What led to your role in Melvin’s Don’t Play Us Cheap! (1972)?
I think we exchanged numbers. He asked me to come in for the audition and I got the role. Melvin shot the film of Don’t Play Us Cheap! first. That was his way of rehearsing for the play … and his way of making a dollar work! He had found an abandoned convent in Santa Fe that was like a dormitory. He rented it. The concept was to rehearse the play and film it as rehearsals were going. When we got to Broadway, except for a few previews, it was opening night.
The New York Times praised your solo, “You Cut Up the Clothes in the Closet of My Dreams”. They called it a knockout. What was the premise of that song?
I think that was tailor made for me. I offered to make dinner for Melvin one night and he came by. I always had, and still do, a creative way of dressing. I love fashion, so I think there was something about my closet and clothes hanging everywhere that might have inspired him to write the song. I’m willing to bet you that’s where the idea came from.
My dear dear friend, Bernard Johnson, was the costume designer. He had brought a trunk of clothes that was down in the basement of this convent. He called each actor downstairs and fitted them for their character. When it came to me, he didn’t have anything. After a few heated words, I pulled out this hat and I found the wig, and my character was born. He made that dress and the shoes. Oh, I hated that dress! [laughs] We were caricatures, really. I came up with the little fur piece that you see in the film credits and the character’s mannerisms are based on my sister Leola. I thought my sister could do everything.
What did you learn about acting from co-stars like Esther Rolle and Mabel King?
I remember Esther telling me to hold it back a little in rehearsals and save it for the actual stage performance. That was good advice, but I still didn’t take it! I don’t know how to hold back. I went out full blast. I would push myself to the limit to test myself and see what I had.
Hal Wheeler was the musical director of Don’t Play Us Cheap!. I worked with Hal and basically did most of the vocal background arrangements for those songs. I didn’t get credit for it, but I don’t think it was maliciously done. I didn’t stay with the production that long. I had to move on.
Don’t Play Us Cheap! later received a Tony Award nomination for “Best Book of a Musical”. Even though you left the musical, did your work with Melvin lead to other theater opportunities?
Yes. After that, Cy Coleman came along with Seesaw (1973). I was called to do a demo, specifically for Seesaw. A friend of mine, June, who was an early member of the Karamu House in Cleveland and in the cast of Don’t Play Us Cheap!, advised me not to do the demo and audition for a part instead. I got the role and guess who did the demo? Nell Carter.
The first director was Ed Sherin. I loved Ed Sherin. Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, of course, did the music. The book was by Michael Stewart. They fired Ed Sherin during previews in Detroit. I was heartbroken. At the time, I was killing them with “Ride Out the Storm”. That was one of the highlights of the show. When we came back to New York, Michael Bennett was hired as the director. They got rid of Lainie Kazan, who was the star of the show, and brought in Michelle Lee.
It was very intense, more intense than anything I’ve ever done. I felt I didn’t have an ally. I’d go home, get in a fetal position and cry, but get up the next day and carry on. My role began to change, so much so that one evening I told my understudy to prepare to go on the next night because I wasn’t going to be there. I did not like the way my character’s direction was going, so I left and didn’t go back. That’s when Tommy Tune came in. My role was rewritten for him.
I wish I had known how to survive in the Broadway community. You really have to be dedicated. It has to be your focus, and it wasn’t mine. Back in those days, work was work. Nobody turned down a job and here I was walking away from one … moving on.
And yet those Broadway experiences didn’t define you because you were doing so many other things. You produced your own version of “Ride Out the Storm”, which became your first single for Stax on the Gospel Truth subsidiary in March 1973. How did you get signed to Stax?
I met (Stax owner) Al Bell when I was in Chicago. I was at his associate’s office. I sat down at the piano and stomped out a groove, singing a song I’d just written called “I’ve Been Turned On”. Al was floored. I was married to Mel Collins at the time. We had the record company and he did not want me signed to Stax. That would have been perfect for me. They were hot. Stax music was pumpin’! I regret that I didn’t sign with Stax and go with Al Bell at that time.
The next time I met Al Bell was in New Mexico on the film set of Don’t Play Us Cheap! Al came for a meeting with Melvin because Stax was going to release the cast album. He was there the night that Melvin filmed my solo “You Cut Up the Clothes”. It had to be fate.
Soon after I left Don’t Play Us Cheap! I began working on material to send to Al Bell. The first four songs on Red Hot (2005) were the demos that I sent him. I did the demos with arranger Bill Eaton (Aretha’s former musical director), Valerie Simpson on piano, Bill Salter (co-writer of Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack’s “Where is the Love”) on guitar and bass, Artie Jenkins on keyboards, and Herbie Lovelle on drums. I had New York’s finest badass musicians. Al gave me a wonderful deal as artist, producer, and writer-publisher — three different contracts, three different ways of making money. It was a five-year guaranteed deal. I would produce my own work, hire and fire whoever I wanted to. I recorded in Memphis, Detroit, and New York working on that album. Stax paid all expenses, hotel, airfare, musicians, and studios.
“Stumblin’ Blocks, Steppin’ Stones”(1974) is an immaculate production and truly one of your finest hours as a solo artist. What inspired you to write it?
It’s autobiographical. It’s kind of a reflective thing, of taking a negative and turning it into a positive, which is basically my philosophy about life. There are two versions. I think Al Bell fell in love with the Bill Eaton demo version, which I included on Red Hot. Paul Riser had slowed it down on the version you’re talking about. Stax released that. The horns and strings are just absolutely exquisite. The backup vocals were the former Ikettes, Robbie Montgomery, and Jessie Smith. They were in town working with Dr. John. Singing together again was like old times.
You retained ownership of your Stax masters, which was huge during that particular era of music. It was also rather significant that, continuing from the records you recorded in Chicago, you were producing your own records. Like Valerie, you were also one of the few female record producers in the industry. Did you encounter much resistance from your male peers?
I didn’t have too much of a problem. I only felt a little pressure that I was a female. I just did it, but sometimes I did have a hard time with a few of the guys who didn’t want to listen to what I had to say: “You’re going to tell me what to do?” “Well, who’s signing your check?” To a certain extent, the basics of producing is knowing who to hire. You try and find people with creativity, energy, and a willingness to work. Some of the great producers do more than that.
Stax issued a few of your singles but never an entire album. What happened?
It took me a year to complete the album. By the time I finished it, they were unable to honor my contract. Al’s attorney called me and said, “Joshie, we’re so sorry but we cannot pick up your option.” Stax had been forced into bankruptcy and if they couldn’t pay me, my contract was null and void. So they released me. In doing so, everything I recorded just reverted back to me. I sat on those masters until I made that awful deal with Collectibles (in the ‘90s) when I needed the money. That deal tied my masters up for ten years. I finally got them back.
Throughout the ‘70s you sang backgrounds for Roberta Flack, Nina Simone, Quincy Jones, B.B. King, and Esther Phillips, among many others. One of my favorite moments from that time is when you and Cissy Houston sang background on Kiki Dee’s “I’ve Got the Music In Me” (1974).
Oh, I loved chirping with Ms. Cissy! I had adored her for many years. She’s got that last little flick of a note that’s almost undetectable! That is just so fantastic. She was contracting gigs and she called me for “I’ve Got the Music In Me”. We had a great time doing that. It was done at Electric Lady. Elton John came by the studio that day. It was just jubilant!
Maeretha Stewart also sang on that as well.
Maeretha was from an earlier generation of singers. She told me that when they went to audition for The Nat “King” Cole Show (1956), there was a sign on the door that said “Whites Only”. No black voices. Maeretha and that class of singers were sight readers also. Regrettably, I didn’t take the time to take sight singing lessons. Although Maeretha was a very good singer, technically, it was me and Ms. Cissy who had that umph that makes you feel it all in your bones.
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