was at a real crossroads from a generation earlier where singers dominated the genre as opposed to the production of the music. The world would be introduced to two sets of brothers who would stake their rightful claim as trendsetters within the genre; Jodeci boasted the production and songwriting talents of the DeGrate brothers, Donald “Devante Swing” DeGrate and Dalvin “Mr. Dalvin” DeGrate and the stellar vocals of the Hailey Brothers, Cedric “K-Ci” Hailey and Joel “Jo-Jo” Hailey.
Their style was a refreshing reminder of soulful ballads from a bygone era and the highly successful New Jack Swing style of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Their vocal talents alongside Devante Swing’s production and songwriting skill set were something to behold given how young they were at the time. Their ages ranged from 17-19, but their music sounded like well-groomed R&B stalwarts. Aesthetically, their style was groundbreaking due to the “bad boy” machismo and bravado they personified on record and stage. A young Sean “Diddy” Combs assisted in crafting the ensemble’s image while Andre Harrell, Dwight “Heavy D” Myers and Al B. Sure! provided musical guidance for this particular album; which was recorded in the Hit Factory Studios in Manhattan, New York between the years of 1990-1991 Forever My Lady.
SoulCulture recently sat down with Dalvin “Mr. Dalvin” DeGrate, group member, musician and co-writer for the album to shed some light on how the album came together.
DeGrate tells the story of how the group was formed.
“We’re all from Charlotte, North Carolina and we met there,” says DeGrate. “Little Cedric and the Hailey Singers were K-Ci and Jojo’s gospel group, then there was this girl gospel group called UNITY and then the Don DeGrate Delegation, which Devante and I played in. So we met some of the girls from UNITY and their names were Barbara Jean and Poo-Poo. These were some country girls as you can see from their names. Well, Poo-Poo was dating K-Ci before we even met. Barbara Jean would always tell us that we need to meet K-Ci and Jojo. We heard about them before, but we hadn’t met them yet. We were all between the ages of 14-16 back then.
“Barbara Jean and Poo-Poo took us to meet them one day. They had a little gospel studio joint and next thing I knew K-Ci pulled a gun out on me because he thought I was messing around with Poo-Poo. I told him, ‘Man, are you serious?’ My brother was actually dating her sister, Barbara Jean. So when we got there and this happened I told my brother these dudes are crazy and that I was leaving. I left and D stayed there with them. He would keep on telling me that they were writing songs and he wanted me to come back to start working with them. I ended up coming back and a couple of months later we formed the group.”
DeGrate recalls how the group secured their record deal.
“One day we drove to New York and within that same day we got our record deal,” says DeGrate. “We went to Uptown Records and when we walked into the building we didn’t know anyone. So we walked over to the receptionist and we asked her if we could speak with an A&R. She told us that if we didn’t have an appointment we couldn’t speak to one, but after a while she finally let us through the door to speak with an A&R.
“We met this guy by the name of Kurt Woodley. We were in there playing him our music and this dude fell asleep on us. So we woke him up and he told us that we had to do better with our sound. We began singing to him live in the office and G-Whiz from Heavy D and The Boyz knocked on the door and asked, ‘Who is that singing?’ He went to go get Heavy D. After Heavy D heard us sing, he went and got Andre Harrell. We sung ‘Come and Talk to Me’ and ‘I’m Still Waiting’ to him live. The next thing we knew he was taking us out to dinner and he signed us to a deal that same day. It was pretty cool.”
DeGrate remembers the people who provided the inspiration for the songs that would land on the group’s debut album.
“My brother D was dating this girl named Monica and he wrote all of those songs for her,” says DeGrate. “She ended up going into the Army and she never came back. He wrote those songs so she could take them with her. We used to do strictly gospel music back then. We never wrote any R&B songs until D wrote these songs for her. Monica actually has the original demo tape of those songs. He’s never seen her since they were in high school together. He let me hear the songs one day and I told him they were dope.
“Our parents didn’t allow us to listen to R&B music growing up. When we would go and buy a Michael Jackson or Prince album, we would slide the album into one of the gospel record covers so they wouldn’t see it. My parents would come into our room and find them and they would leave the little pieces of the record in the cover after breaking them. We would keep on buying the same records over and over again. We could only listen to their songs through our headphones. By listening to those records, that’s how we learned to do R&B music.”
DeGrate gives a glimpse into the process of recording the album in and outside of the studio.
“We actually did the album over three different times,” says DeGrate. “We spent months in the studio re-recording that album. We would turn in the different versions to the label and they would tell us it wasn’t what they were looking for and to try again. Another four to five months would pass by and we would turn in another version and they would say the same thing. By the time, we turned in the last version of album they told us it was something they could work with.
“This is when Puff started to come around to help guide us a bit. He told us to start making the music sound different. We didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. Andre would always tell us it was about the sounds. We were like, ‘What sound?’ Puff was an intern at Uptown Records back then and he would tell us the same thing and eventually we began to understand what they were trying to tell us.”
“The last version of the album that was released only took us a week to finish because we had already written the songs. It was about getting our sounds right because the vocals were already done. It was us going back in the studio recreating the beats and the melodies. It took a few months to complete. Most of the songs were written before we left North Carolina. My brother was 16 and I was 14 when we wrote the songs for this album back in North Carolina. The songs ‘I’m Still Waiting,’ ‘Come and Talk to Me,’ ‘Forever My Lady,’ and ‘U&I’ were on our original demo tape. We didn’t have that much studio experience when we were young. We would only perform songs.
“We were just making music to make music. Guy was a big inspiration to us back then. They were the group we would listen to all of the time. Aaron Hall was a great singer and we had the pleasure of hanging out with him, Teddy Riley and just everyone. Uptown didn’t want us to go in the same direction as Guy. They wanted a group different from Guy. It’s one of the reasons why we had to keep doing our album over and over again.”
The first single to be released off of the album was “Gotta Love.” It peaked to #79 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Chart, which cast some doubt but ultimately it would be the release of the follow up single that would propel the four young men into superstardom.
DeGrate opens up about how “Gotta Love” was chosen to be the lead single.
“‘Gotta Love’ was another one of the first songs Devante wrote. I remember the record company didn’t want us to put that record out. Puff was the one who encouraged the label to release the song. The song didn’t do well on the charts, but it was a fun song to do. Puff was actually one of the dancers in the video for the song. Andre Harrell didn’t really like the song, but Puff wanted it to be released. Andre told him, ‘If this song doesn’t do well, you’re fired.’ he laughs. The song didn’t really do well and I remember Puff was dancing hard in the rain in the video. He was trying everything to make it work. Puff goes 100% in everything he does. We shot the video for this song and “Stay” within the same day. We hadn’t shot a video before that day and it was a long day.”
The next single to be released was the iconic title track “Forever My Lady.” It peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Chart and #25 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.
DeGrate recollects Al B. Sure!’s involvement on “Forever My Lady.”
“‘Forever My Lady’ wasn’t even a song at first,” says DeGrate. “It was an interlude for the album. The record label actually made us turn it into a song. This is when Al B. Sure! came in with those orchestral sounds to strengthen the record. If you heard the first version of the song, it sounded just like “Piece of My Love” by Guy. We had to keep doing over again until the record company was happy with it.
“When Al came in, he brought in the sounds that we needed to use. He brought in a lot of the sounds Kyle West used on his debut album. We weren’t really into sounds, but we were into that New Jack Swing sound even though we came from North Carolina. Al brought in all of those orchestral type sounds and different instruments.
“I remember the most controversial moment from the Forever My Lady album was the first line in the song ‘Forever My Lady’; So you’re having my baby.’ I remember no one wanted us to sing that because people would think we were old when we were just kids. It was the most controversial line, but it made sense and it helped to make our album a success. K-Ci didn’t want to sing it and Devante hated it. Al B. Sure! actually wrote that line for the song though.”
The third single to be released was “Stay.” It peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Chart, #41 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.
DeGrate recounts how the song was originally written with another artist in mind.
“‘Stay’ is a song Devante wrote for Al B. Sure!’s second album,” says DeGrate. “He didn’t want the song and Devante told me to change the beat because it sounded totally different from the version you hear now. So I came up with the slow melody for the track. D told me that he didn’t know if it was going to work or not. I switched up the drum pattern and played the keyboards on it. I told him, ‘Let’s go ahead and try it.’ The first version of the song was entitled ‘Touch You.’ If you go back and look at Al B. Sure!’s second album, you’ll see a song on there with the same title. And that song was actually ‘Stay.’ Al kept ‘Touch You’ and we made ‘Stay.'”
The final two singles released from the album were “Come and Talk to Me” and “I’m Still Waiting.” “Come and Talk to Me” peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Chart and #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. “I’m Still Waiting” peaked at #10 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Chart and #85 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.
DeGrate briefly describes how the two songs came to fruition.
“‘Come and Talk to Me’ was the first song he wrote for the album and it was for that girl named Monica,” says DeGrate. “Devante played all of the instruments on that song and wrote the lyrics for it. The first version of the song sounded nothing like the version you hear today. It sounded like a New Jack Swing track, but with the same tempo.
“‘I’m Still Waiting’ is another song that Devante wrote for Monica too, but when we got to New York we did a remix for the song. I was the one who did the remix for that particular song.”
DeGrate speaks on some of the remaining songs from the album.
“I remember Andre Harrell and the record company not wanting us to put ‘U&I’ on the album because he said a song with the title ‘U&I’ never hits, but we put it on there any way.
“‘Xs We Share’ was an album filler, but my brother used to love it. We have so many different versions of it. The version the label picked for the album wasn’t our favorite version at all. This song went through so many changes. The only time we ever performed the song was on the show In Living Color.”
Forever My Lady went on to sell more than three million albums in the US. The album peaked at #1 on the Billboard R&B Albums Chart and #18 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart. To this day, it’s regarded as the one of the greatest albums from the early 1990s and it continues to be the highest selling album of the group’s career. This album earned a plethora of Grammy, Billboard, American Music Award and Soul Train Music Award nominations and wins for Jodeci.
This album along with Jodeci as a group ushered in a new blueprint for how R&B groups would be marketed and packaged to public at large. This blueprint is still in existence for male R&B artists to this very day. Fans of Jodeci ranged from the hardest street thug on the corner to your grandmother and they were one of the last true original R&B groups.
DeGrate expresses his feelings on the group’s impact on popular culture: “I feel like we’ve paved the way for a lot of these current groups. We’ve helped to make it easier for them. Back then, R&B music was kind of dying out and I feel like we gave it new life. We didn’t follow a pop trend like Boyz II Men did. We stayed true to who we were and true to R&B music. We did open the door for many groups that came after us. We helped to keep R&B music alive from a group perspective.”