I first met actress, singer and acting intructor Lonette McKee way back in the latter part of 1968.
She was an ambitious 15-year-old student at St. Martin Deporres High School and was one of the performers at a week-long show at the Palms Theater called “The Swingin’ Time Revue.” Among the other acts were the Fantastic Four, the Precisions, the Detroit Emeralds and Little Carl Carlton.
The show, basically patterned after the Motortown Revue staged anually at the Fox Theater, was being presented by the local dance show “Swingin’ Time,” which came on six days a week from the studios of CKLW in Windsor, Canada.
Monday through Friday the show was live, on Saturday it was taped earlier in the day and shown that evening. I was a regular on the show and some of the dancers were part of the revue. Hence, the opportunity to meet become friends with Lonette.
McKEE, KNOWN only as “Lonette” at that time, had a record titled “Stop! Don’t Worry About It” on the local M-S label. It was popular in and around Detroit, but I doubt seriously that she ever received any royalties. The follow-up single was “Bluejeans.”
Lonette was the show’s opening act. She would always sing “Stop! (Don’t Worry About It)” and, as proof of her versatility, in some shows she would also sing the standard “Fever.”
We hit it off right way and as a teenager myself, I wrote a story about her in the Michigan Chronicle.
A few years after that, Lonette made the move to Los Angeles, realizing she could only go so far in Detroit.
Another dancer on the show, Oliver Givens, also moved to the West Coast with show business in his heart. But before anything happened for either one of them, they danced together one Saturday on “American Bandstand.”
In a surprisingly short period of time, 1972 to be exact (I told you she was ambitious!), Lonette had landed a regular role on the nationally-viewed weekly comedy series “The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters.” She would sing every week as part of a duo called the Soul Sisters (even though her partner was White).
THAT WAS nice exposure, but McKee’s career was really ignited in 1976 when she landed one of the leading roles in the film “Sparkle,” also starring Irene Cara, Dwan Smith, Philip Michael Thomas and Mary Alice. She was “Sister,” lead singer of a fictional 1950s vocal group.
Her performance was so effective that one would have thought she had years of acting experience.
The movie was a hit. Friends and family back in Detroit were happy for her, and all who attended the special screening were impressed.
We chatted briefly there, but then she said, “Why don’t you come to my room when this is over so we can really talk.”
We did and it was fun.
The paths of yours truly and Lonette McKee didn’t cross again until 1978 at a press party at a downtown Detroit hotel, organized by Warner Bros. Records as a promotion vehicle for her new album, “Words and Music,” which she had hoped would “go Gold.”
Good times again. Oliver Givens was there too. He was working as McKee’s personal assistant.
Soon McKee was on fire. Appearing regularly on the big screen, she was now a s-t-a-r. (But, interestingly, there was sometimes a certain amount of confusion because another popular actress at the time had a similar name — Vonetta McGee.)
McKEE WAS on a roll, one movie or TV show after another, portraying a wide array of characters, each requiring something different from her.
The films include “The Cotton Club” (with Gregory Hines, Richard Gere, Nicolas Cage and Laurence Fishburne), “Round Midnight” (with Dexter Gordon), and “Jungle Fever” (with Wesley Snipes, Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson and Ruby Dee).
Also, “Malcolm X” (with Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett), “Which Way Is Up?” (with Richard Pryor), “Men of Honor” (with Cuba Gooding Jr., Robert De Niro and Glynn Turman) and “He Got Game” (with Denzel Washington), to name a few.
We should mention that in “The Cotton Club” McKee sang a rendition of the classic “Ill Wind” that was stunning.
Then there was her television work. That lengthy list of credits includes “Queen” (a mini-series with Halle Berry, Ann-Margret and Ossie Davis), “Half & Half,” “Miami Vice,” “Amen,” “L.A. Law,” “Third Watch” and “The Women of Brewster Place” (TV movie) among many others.
And let’s not overlook her outstanding performances on the stage, including “Show Boat” (for which she received a Tony nomination) and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” (a tribute to Billie Holiday).
With Lonette McKee, it has always been about talent and hard work. However, her looks didn’t go unnoticed. In 1995 People magazine included her among “The 50 Most Beautiful People in the World.” And Johnny Carson acknowledged her attractiveness during an appearance on “The Tonight Show.”
Despite all of the accolades and the other frills and thrills of being a working actress and Hollywood celebrity, eventually McKee knew it was time to do something different.
Then too, she has been candid enough to admit that when women get to be “of a certain age,” the roles become fewer and further between (Meryl Streep is one of the few exceptions), all the more so for Black women.
So she packed up and returned to Metro Detroit where she has been heading a production company and conducting an actors workshop as well as a training program for crew members. She came home with a wealth of experience and knowledge that could be shared.
None of this is to suggest that McKee will not be seen on the big screen again. According to the IMDb website, she will portray Noelle, a jazz singer, in a film titled “Deauville” that is currently in pre-production.
One way or another (most likely in many ways) Lonette McKee will always “sparkle.”