the-spirit-in-her-soul-is-free-an-interview-with-linda-clifford
Photo: Let Me Be Your Woman (1979)

The Spirit In Her Soul Is Free: An Interview With Linda Clifford

From Curtis Mayfield to Neil Simon, the legendary Linda Clifford recalls how she capped the '70s with two full servings of spunk and sophistication.

Linda Clifford couldn’t believe the news. It was the last week of April 1978 when Marv Stuart, Vice President of Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom Records, called her at home. “I was on my hands and knees washing my kitchen floor,” she remembers. “I picked up the phone and Marv said, ‘You’re number one in Billboard.’ I said, ‘Ha ha, very funny’ and I hung up. He called me back and said, ‘Don’t hang up. I’m not kidding. You’re number one.’ I immediately dropped the phone, ran out, and bought a copy of Billboard because I had to see it.”

The singer basked in the moment. “I didn’t know what to think,” she continues. “I knew I was happy. I called my dad. He’s not home. I called my sister. She’s not home. Nobody was there to get my call! At that time, phone machines weren’t that big a thing, so I couldn’t even leave a message! Here I am in the middle of my living room, jumping up and down, holding Billboard.” Ultimately, Clifford’s recordings of “If My Friends Could See Me Now”, “Gypsy Lady”, and “Runaway Love” would all crown the summit of Billboard‘s disco chart for the entire month of May 1978.

Clifford’s five-week reign signaled a new level of renown for the Chicago-based vocalist. If My Friends Could See Me Now (1978), her second Curtom release, garnered worldwide acclaim while the dazzling double LP Let Me Be Your Woman (1979) continued to expand her reach beyond the clubs. Four decades later, Clifford reflects on the two albums that fueled her ascent to disco royalty.

If They Could See Her Now

After years of releasing one-off singles, Clifford made her full-length debut with Linda (1977). Produced by Gil Askey, the album included the singer’s takes on songs by Stevie Wonder, the Bee Gees, Rod Stewart, and Al Green. “From Now On” and “You Can Do It” both hit the Top 40 of the disco chart. “The response was really wonderful,” she says. “In this business, you just never know how something’s going to be accepted. You always hope for the best. People accepted that album for what it was. They really seemed to like it and I was really grateful for that. It got me noticed as an artist.”

In planning the follow-up to Linda, Mayfield and Stuart felt Clifford would benefit from recording original compositions. As one of the most distinguished songwriters and social commentators of his generation, Mayfield certainly had the capacity to outfit the singer with a variety of songs. In fact, Clifford had even landed a minor hit on the R&B singles chart when she recorded Mayfield’s “(It’s Gonna Be) A Long Winter” for Paramount Records in 1973.

“Curtis was such a poet,” Clifford continues, “He had a way with words that everyone could relate to. His poetry was so magnificent.” The romantic side of Mayfield’s poetry infused the swirling orchestrations of “You Are, You Are”. Clifford sang Mayfield’s melody with a soulful ardor that conveyed the bliss of newfound love. “I love the song because I love the music,” she says. “It was like being on a cloud. You fell on it and floated. That alone will bring you into a song and into the music and make you feel good about it. There were a few songs that I recorded on Curtom that had that effect on me. ‘You Are, You Are’ was certainly one of them.”

Mayfield’s gift for drawing vivid, multi-dimensional characters anchored “Gypsy Lady” and “Broadway Gypsy Lady”, a pair of songs that showcased the more theatrical sides of Clifford’s singing. “I think ‘Gypsy Lady’ showed up on the street first, then the Broadway girl showed up,” she chuckles, noting the difference in Mayfield’s characterizations for each song. “Curtis’ writing was really special and spectacular. He had that kind of imagination where he would bring stuff and you’d go, ‘Where did this come from? Did he dream this?’ He was always full of surprises. You didn’t know what to expect.”

The singer had a sense of the world that “Broadway Gypsy Lady” inhabited. She explains, “In my vision, she was going from disco to disco, up and down Broadway, doing her thing. She’s constantly moving.” Clifford convincingly enacted the titular role of Mayfield’s song, as Askey set the production ablaze with horns, strings, and Spanish guitar.

In contrast, the trans-continental travels of “Gypsy Lady” were set against a deeply pulsating groove. Some of the same elements from “Broadway Gypsy Lady” were still there, especially the song’s majestic flourish of trumpets, but Clifford’s character had a slightly different background than her Broadway counterpart. “Happy, happy times for me / The spirit in my soul is free” she sang, summoning the image of a carefree reveler who comes alive on the dance floor. This “gypsy lady” had a more global trajectory (“Atlanta onto New Orleans / Rice and beans, kings and queens”) as she grooved from one discotheque to the next.

The character in “If My Friends Could See Me Now” told yet another story. Clifford turned the showstopper from Neil Simon’s Broadway musical Sweet Charity (1966) into a rousing declaration of independence. Interestingly, Clifford had history with the source material. She’d been an extra in Bob Fosse’s 1969 film version starring Shirley MacLaine. “At that time in my life, I was breaking into acting,” she says. “I was doing a lot of ‘extra’ work. Every once in awhile, I’d get to be a dead body or say a line or something. When the call came in to do Sweet Charity, I was one of the people that was selected.”

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The idea of recording “If My Friends Could See Me Now” didn’t initially pique Clifford’s interest. “That suggestion came out of the blue from Marv’s secretary,” she says. “I said, ‘Wait a second. That’s from Sweet Charity.’ I thought, That’s a Broadway musical. You can’t turn that into dance music. That’s blasphemous! I kind of turned her down.

“I guess she went to Marv Stuart. Gil had an idea for an arrangement. They went in and they cut the track without me. I heard it and I thought, Well it doesn’t sound anything like the Broadway version or the movie version. This is really good! [laughs] I was taken aback by the fullness and the beauty of the sound — the real violins, real musicians playing. When I heard that, I thought, This is classic. This is beauty of another type, but still beauty just the same. Then I became so proud of the fact that this was going to be my song.

“I felt I really had to put everything I had into this. That wasn’t hard to do because I felt the lyric. The lyric was so personal to me, and still is. I grew up in Brooklyn. I always had that wanderlust and that eagerness to learn and see more. That’s what got me out of there.” Drawing inspiration from her own life, Clifford’s performance on “If My Friends Could See Me Now” was a tour de force. Note for note, she embellished the excitement and scintillating drama of Askey’s production while the Jones Girls breathlessly answered on background vocals.

In a sense, “If My Friends Could See Me Now”, “Gypsy Lady”, and “Broadway Gypsy Lady” were linked by each character’s desire to live life on her own terms, anchoring If My Friends Could See Me Now with a concept of female autonomy. Clifford elaborates, “I think back at that particular time, women were being more vocal about their position in society and fighting for equal pay. We’re still going through that. At the same time, I was doing ‘Runaway Love’ and really speaking up for myself and saying, ‘I don’t need this.’ It was almost like it was a women’s lib album. You had that flowing through it.”

Indeed, Clifford set a new standard of empowerment on “Runaway Love”. Her searing performance evolved organically during a jam session. “We were in the studio,” she says. “At that point, Gil had some of his players who were in California and some of my band. The guys were all sitting around on their equipment. Keni started playing this funk groove. I was getting into the groove so I stepped up to the mic, just goofing around, and I started talking about my ex-husband!

“The next thing I knew, the engineer Roger Anfinsen comes in and goes, ‘That’s a hit!’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘I recorded that. Listen to this.’ I was so embarrassed. I said, ‘No you can’t play that for anybody.’ I fought against having that song released. It was so personal, even though I was laughing and we were making a big joke.” An infectious, funk-infused groove cushioned Clifford’s admonition to a manipulative lover. Her ad libs were a striking testimony from her own life that would resonate with many listeners beyond the dance floor.

“Please Darling Don’t Say Goodbye” unveiled Clifford’s songwriting talents. “I know that we wanted to do more original things,” she says. “I had an idea for a song and then we decided to do it as a ballad because we had all these tunes that were uptempo.” The singer’s lyrics pierced the soul with lines like “The love that was once so red with fire has turned to a real dark blue.” She explains, “I wanted that line in there. I think that’s something that almost everyone has been through. You get hit by this thunderbolt and for whatever reason the flame dies. You’re in this dark place. It’s not black, but it’s very close.”

Penned by Carl Wurzbach, the cheerful “I Feel Like Falling In Love Again” reflected a healed heart. Askey’s exquisite orchestration accompanied yet another nuanced vocal by Clifford. “Gil was so incredible at arranging,” she says. “That was his forte, writing arrangements. He’d work in where the violins went, where the congas went, where the chimes would go. I would come in and everything would be together. Sometimes I would just hear the rhythm section — the bass, drums, the guitar, and piano — and I would sing just to that. After I was done with my vocals, they would put all of the other stuff on. I just remember being overwhelmed with sound.”

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Photo: Curtom Records

With such a wide range of musical flavors on the album, Curtom proceeded to find a photographer who could translate many different moods into one cover image. Photo duo Marc Hauser and Tony D’Orio captured Clifford in repose on a red velvet settee, her hand casually clutching a black curtain tie-back. “I’ve always loved that cover,” she says. “We did have a stylist for that photo shoot. Sometimes when you work with a stylist that you don’t know, which was the case here, they have to bring things that they think you might like. They brought several outfits for me to put on. We just tried and played with different pieces and that’s the one that we stuck with. Whoever the stylist was did a great job.” Hauser and D’Orio’s cover portrait memorably depicted Clifford’s alluring combination of strength and sensuality.

Those same qualities also suffused the video for “Runaway Love”. At the time, MTV was still three years from launching and only a few acts had made the foray into filming promotional clips. “‘Runaway Love’ had not been released yet,” says Clifford, who was stationed atop a fountain outside Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel during the shoot. “The people that were standing around were all looking at this freak sitting in a fountain! What the hell is she doing? I was so embarrassed about being there. Here I’m sitting with no shoes and I’m lip syncing, which I hate. It never looks right. I don’t know how I did it. It managed to come off okay.”

After topping the disco chart, “Runaway Love” debuted on the Hot 100 the week ending 1 July 1978. It would reside there for 11 weeks and also scale the R&B singles chart, peaking at number three. Linda Clifford quickly realized that people were dancing and listening to the lyrics. “In the beginning, I didn’t want everybody to know what I’d been through,” she says. “Then I came to realize I’m not the only one who’s been through this. Other people have had to deal with this kind of relationship too. The song gave them something to relate to. It made the hurt a little less, to be able to talk about it and laugh about it.”

However, “Runaway Love” occasionally hit very close to home for those listeners who might otherwise be on the receiving end of Clifford’s stinging rebuke. “I was on tour,” Clifford begins. “I got in a cab at O’Hare in Chicago to take me home. ‘Runaway Love’ came on the radio. The cab driver looked in the rear view mirror and said, ‘Oh my God. It’s you.’ He pulled over on Lake Shore Drive and tried to throw me out of the cab! He said, ‘My girlfriend put me out because of this song.’ I thought, She didn’t put you out because of this song … you must be an asshole! Then he just started laughing!”

“If My Friends Could See Me Now” engendered a completely different kind of response. “I think a lot of people could relate to having had something negative in their life at one time and then pulling themselves out,” she says. “‘You did that to me, but look at me now! I have a beating heart. I’m still alive. I’m here.’ I had no idea that the song affected so many people the way that it affected me. In spite of everyone saying, ‘Oh it’s disco,’ it was not just disco. It was pop. It was R&B. It was dance. It was everywhere! You couldn’t turn the TV on without hearing it being played at some sports event. The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders were dancing to it. I thought, I got to learn those moves so I can do that in concert!”

A month after “Runaway Love” crossed over from the clubs to the mainstream, “If My Friends Could See Me Now” began climbing the Hot 100. By the end of 1978, everyone from club goers to casual record buyers knew Linda Clifford. If My Friends Could See Me Now rocketed up the album charts, landing inside the R&B Top 10 and peaking at #22 on the Billboard 200. Accolades poured in from industry trades: Cashbox named Clifford “Top Female Vocalist”, Billboard awarded her “Most Promising New Disco Artist of 1978”, and Record World honored Clifford with “Best New Female Vocalist” and “Best Pop Album”.

If My Friends Could See Me Now is the one that really got things rolling for me,” says Clifford. “It was my ‘hallelujah’ moment. It was my life-changing moment. It was my everything because all of the emotions that you can think of were wrapped up in that album. I’d been singing for a long time, working nightclubs, struggling, and trying to pay bills. I had worked for so many years in different forms of the music industry. I’d performed in the Catskill Mountains. The album opened a lot of doors for me that would not have opened otherwise.”

Her Time Has Come to Shine

While Clifford scored a nomination for “Favorite Disco Female Artist” at the Sixth Annual American Music Awards, Curtom partnered with one of the most successful record companies in the world at that time, RSO Records. Home to the Bee Gees, Eric Clapton, Andy Gibb, and the soundtracks to Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978), RSO was at the peak of its powers. In 1978, the company scored eight number one pop hits on the Hot 100, including five consecutive chart-toppers. When Curtom aligned with RSO, it furnished an R&B division for Robert Stigwood’s largely pop/rock-oriented roster. “All of a sudden, I was asked to go to a Bee Gees concert and take pictures with Barry Gibb,” Clifford recalls. “I thought, Hmm, what’s going on here?”

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Linda Clifford and Barry Gibb (Photo: Curtom Records)

Producer/arranger Gil Askey reunited with Clifford at Curtom Studios in Chicago. The mission was twofold: build on the strengths of If My Friends Could See Me Now and bolster Clifford’s crossover appeal to pop, R&B, and disco audiences. Curtom requested another tune in the same vein as her breakout hit from If My Friends Could See Me Now. “They said, ‘We want a follow-up to ‘Runaway Love’, but we don’t want it to be so obvious,’” she recalls. The singer teamed with Askey for “Don’t Give It Up”, which had a similar vibe to its predecessor. “I’m thinking to myself, This is the most obvious follow-up! ‘Runaway Love’ had started out as a joke in the studio. I had to continue with that same kind of attitude.” Delivered in her trademark sassy style, Clifford warned listeners about men who take more than they give, intoning “beware sister” over the track’s contagious groove.

Askey’s “I Can’t Let This Good Thing Get Away” was the exact flip side of “Don’t Give It Up”. Backed by the Jones Girls, Clifford intertwined her yearning with a series of impassioned pleas. The track exemplified Clifford’s musical rapport with Askey in the studio. “Gil was pretty easy to work with,” says Clifford. “Every once in a while, as with anything, we’d have a disagreement on how something should be sung. We would always find a way to work it out. There was no problem working with Gil.”

Album opener “Hold Me Close” hailed from Curtis Mayfield, who’d also penned “You Are, You Are”, “Gypsy Lady”, and “Broadway Gypsy Lady” on If My Friends Could See Me Now. “Isn’t that a great song?” Clifford exclaims. “I love ‘Hold Me Close’. That song almost sang itself. It flowed out. It had that kind of melodic thing where you just swayed into the music. It was definitely sultry and sensual but still danceable. That was what we were going for.” Powered by bass, drums, and percussion, “Hold Me Close” spotlighted the full range of Clifford’s voice, from the rich and sumptuous tones of her lower register to her full-throttled roar.

Expanding the repertoire of new compositions, “Don’t Let Me Have Another Bad Dream” was written by Clifford with her husband Nick Coconato. One of two stirring ballads on the album, the song underscored a shared musical talent that Clifford and Coconato had cultivated well before they got married. “Nick is the reason I continued to sing after my divorce,” she says. “I was sitting around in this fog trying to figure out how I was going to take care of these children. I had my son from my first marriage. I had a foster child who was 15-years-old. My 15-year-old sister came to live with me when my mom passed away. I had three kids and no job. All I could think was, I don’t know how to do anything but sing. Nick’s the one who came to me and said, ‘You cannot stop singing. It would be a sin for people not to hear you sing.’ He put this band together and within two weeks we were performing at the Playboy Club in downtown Chicago.”

The set’s other ballad had appeared a couple of years earlier on the Whitney Family’s Airways (1977) album. Written by Ed Fournier, “Let Me Be Your Woman” featured another characteristically strong performance by Clifford. “I don’t know if I was talking to Nick, about Nick, or for Nick,” she laughs, “but I wanted to do the song justice. I thought it was a great song.” Entreating her lover to “stay with me”, Clifford pulled from the depths of her soul to fully illuminate the lyrics.

If “Don’t Give It Up” echoed “Runaway Love”, then “One of Those Songs” followed the same approach as “If My Friends Could See Me Now” wherein Clifford took a well-known tune from outside the realm of contemporary pop music and recast it for the clubs. “I knew that song from Jimmy Durante, of all people,” she says. “As a child, I remember him performing that on TV. I think it was Gil who initially brought that song to our attention. I said, ‘The Jimmy Durante song?’ He said, ‘It will be great with the guitar doing a double time thing.’ I thought, If it’s good enough for Jimmy Durante, it’s good enough for me!”

Renowned New York DJ Jim Burgess, who’d lent his touch to disco mixes of “What a Fool Believes” by the Doobie Brothers and “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” by Rod Stewart, was commissioned to mix both “Hold Me Close” and “One of Those Songs” for the album. Luscious strings, retro-fitted horns, extended breaks, and of course Clifford’s soaring vocals were just a few of the elements Burgess worked with to create the marathon, side-long grooves of “One of Those Songs”.

“Sweet Melodies” brought Let Me Be Your Woman to a cool midpoint between the album’s ballads and the more uptempo material. “It’s another one of my favorites,” says Clifford. “It was like the opposite end of ‘One of Those Songs’. It had that softer feel. It still had that bass drum kick that was going on, but it was that rocking motion. It just made you feel warm and fuzzy.” For nearly eight minutes, Clifford and the Jones Girls carried the tune over a crisp beat that briefly detoured towards gospel-styled fervor.

However, one of Clifford’s most successful bids for the disco market came from a rather unexpected source, Simon & Garfunkel. Mixed by Jimmy Simpson, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” became a sizzling 12-minute workout. “I had no idea they were going to do an uptempo version,” Clifford explains. “I thought the plan was to do a remake similar to Simon & Garfunkel. I thought they were going to do it with strings and everything. Well, they did the strings, but they just sped it up to 130 beats a minute!” Having sung a scaled down version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in her nightclub act years earlier, Clifford’s emotionally charged performance stemmed from her abiding love for the lyrics.

Though Let Me Be Your Woman was only one track longer than If My Friends Could See Me Now, RSO released Clifford’s third full-length set as a double LP. “By the time we were done, we had to make it a double album,” she says. “There was no space. I really think that, at that point, a lot of companies were releasing songs that were darn near instrumental just to have that big orchestra sound. People were like, ‘Where’s the vocal?’ We were kind of on the cusp of that with these very long songs — especially ‘One of Those Songs’ and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ — that gave people on the dance floor a chance to have heart attacks!” [laughs]

RSO packaged Let Me Be Your Woman in a lavish gatefold cover. The singer was styled and coifed with a completely new look. “They wanted to do something younger and hipper,” she notes about the cover image, shot by legendary fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo. “I think we accomplished that with the red Norma Kamali jacket open to the waist, which I absolutely loved. That look was meant to be something very different from If My Friends Could See Me Now, which was more sophisticated, more elegant. This one was more fun. I loved it. People were like, ‘I didn’t know that was you!’ [laughs] At some point, that became a problem. People would go into the record store and they wouldn’t recognize me.” The sleeve’s inner gatefold, featuring the singer seductively posed in a red gown, was shot by acclaimed photographer Gary Heery, whose work would adorn subsequent Linda Clifford albums.

Attired in a similar, crimson-colored ensemble, Clifford stood atop the Brooklyn Bridge to film a video for “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. Like her video for “Runaway Love”, she translated the spirit of the song to film, though not without a challenge or two. “We couldn’t have cars zooming back and forth,” she recalls. “As soon as the sun came up, we were there because there wasn’t going to be as much traffic. We had to do it in two takes.”

Released as the album’s first single, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” bowed on the Hot 100 the week ending 26 March 1979, where it would reside for more than a month. Two weeks later, Linda Clifford appeared on American Bandstand. “We gave Dick Clark the first copy of Let Me Be Your Woman,” she recalls. “The very first time that album was ever shown was on his show. You know how he used to sit in the middle of the kids and introduce the artist? He held up the album cover and opened it to show that (Gary Heery) photo. That was how he introduced me.”

Let Me Be Your Woman ultimately peaked at #26 and became Clifford’s second highest-charting album on the Billboard 200. As the album reached the R&B Top 20, “Don’t Give It Up” climbed the singles chart to #15. Accompanying her appearance on Top of the Pops, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” shot to #28 in the UK. The album continued Clifford’s hold on club audiences, settling at #11 on Billboard‘s disco chart.

Coupled with several television guest spots, Clifford visited the nation’s hottest discotheques, including Studio 54. “I worked 54 so many times, it was like a second home to me,” she says. “The people there treated me so well. Phyllis Hyman and I tended to work 54 together a lot. She was incredible. The crowd always seemed to enjoy my show and I always had a good time with them. It was the place. It was like a circus. If you could think it, you would see it!”

Towards the end of 1979, Clifford released another set for RSO/Curtom, Here’s My Love (1979), before returning to the top of the disco chart in 1980 with “Red Light” from the movie Fame (1980) and “Shoot Your Best Shot”, a track from her last RSO release, I’m Yours (1980). In between, she’d record an album with Curtis Mayfield, The Right Combination (1980), which yielded the Top 20 R&B hit, “Between You Baby and Me”.

Clifford would also land in the middle of pop culture history when Jane Fonda’s Workout Record (1982) ignited the aerobics phenomenon. With “Bridge Over Troubled Water” sequenced right alongside “Nights (Feel Like Getting Down)” by Billy Ocean, the album went on to sell more than two million copies. “In my music room, I have a platinum album of Jane Fonda with her legs up in the air in leg warmers,” Clifford chuckles. Signing with Capitol Records, as well as the Capitol-distributed Red Label in Chicago, Clifford would release three more albums throughout the ’80s, I’ll Keep On Loving You (1982), Sneakin’ Out (1984), and My Heart’s On Fire (1985), while also becoming an in-demand vocalist for national TV jingles (McDonald’s, Cherry Coke, Maybelline, among many others).

Over the last few decades, Clifford has continued recording and touring across the globe. She released a number of independent singles that further burnished her legacy as one of dance music’s preeminent artists, including the Top 20 club hit, “Changin'” (2000) as well as a Top 5 hit she co-wrote for Martha Wash, “You Lift Me Up” (2004). In 2014, Clifford formed the First Ladies of Disco with Wash and Evelyn “Champagne” King following the the release of author James Arena’s best-selling book of the same name. The trio headlined several sold-out shows and scored a Top 10 club hit on the Billboard chart with a remix of “Show Some Love” (2015).

“I’m so fortunate and so blessed to have the life that I have,” says Clifford, who’s currently preparing her full-band tribute to Nancy Wilson, which will tour major US cities throughout 2017. “Believe me, I’m far from being super wealthy or anything of that nature, but what I am is happy. A lot of people equate one with the other and that is not the case. I have a wonderful husband who I never would have met had I stayed in Brooklyn. I wouldn’t have my wonderful children or grandchildren. So many things you look back and go, ‘Okay I made mistakes.’ Doesn’t everybody? If you’re smart, you pick yourself up and you move forward.”

Amidst all of the industry recognition Clifford continues to achieve, the true measure of her career-defining work on If My Friends Could See Me Now and Let Me Your Woman is that new generations of fans are constantly discovering and embracing both albums. They remain an essential primer for a singer whose voice is a remarkable blend of spunk, soul, and sophistication. Whether deftly piloting the rhymes on “Don’t Give It Up” or breathing new life into “If My Friends Could See Me Now”, Linda Clifford’s radiance shines brighter than ever. The spirit in her soul is still free.

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