Into the Fire: An Exclusive Interview with Judy Cheeks
by Justin Kantor
Into the Fire: An Exclusive Interview with Judy Cheeks
by Justin Kantor
Revered worldwide for the soulful Euro-disco classic, "Mellow Lovin'," as well as unforgettable 1990s dance floor anthems such as "Reach," "Respect," and "As Long as You're Good to Me," singer-songwriter Judy Cheeks has chartered a standout path in the recording business over the course of more than three decades. The daughter of a pioneering gospel singer, she, in fact, got her professional start singing the blues with none other than Ike and Tina Turner behind the boards. Now, after a 15-year silence, she returns to the fold with an inspirational set, True Love Is Free. Soul Tracks' Justin Kantor recently caught up with her to talk about her triumphs and challenges, why she stayed away for so long, and the message she hopes to get across with her newfound musical direction.
As the daughter of Reverend Julius Cheeks, I'm sure that your childhood exposed you to some prominent and pioneering figures in the gospel world. Tell me how that started and what it was like for you.
I was born in Miami to an extended family of gospel greats. At a young age, my mom used to bundle me up, and we'd follow my dad to shows all around America. He was lead singer of The Sensational Nightingales. As I grew up, it became a part of my life to have people like Sam Cooke or the Dixie Hummingbirds around. They were trailblazers. They sacrificed a lot of their lives and paved the way for a lot of young entertainers who enjoy luxuries that people of my father's age could only dream of. They traveled through the Jim Crow south and endured beatings—being tortured by cops on the road, just because they were black people traveling. They kept their faith in spreading the love of Jesus. They were attacked by people who were carrying crosses and hanging bodies on trees
The amazing thing about these people was, when they'd get on stage, they weren't really giving performances—they were more like explosions of spiritual power. That power was fueled by the things they endured. When they sang a song, they didn't use the vocal acrobatics that people do now—doing runs just to show you they are capable of doing runs. In those days, if someone did a run, they felt it! Even the background vocals. If you listen to vocalists like Dorothy Love Coates and the Harmonettes or the Davis Sisters, those harmonies would ring from their souls. If they kept them in, they'd explode! Every move they made; every note they sang; every trill, frill and run was done from the spirit of them. It was real, and that's why they touched the souls of so many people.
But behind the scenes, there was a lot of laughter and good cooking and good food. I call myself the Gospel Brat. They spoiled me rotten. Because of my father, they considered me theirs. They were like my aunts and uncles and grandparents.
For those unfamiliar with the legacy of your father, can you shed some light on his story?
I just completed his biography entitled Love and Honor. It tells how he escaped the cotton fields of South Carolina and the whole doom and gloom prophecy that white America had for most black people during those days. He had seen his parents simply accept the defeat. He decided that there had to be another way. He was gifted with this voice and ambition to override the negativities and make something of himself. He left home very early and started a group—first with his brothers, and then he started singing with local groups. Then he was discovered by Bonnie Parks, who had been with the Dixie Hummingbirds. The song Paul Simon did, "Love Me Like a Rock": they were singing the backgrounds on that. That's just a small example of how quartet gospel music has influenced all genres of music.
If you listen to Al Green, you'll know he listened to some old songs by the Swan Silvertones. If you listen to Wilson Pickett, you'll know he sat at the feet of my dad. The influence of this music is amazing. Even the women. Ray Charles didn't miss a Davis Sisters concert. They had a lot of that bluesy style. There are artists from that time that a lot of people don't even know about. But in Europe, the young people are interested in the history of music. When I decided to write the book, a lot of it had to do with being asked so much by young people, "You're Judy Cheeks, is your father Reverend Julius Cheeks?" I would look at them like, "How do you know my dad?" They study. Some have record collections you'd cut off your arm for. During my research, there was a guy in Paris who had my father's first recording. In America, you can't find that stuff. There is a hunger for the knowledge. Here in America, we've got to stop kicking our heroes to the curb. We've got to embrace all of our history. Then, we can realize what a great influence we've had on the world, even with our hiccups and mistakes
Being surrounded by all that great talent and history in the making, was it always your calling to pursue singing professionally?
My mom and I never did get along very well. Even though I had a scholarship to go to the University of Miami, I escaped all of that. I wanted to just get out. I really wanted to sing. My father never discouraged me, but he never opened the door and made it easy. I had to do it on my own. I guess he figured if I did, I'd have the strength to sustain all the stuff that I would go through. I was told later by one of his colleagues that he didn't want me in the business because he was trying to protect me.
How did you end up connecting with Ike and Tina Turner, who produced your first album?
So, I went to L.A. I got into a talent contest at a nightclub. It just so happened that Jackie Clark, who was then the guitar player for Ike and Tina, saw me and said, "Oh my God, I've gotta take you back so that Ike can hear you." I wasn't really an Ike & Tina fan, but I thought, "Yeah, okay." I was with a girlfriend, and we went to Bolic Sound Studios. Ike sat at the piano and asked me to sing. I sang; he called Tina and said, "Get over here right now, you've got to hear this girl!" So, she came over. I'll never forget how beautiful she was. All the images I had seen of her with this wild hair, this wild woman. She was so demure. She had on her little cap, her skin was smooth, and her nails were immaculate. She was such a lady. I thought she would at least have rough nails. She was really the epitome of femininity.
From then on, it became another family. They were like my surrogate mother and father. I was going through a whole lot of issues, because of my mom and I not getting along. I looked so much like my father, and his absence stirred all kinds of things in her. So, they helped me through that period of being a young girl trying to find her way. But they never would let me feel sorry for myself. I had these clogs that were sx inches high. I'd come into the studio and Ike would say, "You know what, Judy Cheeks"—he'd never say just Judy— "I be in a good mood, and you come in here with them ugly shoes on! You just ruined my day. Go buy you some shoes!" Also, depending on what mood he was in, he'd give me a bass guitar and give Tina an electric guitar and say, "Okay, you guys just go in the studio and play something." Other days, he'd say, "Aww, you can sing!" Then he'd say to Tina, "You can't sing!" The next day it would be the other way around. It was constant mind games.
It's unfortunate that Ike's musical ability and the things he accomplished as a black man during his time will not be what he's remembered for. Most people don't know that Ike did the first rock and roll record. He won't get credit for that, because all they will remember is another side of him.
So, he and Tina produced the album. The way it was, nobody slept. Ike was on coke, I was just on life! It was the best experience I could've had as a teenager. It really taught me. I used to look at these grown-ups, thinking, "My Lord! Look at what these drugs do to people." Tina never touched drugs. On my path, I've always been protected and had in the back of my mind, "I'd better not do that," because of that gospel family. I felt I had such a moral obligation not to upset them. I wanted to do things that would make them proud of me. I always had that little voice in my head.
On Judy Cheeks, you recorded a variety of southern soul and blues tunes, among them "Rockin' Blues," "Gettin' It Together," and B.B. King's "Please Love Me." Were these styles that you had set out to perform?
Not at all! Actually, when I did the album, I wasn't very proud of it, because I didn't know anything about what I was singing! I hadn't lived a life. My mother didn't let me go anywhere but church and school. I didn't know anything about "workin' five long years for one man"! But Ike felt that I had a soulful voice, that it was too soulful to just sing pop. He thought that blues captured the part of my voice that he wanted to get out. I think we threw in "Endlessly"—Mavis Staples had done a version of it—because I really liked it, and he agreed to it.
Shortly after the album, your name began to appear in the songwriting credits on fellow artists' album jackets—notably on The Jacksons' "We're Gonna Change Our Style." Did you decide to pursue that path when things didn't take off a certain way with the recording?
The whole Ike and Tina Turner thing really got crazy for me. Ike was never violent to me; it's just that with the drugs and all that stuff around, I wanted out. I was doing a lot of session work in L.A. I ran across Bob Sherill, who introduced me to some Motown people. I started writing for Jobete. I didn't sign with them, but I did a lot of writing for them. I did loads of sessions and worked very closely with Hal Davis—who did a lot of the Jackson 5 and Thelma Houston stuff. Everybody he produced, I sang background for. I learned a lot during that period. I got to meet great people like Pam Sawyer and Leon Ware.
What transpired during that time that made you decide to return to recording?
The session work prepared me better for my life as a recording artist. Remember, when I went to Bolic Sound, that was the first time I had ever stepped foot into a studio. So, I was being professionally groomed doing the session work. Shortly after that, I ended up moving to Germany. I had been away from Ike & Tina, but Ike found me. I hadn't moved that far, but I did a good job of hiding out! He said, "Come on back down and let's talk." Tina said, "We're going to Europe. Come on and go with us." I packed my bags and went to Europe with them. When I was there, record people from France and Germany approached me. This was during the height of Donna Summer's popularity.
So, you were singing background for Ike and Tina on the road?
Well, accidentally! Yolanda, one of the Ikettes, got sick . I can't dance to save my life. If they said, "We're gonna kill you unless you dance," I would die. I just can't! But Tina wanted me to be an Ikette. I thought to myself, "You're not gonna kill me on that stage." But when Yolanda got sick, Tina said, "Judy, put on Yolanda's wig, her clothes and get on that stage!" After that performance, these people came up to me and said that I could make a really good career in Europe, so why don't I stay?
When we got to Munich, the same thing happened. A lady from Ariola Records said to me, "Donna Summer started here." When I got back to L.A., the Germans were very persistent. So, I got on a plane with $35 in my pocket. I had friends who lived in Stuttgart. I stayed with them for a month or two, I learned German by speaking to their son in the language. By the time I moved to Munich and did the deal with Ariola, I didn't feel as lost. Living with a family there, I got a feel for the way of living.
Notably, on the Please Give Me This Night LP that resulted from that, you did a lot of the writing—including on the now-classic, "Mellow Lovin'." Did you have that input automatically?
Well, one advantage of being an English speaker in a German-speaking country is that you have people who do music, but can't speak English well enough to write the lyrics. They knew from the demos that I could write. It was understood that [producer] Anthony Monn would do the music and I the lyrics. So, I wrote the entire album, except for "Suspicious Minds," which Anthony insisted we do.
Do you remember how "Mellow Lovin'" became such an international sensation?
What happened, people not in the music business would find unbelievable. When I got to Germany, my friend Ron Williams was very close with Udo Jurgens, who was the equivalent of Andy Williams or Frank Sinatra. He was a big deal. Ron introduced me, and Udo said he wanted to do a record with me. He had never done a duet with a woman before. We did this song. I did the English verse, he did the German verse, and we did the chorus together in German. We did a performance on a very popular TV show there, and I was suddenly an overnight success. I was on the front pages of all the newspapers. It was like, boom, from one day to the next.
Then, Anthony was upset. He said, "Why are they saying Udo discovered you? I discovered you!" In the meantime, Udo said to me, "Listen. I know Anthony was responsible for you coming here, but you really should let me produce you." I said that wouldn't be fair and I should go ahead with Anthony. Not thinking that what we were working on would necessarily do anything big. Lo and behold, "Mellow Lovin'" was a hit! Once we did that, America was screaming for an album. Anthony actually sat there and said, "I'm not ready to do an album yet." I guess he wanted to punish me. Ultimately, Ariola licensed the album to Salsoul.
"Mellow Lovin'" was a top-10 disco hit in the U.S. and also took you to countries such as Argentina, where you sang the song in the movie, La Playa Del Amor. Were you pleased with how things played out?
I loved the fact that I was being so well accepted in a lot of Latin countries and all over Europe. It was really surprising. But I was puzzled by the politics of the business. I was still a baby. I couldn't understand why everybody was so mad at me for trying to do the right thing. Udo was annoyed because I didn't let him produce me. Anthony was angry, even though I did what was fair. People came back to me and told me things he said [about how] he was going to destroy me. Once you have a chance to break into America, he could've been the next Giorgio Moroder; but he was so hell-bent on destroying me for, in my view, doing what was fair.
I was under contract with Ariola for awhile. I also did a lot of work for Frank Farian— I sang on a lot of the Boney M records. I had a lot of success with a TV show and acting. During that period in Germany, black artists did very well—especially if you could speak a little German and you were pleasant. I was grateful for the success and thankful that I was able to live a very nice life, but I felt that my soul was not being fed. When I was there was when my father died. That really took a lot out of me. So I associated all of that with Germany not being good for my spirit. I wanted to run away, basically.
You put out a few records during the early 1980s, but your next wide-scale release wasn't until 1988's No Outsiders LP. How did that come about?
I used to go to London regularly. I had a lot of friends there. There's an energy there that's kind of like New York. I decided, rather than move back to the states, that I'd try London out for awhile. When I decided to do that, a gentleman from Deutsche Grammophon wanted to sign me. I said, "Well, you can sign me if you want to; but I'm moving to England." We did a deal in which I was signed to Polydor Germany, but the A&R part of my album was done by Polygram International in London. So, I wrote and produced the album at that point.
One of my favorite songs from the album is "Just Another Lie"!
Kenny Moore played piano on that. He played for Aretha and Tina for years. I wanted that churchy thing. He happened to be in town. He used to love coming to my house to fry chicken. Whenever he was in town, his first stop was my house.
You mentioned earlier that you're not a dancer, which is interesting since a lot of people think of you as a "dance artist." A few years after No Outsiders, you experienced perhaps the biggest boom of your career when you signed with Positiva Records and released massive club records like "Reach," "Respect," and "So in Love (The Real Deal)." Did you make a conscious determination to go in that direction?
It was coincidental! A friend of mine needed someone to sing on a demo, "So in Love." He didn't have any budget, so I said I'd do it for free. Frankie Foncett got involved, and they played it for someone at Positiva, who said, "We want to sign her!" So they decided to put it out. One thing led to another. We got such a good response. I was ecstatic. The thing I love about dance music is that churchy feel—the stabs and rhythm! It's like shoutin' music. Also, you're forced to do really exciting vocals with energy. I love performing for dance audiences. They really get into it and show such a great appreciation for it.
Feeding on the energy, that's what the crowd loves. A dance act doesn't necessarily [translate to] tip-tap dance. It means energy. I love that the audiences loved me. We connected on that energy level. That was the most exciting time for me as a performer, when I really got the exchange. I imagine that it's probably like what my father got singing gospel, when people are singing the words to your song that you wrote!
On the Respect album, you worked with some guys who've gone on to be legendary figures in dance music: Roger Sanchez, Brothers in Rhythm, E-Smoove, and Driza Bone—to name a few!
That was a fortunate position to be in, because it was really the birth of dance music as we know it. The movement took off like fire. It started out with people defying the music industry and making their own sounds, remixing and scratching. They built up this underground audience. By the time the record companies were made aware of it, they realized they needed to set up dance divisions. Nick and Dave, the guys who ran Positiva, were very young. At the time, the DJ's were really the stars. If you look at my first release at that time, there wasn't even a picture of me on the cover. It was about the remixers, not the actual singer. But I didn't care, because I was happy to be able to perform and have audiences appreciate me. It wasn't a really bad time for me. It's just that I had been in there so long. There were certain things that should've happened that didn't happen. I thought, "Had enough!"
What went on?
There were several things. My management company had shady deals going on that kinda caught up with each other. And the remixers were getting paid more than the artists. My royalties were so embarrassing. I'd whisper it in my sleep. You had DJ's getting huge money. For someone who had been in the business as long as me, that was a slap in the face and so unnecessary. There's a big pie out there. Then, I was about to do a television show in London. I had talked with the stylist and told her what I wanted. I had just gotten in from Japan and didn't have time to get things together myself. The stylist shows up at the studio with a green mini-skirt. "Where'd you get that from?" "Well, Nick told me." I really couldn't believe it. I thought , "Here I am after all these years in this business, and here is this little guy with rope around his upper lip, telling me [to wear this]." I felt so disrespected, like, "You really don't get it!"
It bears mentioning that both "Reach" and "Respect" went to #1 on the U.S. dance charts, and you also recorded a song by Diane Warren, "You're the Story of My Life."
It was such an honor to sing anything this woman has written. It came through EMI publishing. We spoke on the phone later. She thanked me. She thought that I did a really good job when I added a little bit on the end, that it just brought the song home. What an honor! As a child, my appreciation for music was so varied. I loved Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland. I remember watching Judy perform "Over the Rainbow" on television. She just laid down on the stage, so dramatic. I thought, "Oh God, I wish I could perform a song like that! So, in a way, doing a Diane Warren song was a bit of that fantasy.
A few years after that success, we saw your name resurface as a songwriter, specifically on the song "When the Evening Comes" from Randy Crawford's Play Mode CD. Were you planning on concentrating on that aspect, as opposed to performing?
Songwriting has always been the bloodline through my whole life. Even as a child, I wrote songs. It's something that naturally comes out of me. Even if I wasn't working in the studio or performing, I always wrote songs. Steve Lee and I wrote that song. It kind of just sat there for years, then Simon Ellis said, "Well, Baby Spice really wants to record it, give me a little piece of it and I'll make sure it gets on her album." Then she went off and got pregnant or something, so there he was with a chunk of our song. It sat there for a few more years, until Randy recorded it. I think Steve knew the producer. I was really happy that she loved the song and that she complimented my singing. I think she's awesome, so that was the greatest compliment ever.
At that point, you pretty much disappeared from the scene. Did you continue to work in other areas of the music industry?
I had totally lost the love of singing. I didn't even sing in the shower. When I drove in my car, I put on talk radio. I didn't want to hear music. I think a lot of artists come to that place. That's a horrible thing. You start out because you love this gift that you've been given. A friend, DJ Rogers, called me one day and said, "What are you doing sitting home? Get your butt in the studio!" I told him I didn't know if I could even sing anymore, I hadn't sung a note in 13 years. I got on a plane, went to L.A., called him from the airport, and said "I'm here, I'm going to stay with my cousin." I called and called and called and he didn't show up. It just so happens that I had also been talking to Michael Sutton from my Motown days. He told me he had a studio, so let's see what happens. I hummed him a little melody I had as I was driving down the 405. By the time I got there, he said, "Here you go!" I stood in front of the mic, and the lyrics just poured out of me, I didn't have a piece of paper or pen. He told me that I write like a blind person. That's how naturally it comes to me. I think it's a gift from God. That's how we wrote the whole album. He said, "Nobody's going to believe you haven't sung in 13 years!"
Let's talk about the CD that resulted from those sessions, True Love Is Free, which you've just released independently. It's being marketed as a contemporary Christian album. What inspired you to go in this direction, and does it have reach for fans of your previous dance music?
It's special now, even after 13 years of being out of the business. I'm getting messages from fans about things I did long ago. To have people remember me, many of them saying they're so glad I'm back. Some were concerned about my doing gospel, asking have I turned my back on them? I have a large gay following. Some people have asked if I'm now a Republican, right-wing Christian? No! Listen to the words in the songs.
I think that most of my music has been uplifting. A lot of people found "Reach" to be very inspirational. My whole message is that God is a God of love and inclusiveness. He doesn't exclude people. If you look at the life of Jesus, society at that time thought some people were untouchable. But Jesus touched them. You can't look at a person and say, "God hates you because you're gay." [The Bible] doesn't say that. If you're gonna look at one sin, look at the adulterers and liars sitting in church each Sunday. Or those who will steal from you right there. How dare you tell God's children that he doesn't love them? I think that is appalling.
That's why in the video for [first single] "Happy," I take in the prostitute, I take in the homeless. Can you imagine a society today where people actually look down on people who have hit hard times? Some of them have served our country, and then these people who call themselves Christians look down their noses at them instead of loving them. My view of Christianity is all-loving. All-inclusive. The Bible says before you remove that speck of dust from your neighbor's eye, remove the log from your own. I'm workin' on my own stuff, I don't have time to judge other people. My ministry is to love, not to judge. That is so on my heart to express that. I get criticized even by some of the gospel stations, "Well she's a dance artist." My mind goes back to Sam Cooke: all the stuff he took, because he crossed over.
They don't realize that when he crossed over, he exposed a lot of the injustice that was going on with black acts. He set up his own publishing and record company. He educated black musicians on how you can own your own material. Had he not, Bobby Womack wouldn't have the hits he wrote for the Rolling Stones.
People can get caught up on tradition of how they want to serve God. I think we're missing the main point. The main point of God is love, and in that love is tolerance. I don't believe that you can turn your nose down at somebody because they look a different way or have a certain lifestyle. I think that it's the job of someone who knows God to show love. That's what's been shown to you. That's what my song "Happy" is about. You say you know the story, but do you really? If you do, you'll know how loved you are, and that's the love you're supposed to show to everybody else.
God has a plan, and you cannot tell God how to be God or who to love. I take issue with people who say they represent god, but they can't find it in their hearts to love. If you think homosexuality is wrong, telling somebody you're gonna kill them because they're gay is not going to draw them to Christ. You have to love people. I'm trying my best to be as good as I can be, so I really don't have time to judge anybody.
Let's talk about some of the songs on the CD, starting with "Into the Fire."
That song is about what you go through in life, and how you make it through. You've been refined after your struggle. The fire was necessary to teach you. The fire of God, of your life, that sustains you through it all. Some of it could be safe, some of it could be a steadfastness of going forward with what you need to do. So many people are suffering in ways that they can't even get out of bed—with depression. So many people feel lost. If you see it as, "This too shall pass," something you have to go through to make it to the other end...
My life has been in the fire. There's a part where I say, "walkin through, dependin' on you." I think I'm on the other side now!
How about "Praying for You"?
I think I'm an agony aunt! [laughs] So many of my friends come to me with their situations. So many have felt like, "I'm trying so hard to do what's right, what's written on the book to live your life upright, and so many things are not happening for me and I feel discouraged." I thought about how the Bible says that Jesus is sitting at the right hand of the father praying for you everyday. I'm encouraging people to realize that somebody is praying on your behalf. Most people feel that nobody's looking out for them.
And "Love Song"?
At some point during the recording, Michael said to me, "You're making this very religious, maybe you need something secular here!" I said, "Listen, I'm the daughter of Julius Cheeks. If I want to sing gospel, I'm going to sing gospel. My father paid enough dues!" He said, "Why don't you write a love song? You often talk about your husband and what a beautiful relationship you have." I told him if I write a love song, it's going to be to the Lord. So, the first line is, "Everything I've ever done has brought me to my place, Down on my knees thankful for your mercy and your grace...It makes my soul dance and wanna sing a love song for my Lord." That's a testimony of my life and a place to where I've come. My love of music has been restored. I've come back to this place, and I'm so thankful. And the melody is really sweet. I have friends from everywhere—some are Christians, some are even Atheist—who love that song.
You've always recorded for other record companies in the past. How has it been so far releasing this album independently?
One huge advantage of doing it myself is that I don't have to be told by a record company what I'm going to sing and whether or not to wear green mini skirts! The creative freedom I have is greater than I've ever had in my entire career. That feels great at such a crucial point, when not long ago didn't even know if I could sing again. For the restoration of the love of the art. Had I gone to a record company, some can really crush your creativity by being in control. But, I'm mentally exhausted because it's a huge responsibility. You pay people to do jobs and sometimes they don't do them well. Sometimes they tell you they're doing something and they're not. I'm also finding that just because someone says they're Christian doesn't mean they perform business in that manner.
But, you learn with experience and age to departmentalize the stress. I wake up some mornings and do a Scarlett O'Hara: "I'm not dealing with that today!" We're putting it out there and seeing how people are responding. I can tell you now, it's been very stressful. Some things have been heartbreaking. But that's life and going through the fire. If you believe this is something you really wanna do and you stick with it, I believe your rewards will be granted to you.