In 1979, two defining forces in dance music united on a lavish two-record compilation. Casablanca Records, disco’s most successful record company, provided a passport to Studio 54, the trendiest discotheque in the world. For those who never ventured beyond the velvet rope, A Night at Studio 54 (1979) was the next best thing. Legendary DJ Roy Thode and Casablanca’s Special Projects VP Marc Paul Simon sequenced a continuous mix of club favorites across four sides. Rather than open the set with one of Casablanca’s artists, who were certainly well-represented elsewhere, Thode selected one of Studio 54’s anthems: “Le Freak” by CHIC.
Penned and produced by group founders Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, “Le Freak” was originally introduced on CHIC’s second album, C’est CHIC (1978). Few listeners could resist the group’s invitation to “come on down to 54”, especially with Rodgers, Edwards, and drummer Tony Thompson bolstering an infectiously funky rhythm section. The song had catapulted CHIC to number one on the disco, pop, and R&B singles charts, and became the biggest-selling single in the history of Atlantic Records.
When the group’s fans dropped the needle on side two of C’est CHIC, they discovered even more CHIC brilliance on “I Want Your Love” and “At Last I Am Free”. The former became a Top 10 hit while the latter epitomized the luster of CHIC’s ballads. Both became touchstones in the CHIC catalog and both also happened to feature Alfa Anderson on lead vocals. At the time, many listeners knew Anderson from the C’est CHIC album cover. She was the sophisticated lady leaning against a couch, her beautiful visage lost in a mid-day reverie. The pose corresponded to the quality of her voice: cool and elegant with sensual undertones. From 1978-1983, Anderson and Luci Martin fronted CHIC as the group scored a second groundbreaking number one single with “Good Times” and climbed the UK charts with “My Forbidden Lover” and “My Feet Dancing”.
However, Anderson had already tilled a fertile musical foundation. Before and after her tenure in CHIC, she worked with a range of artists, from Joe Williams to Jody Watley. Throughout her many endeavors, she displayed a mastery of pop, R&B, dance, and even the occasional jazz standard. “I admire Alfa for her amazing commitment to who she is,” says veteran vocalist Paulette McWilliams, who sang alongside Anderson during their stint as background singers for Luther Vandross. “She’s incredibly brilliant, so very talented, a beautiful singing sister, and a friend. I love her dearly.”
McWilliams articulates a sentiment shared by many of Anderson’s peers. Though the worldwide success of CHIC introduced her to the finer things in life, Anderson never adopted any diva pretensions. Her strong southern roots kept the evanescence of fame in perspective and anchored her during a period when she left the music industry and returned to education. In the ‘90s, she earned a second Masters degree and later became a high school principal at Brooklyn’s El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice.
Following her lengthy hiatus from the stage and the studio, Alfa Anderson is reclaiming her legacy. In 2010, she reunited with CHIC vocalists Norma Jean Wright and Luci Martin on a single called “My Lover’s Arms”, which also featured one of her singing partners from Vandross’ touring band, Lisa Fischer. Three years later, Anderson has finally released her very first solo single, “Former Lady of Chic”. Accompanied by a video filmed on location around New York City, the song is a tribute to her past but also a forecast for the future. It’s the first ripple in a series of forthcoming projects that will encompass a solo album, a live showcase, and more collaborations with other artists.
Alfa Anderson’s return also parallels a moment when CHIC’s classic recordings have surged in popularity. Between a new CHIC compilation, released in tandem with Nile Rodgers’ massively successful Daft Punk collaboration (“Get Lucky”), and CHIC’s eighth nomination for their long overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the “CHIC mystique” is thriving. It’s against this backdrop that Anderson recently reflected on her life and career, while looking forward to all the “good times” yet to come.
Alfa, let’s start with your name because it’s always intrigued me. What’s the significance of “Alfa”?
I was the first child, the alpha child, but my parents spelled Alfa with an “f” rather than the more traditional “ph” in honor of my father, Alfonso.
I know you were born in Augusta, Georgia but moved to Washington, D.C. for a couple of years during your childhood. Was there much of a culture shock between Augusta and D.C.?
It didn’t seem that way to me. I moved from a segregated Augusta to a, seemingly, segregated D.C. Southern roots were very apparent. The one thing that was different to me was the accent. It sounded so sophisticated to my young ears.
What comes to mind when you think about your earliest memories of music?
My earliest memory of music centers around my home. We always had a piano in our house and my mother always sang and played. They tell me I wrote my first song when I was three. I had broken my father’s collapsible ruler and hid the evidence under my parents’ bed. When asked about it, of course I denied it because I had to save my three year-old butt from a whipping. Ultimately, the truth came out. My mother says I went into the living room, climbed up on the piano bench, started banging on the piano keys and sang, “I broke it. Yes, I broke it and I’m so glad I broke it.” [laughs]
Then there was my Girl Scout troop. My mother, the local Girl Scout leader, encouraged the Scouts to develop our singing. We always sang at our meetings. And boy did we sing at summer camp. Every year we produced a talent show. We wrote skits, wrote songs, and wrote dialogue as a way to share what we learned. I still remember singing around the campfire with the pungent smoke stinging my eyes and the oh-so-delicious smell of s’mores cooked over an open fire. If we could have earned a badge for singing, it would have been a cinch because singing just seemed to be in our DNA. You didn’t have to teach anyone how to sing harmony either. It came naturally to most of us. There was always the exception. My mother used to say my father couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket [laughs].
When I went to junior high school, I played saxophone because it was the only thing that was left by the time I found out that there was a band. When I got there, they had saxophones, trombones, tubas, and oboes. No matter how much I loved Peter and the Wolf, there’s no way I could play the oboe so I played the saxophone—miserably! Reeds squeaking, sounding like a goose. I played about as competently as any junior high school kid could. When I went to high school, you had to take your instruments home to practice. It just wasn’t cool to be schlepping a saxophone home in high school so I decided to play flute. That’s something I could just put in my book bag. The flute was really difficult for me. I played well in the marching band but not so well in the concert band. Then I discovered the piccolo, which is even smaller than the flute and you could hear it above everything in the marching band!
When did singing become more of a focus for you?
When I went to Paine College I started singing in the choir. That experience re-ignited my passion for singing. I also joined the choir at Columbia University’s Teachers College when I moved to New York to pursue a Masters degree.
Give me the sights and the sounds of living in New York on your own during the early ‘70s.
New York was exciting. Everyday brought a new adventure. I lived in Harlem on West 152nd Street. At that time, Harlem wasn’t gentrified. It was steeped in African and African American culture. There was a thirst to find out all you could about your heritage. One of my college friends introduced me to the National Black Theater and all the sights and sounds of 125th Street—the bookstore where you could read, engage in discussions, listen to poetry or dance to the rhythms of African drums. The street vendors selling incense, baubles, African art, beautiful African prints. Street corner philosophers/pedagogues were everywhere—the Black Panthers talking about unity, the Israelites exhorting us to return to the one true and living God, the Garveyites who urged us to embrace and return to Africa, the Muslims with their greetings of As-Salaam-Alaikum, copies of Muhammad Speaks and bean pies.
Even the winos held court on the differences between the philosophies of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. We wore our afros and Afro-centric garb proudly. Of course when my mother found out that I was wearing an afro, she freaked out. A friend from Augusta was studying journalism at Columbia University at the same time I was earning my Masters in teaching english at Teachers College. I remember the fateful day that her mother saw me on campus wearing my afro. She just had to tell my mother, who called to let me know how embarrassed she was that I would do something like wear an afro. She threatened to commit suicide by jumping out the first floor window of our house. [laughs]
Wow! Well, I guess that strengthened your mother-daughter bond. After you graduated from Teachers College, you became a teacher at Hunter College. When did you lock into a community of musicians?
Two of my homeboys from Augusta, Kenny and Everett Brawner, had moved to New York, formed a group, and were playing at local clubs. I auditioned and became part of that group. At some point, I joined another group, Lou Courtney and Buffalo Smoke. Ednah Holt, who went on to join the Ritchie Family, was the other background singer. One day Ednah and I were at a studio rehearsing and she said, “When we’re on break, there are some friends that I’d like you to meet. There’s Fonzi, Michelle, and this incredible singer named Luther that you’ve just got to meet.” Later that day, I was introduced to Fonzi Thornton and Michelle Cobbs. Then there was this guy sitting in overalls, head down—Luther Vandross.
They took me over to introduce me to Luther. He looked up and said hi and put his head back down very quickly. I said, “Oh that went well. I guess this guy doesn’t like me.” I decided to stick around so I could hear this guy that Ednah was bragging about. From the very first note, I was smitten. Shortly thereafter, I was surprised when someone called me to ask if Luther could have my phone number. It wasn’t too long after that that Luther and I got together. We started talking and we became great friends. I would go to his house all the time. We would sing together. Robin Clark would come over. Crystal Davis and others would come. We would cook, eat, and sing. It was during those conversations and rehearsals that I learned about a whole new world of music.
Were you still teaching at Hunter College at this time?
Yes. True to my southern upbringing, I wasn’t about to give up a steady paycheck to chase this dream called show business. I didn’t resign from Hunter until CHIC’s first tour!
From what I understand, one of your first major performances was a show that Cannonball Adderley scored?
Yes, Big Man, which was my first and only performance at Carnegie Hall. That’s also when I got my first New York Times review. My mother flew up to see her show business daughter play Maggie, a hooker whose featured solo was a song called “Grind Your Own Coffee” [laughs].
My second professional debut was at Lincoln Center where I performed a solo piece called Children of the Fire (1974), written by a trumpet player named “Hannibal” Marvin Peterson. It was actually his way of protesting what was happening in Vietnam so in my own way I became an activist for peace and justice. One of the lines from the song really impacted me: “Oh God take these eyes so I can’t see how my mother cries”. That line filled me with compassion for children of war ... and there are all sorts of wars. I used to cry on the inside when I would see how some children could go to sleep at night with a lullaby and other kids would go to sleep to bombs or sirens or gunshots or abuse, parents fighting.
Joining CHIC marked quite a transition from what you’d been doing. Your initial role in the group was as a background vocalist. Of course, background vocals were a huge part of that first CHIC (1977) album. I know Luther Vandross contracted you for the session. What do you recall about that?
David Lasley, Luther, and I arrived before the other singers (Robin Clark and Diva Gray). Luther ordered a chicken, I started marking papers, and David sat by himself with his head down. I was later told that Bernard pulled Nile to the side and asked, “Are you sure these are the singers you want?” Nile said, “Trust me. It’s going to be fine.” [laughs]
CHIC hit big with “Dance, Dance, Dance” and “Everybody Dance”, and then Norma Jean went solo with Norma Jean (1978). How did you get promoted to a lead vocalist?
When Norma Jean went on to do her solo album, Nile and Bernard approached Luther about asking me to stay on and join Luci as a lead singer. I was excited and nervous at the same time because I knew I had some big shoes to fill.
Of course, so many people loved your performance on “I Want Your Love” off C’est CHIC. What’s your first memory of hearing it?
I absolutely loved it. I loved the arrangement. I loved the lyrics. It made me feel like I was really an integral part of the group, not just a background singer. It actually forced me to throw off my southern baptist roots and not be so shy about expressing my sensuality or sexuality. That was a growth experience. I still love that song.