Last fall, when Wendy Moten turned up as a contestant on NBC’s singing competition “The Voice,” many of her friends, fans and fellow musicians were flummoxed. After all, Moten wasn’t some ingénue or starry-eyed kid hoping to break into the business, but rather a 56-year-old veteran of the industry.
The Memphis-born, Nashville-based Moten had a long history as a professional singer that included several major label solo records, multiple international hits and a second career as touring musician, backing everyone from Julio Iglesias to Faith Hill.
“It was that history that made me believe I could go on a television show week after week and be put under a microscope,” Moten said. “I know the music biz is supposed to be for the young. But I wanted everybody to know my age, and to know that I have a great value and so many other people at my age do too. I wasn't going to be afraid to say my age every opportunity — because it took me this long to be great.”
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Moten would dazzle her way through the competition, making it to the finals of season 21, where she finished as runner-up. But Moten’s run on the show proved a bigger kind of victory. Now at 57, she’s poised to return to her solo career in earnest, buoyed by the biggest exposure of her life.
“You know the conventional approach doesn’t work for me. It never has. Unconventional is how I’ve survived,” she said. “I really believe that once I was able to handle being on that show, it was the start of getting everything else I want in music after so many years.”
Moten’s musical path has been a long and circuitous one. Born and raised in South Memphis, across from Glenview Park, her father was a pastor. “So I was in church all the time,” Moten said. “That’s where I started singing.”
After winning a Mid-South Fair singing competition at 16, she made her professional debut working at Libertyland theme park, performing there four times a day. A student at Overton High School, Moten would become active in choir competitions and the local musical theater scene.
“I thought I was going to be a classical singer if anything,” Moten said. “But honestly I was very shy. Too shy to be out front in the spotlight. Really what I wanted to be was a lawyer, a corporate attorney.”
Even while studying at Memphis State University, Moten continued performing in various bands in town. It was at that point that her old high school friend Kevin Paige reached out to her. Paige had signed a deal with Chrysalis records and earned a couple pop hits. He asked Moten to be his backing singer on tour.
Moten hit the road with Paige in 1990, opening an arena tour for Debbie Gibson. “When I finally got on that big stage, I thought, 'You know what? I can handle this,'” Moten said.
Eventually Moten was discovered by promo man Dick Williams, who heard her cutting a commercial jingle at producer Niko Lyras’ Cotton Row studio in Memphis. EMI soon signed Moten to a contract in 1992. “It was during the height of the Mariah and Whitney era and all the R&B [divas],” said Moten.
Released in 1993, Moten’s self-titled debut album featured a small but multi-format hit in the single, “Come in Out of the Rain.” Although she never quite broke big in America, Moten would develop a solid following in the U.K. and Japan (where she had multiple chart hits) and cut two more albums for EMI in 1995 and 1996.
By the latter part of the ‘90s, with her own career at an uncertain crossroads, Moten decided to put her solo pursuits on hold and accept an offer to work with international pop star Julio Iglesias.
“Julio found me and asked me to be his duet partner,” said Moten, who worked with Iglesias for the next 15 years. “I toured the whole world with him, singing in four languages, doing shows in front of the pyramids in Egypt and the [Piazza San Marco] in Venice. It was amazing — flying around in private jets and singing in front of massive audiences.”
Moten would continue to find lucrative, high profile work as a backing singer, often with country artists in Nashville, where she eventually relocated. She would tour with Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and work with everyone from Martina McBride to Wynonna Judd to Vince Gill.
In between Moten continued recording, working on various soundtrack projects and doing studio sessions with Eric Clapton, the Doobie Brothers, Buddy Guy and dozens of others. She also released a couple independent albums, a holiday collection and a set of songs by golden era Hollywood tunesmith Richard Whiting. But she mostly stayed in the background serving as support for some of music's biggest stars.
“The stars all think I’m better than them,” said Moten, with a laugh. “But I work at my craft, and they see an equal in me. A lot of them wished they could help me and they have. But sometimes you’re not ready. So I stayed working for people as opportunities kept coming my way, in order to keep learning.”
Finally in 2019, it was 22-time Grammy winner Vince Gill who prodded Moten to go back into the studio and make another record of her own, this time a collection of classic country songs, titled “I’ve Got You Covered.”
“When I was ready to be a solo artist again, Vince Gill produced the album for me. He said, ‘Wendy, I’m not going to tell you what to do. Just trust your instincts.’ That’s when I knew I was ready to get back to a solo career. And once I was ready, opportunities started presenting themselves.”
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In early 2020, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden shutdown of live entertainment and the touring business, Moten found herself at another critical juncture.
“When COVID hit I really had to reevaluate my life,” Moten said. “I wasn’t sure those big tours I had relied on would be up and running again or not. That’s when the chance to get on 'The Voice' came along.”
The decision to enter a televised singing competition — as a veteran singer looking for another chance — was a daunting prospect in more ways than one for Moten.
“Probably without the COVID situation I wouldn’t have considering doing something like that,” Moten said. “Deciding to do ‘The Voice’ was hard. Because I’ve been on a certain level for like 30-plus years. And to be in a situation where you are trying to get people to love you and vote for you… it’s tough. But I decided to take a risk.”
On the show, Moten would become part of country singer Blake Shelton’s team, and wowed audiences performing a wide array of songs by artists including the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Judy Garland and Dolly Parton.
“Being on ‘The Voice,’ I realized I’m still competitive and want to work hard at my craft. I basically treated ‘The Voice’ as a showcase for myself every week," Moten said. "I just had fun with it and sang the most classic songs I could think of. It was new and scary, but I’m glad I did it.”
As she continued to move on in the competition, Moten found herself just a few weeks away from the finals when she had an accident on set.
“It was my birthday, Nov. 22, and I turned 57 on ‘The Voice.’ The next day, I was doing a song with Blake Shelton and that’s when I fell,” said Moten, who tripped over a monitor as she was leaving the stage following a performance, and landed hard on her elbow. “But I was able to get back up. The producers asked, ‘Can you come back and talk on camera?’ which I did because wanted to let my family know in Memphis know I was alright.”
Immediately after the show, Moten checked into a hospital in Burbank, California, where doctors told her she had broken her elbow. Regardless, Moten was determined to push ahead and remain on “The Voice.”
“There were only three more shows left and the doctor said I could last three weeks,” Moten said. “I found out I have a high tolerance for pain because I did the last few shows with a broken elbow. I knew I was going to have to have surgery as soon as the show was over."
After gamely delivering on the final episodes of the season, Moten ended up as the runner-up to sibling trio A Girl Named Tom.
As soon as the show was over in mid-December, Moten flew back home to Nashville. “I got home Dec. 16 and Dec. 17 I was in surgery,” said Moten, who now has titanium plates in her elbow. “I started physical therapy five days later and been doing it ever since. I’m getting better, but I know it’s a long journey so I’m taking it one day at a time.”
These days, nothing it seems — not the injury or her recovery — is holding Moten back. In January, she made her return to public performing, singing the national anthem before the Grizzlies/Bulls MLK Day game at FedExForum. She will make her proper return to Memphis in the spring with a pair of headlining shows at the Halloran Centre on April 2 and 3 (the first show has sold out and tickets for the second are nearly gone as well).
Moten is currently assembling a professional team to help relaunch her solo career in the wake of “The Voice” run. “Realistically I want to find where I fit in this music business and maximize ‘The Voice’ experience,” Moten said.
“I feel like the model for me is Linda Ronstadt. My goal is to do a double album, one album of old classics and one of new songs that sound classic — whether it’s pop or country or R&B. Then I can fulfill all my dreams.”
But Moten added that she’s in no hurry to make everything happen at once. After a lifetime in the business, she’s content to do things on her own terms.
“Time is only an issue if you're trying to be current,” she said. “I’m not thinking about being current, I’m just thinking about doing things in the right time. See, I’m on a different schedule. I guess I always have been.”