After moving back to New York, you starred in both the film and Broadway productions of Melvin Van Peebles’ Don’t Play Us Cheap (1972). How would you describe Melvin’s particular talent as a director?
Melvin Van Peebles is hard to describe. If he was an artist that painted, he would be … not another Salvador Dalí, he would probably instruct Salvador Dalí! Melvin is an alien. To me, his ideas are just far-fetched. I’ll tell you one thing, I think when he walks in the room, he’s the smartest guy there, or his sense of humor or his way of looking at things is different from everybody there. He commands that, so his strength as a producer and as a director is unparalleled. And his ideas, oh my goodness … off the chain.
I’d love to hear the story about how Melvin wrote “You Cut Up the Clothes in the Closet of My Dreams” for you in Don’t Play Us Cheap.
I invited Melvin over for dinner one evening. I had clothes everywhere. My closet was bursting out. I always tried to wear the latest this and that. As they taught us down South, it’s better to be seen than heard, so I always wanted to look good. When I got that song to sing, I couldn’t believe it. It was hilarious! I had wondered at the time, where is this idea coming from? I knew partly that my closet had something to do with it, but I learned later that Melvin’s father was a tailor. I identified with the song because my mother was a seamstress.
The song has really captured me in a sense because it says “I’m moving on” and I truly identify with that. All of my trips from Chicago to New York, I kept moving. Moving on again. “Oh there she goes …” [laughs] Whenever the knives were too sharp in my back in New York, I’d go back to Chicago where it was a little more friendly. Then when Chicago would get all goofy and ugly, I would come back to New York, fresh.
The soundtrack to Don’t Play Us Cheap was released on Stax Records. You signed with Stax as a solo artist. Their roster was full of legendary acts like Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, the Bar-Kays, Rufus Thomas, and Carla Thomas. What appealed to you about signing with Stax?
Wow, that was like going home. That’s Memphis soul. That’s the South. Those artists were down-to-earth artists, and I identified strongly with that. I met [former Stax chairman] Al Bell years before I signed with Stax. I sat at the piano and banged out a song that I had written called “I’ve Been Turned On” and Al went crazy!
I found out years later though that Al had approached my ex-husband Mel Collins, but Mel did not want me to go to Stax. He wanted me to stay and help with the record company that we had [Giant]. I don’t know why he couldn’t see that I could have been an artist on Stax and a producer on our label, but he didn’t want that.
I saw Al Bell once again in Santa Fe, New Mexico where we shooting the movie Don’t Play Us Cheap  with Melvin Van Peebles. He came to one of the shoots and it happened to be the night that I did my number “You Cut Up the Clothes”, so again he saw me as a performer.
After the Broadway show of Don’t Play Us Cheap, I went in the studio and I cut some demos of songs that I had written. I had Valerie Simpson on piano, I had Artie Jenkins on keyboard, I had Bill Salter on bass — Bill Salter wrote, along with Ralph MacDonald, “Where is the Love” for Roberta and Donny— and Herbie Lovelle, so I had the top-of-the-line guys to do my demo. Bill Eaton arranged it. I sent that demo to Al Bell in Memphis … and I got a call. He wanted to sign me.
Well, since Al knew that I was a songwriter, I got a songwriting contract, that was separate, and an advance on that. I got a production contract, and an advance on that, and I got a contract as an artist, so I set about doing my album. It took me about a year but I was going from Memphis to Chicago to Detroit to New York and I had a ball producing that album.
Unfortunately, by the time I finished the album, Stax was in deep trouble, so Al could not pick up my option and all of the music reverted back to me except split publishing on most of those songs.
In signing with Stax, you were able to retain ownership of your masters. Did Al Bell have any reservations about that arrangement?
No, not at all, because he knew that I had produced Top Ten R&B records. He knew that I had written Top Ten R&B records, and he had heard me sing. I had a good attorney at the time, and I was able to negotiate quite a bit of money. It was really a great contract. It was a five-year contact with a guarantee of $150k.
I collected the first $30k and Stax picked up all the bills, and so I was running from Detroit with the Detroit Symphony, with Paul Riser doing my arrangements, to New York. In New York, the Ikettes [Jessie Smith and Robbie Montgomery] were in town with Dr. John — by this time they had left Ike — and so we went in and did the background on “Stumblin’ Blocks, Steppin’ Stones”. In fact, Nick and Valerie and I sang background on a couple of the songs, so Al had no reservation about giving me a great contract.
I took to the bed for about two weeks when they couldn’t pick up that contract. I don’t think I recovered from it because I didn’t believe that any of the big boys, the top labels, would give me a deal like that. In fact, as I found out years later, it was some of the big boys that took Stax down, so after that I didn’t pursue trying to get a contract with them. I am not going where I’m not wanted.
One of the songs you recorded on Stax was “Ride Out the Storm” from the Broadway musical Seesaw. The Detroit Free Press reviewed Seesaw before it came to Broadway. The critic praised your performance of “Ride Out the Storm”, but said that the number “needed a reason for being there”. Describe the place that “Ride Out the Storm” had in Seesaw and how you ended up recording it on your own, even though you ultimately left the show.
[Composer] Cy Coleman gave me permission to record the song. As I understand it, at that time, after I left the show, they still didn’t have a deal for the cast album, so he was more than happy for me to record it and when he heard it, he flipped! Nick and Val worked with me on that song. We’re doing the background. Paul Riser did the arrangement and it came out fantastic.
Because my number stood out and was so dynamic, it stopped the show. The reason it was there was that I was singing to my girlfriend who was the star of the show, the character Gittel, who was having a problem with her boyfriend so I’m telling her “Ride Out the Storm”, so it did have a reason for being there. What I think that critic meant was that you’re gonna have to bring the other stuff up to the level of what she’s doing!
In between Don’t Play Us Cheap and Seesaw, you acted in a presentation of Don Evans’ Sugar-Mouth Sam Don’t Dance No More at the HB Playhouse directed by Charles Briggs, a few years before the Negro Ensemble Company staged it at St. Mark’s Playhouse. What’s impressive is that you didn’t have any formal theatrical training yet you were cast as one of two leads, Verda Mae Hollis. How did your stage experience as a performer, or even your life experience, prepare you for acting in a dramatic two-character play?
I didn’t know two characters was supposed to be difficult. When you don’t know something, you just do it! As an artist, I think you have to cross all boundaries. A lot of singers become actresses and actors. I don’t know many actors and actresses who become singers, in terms of doing stage acts. It wasn’t hard for me at all. The director of that show had worked with Melvin Van Peebles and he saw my work in Don’t Play Us Cheap. He cast me in that down at HB Studios.
Here’s the thing. I did that at HB Studios and Mr. Herbert Berghof himself came over to me and gave me a book and he said, “My dear, this is you.” It happened to be a novella by George Bernard Shaw written in 1932 called The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God. I have always wanted to produce that, but it’s difficult. I’m not my best at trying to sell myself or to sell an idea. Without management or agents to do that for me, a lot of ideas that I have are still ideas. I even wrote the sides for the play. It’s really very good.