Blues & Soul, 1st-14th November 1994

Eternal - The Road To Success

Eternal have taken their street-styled R&B/swing grooves to all corners of the world and consolidated that success with live visits. PETER LEWIS talks to one half of the south London quartet about life on the road and the necessity for that personal touch.

For close on three decades, the all-female R&B vocal group has been regarded as virtually the exclusive property of America. Check the facts... the sixties Motown explosion was the Supremes... the sophisticated Philly soul boom of the seventies was typified by the glitzy-yet-soulful Three Degrees... while the new-found female desertion of the eighties found a voice through a rock-soul attitude of Oakland's Pointer Sisters.

However, while today's more street oriented R&B/swing musical arena has been primarily dominated by US 'ghetto/soul' outfits like SWV or TLC, it will also be remembered as the era when the UK finally launched its first internationally acclaimed female R&B group via the south London quartet Eternal.

Indeed, since the immediate UK Top Five success of their debut single "Stay" a year ago, Eternal have not only achieved a Platinum debut album in "Always & Forever", but have also gone on to become one of only a handful of R&B-oriented acts to have attained 1994 chart status on a genuinely global scale, taking in such far flung yet prestigious markets as America, Japan and Australia along the way. All of which is being celebrated this autumn by the group's first headlining tour of the UK, accompanied by the release of a new single - the shuffling ballad "Oh Baby I...", incredibly the foursome's fifth British UK Top 20 hit to be culled from their aforementioned debut set!

Quietly spoken yet articulate, Eternal's Croydon-raised sisters Easther and Vernie Bennett sit calmly in EMI Records' Manchester Square HQ, seemingly unaffected by the gruelling pressures of new found international stardom, much of which they attribute to the two years intense grooming which, unknown to many, preceeded the September '93 release of "Stay".

"Yes, I think that grooming helped us in a big way, in that straightaway we were put into the deep end by having to perform a lot of showcases in front of record companies and so from then on, we knew exactly how it would be to perform in front of other people", begins lead vocalist Easther. "Plus, because we rehearsed so much in the studio we were able to find out exactly what we were all all like, that we could decide whether we actually wanted to be in a group with each other or not! So that learning process was very important. Then, as far as the international success goes, I think the mixture of the group has helped as well. Having a white member - Louise - in Eternal actually brings us to a lot more different countries than if we were an all-white or all-black group. It's Europeanised us, as well as having brought us to places like the United States of America".

Indeed, one of the most significant aspects of Eternal's overseas conquests is their high level of success in Australasia - hitherto notorious as one of the world's most traditionally rock and pop-dominated markets.

"Yes, we were warned of that before we went, but what our record company over there thinks is that the people there are actually just starved of R&B music, because, after doing a few TV, radio and press in Australia, "Stay" just zoomed straight up the charts, which totally shocked us!" states one-time law student Vernie.

"Then the response in New Zealand was even more memorable! We did a one-off concert at the Auckland Girls School in front of 1500 pupils and they were just wild!... and what was so special about that one was that before we actually performed for them, they did their Maori dances, singing and chanting for us... and then after we'd performed we just sat talking to each other. So it was very much a giving day".

Following which, the group went on to attain similar triumph throughout South East Asia.

"Yeah, Japan - Number One! I couldn't believe it. We sold 80,000 copies of our album there, and we had kids camping outside the hotel for the first time anywhere," enthuses Vernie , before explaining why she feels Eternal have scored in territories where so many of their multi-Platinum US counterparts have failed.

"One thing I always say is you have to be willing to go to these places to promote. Somewhere like Australia is a very far place to go, and I can understand why a lot of people can't take time out in their schedules to visit... but you do need to meet and greet, that is very important. Also, when we went to Malaysia, they were telling us there was no way someone like R Kelly could come over because of the lyrical content of his songs... and I think that's definitely a reason why we go top 10 in markets like Malaysia, Taiwan and Singapore, because they are allowed to play us. Nothing we do is censored, the way we dress, our songs, our videos... they're all easily accessible."

However, while "Stay" , beefed up by a Teddy Riley remix, did also attain Top 20 status in the USA (a rare achievement for any British act these days), its initial success has not been satisfactorily followed up. Indeed, Eternal's Stateside album sales have proved disappointingly low, despite a well-received coast-to-coast TV appearance on the prestigious 'Arsenio Hall Show'. Several black music critics have attributed this to the album's strong Euro-mainstream musical edge not having a hard enough R&B flavour for the American market.

"I'm a bit dubious to agree with that, because the gospel truth is that, when we first went over to the States and they'd never met us before, the radio stations had already assumed we were American!... so that revelation in itself makes that point a bit debatable really," replies Easther , before Vernie bravely tackles the main criticism of UK majors today - that they are signing more street acts but still "watering down" their music too much in order to suit European pop tastes"I think you have to look at what we're in as a business and then you can understand it a lot better. The record companies have got people signed to their labels for a particular reason - making money. Now if the music you want to make isn't commercial enough to make them that money, that's where the record companies are likely to say 'well we either drop you or make you more commercial' - and so then the artist has very little choice... I think it's a shame, but it is business. So, what I would say to all those newly signed people is to go out there, make your mark in society, and then try and make your way back into the type of music you want to do, because you'll always have that audience which you've already conquered... It does take time to get back, but I think it's always possible."

Which is precisely the direction Eternal see themselves moving in the next year.

"Yes, we'll be starting on our next album in January or February and this time we don't intend to do quite so many commercial songs," asserts Easther, before Vernie concludes, "Yeah, we want to make the second album a lot stronger R&B-wise, because that's where we're at personally. We still want to stay British, so we won't be changing just to suit America... basically we'll do remixes to make it stronger for each of the different markets, but the bottom line is that with solid R&B material, we'll already have a good base to make anything of."