90s - Marcella Detroit (2015)
Gray Matterz: The Marcella Detroit Story
Marcella Detroit (born Marcella Levy) is an American soprano vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter. Marcella released her debut album Marcella in 1982 before she joined Shakespears Sister with ex-Bananarama member Siobhan Fahey. Detroit sang the lead vocals on their biggest hit, Stay, which was number one in the United Kingdom for eight consecutive weeks. Since leaving the band in 1993, Detroit has maintained a successful solo career, and from 2002 to 2007 fronted her own self-titled blues band.
Detroit-born Marcella Marcy Levy began playing for different bands in her home city during the early 1970s. The first major act she worked with was Bob Seger who signed her band Julia up to tour with him. She sang back-up vocals on his Back in 72 album, which then, eventually, led to touring with Leon Russell. After moving to Tulsa, Oklahoma to further pursue her musical career, she and her then-current band were hired by Eric Clapton for touring. She sang backing and group vocals on Claptons album Theres One in Every Crowd, and toured and recorded with him for the next four years. A few years later, and whilst working on her debut album, she was singing and songwriting for numerous artists including: Aretha Franklin, Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager, Stanley Clarke, Chaka Khan, Belinda Carlisle, and Al Jarreau.
Having just released a brand new solo album this year, GRAY MATTERZ I sat down with the lovely Marcella Detroit, and I first wondered when had Marcy Levy become Marcella Detroit? I adopted the name Marcella Detroit when I started with the UK based band, Shakespears Sister. My partner - at the time - Siobhan Fahey, of Bananarama fame, and I, started working together in 1987 in Shakespears Sister, which was her brainchild.
She knew that I was mainly known for being a background singer and as I was going to be featured more in this new incarnation, she suggested I change my name to get a new lease on life, so to speak, in the music industry. I agreed and as my name is really Marcella, I thought of a few surnames and finally settled on Detroit; since it is my hometown and had been, and still is, the biggest influence on me musically.
It is a bloody good job you never came from Looneyville, TX! LOL, thank goodness for the small things, she smiles.
Indeed, being that you are from Detroit, the very same city that I am interviewing you from today, I can only assume that one of your proudest musical moments in life was having your 70s band Julia open up for Bob Seger! Actually, our band Julia was hired to be Bob Segers backing band in 1971 after he stopped working with the great Teagarden and Van Winkle on the Smokin O.P.s album. He was looking for a band, we were doing lots of gigs around the Midwest at the time, word got out. He heard us and hired us all. We were all together in the band for a while until Bob fired the rhythm section and hired in some Okies named Jamie Oldaker [drums] and Dick Sims [keyboards] from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Bob also hired a percussionist named Sergio Pastora who was working with Jamie and Dick at the time.
It really was a whirlwind and we toured across the states, mostly the south and southeast. It was through touring with Bob that I got to take my first plane ride, down to Florida. I was terrified, but loved it at the same time. We were all very excited and honored to be playing with Bob. It really was our big break.
But let me digress by saying Julia was really a great band led by Bill Mueller, now Blue Miller who is a very successful guitarist/singer/producer/songwriter now living in Nashville and has some Grammy awards under his belt for the amazing work he has done producing and writing and touring with artist, India Arie. One of the highlights of working with Julia, other than being nabbed by Bob Seger to be his band, was Julia opening for David Bowie at the Fisher Theatre. I was in awe!! We were not allowed backstage when David was there, but I managed to sneak back and catch a peak. He certainly was a spellbinding presence.
After that tour you were asked to sing backing vocals on his Back in 72 album, which was recorded at Leon Russells studio, correct? Well, as I said, it was after several tours in the states, and we were touring when we hit Oklahoma and Leons studio out by the lake, called the lake studio, funnily enough. Yes, I was excited with the prospect of seeing Leon as he was one of my idols at the time, I just loved Mad Dogs and Englishmen and all of his solo stuff. I used to have his albums all over my bedroom walls and I said to my mother, I am going to sing with him one day. She just laughed and said, OK, that is nice, she laughs. But recording the Back in 72 album was really great, of course, I was with Jamie and Dick and they were my friends and I brought along another great singer from Detroit named Luke Smith to do backing vocals with me while we were touring and he was also on that album, which was fun.
Soon after, you then toured with Leon Russell which then led, after you left Detroit to move to Tulsa, OK, to your band-at-the-time being asked to back Eric Clapton on his live dates! Further more, you then sang backing and group vocals on Claptons Theres One in Every Crowd album. Come on now, it is like you could not put a foot wrong back then! So true! It seemed like I could do no wrong, at least with being a background singer. I was always trying to do my own thing as a solo artist in the meantime. But as I mentioned previously, after a while working with Bob Seger with Jamie and Dick, they invited me to move to Tulsa and promised we had have a great band and take over the city. I left Segers band and they did as well in early 73 and I moved to Tulsa to join them in September of 73 after doing some work with various bands including Skip Van Winkle [part of Segers old band.] We had an amazing band in Tulsa and really played all the best clubs in town. Kind of like the big fish in a little pond, so to speak. It really got us noticed, and, me noticed.
Leon Russell started coming in to hear us and sit in with us and so did people from the Gap Band, JJ Cale and loads of others, including the incredible bassist Carl Radle from Claptons Derek and the Dominoes. And that is how we got to work with Eric. He was looking to put a new band together and Carl told him about us, he came to Tulsa to hear us and hired everyone. I had already committed to working with Leon for a 9 month tour, it was something I had to do, especially since it was always my goal to work with Leon. Plus, I was madly in love with him! Jamie was also on the tour, but he left to do the Clapton tour. I joined them after 9 months for the recording of There is One in Every Crowd, as you mentioned. Dick and Carl called me from Jamaica where they were recording the album and they suggested I come down to hang out. So I did, and after singing background vocals on several songs, Eric asked me to be in the band. Of course, I said yes.
Now, is it true that you also co-wrote several songs with Clapton on those subsequent years of touring, including Lay Down Sally? Indeed it is true. I wrote and co-wrote about 8 songs with and/or for him: 1. Hungry, with Dick Sims; 2. Innocent Times, with Eric, where I was vocally featured; 3. The Core, with Eric; 4. Lay Down Sally, with Eric and George Terry; 5. Roll It, an album track written with Eric; 6. I even helped write a bit of Promises, but as I only helped with that title and one line in the chorus I was not given writers credit, only publishing credit; 7. Walk Away, with Richard Feldman; and 8. Tangled in Love, with Richard Feldman, which led me back to working with Eric again in 1985.
It was also around that time you wrote and recorded your debut solo album with David Foster, but sadly it never saw the light of day - and still has not. What happened back then to it, what was it is original title, and will it ever be released down the line, perhaps? Oh no, it will never be released! The president of RSO records, Al Coury, let us record about 4 songs. There was no working title. Al did not like it and did not allow us to continue, that is what happened with it, unfortunately. Maybe I will release it as a demo collection at some point, we will see.
After leaving Clapton, you went on to work for Aretha Franklin, Burt Bacharach, Stanley Clarke, Chaka Khan, Belinda Carlisle and, amongst others, Al Jarreau. OK, as we are not called Exclusive Magazine for nothing, please tell us something you have not mentioned before about your musical associations with:
a) Eric Clapton - We were doing Live Aid in 85. We were on a revolving stage getting ready to start our set. We all took our places, the stage came round, the curtains opened and the sound of the crowd of 105,000 people was deafening and overwhelming. Eric turned to me and shouted, Woah!!! I nodded and agreed. It was one of the most exciting shows we had ever done, just electrifying.
b) Bob Seger - One night while on tour with Bob, the other backing singer, Shaun Murphy - then called Stoney Reese - and I were doing our solo spot in the show. We got to sing this really cool song called Think, not the Aretha song, but a song by one of James Browns proteges, Lynn Collins. We rocked it, crowd is cheering like crazy. That night, after the show, Bob fired Shaun and I! But he hired us back the next day. Pretty funny thinking about it now.
c) Aretha Franklin - Funny, my sister grew up with Arethas son, Teddy Richards who has been playing in Arethas band for many years until recently. So we have the connection there too. I can tell you, It was a thrill to work with Aretha. I went to do a vocal session, hired by the late great producer, Arif Mardin, who was also one of my idols, what a genius. He called me to do this session for Love All the Hurt Away a duet with Aretha and George Benson, gorgeous song. Aretha was not there for the session, but she came in at the end to listen and liked it. I was in awe and pretty tongue tied really: my vocal idol was there!
d) Chaka Khan - I never met Chaka, but I was really honored that she ended up doing a song I co-wrote with Richard Feldman and Pam Tillis back in the early 80s. She is such an amazing singer and spirit.
e) Alice Cooper - I used to go see Alice Cooper play around the Detroit area whenever he was playing before I started my foray into the music business. Loved him. I got to work with him through my association with David Foster who called me in to do the session with Alice. He is such a down to earth guy, and very funny, although the song we did [Millie and Billie] was quite mad about two people in an insane asylum!
In 1982 you finally released your (different) debut album, Marcella on Epic Records. Now, good and bad came from this as, the GOOD was you finally got your music out there, and on a major label, but the BAD was that when it did not chart Epic then denied you the John Mellencamp tour as support. Reflecting back, what was that time period like for you and how did you get through it? I would be a liar if I said it was not devastating! I did some gigs around LA, and Mellencamps people - his drummer and others - were in the audience at a place called the Roxy. Next thing I know they are wanting me to open up for him. I was so excited and really happy. But unfortunately the record company would not come up with the tour support for it. I did a lot of press and some radio tours. The New York branch of Epic did not get my record, and it was hard to fight when the major faction of the company was not behind it. I was pretty upset. Good thing I had already quit drugs, she smiles. I just dug deeper into my music and expressing myself that way.
Also, what instantly comes to your mind when you look back at the Marcella album cover? They were wanting to do this really glam thing. I was not too sure about it, but things and looks were evolving. I just remember at one point having a piece of that models - a guy - hair in my mouth, nice, tasted like hair gel; but he was pretty cute, so it was ok!
After touring again with Clapton, come 1988 and you met Bananarama member Siobhan Fahey and after a while you became the duo better known as Shakespears Sister. When your second single, Youre History reached the Top 10 in the UK, did you finally feel vindicated as an artist in your own right, perhaps? Me, feel vindicated?? No, not really. We actually met in 1987 and that was released in that year as well. For that album I was still considered a hired hand by her and her label, London Records.
Things got even better for you when the second SS album came out, Hormonally Yours, and its second single was Stay. A track that marked the bands only #1 on the UK charts, it was made even more special by the fact that you sang lead, correct? Yes, it was great for me that Stay was so successful, but not great for the band as Siobhan felt it did not represent Shakespears Sister. I sang the lead vocal on it and it was number one for 8 weeks which still holds the record for the longest running number one for a female band in the UK.
For that album, when we started it, the record company saw me as more integral to the sound and they, and Siobhans management, asked me to become a 50% member of the band. I was feeling slightly more vindicated then. It was really initially a concept album. We were trying to get the rights to a 50s B Movie called Cat Women from the Moon. We wrote different songs around the movie and wanted to superimpose ourselves into it. But it proved to be too costly so it never happened. Still, the music spoke for itself.
After a few more chart adventures, SS finally broke up in 1993, just when Hormonally Yours won Best Contemporary Collection of Songs at the Ivor Novello Awards! Word has it that, sadly, you have not spoken to Siobhan since that very same time period, is that true? Yes, it is all true, we have not spoken since the split. She was not there to collect the Ivor Novello award and that is where it was announced, unbeknownst to me, that I was no longer in the band, by her publisher reading out a letter from her. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. We were very different people in so many ways. We made some crazy magical music together though and that is the thing to be remembered and celebrated. We have emailed a few times in an attempt to get together, but it was not happened yet."
After that you released your second, third and fourth solo albums, along with a live album, Without Medication Plus MTV Buzz Live. So, it begs the question, back in the day were drugs ever a part of your songwriting/performing live experiences, perhaps? Drugs were not necessarily a part of my songwriting, but they were definitely a big part of my life until around 1978. I had to stop as I had an addictive personality. And that was it, I made up my mind. I have tried almost everything at least once. Once, I was doing a gig in Tulsa, drunk on something and I listened back to the tape. It was dreadful!!! From that point on, I decided I would never get high for a performance again. I would wait till the encore of the show - if there was to be one - and have a Heineken on the side of the stage for me, that was in the Clapton days. After those Clapton days, I did not indulge much in any drugs or alcohol very much any more, especially for performing.
In the subsequent years thereafter you created the Marcy Levy Band, worked with Willie Dixons grandson on an album, participated in a British reality TV show, released your first Christmas EP, set up a not-for-profit charity organization [The Madison Morr Foundation], released yet another Christmas EP, and released yet more solo albums! Phew, well, it seems that you truly hate to be stood in the same spot for too long, so what perpetually motivates you, Marcy? Wow, you know a lot about me! What motivates me is MUSIC!! And my sincere LOVE to create as well as my interest in the many sides and adventures of this thing called LIFE. The Madison Morr Foundation, I set up for my little niece who was sadly found not breathing in her crib, only 5 months old. It was hard and took a few years to set it up, and I have yet to do enough fundraising for it. But it was my intention.
My sister is a teacher in the Detroit area and has been raising money for kids in need of school supplies, so that was what this organization is also intending to do, to help those less fortunate by providing funds for educational supplies. www.madisonmorrfoundation.org. I think I will be doing an auction fund raiser soon of my old stage clothes.
Now here in 2015 and you have just-released a brand new solo album entitled GRAY MATTERZ. Did it always have that title, what can we expect from it, and does it differ in anyway to anything that has gone before it? Yes, the working title was always Gray Matterz. I was talking with a label in the UK about it for a while. It was an adventure not too dissimilar from my electronic Dancing Madly Sideways album that I released in 2000. More of a dance/pop record.
Indeed, from your first self-titled solo album on through to this upcoming new one, how has your voice; and songwriting style therein, changed over the years? I feel my voice has become stronger, it used to be pretty thin, but it has toughened up over the years. as far as my songwriting goes, well, I like to experiment in different genres and really learn by listening to other music and working with others. I try not to be too much of a purist and try to maintain an open mind. I aam much more disciplined than I used to be, lyrics come a lot easier to me now. I only write about what I know about, it is mostly autobiographical, really, which makes it more believable for me, and the listener.
OK, being that you were born here in Detroit will you ever come back and play shows here some day? To promote the new album, perhaps? I hope so, we will see what transpires. I was there in January and sat in with my friend Corky Siegel of the Siegel Schwall Blues band who inspired me greatly when I was just starting out. They were playing at the Magic Bag in Ferndale and I did a few songs with them.
And with that regard, how will you be promoting this new album, in this day and age? One a million miles away from 1982 when Marcella came out on vinyl back in the day You are not kidding! It is such a different world. I am trying to navigate my way around it, trying to keep an open mind, it is definitely not how it used to be. I will most likely be working with press and PR people who are good at social media as that was the way it is going now. Plus YouTube is huge and provides a vast platform for music these days. But vinyl has made a huge comeback which I am happy to hear about. It is so much warmer than digital music.
With regard social media, in general re: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. is it all a good thing ... or bad? It just is. And there was no way of changing it until the next thing comes along. I have made loads of lucrative connections on Facebook and done some very interesting and successful things through it. The good news is: anyone can get noticed. The bad news: everybody is trying to get noticed and there is a glut of talent and you really have to be different or excellent to be noticed. Or, like I heard Lady Gaga say in an interview, if you take your clothes off, you will be a star, which I wont be doing. I am too old for that sh*t...!
Are you a big tweeter? NO, I do not get it, I do tweet though, but not religiously.
Knowing that you like to keep yourself busy, now this new album is released, what is next for you? Simultaneously, I wrote my autobiography. It took me about 5 years. I have got a literary agent in New York helping me with that right now. We are looking at editing it. That will most likely be the next thing. Other than that, just trying to relax and stop being so result oriented which I have done my entire life!! It certainly does not enable me to enjoy being in the moment which I am currently working on. I call it The De-escalation of Marcella, she smiles.
Finally, we here at Exclusive Magazine LOVE penguins. So, we wondered if you did also and, if so, if you had any personal stories about one/them? I do love them. I think they are adorable, but I have not had any personal experiences with them. I saw an amazing documentary about them on HBO a few years ago and was completely amazed at the structure of their society, their lives and how hard they work to stay alive.
Interviewed by: Russell A. Trunk
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