He's the Leader: An Interview with Aretha's "Main Man" Fonzi Thornton
From the Apollo Theater to the Kennedy Center, acclaimed vocalist Fonzi Thornton shares untold stories from his solo career and his prolific stage work with Diana Ross, Bryan Ferry, Aretha Franklin, and other music legends.
December 6, 2015: Fonzi Thornton is standing onstage at the Kennedy Center. The Queen of Soul holds court at the piano. It's the ultimate manifestation of a lifelong dream. As a teenager, Thornton sang Aretha Franklin songs while strolling through Harlem. As a session vocalist, he backed her on the title track to Jump to It (1982). Tonight, he will help shape one of the most unforgettable performances of her career.
Time stands still as Franklin pays tribute to Kennedy Center honoree Carole King with a transcendent rendition of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman". Thornton has brought together vocalists Brenda White-King, Vaneese Thomas, and Franklin's cousin Brenda Corbett for the occasion. The four singers share a special musical language with the Queen. At Franklin's request, they face her during the performance. Their voices blend to perfection.
Three weeks later, CBS broadcasts the Kennedy Center Honors. The cameras capture the crowd's visceral reaction to Franklin's voice. Every word and every gesture sparks a sense of awe. The New York Times devotes an entire article to Franklin's four minutes onstage. The clip itself goes viral on social media.
Even after presiding as Franklin's vocal contractor a full decade before her passing in 2018, Thornton recognized the singularity of her Kennedy Center appearance. "Just being a part of that night, for Aretha to drop her fur on the stage, and get a standing ovation, was one of the most chilling things that's ever happened in my whole career," he says. "It was amazing to see Barack and Michelle Obama in the balcony with Barack shedding a tear, and Carole King jumping up and down, and Viola Davis looking like she was going to jump off the balcony because she was so excited."
Thornton had spent a lifetime preparing for that moment, but it's not only his vocal talent that blazed a pathway from East Harlem to the Kennedy Center. It's his intuition. He knows, instinctively, what an artist needs to hear from background singers and how to get there.
That innate talent blossomed in the Johnson Projects where Thornton spent hours listening to R&B/gospel station WWRL-AM and playing his mother's 78's on a console phonograph. He sat mesmerized as his own collection of children's records spun around on colored vinyl. "I think those records were very influential and helped me decipher what instruments were playing and what voices were singing what," he says. "All of that helped me later on as I became a songwriter and a vocal arranger, just that awareness of the elements of a record."
With a prodigious command of his voice, Thornton began singing solos at Second Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem as early as five years old. Coming of age during Motown's ascent on the airwaves, he cultivated a sensibility for hooks and melodies by singing along to his favorite Motown records, including the Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go", Martha & the Vandellas' "(Love Is Like a) Heatwave", and Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "You're All I Need to Get By".
"Fonzi has always been a class act since we met as kids through my first cousin who lived in the same East Harlem project that he lived in," says Janice Pendarvis, SAG-AFTRA National Board Member and Chair of the National Singers Committee. "I knew him as 'Alfonso'. Many years later, I was surprised to find out that the Alfonso I used to ask my cousin to find was the Fonzi I worked with and had known for years as an industry powerhouse. Fonzi grew from being the most delightfully charming little boy to being one of the most charming, worldly, poised, and professional pro singers and vocal contractors that I know. I'm so happy for him."
Thornton began his career at New York's legendary Apollo Theater. While attending Horace Mann School on a scholarship from seventh through 12th grade, he joined Listen My Brother, a repertory group of young singers and musicians founded by Apollo manager Peter Long. Thornton and his peers learned their craft by watching headliners like Wilson Pickett, Dionne Warwick, James Brown, Donny Hathaway, and Nancy Wilson. They opened for Sly & the Family Stone at the Apollo and even performed on Sesame Street. Working with producers Van McCoy and Joe Cobb, the group's single "Only Love Can Make a Better World" marked Thornton's first vocal appearance on record.
During his studies at Columbia University, Thornton formed his own eponymously named vocal trio Fonzi with singers Michelle Cobbs-Hardy and Ednah Holt. He rechristened the group F360 and welcomed Carole Sylvan into the lineup following Holt's departure for a solo career and her brief stint with the Ritchie Family. Both configurations of the trio became a New York attraction, recording demos with producers Larry Blackmon (Cameo) and Billy Jackson (the Tymes), before singing background for Melba Moore at the Metropolitan Opera House, touring with Candi Staton in the UK, and opening for boxing champion Joe Frazier in Las Vegas.
"It was such an amazing adventure being on the road and traveling with Fonzi," says Michelle Cobbs-Hardy. "I've known Fonzi since I was 17 years old. I met him through Nat Adderley, Jr. because Nat and I went to school together. God is good because He placed Fonzi in my life at such the right time. He kind of catapulted my career to places where I didn't necessarily think I would go. I learned so much throughout my years singing with him. He's so talented and he knows exactly what he wants. Fonzi is a gem of a man. He is my very best friend. He is so humble and thoughtful. He is so real. He is all of those things. I can't sing his praises enough."
Beyond his own group, Thornton helped power songs to number one on the pop, R&B, and dance charts. Beginning with CHIC's Risqué (1979) album, he became a staple of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards' CHIC Organization, whether rounding out the lead vocals on "Good Times" and "My Forbidden Lover" or furnishing backgrounds with Alfa Anderson, Luci Martin, and Michelle Cobbs-Hardy on "Upside Down", "I'm Coming Out", and other key tracks that Rodgers and Edwards produced for Diana Ross on diana (1980). Change producers Jacques Fred Petrus and Mauro Malavasi also enlisted Thornton for background work on the group's chart-topping dance hit "Paradise" as well as writing collaborations on Top 40 R&B singles by the Ritchie Family ("I'll Do My Best") and High Fashion ("Feelin' Lucky Lately").
The trajectory of Thornton's career didn't follow a conventional route, however. By the time the Philadelphia Daily News deemed him "a major force to contend with" upon the release of his self-produced solo debut for RCA Records, The Leader (1983), he was already an established "leader" in the community of New York studio singers. His work as a prolific, first-call session vocalist ultimately fueled his greatest success. Indeed, albums by Roberta Flack, Donald Fagen, Robert Palmer, Carly Simon, Mariah Carey, David Bowie, Teddy Pendergrass, Celine Dion, and countless other solo acts all featured his vocal imprint.
Thornton's versatility in musical genres and loyalty towards artists is perhaps best exemplified by his ongoing 40-year association with Bryan Ferry. Ever since singing background on Roxy Music's classic Avalon (1982), Thornton has worked with Ferry in several capacities, from his appearance at "Live Aid" (1985) to Roxy Music's 2019 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, plus several of Ferry's solo albums, including Avonmore (2014). In fact, Thornton had been touring regularly with Ferry over the past ten years just before COVID-19 shut down the touring industry.
To this day, Thornton is among the most respected vocalists in the industry. He fosters a spirit of camaraderie that has helped other singers shine onstage and in the studio. "Fonzi was one of the first singers that I met when I came to New York," says Alfa Anderson. "He was the first person who told me this was something that I could actually do, that I could follow my passion and live my dream. He introduced me to the movers and shakers in New York who were actually doing this — singing — for a living. Not only did he say it but he supported me to make that happen. I can remember the countless conversations we had about studio work and about performing. He definitely began to mold me into a professional artist.
"When Aretha performed at the Kennedy Center, I was glued to the television. While others were talking about how great Aretha was, and indeed she was great, I was mesmerized by the absolutely brilliant background vocal arrangement that I immediately recognized as the work of Fonzi Thornton. I'm just so happy that Fonzi is being celebrated for all of his accomplishments."
Fonzi Thornton's story is unique in a profession that is uniquely misunderstood. Background vocalists occupy a space that is integral to popular music yet still largely unheralded by the general public and even other musicians. "The thing about being a background singer that people don't understand is that it's not by default," he says. "Background singing is a skill. Most of your lead singers cannot harmonize, cannot sing with precision, cannot sing in unison or do the fall-offs, and so on. It's a skill that most people don't have. My career as a side person and as a session person, along with all the other things that I've done as a solo artist and as a writer, is the reason I'm sitting here today."
PopMatters had the pleasure of joining Thornton on a recent afternoon where the vocalist offered a rare glimpse into all facets of his recording and performing career as a singer, songwriter, and producer. From his training at the Apollo to joining the Queen of Soul on the world stage, there are many reasons why Fonzi Thornton became, and continues to be, "the leader" ...
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I'd love to begin with the first time I saw you perform onstage. It was in 2004 and you were singing "Then Came You" as a duet with Dionne Warwick at the We Are Family Foundation benefit. Thinking back to that night, I'd love to know what place Dionne holds for you as an artist coming of age during the 1960s.
Singing with Dionne that night at Nile's event was a highlight for me. First of all, Dionne Warwick's voice has the most gorgeous tonality. As a vocalist, she knows how to caress a lyric and make it her own. Burt Bacharach and Hal David often wrote intricate phrasings and melodies, and Dionne was adept at handling them all. Growing up, I always admired how easily her voice flows through her classic recordings. This lady grew up singing gospel at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, NJ but she, out of artists — black or white — during that time, had more pop hits than most everyone. Her success really sort of helped bring the idea of crossover to the forefront.
Dionne's songs, with those breezy melodies, bridged a gap between pop and soul and gave music a wider appeal. "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?", "Alfie", "You'll Never Get to Heaven", etc., were not the usual R&B songs. They appealed to everyone, so we all aspired to be like Dionne. She carved a niche that nobody else had done before that time and really after, until maybe her cousin Whitney.
Growing up in East Harlem, when did you first become aware of the Apollo Theater?
My mother and father used to go to the Apollo to see Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, and also the Jewel Box Revue, a well-known drag show at that time. This was when I was very young, or probably before I was born. Just an awareness of the Apollo being the entertainment mecca in Black music, particularly here on the east coast, was something that was always in my home. When you passed by the Apollo marquee, it was almost like passing by the door to Oz.
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio
It's perfect that you said "Oz" because when I interviewed André De Shields recently — Mr. Wiz himself — he talked about how seeing all of the acts perform in the Motown Revue at the Royal Theatre in Baltimore was like seeing his life unfold in front of him. How did Motown impact your own musical development?
Well, the biggest impact in my entire career — watching the Motown artists on TV — brought to mind that young Black artists could actually have a hit record on radio and sing it on TV. I watched The Ed Sullivan Show, Shindig!, and Hollywood Palace every time the Supremes or the Temptations were on. We live in a world now where people can go on YouTube anytime and see any of their favorite artists. Back then, you only had records, so you had to use your imagination about what the artists were going to look like in person, what they were going to do as performers.
I remember hearing an announcement on the radio, "Starring at Fordham University ... the Supremes with Gladys Knight & the Pips!" I asked my mother "Can I go?" I was probably 13 or 14 years old. She normally didn't let me go just anyplace alone, but she allowed me to go. "Just be careful. Go up on the subway." So, I went to see the Supremes and Gladys Knight & the Pips. It was my very first concert.
The experience was life-changing. Gladys Knight & the Pips opened. Gladys' rich alto voice singing "Every Beat of My Heart" and "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" was so soulful. The Pips had this polished precision about how they did their steps and how they supported Gladys with their tight harmonies.
After the intermission, I remember hearing, "Ladies and gentlemen ... the Supremes!", and just seeing Florence, Mary, and Diana come out. It was astounding to be there. The Supremes were so glamorous, it was crazy. How could they have three girls that look this good that can sing this well together? My excitement at seeing these sophisticated Black entertainers in person, performing hit songs from the radio and TV, made a huge impression on me. Their confidence, their class, the obviously well-rehearsed performance, the tightness of the band, everything being just so, was an example of how Motown took special care in how they groomed and presented their acts.
That night I saw my destiny — "Wouldn't it be amazing to have a life as a performer, singing songs you love and communicating to people!" The Supremes with Gladys Knight & the Pips gave that to me that night.
I'm a real Motown baby. Holland, Dozier, and Holland (HDH), hands down, were my songwriting heroes. Norman Whitfield and Ashford & Simpson were also my favorites but my songwriting was inspired by HDH. Their melodies and hooks were always catchy and easy to sing along with and their songs always told complete stories. The Funk Brothers, Motown's Super Band, provided that driving beat anchored by James Jamerson's genius basslines, along with those tambourines, saxophone accents, and terrific vocal parts.
Whether it was Martha Reeves singing "Nowhere to Run" or Wanda Rogers of the Marvelettes singing "Don't Mess With Bill" or Levi Stubbs with that shouty, almost operatic voice singing "Bernadette" and "Reach Out I'll Be There", HDH knew how to pull your heartstrings while making you move. Years later, as I wrote for the Jones Girls and the Ritchie Family, some of the elements that were successful in those songs were things that I learned as a child listening to HDH.
The love of Motown was something you and Luther Vandross shared in common. I'd love to hear the story about how you met and solidified your friendship as well as your musical connection with each other.
I grew up in East Harlem, New York City, in the Johnson Projects, which are still there, and I went to church at Second Canaan Baptist Church, 111th St. and Lenox Avenue. A girl I went to church with, who was my first singing partner, was named Rudenia Spencer. We called her Deanie. Deanie called me up one day and said, "You know, there's this guy I go to Taft High School with that you need to know. His name is Luther Vandross." I said, "Vandross? That's a weird name. Why do I need to know him?" She said, "Because he's a singer. You're a singer. You guys should just know each other."
Luther was probably fifteen at the time. Unbeknownst to me, he had a vocal group that he had started called the Shades of Jade. There's an artist named Cal Tjader who had an album called Several Shades of Jade (1963) so Luther borrowed the name from that. They'd been doing school talent shows and had been on the Apollo "Amateur Night" once before. Deanie gave Luther my phone number and he called me up. He said, "There's a guy in my group who's leaving. I heard you're a really good singer, so come over and sing." Shades of Jade rehearsed at Luther's sister Ann's house. She lived across the street from me in the projects, so I went over and sang for him. That day I also met Bruce Wallace and his cousin Gail Matthews who were already in the group. Luther said, "Oh, this is great! You can harmonize and you can sing lead and stuff. Join the group!"
The uniform the Shades wore were these lime green Tom Jones-style shirts with long collars, black pants, and these lime green patent leather shoes. Hysterical! Luther said, "If you want to be in the group, you got to get the uniform." I said, "Well how much does this cost?" He said, "The shoes cost $22," which was a lot of money at that time. I said, "My mother has $25 that she's holding for me. I'll ask her if she'll give me the money for the shoes."
I went home and asked my mother. She said, "I'm not giving you no $25 for no shoes!" I went back to Luther and told him my mother was not going to give me the money for the shoes. He called her on the phone and said, "Ms. Thornton, I know you don't know me but I'm Luther, and Fonzi's going to join my group, so he needs to have the money to get the shoes." My mother, obviously taken aback by this teenager's chutzpah, gave me the money! I realized then if he has this kind of influence with adults and he's a kid, I guess we're gonna be friends for the rest of our lives.
So I got into the Shades of Jade. We began rehearsing three maybe four times a week, often at my mother's house. After rehearsal, my mother would normally say, "Luther do you want to stay and eat?" He'd say, "Yes, Ms. Thornton." So we really grew up like brothers. Eating at each other's houses, listening to and learning music, just really influencing each other and staying out of trouble. We were best friends for 40-plus years. For people who've never had a best friend and don't know what that is, it's like having a brother from another mother. Luther was like a big brother because he was wise and generally fearless, not that he was a know-it-all, but he had vision and definite ideas about what he liked, especially when it came to music. Everybody that ever came around him was usually attracted to his musical intuition and big sense of humor.We would be walking around Harlem dreaming, talking about music, and harmonizing to the songs of the Temptations, the Delfonics, or Aretha, especially the parts the Sweet Inspirations sang on her records. That's how the Shades of Jade almost wound up on "Amateur Night" one time. We were standing in front of the Apollo Theater marquee harmonizing and the guy who's usually in charge of signing groups up for "Amateur Night" said, "You guys want to come on the show tonight?" Although Bruce's cousin Gail was missing, we said, "Yeah!" He said, "Come back in an hour." We went back to my mom's house to change. My brother-in-law had some clothes there so we put one of his shirts on Luther. I put on my regular clothes. Bruce borrowed something of mine and we went back to the theater to be on "Amateur Night". Unfortunately, we didn't get on that night because there were already too many contestants. We did go back two other times and came in second place.
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio
You began visiting the Apollo almost on a daily basis after joining Peter Long's Listen My Brother. Describe the audition process for that group.
The Listen My Brother Revue was a repertory group of five male and five female singers and a five-piece band. Most were teenagers, a few young adults. Bruce and Luther had been at the Apollo and seen this revue of young people come onstage as the opening act singing these original soul/gospel-flavored songs about Black empowerment. They were just a little bit older than we were. Bruce said to Luther, "You sing better than all of them. You should get in that group."
They later found out that Listen My Brother was also an on-site workshop for young artists operated and managed by Peter Long, one of the managers of the Apollo. They found out the group rehearsed in the Apollo basement, right under the theater, several times a week. Luther went down to audition and got into the group. Slowly he started bringing other talented friends down to audition — first, his schoolmates Robin Clark and Diane Sumler. Next, he brought me down to audition. I don't even remember what I sang. I just remember at the end of it, Pete said, "You sound pretty good. Come back tomorrow." We rehearsed every day from 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm.
The songs were all original music about being young and Black and, basically, coming up during those times when Black folks were challenging the status quo, engaging in cultural revolution, trying to solidify our rights, our position in society, all of those things. Most of the songs were written by Edgar Kendricks, who was a respected gospel singer. One song called "I'm Gonna Make It" started off with a theatrical drama where a protagonist would taunt us ("y'all ain't never gonna make it"). Several of us would take turns declaring how we're gonna succeed because of determination and Black pride — then we went into song. Another song "Where is Tomorrow" was about dreaming big and hopes for the future. One of the most powerful Listen My Brother songs "Move Out of Our Way" became our mantra — "Every day we're moving up, each day we're stepping up higher. We're gonna make it to the top. Move, move out of our way." Of course, there was a theme song called "Listen My Brother".
When I first interviewed Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar back in 2015, they talked about how Listen My Brother performed on the pilot episode of Sesame Street. What do you recall about appearing on Sesame Street?
I wasn't on the pilot episode. I appeared in the second year's performance. We went on and sang four original songs — "Children are Beautiful", "Count to 20", "The ABC Song", "The Parts of the Body". We danced and sang all over the set. I had a step out on the "ABC" song where I sang while walking on the wall outside Susan and Gordon's brownstone apartment. The most amazing thing was to see Big Bird standing there but nobody manipulating him, or to see Oscar the Grouch in the garbage can just staring up at you. Then you would see someone go behind the can and all of a sudden the puppet came to life.
For us to be able to perform on Sesame Street was unbelievable because it was my first time on television. After seeing the Motown artists on TV, getting a chance to be on Sesame Street filled me with optimism and I felt like we were on our way. It was really a very heady time because we were teenagers. I remember we got paid $500. It was really exciting because all my mother's neighbors would tell her, "We saw your son on TV!"
What did you learn from your experience in Listen My Brother that helped you prepare for a professional career in music?
Listen My Brother helped me develop my craft as a performer. I learned the value of rehearsal. Pete used to say "as you rehearse, so shall you perform". Besides increasing our skills of singing close harmony, we learned choreography, developed stage presence whether singing or reciting. We learned how to stand at the mic with good posture and proper microphone technique: where to look while you're performing — not looking down — making occasional eye contact with audience members but always directing your performance to the back wall, keeping your face uplifted so the entire audience can see your eyes and feel you communicating with your entire countenance. I learned a lot down in that basement under the Apollo.
In Listen My Brother, most of us sang lead. Luther had written a song called "My Son is Going to Be Free", which was my solo song in the show. It was an amazing situation as a young person to get a chance to come someplace several times a week for free and learn how to be in showbiz. Pete would invite Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles down to talk to us. Donny Hathaway came down to speak with us. Dionne came down to speak, just to give us some insight about performing and encouragement to go for it.
One great thing about being in Listen My Brother was that Pete was our manager but very much a mentor. I was probably one of the only people in the group who actually had my mother and father at home. Some people had single-parent homes so Pete was a father figure. He was very stern and tough but pushed you to be excellent. His thing was you couldn't be in the group if you weren't getting good grades in school. If you were out of school, you had to have a job. Otherwise, you couldn't be down there.
The coolest thing of all with Listen My Brother was we would get the opportunity to go in and see the show after school since Pete was the manager at the theater. Every single week when there was a new show, we were allowed to come and sit in the audience and see the matinee, sometimes the evening show, for whoever it was, be it James Brown, Nancy Wilson, or Nina Simone. Pete always wanted us to go and study Nancy Wilson's phrasing and Dionne Warwick's microphone technique. During those days, Chuck Jackson ("Any Day Now"), Jerry Butler ( "Western Union Man"), and the really exciting singers like Wilson Pickett ("Funky Broadway") or the Temptations' David Ruffin ("Ain't Too Proud to Beg") or Dennis Edwards ("Papa Was a Rollin' Stone") really caught my attention.
It was incredible to actually grow up at the Apollo Theater and to get a chance to perform on that famous stage. Listen My Brother opened for Sly & the Family Stone at the Apollo and, later, we opened for Isaac Hayes at Philharmonic Hall. We were young people getting the opportunity to perform on professional stages and view it all from the inside as we aspired to become world-class musicians.
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio
Did Listen My Brother ever record in the studio?
Listen My Brother had only one professional recording that we ever did. It was a song that Van McCoy and Joe Cobb wrote called "Only Love Can Make a Better World". The soloists were Robin Clark on the first verse and myself on the second verse. The flip side was "Listen My Brother", the theme song of the revue.
Van McCoy, who later became known for his hit "The Hustle", had a portable tape recorder that I was always admiring in the little bit of time that I was around him. In order to teach me the verse, he said, "I'm going to record your part on this tape. Take it home and learn it." I took it home and I learned it. The next day we went in the studio, I sang my verse, and he gave me the tape recorder!
Having a tape recorder changed my life as a songwriter. It allowed me to develop and retain my lyric and melody ideas. I could record a line on the tape recorder and then sing along with it in harmony! It was a new frontier — singing in harmony with myself. To this day, I keep a recorder close by for rehearsals, vocal arrangement ideas, etc. My songwriting really came into being after Listen My Brother when I started my group Fonzi.
It's interesting that you had a group called "Fonzi" before Luther had a group called "Luther". What was the genesis of Fonzi?
We were in Listen My Brother a couple of years, maybe three, something like that. We did Sesame Street. The show decided that they were going to do a summer tour called "Happy Time". They wanted to do children's concerts around the country and Canada. It would feature "Susan" [Loretta Long] and "Bob" [Bob McGrath], and some of the smaller puppets on the show like Cookie Monster. They invited me to go on the tour as one of three background singers. My very first professional background gig was on the Sesame Street tour.
I had graduated from Horace Mann School in Riverdale and gotten a scholarship to Columbia University. I went to Columbia and Bruce Wallace had been helping me sort of decide what I was going to do singing-wise after Listen My Brother. I sang a song or two as a solo at a local Miss Black America pageant but wasn't excited by the prospect. Bruce said, "Let's put together a group and you'll be the lead singer."
My name is Alfonso Thornton, no middle name. My mother started calling me Fonzi when I was less than one year old. Growing up, kids in school called me "Al". It was always funny when someone called my mother's house and said, "Can I speak to Al please?" My mother would say, "Fonzi!" The next day I'd get to school and everyone would say [teasing] "Fahhn-zee!" We decided that the group was going to be called "Fonzi" because it was such a unique name, so Michelle Cobbs, Ednah Holt, and Alfonso Thornton became "Fonzi".
At what point did you actually meet Ednah and Michelle?
There was a large ornate study hall on the first floor at Columbia University that had a grand piano in it. Bruce and I decided that we were going to just politely take over the corner of the room near the piano to audition some girls. I had asked Nat Adderley, Jr. who I knew from Listen My Brother and was attending High School of Music and Art, if he could recommend any girls that could sing. Michelle Cobbs came in with this huge Afro, this tight snatched body, and sang Roberta Flack's song "Reverend Lee". Luther played the piano. I said, "Oh, that's her!" She was the first person.
I had also put up an ad on a bulletin board at Manhattan School of Music just blocks from Columbia. Ednah Holt saw it. She came in and sang a rendition of "Didn't We" then sang all of these really high notes at the end. She was this incredible soprano. She's the first girl I ever heard outside of Minnie Riperton that could sing those high notes. This is before Mariah Carey or Lisa Fischer had been heard of.
I wanted to develop a nightclub act, but not in terms of being specifically "Las Vegas" because we also had an ethnic/urban flair. The girls sometimes wore geles or wore their heads wrapped. Bruce was a choreographer and a gymnast, so he kept us well-trained. We were always rehearsing and body conditioning. It was an amazing time.
There's a 1975 article in the New York Times about the resurgence of cabarets in New York. Places like Reno Sweeney, the Grand Finale, Les Mouches, and the Bottom Line were becoming some of the go-to places for live music. Give me a tour of the venues where Fonzi performed in the early days.
Early on we did shows at the Afro-American Studio, an acting school on W. 127th St. with a small theater that had been offered as a home base by friend and director Ernie McClintock. For two years we gave shows with our band and developed our act there, playing my original songs and some arrangements of popular songs. We started to gain a following around Harlem. We played Small's Paradise a couple of times. There was another smaller venue called Showmans, right down from the Apollo, where Carl Hall actually came down to see us. There was a nightclub on Broadway called the Seafood Playhouse where we appeared several times. Leviticus, near Herald Square, was another club that we performed at quite a bit. There was a club in Brooklyn called Pete's Restaurant where we used to appear all the time.
It was during a time when it didn't seem that anybody else was trying to do what we were trying to do. In fact, I was the first among my friends who wound up in show business, to have my own act. A lot of the music we sang were songs that I was writing and a few that Luther wrote for us. He was actually the bandleader for my group Fonzi! This is what people don't know — he directed the band.
I think everybody in town that I knew at one point came in and played in my band. Carlos Alomar, Nat Adderley, Jr., Ray Chew, Steve Jordan ... they all played for me at one time while we were all up-and-coming. I was really trying to put this act over. My ultimate dream was to get the group recorded and to perform in Las Vegas or high-end night clubs nationwide à la the top Motown acts.
One of your earliest credits as a songwriter is on an album by the Tymes called Tymes Up (1976). How had your songwriting grown since getting that tape recorder from Van McCoy during Listen My Brother?
The very first song that I wrote was after I put together my group Fonzi. It was called "Crazy". We sang it onstage, but it was never recorded. Then I wrote a song called "My Man Has Gone Away" for Ednah's soprano voice and I wrote a song for Michelle called "Gettin' in the Wind", which was sort of a sassy soul song about "You cheating on me, well I'm gettin' in the wind. I've got to move." "Gettin' in the wind" meant "I'm leaving you". Those were my earliest songs.
I really wanted to get my group recorded and felt I had been writing some good songs. Luther introduced me to this producer named Billy Jackson, whose office was at a music publishing house called Music Maximus at 1619 Broadway. We went down to audition for him. Billy really liked my songs and he really liked the Fonzi vocal group. He wanted to sign us to a production deal, which he did.
Billy took us down to Philadelphia to the famous Sigma Sound Studios and the group recorded three songs I wrote. One song was "Get Into Life", another was called "Life For Me Ain't Been No Crystal Stair" based on the Langston Hughes poem, and a third song called "Let Me Into Your Life". We recorded our demos, and Richie Rome, who was a top arranger on the Philadelphia music scene, did the string and horn arrangements. In fact, the Ritchie Family was named after Richie Rome.
At the time that I met Billy, he was working on the Tymes' new album. They had a song on the radio called "You Little Trustmaker" that sounded like the Spinners and was sort of popular. Billy said to me, "Fonzi, I really like your songs. You know that song you've got called 'To the Max'? I want to record it on the Tymes." He recorded "To the Max" on Tymes Up. That was the first song I wrote that was professionally recorded and released. There was another song that appeared on Tymes Up called "God's Gonna Punish You" that Billy asked me to finish with him.
When I interviewed Melba Moore recently, we talked about how she was the first solo black female pop artist to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House. I was so surprised to learn that Fonzi sang background for Melba Moore at the Met.
By that time, we had changed the name of the group, which I'll come back to, but at that time it was me, Michelle, and Carole Sylvan. We had pictures of ourselves all over the city because they would hang pictures of up-and-coming artists in the record shops. Charles Huggins, who was Melba's husband, owned a club on 125th Street called Charles' Gallery that we had appeared in a few times. Knowing that Melba was going to be at the Met, Charles called Bruce, who was managing us, and said, "Do you think Fonzi and them want to sing background for Melba on this gig?" I said, "Yeah, of course, we do!"
It was certainly one of the top gigs that we had at that time, the Met at Lincoln Center being one of the most prestigious venues in New York. I vaguely remember being in a rehearsal studio with Melba's band, and Melba coming in and going over songs like "I Got Love", "Lean On Me", "Purlie", and others. Melba held the audience in the palm of her hand. For her great big voice to ring out on a classical stage was quite a spectacular thing. She always held the longest notes in the world! Coincidentally, I've recently seen online a picture from that night of me, Melba, Carole, Michelle, and Bruce that was originally printed in the Amsterdam News.
One of the funniest things that happened during that experience was, I had gotten tickets for my mother and father. They sat in the balcony. My mother said, "Well I don't understand why she had you back there standing with the orchestra. We couldn't even see you!" I said, "Ma, this is her show! Not ours."
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio
You mentioned that when you performed with Melba, the group wasn't called Fonzi anymore. What happened to the name?
While we were still called "Fonzi", a friend called me up and said, "Have you seen there's this guy on TV that has your name?" I said, "What are you talking about?" He said, "This guy who wears a leather jacket. He has your name. He's calling himself Fonzi." I said, "Are you serious?" Fonzi was a very unique name. I didn't know anybody else named Fonzi. I saw "the Fonz" on Happy Days. The first time somebody introduced me as Fonzi and someone said "aaay" like that, it tripped me out. I hated that shit. I said, "Listen, I certainly have not spent all of this time with this name for someone to act like I got this name from this cartoon character!"
Ednah Holt, who was in the group, had wanted to do some solo things. She went on to have a couple of hit dance records, became the lead singer of the Ritchie Family for a while, and worked with Talking Heads. We needed to find another woman, so Carole Sylvan came in and auditioned for us. She was gorgeous. She had amazing stage presence and she could sing all those supersonic high notes. I said, "Okay so she's the one." We had to come up with a new name. We decided that we were going to call the group "F360" (Fonzi 360 Degrees) which represented moving forward.
I never really was completely sold on the name "F360". It felt futuristic or like a race car and didn't seem like the kind of name a nightclub act might have. On the other hand, the Temptations were formerly the Primes, the Supremes were formerly the Primettes, Labelle was formerly Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles, so I thought maybe changing our name is what I'm supposed to be doing. When we became F360, bigger stuff started happening in our career, beginning with Melba's show at the Met.
Sidebar: as I started coming up in the business, and my name started to appear on album credits, I didn't like the way that "Alfonso Thornton" looked. I thought it was just too much, so Bruce said, "Why don't you just call yourself Fonzi?" I started calling myself Fonzi and "Fonzi Thornton" became my credit.
When you and I spoke recently about your cover of the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" on The Leader you mentioned that F360 had originally recorded that with Larry Blackmon and the group Cameo. How did you connect with Larry Blackmon?
Bruce was acquainted with Cameo's manager and he began talking up F360 to him. Their manager began mentioning my group to Larry. I didn't know that Larry and the guys were looking for a vocal group to produce. I think Larry had seen a picture of F360 in a record shop and was aware that we were an up-and-coming group in the city, so we went to audition for him and his band. That was the day I met [Cameo members] Tomi Jenkins and Wayne Cooper.
Larry really liked us. He signed us to his production company with the idea to get us a deal. He wrote two songs, one called "Back Seat Lover" and another called "Let the Light Shine In". I had written a song called "I've Got It All". Then I also wanted to do a cover of the Ronettes song "Be My Baby". Larry and Cameo had worked out funky arrangements to record. We went to maybe two rehearsals and then went in and recorded the four demos.
Larry was really interested in trying to get us the deal, but that's when Cameo began to hit. They got really really busy. They just didn't have the time to continue the project, so it never developed into a full-fledged recording deal. I always used to run into Larry and Cameo when I was on the road with CHIC because sometimes we'd be on the same bill. The song "Be My Baby" stayed on my heart so Robert Wright and I created an arrangement I loved and later put it on The Leader album. I remember Ellie Greenwich, who wrote the song, calling me to say how much she loved my version.
There's a great a clip of F360 singing in a Miller Lite TV ad with Joe Frazier. I'd love to know how Joe found you for that commercial.
Carl Hall was one of my patron saints. In the '70s, Carl Hall and Tasha Thomas were the top background and jingle singers in the city, along with Patti Austin, Cissy Houston, and a few others, but Carl Hall (who sang soprano) and Tasha Thomas were also in demand as a team. I'd met Carl through someone who told him that I was a singer and had a group. He came down to Showmans on 125th Street to see us sing. He said, "You guys really sound good. I'm going to keep you in mind for some things that come up."
Soon after, he called up Bruce and said, "I want your group to go down there and audition for Candi Staton." We went down and sang for Candi. She hired us and we went on tour with her. We did the chitlin' circuit spots with her, mostly weekends. We were with her when she opened for Rudy Ray Moore a few times.
Just as work with Candi slowed down, Carl Hall came back to me again and said, "There's somebody else I want y'all to go down and audition for. This might be sort of a strange gig for you but go down and audition." We went down to this rehearsal studio on Broadway. Henry LeTang and his wife had a dance school there. We waited for whoever this was that was coming in. This huge person in this huge fur coat came in. We finally realized it was Joe Frazier and that we were auditioning for him.
Even though Joe was a Heavyweight boxing champ, he fancied himself a singer. He had spent a lot of money putting together a nightclub act with a plan to play nightclub and hotel chains across the country including Las Vegas. He loved what we were doing. We opened his show singing three or four songs as F360 and then sang background for him. We sang in mid-size night clubs and top hotels all around the country. Now, Joe had previously had a group called the Knockouts. We were not the Knockouts. There was one person in town who had teased me one time, "Oh you're singing with Joe Frazier and the Knockouts, huh? He can't sing. Why are you doing that?" Well, when we did a stint with him at a hotel on the Vegas strip called the Hacienda, part of my dream for my group to perform in Las Vegas was realized. Once I got with Joe, I never worked another nine-to-five job.
The following year, when I found out that Joe was going to be doing a Miller Lite commercial, I thought this is why we're working with Joe because my main objective was I wanted the group to be seen. When Joe told me he wanted us on the commercial with him he said, "I don't know what we're going to do. Do you have any ideas about this?" I knew I had to get us in. I wanted us to have a chance to be on TV. The ad agency sent the copy for the commercial — [sings] "When you order a beer, do like Smoking Joe ..." — and I just arranged it and taught it to the girls and taught Joe the lead.
We went down and filmed it at a bar on the Bowery while singing totally acappella. Michelle and Carole wore black sequined gowns and I wore a black tuxedo and big bowtie. It was the most amazing thing we'd ever done. Plus we made a ton of money from residuals. F360 was starting to do things that were bigger and more important than Fonzi [the group] had ever done. This is also when I first met Debbie McDuffie, a prominent producer and writer who gave me a leg up in the jingle business. I started doing many radio and TV spots that she was producing.
You mentioned touring with Candi Staton. Is that how you were contracted to arrange "When You Wake Up Tomorrow"?
Yes. We were gigging with her and traveling around a bit. In fact, Candi was the first person that ever took me out of the country on tour. We went to England to open for the Stylistics with her. We worked off and on with her for awhile longer. Then it came up that she was going to be doing her new album called Chance (1979). They said, "We have this one song 'When You Wake Up Tomorrow' and we just don't know what to do with it. Do you have any ideas?" I took the song home and started coming up with those parts you hear and taught it to the girls. We went back to the studio the next day. Jimmy Simpson, Valerie's brother, was producing the album and we recorded "When You Wake Up Tomorrow", a song called "I Took a Chance on Love", "Me and My Music", and a few other things.
"When You Wake Up Tomorrow" was my first vocal arrangement on a record and one of the first real professional recording sessions F360 had done. It was also the last gig we did together as F360.
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio
You and Michelle Cobbs began singing with CHIC on their album Risqué (1979). It's fascinating to me how you brought this established vocal blend that started in the group Fonzi, morphed into F360, and then ultimately helped crystallize the CHIC vocal sound. How were you brought into the CHIC Organization?
This is one of my favorite stories. Back to the Sesame Street tour: when we went on tour that summer, it was me, a girl named Laura Figueroa, and a guy named Manny. We were the three singers and Carlos Alomar was playing guitar. A guy named John Moody played bass. I don't recall who the other players were.
Mid-tour, Carlos got called to work in the Apollo Theater band. He left and Nile Rodgers came in and took his place. Me and Nile were roommates when we were teenagers on the road during the Sesame Street tour. After that tour, I used to go up to the Bronx and sing lead for Nile with these fusion bands that he was working with.
Fast forward to 1977, Nile and Bernard Edwards were playing in a band for a gig at Radio City. During intermission between the shows, they went to the studio and recorded "Everybody Dance". Nile had called Luther who brought in Diva Gray, David Lasley, Robin Clark, and Alfa Anderson to sing on the first CHIC (1977) album and on the second CHIC album, C'est CHIC (1978).
When Bernard and Nile decided they were going to put original lead singer Norma Jean Wright out as a soloist, they approached Alfa about taking Norma's place as the lead singer. Alfa began working with Bruce Wallace. Since Bruce was a choreographer and an artist development person, Alfa wanted to develop her persona as the lead singer. I was seeing her all the time and she said to me, "Bernard wants to call you." I didn't know Bernard. I knew Nile. I said, "About what?" She said, "Because we need to add singers to supplement what Luci and I are doing. They want our live vocals to have the power and soul of the records."
So Bernard called me and he says,"Hey Fonzi, you still got that group, man?" I said, "Yeah I do." He said, "You got two girls right?" I said, "Well now it's only one girl." Carole Sylvan had left to do some things in Paris. He said, "Come down and sing with us because we want to try some different things. We have some new ideas."
I called Michelle on the phone. I said, "Come over here tonight. Let's learn every song they got." Through years of singing together, Michelle and I blended well, developed similar inflections and dynamics, and looked great together. We learned maybe ten of the CHIC songs and went down two days later and sang at the audition. Nard and Nile said, "Yeah man this is cool. Let's go." They took us on the road. We did maybe two weeks of gigs and then they said, "We're going to go in the studio next week. We want you to sing."
This particular day was the day we were doing "Good Times". I heard that bassline and knew something important was about to happen. Bernard said, "Fonz, go stand in front of the mic." He had me sing [sings] "Good times. These are the good times." In fact the male voice you hear prominently on the line "Leave your cares behind" is me doing a harmony step out. Bernard said, "Just double it. Do it again." I'd sung maybe four tracks and then he brought in Michelle, Alfa, and Ullanda McCullough. They sang along with me and created the group sound for the choruses.
When it was time to do the lead for "Good Times" and "My Forbidden Lover", Bernard and Nile called me up and said, "We want you to come to the studio to sing the group lead with Alfa and Luci." On most of the CHIC records during that period, people don't realize that there was a man's voice singing with Alfa and Luci on lines like "Happy days are here again / the time is right for making friends", etc. because my voice blends so well with female voices.
I went from my group F360 basically disbanding to me and Michelle stepping up and becoming a part of CHIC, and really contributing our years of singing in a trio to their vocal sound. Alfa, Luci, Michelle, and I actually became the CHIC vocal group and that's the sound that you hear on all their records from Risqué on, including Diana Ross' diana (1980) album.
Suddenly, people were calling me on the phone saying, "Fonzi is that you singing on that record? We got this session next week. Can you come by and do this?" Bernard and Nile really gave me my start in the session business because, up until then, I was doing a session here and a session there but they had so many projects that they were doing, and Michelle and I sang on all of them. If they subtracted our voices from those records, they would sound very different! [laughs]
When I interviewed Kathy Sledge, she explained how she recorded her lead vocals on "He's the Greatest Dancer" by learning the lyrics one line at a time. Is that how you learned songs like "Good Times" and "My Forbidden Lover"?
Absolutely what Kathy said! We never heard the songs before we recorded them. I think Bernard and Nile would get a musical idea and lay the rhythm tracks, then go separately and work on their lyrical ideas. Then they would come to the studio and you'd see them sitting behind the console: "Nah, I don't like that line. Let's do this line instead." They would often begin by telling me, "Stand behind the microphone" and they would just start feeding me lines. Bernard would say, "The melody sort of goes like this, Fonzi, but just see if you can tighten it up a little bit." The only songs that I ever heard before we recorded them were the diana songs because I sang the reference vocals. Other than that, we never heard a single CHIC song until we stood behind the microphone to sing it.
The CHIC experience was amazing. Nile and Nard were two exceptional men. Bernard was the hominy grits of CHIC with his virtuoso funky bass, meaning he added an almost down-home soul thing to their music. Nile played lightning rhythm and had a keen sense of jazz and rock inflections. Funny, it even got down to the point that I could basically tell which one of them had written or put the main ideas into certain songs. It was a really incredible time with them. I learned so much listening to them lay the tracks and produce the hits.
During the summertime, in the playground at Johnson Projects, they would be playing music on boomboxes till all hours of the night. "Good Times" would always be playing all across East Harlem. My mother could hear my voice playing in the park all night long. I remember her asking me one time if I was upset that she didn't fully encourage me to pursue a singing career. I said, "Mother, you did what a Black mama is supposed to do. 'Boy go to school and get your education and learn the stuff that you need to learn.' This is why I have a career because I got an education.
You mentioned how doing the reference vocals for diana was really the only time you heard CHIC songs before recording them. How did you even find out that Nile and Bernard were producing Diana Ross?
Bernard called me and said, "Yeah man, we're going to be producing Diana Ross so y'all are going to be singing on the album." I said, "Wow! Really?" Of course, my heart almost came out of my chest. They said that we were going to be starting the album within the coming weeks so just hang out and wait for the call to come to the studio. By that time, I was also the contractor so they would always contact me and say contact the girls and come in to do the record.
We began singing background on certain things like "Tenderness", then "Upside Down" and "I'm Coming Out". There was one song called "I Got Protection" that never went on Diana's album. "I got protection from your infection. Got to pass my inspection." Reportedly, Diana heard that song and would have nothing to do with it. She'd already sung about infection on [the Supremes'] "Love is Like an Itching In My Heart" — "Love is a nagging irritation causing my heart complication. Love is a growing infection and I don't know the correction." I don't know this for sure but she probably said I'm not singing another song with the word infection! "I Got Protection" went on [CHIC's] Real People (1980).
When it was time to do the leads, they wanted to do reference vocals so Diana could learn the songs. They started by having Alfa sing a few of the songs. Alfa may have sung "I Got Protection" and Diana heard it and she decided, "That's great but I don't want to hear a woman singing these songs. Don't you have a guy that can sing these songs?" They called me at three o'clock in the morning, "Fonz, you up?" "No, I'm not up! I'm asleep." "Can you come to the studio? We want to show you something." They said we want you to start doing these reference vocals for Diana to learn these songs. Of course, the keys were all too high for me. "I can't sing this!" "Oh no man, it will be cool." I wound up singing all the reference vocals for all the songs that you hear on the CHIC-produced diana album.
One of the biggest moments was when Diana came to the studio to start her lead vocals. We had just finished the very last background vocal. We all knew she was coming that day. We were standing behind the microphone and the lights in the console room were dimmed a little bit and she sort of swept in. There was all this fur and all this hair! After we finished the vocals, we were nervous to go into the room because she was in there. She had just taken her fur coat off and flung it on the couch. We finally went in and she was very complimentary towards me. She said, "I really appreciate you singing those reference vocals. You sound really good and it helped me a lot." I think I went out in the hallway and called my mother. I said, "I just met Diana Ross and she told me that she loved what I did!"
In all CHIC situations, I tried to remain cool and stay focused on the role I was developing with them because the job was let's get in here and rehearse these vocals, get them as tight as the music, and lay them down right. From working with my former vocal groups, I knew how to get things out of us as vocalists. "Let's make sure we got this the way Nile and Bernard are going to want to hear it." I'm really proud of those vocals that we did on Diana's album.
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio
The song "You Can't Do It Alone" is a special spotlight for you on CHIC's Real People album. How were you brought in to sing the lead on that song?
When I came to CHIC, I was not totally unknown to them. We had all moved through some of the same New York music circles. They'd known I had a group and had been out there trying to get connected. Of course, Nile and I had our early Sesame Street tour ties. After doing the reference vocals for diana and for the CHIC-produced Johnny Mathis album, I think Nile and Nard looked at me and decided "We need to take Fonzi under our wing and do some music with him."
Nile said, "Fonzi, I got a song for you for our next album." I was ecstatic. He played it on the guitar and it was just gorgeous. He showed me the melody and said, "Now just make it your own." I sang it and I was able to do what I wanted to do. When we went on tour that summer, they gave me a solo spot on their show. (I always had a step-out when we performed Sister Sledge's "Lost in Music".) They would always say, "Now we're going to introduce Fonzi Thornton." I remember I was wearing a short red leather jacket and some big black leather pants and I would come down to the front of the stage and sing "You Can't Do It Alone" and everybody would love it.
What did you pull from to deliver that performance in the studio on "You Can't Do It Alone"? It's such a powerful vocal.
I think I just pulled from what I already knew about my own voice and how I wanted to present myself. Before CHIC, I had written songs for myself and performed so many shows with my groups that my voice was in good form and my sense of what sounded good in my voice was very acute. Nile also wrote the song in a comfortable key for me. It was a quiet song. It allowed my voice to stand out. I was sort of glad that it wasn't an uptempo song because it gave everybody a chance to say, "Wait, who's that guy singing?"
I was credited on the album but I was not credited for that song, so for years people were thinking, "Oh, Nile sounds great on 'You Can't Do it Alone'!" I had my assistant go online and say, "No, understand — that's Fonzi Thornton singing that song" and that's how it came to light that it was actually me singing. People know that Nile doesn't sing like that and Bernard doesn't sing like that. I'm not taking anything away from them, but when I walked in their door I was a singer. I'd been singing for over ten years with my own acts, and before that, so I was glad I could come in as a seasoned singer and handle one of their songs. We were always cool.
What's the timeline between "You Can't Do It Alone" and then Nile and Bernard developing a whole album for you?
I know that it was shortly after the Real People album that they started saying, "Fonzi we're going to sign you to our production company and we're going to get this deal." They wrote eight songs and we just went at it. They gave me the songs to take home because they said, "We want you to create your performances and then come in and sing." It showed that they respected my talent.
They wrote "I Work for a Living" along with a song called "I'll Change My Game", which appears on the CHIC box set, Savoir Faire (2010) that was released in France. There are a bunch of other songs, a song called "Frostbite", a song called "What Can You Do", and "Don't Throw My Love Away". The tracks were some of their best. I thought my performances were really good. Alfa, Luci, Michelle, and I sang on them. I brought Jocelyn Brown in to sing with us on some of the backgrounds on my CHIC album. She also sang on "Stage Fright" on the Take It Off (1981) album.
Bernard and Nile shopped the record but I think perhaps they were asking a huge price tag. I mean, they were among the top producers of the day. Their productions had sold millions of records. At any rate, the masters didn't get picked up, so their idea was, "We're going to take one of your songs and put it on the Soup for One (1982) soundtrack" and that's how "I Work for a Living" wound up on Soup for One. One of the proudest moments of my life was to see the album cover say "CHIC, Carly Simon, Teddy Pendergrass, Fonzi Thornton". I thought 'this is amazing that y'all have my name on this album!'
For years, CHIC fans have speculated that "Frostbite" was meant to be the title of your album with Nile and Bernard. Did the project reach the point where you'd settled on an album title?
Nile, Bernard, and I never discussed an album title although fans have decided to call it "Frostbite" after one of the songs. Unfortunately, the project never got that far.
When your album with Nile and Bernard didn't get picked up, did you feel like a solo album wasn't meant to be?
I never felt like it wasn't meant to be. With Nile and Nard, I was coming in as a vocalist singing the songs of these songwriters. If the people listening to this didn't think that this is what they want from me, then I had to move forward and find out what is wanted from me. My idea always was, well if no one picks up the Fonzi/CHIC collaboration, I've still got to go out and find me a record deal.
I love Bernard and Nile. I think we went as far as we could at that time. I sang with CHIC from 1979 to 1983. My relationship with both of them was so unique because they continued calling me to come in and sing on the stuff they were doing after CHIC. I sang on the Power Station records that Bernard produced, "Some Like It Hot" and "Bang a Gong". I sang on "Addicted to Love" with Robert Palmer, which was one of Bernard's productions. I sang on the Thompson Twins, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and B-52s for Nile. I sang on David Bowie's second album with Nile, Black Tie White Noise (1993). Then in 1992, Nile and Nard reunited and called me to sing on a new CHIC album, Chic-ism (1992) with Sylver Logan Sharp and Jenn Thomas who replaced Alfa and Luci as lead vocalists.
Parallel to your studio work with Nile and Bernard, you did sessions for Mauro Malavasi and Jacques Fred Petrus who were the producers behind Change and several other projects for their company, Little Macho Music. When did you first begin working with them?
I had been doing all the CHIC productions and people were starting to really notice the vocal sound. "It sounds like a guy singing with some girls, but there's this specific texture." Jingle producers started calling me up and asking me to sing on jingles because of that texture. They said, "We want a sound like what's on that CHIC record."
I got a call one day. Somebody from Little Macho Music called me up. It was Fred Petrus' assistant. Fred was on the phone. He said, "Fonzi, it's Freddy Petrus. I know you're doing all the CHIC work. I want you to come over here and sing with us. Can you?" I said, "Yeah. What are you doing?" He said, "We have a session coming up for this new Change album [Miracles] and we want you to come and sing." We went into the studio and we sang "Paradise" and "Heaven of My Life". On "Paradise", it was me, Jocelyn, Luther, I think Ullanda sang top, and Diva Gray sang the lead. After I sang on "Paradise", Petrus started calling me to contract the singers and lead the vocal section. I sang on two Change albums Miracles (1981) and Sharing Your Love (1982) as well as singing staccato group vocals on B.B. & Q. Band's smash "On the Beat".
Freddy also said, "We know you're a writer. Would you consider writing some of our songs?" Mauro Malavasi and Davide Romani started sending me tracks of music. The first songs I wrote for Little Macho were for Change's Sharing Your Love album — "Hard Times (Gonna Be Alright)" and two songs sung by lead singer Crabbe Robinson "Promise Your Love" and "You're My Girl".
What did Change bring to the musical landscape at the time?
I think that initially Change followed Nile and Bernard's lead. I don't want to say Change records copied CHIC, per se, but they were obviously heavily influenced by Bernard and Nile's work. The sparseness of the production, interplay between the bass and guitar, similar use of instrumentation ... they were listening closely. After producing the tracks in Italy, Fred Petrus came to the states and intentionally sought out some of us to sing on Change records that had sung with CHIC, including myself, Diva, and Luther, so the vocal sound and texture were often similar. This was never intentional on the part of us singers. We were simply professionals for hire. As for the tracks, Italian bass player Davide Romani is so funky and his collaborator, pianist Mauro Malavasi, is a truly brilliant musician and arranger. It was a pleasure to write lyrics and melodies to their tracks. Nile and Bernard created that pathway and Little Macho Music came in and continued down that road.
Gordon Grody and I sang together on a lot of the productions for Little Macho Music. Sometimes, it would be just the two of us singing the backgrounds, and other times it would be me, Gordon, and some of the women like Michelle, Diva, and Robin. Petrus created a studio concept called Zinc. Gordon and I sang most of the vocals on that album. I wrote two songs for Zinc. One song was "This Is Where the Love Is" that Gordon sang lead on, and another was "I'll Take My Chances".
Then there was High Fashion. Mauro sent me a track with this lush piano intro that releases into funky breaks then slides into this solid groove driven by Davide's bass. I thought I need to say something uplifting and that's where the sentiment "Feelin' Lucky Lately" came from. Keeping the faith, staying in the race, you can win! Alyson Williams was an up-and-coming singer in town and Petrus decided that she would be the singer on the song. Me and Alyson worked on developing the lead and she gave a tremendous performance. I got Gordon, Michelle, Robin, Dolette McDonald, and myself to sing the powerful backgrounds. In fact, "Feelin' Lucky Lately" was featured in a scene on the Season One finale of Pose on FX.
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio
Among the productions that you worked on with the Change producers was a song for the Ritchie Family. Of course, they had their own interesting history of different group configurations but "I'll Do My Best (For You Baby)" became a pretty big hit for the Ritchie Family. What did that assignment entail?
When they gave me the track for what I wrote as "I'll Do My Best", they let me know that they were doing this for a Jacques Morali project. Morali produced Village People and the Ritchie Family. They hadn't yet told me who it was for but then they came back and said, "Well this is going to be the new single for the Ritchie Family." I was excited thinking my former group mate, Ednah Holt, would be singing lead but she had been replaced by a terrific vocalist, Vera Brown.
On the original tape he sent, Mauro had sung a bunch of melodies that were sort of indistinguishable. They said, "Just write something to that!" I said, "No that doesn't even sound right. Let me come up with something that will work for them." After all my years singing with women, I had developed a certain know-how regarding female voices that served me well in my writing and producing. I wanted to write a song about a woman doing her best for her man, or anybody in any situation being the best partner that they can be for whomever they're with and that's where "I'll Do My Best (For You Baby)" came from. I worked with Vera on her lead vocal and she killed it, as you hear on the record.
Around that same time, Kashif featured you on "So Fine" (1982) by Howard Johnson. You sang the "baby baby baby" hook. By that point, Kashif had begun bringing a fresh new slant to R&B and dance. How did you connect with him?
We were in the studio singing background for Little Macho's new album Zinc (1982) when I first met Kashif. He had a song on that album called "Street Level". He was going to come on the mic to sing with me and Gordon. By that time, me and Gordon were seasoned session vocalists and we had all the pro techniques down, so Kashif was really nervous about singing with us. I was really encouraging to him and welcoming.
It wasn't long after that that Evelyn "Champagne" King's song "I'm in Love" hit like gangbusters. Kashif called me up and thanked me. He said, "Fonzi, you were so kind to me in that session and you encouraged me so much, I'll never forget that. I want to hire you to come and sing on some of my productions." He hired me to come in and sing on Evelyn's song "Get Loose", although I don't see my name credited there. I remember singing on that song, but maybe the vocals weren't used. I sang on Melba Moore's "Love's Comin' At Ya", which Paul Laurence wrote but Kashif and Morrie Brown produced.
Kashif said to me, "Fonzi, that sound that you do with CHIC, blending with those girls, I just love that sound. I'm producing this artist, Howard Johnson, and I want you to come in and sing some backgrounds." I said, "Okay, sure. That sounds good. Who's going to sing with me?" He said, "You come by yourself." We went into the studio and I heard the song "So Fine". There were no vocals on it. Maybe just "so fine, blow my mind" because Kashif sang that part. I sang "Baby baby baby, you're so fine". When Kashif recorded my parts, it was really a solo background part but it was multi-tracked. He might have tripled me.
I'd assumed it was just a background part. When "So Fine" was finished and I heard the record on the radio, I realized that Howard Johnson didn't sing the chorus at all, Kashif used my vocal as the lead on the choruses. So Howard sang the verse and I sang the chorus. Most people have no idea because of course nobody was going to mention that. The producer inserted my voice into the chorus because he wanted the sound of that CHIC male voice in there, hoping that my sound was going to add a different texture to the record from Howard's, which it did.
What did it feel like to hear a hit song on the radio and realize that listeners had no idea it was your voice singing the hook?
It felt very weird. It's one thing to sing the leads on "Good Times" and "My Forbidden Lover" with Alfa and Luci, because I've been seen doing it onstage in videos. To not be told that my voice was going to be used as part of the lead was very strange to me, but I think it's a producer's mechanism. Howard was certainly capable of singing the part. Kashif just wanted a different sound for the chorus — my sound. I don't think that it was done to be slick. He heard it as the best thing for the record.
Funny thing, before I signed with RCA and Robert Wright, Kashif had been talking to me about signing to his production company and getting me a deal. Yes, there was always somebody trying to sign Fonzi to get him a deal! Had I signed with Kashif, "So Fine" might have wound up being my song. Respect to Howard. No sour grapes!!
Kashif and I always had a good musical friendship. He came in for The Leader album and did the track for "(Uh Oh) There Goes My Heart", which was one of my favorite songs on the album. He brought that whole Kashif keyboard magic with guitars played by Ira Siegel and drums by Omar Hakim. Right here, I got to give a shout-out to my girl BJ Nelson because the top part that she sang on "Uh Oh" is one of my favorite vocal performances on The Leader.
What actually led to your solo deal with RCA?
Robert Wright, Vice President of A&R for RCA, had a band he signed called Pleasure. They needed vocals for their new album. Robert got my number from someone in the business and called me out of the clear blue sky. He said, "Come in and bring two male singers and arrange and sing the backgrounds for this album." I got Phil Ballou and Kevin Owens and we went in and sang all the vocals for this band Pleasure. Pleasure had an R&B hit called "Sending My Love" but it was our voices ringing out of the radio.
There was one night I was performing with CHIC at the Savoy over on 44th St. I remember my mother, father, and sister were sitting in the front row. (I have to stop here and send some love and gratitude to my sister Pamela Thornton who walked every step with me and encouraged me from the beginning till now.) Also in the front row next to my family was Robert Wright. At the end of the show, he said, "Fonzi, it's great that you're up there doing this stuff but it's time for you to make your album. Come to my office tomorrow. Let's talk." I went to his office and he offered me a recording deal.
We started conceptualizing what we were going to do. He said, "I heard those solo records you did with Nile and Bernard. They sounded good. You are a person who's worked on everybody's record in this town. You've probably worked on music more than anyone. The music you make should be your own. Craft your own Fonzi persona. You should write and produce your sound so everybody's not confused about this being CHIC or someone else's record." That's how we went after it, so we sat down and started writing.
What was your vision for yourself as a solo artist?
I wanted to be like a classic Motown lead singer (à la David Ruffin) but a bit more avant-garde. Not a suit and tie, but high style stage presentation and a little edgier, more outside the box. That's why my album covers looked like that because I wanted a racier, more fun image than a guy that just stands up and sings all ballads. I always thought of Wilson Pickett singing "Land of a 1,000 Dances", shaking one leg, mesmerizing his audience. I wanted to be that energetic performer singing these exciting mid and uptempo songs, dancing in great stage costumes, accompanied by Michelle and another female singer similar to my original "Fonzi" group concept.
Why did you call your first solo album The Leader?
I told Robert, "We got to come up with a slick concept for this album." Robert said, "Fonzi, in your work, among the singers in this town, you have always been the leader. You have been the person that has called the singers to the studio, been the section leader, taught them their parts around the microphone, and done the contracts. Onstage you've shown singers where to stand and how to move back and forth. You've been the leader in so many situations in your musical involvements in this town. What about a concept like the leader?" I loved it. I said, "That's sort of cool, man. We can make it tongue-in-cheek, like 'When it comes to love, girl, I'm the best. I'm the leader.' Let's call the album The Leader."
The idea was being playfully braggadocious the way that rappers are, but all in fun. I wanted to make the point that this is a guy who has been a leading person behind the scenes and now he's stepping up to do his solo record. All throughout the record, you'll hear Jocelyn Brown exclaiming, "Chile, he's a mess!" Then we have the team of cheerleaders doing call-and-response following Michelle: "Say 'Fonzi'! (Fonzi!) He's the leader!" Then you have the powerhouse singers, Tawatha Agee, Alfa, Michelle, Brenda White, and Jocelyn singing "Leader, the leader of the pack". I wanted the song to sound like bombs bursting in air.
The thing that really locked in The Leader visual concept was the hit song by the Shangri-La's, "The Leader of the Pack". They seemed to be referring to sort of a tough, motorcycle biker kind of dude in a leather jacket. I thought you know what? That's the image! I almost rented a motorcycle to appear on the cover of the album and then I thought, Let's just do the multi-image thing with me looking like a motorcycle guy. It was just a fun concept.
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio / Fonzi Thornton with Christian John Wikane
There's a song on The Leader called "Beverly", which is my favorite. Who is Beverly?
Beverly is no one! I've always had a sensitivity to people who were mistreated by other people, especially in love. "Beverly, your last guy played you for a fool. Baby you know I'll try to never be so cruel." That's the whole gist of the song. I wanted to make a song title with a girl's name and immortalize whatever that name would be. The song is just about someone who's been unlucky in love and that I can treat you better than that former guy did.
Most of the records I've ever sung on or written usually have backgrounds sounding like a big gang of singers. At the end of the song, when we sing "Bev-er, bev-ever ly", I wanted very much for that to be a huge call-and-response between me and the group at the end of the song. Every time I ever heard "Beverly" on the radio, I used to smile that we really did what I intended to do, capture that big muscular sound between me, Michelle, Robin, and Gordon.
Interestingly, we put "Beverly" out before "Billie Jean" came out. We looked up and the next thing we knew Michael Jackson had a song title with a girl's name so it sort of watered down the fact that I had a song out with a girl's name. Although people really liked "Beverly", I felt like "Billie Jean" sort of squashed our momentum.
Another thing about that time is that the guy who was managing me was also managing an artist in Europe. That artist was going bankrupt and having all these other problems. My manager went to Europe to see about this other artist. In the meantime, "Beverly" had just come out and it was like number 55 or something ... and my manager was gone! He was not here to handle it, so I fired him. I started putting money into promoting the record. "Beverly" went to number 43. Luther always used to tell me, "That's a number one record right there. That should have been my song!" I was always proud that that's the way he felt about it.
On the other side of the spectrum, you sang "Sha 'n' Da (Happy Love Song)". You mentioned how you didn't want to be just a balladeer so how exactly did that song fit into your musical concept for The Leader?
At the time, albums were generally four songs on one side and four songs on the other. I knew I needed two ballads for my debut. I'd started writing "Happy Love Song" at least ten years before and it was something I always loved. I always imagined starting off with sparse instrumentation and my voice singing quietly, then building the instruments, adding lush harmonies that grow more glorious throughout the song till they carry the vamp and touch hearts.
When I was singing the song for Robert, he loved it but said, "We need to put a bridge in it." We wrote a bridge and recorded the song. I was really pleased. I remember somebody from South Africa contacting me and telling me they were listening to the song in their car that morning and how they pulled over to the side of the road and just cried and cried because it made them feel good! It's amazing when you write or sing something and someone gets it. There are so many artists that do amazing music that never gets heard. That doesn't mean it's not good. It could be that the record company didn't promote it or didn't know what to do with it. Maybe they didn't understand your concept. That's why you have to move on because you can get stuck someplace.
The same year you released your solo album, you also wrote and produced an album for the Jones Girls called On Target (1983).
Oh yeah, that was amazing! Robert Wright said to me, "I really want to sign the Jones Girls. They're out of their contract at Philly International. I want you to come in and do this album with me because you know everything about working with females and girl groups. We should continue our writing and producing, so come in and do this with me." We were trying to become this production team and so the Jones Girls were a continuation of that.
That was one of the best times because I was such a drop-dead fan of the Jones Girls — "You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else", "Nights Over Egypt", "Who Can I Run To". For some reason, I recall Robert and I went to Atlanta to meet them. I remember us sitting around a piano and them coming into the room and me just saying "I can't believe it's really them!" They were the sweetest women and being a group of family singers, instantly, they knew how to fall musically in place with each other.
Most of the songs Shirley Jones sang lead, as she often did, but there were songs like "Knockin' at My Heart", which is one of my favorite songs we wrote for On Target that was sung by the youngest sister Valorie. She was the alto singer. Brenda sang another song that I wrote called "I Can Make a Difference". It was amazing.
What did you learn from the experience of The Leader that you took with you into your second album Pumpin' ... Let Me Show U How ta Do It (1984)?
With The Leader, I set out to make an all-star album full of all my troops, of everyone in New York that I'd sung with or sung on their records, and then put myself on top of that. The Leader was a culmination of ideas I'd been thinking about as an artist for a really long time. The second album was very different. We decided when we went in to do Pumpin' that we wanted to do an '80s dance album with good songs and even introduce a new dance. When I did my debut at the Red Parrot, which was over here on 57th Street, I showed everybody how to do the "Pumpin'" dance. Another fun song on Pumpin' was "In the Doghouse" featuring Jocelyn Brown. It was a musical nod to the funky style of Parliament-Funkadelic so that's what we went after.
It's interesting how The Leader was released in 1983 and Pumpin' was released only a year later yet there is a noticeable shift in the production sensibility between those albums.
Most of The Leader album was played by live musicians and recorded at the world-renowned Media Sound on W. 57th St. Bernard, Nile, and Yogi Horton were the players on "The Leader" and also on a song called "Perfect Lover". "Beverly" was programmed by New Jersey musician Kevin Grady so when we went in to do the Pumpin' album, we called Kevin again. That album was intentionally more dance-oriented with one ballad "Baby I'm A Rich Man Now". We recorded at Unique Sound in Manhattan. The music was more programmed overall featuring electronic keyboards, basses, and drums with guitar overdubs whereas on The Leader, Marcus Miller played actual bass on "Sha 'n' Da (Happy Love Song)" and Ray Chew played actual piano on "Sayin' Goodbye to Lonely Nights", so Pumpin' was definitely a different production approach to what I'd done the first time around.
Why didn't you release a third solo album on RCA?
A lot of executives left RCA. Robert Wright was let go and most of the artists that he signed were let go, among those artists were me, Nona Hendryx, Fredi Grace & Rhinestone, and Alfie Silas. I always felt like RCA didn't understand who I was trying to be. I don't want to say anything bad about anyone but they were known for not having a particularly strong Black music department. There was no promotion for either one of my records nor the Jones Girls album. The same was true for Tramaine Hawkins' "Spirit Fall Down" on which Michelle, Tramaine, and I sang background, although it did do well on the club charts. I wasn't happy with the job RCA was doing and I guess they were no longer interested in me.
Robert Wright was head of A&R but was producing and writing with artists. I think that sort of sent a ripple of jealously through the company from people who were his co-workers. "Why should we promote the records that he's doing when he's an A&R person here?" There was some of that behind-the-scenes rivalry stuff that had nothing to do with me. I think they were going to offer me a third album and then we both agreed to part ways.
In the middle of this era, you sang with Roxy Music on their Avalon (1982) album, which almost seems like an outlier to everything else that you were doing. I'd love to know how you found your way into that world.
This is another reason why I love Bernard and Nile because we spent so much time at the Power Station making those amazing records. The sound in the Power Station was this tight, boomy, dark, huge sound. As CHIC records became popular, rock artists started listening. "My God, what's the sound that they're getting on those records?" Bob Clearmountain, who was the engineer that did all the CHIC records during that time, had been hired by Roxy Music when they came from the UK to record vocals at the Power Station. Bryan Ferry apparently said in the room one day, "This is great but I need someone to sing with me. Isn't there a guy around here who could sing with me?" Bob Clearmountain told him, "You guys should call Fonzi Thornton."
Mark Fenwick called me on the phone and said, "Is this Fonzi? I'm Mark Fenwick. I'm the manager of Roxy Music. I'm calling you because we want you to come in and sing some vocals on our new album." I knew Roxy Music's name but I didn't know much about them. I'd never really heard their music. I said, "Sure. Who else is going to sing?" He said, "Just you. Come by yourself."
I went to the studio. Phil Manzanera, Bryan Ferry, and Andy Mackay — these very tall, good-looking men — were standing behind the console. Bryan said, "Just go stand behind the mic." I stood behind the mic and they started playing the tracks. He said, "What do you hear?" I said, "Well I hear you singing!" He said, "Yeah, but what would you sing with me?" I started singing with him [sings] "More than this ... nothing" and that's where our musical bond was made.
My vocal dance with Bryan is interesting. On some of his recordings, I ghosted behind him providing a vocal cushion he enjoys. I was the only singer on the Avalon album besides Bryan. Soprano Yannick Étienne sang the high obligato on the song "Avalon". After that, Bryan asked me if I knew two women that could come in and sing with me on some of the tracks. I brought in Michelle and Tawatha. We sang on one or two tracks that never made the album at all. They went back to London and Mark Fenwick called me about a week later and said, "Would you guys be interested in coming on the road?" I said, "Are you crazy? Of course we would!" We went on the Avalon world tour. At that time, it was to be the last official Roxy Music tour.
From there, Bryan and I stayed in touch for years and I sang on several of his solo albums, including Boy and Girls (1985) and Bête Noire (1987). I didn't see him for about fifteen years and then he was doing the David Letterman Show. Paul Shaffer contacted me and Tawatha about singing with an artist on the show. We didn't even know who we were singing with. Bryan was all the way on the other side of the theater. He saw us and he ran over and just hugged us!
I returned to the road with Bryan Ferry in 2011 and 2012. In 2014, after recording vocals for his Avonmore album, I rejoined him on international and US tours between 2014-2019 before finally returning home in September 2019 just months before the outbreak of the Coronavirus.
I love performing Bryan's music and he is one of my favorite artists. He's always treated me like a king when we travel. If he's flying on a private jet, he'll say, "Fonzi come and travel with me" or "Fonzi, I'm meeting this person or that person, I want them to meet you." One thing that he would often do that makes me chuckle is he would invite me out to dinner with upscale associates and he'd proudly say, "You know what? Fonzi sings with Aretha!" [laughs] He would just announce it with a twinkle in his eye. He's a cool person. I'm really fond of him.
With Motown being such an important influence in your career, I would love to know about your experience singing background onstage for VH1's DIVAS 2000 concert that honored Diana Ross.
I'd seen on TV that Diana Ross & the Supremes would be reuniting for the "Return to Love" Tour. I'm sitting in my apartment days later and I get a phone call. "Fonzi Thornton?" I said, "Yes." "Hold for Ms. Ross, please." I said, "What?" Diana Ross actually came on the phone. She said, "Hi Fonzi, I got your number from Luther. I was discussing with him that I'm putting this tour together and I'm going to be singing with two former Supremes I've never sung with before." Luther told her, "My friend Fonzi is who you should call to help put this together vocally because he knows your entire repertoire. He knows all your music. He would be familiar with Scherrie Payne and Lynda Lawrence because he's a big Supremes fan."
Ms. Ross invited me to her New York apartment the next day. She wanted to tell me what she had in mind, in person. When I got to her apartment, Nile was there sitting in a chair in the small living room area that's right inside the front door. He'd been visiting her. He said, "Oh, wow. You got Fonzi? This is the man. If you're going to put this thing together, you got to have Fonzi because he knows what he's doing." Nile really sold me to Diana and she said, "I want you to go out to LA and work with these ladies and help me put them together vocally and make sure that we honor the music and are true to what the records are." We worked it out. Meanwhile, I don't know if she ever recognized me as the same man who had sung reference vocals for her CHIC album years before!
I hopped on a plane and went out to LA and began working with Scherrie Payne and Lynda Lawrence. They were really sweet, really good singers, and were really eager to do well. The thing that was amazing about Ms. Ross was that she was no prima donna in this. She was at every rehearsal. She stood with the ladies and sang every time the band played the songs. She was the genuine article and I was so over the moon just being in her presence.
There were three upcoming performances before the tour. They were going to appear on Oprah, they were going to do the morning show on NBC, and then they were going to do DIVAS 2000. When I was out in Los Angeles working with them, I coached Scherrie and Lynda on their background parts to make sure that they were singing what I thought Diana wanted to hear from the records. I also helped them do some pre-recording to supplement their Oprah appearance that they were going to do in Chicago.
I wasn't involved with the Oprah show so after being out in Los Angeles, I flew back to New York. Nile called me on the phone and said, "Fonzi, I'm putting together the house band for the DIVAS 2000 concert and I want you and Sylver to sing. Now, who else should we get? I said, "Tawatha. Me and Sylver and Tawatha will sound great. Who's going to be on it?" He said, "Diana Ross & the Supremes, Mariah Carey, Donna Summer, Destiny's Child, Faith Hill, and RuPaul."
My favorite moment of the DIVAS concert was singing with Donna Summer on "Reflections". I had sung with Donna many years before. She had been doing some recording with Arif Mardin. Michelle, Tawatha, and I came in to sing some backing vocals. Donna was performing at Roseland in New York City like maybe two nights after that and she used us to sing background. I had not seen her since then.
For us to get a chance to sing "Reflections" with Donna Summer on the Diana Ross DIVAS show was amazing but, for me, mostly because I was singing Supreme Mary Wilson's part. Mary Wilson's alto part on [sings] "Reflections of the way life used to be" is not only one of the most soulful parts that I ever heard her sing, but one of the most soulful nuances that I love from a Supremes record, so to get a chance to sing Mary's part in the harmony was the big thing of the night for me, singing this with Donna Summer.
You were Aretha's vocal contractor for ten years up until her passing in 2018. Of course, you'd sung background on Aretha's "Jump to It" years earlier, but how did you begin working with her on the road?
This is the end of 2007 after Christmas. I was at my mother's house. I get this phone call. I picked up the phone and said, "Hello?" She said, "Hello, is Fonzi there?" I said, "Yeah, who is this?" She said, "Aretha." I said, "No, it's not." She said, "It's Aretha." She didn't even tell me how she got my mother's phone number, but she wanted to speak to me, so she got the number and she called. She said, "I want to talk to you about coming out on the road with me and putting my singers together. I want you to do that New York thang like y'all do with Luther. I said, "Sure, when are you talking about?" She said, "Well, I have some dates that are coming up in February so I want you to do those."
She just began sending me a setlist of songs that she wanted me to teach the singers. We discussed who she wanted to sing. She first talked to me about doing Radio City. She wanted Cissy Houston and Paulette McWilliams. Paulette wasn't available. She lives in California. I said, "Well, you know Brenda White?" She said, "Oh, Brenda's great. Who else would you get?" I said, "Well you know Tawatha Agee, right?" She said, "You mean the short light-skinned girl? Oh, she'd be great."
I contracted the singers for our first Aretha gig at Radio City, one of many at that venue during my tenure with her from 2008-2018. Aretha had a lot of stuff going on so she may not have remembered everything that she had discussed with me. She called me back two days later and said, "Who are you going to bring to Los Angeles with you?" I said, "You didn't tell me that you wanted me to come to Los Angeles." She said, "No, I want you to do the rest of the tour. We're touring. I want you to do all of it. Now, who are you going to bring to Los Angeles?"
Valerie Pinkston, who sang with Luther, was one singer I knew in Los Angeles. I asked Cindy Mizelle, who also sang with Luther and who I've sung with a lot, "What soprano in Los Angeles can I call to sing top?" Cindy and I talked and talked and tried to see who we could come up with and she finally said, "I'll do it. I'll come to California. I would love to come out there with you and sing with Aretha." I had to find an alto for Los Angeles because Brenda was not out there and Paulette was not available, so Cindy referred me to Lori Perry of the Perri Sisters. In my tenure with Aretha, those were the first girls that I sang with.
We did a few dates with Aretha and then I came back to the east coast to rehearse for Radio City with Cissy, Tawatha, and Brenda. Aretha also had her long time singers from Detroit: her cousin Brenda Corbett, Shelly Ponder, Millie Scott, and Margaret Branch, so she would often have me come out to gigs and sing with them. Sometimes it would be my New York girls, sometimes it would be the Los Angeles girls, sometimes it would be the Detroit girls. All in all, it was an honor and dream come true for a kid from the Johnson Projects in East Harlem to be singing for the undisputed Queen of Soul.
Describe the experience of harmonizing for the Queen.
My job with Aretha was to sing, contract the singers, and to keep these most famous vocal parts and harmonies well-rehearsed. Her ear was very sharp so she always knew what she wanted to hear from us. She generally didn't come to rehearsal, warming up her voice in her room for the performance. We would often make tapes so she could hear what we were doing.
Aretha was so amazing because this was a person that might come to stage and just decide, "Okay the setlist says 'Chain of Fools' and 'Dr. Feelgood'. I'm going to change that. I'm not gonna do that tonight. I'm going to do something else." One night, she sat down and played "What a Difference a Day Makes"! I had never heard her do this before. She just sat at the piano and sang [sings] "What a difference a day makes".
No one — no one — that I've ever stood near or sung near has ever moved me the way that she did and she was so gracious because every single night, she would introduce everybody onstage. Brenda White stood to my right, Vaneese Thomas stood to my left, and Tawatha (or sometimes Brenda Corbett or Shelly Ponder) stood next to Vaneese. Aretha would say, "How do you like the singers?" The audience would say "Yeah! Yeah!" and Aretha would introduce us, "From New York, this is Brenda White. Next to Brenda White, this man is Luther Vandross' best friend. I used to ask Luther, 'How do you get your singers?' and he said 'I call Fonzi.' Fonzi was Luther's main man. Now he's my main man." She used to say this every single night! I was floored.
Surreal — for this to be one of my childhood idols and for her to be introducing me from the stage and giving me props ... she doesn't have to introduce anybody! First of all, she doesn't need anybody onstage with her. She could just sit up there, sing and play the piano, and it would be the same thing. She always moved her audience. I realized I had been training to work with Aretha my whole life because as teenagers we would walk through Harlem learning the background parts to her songs as recorded by the Sweet Inspirations. By the time I actually got to Aretha, I was already well-versed in her music.
As we've been talking, I can't tell you how much music has been running through my head. It's an incredible body of work you've created.
Some of the proudest moments for me were finally writing and collaborating with Luther on his platinum albums. I actually co-wrote songs on the last four albums that he did. Although we had been friends for 40 years and I had sung on all his albums, we had never written any songs together. The first song we wrote together was "I Listen to the Bells". It was sort of a Motown-flavored Christmas song that he recorded as a duet with Darlene Love for his This is Christmas (1995) album. When he signed briefly to Virgin Records, I introduced him to Louie Vega and Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez and we came up with the dance hit "Are You Using Me" as well as "Nights in Harlem" for his I Know album (1998).
Fonzi, your story is truly among the most unique and most inspiring stories in the business. What's kept you going?
Lots of times what you're going after can come to you from a completely different direction. I always tell people there is no handbook for success in show business or in life. There are no shortcuts, even if somebody gives you a shot, you still have to do the work, create the art. You still have to rehearse. You have to develop a thick skin for rejection, so no matter if you don't get the gig or the deal or the callback, you get up the next morning and start again. Do your best every time you get a chance to display your talent and your best will get better. You got to be realistic about the work you need to do on yourself. Just strive to be the best that you can be. Recognize your opportunity. You may be going down a certain road, knocking on certain doors, and that might not be the right path for you, but if you stay alert and prepared, you may discover a different path that's going to lead you to exactly where you want to be.
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