Jazz singer Angela Bofill makes a comeback without voice that made her famous

Angela Bofill waits in a plain, beige dressing room at the Birchmere, preparing to go onstage without something she has lost.

It's not a small thing. Most people, says one fan of the '80s R&B balladeer, would shut down, would be content to live out their lives offstage, out of the spotlight, wherever it is that old singers go to fade away. The music business demands perfection. A certain look.

At the least, it demands a voice.

"I love perform," says Bofill, 56, her syntax fractured, her rhythm stop-and-start. She's illuminated by bright lights but not an ounce of glitter or sequins. Instead, she wears a black-print blazer. A cane leans against the dressing table.

"I used to study opera. Used to teach voice. Used to have perfect pitch. Now, no pitch. Bad pitch. Frustrated - little bit. Half my life, singing. First time. No sing."

She says she sounds like an old movie. "Me, Tarzan. You, Jane," she jokes.

Outside in the dark, cold parking lot, a sold-out crowd lines up for Sunday night's show: "The Angela Bofill Experience." After two strokes and a five-year absence from the stage, Bofill's name is again on the marquee. Fans have come from as far away as New Jersey, some cradling Bofill's original albums, which show an absolutely gorgeous woman.

Bofill closes her eyes as a makeup artist paints on thick black liner. Not many entertainers would have the courage to do what Bofill is about to do. Not many would be so bold.

"I feel happy performing again," Bofill says. "I need crowd. In the blood, entertain. Any time a crowd comes to see me, I'm surprised. No sing no more and still people come. Wow. Impressed." She laughs.

But before she will get to the stage, she has to get out of the chair. She leans forward. No. She leans forward again. "I conquer my chair - damn it! Nose over the toes. Nose over toes." Up. She grabs her cane, covered in butterflies. "I love the cane. Mother told me J. Lo uses cane dancing. Sweet!"

Behind the wall, she can hear the singer Maysa onstage performing Bofill's signature hit, "Angel of the Night." Maysa's voice is big and powerful, blowing through the thin walls of the dressing room.

There is a flash of envy from Bofill. "Used to play timbale to that song before the stroke," Bofill says. "Now, cowbell." Her big brown eyes look down. "Oh, well. One day, this arm awake. I don't know. Strange disease, stroke. Before no idea why person walk funny. Now, I get it - stroke."

She is often asked: Will her singing voice come back? "God only knows," she says. "Rather not sing than sound bad."

'A rare voice'

At the height of her career in the '70s and '80s, she stood tall - creamy skin, glittery dresses, white orchid in her hair. She had the look that teenage girls wanted: big cheekbones, sultry eyes she highlighted with blue eyeshadow. She looked like one of those girls in Prince's band. On "Soul Train," she stood onstage, her head tilted slightly to the side, dress falling off her shoulders, singing: "Tonight, I give into the feelings . . . "

Bofill was the Latina songstress who crossed over from jazz to R&B. "She had a rare voice," says her manager, Rich Engel. "She could hit low notes and could hit high C. Her pitch was perfect." She had a coveted 3 1/2-octave range.

Bofill, who was born to a Cuban father and Puerto Rican mother, was raised in the Bronx, where she grew up listening to Latin music, soul and jazz. She became a professional singer as a teenager.

In 1978, she was signed by GRP records, and that year released her debut album, "Angie," which included the hits "This Time I'll Be Sweeter" and "Under the Moon and Over the Sky." The next year, Bofill released "Angel of the Night," featuring the hit, "I Try." Both albums topped pop, jazz and R&B charts. Her contract was bought out by Clive Davis and Arista Records.

In 1983, she released the funk album, "Too Tough," which was nominated for an American Music Award. She appeared on the award show poured into a glittery gown. As a presenter, she introduced Michael Jackson, who won for "Thriller."

Bofill made more albums, gave concerts and and appeared in stage plays during the next 20 years. Although she had a huge fan base, her career peaked in the '80s. She continued working in Europe, Africa and Asia, where she sold out stadiums. In the Philippines, Bofill was a guest of politician Imelda Marcos. "Imelda loves singers," Bofill says. "Imelda sings also. An amazing woman. A star, really."

Album sales slowed, but Bofill did not. "I asked God: 'Give me break,' " Bofill says. "Tell the truth, I need a break. I'm going, going. No break long time. Over 26 years, no break. I prayed one day, 'God, I need a break.' Bam! That's when stroke hit."

She pauses: "Next time, God, maybe another kind break!" She laughs.

'Explosion inside the head'

In 2006, she was in California driving home from a restaurant with her brother-in-law. "All of a sudden, I feel an explosion inside the head," Bofill recalls. "A pop. Pop! Pop! Next thing, I know babbling. My brother-in-law asked me, 'Something wrong?' "

She answered, "Bbbaaa." "Obviously something wrong," she says. "I arrive at my house. Out of the truck. Not stand. Turned out complete left side affected. Called the ambulance. Informed me had major stroke. Over three years, no walk, no talk. Over three years, live in rehab. Physical therapy. Eventually, I walk again I need a cane. Left arm no come back yet. Challenging."

She laughs.

"It really slows my roll up, you know. But grace, still alive. Some people no make it. No eat a long time. Need a feeding tube. Awful. Only good thing I lose weight. A stroke diet. It works!"

Eventually, she began talking again. "But my voice no sing. I rather not sing. Awful. Crack me up! Funny! I laugh about it. But very grateful - still living. Never take things for granted. I think a stroke - no joke. Yes. But, I think a better a person."

She is laughing now, but a few years back, she was severely depressed. She had no voice and no health insurance. Her hospital bills piled up. Celebrities held benefit concerts across the country to raise money for her. Some singers she thought were friends called with empty promises of help. She had to sell her house in California. She moved in with her sister. Despondent, she spent most days in front of the television, flipping channels.

"First time very depressed," Bofill says. "Crying all the time. Turns out a side effect of the stroke. Made me depressed." Still, she seemed to be recuperating. Doctors said she might sing again. But a year later, she had another stroke that left her without the one thing a singer needs.

"It was devastating to lose her singing voice," Engel said. "When you take a voice away from a singer, nothing is worse. A lot of it was like, 'What do I do now, now that I can't sing?' That was her life. Her livelihood was being onstage."

Engel used to call her daily. "She was just down," he said. "That is all she did was hang around and watch TV. She didn't try writing any music. She didn't try writing any stories. I'd say, 'How you doing, Angie?' She would say, 'I'm bored.' " Engel would make suggestions.

"Finally, I said, 'You got to get off your ass, Angie! You are a good-looking woman. It's not like you are dead!' "

That's when the idea came to him. He would create a show starring Bofill. Just like old times. She wouldn't be able to sing, but she could tell her stories. He called members of her old band. They were game. He called Dave Valentin, the legendary flutist who helped Bofill get her first record deal.

"He said, 'Angie wants you. Without Dave Valentin, I'm not doing the show,' " Valentin recalls. "I told him, 'Of course, I'm doing it.' "

Engel sought soul and jazz singer Maysa, who grew up in Baltimore listening to Bofill. Maysa, who was a member of the British band Incognito, agreed to join the show.

"I have been listening to her since I was 12 or 13 years old," Maysa says of Bofill. "That is how I cut my teeth. Mother had to buy new albums, because I would wear them out. When you listen to someone so long, it is amazing to be onstage. She is looking at me singing her music. It's like a student getting approval from the teacher.

"At first, I was nervous. I wanted her to be proud. I don't know if I could have the strength to sit there and watch someone singing my songs. But she is happy."

Telling a new story

The first five "Angela Bofill Experience" shows sold out in San Francisco. Fans came, knowing Bofill couldn't sing. They just wanted to see her again. The show - even without her voice - drew rave reviews. Engel says he wants to get a movie made of Bofill's life. "Ultimately, I'd like to take the show to Broadway."

At the Birchmere, Bofill is wheeled up a ramp. She doesn't like the wheelchair. When she gets to the edge of the stage, she rises and the crowd applauds - an ovation that grows louder as she walks haltingly across the stage. The house lights go up. She sits in a chair and tells stories. Maysa sings.

Bofill moves her mouth. "Lip-syncing," she tells the crowd.

The audience laughs. Videos flash of Bofill in her heyday. The crowd is quiet. The show is like a memorial concert, except Bofill is still very much alive. Laughing but unable to sing.

"Sometimes," Bofill says, "I crack me up. Better to laugh than cry. Turned out, me a comedian." She laughs. "Instead of a stand-up comic - a sitting-down comic."

DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning staff writer at The Washington Post who has covered night police, education, courts, politics and culture.
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