It’s Political and Personal
There’s a couplet in “Hard Times” that stops me whenever I hear it: “Nobody smiles, nobody cries / No one seems to care if they live or die.” What do those words evoke for you?
August wrote those lyrics, so I don’t know what the purpose was and can’t speak on his behalf, but for me, I had to reflect on my upbringing and my relationships. At the time, there was a recession going on, so it was political as well as personal. We struggled a lot. I left home at eighteen, not by choice, and we really struggled to make money so the band could be heard and get a deal. It wasn’t easy. I mean it was only a couple of years later that we met Tommy Mottola, and the experience of struggling was still fresh. It was very easy being in the studio singing “But baby we’ll go on and on; hard times we can get over.” That’s basically what that meant to me.
“Cherchez La Femme” is all about character, plot, and setting. How did you relate to the story in that song?
The lyrics to the songs are all from August Darnell’s head. It’s not just one story. It’s separate stories that he puts together. I’m the woman who worked in the Eighth Avenue bars. I made a lot of money and that paid for all the rehearsals at SIR. It wasn’t cheap. To rent their soundstage to do our showcase was not cheap and so that’s where the “Eighth Avenue bars” line came from.
The original lyrics didn’t have “Tommy Mottola” in them. We wanted to immortalize him, so August changed the lyric to “Tommy Mottola lives on the road”. He did not lose his lady two months ago! August pulls from different aspects of his and other people’s experiences and makes a story out of it. He fictionalizes everything. It’s no different than an author pulling information from his exposure to different parts of his life. That’s pretty much what August does, but he does it with wit. He has a gift for gab that’s amazing and articulates so well in his speech and in his lyrics.
You gave August’s lyrics a language of their own through your voice and I think that’s to your credit, that you made those disparate elements come together in what sounds like one full story, simply by following the melody.
Some of the songs on that album didn’t have a melody. I created them, especially “Cherchez La Femme”. “Cherchez La Femme” was created as a singsong-y type of vocal that really didn’t have a lead arrangement to it, for lack of a better word, and so I did it. I just went in and sang. I created that lead vocal arrangement, so I was sort of a co-writer without being a co-writer.
The whole ending on “Cherchez” — “oh, that’s amora” — was my creation from the Andrews Sisters’ “Aurora”. I also created the vocals on the “Se Si Bon” part. It was fascinating to me that I was able to have the freedom. I’ve heard other vocalists say that they would be in the studio and be told exactly what to sing and how to sing. They were paid just for that service and they didn’t get much credit, so I just feel that I was lucky, not even for the pay, but just to be able to formulate those arrangements and deliver myself to the project without restrictions.
Sandy comes in here too. He was just so delighted with what I was giving to the project because he had felt that it was a lost cause, so did Tommy, so did RCA. They didn’t understand the tracks when they were listening to them. The music industry executives at that time — the white collar boys — had tin ears. They didn’t know what was good and what wasn’t. When you show them a product that is a fusion of so many different sounds, to them they’re probably like “Can you make up your mind what this is?” They didn’t know.
RCA was going to shelve the album or release it and use it as a tax write-off. They released it with no promotion. We owed the record company $500,000. That’s equivalent to five million now. You have to pay for everything. Nothing’s “on the house” but the roof, okay?
Doug Johnson’s artwork on the album cover is so classic and brilliantly captures the spirit of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. What drew you to his work?
We had seen Doug Johnson’s work on Broadway and we knew that to go with the theme of what we needed to deliver, it had to be him. When we met him, we were trying to explain that we wanted it to be light and airy and fun and not a photograph. He just captured everything. His idea of what Dr. Buzzard looked like was this [points to album cover]. This was his interpretation and we loved it. The checkerboard, the bandstand, even the “buzzard” bandleader … we loved everything about it.
When you and I did an interview for Brooklyn Museum’s Studio 54 exhibit last year, you talked about how the gay community on Fire Island really embraced Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band before anyone else. What do you recall about how the album got to Fire Island?
Tommy was very smart. He hired the Caviano brothers. They were just starting out as promoters and they said, “Let’s take this to Fire Island”. I believe it was June 6 that the album was released. By the end of June, they took it to Fire Island. We did promotion on Fire Island. I was wearing stiletto heels on that boardwalk and they kept getting caught between those damn slats. I didn’t know there were no cars and no pavement. Fire Island was paradise, a never-never land, and every house we passed was playing a different cut off the album. They were playing “Cherchez La Femme” and “I’ll Play the Fool” and “Sour and Sweet” at the Monster. It was just like, “This island is all about me!” I loved it!
By September, we were getting airplay because all of the DJ’s from Fire Island brought it to the Loft and all the underground clubs. It just shot out and then RCA started promoting. “I guess this is good. Let’s go with it.” [laughs] Back then, there was no social media so we didn’t realize how popular that album was worldwide. We heard that John Lennon brought the album with him to England. We heard that it was playing in Japan. We just couldn’t fathom all that. It was just an amazing and new experience.
As a matter of fact, I remember we were in the car when we heard “Cherchez” on the air for the first time. We’re screaming out the window “That’s us!” You just burst and then hearing it in the club on those humongous speakers … you have no idea what that feels like after suffering and having holes in your shoes to hearing yourself and seeing the response to it. That’s when I knew that what I really wanted was to be heard.
I also knew that if I’m entertaining myself with the delivery of these vocals, I know I’m entertaining you because we’re one and the same, especially in the disco days where all cultures came together. You had all different skin tones, you had all different cultures, you had all different sexual orientations just all together in one room listening to me. [laughs] And it was fabulous! You know, I come from all different cultures — I am Puerto Rican and Syrian — so for the first time, I was relevant and I could relate.
Earlier, you referred to “Mulatto Madness”. There’s an article from the Village Voice that Carole Cooper wrote where she said how Savannah Band “turned the idea of ‘the tragic mulatto’ (as delineated by Langston Hughes) into a symbol of rebellion”. Did you actually feel a sense of rebellion in adopting “mulatto” as part of Savannah Band’s identity?
It was more of an uprising than a rebellion, though that could be considered rebellion as well. At that time, being bi-racial wasn’t socially accepted, but in our minds, it was the future of the truest form of being an American.
The term “mulatto” did come from a very sad background. Mulattos were called mulattos because, in the days of slavery, slave owners raped their slaves. These were the guys that were filthy rich, the lady of the house turned her back, and so you had bi-racial children working in the fields and treated as slaves. The people who were bi-racial were frowned upon because they were on two sides of the fence, but on neither one side. Even in the ’50s bi-racial marriages were against the law because of fear of miscegenation.
I say I’m Puerto Rican but you have to understand the background of a Puerto Rican. I have a lot of Afro-Puerto Ricans in my family. The skin tone I have came from my mother who took after her father, who was very pale, but my grandmother was very dark. Coming to New York, for my mother, was a big deal. She came from nine children in a family that had an outhouse. They had no money. She was born in 1927. There was a lot of famine going on in Puerto Rico at the time.
Because we wanted to expose the true sound of American music, because Puerto Ricans and Latinos are American, we stole from every genre of American music and we fused that together with our physical and cultural backgrounds. We wanted to keep the American way, and the American way was miscegenation and the fusion of all different sounds of American music, which included jazz, so that’s where we came from.
It wasn’t just Philippé Wynne that I adopted my style from. It was from Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, and all the greats that were the birth of jazz music. I used to listen to Bessie Smith and Mae Barnes and the pain in their voices. The pain in their vocal delivery is kind of pushed aside because nobody wants to know about the African American who suffered.
You just mentioned Ella Fitzgerald. I would love to know how she found her way into your delivery on “You’ve Got Something”.
Through the whole delivery of the song, there was a little element of Ella, but I don’t know what happened. I just had the Ella spirit and I tried to mimic her sound, the way she squeezes the notes with her syrupy voice. That’s what I was trying to achieve. I said, “Let me do Ella in here” and they said, “Do what you want.” I just channeled Ella. [sings] “I betcha the love bug done bit ya.”