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Interview: Vivian Reed — Sophisticated Fire

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Broadway, TV, recording studios, and movie screens are all fair game for Vivian Reed. The Pittsburgh native rose to fame with her self-created role of “Young Irene” in the Tony-nominated musical, Bubbling Brown Sugar. Singing came to her almost as soon as walking; and she’s utilized that gift in a number of industries (and countries) throughout her career — while learning a few invaluable life lessons along the way. She talks with Justin Kantor about her schooling in multiple disciplines; her rise to success; and how she’s been giving back.

Looking at your career, you have covered much terrain and many genres of entertainment. It’s hard to categorize you as one specific type of performer. You’re obviously known for your work on Broadway in Bubbling Brown Sugar; but you also have accomplished quite a lot in the areas of film, screen, records, and nightclubs. Did you plan on a career in entertainment from an early age?

Yes. My mother and father told me that I was making melodious tones, so to speak, at the age of three. My mom said to my dad, “I think our daughter’s going to be a singer.” And at age six, I remember going to see this lady by the name of Romaine Russell at the Pittsburgh Musical Institute, which was pretty big stuff back then. They took me to her to see what she thought about my voice, and she said that she would like to teach me, but for them to bring me back in two years because I was a bit too young. So, when I turned eight, I went back to her, and she became my voice teacher.

Do you identify yourself first and foremost as a vocalist?

Oh, absolutely, because I was born a classical singer. As I started to get older, we were really thinking that I was going to be the next Leontyne Price — that’s where my sights were. And there were others, like Roberta Peters, Grace Bumbry — but certainly, Leontyne was at the top of the list.

Were your parents into the classical realm, as well?

Not necessarily. My father was a singer, but he had never studied. He would sing around at a lot of the churches in Pittsburgh. My mother could not sing at all. But she was a fabulous seamstress and hairstylist, so she taught me how to sew. And to this day I can really sew, thanks to her. But it was my father who was the singer in the family, although not on a professional level. So when they discovered I could sing, that’s when they put all the extra money that they had into my training.

It’s interesting that you mentioned the Pittsburgh Musical Institute, because I was just reading a Jet magazine article by Geoff Brown — from when you did Bubbling Brown Sugar. He wrote: “Pittsburgh-born and bred, she was marched off to the city’s Musical Institute at age eight for classical voice training.” It sounded almost like you were forced to go into it!

Oh, no, I definitely was not forced to go into it. By the age of eight, I had already done two Tom Thumb weddings. Fake weddings, you know — little kids would put them on, and I would be the soloist. So I knew already that I was a singer. It was my passion even before I started studying. In fact, when I started, my teacher said that it was very important for me to practice and vocalize every day — the whole thing. It was an average of an hour and a half to two hours a day that I would vocalize, and sometimes in the evening, as well. This went on every day. I drove my brother and my sister crazy.

How long did you study with Mrs. Russell?

For five years. By the time I was 13, I gave my first concert, with my father. It was in three languages: French, Italian, and German.

Any favorite pieces to sing at the time?

Well, this always astonishes people; but at age 13, I was singing “Musetta’s Waltz Song” from La Boheme, “Vissi D’Arte” from Tosca, and “Un Bel Di” from Madama Butterfly. These were huge arias. Your voice had to be big to sing them, because they were very dramatic. At the same time, I was singing very light stuff — like songs that a coloratura would sing. So I had an unusually wide range.

Were you primarily considered an alto, or a soprano?

I was considered a dramatic soprano, but I could also lighten my voice and do things with it.

One of the things that’s always stood out to me about your voice is that it has a distinctive combination of powerful soul with the elegant operatic quality that you’re speaking of. On many of your records, you utilize a gutsy approach and belting style. But when you mention the lighter style, I was listening earlier today to “Missing You.” One can tell through your body of recordings that the early training and learning of all of those different styles has really helped you a lot.

It’s been said quite a few times that you could take a lot of my records, listen to a lot of the TV shows, close your eyes, and you won’t necessarily know if you’re listening to the same singer. When you compare some of the recordings to my theatrical style, it’s like night and day. But making the change did not come easy. I didn’t want to be just a classical singer who sounded like she was trying to sing pop or R&B.

I basically went for the jugular vein, meaning I was using my voice in a way that it was not intended — so the more I belted, the more problems I had. I got nodes several times on my vocal chords. I would have to stop singing for a few weeks and take cortisone until the nodes went down. This went on for years. Then, it became difficult for me to even attempt to sing classically. It reversed itself.

I read in that same Jet article you that at one point you had smoked.

Yes I had, from age 12. I started smoking behind the school building with my then-running buddy. The first puff nearly killed me, the second puff got easier, the third puff, I was hooked. I remember Mrs. Russell saying to me, one day when she smelled it on my breath,“You’ve been smoking.” And I said, “No, no, Mrs. Russell.” She said, “Vivian, you’re young and it may not have an effect on your vocal chords now; but as you get older, you’re going to see — it’s not going to be so easy.” And you know what? Just like she said it, that’s how it was. Because as I got older, I noticed that my voice would give out quicker—and this was before Bubbling Brown Sugar. When we were doing the showcase, by the third show I was whispering “God Bless the Child,” as opposed to singing it.

So this girl in the cast, Ethel Beatty, who played another one of the major roles in that show, used to take and hide my cigarettes. I would beg her, and then she’d give them back. Finally, when the showcase was about to end, she went and got a bible. She said, “I want you to swear on this bible that if we get picked up and we are heading for Broadway that you are going to stop.” So, I promised. But then on the other hand, I don’t play with God! When I got the call from Danny Holgate, who was the musical director, telling me that we were going to Broadway, that was my last cigarette. I stopped cold turkey.

Divine intervention.

I was so happy that I was able to have the willpower to do it, because there was no way that I would have a voice, which today is actually better than ever.

After high school, you continued your formal education at Juilliard School of Music, correct?

Yes, I went to Juilliard for three years. My teacher saw to it that I was put out of the school after the third year, because I had auditioned for a summer stock theatre. I was all excited about it. I’d never done theatre in my life.We were going to be using our classical training, as well. They wanted to hire me. Well, I shared this information with my teacher at Juilliard, and he was livid. He was very upset, because, he said, “You’re a classical singer, and that’s what you must be. You must never try other styles.” They’re purists there. So what he did is, he found a way to get in touch with the director and producers, and tried to get them to not hire me. The director called me and told me what was going on. I said, “No, no, I want to come. I want to work.” I was probably 18 at this time.

The show was to take place at Green Mansions, up in the Adirondack Mountains. I had arranged for my mail to be forwarded. One day, I went to retrieve my mail, and I was about to make a telephone call. I was opening the mail at the same time, and that’s when I saw the letter telling me that I was not welcome back to school. He gave me an F in voice. On my worst day, I could not get an F in voice. This was his way of getting back at me. Now, if that were today — oh God, would I ever have a suit on my hands. But I kept that secret with me for years. I lied to my parents — told them that I had decided not to go back.

One of your first professional gigs of sorts was as a singing hostess at Pauline’s Interlude.

Yes, while I was going to Juilliard. I was actually working there underage. It was a nightclub that catered mostly to gay men. Celebrities would come up from theatre; and there were doctors, lawyers — it was real upscale. They had singing bartenders and a singing hostess. At that time, other than classical music, I only knew “This Is My Beloved” from Kismet, “Summertime,” and I did my little version of Aretha Franklin’s “Running Out of Fools.”

I didn’t drink, so when the hostess there at the time, Josephine Cooper, came to the table to get the drink order, two friends of mine from Juilliard introduced me. Mrs. Cooper said, “Well, do you think you want to get up and sing?” I said, “Oh, okay.” [laughs] And I got up and sang “Summertime.” And oh, my God, the people started applauding in the middle of it — this was so exciting to me. She was going away to perform on a ship for a couple of weeks. She asked me if I wanted to come in and work the weekends. They gave me the job; and that was when I started to look in another direction musically. But I still had another couple of years to go at Juilliard.

To quote one of the songs you’ve recorded, you still didn’t know the exact “Shape of Things to Come”?

I sure didn’t! In my second year at Juilliard, this lady who’d heard about me named Ernestine MccLendon, came to Pauline’s. She took me to the Apollo Theater, and I sang for the owners, Bobby Shifman and Honi Coles. I didn’t even know how to sing R&B at that time. But they wanted to manage me, so they took me on!

Now, I read that at some point you were on the stage there with Bill Cosby?

Yes I was, but that was on an actual show. That didn’t happen until much later, because as much as I wanted to do the show, they would not let me. They said I was not ready. So what they made me do was, every show that came in there, I had to watch. I had to learn. And in-between all of this, I was going to school. And then when the thing at Juilliard happened, then that left me free to watch shows every day. I started learning songs and trying to sing in a popular style. The song I did with Bill is, “Who Can I Turn To” from The Roar of the Greasepaint. The audience loved it. It wasn’t classical; but it wasn’t straight-up R&B, either.

Do you remember any of the shows as ones that had a particular impact on you?

Are you kidding me? Yes, Gladys Knight, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Diana Ross, Nancy Wilson, the Temptations, Chuck Jackson, Maxine Brown — I even saw the Jackson 5 there. They all had some kind of impact because the whole thing was to watch them — their microphone technique; how they performed; how they related to the audience. Coming from classical music, it’s kind of opposite: everything is so regimented. I wouldn’t say I had a stick up the wazoo, but, you know, I was schooled up. Even to this day, I am a stickler for musicianship. You really have got to have your game together as a dancer, as a musician. If I’m using you to do backgrounds, you’ve got to be on top of your game. If you’re not quite on top of your game, I’ll help you get on your game, as long as you want to learn. But if you don’t want to learn, you don’t have a place working with me.

What about working on that show with Bill Cosby?

I remember when I did his show at the Apollo, I had an abscess. It was really bad, and the dentist put me on penicillin. They told me not to go back to the show for a couple of days. But I went back earlier than I was supposed to, and I remember Bill saying, “Didn’t the dentist tell you not to come back? You’re hardheaded. You’re not going to make it if you don’t lose your stubbornness.” I never forgot that. He was like a father figure.

Tell me about the experiences you had as a result of signing with Bobby and Honi as managers.

Well, first, Bobby had his wife take me shopping to show me how to go about buying gowns and clothes. He taught me the business of show business. That’s what his job was at the Apollo. He also taught me, “Don’t ever, ever be late. If you can’t be on time, be early; but don’t ever be late.” To this day, that has stayed with me. Then, Honi taught me everything that had to do with the stage. I never will forget one time. I forget whose show I was doing. I couldn’t find my note, and I thought the pianist was playing the wrong notes. So, I stopped and went over to the piano, and baby, I was plucking on the note that he was supposed to be playing!

Oh, really! During the show?

This was during the show. Baby, Honi was waiting for me in the wings. He said, “Don’t you ever!” And I had other little habits. I would sing into the wings, like the audience didn’t exist. One day he said to me, “Who’s in the wings? You keep turning your head from one wing to the other. You never look straight ahead—that’s the audience.” Bobby also said that I would close my eyes — or at least think I’d be closing my eyes, but he could see the whites of them. “Vivian,” he said, “if you’re going to close your eyes, you’ve got to really close them.” I thought they were closed! You couldn’t get me to believe that my eyes were still kind of open. They really taught me everything.

Eyes wide shut, huh? So how did you come to the attention of Epic Records?

Well, Bobby knew John Hammond. He took me down to CBS to see if he could get me a deal. They liked my voice and put me on Epic Records. It’s sad to say, but I don’t remember the name of my first producer.

Ted Cooper?

Yes, thank you! He was wonderful.

You also had Jimmy Wisner as arranger and conductor, with some input from Tommy Bell and Bobby Martin, on your first album. So, was it your idea to go shopping for a record deal?

No, but Bobby knew practically everybody in show business from all of the different record companies, so he wanted to get me a deal. CBS was the first company we went to, and that was the first deal.

Were you gung-ho on the idea?

Well yeah, because I wanted to make records. But I never had any successes there. “Yours Until Tomorrow” and a couple others got some attention; but it was never a big thing for me. My passion didn’t really surface until I did theatre. That was more for me. Sometimes they say that when you sing really well, it doesn’t necessarily translate to records. That’s been said of a lot of good singers down through the years, that they make better live performers.

Then, when you consider singers like Madonna, Jody Watley, or Paula Abdul, these are singers that are not necessarily considered great vocalists; but they have that commercial sound that works on record. I think that’s the difference. Now, there are exceptions to the rules. Barbra Streisand is one: a great voice, but she also made great records. Aretha Franklin, Nancy Wilson, Stephanie Mills: same deal. But I think when the sound is close to being very theatrical, it doesn’t necessarily translate.

When you started making records, were you just handed songs and told, “These are what you’re going to record”?

Yes, absolutely. No one wrote for me, and I think that probably was the problem. It wasn’t being geared. It helps when you have a producer and an A&R person who really know your sound. Mtume and Lucas wrote for Stephanie Mills, and they had big hits with her. Especially when you have a voice that’s particular, like mine. You could take another singer, like Whitney Houston, who has a great, great voice, and she could probably sing anybody’s song and it would still work. But that’s not necessarily true of me and my voice.

Was the very first record that you had out “Baby, Baby (I’ll Be Your Woman Till I Die)”?

Oh, it might have been; see, I can’t remember. The only thing I remember is “Yours Until Tomorrow”; but I think there was something before that. You’re the second person I’ve come across in my lifetime that knows more about my record career than I do. The first person was a guy named Gil Petard. He was in the record business. Jacob Wheeler, whom I duetted with, told me, “You’ve got to see Gil’s collection.” So we went to this man’s house, and I had never seen anything like it in my life. He had three rooms dedicated to nothing but R&B music from almost the beginning.There were rows and rows of records from floor to ceiling. One room was albums, one room was 45’,s and another room was something else. And he said to me, “What was your first record?” I said, “Uh, I don’t know.” He said, “Well, let’s find out.” He had the one that you’re talking about.

One of my favorites that you did, on Epic, which was not on the album but that I really liked was “Unbelievable.”

I don’t remember it, but I do remember the title.

That’s the one that goes [sings]: “Cause your-oh-oh love, is so uh-unbelievable.”

Oh, I wonder if that’s the one I recorded in Nashville?

It’s produced by Billy Sherrill.

Oh, that’s the one from Nashville. I did most of my recording in New York, but Billy Sherrill wanted to record me. I don’t know how that came about.

What did you think about recording “Harper Valley PTA”?

When did I record that? [Laughs]

It’s on the Epic album.

Well, it was probably suggested to me by Ted Cooper. I don’t think it’s something that I would have chosen.

Because it’s interesting that…

It sticks out like a sore thumb?

Well, on one hand, yes, and then on the other hand, I guess, it was quite a diverse sampling of what you could do. For example, the last song on the album was “Somewhere” from West Side Story. Then, you also did “I’ve Gotta Be Me” from Golden Rainbow.

Wow, I’d forgotten about that. That is on that album, isn’t it? Oh, my lord. But you know who was on that album a lot in the background? Ashford and Simpson. They were writing for Motown and stuff, and they used to do a lot of backgrounds for other people, and they were on a lot of my sessions.

I didn’t realize that. Wow, that’s very cool! You also worked with Van McCoy on “Lean On Me,” which later became associated with Melba Moore.

Yeah, because Epic didn’t believe in the song. They didn’t think it stood a chance, and so one day when I ran into Melba, she said, “I’m getting ready to release your song, ‘Lean on Me.’” I said, “Well, honey, I hope you have a hit with it, because Epic sure didn’t do anything with it with me.”

I also really liked your version of “I Feel the Earth Move,” produced by Richard Perry — a little bit prior to his work with the Pointer Sisters, which he became famous for.

And then I had that other song that I did from, was it the Righteous Brothers?

Oh, the medley of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelig” and “You’re My Soul and Inspiration.” That was quite nice, too. So, how would you sum up the Epic experience?

Well, Clive Davis wouldn’t let me out of the deal when I wanted out. It took a little while.

And did you just go straight from there to Atco?

I think Bobby got me my deal there. And then, we recorded a whole album that was never released. Only the single, “I Didn’t Mean to Love You,” was released. We were told it was because of Roberta Flack putting pressure on them, because she thought we were too much alike. I never heard the real story. The album included covers of Diana Ross’ “Touch Me in the Morning” and Al Green’s “I’m So Tired of Being Alone.” It was going to be a good album.

Well, if that’s in the vaults somewhere, that should be released. Of course, “I Didn’t Mean to Love You” was beautiful, and your delivery on that was really poignant. But the B-side, “Save Your Love for Me,” is something that’s become a real monster song for a lot of Northern Soul fans.

I know — how did that happen? [Laughs]

I don’t know. I know that it’s been reissued and on compilations, And these songs that we’re talking about were produced by a group called Young Professionals, which was comprised of Taylor, Hurtt and Bell.

And I loved “I Didn’t Mean to Love You” — oh, my God. I enjoyed singing that song. Helen Reddy. Oh, what a great song that was.

I’m familiar with Dionne Warwick’s version, but I didn’t realize that Helen Reddy recorded it, too. It’s funny how many of these songs have ended up being done by so many different people, but when they don’t get promoted, you don’t know that they’re out there. So, was the situation with Atco a point when you decided to veer away from the recording industry and focus on the stage?

Well, I auditioned for a show called That’s Entertainment and got it. Critic Clive Barnes wrote the title with a question mark in his review! One day, I was sitting on the subway, and I see what looks to be my picture in the Daily News. So when I got out, I asked them at the newsstand, “Can I take a look at this? I don’t want to buy it, I just want to take a quick look, ’cause I think I’m in the newspaper.” Sure enough, there was my picture. It read, “By herself.” Of course, the cast stopped speaking to me because I had gotten all the reviews. That was my first run-in with real, genuine jealousy.

So, that was my entrance on to Broadway. After that came Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. I replaced Micki Grant when she went on vacation. I stayed on for six weeks. Then, the director took me to Chicago to start another production of it built around me. But she went a little crazy, because I was about to sing 12 songs in one show, when in the same show was Loleatta Holloway, who was a great singer that they had snatched out the church. I gave Loleatta three of my songs, and she ended up co-starring with me. After seven months, I decided to leave the show and go back to New York. And the show continued on. In fact, when I came back to the show, that’s when Nell Carter came in. She hadn’t become a big name yet. We became very close.

What are your memories of Nell?

Baby, that girl was crazy. We had such good times together. She used to like this drink called Harvey Wallbanger — I had never heard of this drink. It’s orange juice and something else — I can’t remember what the liquor is — but all I know is that it banged my wall, okay? [Laughs]

Was it during this time that you also took up dance training?

Yes, after my time in Chicago, Vinnette Carroll said, “Vivian, you dance very naturally. What you need to do is go back and study dance. And do me a favor: don’t study as a singer wanting to learn to move well; study as a dancer.” That’s what I did.

What was the process like for you?

Well, it was rough, because most dancer dancers get started in their teens or preteens, and here I was starting in my early twenties. I had to be stretched out. I started taking jazz. But then I got to a point where I was told, “You need to take ballet in order to make the jazz easier.” So after a few years of jazz and tap, I started studying ballet. That continued for the next 15 to 20 years.

When you started studying, were you working under George Faison and Phil Black?

I started off with George Faison; then, I studied tap with Chuck Kelly and Phil Black. Later, when I moved to Paris for a production of Bubbling Brown Sugar, I studied at the Paris Centre of Dance.

I didn’t realize just how extensive your dance studies have been!

Oh, honey, it was major. There would be times when I’d be in class. People would come who didn’t know who I was and would talk to the teacher about wanting to either hire me as a dancer for some show. She would say, “No, she is a personality and she’s a singer, and she’s not going to do that.” Which, of course, I would not have. But they didn’t know that. They were coming from an innocent platform. So there were plenty of times — when Bubbling got started as a showcase — when I was the dance captain.

Tell me how you came into Bubbling Brown Sugar, which turned out to be a career-defining event for you.

Well, Danny Holgate, who was the musical director, invited me to a party at his home. During the conversation, I asked him if he had anything in the works. He mentioned the show. And I said, “Bubbling… what kind of dumb name is that?” And he said, “You know, Bubbling Brown Sugar, it’s just some little show that we’re putting together. Vivian, there’s nothing in it for you.” Then, he’d go back to the party.” This went back and forth for a few minutes; and finally I said, “Just tell me about the show.” He replied that it was “just going to be a bunch of old songs. I don’t think there’s anything that would interest you, and it doesn’t pay any money.” So I asked if I could at least audition for it. He told me, “Vivian, this is a waste of your time,” to which I responded, “Listen, Danny, see if you can get me an audition.”

I don’t know why I was so insistent — or persistent, however you want to look at it. So anyway, he called me back and said, “Okay, you can audition.” I went in, and they hired me before I even left the stage. So I asked, “Well, what’s the role?” They said, “There is no role.” Then, I asked the choreographer, “How many dancers have you hired?” He said three. I told him I thought that was a strange number. At that point, he asked me if I was a dancer; and I mentioned I’d been studying for a year. So, he agreed to audition me. He gave me some steps to do, and I did them.

When we got into rehearsal, there truly was no role for me. Danny asked me to pick from a list of songs. He asked me, “What about ‘God Bless the Child’?” and I said, “Oh, no, I don’t want to sing ‘God Bless the Child.’ Everybody sings that song. What about ‘His Eye Is On the Sparrow’?” He replied, “Vivian, you sing that in church.” What about ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’?” I said, “What about ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ and ‘His Eye Is On the Sparrow’?” He told me I could do “Sweet Georgia Brown,” but not “His Eye Is On the Sparrow.” So, I relented. However, there was another song, “St. Louis Blues,” that he was throwing in there. Yet, he still kept going back to “God Bless the Child.” And I said, “Oh, for God’s sake. Just play it for me.” I didn’t like it, because it had too many jazz chords, and I was in an R&B mode.

So I offered, “Well, what if you and I rearrange it together to suit my kind of delivery?” He said, “Vivian, we can do that.” And that’s how that song got reinterpreted. Then, we were working on “Sweet Georgia Brown” one day. It was going to be sung in the bend of the piano. I suggested to the choreographer that we add some dance to it. So, it became a song and dance. It’s funny: a few years later, I did the number on a TV special in Italy with an actor named Harold Williams who’s gone on to star in Oz and Lost. He’s now known, of course, as Harold Perrineau. People were always floored when they found out he was a fabulous dancer.

Now, you also created your character, Young Irene, in the show, right?

I created the whole role. My little character name was Marsha, but we eventually dropped that and it just became Young Irene, which was really the older lady in the show — the leading lady. I was the younger version of her.

How did you come up with that name and personality of the character?

There was some dialogue in the beginning. But the show never had a great book. We all knew it: it was sketchy at best. Marsha was a character within the opening scene—the present-day scene. That was when I became Young Irene, when she was thinking about her days as a young performer. Those were two different, distinct characters that I did in that show.

Is there actual footage from the show floating around?

No, you’d have to go into the archives of Equity. We were not allowed to have any videotape of any theatre piece, any union piece. It’s illegal. Anything that’s an Equity show, it’s only in their archives. They might let a piece come out for publicity, but that’s it. That’s true for any theatrical piece that falls under the jurisdiction of Equity union.

You were recognized by many awards organizations for your performance in Bubbling: a Tony nomination, and you won a Drama Desk Award.

Yes, and the Outer Critics Circle, NAACP, and Theatre World. In Pittsburgh, they named August 31st Vivian Reed Day. It was quite big — like, “Hometown Girl Makes It Big.” They stopped the news to interview me when the show was over. That was when the bus and truck company came to Pittsburgh, because I had stopped working for the Broadway production due to fatigue. You have the Broadway company, the national touring company, and the bus and truck company. It’s like the the low tier, and they don’t stay in cities very long.

What was your response to the awards and nominations? Was it something that you thought about?

I knew that we weren’t going to win the Tony, because we were up against A Chorus Line, which was huge. Sitting in their theater, of all places, they were just cleaning the boards with the awards. It was an honor to be nominated. I didn’t like the feeling, though, of being one performer pitted against another. I was on Broadway because I liked performing and I loved theatre.

How did you make the leap into the world of motion pictures? The first movie I saw you in was Headin’ for Broadway, alongside Rex Smith.

I made three films. Headin’ for Broadway came about through Joseph Brooks, whom I’ve heard passed away. He had heard me sing somewhere, and I think he was familiar with my theatre background. I agreed to do the film, because Fame had been out, and that was so wonderful. The second movie I acted in was L’Africane, which was a French film with Catherine Deneuve. Then, I portrayed Josephine Baker in La Rumba. More recently, I went about producing a short film called What Goes Around. I wanted to show my acting skills in something that was not glamorous at all. Marla Gibbs did a cameo appearance; and her daughter, Angela, wrote the screenplay based on a story that I gave her.

What do you remember about your start in movies?

I remember being very nervous and scared. I hadn’t done any straight acting. All of the acting I had done had been within the confines of musical theatre. So I was a bit petrified because there was going to be no bass, no drums!

Headin’ for Broadway has a cult following. How would you sum up the premise of the film and your character?

It was almost like Fame. We were aspiring young people in the music business going off to New York to get big careers in theatre. All of us came from humble backgrounds. My character’s name was Valerie.

Did you do a lot of promotion of the film?

No. It wasn’t a big-budget film. Funds were a little limited. I remember somebody sent me a review from the Globe, and it was very good for me. He wanted me to do more in the film, and I really didn’t want to. There was something that he wanted me to do, dance-wise, because I got a lot of my dancer friends in there, but I didn’t want to go along with him on certain things. So what he did was build up the character, Ralph, more.

You ended up going over to France for a number of years and living there. How did that happen?

Well, we were on Broadway, and they wanted to put another company together to go to Europe. I had been to Europe years before, and I wanted to go back. I wanted to experience another culture and another everything; so I went. It was like the United States all over again for me in terms of the reviews. Pierre Cardin was in the audience that night. Back then, premieres were exactly that: they were glamorous openings: you came in gowns and tuxedos — it was fabulous. We were at the Théâtre de Paris, the Theatre of Paris. Pierre was in the audience with his business assistant. They came back to the dressing room, his assistant translated, and he says, “Pierre would like for you to come to his theater and do his show.” I gave him all the particulars, and a year later I was making my way back over to France with two dancers and my band, and we were at his theater for three weeks.

But we first went to Amsterdam. That’s where the show opened before we ended up in Paris. There were a slew of photographers. Critics and reporters came from France to see me in Amsterdam, because my reputation had already gotten over there from the United States. That was amazing.

While you were there, didn’t someone give you the title of “The New Josephine Baker”?

Someone? They all did! Who put a stop to that was Elle magazine in France. When they did this big article on me, they said, “Enough is enough. You said she was Cyd Charisse, you said she was Lena Horne, you said she is Josephine Baker — she is Vivian Reed.” After that it stopped.

Tell me about your time living there. Were there things that you particularly appreciated about the experience? You mentioned that you had wanted to soak in a different culture. What were the results?

I think we take so much for granted here in this country, and when you go to another country, you start to appreciate a lot. On the other hand I also was so thankful for the opportunity, because I learned to speak the language. I didn’t know French—I could sing in French, but I certainly didn’t know how to speak it or understand it. Also, ust meeting the French and seeing how they shop at the market, which is very different from what we do and how we do — it was just so different. It’s kind of hard to put into words.

Could you give an example?

Of course, where they excel is in clothing: the haute couture, the fashion designers and all that, it’s just the best. But the telephone system there is just so much inferior to ours, but they don’t see it as such because they live there. And I’m sure it’s very different today as opposed to when I was there. Then, you have to pay tax on the rent. It was crazy. But another outstanding thing is that they don’t use a lot of preservatives and additives in their food, so everything has the best taste — oh, my God.

So, what made you decide to come back to the States?

I had been gone out of sight, out of mind, and it was time to come back! My mind was also made up real quick by five terrorist bombs targeting Americans. But coming back here was not easy. I didn’t work for about two years. Eventually, I started doing a lot of plays again. I wanted to do more plays, even though the theaters don’t pay as much. So, my first big thing, which had a lot of monologues, was when I portrayed Lena Horne in a piece called More Than a Song. It was with the Pittsburgh Ballet Company, but it was a heavy, dramatic piece. After that, it was straight plays, with no singing, no dancing; strictly acting.

Were there also productions that you did of Showboat and Sophisticated Ladies?

Yes, in Toronto, I did Showboat. I stayed up there a year. I made a lot of changes within that role, and some of those changes were then put on other actors, especially on Broadway. There were certain things that I thought could be better. I’ve always been like that.

What’s an example of something that you might try to fix?

Well, for instance, “Queenie’s Ballyhoo,” which was the song that Queenie would sing to get the Black folks to come up and see the show up on the top deck. She had lost focus, because that was a huge cast, and when she came down to the main floor, you could hardly find her because people were all over her and around her. I just couldn’t see it. So, I brought this to the attention of the director. Garth Drabinsky gave me permission if I came into the show to change things. Whatever changes I made in Toronto, the person on Broadway took on also.

You also developed your own nightclub act when you made your way back here.

I always had a nightclub act. I think it just got better and better as I grew as a performer.

So, something like the Supper Club, where you did a blues revue…

It was actually a swing revue. How that happened was, a man named Lionel who would come to the Espace Cardin to watch my show every night would come backstage. I had a thing where people could get up on the stage and dance — he was always one of them. He just fell in love with me, so to speak. One day, when we were about to close at Pierre’s theater, he said to me, in his broken English, “I’m a tap dancer and I’m very good. What should I do?” I said, “Take your ass to America.”And he did. He ended up running the entertainment at the Supper Club, and proceeded to track me down. He had already been in the United States for years; I just didn’t know it. He told me he wanted me to do the big opening for the club, which had previously been the Edison Theatre. After I opened it, a few years later, we did a swing revue.

Now, you also ventured into a totally different line of work for awhile, which was my introduction to you. You became a professor at Berklee College of Music.

Yes. One of my gay friends opened up a restaurant in Provincetown. He’s an excellent cook, and always wanted to go into the restaurant business. We were talking one day and he said, “The business hasn’t taken off.” So I said, “Well, listen—what about this: what if I come up? You do the publicity, and I’ll do a weekend for you?” So, I went up there. It was so funny. This was the night before I was supposed to open. We’re sitting there having dinner, and I happened to look down at the area where I was supposed to be doing my little show. I said, “Oh, my God. There are no lights.” He said, “What do you mean, lights?” I said, “If I’m singing here, I need a light!” So he went running off to the hardware store, and we set up these little reflector lamps and stuff like that. It gave me a lot to talk about when I was on the stage. He did a lot of business, and we were sold out the whole weekend. So, I came back up and did it for him again a few weeks after that.

While I was there, a lady asked one of the waiters to have me come over to the table. She said that she was a teacher at Berklee, and asked if I would consider coming there to do a master class. It took a couple years, but I eventually did. Then, we did something where the students could come up and mock audition, and then I did a little concert for them. When they first asked me to come up and teach it, I wouldn’t do it. I said, “No, no-no-no-no. I am a performer.” I went off to do Showboat, and then Ken Greenhouse was calling. He left me a couple of messages; and finally when I finished with the show, I got to thinking about it. I said “Okay, you need to give back. The students can benefit from your knowledge and everything you’ve learned.” So, I called Ken up and said, “I’m not coming up to make a lifetime career of this, but I’ll come up and do a semester.” That was also with the understanding that I could set my own curriculum, which he let me do. One semester turned into two and a half years.

Tell me about the curriculum that you created there.

Well, they didn’t have a performance class, and that was important, because everyone is not going to be as fortunate as I, to have a manager who owned the Apollo Theater where you could be afforded the opportunity to go and see all these greats go in and out. That’s a rarity. So, I wanted to establish a performance class where I could teach them all about the stage from the theatre aspect of it to the nightclub and concert aspects. In theatre, they could not use a microphone; in nightclub-concert, they had to use a microphone. I taught them how to talk on stage; they had to talk every time they hit the stage. I told them when would be the appropriate time to do so. I did that because in the earlier part of my career in popular music, I really didn’t know what to say on the stage. Half the time I wouldn’t even say “Good evening.” I had to learn as I became more comfortable on the stage.

That personable thing that endears you to an audience, when you share stories, or a song that you’re about to sing that maybe reminded you of someone that was in your life, that someone in the audience could maybe identify with that—I didn’t know how to do that. That just came as I became more polished. So, I was going to save the students from that. They had to use their arms while they were singing — not overly so, but they had to use them. So many singers stand and don’t use their arms. They don’t understand that your arms are an extension of interpretation. The exam at the end of the course had to reflect all the categories: they had to reflect the nightclub, it had to reflect the theatre, and also I had to take into consideration how they set up the stage; how they talked; everything.

What made you decide to move on from that?

Because everybody in New York thought I had lost my mind. I was turning down gigs, because I got so ensconced in the activities at Berklee. I had also established a night called Singer’s Night, which I understand still goes on. I had offered my services when I saw another showcase that the “Yo Team” put on, which I thought was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever seen. All of the students thought it was the cat’s meow and everything, but then they didn’t have anything else to compare it to. I had already been almost around the world and I had seen so much, and I was sitting there watching this showcase. It was like a factory line: the singer comes on, the singer sings, the lights come up, the singer bows, the lights go off, the singer leaves. Every singer was coming on the same way, and I was like, “They’ve gotta be kidding me.” So, I offered my services, and the head of the team basically fluffed it off, like “Who do you think you are?” I was very nice and very careful with how I worded it. So, I went to the head of the voice department, like, “Okay, I want to do my own show called Singer’s Night.” And the rest is history.

When you talk about some of the situations you can run into, whether it’s in the business or even at an educational institutions, it summons to mind a quote from you earlier in your career. You described yourself as “no Miss Sweet Polly Purebred.” So, how do you deal with those situations? If someone is not being respectful to you as an artist or what-have-you, how do you find the balance in standing up for yourself?

I think I’ve gotten better as I’ve gotten older. When I first came to New York, I was very sweet; very, very green. Someone told me in the early part of my career, “You’re going to have to harden up, because people will take advantage of you. You’re going to have to learn how to be tough when you’re called on to be, because people are going to run over you.” So, with everything that I ran into with Bubbling, with the jealousy, I developed that hard exterior. Not so much nowadays, because when I see it coming, that’s on them. I’ve come to learn that. But back then, I fought back, and maybe in ways that I would never do now. But God had given me this gift, and how could you be hatin’ on me for that? What could I do? I didn’t tell the critics what to write.

I was using my gift. And I’ve always been an unselfish performer. I would send friends of mine to the same auditions I was going to, if their agents were not sending them; so that if I didn’t get it, maybe they would get it. I have always been about helping other singers or other people pick songs. I have never been that jealous kind of person, so when it was happening to me, I didn’t understand it; and I fought back.

It hurt me to an extent, because while I was in Europe and the stories were being told, my reputation was kind of being ruined. I got branded as difficult and bitchy. And I will say that, to a degree, I just feel that when an audience pays good money — and people work hard for their money, and shows are not cheap — and a performer has been hired to entertain, that you should give, and be the best that you can be, and do the best that you can for these people who are spending their money to see you. I know that I give a thousand percent — way, way over what is deemed necessary; and I want whoever’s doing whatever they’re doing with me to be as committed as I am. That’s not always the case, because a lot of people come into show business for the dollar signs. They could care less about the art of it. So, what happens in a case like that is, they won’t do the homework. Once rehearsal is over, they go home and they party, and then when they come to rehearsal the next day, it’s like the director has to start back from square one. But see, the reality is, when you are doing theatre, in particular once the director and the choreographer gives you what he wants you to do, you have to go home and practice that. So that the next day, you can go from that point to the next point. The absence of that was the reason for me going off, a lot of times.

Ultimately, did the experience of teaching at Berklee help you in any way, as far as advancement in your own craft or career?

I think you learn something from every situation. I’m hardest on the talented ones, because my teachers were like that with me. That’s basically how it goes, because talented people tend to think that they can get away with more because they think it’s going to be there. But I would say that the joy that I got from Berklee was being able to see the students come in one way at the beginning of the semester and then leave another way because of my teaching. And only was I able to give back like that because I had learned. There was a time where I was exactly where they were.

Let’s talk about some of your recent endeavors. You’ve released a gospel EP on iTunes, Vivian Reed Sings That Old Time Gospel.

Yes, that was done for a French company, for use as library music. What film or commercial companies will do, when they need something to go on a report or underscoring in a film, is say, “Okay, I need this kind of music.” So this was done for that purpose. The deal I had with them is that I could have a copy of the master and do whatever to I wanted with it.

You did a really nice a cappella intro to “Amazing Grace”; and it was also enjoyable listening to your rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Yes, they picked all public domain songs. But they wanted me to produce it here in America, because they didn’t want to do it with French singers. I made a lot of money from it, because you send it to Washington to be copyrighted, and every time that thing is played, you see results. In fact, one day I was sitting up watching CNBC, and some financial person had gotten into trouble. The next thing I hear is my record. Another time, I was watching a Jean-Claude Van Damme film and he was getting ready to screw these two women, and the next thing I heard was [sings]: “Oh when the saints go marching in…”

You also have a photography business that you’ve started, VJR Photography. Tell me how that came about.

Well, that came about with this photographer in New York who is going to remain nameless. She charged me a thousand dollars to do an in-studio photo shoot; and to this day I have no photos that I can use. That was the first time — and I’ve been shot by some of the biggest and best photographers in the world — that I had a shoot where I could not find any photos that I liked. She shot too close to me, she didn’t shoot enough Polaroid’s. It was a mess. My hair was a mess. She didn’t take care. So I got angry; I cried; I was upset. Then, one night two months later, I went to the closet and pulled out my little Canon Sure-Shot and moved furniture around, and shot a picture of myself. I said, “Oh, this looks pretty good.” I had a remote control in my hand. I proceeded to shoot hundreds of more photos of myself. Then I had some people come over, but I didn’t tell them that I had shot the photos. I asked them what they thought. They said, “Oh, these are very good. Who’s the photographer?” When I told them it was me, they said, “Vivian, this might be something you should think about going into as a second thing.” So, that’s how it started. In the beginning, I bought equipment that I really didn’t need,which is still in there never being used. I made an investment. I bought books, read up on it, drove the people at BNH Photos crazy down on 34th Street. I taught myself. I had professionals come by my place. They said to change the formation of my couches for depth. So, my place turns into a studio!

What services do you offer?

I specialize in headshots and dramatic lighting. I’ve done album covers for Shelton Becton and several other artists.

We spoke recently about how hard it is for theatre performers these days. The high ticket prices on Broadway certainly don’t help. What are your thoughts on the current state of things, and what do you think might help?

It’s hard to say what would help. There are so many fabulous performers not working because of the economy. Shows have gotten so expensive because of the salaries being payed to big names. They’re bypassing people with a lot of Broadway credibility, opting out for recording artists because they want to fill the seats. A lot of the non-working talent are creating their own one-man or one-woman shows. It’s a difficult climate where things have drastically changed. People can’t take this business lightly, because it’s so extremely difficult to sustain, especially without getting a regular job. Many of my friends have had to take office jobs to pay their rent. A lot of people are walking around without health insurance. You have to understand the ramifications, because you do not work all the time.

What are the keys to your longevity?

The fact that I could do so many different things, and I was good at all of them. But what got me good was that I worked at getting good. It didn’t just descend on me. I’m considered a really good photographer. But that didn’t happen just because I got disappointed in this woman’s work. It happened because I got books and I took thousands of photos. I studied it and asked questions. That’s what makes us great.

Any artists these days whose work you appreciate, in theatre or recording?

Beyonce. I pick her over a lot of them. When she first came out with Destiny’s Child, I certainly could see the talent. People used to say she couldn’t sing because she riffed so much. They thought she couldn’t sing a song straight. I don’t know if those comments got back to her or if she took more vocal lessons. All I know, this woman has blossomed into an incredible artist. I sat with such joy when I heard her sing “Listen” in Dreamgirls. Whatever it took, she did it. I have to give her props. Yes, she has that commercial sound that makes great records; but I’ve also seen her work on her craft. I applaud her. You see the work, just like you do with Usher or Chris Brown on stage. When you see great performers, you see the work. Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli. They’re not just getting on stage with the greatness descending on them. Christina Aguilera. Madonna puts in a fantastic show. Is she considered a great singer? No. But she’s a stylist, and she works on production. She makes sure that she gives her audience everything that they’re paying for. These are the artists I love. I love hip-hop, too. Jay-Z. I don’t care what walk of life they come from. I appreciate them all when I see the work.

One can clearly see that work ethic shine through in your career — from Broadway to recording to movies and TV.

Thank you. That’s what anybody coming into this business has to understand. You’ve got to put in the work.

Visit Vivian Reed’s official website.

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About Justin Kantor

Justin Kantor is a music journalist with a passion for in-depth artist interviews and reviews. Most of his interviews for Blogcritics can be heard on his Blog Talk Radio program, "Rhythmic Talk." Justin's work has been published in Wax Poetics, The All-Music Guide, and SoulMusic.com. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Music Business and Management program, he honed his writing chops as a teenager—publishing "The Hip Key" magazine from 1992-1996. The publication, which was created out of his childhood home in Virginia Beach, reached a circulation of 10,000 by the time he was 16. At Berklee, Justin continued to perfect his craft with a series of 'Underrated Soul' features for The Groove from 1997-2003. This led to a companion TV show on Manhattan Neighborhood Network in 2002, as well as writing for the national Dance Music Authority (DMA). A self-described "obscure pop, dance, and R&B junkie," Justin also has penned liner notes for reissue labels such as Edsel Records and FunkyTownGrooves. He's excited to be a part of the BlogCritics team and indulge his musical fancies even further. Connect with him at his Facebook page, or via krystolfan@gmail.com.
  • Lionel Lavault

    Thanks Justin for this great interview with the one and only Miss Vivian Reed…

  • http://amprofile.blogspot.com/ Alan Mercer

    Thank you for an amazing and detailed interview with the legendary Miss Vivian Reed! Good job Justin!

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/justin-kantor/ Justin Kantor

    Thank you, guys, for your interest and support! I had a blast talking with Miss Reed!