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Arts & Culture » Music

Ellen Foley: from rock epics to Night Court and back

by Gregg Shapiro

Ellen Foley
Ellen Foley  (Source: Bruce Cornil/Prime Mover Media)

When it comes to impressive curriculum vitae, it's hard to beat that of actress and music legend Ellen Foley. From her duet vocal on Meat Loaf's hit single "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" to her performance in the "Black Boys/White Boys" number in the movie version of Hair to playing public defender Billie on the NBC sitcom Night Court and originating the role of the witch in Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, Foley's outstanding career achievements speak for themselves.

Her timeless 1979 debut album Night Out remains a classic and perfectly shows off her amazing vocal abilities. Fighting Words (Urban Noise Music), Foley's first new album in eight years, is a return to form featuring catchy tunes mostly in a rock vein and closing with her cover of "Heaven Can Wait," her tribute to the late Jim Steinman (the writer of Meat Loaf's biggest hits).

Gregg Shapiro: Because I'm a gay man of a certain age, I have to begin this interview by asking what was it like working with Selma Diamond on Night Court?
Ellen Foley: Selma Diamond was fantastic! She was so funny and so acerbic. I remember her actually being supportive of me. I was in L.A. in a situation with a boyfriend in New York, and she goes, "What are you doing? You're Ellen Foley!" I'm like, "Yeah, you're right Selma Diamond, I am Ellen Foley!" She was so adept at timing and knew how to mold the lines.

Because, obviously, the writing she had done in her life, a lot of it was probably superior to the material she was working with on Night Court. She had another side to her. You know Richard Moll, the actor who played Bull; she was so mean to him [laughs]! I remember telling her, "You're a real put-down artist, aren't you?" But my favorite line of hers, of all time, she must have been maybe five feet tall. There was (John) Larroquette, Moll and Harry Anderson who, on average, were 6'3. She looked around her and said [in Diamond's voice], "I'm working in a forest of men!" After a point, she started getting sick, and you saw changes in her personality. But she was always Selma Diamond.

One of the most distinguishing aspects of your musical career is your history of collaboration — from Meat Loaf's 1977 Bat Out of Hell album to Mick Ronson and Ian Hunter on your 1978 debut record Night Out, to your ex-boyfriend Mick Jones and his Clash-mates on your 1981 Spirit of St. Louis album, all the way to the present day via your collaborations with Paul Foglino on your new album Fighting Words and Robert I. Rubinsky on the off-Broadway musical Club Dada.
I'm so glad you have Robert in there because he's my only gay collaborator. In rock and roll, it's a pretty hetero genre. But, of course, in the theater where I've been in between rock and roll, I have a lot of gay friends. In this project, Club Dada (in difficult times), it's just me and Robert I., and his husband Tom Aulino directed it.

Well, this was just a long way of asking you what makes you so good at playing well with others?
Well, I went to Catholic school [laughs]. They taught us to play well with others. I'm a singer and I'm not saying I can be molded, but I am an interpreter and I'm able to take other people's ideas and create something that's my own. I basically worked with people —basically, let's underline that— worked with people who I really respected and felt respect from. Even Ronson and Ian! I came to New York in 1972 and by '77 I was making the Meatloaf record. I was like, "Well, this is incredible! What a great piece of music this is as a whole, and certainly "Paradise..." That was a blast, but then I didn't think about it that much because I had never sung on a record before.

Then the head of the (Cleveland International Records) label, a guy named Steve Popovich, who was just a brilliant guy putting at people together, he's the one that after everybody rejected Meatloaf, signed him. He then gave me a deal and put me together with Hunter and Ronson, which was sort of like being thrown into the deep end of the pool.

Right!
I mean, holy crap! This is Mott The Hoople! This is David Bowie! Like I said, I had literally been in New York for seven years and now, here I am, being given these opportunities.

Such lucky breaks!
I remember it being fun, which is so important.

In some ways, a few of the songs on Fighting Words, including "Leave Him, Janie," "Are You Good Enough," and "Be Nice," offer the listener words of wisdom and advice. What's the best advice you were ever given?
I'll just say it out loud. The whole being in England thing in 1980. So close after I was just establishing my own identity and sort of being subsumed into that world. A friend of mine said, once again, "You're Ellen Foley!" I just had the Night Out record that made a big splash. She said, "You've got to get out of this and show your own strength as yourself." It was hard to do, but eventually I got back to feeling who I am. This kid who came from St. Louis who is a real New Yorker and how important New York is and was in my work. I had to get back to remember that, to who I was, who I wanted to be.

That was good advice. How did the wonderful duet with fellow Meat Loaf alum Karla DeVito on "I'm Just Happy To Be Here," come to pass?
Strangely enough, Karla and I, although our careers sort of intersected, never really knew each other, never really hung out. I think in the first few years, the whole thing was stuck in my craw about the ("Paradise by the Dashboard Light") video [that featured DeVito and not Foley]. She represented the thing that was kind of upsetting to me, even though any time I ever saw her she was this little ball of cheer.

A few years back there was a tribute show to (the late) Jim Steinman. He was already quite sick. Barry Keating, who was Jim's friend from Amherst College and a guy named Pat Cerasaro put together a tribute at 54 Below. It was us and a bunch of young kids, chorines. I was pissed! She didn't care because she's nice, but they didn't really respect us or understand who were. We just sat together [laughs] in the dressing room and we so clicked talking about our families. Her married name is Mrs. Benson.

She's married to Robby Benson.
Yes! Benson is derived from a Jewish name. I'm Mrs. (Doug) Bernstein. We're both nice Jewish wives with kids. Jim was there in a wheelchair. I sang the song "Heaven Can Wait" and I think she sang "Lost Boys and Golden Girls." It became a friendship, and we would stay in touch. Then we sang as a trio with Meat Loaf on a Steinman song on his last record Braver Than We Are. When you get older, you have all your friends, but then to make a new friend and feel a real connection, I just said to Paul (Foglino), "I would love to sing something with her. Go home and write us a song!"

I'm so glad you mentioned "Heaven Can Wait," because Fighting Words closes with your stunning rendition of the song. Did you choose to record it for the album because you had performed it at the Jim Steinman tribute show?
No. "Heaven Can Wait" has been part of my repertoire since '77. I met Meat and Steinman doing this tour of this National Lampoon show which ended in '76. Then Jim put together a production of his musical called Neverland at the Kennedy Center and I played Wendy, who's got the virginal mother/goddess figure and sang "Heaven Can Wait" in that. I think it might have been the first time it was sung in public. I'm sure Meat Loaf would disagree [laughs]. "[In Meat Loaf's voice] No, I sang it at the Elks Club [laughs]."

In all my rock and roll bands and cabaret acts I've always sung it. This version was recorded for a little indie film I did called Lies I Told My Little Sister. The producer wanted me to sing it and Jim gave us permission. The track was recorded in L.A. by Andrew Williams. He did this really beautiful orchestral version and sent it to me, and I recorded it in New York. It played over the closing credits.

There's a powerful country influence on "I Call My Pain By Your Name," from its retro country song title to its retro country arrangement. Looking back over the course of your music career, did you ever imagine yourself recording a full-fledged country tune?
I always loved (country) because of the way it lets you sing. It's a whole different kind of singing and I think I can stick my voice in that genre pretty well. One of my favorite songs ever to sing is "Wichita Lineman." It was (written) by Jimmy Webb, but it's definitely a country song. I thought when Paul first brought me the song, and we would do it in my living room, that the song had a really natural sort of Appalachian sound or like you say, retro country when it adds the band. It's such a great song.

I agree! Earlier we mentioned Club Dada. What can you tell the readers about it?
Dada was a School of Art in the 1920s and '30s which preceded the Surrealist movement. It's really about these two people who are controlled by this voiceover provided by Jonathan Freeman, who was the voice of Jafar in Aladdin. We're these ancient vaudevillians forced to perform songs.
Then things happen, like explosions, and you think you're dead, and then and you're woken up again. There's a line I say, "Indeterminate times!" and you don't know where you are or what time it is because they're being buffeted through time and space. It's really funny! Robert I. wrote it. He's an incredibly funny writer. He has quite a history. He was in the original cast of Hair. I've known him since the '70s. He was, at one point, married to my girlfriend Zora Rasmussen. They're still best friends! We've all known each other since she and I did a crazy show called YMCA which was written by (James) Rado and (Gerome) Ragni (of Hair).

There are all these Hair connections.
Yes. We had done a 50th anniversary Hair tribute down at La MaMa (in New York) and afterward he (Robert) goes, "You should do a show of all Bertolt Brecht songs. I said, "I've always wanted to do that." We started working on it and it became this original piece and a lot of it has the Germanic sort of feel. There's a song that Steinman wrote called "Who Needs the Young," and it's got that Brecht/Weill style. But the rest of it is a lot of famous songs that if we ever tried to do it in a theater it would cost us a billion dollars.

We've worked on it for a long time. First Robert lived in Ohio because his husband Tom teaches at a university. Then they were in Vermont. We had to work on it when he was in New York. It took us like three years. Then we finally got this production down at La MaMa. It was March 6 and 7 of 2020, and you know what happened then.

Just a couple of weeks ago, we did this really fun live-stream thing with, once again, La MaMa. They're kind of our go-to place which we hope we can perform at again, but they still haven't opened. Robert, he's my bud! I guess I've settled into not doing anything unless it seems they are my real people. People I'm really comfortable with like Robert and Tom and Paul, people in my band. It's a family sort of feel.

You get to a certain point where you're able to surround yourself with the people you want to be surrounded by.
Exactly!

There is, no doubt, a whole generation of gay men who became aware of you from your stage work on and off-Broadway, as well as from your performance in Miloš Forman's Oscar-nominated movie version of Hair. How aware are you of a gay following?
Always! Obviously, the gays are so important to me because they're my friends and being in the theaters. But rock and roll had always been more of a hetero genre, so I didn't know how many (gay) fans I had. It turns out I did! When I hear from people: Twitter and all that it is kind of a blessing because you hear (from people). It's really important to me to have a gay fan base. I sing rock and roll, but I sing it as a woman, and I think a lot of stuff I sing is really passionate and there's a humor to it that the gay audience would dig. They knew me from theater stuff and, of course, I originated the Witch in Into the Woods, which I think the community is aware of this. I'm really dying for the community to hear this record.

I think they'll love it! Have you ever come across a drag queen performing an Ellen Foley number in her routine?
Oh, my God, no! Have you?

Not yet!
[Laughs] Wouldn't that be cool? Imagine sitting there watching RuPaul's Drag Race All-Stars and somebody sings "We Belong to the Night"? That would be perfect because it's so dramatic! Do you have any influence in those circles?

Unfortunately, I don't. Maybe someone will read this interview and act on it.
That would be great!

In closing, are you able to promise not to keep us waiting so long between albums?
Who knows? I don't like to say it, but who cares, but I'm 70. The fact is this album really rocks! I'm in the midst of booking at least one show here in New York and possibly going to Europe. I feel no trepidation about that. I'm healthy and I manage to keep it together. I look good. I think I sound good on the new record.

These past 15, 16 months I haven't really been singing, but after we finish talking, I'm going to go down and vocalize. When you know you have a gig, all of a sudden, you're singing every day. But in terms of a record, who knows? Paul kind of snuck up on me with this record. He had all these songs, so maybe he'll do it again. Why not? Look at my idol, my hero, my true love, Mick Jagger. Look at him! Holy crap!

ellenfoley.com

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