Ellen Foley
Photo: Gregg Delman / Courtesy of Prime Mover Media

Ellen Foley Is Back in Swing of Things with ‘Fighting Words’

Ready to release her fifth solo album, New York triple-threat Ellen Foley revisits a career filled with legends of the stage, screen and recording studio, along with “The Thing That Will Never Die”.

Fighting Words
Ellen Foley
Urban Noise Music
6 August 2021

Two Sides of “Paradise” 

Todd Rundgren, emerging in the mid-’70s as an inventive rock ’n’ roll artist with pop and glam leanings, was chosen to produce Bat Out of Hell, which developed from Steinman’s 1977 Neverland,  a reworked version of his first attempt at musical theatre called The Dream Engine

Cast as “Wendy” in the Peter Pan mythology, Foley was praised for her rendition of Steinman’s “Heaven Can Wait” in the show by Neverland director Barry Keating, who commented on an audio clip of the song, “Her performance was one of the most brilliant I have ever seen or heard.” 

On Bat Out of Hell, though, Meat Loaf sang the early favorite that Steinman developed for the album recorded in 1975-76 at various locations. One of them was Rundgren’s Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York, with members of his own group Utopia and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. “We were all in the sessions for a lot of the duration … and [Rundgren] rehearsed the whole band and the singers” in one room, according to Foley, who adds, “I think he’s another great, great talent.” 

Foley was a backing vocalist on three tracks in addition to singing the female lead in the “Paradise” duet with Meat Loaf. She plays a teenage girl resisting the urges of her horny boyfriend. Lasting more than eight minutes, the album’s signature song helped propel Bat Out of Hell to global sales of more than 50 million, with 18 million in the United States after its 1977 release. 

Anyone new she meets who discovers her association to the song will “absolutely freak out”, Foley happily proclaims. “Which is great, I love that. Because I’m really proud of it. … I call it ‘The Thing That Will Never Die’. …  I think it’s so good.” On the flip side, there were repercussions when Foley wasn’t available to join Meat Loaf on tour behind the record after she committed to play the role of Sheila in the Broadway revival of Hair at the Biltmore Theatre in 1977. 

DeVito, who also became part of the Neverland cast, took her place on tour and appeared in the groundbreaking music video, lip-synching Foley’s recorded vocals. “I thought it was a drag at the time,” Foley recalls of the fallout. “Their explanation was, ‘Yeah, well, she’s the one who’s gonna be on tour.’ I felt like I was being punished for not going on tour, which they wanted me to.” 

Told DeVito was “gonna be the face of the thing, so she’s gonna be in the video,” Foley reacted naturally. “I wasn’t interested in logic at the time. I was like, ‘This pisses me right off right here.’ For a long time, people thought she did [the ‘Paradise’ vocal]. I’m sure there’s people who still think she was singing [in the video] but now I don’t care.” (laughs) 

Asked if she has any regrets about how things turned out, Foley replies, “No, not at all because I did my own album at that time, went on tour. I had about a million different things going on at once, as I always did in my career. So I didn’t need to be schlepping around the world singing background for Meat Loaf.” 

If the popularity surrounding “Paradise” is “The Thing That Will Never Die”, the same could be said about the controversy. In the Classic Albums episode for Bat Out of Hell that originally aired on various networks in November 1999 before going to DVD, Foley and DeVito were at least able to laugh about their Meat-grinding roles. 

DeVito: “It was the most-asked question I’m sure of her throughout her career and the same with me. It’s like, well, here’s the story. You know, Ellen sang on the album. She never performed live with it. I performed live. I’m on the video. That’s the deal.”  

Foley: “All things soften with time. And I think most people even with the video know that it was me who sang with the record. Most people who care. (laughs) … So it’s OK.”

Yet Meat Loaf poured fuel on the fire then, saying, “To be perfectly honest, Karla was better on stage than Ellen. And that’s not taking away from Ellen at all. At that moment in time, that was the reality of it.” 

Sounding a bit perturbed after hearing that comment during our interview, Foley responds, “Well, it wasn’t. It’s not true. It’s just not true. That’s his problem, not mine. … I guess he was bitter in some way. It’s definitely not true. She’s good. I mean, she’s really good and I’m great.” (laughs)

Now with Fighting Words’ first single, Foley continues to strengthen her relationship with DeVito, though they were on opposite ends of the country to record their parts for “I’m Just Happy to Be Here”. Because “it’s definitely independent of Meat Loaf,” only adds to Foley’s joy. “… It has nothing to do with him. Except ancient history.”

DeVito, who married actor Robby Benson in 1982, has two grown children and in the ’80s made two studio albums but continues to sing at age 68. She’s now living in Oregon, according to Foley, and they keep in touch via text messaging and FaceTime. 

DeVito’s reaction to their song? “I think she likes it a lot,” her duet partner reports. “I think she’s really happy with it.” 

Ellen Foley
Photo: Gregg Delman / Courtesy of Prime Mover Media

Clash of Titans 

In a way, years before the Meat Loaf episode, Barry Manilow was partly responsible for pushing Foley to become a solo performer. If she ever thought backing another artist was a career objective (admitting she’s had “a terrible ear for harmony” despite recording with artists as varied as Joe Jackson and Blue Oyster Cult), Manilow crushed those dreams during an audition in the early ’70s. “I sang and he goes, ‘Honey, you’re not a backup singer. Go get your own deal,’” Foley recollects with a laugh. “I said, ‘OK, I guess that’s it.’”

By the end of the decade, Foley had a record deal with Epic. Mentioning I pulled out her first three albums — Night Out, Spirit of St. Louis and Another Breath — from a vinyl collection containing LPs by the Clash, Ian Hunter, Joe Jackson, Talking Heads, Lone Justice, and R.E.M., Foley seemed pleased. “All my buddies were in the same bin with me,” she exclaims. “That’s really cool.” 

Night Out, her 1979 solo debut LP, was co-produced by Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter and onetime David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson, a “fabulous” pair who gave her “a great education,” Foley believes. That year, she also began a relationship with Mick Jones of the Clash, providing vocals for three songs on their 1980 triple album Sandinista!, including a duet with him on “Hitsville UK”. 

The English band’s lead guitarist and singer-songwriter then produced 1981’s Spirit of St. Louis, recorded at London’s Wessex Studios, featuring the entire band’s participation and six songs Jones co-wrote with fiery co-leader Joe Strummer. “I was over there [at the time]” Foley remembers. “I owed the record company an album and so we just decided, ‘OK, I’ll stay here and we’ll do this together.’ Which was a nice thing.” 

Though paying homage to her father on the inner sleeve (the inscription reads “FOR JACK FOLEY”), Jones wasn’t identified in a “PRODUCED BY MY BOYFRIEND” reference. Not that anyone was hiding anything. How could they with such a powerful combination of talents? 

The creative blending of the Clash, their punk rock foundation flavored by reggae and ska, with Foley’s pop-rock sensibilities made this record one of my favorites at the time. 

Also playing guitar throughout the album, Jones sang on the vibrant “Torchlight” he co-wrote with Strummer, and frequent Clash collaborator Tymon Dogg also played violin on three tunes he contributed. 

Foley divulges she and Jones were listening to a lot of music by Edith Piaf, leading her to record a version of the French cabaret singer’s “My Legionnaire”. With English lyrics by Carlene Mair, it seems worthy of a Broadway musical treatment. 

Jones “really saw me as the reincarnation of the sad, pathetic, ‘Little Sparrow’ that was Edit Piaf,” Foley reflects with a laugh. “And saw that I could sing that stuff.” 

Foley wasn’t sure how Jones’ bandmates felt about the recording experience, kidding herself while thinking, “They were like, ‘Oh, my God, we’re with this American chick. Why do we have to sing on her record?’ No, I mean, we were all friends and they liked me, I think. I don’t think there was anything offensive about me in terms of what they felt, and people have called it the ‘Lost Clash Album’. But it was very different for them, I think.” 

The relationship with Jones soon ended, though, and Foley confesses, “It wasn’t one of the most favorite parts of my life. But every young person has relationships that are not right. You stick with it or you fight. … Like a billion other people have had tumultuous relationships. I guess that could be called one.” 

If “many believe” their “tumultuous relationship” inspired Jones to write the Clash’s popular 1982 hit “Should I Stay or Should I Go” (parenthetically addressed in her website bio), Foley is here to firmly deny its veracity, saying, “No. It is not [true]. No, it’s not.”