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

Photo: Let Me Be Your Woman (1979)

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."

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.”

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