If it weren't for YouTube, MySpace and reality shows, many black entertainment aficionados would be at a loss trying to catch up on news about their favorite singers or television stars from a generation -- or so -- ago. Reality television has been graced with the presence of former child stars Todd Bridges and Emmanuel Lewis, while “Family Matters” star Darius McCrary has been “transformed” as an actor. Remember Jean Norris of Zhane and the hit, "Hey, Mr. D.J.?" And whatever happened to ‘70's soul songbird bird Deniece Williams, who hit ear-splitting high notes long before Mariah Carey came along? Well, here are your follow-ups.
Earlier this year, Todd Bridges found himself telling friends and family that reports of his death were all the result of an Internet rumor. As a former teen star on "Diff'rent Strokes," Bridges, now 42, has learned to navigate fairly well through the icebergs of fame and fortune. However, it was not always easy for the young actor -- he battled charges of reckless driving, drug possession and attempted murder. Today, Bridges says he been sober for 14 years and is currently working on projects through his production company DVFilmworks.com.
Even before working with Gary Coleman on "Diff'rent Strokes," Bridges was the first black actor to appear on the television hit dramas "The Waltons" and "Little House on The Prairie." In addition, if you look at episodes four and five of the television mini-series "Roots," you will note a young Bridges as Chicken George's grandson.
"I go back," said Bridges. "I been in this business a long time, but a lot of folk don't realize it."
While the Hollywood machine is notorious for chewing up and spitting out its child stars, Bridges is focused on surviving the Hollywood game. He is the father of a son and daughter and has been married for 11 years.
"Marriage is a tough thing," he says. "It takes a lot of commitment."
Currently, he's shopping both his comedic film, "Big Ballin'," and his reality show, "Todd Bridges Needs a Job." "Consistently working is how I've eased back to the scene," said Bridges, who currently has a recurring role on "Everybody Hates Chris."
Bridges describes "Big Ballin'" as "a clean, fun, independent comedy. It's about time that we got comedy movies that don't have all that profanity or cursing in it, and you can actually sit down, watch with your family, and get the message in it. The problems with today's movies and comedies are they have all this profanity, and its stuff you don't want your kids watching. It's time for us to get out there, as entertainers, and do our job and make movies that are appropriate for children and everybody else."
Emmanuel Lewis made his sitcom in 1983 on ABC's "Webster" as the show's title character, the diminutive black son of a suburban white couple, very much like NBC's "Diff'rent Strokes." Both shows had three tings in common: Its lead actors were black, short and up for adoption to white families. At the time, it seemed 10-year-old Lewis had managed to transition from national commercials to a national hit television show with little more than his vibrant smile. However, Lewis would go on to shrewdly maneuver from child actor to well-grounded adult.
A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Lewis began his career at the age of nine, when he started doing national and regional commercials. Among his first jobs was a Jell-O Pudding commercial, part of the successful campaign featuring Bill Cosby. He had already appeared in over 50 commercials when he was tapped to do a series of national spots for Burger King. Those spots won him a CLIO Award for Best Male Actor and also landed him the leading role on "Webster." In 1985, 1986 and 1987, Lewis won the People's Choice Award for Best Young Television Performer for his work on the show.
After "Webster," Lewis enrolled in Clark Atlanta University and earned his Bachelors of Arts degree in Theatre Arts. He also continued working in television throughout the '90s, making guest appearances on various series, including "Family Matters," "In the House," "Moesha," "Malcolm & Eddie" and "Good vs. Evil."
Many Americans do not know that Lewis is a pop culture icon Japan due to his mid-80s hit record, "City Connection." His dancing skills won the hearts of millions of Japanese and earned him the title of "The Dancer" (You can catch his scratchy video with a quick visit to YouTube.).
In recent years, American viewers have become reacquainted with Lewis during his reality program appearances in such shows at "The Surreal Life." While Lewis now stands over four feet tall, it is wise to know that he holds a first degree black belt in Karate and Tae Kwon Do.
Darius McCrary is best known for his role as Eddie Winslow on the long-running television series "Family Matters." He began his career in Hollywood at the age of 10. McCrary, who is also a songwriter and music producer, is the son of Grammy-nominated gospel/jazz musician Howard McCrary and older brother of actor Donovan McCrary.
McCrary starred as a series regular on NBC's "Committed" as Bowie James and later as Jamal in UPN's "Eve." He also appeared on the small screen in the NBC/Paramount miniseries "Kingpin," on HBO's multi-award-winning "Don King: Only in America," starring Ving Rhames, and in the popular Neal Israel-directed "Kidz in the Woods."
"I consider myself to be a blue collar celebrity because I just do the work," said McCrary. "There are perks, and I do enjoy them. But I work."
The 31-year-old actor's current schedule has been interrupted by the writer's strike, but he assures his fans that "in the future, everybody will be laughing and having a good time watching me."
McCrary is also putting together some projects through his company, Emerging Media Productions. His goal is to not complain about the lack of work, but create jobs for other blacks in the entertainment industry.
"Unfortunately, in Hollywood, (African-Americans) are usually an afterthought, like 'Oh, yeah -- we gotta include some black people," he says. "Once the afterthought is made, the roles are usually given to four or five actors. If we're talking about a movie where an African-American is a star, they're usually looking to put Denzel Washington or Will Smith in the role -- which is great because I have admiration and respect for both of them. But it doesn't help the rest of us in the equation. So, I've been working on writing some stuff and trying to come up with some things to try and be part of the solution, as opposed to standing on the sidelines crying about it."
Last summer, McCrary starred as Autobot Jazz in the 4th of July blockbuster "Transformers" and is currently in talks to return for the sequel.
"That was something I grew up watching, so to be a part of that was exciting," said McCrary.
McCrary says he was honored to be chosen as the first voice actor to take over the role of Jazz since the original voicer, venerable actor Scatman Crothers, died in 1986.
"It was kind of cool because -- I know this may sound crazy -- when I was actually filming, I really did feel Scatman's presence," he said.
In 2008, expect to see McCrary in the musical comedy "Steppin': The Movie," co-starring Anthony Anderson, Mo'Nique and James Avery, on which he also serves as co-producer; "A Good Man is Hard to Find" with Lance E. Nichols; and "Next Day Air" with Mos Def, Debbie Allen, Donald Faison, Wood Harris and Mike Epps.
"Keep your eyes out for me and keep up with me," he says, "because I promise you the best is yet to come. I'm looking forward to keeping everybody proud and representing the best of us."
The 1993 hit, "Hey, Mr. D.J.," introduced one of the era's more memorable R&B duos, Zhane. The group was part of Queen Latifah's Flavor Unit collective, and with their first recording opportunity, Zhane lived up to the pressure and came away with one of the hip-hop party anthems of all time. Its members, Jean Norris and Renee Neufville, initially met while both were studying music at Philadelphia's Temple University.
Today, Jean Norris is Jean Baylor, and her first solo effort is entitled, "Testimony: My Life Story." Baylor experienced huge success with each single from their first album, "Zhane' (Pronounced Jah-Nay)" hitting the Top 5 on several Billboard Charts. And she is the first to admit that Zhane' will always be a part of her creative fabric.
"If you enjoyed Zhane', I know you'll enjoy 'Testimony: My Life Story.'" she said. "I really love this album because it's a true reflection of who I am at this stage in my life. Both creatively and conceptually, it really tells my personal story."
Drawing from her own life's experiences, Baylor sings her personal accounts of her journeys of love, pain and spiritual growth. Baylor teamed up with husband and fellow musician Marcus Baylor, who co-penned her first solo project. A gifted songwriter in her own right, Baylor, who has a publishing deal with EMI Music Publishing, continues to demonstrate her exceptional songwriting abilities penning songs in the past for Mary J. Blige and Allure. Additionally, Baylor wrote two songs featured on the HBO special, "Disappearing Acts," starring Sanaa Lathan and Wesley Snipes. Most recently, she landed a coveted spot on the Sports Illustrated Campus/Music Match compilation targeted to over 15 million subscribers. Additionally, Baylor has written and performed with the world-renowned group, the Yellowjackets. She is featured on the song, "Healing Waters" on the group's Grammy-nominated "Time Squared" LP and co-wrote their single "The Hope" on their latest release, "Altered State." Knowing that timing is everything, Baylor patiently took her time to create what will undoubtedly be one of the highest regarded R&B albums of the year.
As for a Zhane reunion, Baylor says anything is possible. She is still in contact with her former partner Neufville, who is also still performing.
Even today, fans may not know the names of either Zhane member, but they can readily describe them. "More than our names, we're known as 'the light skinned one' and 'the dark-skinned one," noted Baylor, the light-skinned one. "That is just the African-American thing, where complexion is a part of your identification."
As an entertainer, Baylor is sharing her experience of what God has done in her life.
"As a mainstream artist, God has given me a purpose and that is to touch and impact people's lives. I believe that 'Testimony: My Life Story' will touch people in ways that might give them encouragement when they need it most or be someone's reason to smile -- or cry. I want this album to move people and change their lives in a big way or even in a small way. If I can accomplish that, then I know I've done my job."
As the influence for virtually every R&B singer on the current R&B scene, Deniece Williams' string of #1 classic soul hits like "Free," "Silly," "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late," "That's What Friends Are For" and "All You Need To Get By" are always on someone's karaoke list. Williams has been one of the most successful and critically acclaimed R&B/pop singers of the past 30 years. For the past decade, the songbird has been dedicated to the gospel music scene and earlier this year made a major return to secular music with the highly anticipated release, "Love, Niecy Style."
"With 'Love, Niecy Style,' I hope to give my fans what I've always given -- beautiful music," said Williams of the 10-song collection produced by renowned Philly soul producer Bobby Eli.
"I wasn't really thinking about making a new record until a mutual friend put me in touch with Bobby, who I knew from the recording sessions I did with Thom Bell in the early '80s, which included songs like 'Silly' and 'It's Gonna Take A Miracle.'" Williams said. "Bobby talked to me about the idea of doing a project of songs that I've always loved. I thought it was a great way to honor artists like Luther Vandross, Donny Hathaway and Gwen Guthrie and what their music has meant to me. When people listen to this project, I hope it will take them back down memory lane, as well as create new memories for those who may not be familiar with all the songs on the album."
Williams started working as a background vocalist for Stevie Wonder after she flunked out of college in the early 70s. Her initial plans were to work with Wonder for a few dates and return to college. However, after her three years with Wonder, Williams met Maurice White, leader of Earth, Wind & Fire, who signed her to Columbia Records. Her debut LP, "This Is Niecy," brought the singer with the multi-octave range immediate success, thanks to "Free," a tune co-written with former fellow Wonderlove member and then-future Supreme Susaye Greene.
1977's "Songbird" yielded the hit "Baby Baby Love's All For You," and within months, Williams was back in the studio recording an album with the legendary Johnny Mathis. The result was "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late," a gold single which established Williams as a mainstream chartmaker.
Since the mid-'80s, Williams has been busier than ever, recording a children's CD, "Lullabies To Dreamland," appearing in the London cast of the pioneering musical "Mama I Want To Sing," producing and hosting her own radio program, "The Deniece Williams Show" for BBC Radio for almost 10 years. Purposely devoting much of her time to raising her four sons, Williams says she made a conscious choice to limit her touring activities.
"I've been doing maybe 10 concerts a year, and in recent years, I've really got into writing theater pieces and developing film scripts with my older sons," she said. "I felt it was time to test myself in other creative ways. Now with my children grown, it's time for Mom to be out there again! I chose to stay at home and did only 10 percent of what I could have done. Vocally, I think I'm stronger than I've ever been, and it's time to get out there and do it. I've been blessed with a fantastic audience, and I'm always humbled by that. My audience reminds me that this is what I'm supposed to be doing!"