Free your mind! En Vogue hits The Birchmere

Listen to the full conversation on our “Beyond the Fame” podcast.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews En Vogue at The Birchmere (Part 1)

D.C. area music fans are about to witness one of the ’90s best R&B groups.

En Vogue electrifies The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia on Wednesday night.

“We love The Birchmere,” co-founder Terry Ellis told WTOP. “We always have fun because the audience is intimate, so it gives us an opportunity to connect in a different way. … We’re going to be performing all of our hits from the ’90s all the way up to ‘Electric Cafe.”

Co-founder Cindy Herron is thrilled to be back touring after a pandemic hiatus.

“For most of the last year and a half, we all were at home just waiting out the pandemic,” Herron told WTOP. “Starting in April of 2021, we started getting back out little by little and doing shows, so it looks like we’re in full swing again. … They should come on out because we have a good night of entertainment. They’ve been locked up for far too long.”

While Herron grew up in San Francisco, California, Ellis grew up in Houston, Texas. They were ironically brought together by an Olympic gold medalist attempting to record records.

“When Carl Lewis was endeavoring his singing career, the band that I was singing with locally in Houston was his band,” Ellis said. “A mutual friend of ours [said that] producers Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, who were the producers for Club Nouveau, were holding auditions for a girl group. … I flew out to California to audition for the group.”

Thus, En Vogue formed in Oakland, California in 1989, finding success with their very first album, “Born to Sing” (1990), thanks to the platinum-selling hit single “Hold On.”

“The producers came up with this idea to do a cappella at the beginning,” Ellis said. “The record company didn’t like it. They wanted to trash the a cappella because it had never been done before. … Once the Bay Area started playing it, all of the radio stations started playing it because people started calling into the radio stations like, ‘What is it?’ And it took off like lightning.”

Their next album, “Funky Divas “(1992), featured “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It”).”

“It had a great beat, it was funky,” Herron said. “The initial breakdown, ‘now it’s time for a breakdown,’ was something else. It wasn’t an a cappella breakdown, it was like a chant, it was so lame. … When we listened back the next day, Denzil Foster came up with the a cappella breakdown that had a 1940s swing vibe to it. When we sang it, we were like, ‘That’s a keeper.'”

The same album also featured the instant anti-prejudice anthem “Free Your Mind.”

“We wanted to uplift people,” Ellis said. “As women, we had something to say, and our producers, thank God we had men who were backing that up. As black women looking at what’s going on in our culture forever, we felt like we wanted to translate that message. We were actually singing about personal experiences with prejudice.”

The opening line was actually inspired by David Alan Grier in TV’s “In Living Color.”

“He used to connect everything to that little saying, ‘Wrote a song about it? Like to hear it? Here it go,'” Ellis said. “One day we were at the studio wrapping up the song, and our producer said, ‘What if we say, ‘Prejudice, wrote a song about it, want to hear it? Here it go.’ We’re all quirky characters. … So we were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!'”

Their third album, “Runaway Love” (1993), boasted the Salt-N-Pepa combo “Whatta Man.”

“We really loved Salt-N-Pepa,” Carron said. “I don’t think anybody was thinking that there was a way to get a female vocal group and a female rap group together. But someone in their camp reached out … and asked if we were interested. … Of course, we were gonna say yes! We loved them! It was very exciting working with them. We had a lot of fun and the rest is history I guess.”

They went platinum again with “Don’t Let Go” on the “Set It Off” soundtrack (1996).

“‘Don’t Let Go’ is an anthem,” Rhona Bennett told WTOP. “When we start that song, there’s no need for us to sing because the audience can take it over. It’s a beast all its own. It’s so dramatic. … Very powerful to share with the audience, so it’s one of the most powerful songs in the set.”

Bennett joined Ellis and Herron for a revised lineup starting in 2003.

“Going up to the Bay and meeting Cindy and Terry, it just clicked,” Bennett said. “There wasn’t for me much of a moment of feeling uncomfortable or like this is going to be weird. I don’t remember any other feelings other than stepping in, there being a down-to-earth energy for me to relate to immediately, they were very open-armed and welcoming.”

They even appeared on screen in movies (“Batman Forever”) and TV (“In Living Color”).

“‘Batman Forever’ was cool, but it was just a short little cameo,” Carron said. “Being on ‘In Living Color’ to me was great, just being there with a very talented cast and just laughing. They were all so funny. That’s a great memory. To be in a scene with Jamie Foxx, but also to see a young Jim Carrey, such a phenomenal entertainer.”

They reunited with Grier in the Lifetime holiday flick “An En Vogue Christmas,” followed by Eddie Murphy in the “Coming to America” sequel “Coming 2 America.”

“It was amazing to be in such an iconic film, Part 2,” Carron said. “It was a dream come true to be invited to do that and to record ‘Whatta Man,’ the new version, ‘What a king.'”

Who needs kings when you have the queens of R&B?

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews En Vogue at The Birchmere (Part 2)

Listen to the full conversation on our “Beyond the Fame” podcast.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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