When I interviewed André De Shields last year, we talked about Paul Jabara’s Rachael Lily Rosenbloom … And Don’t You Ever Forget It! You were also in that show for a minute. He said that part of the issue why the show never made it past previews was that there were “replications of positions of labor … It wasn’t a true collaboration.” Even though big producers were behind Rachael Lily Rosenbloom, like Robert Stigwood and Ahmet Ertegun, you left the show before previews. What reservations did you have about Rachael Lily Rosenbloom?
Well, I can smell a rat! [laughs] It was a sinking ship and I knew it. The show was chaotic. You couldn’t make heads or tails of what was going on.
Paul Jabara came in one day with an expensive bottle of cognac. We were sitting around and he poured everybody a drink. I took a little sip of mine and then I got up and went to the ladies room. When I came back, my drink was gone. I said to myself, “Oh no. And there’s thieves in here too?” I was not gonna stick around, so I left.
Paul was the sweetest thing. Talented! His personality was so effervescent and he always had this energy around him. I loved him, but not enough to stay. I’m glad that experience motivated him because he continued on, but I know he was heartbroken and he learned a lot. He was the sweetest.
In a roundabout way, you returned to Broadway when you recorded “Never” from the musical On the Twentieth Century. There’s an article in the Daily News from 1979 that announced how Cy Coleman was producing a disco version of the score and noted, “The songs are being flamboyantly expressed by a singer named Joshie Armstead whose versions threaten to split speakers and melt vinyl” (21 March 1979). How were you asked to record the song “Never”?
Cy Coleman did want to do a disco version of that, so he called me and I was more than happy to do it. I’d enjoyed working with him in Seesaw. I should have fought for at least Cy putting “Vocals by Joshie Jo Armstead” on the label, but the artist is listed as “the Body Shop”. I’m doing the lead along with six of the guys that were in the show.
The only regret I have about that is that it never really saw the light of day. “Never” was recorded at the wrong time. That was, I think, just around the time that they were killing disco. It’s disturbing what the record industry and the record business can do to music and labels, like Al Bell’s label, Stax Records, and to kill a genre of music that everybody loved because they didn’t like the connotations.
You hit one of the highest notes ever on “Never”. When did you realize you were even capable of hitting those kinds of notes?
It must have been high school when my music teacher realized the range of my voice and put me in the soprano section. I was featured a lot as a soloist. Marian Anderson was my idol, so I have a little of that opera thing, but the blues and the juke joints got me so I didn’t pursue a career in the opera field. Frankly, I didn’t think it was that much fun, but I can still do some of that stuff. My range is different from Minnie Riperton and Mariah Carey, but I have a lot of vibrato in my voice. I am able to hit some of those notes and be operatic-sounding.
Upon returning to Chicago, you started working with Oscar Brown, Jr. The New York Times wrote that he “saw his art as a way to celebrate African American life and attack racism, and it was not always easy to tell where the entertainer ended and the activist began” (31 May 2005). Is that an accurate depiction of the man you knew?
Absolutely. Oscar was Black — militant Black — but he was one of the most prolific writers that I’ve ever come across. I loved working with Oscar. I don’t know how Mel Collins was with Oscar, but he told Oscar about me. I was in New York at the time and I got a call to go to Chicago as his assistant director for a play that he had written called The Great Nitty Gritty (1982). It was a big cast, so I absolutely loved working with him. Not too long ago, his daughter, Maggie Brown, contacted me and she said, “Joshie, you taught us the songs!” That made me feel real good that she looked at me like that.
After The Great Nitty Gritty, Oscar wanted me to co-star with him in Journey Through Forever (1983), which I didn’t want to do, but I did. I think he regretted it because the reviews came in — and they were great for me. These guys have egos. What can I say? Give me a job to do and baby, I’m gonna do it! It’s like “Don’t give her the mic.” [laughs]
The Chicago Tribune‘s review of Journey Through Forever stated that “the real show-off singing belongs to Joshie Jo Armstead who, as Belle, gets a couple of glass-shattering, gospel-style numbers that kick the show into high gear” (14 November 1983). How did that experience differ from the shows you’d done in New York?
Well, Oscar’s script and his songs were first class, but he didn’t have the resources. If I remember, we were in a warehouse with folding chairs and I used to pray to keep a straight face. “There’s nothing here. Is this gonna happen? How are you gonna do a production?” That’s when your imagination and your creativity comes in, but by the same token it was cheap-looking. What can you do? You work with what you have. Thank goodness the talent was there. The material would be on par with any Broadway hit, but we were on the south side of Chicago in an empty warehouse.
You shifted gears in the ’80s and began managing Alfonso Ratliff, who was a cruiserweight boxing champion. What appealed to you about managing Alfonso, and what interested you in the world of boxing to begin with?
Professional prizefighting! First of all, I was a fan. Every chance I got, I was at a Muhammad Ali fight. Championship fights, too. One day my girlfriend and I went to the Museum of Natural History in Chicago. It was Black History Month and we had been around the exhibits and went down to the café to have some tea and dessert. All of a sudden, my girlfriend said to me, “Don’t look now, Joshie. There’s a guy over there watching you, staring at you.” I didn’t look up. She said finally, “Here he comes.”
When I did look up, this tall six-foot four man, built like a Greek God, was standing at our table saying “You ladies look awfully nice today. My name is Alfonso Ratliff. I’m a fighter and my coach and I were on a run all the way to Sheridan Road …” which had to be fifteen miles. He told me that there was an article about him in the Chicago Tribune that day about his upcoming fight, so I mumbled “Wow, well it’s nice to meet you” and he went on his way. I really wanted to go to that fight but I couldn’t find anyone to go with me. He won that fight.
One day, I was looking out my window in Harper Court, a beautiful little area where there are cobblestones and gaslights and beautiful shops that could be a European setting. I was in the front. I called what was happening in that area my “theater”. I saw Alfonso and he was on his bike going into Baskin-Robbins to get some ice cream. When he came out, I said, “Hey Alfonso, congratulations on your fight!” We began to talk and I invited him up.
After that, we went on a date and when he learned about my background in music and so forth, he asked me if I would manage him. At the time, Don King’s son was managing him and he thought he was getting a rough deal, which he was. To me, entertainment and professional sports was the same thing. It’s entertainment. I know the process. I didn’t know anything about getting him a trainer, but I could manage his business, so that’s how that started.
I became Illinois’ first female fight manager. It was an out of this world experience. I would go to the gym and they’d say, “Take your shirt off for the lady”. It’s a world of He-Men with great bodies and lots of money and I loved it. I took Alfonso from a non-rated position to winning the USBA championship.
A lot of male figures have orbited your work in both music and boxing. In what way does the #MeToo movement reflect your own experiences in those two worlds, from either what you observed or what you survived?
Well … I’ve had my experience. I am the older generation. They blame the victim — “You shouldn’t have been there. You shouldn’t have gone there. You shouldn’t have gotten in that car.” I learned to live with it. I didn’t have too many experiences, but the ones I did have? Those assholes are now dead. I was taught “Never say anything about the dead unless it’s good. And they’re dead — good!” I am so glad that the women are speaking out because it is horrifying and it’s difficult to get over.
Today, what’s happening with #MeToo, race relations, Black Lives Matter … I grew up in Mississippi in the ’50s and it was ugly. Segregation, racism, and white supremacy were the norm. Being a sensitive little girl, I do believe that before I was able to form a sentence, that stuff had seeped into my consciousness because I would notice that when white people would be around, Black people would act differently. The whites would have a superior attitude, would talk down to you, would be demeaning, and the Black folks had to suck it up. That was very difficult and I couldn’t wait to get out of Mississippi. As soon as I could, I did.
It’s disheartening to see that with the leaps and bounds that we thought we had made, that racism was sizzling underneath. It still is. It’s systemic in the culture. It’s showing up in ways where Black men are dying, but you can see it today. They were dying then, but nobody saw it except those who were directly affected by it, so it’s disheartening, but we have to move on. We have to move ahead.
Along that continuum, what’s one of the greatest challenges you’ve overcome in your career?
I think my greatest challenge was confronting the fact that I could not do anything within the Ike & Tina Turner organization, so I left. It was very difficult really because here is an act that went on to make history. It was a unique act but there was no place for me to grow and so in order to grow and do different things and find out my capabilities I had to leave … and so I did. That’s why I had all of these experiences from managing a prizefighter to writing songs that a heavy metal group would sing. I’m very happy with what happened but I think that was my biggest challenge — whether or not I would stay with Ike & Tina Turner, and I chose to leave.
Joshie, you exude so much energy and positivity. I know you inspire your peers in the business to just keep going. At 78 years old, what keeps you moving forward?
Well, a whole lot of people did a whole lot of stuff to me and pissed me off. A long time ago, I made a vow that I would outlive ’em! [laughs] I’m here to outlive a few people, but I really would say that it’s the good Lord that keeps me going because good Lord knows I do everything I want to do! I do think it’s my being inquisitive about everything.
I love art, music, and my books. I went back to school [the New School] and got my degree. I was over sixty and I graduated top of the class, proving that I wasn’t brain dead from all of the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, as they say. I think about how fortunate I am. I have been associated with some of the brightest lights that ever hit the planet, basking in their light, and I’m there too.
I am an eternal optimist. There is a solution, so whatever the problem is I’m gonna look for the solution. That keeps me going. I’ve had my days when I got in a fetal position, gritting my teeth, but in the end you get up, you dust yourself off, and you say, “The hell with it! I’m moving on.”