House music diva Kim English topped U.S. and global dance charts, and her songs routinely rang out at clubs and Pride Fests from Chicago to Paris and London to Ibiza.
Her death Tuesday, at 48, came after she had been dealing with kidney failure for five years, according to Vickie Markusic, her manager, who said she was on dialysis and awaiting a transplant.
The longtime Chicago-area resident went to Kenwood Academy, where she was trained by renowned vocal teacher Lena McLin, whose uncle was gospel music legend Thomas A. Dorsey. The church echoed in Ms. English’s elastic, octave-skipping vocals.
“We’re talking about basically house music anthems because she had that soaring voice,” said Metro club founder Joe Shanahan, who heads the advisory committee for the Frankie Knuckles Foundation, dedicated to the house music pioneer. “Like Aretha, like Whitney, like Mavis, many of the greats, it comes from the church. If you brought her in on a session, you were bringing in the top, you were bringing in the best.”
With eight No. 1 Billboard dance-chart hits, “Kim may be one of the most successful people to have ever sung club music,” said Byron Stingily, a producer and singer-songwriter who worked with Ms. English.
In house music’s early days, the vocals weren’t always strong, but Ms. English elevated the genre, said Mike Dunn of the Chosen Few deejay crew.
“She was one of the best vocal talents” to come out of Chicago, said deejay and producer Joe Smooth. “Her words were very strong and powerful.”
“She had that smoky alto voice,” Stingily said, “just like Anita Baker.”
Baker was her idol, according to Markusic.
She said there are plans to release a new song soon.
On her Facebook page, Ms. English listed McLin as an influence, along with Chicago’s Mavis Staples, Chaka Khan and Minnie Riperton, gospel queen Shirley Caesar and other singers as varied as Doris Day, Lena Horne, Teena Marie, Barbra Streisand and Sarah Vaughan.
Ms. English, who was a member of Family Christian Center Church in Munster, Indiana, was known for being inclusive and had many LGBTQ fans. “She loved everybody,” Stingily said.
“She felt everybody was God’s children and that it was not her place to cast judgment on anyone,” Markusic said. “Her mission was to be able to present in the club scene a message about God, and she did it without being preachy.”
Dunn said: “Kim was very spiritual, so everything she wanted to do vocally, it had to be dealing with God, uplifting, spiritual-based food for thought and things to motivate you.”
“Kim did a song, ‘Missing You,’ and a man said it helped him grieve and get in touch with God because he lost his son as an infant,” Markusic said.
She remembers a time in the late 1990s when Ms. English was about to perform her hit “Unspeakable Joy” in the Hamptons. She said that, as she started to sing, “The entire club went up and sang the song. She became so overwhelmed she stopped singing, and she looked at me at the side of the stage.”
“She had a unique ability both through her singing and songwriting talents to inspire people to dance and also celebrate the joys of God and religion,” Nervous Records said in a Facebook post announcing her death.
Messages of empowerment in her songs helped fuel Chicago’s house scene. One of her biggest hits, “Treat Me Right,” includes these lyrics:
“I can’t make you love me
I’ve got to know who I am inside
Cause I know my value
I’ll no longer waste my time
There’s someone who’s for me
Yes it’s only a matter of time
I am strong and can be alone
Until I’m treated right.”
On “Unspeakable Joy,” she sang:
“People ask me why this supernatural high,
Seeing only sun when there’s a cloudy sky.
I know the trouble tries to surround me,
But I’ve been given something greater, deep inside me.
I did not get it from any woman or man,
And it’s okay if they don’t always understand.
It’s very easy to get caught in circumstance
It’s even easier to break out in a dance.”
Ms. English attended Purdue University Northwest and was a member of the Zeta Theta Zeta chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc.
She is survived by her son Christopher, her parents Annie Joyce English and Ronald English, brothers Eric, Richard and Ronald Carl and Layuna Hayes-Cooper, whom she considered a sister. Funeral arrangements are pending.
“I was praying for her to get a kidney,” said John Ponder, a pastor at Ms. English’s church. “She would probably be with us if she got a new kidney. She never came up on the list.”
Ponder said her health problems fueled her empathy. “She ministered out of that,” he said.
Visitation is scheduled at 9:30 a.m. April 11, followed by a 10:30 a.m. service, at Family Christian Center Church, 340 W. 45th, Munster.