The Tale of Runaway Egos
by Pete Crigler
Once upon a time, En Vogue were hailed as one of the greatest female R&B groups of all time. But then the shit hit the fan amidst pregnancy, egos and money. Now there are two different versions of the group, both touring third-rate venues. What a sad, sad state of affairs. How did it get this bad, you might ask?
It all got started when two producers, Denzel Foster and Thomas McElroy, who'd previously played with Club Nouveau, decided they wanted to put together their own female R&B powerhouse vocal group. After auditioning numerous singers, they thought they'd found the perfect group of women: Cindy Herron, Dawn Robinson, Maxine Jones and Terry Ellis. With the group in place, Foster and McElroy took them to the studio to begin making demos. Once the demos were completed, the group managed to score a deal with Atco/EastWest, a new subsidiary of Elektra and Atlantic Records.
In the spring of 1990, the group's debut, Born to Sing was released and the group came slamming out of the gate with the smash single "Hold On." After three more hits, the album was certified platinum. Then after some downtime, the group went back into the studio and in 1992, released their sophomore record, Funky Divas, which became a watershed record in terms of early '90s R&B. Hits like the hard hitting "Free Your Mind," along with "Giving Him Something He Can Feel" and "My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It)" became smashes and the record eventually sold over three million copies.
Hitting the road hard, the group began to make their name known as a great live act. Then in an act of pure inspiration, they teamed up with Salt 'n' Pepa in 1993 to create a rap classic: "Whatta Man." The song became both groups' calling card and they were nominated for another Grammy. Unfortunately, it was about this time that the cracks began to show. Instead of rushing back to the studio for another record, the group took some time off and Terry Ellis was the first to strike out on her own with her first solo record, 1995's Southern Gul, which despite having a top ten R&B hit didn't do much on the charts.
Then in 1996, the group was called upon to record a song for the film Set It Off, starring Queen Latifah. What came out of the studio was an instant classic, "Don't Let Go (Love)," which shot straight to number two on the pop charts and became another huge hit for the group. Unfortunately, once the group finally entered the studio to begin working on the third record, they started coming apart. As the record was nearing completion, Dawn Robinson, who was seen as the face of the group, announced she was leaving to pursue her own opportunities outside of the group. Stunned, the other three pressed on and in the spring of 1997, En Vogue finally released their third record, EV3. By this point in time, though, the group had been replaced by others who'd taken their lead; from TLC and Xscape to Jade and SWV, a whole new batch of girl groups had come around, effectively leaving En Vogue in the dust. Despite managing two more minor hits, "Whatever" and "Too Gone, Too Long," EV3 barely managed platinum and a greatest hits set released by EastWest at the end of 1998 completely failed to chart altogether.
Retreating to their families, the trio came back in 2000, after having been moved to over to Elektra proper with Masterpiece Theatre, an ambitious record that was unfortunately dead on arrival. With nu-metal and teenyboppers taking over the radio, the writing was essentially on the wall for the group. It was around this time that things started changing again for the group and nothing would ever be the same. In 2001, Maxine Jones split, leaving just two original members; quickly scrambling to find a new girl, they landed one named Amanda Cole. Then just after that, they were dropped from Elektra after a decade together.
Meanwhile, Dawn Robinson was initially laughing her ass off, having joined the R&B supergroup Lucy Pearl with Raphael Saadiq of Tony! Toni! Tone! and Ali Shaheed from A Tribe Called Quest. The group was a hit right out of the box with some decent singles and a gold record but due to inner-group turmoil and a bad record label, Robinson left by 2001. She was replaced by Joi but the group soon broke up for good. Robinson then proceeded to launch a solo career which unfortunately never seemed to gain any traction.
Back to En Vogue. By this point, the group was struggling and while trying to land a new deal with a reputable label, they independently released a Christmas album in 2002, which landed with all the impact of a lump of coal. At this point, the girls were coming and going so much it wasn't even funny. Cindy Herron departed to have a baby and Maxine Jones temporarily returned to replace her and the new girl who'd been hired, Amanda Cole split and was replaced by another new face, Rhona Bennett, who'd had a promising solo career in the early nineties.
Now this is where it starts to get tricky. After signing a new deal with the independent 33rd Street Records, which apparently had the backing of Tower Records and had also signed indie rockers Dramarama, the new trio began work on a new studio album. In 2004, Soul Flower was released and failed to hit Billboard 200. A few months later, 33rd Street went under as did Tower and the group resorted to touring the R&B oldies circuit, trying to drum up interest in their past. Then sometime in '05, Dawn Robinson and Maxine Jones rejoined the group and they planned a major reunion. They even appeared on a new Stevie Wonder single with Prince called "So What the Fuss," which managed to snag a Grammy nomination. They signed with a big new management deal and proceeded to play a bunch of well-received shows but then the roof caved in again in about 2007 when Dawn Robinson split again. The group was dropped by management and went back to the old ball and chain of touring, trying to make a living. By this point, Rhona Bennett made a return to the group and they continued to tour.
Then in 2008, Dawn Robinson was lured back into the group for a promised full-on reunion, including a new album and tour. The foursome proceeded to appear on BET and radio shows and announced that they were back, once more. This time, some real work was actually accomplished with a bunch of shows played across the country and even some UK dates and a new single being released in 2011 but like clockwork, just when things were going well, Robinson up and quit again, this time citing business issues.
It was at this point that things really started getting ugly. Not long after Robinson left, Maxine Jones split as well. Rhona Bennett was brought back in with no major announcement except a personal message on Facebook. Then Cindy Herron announced on the official En Vogue Facebook that there would be no studio album coming anytime soon. Then in 2012, Maxine Jones announced she and Dawn Robinson would be launching their own version of En Vogue and would be trying to usurp use of the name. Terry Ellis and Cindy Herron launched a lawsuit against the two and the whole ugly, legal mess was played out in the media. Fortunately, unlike the ugly battle going on over the rights to the name Queensryche by singer Geoff Tate against the other band members, the En Vogue battle was over rather quickly, with a judge ruling that Cindy Herron and Terry Ellis legally owned the name En Vogue and had all rights to tour and record under the name.
Now honestly, for a group that hadn't had a major hit in sixteen years, there was a lot of shit going on. You certainly don't see the former members of Xscape or Jade fighting for rights for their old name or catalogue, do you? But the girls of En Vogue have been defiant; as of 2013, Maxine Jones announced she was putting together her own version of the group, eloquently named En Vogue to the Max. Dawn Robinson finally walked away from all the bullshit and is doing her own solo thing. Rhona Bennett, brought back into the fold for a third time is touring with Herron and Ellis as En Vogue, playing state fairs, small theatres and the like.
It's amazing to believe that something like this weird, odd battle over the name En Vogue has overshadowed the music. You don't hear the old classics being played on the radio anymore and hardly anyone talks about En Vogue like they do TLC or even SWV. It's such a sad state of affairs that has fallen over the group and it's unsure if there will ever be a fourth reunion or if this is really the end of En Vogue as everyone who grew up in the '90s remembered them.
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