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by Paul Merrick
In the biggest-selling female group of all time, Lisa "Left-Eye" Lopes was the brightest personality. The one we knew best. At least so we thought.
When she and then-boyfriend Andre Rison fought outside of the disco Kroger in Buckhead, press were right there in the parking lot. A whole two years before Terry McMillan had a character in her book set fire to an unfaithful husband's clothes in the driveway, Lopes was burning down the $1.3 million Alpharetta home she shared with a then-abusive Rison - live, on TV - in 1994.
But that's only what the cameras got on tape.
And that was such a small part of the confident but almost shy talent who passed away recently in a car crash in Honduras. While some thought she was the bad seed or the punchline of the group, her mind whirred way past music, and her actions outside the public eye were incredibly positive and charitable.
Behind the scenes, Lopes was the concept person for TLC. As much as producer Dallas Austin helped steer the R&B trio musically toward some of the most memorable pop songs of the past decade, Lopes was leading the decisions on how she, Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas would present themselves to the public.
And that was key because as any Goo Goo Doll or Counting Crow will tell you, you have to give record buyers as many entry points as possible.
If you didn't like their first single "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg," maybe you could relate to T-Boz's tomboy persona. If their cartoonish look in the beginning was a little too silly, perhaps you could appreciate the fact that these were three prescient young black girls advocating safe sex in 1992 to a community now devastated by AIDS.
And they didn't do it in overbearing fashion: Lopes simply wore one condom over an eye, while Watkins or Thomas pinned some to their baggy pants.
"CrazySexyCool" - the name of the 1994 sophomore CD that made the trio record-breakers - was Lopes' idea. And again, it was a successful attempt at describing the handful of qualities all women share, and they wound up personifying. Lopes being the crazy one, Thomas sexy, and Watkins cool.
It was the same with "Fanmail" - a title and central theme Lopes came up with driving around listening to "Space Odyssey".
Beyond that it was Lopes and her uncle who designed TLC's outfits. And on their last tour together (the stage for which she concocted) the part in the "Fanmail" show that focused on her - juggling, doing magic tricks, and yes, something with a lighter - drew some of the loudest applause. And she didn't even sing during her set. There was just that connection.
Probably the most curious thing about her in person is that those lucky enough to meet her say that they never got the sense that she was this wildcat fighting football players in parking lots, setting fires to mansions and feuding in the press with her group members.
Though Lopes spoke like she was announcing things, as if every sentence that came out of her mouth should be punctuated with an exclamation point, simply glancing at this doe-eyed diminutive artist made you want to wrap a blanket around her and protect her.
Not that she had any problem owning up to anything she'd done. Ever.
"I like to keep the suspense," she once said. "We need that kind of attention. Even though the fire was a terrible thing, we needed that. That helped us sell a couple of million records. And that's good. We like the hype that controversy and drama generate."
Nevertheless, she took pride in simple things like the seafood lasagna she liked to make for friends.
In the hip-hop world, it's kind of hard to say that Lopes made an enormous impact because she never released even a solo album over in USA. Though without question her aggressive, nasal delivery on the TLC single "Waterfalls" rallies audiences like a "Charge!" at the start of battle.
In popular music, she clearly established herself alongside the other members of TLC as an R&B-centered group able to infuse itself into pop, rap and even adult contemporary circles.
And yet in life there was so much more that the 30-year-old was about to do. According to longtime friend Ian Burke, in addition to recordings, she was working alone on a children's book and was in the development stages of a TV show about an orphaned girl who was raised by home appliances.
"Left-Eye is just one dimension," she once said. "People still don't know what Lisa is capable of."