Wednesday , May 29 2024
Former child prodigy and 9.9 vocalist takes listeners back to soul school with "Mistreated" and debut solo album, R&B 101.

Interview: Margo Thunder – Soul Is Back In Session

At the tender age of 13, Margo Thunder won the hearts of soul-music lovers worldwide with her powerful, Aretha Franklin-inspired delivery. But it was her own unique styling that made “Soul of a Woman” and “Expressway to Your Heart” the anthems that they have since become. As lead singer of 9.9, she made further history with “All of Me, All of You,” a classic slice of ’80s R&B that she co-wrote. Fast-forward to 2011: Margo has gone through a number of personal trials and revelations that have led her to release her debut solo album, R&B 101. The single, “Mistreated,” has already garnered much attention through its iTunes release, and the surprising follow-up, “Did You Wrong,” looks primed to do the same. She talks with Justin Kantor about her journey.

You were born and raised in Boston. We have a connection there. I’m a graduate of Berklee College of Music. I studied voice there with Donna McElroy and Walter Beasley.

Walter was the saxophone player in my backing group, the Heartbeat Band. Freddie Fox, who’s married to Evelyn “Champagne” King now, was also in there. The whole band was comprised of Berklee musicians. There are so many Berklee alumni that I’ve worked with through the years. It’s almost like I’ve been going there since I was a little girl. Basically, they should just give me an honorary degree! [laughs]

You started singing when you were two years old.

I started singing before I could talk! My mother would tell me as I got older that anything I heard I could sing back — in perfect pitch. But I really never wanted to be a singer; it was just something fun to do. But then, Aretha Franklin was my hero. She was the headliner when I won a talent show at the Apollo Theater. I was nine years old. When I got to see her, that was it. I was hooked.

How did you end up going to the Apollo to take part in that contest?

Well, they used to hold talent shows around Boston. If you won the talent show three times, then you got to go to the Apollo. So, my mother used to go to these talent shows, and she would come back and tell me about it, and I’m going, “Yeah, yeah, whatever.” She was like, “You don’t want to go and sign up for the talent shows ’cause you’re afraid all those other little kids are gonna kick your butt.” I said, “Oh, you know what? Sign me up.” That was it!

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What were some of the songs you would sing when you were doing those shows?

Everything I knew of Aretha Franklin — when I sang around town, people used to call me Little Aretha Franklin.

Did you have a favorite Aretha song that you liked to sing?

Probably “Chain of Fools.” And I used to sing “Respect.” I was just kind of reminiscing about it, how I was singing “Respect” as a kid, trying to spell it, like, “R-E-S-P-C-E-T”! I’m a fan of a lot of singers, but there was just something in Aretha’s voice that was very musical to me. If you go back and listen to those records, you’ll find that she is a very rhythmic singer. Her voice just sounded like music. When I finally got a record deal, I was like, “Oh, my God, what am I going to do? I sound like Aretha — I don’t have my own sound.” So, I started just really listening to instruments. I stopped listening to other singers. I listened to horns, strings, drums, and basslines. That helped me find where I should be as a singer.

That’s a pretty savvy approach to take. It’s something that professors at Berklee tell students. As a vocalist, you can learn a lot from listening to what the instruments are doing.

And I was doing this as a kid, not even knowing that’s what I was doing. I was like, “What does this horn do?” Nowadays, I’m a vocal coach, and I tell people when they’re trying to get certain sounds, there are things that horns do — that full, open sound. I have them listen to a lot of that kind of stuff and then emulate those sounds, because that makes the throat open when you’re singing.

I read that a manager in New York caught one of your performances, and ended up getting you your first record deal?

I was singing in Boston on a local television show after I had won one of those talent contests; and the manager for the Tavares was in town. He was having a hernia operation, and the city is known for their schools and their hospitals. He just happened to be flipping through the channels, saw me, and was like, “Who’s that little girl?” He contacted the person that was managing me at the time and said, “This girl’s unbelievable.” So they signed me to Capitol Records.

What were the odds of that? That’s quite a fluke!

But I feel like my whole life has kind of been like that. You know how they say: there really are no accidents; things are meant to happen.

You were signed to a subsidiary of Capitol called Haven Records?

Yes. The producers Lambert and Potter were producing Tavares and The Four Tops. I was their first kid act. Capitol gave them the label. Back then, people did singles deals; you had to kind of prove yourself before you’d get a whole album. So, I did three singles with them.

I think my favorite is “Mama You’re All Right With Me.” Who would have thought that a 13-year-old would be singing that, when you listen to the lyrics?

Well, that was a funny thing, because even when they heard me — I was working on a demo at the time — and when Tavares’ manager brought the demo to Lambert and Potter, they were like, “How old is this woman? Is she like, 24?” Actually, when I started recording, I was 11— but what happened is, they signed Natalie Cole. They signed me first, but she’s the daughter of Nat King Cole, so they held my record back. But before then, they had a hard time, like, “What the heck are we going to write about, ’cause this kid sounds like a grown woman!”

The single was actually “Soul of a Woman”; “Mama You’re All Right With Me” was the B-side. “I got the soul of a woman/in the disguise of a little girl” were the lyrics to the song. And what a lot of people don’t know to this day is, I sang the theme song to The Happy Hooker, one of the first X-rated movies — when I was that age. When the producers of the movie heard “Soul of a Woman” and “Mama You’re All Right With Me,” they were like, “Oh, we want to get that woman.” They were told, “Well, you can’t, ’cause she’s a kid.” They said, “You’ve gotta be kidding! Well, we don’t care.” They flew me into L.A. Usually, when you sing to a soundtrack, you kind of look at what you’re doing. But they said, “Well, we can’t let you see the movie. We can just tell you where your voice is gonna come in.” It was the funniest thing for me.

One of the records that you did was with another team of producers, the late Tony Silvester of The Main Ingredient and Bert DeCoteaux: “Don’t You Have Any Love in Your Heart” and “From Her Arms to Mine.”

Yes; and Luther Vandross actually sung background on that record. He sung with a group of females back then.

What do you remember about those first studio sessions? What was it like recording those songs at such a young age?

Well, I grew up singing with musicians, so it wasn’t a new thing, like how it is now — a lot of singers out there have never really sung with a band until after their record comes out and then they put a band together. I grew up with all these great Berklee musicians that are still my friends to this day, that ended up doing some of the most amazing things: like Kevin Eubanks, who was on The Tonight Show, was my guitar player.

William Calhoun from Living Colour played drums for me. It was natural to me to go in. What’s so funny to me is, when I listen to myself sing as a kid, I feel like I sang with so much more emotion, ’cause I had no idea what I was doing — I was just feeling the music and doing what it was that I was. I wasn’t trying to reach a certain note. Whereas when you get older, you start to sing and you kind of know your breaking point for your voice — you find ways to skirt around things. As a kid, though, I just had no inhibitions about anything; anything that people gave me, I would just go for it!

So, after the singles that you did with Haven/Capitol, it was awhile until you were on record again. Did you make your living that whole time up until 9.9 as a performing musician, or what were you doing all that time?

Well, I was a kid. I was in school, doing all those things that kids did. So how 9.9 came about was, I went to the first music high school in Boston, Madison Park High. That’s where I met Wanda and Leslie. How we really became a group was that we had a project that we had to do one Friday. At the last minute, we forgot all about it, so we ran in the bathroom — “Do you know this song? Do you know that song? Yes!” We started singing. As soon as we started singing, the harmony was perfect — from the first note that came out of our mouths, and all of us looked at each other in amazement, like, “Wow!”

We went in the class and we performed this song that they thought we had worked on for a long time — the whole class was blown away. Wanda and Leslie were ahead of me in school. The whole time after they graduated and got jobs, I was like, “We should be a group.” Every day, I would go up to their jobs, like, “Look at what you’re doing. You don’t want to do this. We should be a group.” Until finally one day I wore ’em down, and they said, “Okay, we’ll be a group.” We started rehearsing, and we put an ad in The Phoenix: “Three female singers looking to join a group or looking to be background singers.” And the first call we got was from Joe Frazier, the heavyweight champion, the first person to beat Muhammad Ali. That was the first call that we got.

So was he pursuing a recording career at that point?

Well, he had put together kind of a Las Vegas show. He had an 11-piece band and hired us as background singers. We went on the road with him for six months. Then, we decided, “This is not what we want to do. We want to record; we want to do different things.”

What was it like going on the road with him?

Well, he was a boxer. He couldn’t sing — but because he was the heavyweight champion of the world, people loved him. So he had a great band, great musicians, great singers. It was a big production. He had Paul Anka do his whole show, map it out; so it wasn’t just us getting together and singing. He had arrangements and charts for everything that he did.

You gals toured for six months with him, and then you just decided to put together your own act?

Yeah, and that’s how we came back to Boston. We said, “Let’s just put our own band together. Let’s work around Boston and start working our way into the recording studios.” The reason we were called Margo Thunder and Intrigue is because people knew my work as a kid, from the “Soul of a Woman” and “Expressway” records, and that got us work. That kept us working every weekend; we worked up and down Blue Hill Avenue and Roxbury.

Now, I’d always heard, before knowing this whole back story, that 9.9 was a Richard “Dimples” Fields creation. So how exactly did he enter the picture for you?

Well, it’s funny when I hear that creation thing, because how do you create something that’s already there? That’s just like Christopher Columbus ‘discovering’ something that’s already here! But anyway, we were working around Boston and were the most popular group there at the time. One day, we were rehearsing and I got a phone call. My brother said, “There’s some guy that says his name is Richard Dimples-something.” So, I’m like, “Yeah, yeah.” Funny thing is, we actually had tickets to go see that show that night, ’cause he was on tour with The Whispers as their opening act. So, I just started laughing; and we just kept rehearsing. So, then my brother comes back downstairs and says, “Are you gonna answer the phone?” I said “No.” He said, “Well, the man’s still on the phone, waiting for you.” So I go answer the phone. And I say hello, he’s like, “Hey, baby” — ’cause that was Dimples; everybody was “baby” to him. He said, “I heard you’re one of the best singers in Boston.” I said “Okay.” — I’m still kinda like, “hmmm…,” you know? And he goes, “I’m looking for a background singer.” And I said, “Well, there’s three of us, so, if you’re looking for one…”

So he said, “Well, if you all are that good, then I want to hear you sing.” So I said, “Well, where are you staying?” And he was staying at a hotel down near Berklee. I went down and picked him up, he came over and listened to us sing; the next day we were on the tour bus with him. We started out as his background singers. Through the whole tour, people were like, “Oh, those girls are great.” The Whispers wanted to do something with us, and Dimples was like, “Oh, no. When we get off tour, I’m gonna produce these girls myself.” So we ended up, right from the tour, moving to California, and Dimples started working on the 9.9 album. The group was originally gonna be called Ouch. And we were like, what? We started working on the record, going back and forth, and we had some disagreements, and some things that we didn’t like. And finally, we finish what we think is gonna be the album.

We had had enough of California, so we were like, “We’re going back to Boston.” And then, probably a month and a half later, Dimples called and says, “We’ve gotta finish this album.” I told him, “If you wanna finish this album, you’re going to come to Boston, because we’re not coming back to California.” So finally, I guess RCA said, “We want to sign those girls; but we need them to do some other material.” So Dimples comes to Boston, and at the same time he was working on an album of his own—we were doing background for him, too. He was on a plane on his way to Boston, and he had sent the tapes up there for the engineer, who also used to be my drummer in the band, Paul Arnold. He said, “Well, I’ve got a couple of songs I want you guys to put background on for me first.” So, Paul pulls out “All of Me, All of You.” We’re listening to the track and I’m like, “Who’s this song for?” And Paul says, “Well, Dimples says it’s for him.” I said, “Oh, no. Well, let’s do the background.” He had the lyrics in the box but I had never heard the melody of the song, so I went in and I came up with the melody. At the time, I wasn’t thinking I’m actually writing if I’m coming up with the melody.

So you were taken just with the track itself, initially?

Right, and I start singing [sings]: “All of me for all of you/nothing less will ever do.” When Dimples finally got to the studio, he was like, “Did you guys put the background on?” I said, “Dimples, that ‘All of Me’ song should be for us. That’s the song that we need.” He said, “Okay, Bean, if you feel that strongly about it, go ahead and sing it.” He gave me the lyrics; I looked at them and started singing it; and then he stopped me and said, “How do you know the song goes like that?” I said, “That’s just how I feel the song.”

So again, I’m writing melody, ’cause I’m just singing what I hear in my head. And I sang “All of Me” in one take — and he was like, “Whoa!” And the only thing that I did,— cause Dimples kept looking at me like, “It needs to do something,” and he pointed a finger up in the air — I said, “Okay, go back,” and that’s where the high note came from. And everybody just flipped out, and Dimples called RCA — because we had a second single called “I Like the Way You Dance”. But that was actually supposed to be the first single. And he said, “You guys need to stop the presses, ’cause we got the hit right here.” He held the phone up in the air and he played it to the people, and they stopped, and they put “All of Me” out first.

When you said that there were things that you weren’t happy about: was it other material on the album?

Well, it’s like with anything when you’re working with producers, and that’s the hard thing. At the time we really weren’t writing, all we really cared about was singing. We were just concerned about having these great vocals and harmonies, and we just felt like some of the songs just weren’t for us. So, we took two songs off and we put “All of Me” on, and then we redid “Feel the Fire,” the Peabo Bryson song. I had done that arrangement when we were singing around Boston; that was kind of our anthem. We couldn’t go anywhere without singing it. And that’s actually the first song Dimples ever heard us sing. He was like, “You guys got the gig.”

Didn’t 9.9 cut a second album that wasn’t released?

Yes, we started doing a second album, and then there was a big battle between the record company and the production company.We kind of got caught in the crossfire with that. Also, Wanda and Leslie were going through their transition, they really wanted to do gospel—they had become born again. But there was controversy.

RCA was looking for Dimples to do different things with us. At one point they even wanted to bring in other producers, which he had a hard time with. They wanted to get a different sound. And then, some of the songs that Dimples was giving us—Wanda and Leslie were like, “We’re not going to sing those lyrics.” So it was a big turmoil going on all around.

Yeah, ’cause back then I never could figure out what happened, because you guys were so big, and then it’s like, “Well, why don’t they do another album?”

It just ended up turning into chaos. And the stickier it got, it was easier for Wanda and Leslie to just stick with their convictions—which for me, at the time, I understood, but I didn’t understand. But if I knew then what I know now, I’d know that everybody made the right choice for themselves.

So at the time it must have been kind of a bittersweet thing for you. Or I don’t know if that’s the right word, you know what I’m saying?

That’s the perfect word; because again, to this day, the three of us are still like sisters. It’s part of how we feel about each other. That never messed us up as people — but it’s hard on a career. And it was hard for me — because I was the only one that wanted to move forward and keep doing what I was doing. I really couldn’t sing, because RCA was holding me back; until finally I had to hire an attorney and he went to the record company and said, “Look, you either are going to release this girl or you’re going to do a record with her.” They finally released me from the record company.

That’s a perfect example of what happens so often with major labels, which is probably why now, there are so many artists doing the independent thing. Basically, RCA wanted to keep you under contract, but yet they weren’t willing to record you?

Well, that’s the thing: if somebody has a contract with you, they have the right to do that. Like I said, when I first signed with Capitol, they held my record back to put Natalie Cole out. They did what they thought was gonna be more profitable for them. I’m not trying to knock major labels, because I still have a lot of friends that are in the music industry that have been good to me throughout my career. But with this R&B 101 project, I wasn’t even really thinking about doing a record—and that’s when Ken Wilson came to me with “Mistreated.” He had been telling me about this song for years. He’s like, “Margo, I’m telling you, I have this song, and if you sing this song, it’s gonna bring you back.”

I went to his office and I said, “I’m not gonna leave until you let me hear this song.” He had one of his assistants cut me a CD of the song. I took it home, listened to it and I said, “If I was gonna come back and sing, this is the song that I would be singing.” He said, “Well, let’s get started.” I said, “Well, I can’t do this song without 9.9”—and a lot of people don’t know that that’s them singing in the background. “I need to fly back to Boston and have these girls sing on this song.” He booked a ticket, and I literally went back to Boston for one day. We went in the studio. We hadn’t sung together for four or five years. I had produced a gospel album on Wanda. We were sitting in the studio, laughing and all kind of looking like, “What’s this going to be like?” The music came on, and it was like the first day we sung in that bathroom. Perfect. From there, I was like, “This is a hit song.”

When I brought it back and I played it for Ken, he was like, “You know what, Margo? We can’t even do a single on you. We’re gonna have to do a whole album.” I said, “No problem.” I’ve written songs for years; but when I write songs, I never hear myself singing them. I always say, “I can hear so-and-so singing this song, or I can see this one singing it.” I’ll record them and do all the backgrounds and demo them up, and then they just sit.” So, I went home, and just put together a collection of songs that I thought would work for this project.

Did you collaborate with Ken on the production of all of the songs?

Well, Ken executive-produced it; he paid for it. The person that I collaborated with, his name is Gordon Worthy. We’ve been writing together for years, so when I played Ken all these songs, I called Gordon and said, “You know all these songs we’ve been writing that have just been sitting around? Well, pull ’em out and do what you need to do to ’em to update ’em, ’cause I think we have a record.”

Now, the R&B 101 title: did that just come into your head? Was that a concept you had before?

I was putting these songs together, and they all tell a story about things that have happened in my life. I have a song on the album called “One of Nine,”— I’m one of nine children. It’s about my mother. When I played it for Ken and Belinda, everybody started crying, because my mother passed away. But fortunately, I had written the song and played it for her before she passed away. As I was going on, trying to think of what I wanted this record to be called, I started thinking about stories. Like, the second single, “Did You Wrong.” What that song is all about is, when I was a little kid singing in these nightclub. I wassinging one of my Aretha Franklin songs; and this woman comes in and she just hits this guy over the head with a beer bottle — because he was out cheating with somebody else. A big fight broke out, and I was taught just to keep singing, no matter what happened!

Yeah, right — the show must go on!

I often write about things that people tell me: “Oh, that sounds like a good song.” So, I finally figured that I was going to call this R&B 101. What’s your first class when you go to school? English 101. Your theory class? It’s Theory 101. I was just taking people back to the basics of what R&B music is all about. It’s a bunch of stories. There are songs on this album that talk about love; because at one point, it seemed like people just thought R&B was just negative stuff—like guys writing songs about women, calling them B’s, you know? And I’m like, “That’s not what R&B was born of.”

You mentioned being one of nine children. That must have presented a lot of stories from your early life. From what I read, for your mom, it was hard to make ends meet.

I started singing in nightclubs when I was six or seven years old. I had a band. When I first started doing it, my mother would come with me; and then after awhile I would just go to the gig on my own. A lot of people would question my mother, “Why are you letting this kid do that?” But my mother knew me. She would tell me, “When you’re not on that stage, where are you?” I’m downstairs in my dressing room. And so I got to see a lot of things that kids didn’t see, but I also stayed in a kid’s place: I wasn’t up there mingling with adults. And she knew it. She never worried about it one time.

Oh, that’s great that you guys had that trust.

Because she raised nine kids. I tell people, when I grew up, I didn’t have an opinion until I was old enough. She’d tell me: “If you want to have an opinion, you pay some bills in this house, and then you can tell me what you think.” But it worked for her, ’cause that’s how she had to be, raising us. I have six brothers and none of them have ever been in trouble. So that’s just a tribute to her. We had it rough. But we always had food. So, when I look at life now, part of the song is me asking her, “How’d you do this?” How’d you raise nine kids?” When I see people that have one kid and they’re having a struggle.

So, is this album coming out on your label?

Well, it’s actually coming out on Belinda Wilson’s label. She’s been my manager since 9.9. It’s called Moon Ridge Entertainment.

Is there a release date for the album?

We were originally going to release the album in November. But I had done one song on the album that was a collaboration with someone, and at the last minute they decided that they didn’t want the song to be on the album. So, I had to go back in the studio and do another song. So I decided to go back to basics. I recorded “Feel the Fire” again. I got Wanda and Leslie to sing on it again, too. It’s just a little different in the arrangement, new music; ’cause when we did “Feel the Fire” with 9.9, Wanda sang the lead. I was kind of worried about it at first. I’m like, “Wait a minute, Peabo Bryson did this song; Teddy Pendergrass did; Stephanie Mills, and then 9.9—and here I am, doing it again.” But I couldn’t even believe how it came out. This time I didn’t go back to Boston: Wanda and Leslie did their backgrounds there; I did mine here in Los Angeles. When we put it all together and I sent them a copy to see what they thought, Wanda was like, “Oh, my God.” It made me feel so good.

Well, that’s great, because sometimes you don’t know, I guess when you’re not actually physically together? You worry if it’s going to come out sounding consistent, right?

Exactly. But I put my own spin on it, and even for me, I have a hard time listening to myself sing sometimes. I sing something and I’m on to, “Okay, what’s next?” But with this project, I can truly say that I sat down and listened to things. Part of it is because I was one of the producers of it and I wrote all the stuff. So I had to kind of live with it differently than I did when other people were producing us. I have to say that I’m really proud of the work that everybody put into this record.

So, are you projecting early 2011 it’s going to come out?

Well, what they’re getting ready to do is release another single. Then, I think they’re going to release the album at the beginning of the year.

This morning, Belinda sent me “Did You Wrong,” and I was surprised. I really enjoyed it, it’s got a nice groove. The lyrics were surprising, too. When you told me the story about how you went back to your childhood, singing in the bars, that adds a different spin to it, as well.

Yeah, because it’s so different from “Mistreated” that people are like, “Whoa!”

I know, it’s like the opposite extreme.When I saw the title, I was thinking, “Oh, this is going to be a sequel,” like, “Oh, he did me wrong.” But you were saying, “No, I did you wrong, but there’s only so much I can do about that now.” The end of the song is kind of what makes it unexpected, when you’re quoting from the Luther Ingram classic!

There’s a little controversy behind it. Once people hear the story, they’re going to think I’m this monster: “Wow, you were just talking about being mistreated, now you stole somebody’s boyfriend?” But life is all about stories, and every great story is what you make out of anything that happens to you: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Everybody’s going to have to wait to see, because I hit people with “Mistreated,” and I wouldn’t have wanted to come back any other way. And with being mistreated—a lot of people allow themselves to be mistreated. So the controversy in “Did You Wrong” is somebody allowing themselves to be mistreated.

If you listen to the lyrics, I’m saying, “My girlfriend told me all about her boyfriend”; and you know, most people talk too much when they need not to talk. Not that it makes it right for me to take this man, but: if you watch a Jerry Springer episode, people always try to justify the reason that they did something. So, that was the whole thing with the song. But there are some other fun things on the album, ’cause I have a song that is kind of a tribute to Aretha Franklin—it’s called “Say Ooh.”

Oh, that’s the one that I was reading is based on “Giving Him Something He Can Feel”?

Yeah. When I was writing the song, it gave me that good feeling. When people hear the song, it’ll bring it all back around. I think “Did You Wrong” is probably the most controversial song on the record; everything else is just life experiences. I went to Boston at the beginning of October. There’s an Internet station in Boston on which I let people hear the beginning of “Did You Wrong” and I let people hear the beginning of “Say Ooh.” The comments that I got back on those two songs: I said, “I want you guys to help me pick my next single.” People were calling, and they were like, “Did You Wrong.” And I said, “Well, why are you saying that?” and this one guy said, “Because my wife just left me, but I ended up with my daughter.” Other people were calling up saying, “Say Ooh,” ’cause if somebody can make you say “Ooh”, that’s a great thing. So it was neck and neck; people were calling back and forth, and the two songs ended up deadlocked— the tiebreaker was the DJ, saying, “Well, I like ‘Say Oooh’.” And it was a guy, you know what I’m saying?

Interesting. So, those are the two that you tried to decide between as the next single??

I wanted to get people’s opinions on the songs. ’Cause everything we get on radio is what radio picked; it’s not what the public picked. When I was a kid, I listened to WILD, and you could really call in and request a song and hear that song. Now, if you call up and request a song, it’s only the songs on the playlist that they give you to pick from. So, when I did that with the song, I said, “ I’m going to play these two songs and let people have their choice.” People don’t do that anymore.

One other thing I wanted to ask you about: there was an experience you had of some sort sometime in the last few years.

I had an operation, and I almost died from it. But before I had the operation, because I was just so fed up with music, people would ask me, “Are you still singing?” and I would tell them, “No.” All my friends would get pissed at me, like, “You do still sing.”— and I said, “No, I don’t sing.” When I got out of the hospital, the only thing that I could do was sing: I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t talk, and it was God telling me, “Look, I gave you this gift for a reason.” And it just opened my eyes to what I was sent here to do. We were all sent to this earth to do something, you know what I’m saying? And by me telling people that I didn’t sing anymore, God’s like, “I’ma teach you a lesson.” That’s really what it was all about. I went through this thing where my speech was really broken; I was walking around on a cane — people thought I had a stroke. The doctors couldn’t find anything.

I just knew it was a lesson for me, that “I gave you this gift and you’re gonna use it.” And that’s what I’m saying: when Wanda and Leslie left to sing gospel, I knew that wasn’t my calling. Even when I had this experience, I know I’d talked to God and I know I wasn’t here, He told me, “I got you here for a reason: there are things that you know and things that you are supposed to be doing.” This is what I’m supposed to be doing.

Wow. And I think I read that it was supposed to be a two-hour surgery, but it was a ten-hour surgery, ultimately?

Yeah. I went in at twelve o’clock and I didn’t wake up until eleven o’clock at night. So, I tell everybody — if you look at my Facebook — tell somebody that you love them, ’cause you never know.

That must give you a totally different perspective on things.

It really does. And it just brought around everything that I thought I hated about music, because of the business at the time. I never got into the business for the business—I got into the business for the love of creating and the joy of seeing people enjoy this gift that was given to me.

Are you still vocal coaching?

Yes, I still have a few students.

Was that something that you had always done, or that you started doing after 9.9?

That happened after 9.9. There was a bunch of studios in Boston at the time, and people would call me in to do background sessions. There were a lot of people that were coming in to record; but they really weren’t good singers. A lot of the engineers and studio owners started calling me up, like, “Look, I want to send this person to you. Do you vocal coach?” And I was like, “No.” They’re like, “Well, you should.” So, they started sending people to me. And I had so many people that I literally had to turn people away — that’s literally, at one point, how I existed.

Nowadays, do you give private lessons from home, or do you go to studios?

Well, I have a little setup in my house; I have a vocal booth. I’m basically teaching people how to sing in the studio, ’cause it’s totally different than singing live. I tell people, “If I could see you onstage, I could have a bad night; but if I’m looking at you you would never know, because I’m a performer — I know what to do to make you think that I was really good. But if you had a tape recorder and you listened to it later, you’d be like, ‘She really wasn’t singing.” We’ve come from this era where everybody’s just like, “Just fix it in the studio,” but then they’ve gotta get out and sing. So I teach people how to sing in the studio and get that feeling that they’re looking for. And to sell the song. I don’t even look at people when I give a vocal lesson; they think I’m not paying any attention. I say, “I’m not looking at you ’cause I’m listening to you. I’m not going to let you fool me by your facial expression.”

I’m so glad that we got to talk, it’s been really fun learning about your history and what you’re doing now. It’s real good to see you back out there, so I hope it will be a really enjoyable process for you this time.

Well, it’s been fun. You know what I say, I’ve had a great time doing this and I’m proud of the music; I think it’s going to make people smile and it’s going to make people really think about a lot of things, because a good story is a story that most people have been through in their lives. And that’s why I think I got the reaction with the “Did You Wrong” song and the “Say Oooh” song, because people could relate to that — they’re songs that people can relate to again. I just had a ball doing this.

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 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 [email protected].

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