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Genya Ravan In Interview

Genya Ravan was interviewed at the Stereo Society in New York, November 26 2001

Genya Ravan in interview

by Mike Thorne

Mike Thorne: So your first language was Polish……?

Genya Ravan: Oh, you want all the way back…….?

 ……..and your second language is English. How come you sound like an R&B singer?

That’s a very good question. When I came to the US, I couldn’t speak a word of English. I was very young, and my father had a candy store/deli. He had hired a black man who I wound up calling Uncle Louie. Uncle Louie bought me my very first radio. I used to listen to the Cat Man on a New Jersey station, and all they played was black fifties music. Then Uncle Louie bought me a record player, and my very first record was by Etta James. I really learned to speak English through music! Once I was rehearsing with Ornette Coleman, and he asked me where I was from. I said, ‘I’m from Poland,’ and he goes, ‘Now it makes sense.’ ‘What are you talking about?’ I asked. He goes, ‘Well, I know you don’t read music, but you have great ears because they became sponges when you were a kid. You were in a country where they were not speaking your native tongue, and you told me you learned how to speak English through music. Of course you were going to sound black!’

So that’s partly where my R&B came from. But I think it’s deeper than that. It’s more of a soul thing than it is a mimicking thing. And when Ornette said that I realized, damn, he’s right, my ears were sponges. Not many people are born with rhythm, but I was. So, even if I learned to speak English through music, my rhythm was still there.

When did you start thinking in English?

It’s very possible, but I started to sing way, way later. I was singing along with music, but I wasn’t a singer until much later. I never took myself that seriously until so many people said to me, ‘Wow, you sound good. You ought to sing.’ Jumping up on stage is a whole other story. I was very fortunate with the way I came into the business, but I was thinking in English faster than speaking it. I was seven years old when I got here and I wanted very much to fit in.

But you were on stage in your teens…….

Yes, and I already knew how to speak English. I know some people think I have an accent now – especially English people – Mike Thorne! – but I never did! Do you want to know how I started to sing? It was an absolute accident.

I was in a bar in Brooklyn on Coney Island Avenue called Lollipop Lounge (that’s the name of my book, Lollipop Lounge) and there was a group playing on stage. The bass singer was Richard Perry [to become a noted record producer in the seventies]. It was like a college band, and they were doing all these songs that I grew up on. I’ll give you an example of how very little I knew about music. I start to sing along at the table, and I am drinking, and my girlfriend, Jeannie – who takes total credit for me singing today! – dares me to get up on stage. So I pull on Richie’s jacket while he’s singing, and he sees me, bends down and goes, ‘Can I finish my song first?

After they finish the song, he waves me over and says, ‘Come on up!’ I jump up on stage, and he goes, ‘What do you want to sing?’ I said, Stupid Cupid [by Connie Francis].’ He asks, ‘What key?’ and I said, ‘What?!’ I thought he was asking for my keys! I had no idea songs came in keys! Does that tell you anything?!

He looks at me and says, ‘You start it; we’ll follow.’ Their singer was this black fellow, who was not very soulful. I start singing, Stupid Cupid, you’re a real mean guy, da, da, da, na …’ and the place goes nuts! Ritchie says, ‘You want to sing another one?’ I said, ‘Do you know Lonely Nights?’ I was weaned on Lonely Nights (by Baby Washington). She has one of my favorite female voices in the world, her and Ray Charles. If you put me away in a jail cell and tell me you’re going to give me life, just give me Ray Charles and Baby Washington, and I’ll be happy!

So I was very surprised when Richard Perry said, ‘Sure, I know Lonely Nights.’ I broke into the song and then I knew. That was the first time I heard myself on a microphone and I loved the way I sounded!

I still didn’t take singing seriously because I was doing ‘cheesecake modeling’. For those who don’t know what that is, it’s semi-nude modeling but you don’t show any privates. I was making $100 hours an hour – that’s not bad for back then (or even now!). I did take my top off, but I always wore bikini panties, and I had a body to kill for. I had breasts that stood up forever! It was kind of like singing. When I heard myself sing, I didn’t want to stop; when I saw my body, I thought I’d show it off! Anyway, Richard asks for my number, and I thought, ‘Oh, shit,’ but I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll give you my number.’ I really thought, ‘This guy’s coming on to me, and he’d be the last guy that I would have a scene with!’ Besides, believe it or not, I was still a virgin. I was very young.

Goldie and the GingerbreadsBut Richard cut to the chase and called me about three weeks later. He’s got a real deep voice, and he said, ‘Hello, this is Richard Perry.’ I went, ‘Who?’ because I didn’t remember him! He said, ‘You remember me, I was in the group “the Escorts”. You sang with us.’ I said, ‘Oh, that Ritchie!’ And he goes, ‘Do you think we can get together? We fired our singer, and we have a recording contract. We’d like you to record with us.’

I thought, ‘This is bullshit. This guy is looking to make it with me, and I’ll show him a thing or two.’ I said, ‘Sure, come on over.’ I was going to belt him if he came on to me! He came over, and he said, ‘Let’s take a ride to my house,’ and I thought, ‘Here we go.’ We got to his house and there’s a piano, a maid, he’s very wealthy. I had no idea! This is all in my book…. anyway, to make a long story short, I cut the song with him. It becomes #1 in Detroit, parts of Ohio, and parts of Canada. Next thing you know, I’m doing ‘record hops’. Who knew from record hops? And, then we’re appearing at Trudy Heller’s and I meet Ginger. And that’s how I started Goldie and the Gingerbreads.

It does, but it’s true.

How do you think it’s different today? What struggles do you see new singers facing now?

Today, I’m out of it. I watch these shows, How to be a Rock Star and Eden’s Crushand how they get these girls and put together these bands, and it’s become such a big business. That’s what it is: it’s a business. When I was doing it, I wasn’t doing it for the business. I was doing it because that was the way for me to make a living. Today there is such pressure: ‘I’m twenty-six, and I’m getting to be too old to be in the business.’ And the business end of the things has people eating each other up. There are no small record companies, only big conglomerates. It’s run by the dollar. It’s not run by the heart, it is not run by the soul, it is not run by talent. And I have to tell you, Britney Spears, to me, is very talented. She’s excellent. I’m glad to see that, but I see a lot of this stuff happening around me, and it’s all about business. It’s changed tremendously.

There doesn’t seem to be an easy entry anymore.

No, no. I used to work in bowling alleys. You could hear me between strikes! We had a microphone that came out of an amp. Today you have to be able to afford it to go on the road. You have to have a roadie, vans, an accountant, a lawyer, a manager, an agent. You have to have a roadie for your roadie, you know? It’s ridiculous! The bigger Goldie and the Gingerbreads got, the more we couldn’t afford to stay together. How do you like that one? When we didn’t have hit records, we came home. We didn’t have roadies. I was the supervisor, everybody else would load the U-haul, then we would go to a gig and stay there three or four weeks. We couldn’t have done one-niters. We couldn’t have moved! We had two Leslie speakers and a Hammond organ, and we moved things ourselves. We used to play air force bases where we made a fortune – well, a fortune for us. But, no, we didn’t get a house in Beverly Hills overlooking the ocean like everybody’s doing today.

You went through a few years of Goldie and the Gingerbreads on this economical basis and then you promptly formed a ten-piece band. What were the logistics then?

I left Goldie and the Gingerbreads when I felt like I came to a musical halt. I wanted more, I wanted to experiment musically. I joined a quartet where I met the Brecker Brothers [Michael (saxophones) and Randy (trumpet), one of the foremost New York session players of all time]. There was a drummer called Lester Morell, god bless him. He turned me on to all the jazz people. Les was a phenomenal drummer.

Genya on stageWell, I wound up getting some charts made – I had no idea what charts were. He asked me if I had charts, and I said, ‘I went to the doctor and nobody told me I had any.’ I’m not kidding you – it took a while for me to find out what keys were. I didn’t know any of this! So, anyway, I got a couple of charts. I met Bill Takas and I met the Brecker Brothers through Lester, and we did quite a few lounge acts (well, that was because I had a crush on him but I did love singing!). I did Alfie, I did What Now, My Love. I started to do almost a Vegas- thing with him. This is right after Goldie and the Gingerbreads. Then I thought, ‘You know what? I miss my rock-n-roll.’

Then it happened. I said, ‘I just heard a group called Blood, Sweat and Tears with Al Kooper in it’ – not with David Clayton-Thomas because, between us, I loved David Clayton-Thomas, but I loved Blood, Sweat and Tears when Al Kooper was in it. That was my favorite album because it was a little on the punky side. It was still a little sloppy, there wasn’t all that glitz and I liked it that way. And, that then started me thinking, ‘Wow, an R&B section with horn, jazz, a little of the mix …’

One thing led to another and my two partners, Mike Zager and Aram Schefrin, were looking for a singer. We had just connected through Sid Bernstein and Billy Fields. Billy was going to work with me as a solo, and then he said to me, ‘There are two guys from Jersey that are pretty talented, and they’re looking for a singer, Genya.’ And, I said, ‘Well, I don’t know, I have to hear the material, and they ought to hear me sing, too.’ So they came to one of my off-the-wall gigs and I met Aram and Mike. We were sitting at the Bitter End [long-persisting New York club, still in business], and we came up with our name, Ten Wheel Drive. I got Bill Takas, and a couple of the horn players, and put the band together. They were all very nervous about playing the Fillmore because we were together maybe a week and I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, just play, man. Just play.’ That started us.

So you went from the sublime to the ridiculous when you went from Ten Wheel Drive to the CBGB scene in the mid-seventies?

Oh, my god, yes! After Ten Wheel Drive, I heard about the punk scene, and I needed to check that out. You know, like anything else, you need to do a little studying before you know what you want to do, and music is so vast. You can play a certain kind of opera for me, and I will love it. So that’s why, when people say, ‘what kind of music do you like,’ I can’t be pinpointed that way. I just can’t. Ask me what my favorites are, and I’ll tell you my favorite artists. R&B will always be my #1, but I love all kinds of music.

So I hear there’s a scene happening at CBGB’s, and a friend of mine takes me down there. I hear these basement bands, and I’m loving it because, don’t forget, I just came from this very terrifically polished band to, like you said, the ridiculous. I’m down there at CBGB’s, and I’m hearing intimate sound. I love it!  Then I met Hilly [Kristal] and he knew who I was, and then I started to help. What they needed was a little bit of my polish to a little bit of their punk. Basically what I did was bring them somewhere in the middle where they sounded recordable. So, I did demos with a very good group that you know, the Shirts [Thorne produced their first two albums in the late seventies]. I did work with The Miamis, Manster and, of course, the Dead Boys. I play that album [Young, Loud and Snotty] and it is still one of the best punk albums. I’m not the only one that says that. I get a lot of e-mails about the Dead Boys, and I had the privilege of working with Cheetah [Chrome, the lead singer] not long ago with CBGB Records. Another group I found that I absolutely loved was Dripping Goss. They’re fabulous. Unfortunately they broke up, but that was another group that I had put on CBGB Records.

 It always seemed at the time that you had arrived somewhere you had always been trying to find when you were in the punk scene. It seemed to fit so well.

Absolutely! And, I’ll tell you something: I have real simpatico with the punk scene because I’m an original punk. Had there been punk bands around during my whole childhood, I would have been the prima donna punk of my time. You’re looking at somebody who had black leather jackets with her name in gold on the back, Harley-Davidsons, sneaking cigarettes and being in gangs (my gang was the Furies). I wrote about all of them in Urban Desire. You can hear it in Pedal to the Metal. You can hear it in Jerry’s Pigeons. It’s all about my whole childhood.

Goldie and the Gingerbreads were not really the sixties Spice Girls were they?

You can say that again — no, we weren’t. And I’ll tell you something: we blew their minds because we not only sang our asses off, but we played. Do you realize I didn’t have a bass player through those tours? That Margot played the foot pedals on her Hammond organ? That was our bass! When we toured with the Stones, all the bands used to stand by the curtain with their mouths open. They couldn’t believe it, because we didn’t just do Can’t You Hear My Heart Beat, we did Red Top, which was jazz. We did Moody’s Mood for Love, which was jazz. Then we’d break into Shout and then into What d’I Say, and then into a soul sister song and then we’d do Wild is the Wind. My taste is jazz, rock, R&B and that’s what we did. We didn’t just happen to make it, we worked. We didn’t make it because we were girls, let me tell you.

Being a ‘girl’ has worked against you, I would guess.

It worked against us in a lot of ways, but then we got paid more because we were girls. So in a way it worked for us. We used to go into a club, and we’d hear, ‘These broads, can they play?’ We worked the Italian market for a long time. ‘I heard youse broads was good. You want some pasta?’ No, just pay us, man! 

But it was even harder to get people to take you seriously when you became one of the first female producers.

Absolutely, that too. Producer. I almost had to beg RCA to produce, and one of my best lines when I brought them a group called Rosie, which David Lasley was in (I love that album) I said to Mike Barnicker, ‘What do you think I’m going to do with the budget, buy myself a washing machine? What are you guys afraid of with women?’

As far as Goldie and the Gingerbreads, when we would walk into a club we used to give the manager or owner heart attacks because I used to say to the girls, ‘When we do our sound check, play totally out of tune’! The whole night they’d be freaking out going, ‘Should I close up the club, should I close up the club?’ ‘Well, no, why?’ ‘Well, I don’t know. I heard your sound check. I don’t know.…’ One of them actually called our agent, Joe Glaser, and said, ‘These broads can’t play!’ We were called broads a lot.

Do you think it’s changed? You started producing in the mid-seventies? Do you think the misogyny of the record business in general has lessened now?

I do. I know there are female producers out there. The thing is that you hear a lot of female producers producing themselves. So, you have to call them producers. There aren’t too many female producers out there producing other people, but I was the first. I was the first in quite a few things. You know that we got an award (the Pioneer Award) from Ahmet Ertegun a couple of years ago…… for being pioneers. I’m always a little ahead, which has not worked in my favor.

It never does.

No, it doesn’t. Even Urban Desire – the radio stations were not playing hard rock women, but despite that the album did very well.

Meanwhile, the whole structure of music production has changed around us again. It’s almost as if that role is disappearing.

You’re right, the role is disappearing.

So do you think the strength is going back to the artists because so many producers, as we know, took a ride on artists’ coattails? Allan Schwartzberg the [top New York session] drummer, once very tactfully put it in his brisk Brooklyn manner: ‘a lot of producers have witnessed the creation of a great record.’ In other words, they saw it, they didn’t help it, but they would dine out on it.


So producers tended to get a bad name. Do you think that artists were pleased to take over with the possibilities given by home recording?

Producers getting a bad name … they deserved it! In my career that’s why I started to produce myself. I always call it ‘seduced’ as opposed to ‘produced’. I’ll give you an example: my Jim Price and Joe Zaggarino record. It was a horror! I had no say on my own record, I had no say in my own production. And that’s the way it was.

But the Chess-Janus album …. My producer walked into my living room at  one point and I went, ‘You know, there’s an old song that I think could be a hit today. I’d like to do it.’ It was You’re No Good! [originally a hit with the Liverpool group the Swinging Blue Jeans]. And he said, ‘No, no, we’ll write you something better.’ Well, the song became a giant hit for Linda Ronstadt. You’re No Good! was her comeback.

It dawned on me years later it was all about publishing, making money. For them it was a crapshoot. A lot of producers would produce ten, twelve artists, throw them out and hope one of them would make it. I was always part of that pack, and so was Goldie and the Gingerbreads. Actually, Ahmet Ertegun was the best with us. He let us have the most creative say. He says a couple of things that he has in the can are better than anything I’ve ever put out. Producers – a lot of them are a scam. A lot of them had no right putting their name on records. A producer is supposed to be what a director is to a film: it’s all direction. Mike: you’re a producer, and a good one.

Are you really looking at the past through rose-tinted spectacles? You’re talking about those early days as if they were savagely business oriented, as well.

You mean my early, early days? You mean like Goldie and the Gingerbreads?

 No, when you mentioned how production was to do with publishing, all the tie-ins and all the various ways of skimming.

I was looking at it through rose-colored glasses, you’re right. I always see the  best in people. I never used to say, ‘He tried to screw me,’ not until way later. But as an artist I was definitely taken advantage of, and today you have to be pretty smart to be in this business. I wasn’t. I’ve been saying it through the whole interview: I was not business savvy. I just had a group, and I wanted to sing. Period. Today that’s lost.

You’re putting out a CD now, on your own label.

And, I’m doing it the old way.

And, it sounds like you have some unfinished business left as a singer.

Yes, I do. Actually, I was very nervous about going back in and singing. I’ll give you a quote from a musician: ‘Genya, you didn’t drop a beat.’ I owe this one [my new CD] to my fans because there would be no CD right now if it wasn’t for my website. I get fan mail every day from people who say they’ve been looking for me forever. They can’t find my records! Today on eBay eight people were bidding $27 for [the LP version of] Urban Desire. This has been going on now almost daily, stuff coming in from Europe on me because they can’t find it here, and I thought, ‘I want to do something for my fans.’ I have an archive of songs that I think are really fabulous which I never put out. There’s a story to every one of them.

Everybody was very gracious, through the recording studio and my engineer. I’ve got about thirteen or fourteen songs on the CD, and only two of them are new. Everything else has been in my attic and is worthy to be heard instead of being thrown away. The name of my CD is For Fans Only, and I really mean that. It is for fans because there are a couple of tracks that sound like shit, they’ve been around a long time. They’re really for collectors, but they’re my finest hour [if not sounding like today’s productions].

There is one thing on there you should give a little preview of. One night [in the mid-eighties] I was so frustrated; I had started my own label and I wasn’t singing. When I stopped singing, it was like putting a racehorse in a stall after a major race. You just can’t do that! I didn’t realize that, and I was very frustrated. I needed to sing that night or I would have wound up being a serial killer – that’s how much I needed to get something out.

In my living room that night was a friend of mine, DT. I call him DT because he worked for Media Sound, and every time I called him, it would be Down Time [when some crucial studio component has broken down and the room is not useable]. A guy I was going with, Steve, was also there. He hadn’t played sax in I don’t know how many years, but he had a sax at my house and I said, ‘Guys, if I don’t sing tonight, I’m going to freak out.’ Steve said, ‘You know, I have been working at a studio, why don’t we go over there and you can sing.’ DT said, ‘I can play some piano.’ We get to the studio, and I say, ‘DT what can you play?’ And he goes, ‘Well, I can only play one song.’ All he could play was I’m in the Mood for Love. That’s all it is, is a piano with one guy that can hardly play and a sax solo from this guy playing his ass off. It didn’t start that way. I got really mad at him and said, ‘How can you play sax like that? Play it like you fucking mean it!’ …. Whoa! Ah, you’ll edit that [profanity] out!

This is an adult site!

I said, ‘Play it like you fucking mean it’, and he gave the best solo. You’ll hear it on the CD.

It’s a long time since you sang, though. Has it been driving you nuts in the meantime? You made a very conscious decision to stop singing and work in production.

I did, but I have to tell you, every time I took on a not-so-good singer, I wanted to go, ‘Not like that, schmuck, like this!’ and sing the whole album for them. It was very frustrating. I felt, like, here I am taking all my fucking experience and laying it into this lamebrain that’ll never, ever,, have a release anyway, because ….’ Yes, it was frustrating. I think you get the message.

So, welcome back.

Why, thank you.

What might be next?

I don’t know. I’m hoping to do something with you afterwards, too. We should mention that at some point back then you gave me a call and asked me to do a project with you, and that wound up on For Fans Only, too.

We can’t hide anymore.

Well, should I tell the story about how we did this? You called me, you had an idea. It was 1987 – this is all written in my CD – and you said, ‘Genya, why don’t you pick a couple Beatles’ songs.’ And, I thought well, I love the Beatles, but you know, not a hundred percent, so I‘ll pick my favorite songs. And Don’t Let Me Down is one of them. We did five songs, correct? We did I’m a Woman, I’m Down, Don’t Let Me Down, You Can’t Do That.

And Hey Bulldog, which was gently abandoned.
Yes, Bulldog we gently abandoned.

That’s maybe because I couldn’t play the piano part.
But,Thorne, you played almost everything on that except the horns. You did play everything on that except what The Uptown Horns played. You were amazing, and I listened to it, and I thought, ‘Oh, my god, I am putting this on this CD because today I play it for people and they love it.’ Don’t Let Me Down came out sensational. [The rough mix from the sessions is on Genya’s CD.]

We’d better send some people over to your site to buy it.

Yes, you’d better do that!

Click HERE to go to Genya’s site