The original liner notes of Romance Is on the Rise proclaim, “As hard to capture as a new thought, the jiving, thriving, Miss Genevieve Waite. LET THE 70s BEGIN…”
Nowadays, most people would reply, “Who?” Released in July 1974, Romance is the sole album by Waite, third wife of the Mamas and the Papas’ John Phillips and mother of singer-actress Bijou Phillips. Like so many others who became entertainment-history footnotes, Waite had all the right connections but somehow missed out on fame. Born in South Africa in 1948, Waite relocated to swinging London and in 1968 starred in the film Joanna, directed by Michael Sarne and featuring music by Rod McKuen. Sarne briefly considered Waite for the title role of his next film, the notorious Myra Breckinridge, before giving it to Raquel Welch, but Waite did put in an uncredited appearance. Apart from a small part in Move (1970), however, this was all that came of her film career.
In 1969, Waite met John Phillips, and from 1972 to 1985 she was married to him. Phillips paid tribute to his new love on “Lady Genevieve,” from the final Mamas and Papas album, People Like Us, and “Let It Bleed, Genevieve” on his self-titled solo debut—sometimes called John, Wolf King of L.A., after a poem of Waite’s that appears on the back cover. In 1973, the pair moved to New York City, where they convinced a businessman named Dan Broder to finance Waite’s LP. According to Phillips, Mo Ostin of Warner Brothers showed interest in distributing Waite’s album but balked at Phillips’s insistence that it be released on his own label, Paramour Records. Meanwhile, the couple also worked on an ill-fated musical, Man on the Moon; due to her commitment to that show, Waite had to pass on the opportunity to star opposite David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Like the other projects with which Waite’s name is associated, Romance got off to an auspicious start, but never fulfilled its promise—but that’s no reflection on the music. Phillips (with Waite’s help on four tracks) wrote all but one of the album’s songs and provided pitch-perfect production. The details on Romance Is on the Rise are exquisite, from the acoustic guitar intro on the opener, “Love Is Coming Back” (lifted from the Mamas and the Papas’ “Dream a Little Dream”) to Richard Avedon’s cover photo of Waite as a 1940s-style pinup girl. Seasoned studio musicians loaned their talents to the project, and several songs feature horn and string arrangements. This was the last time Phillips’s considerable songwriting and arranging talents would be put to good use before he sank into years of drug addiction and debasement, and he rises to the occasion with songs as clever and lovely as anything he wrote for the Mamas and the Papas, but with a new emphasis derived from his love of jazz and show tunes, albeit with a 1970s camp slant.
While Phillips’s songwriting and production are integral to Romance Is on the Rise, the real star of the show is Waite. From the moment she begins to coo and rasp the opening lines, “I think that love is coming back / I think romance is on the rise / And all across the world / All the boys and girls are makin’ eyes”, it’s obvious you’re going to hear a voice unlike any other. Phillips drew comparisons to Marilyn Monroe’s childish, breathy voice, but in reality Waite sounds more like a South African Betty Boop. Her delivery manages to be childish and knowing, camp and reverent, gay and squarely straight, all at the same time.
After the music-hall tone of “Love Is Coming Back”, “Transient Friends” and “Times of Love” inject some modernity into the theme of amour. The latter is just a tad kinky: “And grenades and mortars going off in my head / Every time that you take me down to your bed / When we haven’t been out for a couple of days / And you’ve locked all the doors and just had your way”. The highlights of the album, though, arrive with “Trashy Rumors” and Irving Berlin’s “Slumming on Park Avenue”. Witty and sophisticated, both songs are perfectly suited to Waite’s wacky yet knowing delivery and provide convincing evidence that she could have had a career in musical theater. Following them is “Biting My Nails”, a streetwise druggie joke, and “Danny”, a ballad in which Waite lets down a childhood sweetheart (“Danny, it’s tearing me apart / But people grow up and fall in love with strangers”). “White Cadillac” is the album’s weakest song, a tale of rich-boy-meets-poor-girl, on which Waite’s chirpy voice finally becomes grating. She rebounds nicely with “American Man on the Moon” and “Girls”, which acknowledges the exasperation the fairer sex elicits from its admirers (“Girls are running round in your head / Till you wish you liked boys instead”).
Judging from Romance Is on the Rise, Genevieve Waite could have been a star of at least of the cult variety, but it wasn’t to be. Although the album was launched with a good deal of fanfare, including an expensive release party hosted by Waite’s Move co-star Elliot Gould, write-ups in several magazines, and a handful of cabaret-style live shows, its poor distribution ensured that it sank quickly. After the disappointing reception for Romance and Man on the Moon, Phillips and Waite sunk into drug addiction for several years, a period documented in detail in Phillips’s 1986 autobiography, Papa John. Waite hasn’t recorded a note or appeared in a film in over 30 years, but her one gem of an album finally made it to CD in the U.K in 2004 and in the U.S. a year later, so a new generation can discover “the jiving, thriving, Miss Genevieve Waite”.