R&B music in the mid-to-late ’90s was heavily dominated by make-up to break-up songs with soft beats and smooth melodies by the likes of Babyface, Aaron Hall, Blackstreet and Dru Hill, with Keith Sweat, R. Kelly and Mariah Carey dominating the airwaves. Mention the name Kelly Price and expect to recall a string of hits and chart-topping singles.

“Friend Of Mine” (ft. Ronald Isley and R. Kelly), “You Should Have Told Me” and of course the R&B classic “Heartbreak Hotel,” with singing legend Whitney Houston and Faith Evans, are to name only a few of the great work done by the multi-talented mother.

With a new self-titled album on the way in 2010, Soul Culture recently spoke with Kelly on her four-year break from the charts, weight loss, her new album and her admiration for Diddy.

Born into a family of singers and Pentecostal preachers, Kelly [Cherelle] Price’s destiny seemed prematurely set out for her. Now, as an accomplished writer, actress, singer, songwriter, producer and philanthroper, Kelly plans to make waves in the music charts once again since 2006.

“The way I was raised, we were traditionally Christian. Both my mother and father were preachers and we were always involved within the church. So even though I had always been singing, it was still a bit of a shock to the family to hear that I’d singing R&B and not gospel or something religiously related. No one saw it coming.”

Kelly grafted from a young age, lending her vocals to independent gospel projects and demos for aspiring artists and producers at no charge. By 18, Kelly landed her first major live performance, singing backing for music legend George Michael at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Thereafter Kelly would land Billboard’s top spot multiple times with many artists, including the legendary Isley Brothers, Brandy, Brian McKnight, Sean “Diddy” Combs, LL Cool J, The Notorious B.I.G, Jay-Z, Jermaine Dupree, Whitney Houston, Eric Clapton, Gospel music legends Donnie McLurkin and Yolanda Adams and the record breaking R. Kelly.

The release of her debut album Soul of A Woman (1998) boosted her to the forefront of the music industry.

“I began singing professionally around the age of 18. And this was around the same age that all my other friends were going to college and experiencing life,” Kelly explains.

“It was crazy how it all happened because I never wanted to be up front, I was always happy being the backing singer. I sang for so many people like Aretha Franklin, Mary J Blige and Mariah Carey. It was unreal but great to have been so privileged.”

“I would have been the highest paid backing singer at the time because of the reputation I had built and the passion I had for it. Mariah called me back to tour with her on several occasions whilst I was working on other projects – I mean, I also wrote music, and so it got to a point where so many people around me were constantly trying to tell me and encourage me to go forward for myself and sing my own songs.”

Kelly recalls her time on tour with Puffy (now known as Diddy), as his Assistant Musical Director, working with artists such as Lil Kim, 112 and Faith Evans, in the height of Bad Boy’s success, all whilst working on completing her own debut album, Soul of a Woman; “I enjoyed working behind the scenes, I think I learned a lot that way, especially with on the Bad Boy Tour.”

“Working with Puffy was incredible,” she says. “I learned so much from him, and I truly believe that a big part of who I am today is due to who he was behind the scenes. True he can be tyrannical, but I believe it’s for all the right reasons. He works hard, so everything that you see on his shows like Making The Band is true. It’s like he’s a perfectionist.”

Kelly’s transition from R&B to Gospel music in 2005 may have shocked many of her fans, but Gospel has always been at the heart of Kelly’s career. “It was an easy transition for me to make, because I never really stopped singing Gospel, so the switch wasn’t strange for me. Because of my upbringing, it’s always been with me – I wouldn’t have had such a great career if it wasn’t for my background.”

“I never went away from Christianity, so when I’m not performing or recording and I’m on the road I embrace my faith. This is all I know, its part of my life; it’s who I am. And because many people have seen me go from R&B to Gospel I have gotten a lot of ridicule for it – but I try to make it clear to everyone that my music career is a job that is part of my life and I cannot change it, I cannot do one without the other. It won’t work.”

Besides her music, Kelly’s weight was big news to fans and peers across the industry.

At the beginning of her career Price broke records by reaching Billboard’s top spot twice with the same song [“Friend Of Mine”], before it ever had a music video. At the time music executives told her that although she was talented and beautiful, “no one wants to look at a fat girl or buy her records, no matter how good she sounds” – and constructed a marketing campaign in which Kelly was unseen.

This did not affect Kelly and she went on to top the charts several times with many other artists over the years. However, a year later both her mother and her mother-in-law were diagnosed with breast cancer. Sadly, Kelly lost her mother-in-law in October 1999.

“It all happened around a really difficult time for me, my mother-in-law was dying of cancer and my mother was later diagnosed with cancer and I was just in a bad place, that was spiralling down to depression,” Kelly reflects. “After speaking to my mother in law for the very last time on her deathbed, I knew I had to make a change. I re-examined my life and changed my diet.”

She adds, “The weight loss was nothing to do with my image as a recording artist – the main concern was my health. I did it for me and I think it depends on who you ask as to their opinion regarding my image. Music was given to me as a gift, a blessing, and if I can do anything to prolong this blessing and continue doing what I love for longer, then it makes sense to do so.”

Within the four years Kelly was away from the music charts she branched out, expanding her talents in writing and acting and becoming author of Inscriptions of My Heart, in which she questions the “rules” of religion that lock a lot of people out of healthy Christianity and offers a contemporary approach to having a well-rounded prosperous life led by a loving and merciful God, and has starred in the stage play of Why Did I Get Married.

And now, 12 years on since releasing her first album, Kelly describes her new album as “Soul of a Woman plus twelve years.” She laughs. “Out of all my albums, this album is most similar to my first, even though so much has happened since I released my first album. It’s almost the embodying of my 23 years before my first album, and the twelve years in between.

“I’ve lived, achieved and grown up so much. It’s all the things I couldn’t be, all the decisions I was afraid to make, and a way to free myself of my hang-ups and move forward. It was me musically deciding that I want the failure, the fear [and] the depression to stop.”

“Everything I write is from the heart, I believe that I am a writer first, and with all my albums, if you have ever lived you will find a part of yourself in Kelly, because it’s completely honest; all real emotions. There is something that someone can relate to, when you want to laugh, cry, when you feel unwanted. So many things are represented in this album that can affect everyone in the world.”

“I think ‘old school’ Kelly fans would love the new album,” she says, “because I know how they felt about the first one. When I would perform tracks from the first album, it wouldn’t matter where I was, the reaction would be incredible. So with the first track from the album, ‘I’m Tired’, it’s an honest reaction to life. I’m tired! Something that people have been afraid to say but can do it by singing along.”

When asked what was in store in the future, she told me, “In the future I would like to make another Gospel album. I would like to do something for my grandparents to listen to. I’d also like to work with a string of people; Celine Dion, Eminem, Gladis Knight, Elton John, Michael Buble and so many more that people probably wouldn’t expect.”

“I may even go back to school and study for a law degree.”

–Tolu Akisanya

Kelly Price’s new self-titled album is due for release later this year.