Winston-Salem — Michael Thomas’ performance of an O’Jays song at a high school talent show changed his perception of music.
Thomas had been a dutiful choir boy up until then. But he and two friends worked on harmonies and mapped out some choreography to “Use Ta Be My Girl,” a midtempo hit for the O’Jays in 1978, for the talent show at Carver High School in Winston-Salem.
“And that’s when the bug hit me,” Thomas recalled recently. “From there, I got in different bands but didn’t get what I needed from it. Something was lacking. So I thought, doggone it, if I can get my own situation, I know what my concept will be.”
That concept is now fully realized in the form of EnVision, a powerhouse band that, depending on the situation, may include six to seven singers, a brass section, a rhythm section, guitar and piano.
A musical force of nature, EnVision might be the only band in the Triad that can lift 1,000 people from the coziness of their fold-up camping chairs for some good-time butt-bouncing.
Envision will return to the outdoor concert series Summer on Liberty in Winston-Salem on Aug. 17 for a free show. And if the past is any indication, the crowd will be elbow-to-elbow, the mood joyous.
Jill Erin Martin-Byers, who books the shows for Summer on Liberty, said EnVision consistently draws one of the biggest crowds.
“Besides being a well-loved local band, they bring the energy to the street,” Martin-Byers said.
A few years ago, she and sound man Ed Poindexter, noticed that the stage was moving back and forth a few inches as EnVision performed its choreographed moves.
“We rushed to get the tire chock blocks in place,” Martin-Byers said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen in all my years doing events. They literally rocked the stage.”
Thomas has been deliberate in building EnVision, a realization of his dream to have a dynamic vocal group. In 1997, he asked singer Michelle Jackson to join. Sylvania Wilder, a veteran singer who toured Italy with Wess Machine, an electronic, funk and soul group, in the 1970s, joined shortly after.
They rehearsed two or three times a week for more than a year, perfecting their sound, before playing their first gig.
“We were trying to get our sound together and were happy as larks,” Thomas said.
“We were patient, trying to get ourselves together, and it was hard to get musicians,” Wilder said. “But that didn’t deter us. Now, we have a waiting list of musicians who want to play with us.”
Thomas, Jackson and Wilder began staking out other female singers to join. They’d hear someone sing and begin imagining her voice blending with theirs.
Iris Daye, Charlene Leggette and Erica Stevenson-Jordan were all extended invitations. They jumped at the chance.
“I was mesmerized by their smooth harmonies, the leads. Everyone who sang a lead was incredible, and apparently the feeling was mutual. We just connected, and from that moment, it’s been fireworks,” said Daye, who joined the group in 2001.
A room of women exploded in laughter when Thomas was asked why he chose only women to be in the vocal section.
Thomas said he took inspiration from Ray Charles’ backing girl group, the Raelettes.
“A male and female voice dancing back and forth with lush, full harmonies? Oh my gosh. You got me,” he said, shaking his head.
He is quick to point out that each female singer often gets to step out for a solo number that typically brings down the house.
EnVision has slowly been building its audience over the past 20 years, playing summer music festivals, weddings, holiday parties and all sorts of gatherings over the years. In 2017, the group broke into the beach music scene with “Kiss Me (Like They Do in the Movies),” a song from the 2017 album, “Soul Reloaded.” Landing a spot on the beach music charts, the song opened new markets along the North Carolina and South Carolina coastline.
The concert at last week’s National Black Theatre Festival was EnVision’s first in Winston-Salem in more than a year.
A few days before the NBTF show, Thomas, Jackson, Wilder, Stevenson-Jordan, Daye and Leggette met at their usual rehearsal space, an exercise room at the Kernersville Family YMCA, which seemed fitting given all the sweat the members have poured into perfecting their craft.
In a nondescript room of yellow cinder-block walls, drop ceilings and fluorescent lights, Thomas and the women worked through the movements they had choreographed for Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s version of “Got to Get You Into My Life.”
Though a tight, well-oiled machine that can bounce from Lena Horne to Taylor Swift to Chic, EnVision members share a lot of love for each other, evident in the way they smiled and laughed at last week’s rehearsal.
Having learned their craft in the church, each of the singers knows that sending a song into the spiritual realm goes beyond vocal technique.
“Once we’ve gone over the parts and you know it, you can feel things more. We all came from church backgrounds, where you just don’t sing over the top of things. You put your heart in it,” Wilder said. “You feel it.”