Pretty in Pink Vinyl: An Interview with Disco Legend Alfa Anderson
From her very first vinyl release to her Legends of Vinyl (L.O.V.) Hall of Fame induction, former CHIC vocalist Alfa Anderson celebrates a year of solo triumphs.
"Perfectly Chic" Remixes: Collector's Edition Series 1 (Pink Vinyl)
16 November 2018Other
5 May 2018: Alfa Anderson is back home in Augusta, Georgia at her alma mater Paine College. Mayor Hardie Davis, Jr. and Commissioner William Fennoy have given her the keys to the city and declared 5 May "Alfa Anderson Day". So much has changed in Anderson's life since she first left Augusta to attend Teachers College, Columbia University in New York, and she has the platinum albums to prove it. However, one thing has remained steadfast — in a city that raised legends like James Brown and Jessye Norman, Alfa Anderson is one of Augusta's most beloved daughters.
"Alfa Anderson Day" coincided with a particularly bountiful time in the singer's career. Earlier in 2018, Ontario-based record company Rammit Records commissioned Boomtang and 83 West to remix "Perfectly Chic", one of the key tracks from Anderson's self-released solo debut Music From My Heart (2017). Following a digital EP in March, which generated a chart-topping smash for Anderson in South America, Rammit pressed the "Perfectly Chic" remixes on pink vinyl as a limited edition 12-inch single. Though millions of listeners know Anderson's striking visage from several CHIC album sleeves, "Perfectly Chic" marks the singer's very first vinyl release as a solo artist. The smile she wears on the cover is one of triumph.
This past fall, Anderson was also inducted into the Legends of Vinyl (L.O.V.) Hall of Fame along with Norma Jean Wright, CHIC's original lead singer, and Luci Martin, who shared lead vocals with Anderson when Wright pursued a solo career in 1978. The honor marked yet another seminal moment for the three vocalists since their first onstage reunion in 2014. Rebranding themselves as "Next Step", the trio joined Kathy Sledge in Ibiza to record "Get on Up" (2015). Produced by Aristofreeks, the song soared to the Top Ten of Billboard's dance chart in May 2016 and brought Anderson's history with Sledge full circle.
Decades earlier, Anderson was among the background vocalists on Sister Sledge's breakthrough album We Are Family (1979) produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards for the CHIC Organization. "Alfa helped my career with her voice because she was part of the CHIC sound," says Kathy Sledge, who sang lead on the Grammy-nominated title track. "Her tone and quality are badass. Nile and Bernard knew there was a uniqueness in her tone, along with the other CHIC Organization singers. Here you had these top producers at the height of their career who didn't deviate from that formula. That speaks volumes. As members of groups, and I can certainly vouch for this, sometimes we don't know our value, but we know our gifts more than anyone. Alfa knows her gift and she's sharing it on a whole new level now. It's no surprise that people are receiving and embracing her solo project. I'm so excited for her!"
The forecast for 2019 appears to hold as much promise as 2018. Anderson will begin the year by joining Martin and Wright as co-headliners of the six-day "Ultimate Disco Cruise" from Ft. Lauderdale to Cozumel, followed by the trio's performance at Pygmalion Fest in New Orleans. Later in the spring, Anderson will once again host "Fandross Festival" in New York, which celebrates the music, life, and legacy of her friend Luther Vandross. In her exclusive interview with PopMatters, Anderson reflects on a year of solo victories and shares why she's always said "yes" to life.
Alfa, since our last interview in 2013, it seems like you've kept reaching new benchmarks in your career with each passing year. We'll talk about some of the ways 2018 has been a particularly exceptional year for you, but first I'd love to know how your experience of performing onstage now compares to 40 years ago during your first tour with CHIC.
It's still just as exciting, and I still love it just as much as I did 40 years ago. The most spectacular thing that's happened for me is that I'm getting recognition as a solo artist, [emphasizes] as Alfa Anderson. I just recently had a number one record on the Music Worx chart in South America. The chart says, "Perfectly Chic" — Alfa Anderson. That makes me smile.
It's good to be able to perform at a pace where I can give my all and still take care of myself along the way. Taking care of myself is of primary importance now. Forty years ago …
… anything goes?
Sort of! [laughs] Forty years ago, if I wanted to perform and then stay up late and hang out and go to after-parties, it was not a problem. Now, I can only burn the candle at one end! [laughs] That's different. Instead of a margarita, I'm drinking smoothies.
Back in May, Augusta celebrated "Alfa Anderson Day". How did your hometown decide to honor you?
That day came about from one of the city council members, Commissioner William Fennoy, and my high school classmates. They wanted to honor me for the work that I've done in music. I'd no idea that they'd followed my career since I left Augusta after graduating from Paine College.
In fact, I'll never forget what I told my mother's banker as I was about to leave for New York. I was so excited and dropped in to share the news. He used to call me by my first and middle name — it's a very southern thing — and said "Alfa Karlys, you're going to New York?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Why are you going to New York? It just disturbs me that our best and brightest young people leave" — his words, not mine. "How will we ever make things better here in this city if you leave? New York doesn't need you. We do."
I was honored that he felt that way about me, but there was something calling me to New York. At that time, I had no idea what it was going to be. It culminated in this musical career that I could never have envisioned when I was a young girl growing up in the south. I was always encouraged to excel and to make my family and my home town proud of who I was.
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio
You mentioned "Perfectly Chic" being number one in South America. How would you describe the life of that song since you first released it on Music From My Heart?
This song must be like a cat — it has nine lives! It was released last July in 2017 and people are still discovering it. I licensed it to Rammit Records who thought that it was a cool song. They wanted to remix it. A lot of people say that it's a very CHIC-type song and they like that because it's nostalgic. It's classic yet it's current. It's been almost a year and six months since it was first released. It's still got legs and now it's on pink vinyl. I'm overjoyed!
Of course, you premiered "Perfectly Chic" at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater for your CD release show, which also doubled as your first solo concert. What were your expectations going into that show and how did you feel afterward?
I was just hoping the audience would stay! [laughs] I took a big chance. Who performs ten unknown, original songs in New York at Joe's Pub? I knew they were going to love the CHIC stuff, like "At Last I Am Free" and "I Want Your Love", but the new material went over just as well.
When it was time for me to go onstage, I said to my glam squad, "I want to go home!" They said, "It's too late for you to go home now. The band is onstage. The people are here. You've got to go on!" The band started to play my opening number and I made my entrance. Once I got onstage, I decided to be vulnerable and let people know that I was really nervous because I had never done an entire solo show before. I was so encouraged by their love. I relaxed and just enjoyed every minute.
I got an email the next day from someone who told me that I was a God-conscious performer. I brought a spirit of unity, and that made everybody come together. When I read that, I was nearly moved to tears because I want to be a unifying force.
I think one of the songs that really did unify the audience that night was "In the Stillness". Sadly, we recently lost Madeleine Yayodele Nelson, who joined you onstage and also played on the studio version of that song. How did she contribute to your overall vision for "In the Stillness", on record as well as in concert?
I didn't know her before. I knew of her. When I wrote "In the Stillness", which was the first song that I wrote for the album, we called it an outlier because it was different from anything else on the album. When Bert Price, my co-writer and co-producer, and I were figuring out what to do with the song, I said, "It's got to evoke peace, calm, tranquility, and a centeredness about who you are and why you're on the planet. I want shekere. I want drums. I want a tribal, spiritual feel."
I remembered that Valerie Ghent had worked with Yayodele and I knew that she was the founder of Women of the Calabash. I called her. I didn't know whether or not she'd respond, but she did. I sent her the song. She loved it and agreed to perform on it. She came in the studio and brought her shekere and djembe drum. It's such a pleasure for a writer / performer to see a song come to life.
For my show, I wanted to perform as many songs from the album as possible. In the back of my mind, I was thinking, These are songs that nobody knows. How are you going to make this an interesting evening for everybody? Yayodele was one of the first musical guests I thought of. She had to be a part of this show. She came and brought her shekere and blessed us with her incredibly powerful spirit. The ancestors were definitely there with us.
I think the personal highlight for me as an audience member was when Karen Milne joined you onstage for "Sending Love", which is probably my favorite song on the album. It was such a brilliant idea to feature one of the original players from the CHIC Strings on that song. How did it occur to you to include Karen on "Sending Love"?
Norma, Luci, and I had done an interview with Karen about three years ago. We spoke about how nice it would be to work together again. When I wrote "Sending Love", I knew it needed a violin, and I knew Karen was just the person to ask. She played such a hauntingly beautiful melody on the song.
At Joe's Pub, did you hear the ovation Karen got when I announced that she was there? I'm so lucky that she got the night off from playing first violin in Phantom of the Opera! Not only was she there, but the other original CHIC Strings (Cheryl Hong and Marianne Carroll) were there too. Afterward, Cheryl and Marianne said, "We want to go on the road again!"
Beyond the concert, how did you feel holding a copy of Music from My Heart in your hands when it arrived?
[sighs] It was a dream come true, a real accomplishment, and I remembered what it took for me to get there. I had so many supporters — my family, friends, and fans — who wished me well and wanted me to succeed.
Earlier this year, you hosted an event that was part of "Fandross Festival", a four-day celebration of Luther Vandross held throughout different New York venues. You'd already recorded "When Luther Sings" as part of your album and performed it during the festival. In the years since his passing, what have you learned or grown to appreciate about Luther now versus when you sang background for him in the '80s?
I appreciate his attention to detail. He would come up to you and say, "You know, those are not the right earrings". I also appreciate that, no matter how he felt, he always gave 1,000% onstage. He paid attention to everything that was going on.
I didn't know how much I learned from him until I started working on my own stage show. I've got this aesthetic in my head that's definitely a Luther aesthetic, but without the Luther resources! [laughs] Everything he did was first-class. He would use bugle beads instead of sequins. Bugle beads are a lot more expensive. They're heavier too. [laughs]
Back in 2014, you, Norma Jean, and Luci first performed together as a trio for the "First Ladies of Disco" concert in Palm Springs and then appeared with Company Freak at "SummerStage" in Central Park. How has the dynamic among the three of you grown over the past four years throughout all of the different projects that you've done?
The dynamic has blossomed. There were so many years between the time we had worked together in CHIC and when we got back together. We worked through earlier issues that we had, which developed a trust and a sisterhood that cannot be broken. The last time we rehearsed for an upcoming gig, they sang "Perfectly Chic" the way I want to hear it sung. We are considering making it our signature song.
Norma Jean actually sang background on the recording of "Perfectly Chic" as well.
She did! Luci didn't because she was in Florida at the time. We plan to use that song as our opening number. The first time I sang it outside of New York, I think we were performing at Taste of Omaha. We put it later in the set because I wanted to see how people would react to that song in the middle of all those other classic CHIC Organization songs. The audience loved it.
Luci said, "I have an idea. Instead of every night trying to figure out whether or not people are going to love it, let's just put it in the top of the show. They're not going to walk out. They're going to be so excited that they're going to accept it." It tells the story of who we are, which is what I wanted to do. It's an homage to that time in my life that I'll carry with me forever.
One of the projects that the three you have done together since reuniting is record with Kathy Sledge on "Get on Up" (2015). It's such a full-circle moment because you and Norma Jean were among the background vocalists who sang on Sister Sledge's We Are Family album. Describe the experience of working with Kathy so many years later.
It was an amazing experience. We were in Ibiza — not a bad place to record at all. In the studio, I imagined Kathy as a 17-year-old with braces, walking up to this microphone and owning "We Are Family". The voice that she has now is the voice that she's always had. It's a very unique voice. It's a sexy voice. I love the raspiness of it. I love her spontaneity. I love the way she delivers and tells the story. She makes you believe it. That's one of the things that we all try to do — tell the story and draw people in.
Just after Next Step premiered "Get on Up", Cirque du Soleil performed with you, Norma Jean, and Luci at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. Is there any other gig in your career that compares to that?
No, it was unlike anything else! Talk about lights, camera, action — they had it all there! It was the first time we'd actually performed for millennials. We didn't know whether or not the younger people were going to like what we did, but they couldn't get enough.
I had to get used to the volume. [laughs] That's when I realized, no performer goes onstage without earplugs, which we didn't use back in the day. The sound was deafening. You could just feel the vibration of the bass through the soles of your feet. Then you've got these people flying on trapezes, and you've got explosions, and you've got lights.
Shortly before you recorded with Kathy Sledge, you also reunited with Nile Rodgers for a CHIC reunion single called "I'll Be There" (2015). It was amazing to see you come back together at the Power Station where Nile and Bernard produced all of the classic CHIC albums. How did you feel walking into the studio with Nile there, as well as the people that you sang with for years, like Luci and Fonzi Thornton, plus Kim Davis and Folami — the new CHIC Organization vocalists?
I'm a softie. My husband says I'm a weeping willow. It took everything that I had not to cry because it was such a powerful moment. I couldn't believe I was back where it all began. I spent a good bit of time in Studio B working on those CHIC songs that became such huge hits. I thought about those who are no longer with us, like Bernard, Tony (Thompson), and Raymond (Jones).
When I saw Nile, we shared a big hug. At one point, I didn't know if I was going to be able to sing because I was getting so choked up. I had to work through it quietly. It was a wonderful experience to be there. The respect from Nile and the respect from Kim and Folami was very evident. The camaraderie that I had with Fonzi and with Luci … I felt like I was home.
Nile recently released It's About Time (2018), the first new CHIC album since CHIC-ism (1992). In reviewing the album for Rolling Stone, Maura Johnston highlighted Lady Gaga's vocal on a revamped version of "I Want Your Love", saying that she was "stepping into Alfa Anderson's platforms". How did you feel when you read that?
To be mentioned by someone as prestigious as this writer from Rolling Stone, who actually remembered that I sang the original, was heartwarming and humbling. That's the thing that means a lot to me. People know the songs more than they know my name. Nile has a wonderful group out touring now with Folami and Kim, who are excellent singers. The band is a beast! I love what they're doing. Audiences know them and they know the songs, but they don't necessarily know that I was the one who originated that vocal on "I Want Your Love".
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio
Rhino just compiled The CHIC Organization 1977-1979, a box set of the first three CHIC albums plus We Are Family. It's perfect timing since C'est CHIC (1978) turned 40 this year. It's really a flawless album. Not only does it have "I Want Your Love", "Le Freak", and your exquisite vocal on "At Last I Am Free", but then it also has these great songs where Bernard is actually featured as a vocalist. So many people think of him as a bassist and Nile's writing / producing partner, but he also had these vocal step-outs. "Happy Man" is a prime example of that, so is your duet with him on "Sometimes You Win". Vocally, what did Bernard bring to those songs?
I think his voice was very much like his bass-playing. He couldn't hold notes. He would say that — "I can't hold notes" — but he was a rhythmic guy, a funky guy. He was able to create a singing style for himself with his deep voice, where he didn't have to hold notes. It's the rhythmic approach to what he did that I think made his voice very distinctive.
Of course, you and Diva Gray shared the lead vocal on "Le Freak", which supplanted Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond's "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" from number one in December 1978. The Library of Congress recently added it to the National Recording Registry in 2017. Let's talk about the genius of that song for a minute. Why do you think people are still shouting "Freak out!" Forty years later?
Who knew, right? You hear it all the time. Sometimes things just become part of the culture and the American vernacular. That happens to be one of those phrases that has done that. Sometimes something is phrased in a way that is so succinct yet all-encompassing and so powerful that nothing else will do.
Because it's so ingrained in pop culture, it's easy to take "Freak out!" for granted, but what do you remember about how Nile and Bernard presented that particular phrase to you and the other CHIC Organization vocalists?
It was definitely different, but I was more worried about the French being recognizable! [laughs]
The "Le freak / c'est chic" part?
Yes! I was more concerned about the French than the English. [laughs] Then when we did "A Warm Summer Night", there's "Te quiero". When I first looked at it, I said, [exaggerates] "Tay key-err-o!" because I didn't know any Spanish. They laughed and laughed. That's why Luci ended up speaking that part because I was going to enunciate every little consonant and make sure that all the vowels were there.
I'd like to ask you about another bassist, your husband, Tinkr Barfield. He released his solo album Blended (2018) this year and featured you on a couple of songs. You first met him when he played bass in Luther's band. How would you describe his approach to playing?
I love his funk playing. He's a groove master. When I first met him, he was known for the kind of funk that he brought to the bass. What's happening for him now is that he's beginning to explore melody on the bass, like he did on his arrangement of "My Favorite Things".
The film version of The Wiz (1978) also turned 40 in 2018. You were one of several vocalists who sang in the choir on the soundtrack. What do you remember about being in the studio with so many vocal greats?
What I remember was being in awe during the session. The principals were not there, but everywhere I looked, there was someone I admired. I remember seeing Valerie Simpson, Patti Austin, and, of course, Luther was there. I was just one of the new kids on the block and grateful to have been invited.
On that day, Quincy Jones showed me why he's the great producer he is. The efficiency with which he made it all work and put everybody together — this was years before "We Are the World" — was masterful.
I remember the speaking part for "red" and "green" ("Emerald City Sequence"). I was thinking to myself, How are we going to get all of these people with these different voices to speak these parts and sound as one? That was the first time I understood the power of unison speaking and unison singing, which carried over to CHIC. We all got into the spirit of it. It truly was sheer joy and happiness.
Speaking of Valerie Simpson, you've sung background for her on a couple of different occasions in recent years. What does she inspire in you?
She inspires passion in me. When I worked with her, it was like working with a master. I had to pull from deep within myself. When I worked with Luther, he had layered, lush background vocals. Valerie and Nick's sound also had layers, but their sound was more raw and passionate. Luther admired Valerie's stage presence. He always said, "If you really want to know how do it well, look to Valerie Simpson".
You, Norma Jean, and Luci were inducted into the 2018 Legends of Vinyl (L.O.V.) Hall of Fame alongside other renowned singers like Melba Moore, Gloria Gaynor, and Sarah Dash. Why do you think artists who are linked to the disco era have been receiving so much recognition in recent years, more so now than, let's say, ten or 15 years ago?
I think it's because disco music brought people together, which never goes out of style. We're in a culture now that's so divisive. People are tired of that separatism. We all realize that if that continues to happen there's no hope for us as a country.
Disco was intergenerational and multicultural. It didn't matter what your socioeconomic status or sexual orientation was. We were all laughing, having fun. As I've grown older, I really understand that being joyful extends your life. Disco was always a place where people could get away from society's restrictions. The world puts you in a box, but when you're on the floor dancing, and you grab somebody's hand, it doesn't matter whose hand it is. That's what disco gave to the world.
I think that now, more than ever before, the resurgence of disco means that we really want to be free of all the "isms". People really do want to be together, talk to each other, and share experiences with each other.
Along that continuum, you performed at "LGBTQ Voices" presented by Flushing Town Hall and New York City Council Member Daniel Dromm at Queens Center back in May. What does the support of the LGBTQ community mean to you?
It means everything to me because I've been embraced by that community from the very beginning. Even back in Augusta, when things were super, super, super undercover and people could risk their lives by coming out, people confided in me. Many of them are gone now. They had a very difficult time growing up in the south. [pauses] They couldn't be who they wanted to be and they had to hide it. It was so painful. [wipes tears] People were very cruel, Christian. I get a little teary-eyed just thinking about it. Let me take a moment …You really made me think. I hadn't thought about that.
When we first met for an interview in 2013, I asked, "What would you tell yourself in 1979?" Let's rewind a year earlier. What would you tell this woman [Alfa Anderson] lounging against the couch on the cover of C'est CHIC?
I would tell that woman that she is enough. I would tell her to live each day secure in the knowledge that where she is where she is meant to be. She will learn, and she will grow as long as she says "yes" to life.
Christian John Wikane with Alfa Anderson / Photo: Sekou Luke Studio