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Angela Winbush tells of career struggles, cancer battle in 'Unsung'

Angela Winbush tells of career struggles, cancer battle in 'Unsung'

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R&B singer-producer Angela Winbush initially had qualms about taking part in the documentary series "Unsung" for cable network TV One.

The show, a "Behind the Music"-type series for classic R&B acts, profiles musicians who did not get their full due. Past subjects have included DeBarge, Teddy Pendergrass, Tammi Terrell, Shalamar, Sylvester, Heatwave and the Bar-Kays.

The stories often have sad endings, and St. Louis native Winbush, half of hit '80s duo Rene & Angela and known for her work with the Isley Brothers and her solo music, wasn't sure it was for her.

Her story is full of typical "Unsung" material: her ugly split with musical partner Rene Moore, her marriage and divorce from Isley Brothers' lead singer Ron Isley and her bout with cancer.

"I had my reservations," Winbush says. "I'm pretty honest and a straight shooter, and I didn't know if I wanted all of that on film for everyone to see."

She also took exception to how the subjects for "Unsung" are selected.

"There's a connotation there that you're an unsung hero, or that you've done something in life that wasn't noted or worthy," Winbush says.

On the contrary, Winbush has had a long list of career accomplishments. She is the rare female African-American producer-writer and has worked with Janet Jackson, Sheena Easton and Stephanie Mills.

Winbush also scored top 10 hits with "Your Smile," "You Don't Have to Cry," "My First Love" and "Save Your Love (for #1)." Acts including Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Nas, Foxy Brown and Avant have embraced her music.

"I don't feel like I'm 'Unsung,'" she says. "And I talked to other people, other artists, and they said, 'I'm not doing that (show)' for the same reason."

But she had "Unsung" producers send her installments of the show, and she reconsidered, deciding it was time to tell her side of the story.

"People have misquoted and misstated things, like that Rene and I were lovers or that we were married," Winbush says. "That's one of the most outrageous things you could imagine. This was an opportunity to state things that are factual."

The special includes segments filmed at the Ambassador and in front of the St. Louis home where she grew up, clips from "Soul Train" and music videos, including one with a young Don Cheadle, and interviews with family members and musicians Richard Smallwood, Avant, Lalah Hathaway and Tawatha Agee.

Both ex-husband Isley and former partner Moore declined to be interviewed. She wasn't surprised Moore didn't participate.

She says of Isley: "He agreed and then he backpedaled, maybe because of surrounding issues and his new wife." (Isley was convicted of tax evasion in 2006.)

"Unsung" starts with Winbush's beginnings in St. Louis, where as a child she sang in church. It follows her move to Washington, where she attended Howard University and performed in a group called Hot Tea, and her start in the music industry that came when Stevie Wonder received her demo and flew her out to Los Angeles.

It was there where Winbush met singer-musician Moore. The duo was signed to a major record deal in 1979 and became Rene & Angela. They enjoyed a run of hits, although it was tough for her during that period being a woman who could write and produce.

"The forerunners never get the credit. I was one of the first," she says. "But when I came through, it was during a time when men got all the credit. Nobody wanted to trust me alone, and that's why there is a Rene & Angela. I wrote a lot of the stuff by myself but had to split it to get it out there."

That struggle is detailed in the special, along with Winbush's move to singing more leads. When "Your Smile," with Winbush on lead, went to No. 1, Moore was angry and tensions mounted, she says.

Winbush claims that Moore became violent and that she suffered a concussion and bruised ribs. Another musician interviewed in the program backs Winbush's claims.

"Most business partners will kill another business partner over money, and that's what he threatened me over," Winbush says. "I wasn't going to write songs and put his name on it anymore."

Despite the trauma that came with the Rene & Angela breakup, including lengthy court battles over songwriting credit, Winbush has no regrets. The experience made her more cautious.

"I learned how to assess situations quicker," she says. "I came from a church background, where you think everyone is who they say they are. But in the music business, you can't do that. You start from distrust, and they have to earn your trust."

The special moves on to her years with Isley, as a producer-songwriter for the Isley Brothers, then as his wife. She filed for divorce in 2001. She says that most of her adult life involved Isley and that she let him be at the front, at the expense of her career.

"What I did wasn't the right thing for my career, but it was right for my marriage," she says. She and Isley are still friends, she says.

Also included is Winbush's battle with ovarian cancer, which was diagnosed in 2002 and is in remission.

Winbush wanted the program to run footage of her nearly bald in a room at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

"For me, the only reason I think I'm alive is so I could save other lives," she says. "It's not about me looking cute all the time. It's about my life being spared so I can show people they can make it through a tough situation."

Looking back over her life and career, the choices made and the circumstances she faced, she sums it all up at the top of the special:

"I wouldn't trade my journey. But I would not have picked that journey."

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