At Last, She Is Free: An Interview with Alfa Anderson

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.

What does “At Last I Am Free” mean to you?

“At Last I Am Free” is a beautiful ballad off C’est CHIC that really spotlights the clarity of your voice. What does the song mean to you?

When I first heard “At Last I Am Free”, the haunting melody and the lyrics just tugged at my heartstrings. At the time, I was in a relationship with someone who could not totally commit to me. I knew it wasn’t good for me but I kept being drawn back into the relationship. Finally I decided that even though it was going to be difficult and painful, I had to break it off.

Over the years, this song has come to be a metaphor for life’s journey. We all need to find the courage to open our eyes and look at what is going on with us, and to admit when something is no longer serving your highest good and then have the courage to let it go and move forward with anticipation of things getting better. It’s hard but it’s essential for growth. Whether it’s a relationship or a job that doesn’t fulfill you, you need to move on.

“I Want Your Love” and “At Last I Am Free” were good for me because they allowed me to share my vulnerable side. “I’m lonely, please listen.” I could never say that in real life. I could never be that honest. I was always hiding those feelings but in “At Last I Am Free” I could be honest.

“Le Freak” also brought out another part of your personality.

It did! Diva Gray and I sang that lead together. “Le Freak” really taught me to let go of the rules and have fun, not only in the studio but onstage. I began to really appreciate the nuances of the CHIC vocal style, this singing that’s percussive but also legato, that has these crescendos and decrescendos. It’s a specific vocal technique that really works with that whole rhythm section. I understand it even better now. CHIC’s style was a blending of pop and R&B. Of the current artists and performers, I think Beyoncé and Rihanna are really good at that rapid-fire vocal style that merges pop and R&B really well.

In CHIC, the singers didn’t get the songs in advance. You’d walk into the studio, listen to the track, read the lyrics, work out the vocals in the control room, and go out into the booth and put it down. To help us get the groove, we would usually start at the end. Usually the hook or the outro gave you plenty of chances to ride the groove. We’d start at the end and then go back to the top. It’s during that repetition that you get the rhythm. Once you got that on the end, then you can go back to the top and sing the song. At that point, you have the song’s DNA.

How would you distinguish being a member of CHIC in the studio versus onstage?

The studio was where you put in all the work and the stage was where you reaped the rewards. You got a chance to sing to people who really loved it. To be onstage and to hear people singing back and giving you that energy and just applauding you for what you’re doing, you get an opportunity to look at people and smile.

CHIC members were always dressed to the nines. Describe the evolution of the group’s fashion sense.

I think we fine-tuned our style as we went along. From the beginning, Nile and ‘Nard had a concept of a style like Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music and Motown, whose acts were very well-groomed. It was a blending of those two concepts and styles. When we added a stylist to the group, the wardrobe became more personalized within the context of the original style. Hats became my signature. Sometimes our choices were great. Other times … it got really interesting, like the time we were in Europe and found these hats that had these feathers that went around the rim and then protruded out from our heads. Luci and I thought we were “très chic” but in retrospect I think we just looked silly. When we were able to shop on Rodeo Drive, I was ecstatic. I still have a letter from Giorgio’s in Beverly Hills thanking me for coming in and buying clothes. I also have a card signed by Halston that was sent backstage along with some flowers. That was after Nile and Bernard wrote “He’s the Greatest Dancer” for Sister Sledge and mentioned “Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci.”

The CHIC album covers were always so different from one another. I’ve always wondered about the concept behind Risqué (1979).

Nile and Bernard really conceived that. They had it all worked out. What I did know was that they wanted a “whodunit” kind of thing. I’m the lady of the house. Tony and Luci are the help. Nile’s the detective. And Bernard is the husband that’s been killed. It was a very classy-looking cover. On the inside sleeve, there’s a clue about who did it.

By this point, Michelle Cobb and Fonzi Thornton came in as the background mainstays.

They came in and carried the mantle forward. You can hear Fonzi and Michelle all up in the mix on these songs (“Good Times”, “My Forbidden Lover”). We had a great sound.

We’ve spoken about the Diana Ross sessions (diana, 1980) before but did you also sing on the Johnny Mathis session (I Love My Lady, 1981) too?

Yes. It was another highlight for me. I thought the project was great for him but the record company didn’t like it. It wasn’t “Johnny Mathis”. He was such an iconic singer with a particular style. It was probably deemed too much of a gamble to risk releasing something so different.

Yet I think that is what’s so impressive about Nile and Bernard’s productions at that point. They went from producing Sister Sledge to Diana Ross to Johnny Mathis to Debbie Harry to Carly Simon …

They just kept growing as writers and producers. There were some songs that we wanted to keep for ourselves. For a brief moment we thought, Oh no, they’re giving away some really great songs that would be good for CHIC. Au contraire! They weren’t giving away the best songs, they were being sensitive to each artist they produced.

Believer (1983) was the last CHIC album that you appeared on before Nile and Bernard dissolved the group. (Note: Rodgers and Edwards relaunched CHIC in 1992 but with different vocalists.) At what point did you reunite with Luther and begin singing background with him?

I joined Luther for his 1982 tour and stayed though 1987. As CHIC’s popularity as a group was declining, Luther’s star was rising.

How had Luther’s talent grown since you first met him?

He’d always had an incredible voice but I remember in the early days he used to perform a lot of vocal gymnastics and riffs. People were not responding to it as much so he decided that less is more. He began to let the natural beauty of his voice come through and develop his signature sound that only he had. What he found was absolute perfection. You can find that when you love your voice and you understand your gift. He fine-tuned his craft.

While backing Luther, did you ever think about being a solo artist?

I thought about it but I wasn’t ready. The prospect of being on my own was pretty daunting to me. I loved being part of a group experience.

Who were your co-background singers when you started singing with Luther?

When I started singing with him, it was Tawatha Agee, Brenda White King, and Phil Ballou. Later on, Tawatha and Brenda left and we added Lisa Fischer, Ava Cherry, Kevin Owens, and Paulette McWilliams. All of them were wonderful singers who still have successful careers in the music industry today.

What do you think all of Luther’s background vocalists shared in common?

I don’t think there was a person on that stage who did not genuinely love Luther and respect his talent. He created vocal alchemy. He understood how to layer the vocals in a way that I’ve never seen anybody else do. He would always talk about the weight and the character of a voice, whether it was dark, husky, clear, or piercing. For instance, Lisa Fischer and I were both sopranos but she sang top soprano on “So Amazing” and I sang second. On “Jump To It” or “Til My Baby Comes Home” I would sing first soprano and Lisa would sing second. I loved Luther’s professionalism and his sense of theater. He would always say to the audience, “I’m not going to mess with your ticket money. You’re going to get everything that you paid for.” He would do that. My sense of professionalism was very much honed with Luther.

So if Luther was about staging and professionalism, then CHIC was …

… about spontaneity and fun. A lot of the staging that we developed was organic. I remember the night when Luci and I decided that we would be on either side of Nile and Bernard and dance around them. That became a mainstay in our stage show. Another spontaneous staging sequence happened when we all, as a group, just decided to walk from one side of the stage to the next. The audience went wild!

You stayed with Luther through 1987. What prompted you to step away from singing with him?

I met Tinkr Barfield while working with Luther. He was Luther’s bass player on the road. We fell in love, got married, and then my priorities changed. When Tinkr and I got married, his children gained a “bonus mother” and I gained two “bonus sons”. I now had a husband and children to think about. It was a real adjustment because we became a blended family. To make this family work, we had to devote time and energy. We had children who needed to be nurtured and who needed to be assured that they were loved and welcomed into this new family. Family life then made me want to go back into education and make a difference in children’s lives. I enrolled in Bank Street College of Education and earned a second Masters degree in Educational Leadership, which ultimately catapulted me from the classroom to the principalship.

During your years as a high school principal, did your music past ever come up in conversation?

It did and I did everything I could to squelch it because I didn’t acknowledge the importance of my contributions to music. Neither did I understand that all of my experiences helped make me who I am today. Now I understand and I will not deny one moment of my existence on this planet or deny any of the experiences that have made me who I am.

I became an educator to empower young people and, in the process, I became empowered. I found that it’s through the arts that you can tap into people’s passions. It’s through the arts that I was able to connect with my students. It is because of this connection that I was able to lead them into the land of classic literature from around the world and they were able to share their experiences with me. I was struggling to teach them poetic devices when it occurred to me that those same devices were in the music that they were listening to. I brought in rap music and together we looked for poetic devices. Then I pulled out some of the classic poems. The transfer of knowledge was magical!

Having made such a difference in people’s lives as an educator, what prompted you to start recording again?

I had a chance to witness up close and personal the transformative power of the arts. I no longer was content to talk about or teach music, I wanted to create it. I took baby steps. Norma, Luci, and I had been threatening to come together and do something. Tinkr was working on a CD and he said he had a song that he thought would be great for the three of us to do, “My Lover’s Arms”. I listened to it. I sent it to them. They liked it. We decided to record it. It was our first step in getting back together. Tinkr included our recording of “My Lover’s Arms” on his album It Is What It is (2011).

Tell me how “Former Lady of Chic” came together.

My sons are aspiring songwriters and producers. They came to me one day and said, “People really love the classic songs that you sang with CHIC but you haven’t done a good job of letting people know that you’re still here. You’ve spent your life, for the time that we’ve known you, trying to raise the family and be the mom, be the wife, but you’ve got this whole other life that people love and yet you’re not claiming that.'” They wrote “Former Lady of Chic” for me because they thought it was time for me to claim my musical legacy. They, along with my husband, produced it for me. I love it because it tells my story in a very succinct way and reintroduces me to the public. It’s my calling card.

Your video for “Former Lady of Chic” was recently released. It was filmed around different neighborhoods in New York. Describe the experience of shooting that on location rather than inside a studio.

It was an exhilarating experience to be out in all that energy that’s generated in Times Square, on the High Line, and along Riverside Park. The other reason I loved it is because when total strangers found out who I was, they would literally and figuratively give me a hug, wish me well, and share their memories of CHIC. It made me feel so good, almost like I’d never left music.

It’s great that the video captures some of those hugs! Based on the response to “Former Lady of Chic”, is there a full-length solo project in the works?

Yes. I’ve got some really interesting dance tunes, some covers, and some ballads that I’m really excited about and can’t wait to present them to the world. The next single, which is going to be a dance tune, will be released in spring 2014.

A lot of people are also hearing your voice again because of the new two-disc CHIC compilation, Up All Night (2013). It went to #2 on the U.K. catalog chart earlier this summer. Why do you think the CHIC productions hold up so well and are as popular as ever?

They’re imbued with a spirit that is all-embracing and universal. Because there’s complexity in CHIC’s music, it never goes out of date. It still makes you get up and dance no matter where you are. It’s just classic. I’m humbled and honored to be a part of that history and that legacy.

What would you tell Alfa Anderson in 1979?

I would tell her that she is okay just the way she is. That she is loved.

Why do you think she would need to hear those particular words?

She had not yet learned how to embrace and love herself. What I mean by that is not the future self but the present self. What I’ve learned is that where you are in your journey is where you need to be. You have two choices, either like where you are or change it. It’s for us to learn that lesson — one of many lessons — while we’re here in this skin, in this particular body, at this particular time. This is what I’ve learned, this is what I know to be true.

Or to quote “Former Lady of Chic”, you’re “still here and you’re making your moves right now” …

… And I want you to join me as I’m rockin’ and puttin’ it down! [laughs]