The happiest day of my career arrived one February morning in 1991. Nothing could have prepared me for how that day would end.

“Hey, what are you doing?” I immediately recognized the voice on the phone as that of Greg, my then-manager.

“Not much,” I lied, since I’d been pacing the carpeted floor of the town house I shared with a roommate in Laurel, Maryland. At the time, I was a student at Bowie State University. “What’s up?” I tightened my grip on the receiver and pressed it to my right ear. Even before he could answer, I somehow knew my life was about to shift. The only surprise would be how.

At every major milestone, my mother’s admonition echoed in the background: “Don’t forget your sisters.” In fact, since the day Mommy made it clear that my success was to always be split five ways, I’ve fought to be sure that my sisters could share their voices. What I didn’t expect is that I’d somehow lose my own. Until now.

Years before that phone call, I’d always dreamed I’d be a famous singer. My mother, Evelyn—who once turned down a music scholarship so she could marry my father, Michael—filled our Maryland home with music. “Joshua fought the Battle of Jericho and the walls came tumblin’ down,” Mommy would belt out in an operatic style when I was just a toddler. With so much music in the air, I and my five younger siblings—Mikey, Traci, Towanda, Trina, and Tamar—learned to harmonize practically before we learned to speak. And since we spent nearly as much time in church as we did at home (my father eventually became a pastor), we were surrounded by the rich and soulful tunes my parents passed on to us. Mommy eventually recognized our potential and turned my sisters and me into the Braxtons, a quintet-style singing group. That was just the beginning.

On weekends and after school under Mommy’s strict guidance, the five of us rehearsed for hours in churches around town. Each time we performed around town—usually right after my father had delivered a riveting sermon to a packed house—we heard a familiar refrain: “Them Braxton girls sure can sing!” All that practicing eventually paid off: In 1989, we signed a deal with Arista Records, and a year later, we put out our first single, “Good Life.” The song wasn’t exactly a hit (it reached number 79 on the Billboard Hot Black Singles chart), but we were still over the moon.

Not so for Arista. Though Clive Davis and the other record execs recognized that we had talent, no one quite knew how to package a group of squeaky-clean sisters who ranged from a twenty-three-year-old with a contralto voice (me) all the way down to a thirteen-year-old who still wore braces (Tamar). So after our lukewarm debut, Clive handed us off to a songwriting and production duo that had just formed a label under Arista. That’s right: Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Antonio “L.A.” Reid invited us to fly to Atlanta and put on a showcase audition. We were elated.

How exactly do you prepare for such a make-or-break moment? My sisters and I did it by practicing like crazy. Every day for a month, I drove from my place in Laurel to my parents’ home in Severn so we could rehearse. I put together a medley that included harmonies from the Carpenters’ song “Close to You”; our first single, “Good Life”; and Janet Jackson’s hit “Love Will Never Do (Without You).” Throughout the performance, each one of us had a solo—mine was “God Is,” a gospel song. We sang a cappella for some of the pieces and I played the keyboard for others. My solo was to be the final one of the showcase.

In between our marathon rehearsals, I shopped for our stage outfits—as the eldest, I was in charge of that. So I drove over to Lerner’s (the store that carried plenty of extra-smalls!) and picked out black stirrup pants and leggings for the girls and a pair of keyhole earrings for each of us. Traci got the cutest outfit: a black one-piece cat suit along with a matching black jacket that had gold trim on it—very Salt-n-Pepa. As the shorty in the group (I was barely five foot one), I had to find some way to stand out. That’s why I chose a special outfit for myself: white biker shorts with lace trim, a belt with a silver buckle, a white jacket with long sleeves, and suede boots that I wore scrunched down—very 1980s Madonna. Mommy and Dad also bought each of us a black leather Kool Moe Dee–ish trench coat. A couple days later, we flew off from our home in Maryland and toward the kind of opportunity you only get once.

The night before the audition, my sisters and I; our parents; our manager, Greg; and Vernon Slaughter, then vice president of LaFace Records, spread out across six rooms at the Hilton Garden Inn on Peachtree Street. When the bellhop took our suitcases, I offered him a tip. Though the continental breakfast and coffee were free, I also proudly left a few crumpled dollar bills for the waiter. I felt so grown-up—like a star on an episode of Dynasty.

The following morning, a driver picked us up from the hotel in a white, extra-long stretch limo and dropped us off at an empty, dimly lit club on Piedmont Road. We arrived at exactly two p.m. And we waited. And we sweated. And we squirmed. When L.A. and Kenny finally strode in around two forty-five, each of us stood up, shyly greeted the two of them, and filed onto the stage. We then took our places and launched right into our opening song, “Good Life.” The lights were so bright that I could hardly see their faces—which is probably good because the butterflies were already swarming in my stomach. Yet our jitters didn’t stop us from delivering a great show. All those years of church performances kicked in, and we nailed every one of the songs. By the time I took the keyboard for my solo, my anxiousness had given way to confidence.

“She can really play,” Kenny leaned over and said to L.A., who may have thought I was faking it during the other numbers; by the way I was holding my hands, Kenny could tell I was a real pianist.

After our audition, L.A. and Kenny walked up to the stage and chatted with us. “Anybody else here play an instrument?” asked Kenny.

“Traci plays the drums,” I blurted out.

“She plays the drums?” he said. I suddenly remembered that L.A. had been a star drummer in the Deele, an R & B band. My throat tightened. “Well, she kinda plays the church drums,” I explained.

“Oh, okay,” he said—but then he didn’t ask her to show him. Years later, I’d wonder whether I’d robbed Traci of her big moment by minimizing her drum skills.

“We were impressed with you guys,” L.A. finally said. “You were great,” Kenny added. Really? I thought. Could that be true?

A moment later, we walked off the stage, put on our matching trenches, and waited for nearly an hour while Greg and our parents talked with L.A. and Kenny. On the limo ride back to the hotel, Greg gave us a reason to feel hopeful. “They really liked you guys!” he said. “I think they’re going to sign you.” Whatever happened, I knew we’d given our best.

Back in Maryland, we told every person we knew about our audition. “What was Babyface like?” a friend asked me. “He was the nicest guy,” I cooed. “And actually, I’ve met him twice—I once talked to him backstage on Soul Train.” In 1998, I took a cross-country trip to Los Angeles and went to Soul Train. As the following two weeks snaked along and I awaited word from L.A. and Kenny through my manager, I could hardly contain my excitement. Every morning, I called Greg and said, “Have you heard anything?” He hadn’t. So on the morning when Greg actually did call me, my eagerness had already reached level 10.

“So I have some good news for you,” he said with hardly a pause between each word. “L.A. and Kenny thought you guys were great.” I froze. As that statement was sinking in, Greg followed it with another. “But I also have some bad news,” he said, continuing. “They don’t want to sign your sisters.” I stopped breathing for a moment. Did I hear him wrong?

“Um, what do you mean?” I said once I’d recovered.

“They’re about to sign another girl group,” Greg explained. “And quite honestly, they don’t know what to do with you and your sisters because your age differences are so extreme. They acknowledge that all of you can sing, but . . .” Long pause. “L.A. and Kenny only want you.”

“Well,” I finally said, with hot blood racing through my veins, “I’m not going to do it if they don’t sign all of us. Let me talk to my mother about it.”

“Toni, I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Greg said, lowering his voice by a full octave. “Let’s just sort through this and come up with a plan before we present it to your mom, okay?”

“No, no, no—I’m going to call Mommy,” I shot back. “She’ll know what to do. I’ll let you know and call you later.”

“You can’t say no to L.A. and Kenny—they can sign any artist they want!” said Greg. “You’re so close now, Toni. Don’t let this pass you by.”

I knew my mother would have the best answer—especially in light of a story she often told us. “When I was much younger,” she’d say, “I was in a singing group, the Viewettes. A rep from Motown wanted to sign only me, but I turned it down. There’s no telling where my life would be today if I had taken that deal.” So that evening, I picked up the phone to call the one woman I trusted more than any other in the world.

“They loved the showcase, Mommy,” I began. I paused. “But they don’t want to sign the other girls. They just want me.”

Total silence. “Did you hear me, Mommy?” “I heard you,” she said sternly. “So what are you going to do, Toni?” “I don’t really know what I’m going to do,” I said, shrugging. “I’m just talking to you about it.” I wanted to remind her that she was once in the same situation when she was a young girl in a singing group.

“Well it sounds like you’ve already made up your mind!” Mom cut in. I told her I’d be over to talk to the girls about it.

My brain shifted into overdrive. What just happened? I thought. What did I say wrong? Why was my mother so upset? Immediately, I called my brother, Mikey, at my parents’ home and recounted the scene. “You’ve gotta do what’s best for you, Toni,” said Mikey, who was always the levelheaded one.

“You’re never gonna get another chance like this.” I thanked him for his encouragement and then we hung up. Less than an hour later, he called again. “Toni, you’d better come to the house right now.” “What do you mean?” I said, my heartbeat quickening. “Mommy is talking to the girls,” he said. “Just get over here fast.” A half hour later, I came through the back door of my parents’ home; Mommy passed me in the kitchen and didn’t speak. The energy was so thick you could cut it. I darted into Mikey’s room and sat down. “So what’s going on?” I asked, pressing him. What my brother revealed still makes me shudder.

Right after I’d called my mother that evening with the news from Greg, said Mikey, Mommy had gathered the girls. “You’re about to hear something that’s going to vex you to your soul,” she told them. “The devil is raging, and we’ve gotta bind that enemy.” As Mikey told me the story, I stared at him in disbelief.

Once I’d regained my composure, I wandered through the house and asked each one of the girls to join me in the living room. Mommy sat off to the side with her arms folded. My dad joined her—and he had the same tense energy.

“Why don’t you tell your sisters what you told me?” she spat. I stood before them for what felt like an eternity before I uttered my first syllable. “Um, L.A. and Kenny really liked all of us,” I said. I stopped to inhale before I delivered part two. “But,” I mumbled, “they only want to sign me.” All at once, the room erupted with a sound that I hope to never hear again—all four of my sisters sobbed as they cupped their faces in their hands. Finally, after a full two minutes of bawling, Traci looked up at me. “Toni, maybe you can sign and then come back and get us after you make a name for yourself,” she said. I nodded and promised to do so. I hugged and kissed each of my sisters, and I tried to kiss my parents—but they turned away. So I then left the room, and drove home in tears.

Once at home, I sat in my apartment and stared into space. Years later, I would begin to understand my mother’s reaction—but on that evening in February, I didn’t at all see it coming. Yes, my mother has always been tough, yet I would’ve never anticipated that she would turn on me. As the sun descended on the best and worst day of my life, I had never felt more confused. Maybe Mikey and Traci are right, I thought. Maybe I should just take the deal. After rehearsing the episode over and over again in my head, I cried myself to sleep.

At ten the next morning, I finally called Greg. “How did it go with your mother?” he asked. “Not good,” I said. “I told you it wasn’t going to be good, Toni,” he said. “So what are you going to do now?” I drew in a breath. “I’m going to sign,” I finally said. That was the beginning of my guilt.

In the coming years, I did everything I could to help my sisters get their big break. I took them along with me to events and award shows. I hired them to be my background singers. I introduced them to other artists and music execs. I even helped them secure their own record deal on LaFace records. Yet in spite of how much I invested, they never experienced the same level of fame that I did. So I carried that weight through every part of my career. Through six Grammy Awards. Through sixty million records sold around the world. Through two humiliating bankruptcies, a heart-wrenching divorce, and an illness that still threatens my life. And at every major milestone along my path, my mother’s admonition echoed in the background: “Don’t forget your sisters.”

I didn’t. In fact, since the day Mommy made it clear that my success was to always be split five ways, I’ve fought to be sure that my sisters could share their voices. What I didn’t expect is that I’d somehow lose my own.

Until now.

My answer was yes to the solo deal—but it was the saddest yes I’ve ever given. Exactly one week after I signed, I traded the only home I’d known for an unfamiliar world just over the horizon. What I’d discover during my journey would change me forever.

 

Excerpted from the memoir entitled Unbreak My Heart: A Memoir. Published by It Books, a division of HarperCollins. Hardcover edition released on May 20, 2014.

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