NEW ORLEANS -- She’s gone from sharing the stage with music legends to being compared to them. Whether it’s Whitney Houston or Aretha Franklin, Nicole Slack Jones has made a name for herself around the world.
And yet when she walks down the street in her own hometown, she goes virtually unnoticed.
“But it's OK for me, you know,” she said.
That's because it’s all about to change. At the upcoming Cannes Film Festival in the French Riviera, she will release her original music that has caught the attention of Michael Jackson’s producer, who is now her own.
The stage is set. She's ready to take it.
"Oh my goodness, I've never had a shy day!” Jones said. “I've never had stage fright. I never was afraid.”
With a major record label behind her, Nicole's fame is poised to explode, and she wants her fans to know the spark was lit right here in a dream, a real dream she had many years ago involving a big crowd and a red dress.
“I had a dream that I was in this red dress and I was in the stage and there were so many people out there,” she said.
Jones grew up in the Lower 9th Ward where she and her mother now visit.
They didn't have a lot back then. Sometimes, when the bills were tight, she did homework by candlelight because the power had been shut off.
But she said her family was more than enough. She had a saxophone-playing dad, a gospel-singing mom, music in the house and faith in their hearts.
“I would listen to my friend say, 'Oh wow, you have a mother and a father?’” she said. “I would watch them and I would say to myself, wow, they don't have a father. So I never understood what it was like to grow up in a single-parent home.”
If the streets of the Lower 9th Ward were cursed by crime in the ‘90s, the slack children found salvation in a church where she sang her first original song years ago.
When she wasn't in church, Jones was in school. Her career took flight when she won first place in a talent show.
She would soar even higher at John McDonogh High School under the wing of the late gospel great Raymond Miles.
“He would say to me, 'Honey, you have it,'” she said. “'Honey, we gonna do this and we gonna do that!'"
Over the next few years, Jones started playing the jazz circuit. She was earning some money and a lot of respect, but her dream was about to confront a nightmare.
Jones had been invited to sing at a friend's church in Texas when Hurricane Katrina hit. We were there when her parents returned to find what was left of her childhood home.
Six months later her mother had a stroke. And her father, who'd lost a leg to diabetes, was starting to lose his battle with kidney disease.
“I thought about my kids, my grandkids, my husband, and I thought I can get through this,” she said.
Everyone Jones loved lost everything they owned, with few exceptions. Amazingly, her dad resurrected his saxophone.
And with dignity and grace, the family persevered and Jone’s dream was reborn.
In 2006, she moved to Europe where before long she headlined at a French Jazz Festival in front of 20,000 fans. Her dream was coming true, right down to that red dress.
Jones ignited the crowd. Big producers took notice and then took Jones on the road. She sang with Nelson Mandela's choir in South Africa and wowed the crowds in Paris, and she became involved in the United Nation's educational arm, UNESCO.
She is committed to helping kids through music. It's where she's always found strength, even in her darkest days, like those following her father's death five years ago.
“You know when you lose like that, you know that something else is around the corner,” she said. “Sometimes you have to lose to win again.”
Just like how she rebounded from Hurricane Katrina, Jones became inspired again, performing original music that captured the ear of the king of pop Michael Jackson and his producer, Dieter Wiesner, who promised to make her a star.
“Nicole Slack Jones, it's time for your voice to be heard,” Jones said. “This was his words.”
And this is where we are today. Full circle, back on the lot where she grew up, where long lost cousins remind her she belongs and is loved.
The girl who's about to hit it big has come back to her roots that runs as deep as her faith and as wide as her smile.