Babes In The Band
from Cosmopolitan Magazine
By Vicki Jo Radovsky
"Leaning over my keyboard with Mick Jagger, or pretending to make out with Billy Idol - it's a chance to fulfill the fantasies of thousands of women. But it wasn't as romantic as it looked, especially with Billy, because he'd just be coated in sweat - disgusting! And he'd come up behind me, the big metal spikes in his belt went into my back. So I'm on-stage trying to look like I'm loving it, like this is the most romantic moment of my life, and I'm getting covered in Billy Idol's sweat and being stabbed in the back!"
Participating in choreographed clinches with celebrated rock-and-roll Romeos is all in a day's work for Susie Davis, a backup musician who's also worked for Prince. "Doing those love scenes was very strange, especially when I had a husband, but it was all just for show," she says of her steamy duets. "The romance never left the stage".
Even so, living the life of a successful female backup musician has a romance all its own - spending night after night making music with red-hot rock stars. Not to mention the thrills of performing before enthusiastic audiences, traveling all over the world in grand style, constantly being surrounded by a steady stream of creative, compelling men, and earning a salary of $450 to $5,000 a week as part of the deal. Being a babe in a band has to be the most glamorous job there is.
Or is it? According to the women who work at playing in pop' music's premier bands, there's much more to their labors than just lust and limos.
You imagine yourself onstage in front of an audience, receiving the accolades - that part of the fantasy is true," says Machun (formerly Margaret) Taylor, a singer who's worked for Pink Floyd, Foreigner, and George Benson. "the fulfillment I've gotten from performing has lived up to my fantasy and been very satisfying. the part I wasn't ready for was the behind the scenes stuff. You spend only two or three hours a day actually performing and twenty one hours off the gig. Despite the glamorous image, the reality is that it's very hard work, and there's all the stress of traveling and being in a different city every day. It's a challenge to keep yourself physically and mentally healthy."
"I was never attracted to the music business because of the glamour or the money. Music is just what I want to do," says Che Zuro, a keyboardist, guitar player, and singer with Texas guitar great Charlie Sexton. "You get your backstage pass and walk into sound check with this attitude, seeing all the kids already lining up outside. And being onstage for that hour or so is wonderful- definitely glamorous. When you're taken out afterward or just hanging out at a club, you've just gotten offstage and you're really pumped up, and it's great."
But people don't realize that you have to get on the bus for the 12 hour drive to the next town and you're riding with the driver from hell," she says laughing. "So if you were sleeping, you're not anymore. It's kind of a balance, I guess. I really like it, so I even appreciate the bad times."
For traveling musicians today, bad times aren't as bad as they used to be. Veteran vocalist Nicolette Larson - who's sung with the cream of L.A.'s musical crop, including Neil Young, the Doobie Brothers, and Little Feat - remembers her first taste of the road, in 1975, backing country's Hoyt Axton:"It was really basic - fourteen of us in a camper, including his kids." Nowadays, however, touring is less of a trauma, simply because top-selling acts can afford to go first class.
While some bands like rock patriarchs Pink Floyd, fly an entourage of two hundred from gig to gig ("We had a private jet, so we didn't have to deal with airports," says Machun Taylor), many bands - bringing crews ranging in size from 15 (Charles Sexton) to 140 (Prince) - rely on high-tech buses to provide a sense of home-away-from-home stability in their otherwise erratic lives.
"Now there are wonderful buses completely equipped with TV, video, stereo, microwave, and your own little bunk," reports Debra Dobkin, a percussionist who has sung and played with Don Henley, Jackson Browne, and the band Was (Not Was). "But, you know, with eight people on a bus, I don't care what kind of bus you've got - it's still a bus!" she laughs. "Everyone treads lightly."
"It's not an easy life," Dobkin goes on. "I've been on the road anywhere from six to nine months a year for five years, and most of the time, I never know what day it is or what town we're in. I try to have a routine: exercise at a gym, take myself out for lunch, go shopping. It keeps me sane. Otherwise, you just feel like you're out in space."
Feeling disoriented is just one of the pitfalls of rock life on the road. Another is loneliness. "Sometimes, you find you'll do things you'd never usually do, only because you're lonesome," says Lisa Fisher, who's sung with Luther Vandross for the past seven years, did Mick Jagger's 1989 solo stint, and backed the Rolling Stones on their recent Steel Wheels tour. "You'll talk to people you'd never talk to at home, buy the stupidest things at some mall. It's really strange."
Susie Davis was just twenty-five when she joined Prince's Purple Rain tour in 1984, her first big-time gig, which took her away from her husband for months at a time. "The hardest part for me was singing onstage with Prince, which was so unbelievably exciting, having all that wonderful energy coming from the audience, getting so high from it - then going back to the hotel ,walking into my room, shutting the door, and being all alone. The contrast between being on stage and feeling so incredible, then all of a sudden being totally isolated was very hard. Gradually, I got to know people I could hang out with, but it took a good couple of months."
Now a seasoned pro, Davis has taken to touring like spandex to skin. "It's like going to camp," she enthuses. "You go out on a bus with all these 'kids' and have a really good time together. You're taken care of for months and deal with very few problems, because road managers handle everything: They tell you when to wake up, when to be in the hotel lobby, where to go to next, what to do. It's great. So your first two weeks back home," she laughs, "are usually hell!"
Once rock-tour rookies manage to get their bearings, their traveling companions come to feel more like family. And believe it or not, even the hardest rockers can maintain platonic friendships with the opposite sex if it suits them. "There's a saying, 'Rock and roll is from the waist down,' and it's true," says Debra Dobkin. "There's a certain excitement in playing music for a crowd that gets your adrenaline going. And people do get lonely on the road, need talk, affection, whatever. A lot of guys I know have families and wives. Don Henley, Jackson Browne, and the people in their bands aren't kids anymore - their priorities have changed and so have their habits."
Susie Davis agrees. "There are certain bands that feel obligated to live up to that stereotypical rock and roll image of drinking until you puke and sleeping with as many girls as you can. From reading about major rock stars, you get the impression that touring is just a nonstop drugfest and sex orgy", she says, "and in some camps, it is decadent. But it all depends on the individual."
"I know of touring musicians whose relationships with their wives or girlfriends are so strong, they won't even look at anybody else," adds Lynn Mabry, who's sung with Talking Heads, George Michael, and Don Henley, and now works for Fleetwood Mac. "Then there are others who get on the phone as soon as they get off the plane."
So rest assured that music's much-touted sex-drugs-and-rock-and roll image hasn't completely petered out. Legendary libidos have always reigned in rock, and there are still plenty of women who find any geek with a guitar infinitely appealing. However, the wanton womanizers have wised up - if they're smart.
B.J. Nelson won't reveal the gory details of the wild times she witnessed as a back-up singer for with English pretty boys Duran Duran during their 1983-84 tour, although she does recall one staff meeting when a group of giggling girls was discovered hiding under the table waiting to get at their idols. "It didn't bother me," says Nelson, who's been backing British rocker Robert Palmer for the past four years. "They weren't married, so, hey, it's their lives. But these days, I would hope they'd slow down and be more careful. Robert's band," she adds, "is considerably tamer".
For macho musicians still in the market for extracurricular affection, however, there's no shortage of female fans willing to oblige. Those who make a hobby of it - groupies - don't get high marks from female backups. "It's common practice for people connected with a band to scan the audience for beautiful girls and hand them backstage passes so interested males in the band can look them over - like inspecting cattle at an auction," Susie Davis informs. "To get to my dressing room, I'd literally have to swim through a sea of woman who were just standing around waiting to be chosen. I saw a lot of lowlifes, girls who'd do anything - fool around with the bus driver, the security guy, anybody - all in the hope of getting to the stars. It's very sad. I find it disgusting and sordid, and it's really lowered my opinion of womankind as a whole."
Lynn Mabry remember her first graphic glimpse of a groupie in action, thirteen years ago. Visiting a band backstage, Mabry watched one energetic young woman prepare to take on two men - on the floor of a dressing room - before a protective staffer whisked Mabry away. "I was eighteen, just starting out, and this was before I'd been on a major tour," she recalls. "I'd been so sheltered, and seeing that was like 'Welcome to show biz!'"
"Groupies are weird," declares Che Zuro. "After a show, we'll be packing up to ride the bus to the next town, and there'll be some really pretty, statuesque girls waiting for the guys. It's three o'clock in the morning, and here I am, bitchy and tired, my hair in a ponytail, no makeup, wearing jogging pants and a T-shirt, dragging my bags to the bus, and I feel intimidated by these gorgeous girls! It's hard sometimes. But then I realize the guys don't really like those girls. Maybe for a half hour they love those girls, but that's it."
So who do you love if you're a girl in the band? Not you boss or bandmates, if you're serious about your career. having a rep as a pop tart puts jobs in jeopardy, so backups are better off if they just say no.
"To survive in the business, it's important to have a good set of values," Machun Taylor points out. "I know that's not a word people associate with the rock world, but a female backup musician needs a good set of values. It's a struggle when you're one woman out with ten guys in a band. Inevitably, you're going to be approached , and the temptation is there. But it's hard enough for a woman working in a man's world. The choices we make are very important, and that momentary pleasure is much more detrimental than you'd think. I'm not saying you can't have fun, if you cross certain boundaries, you have to face the consequences. We're professionals looking for work for a long time, and what we do is not just a fantasy."
Don't tell that to Bruce Springsteen's backup singer, Patti Scialfa, who fulfilled her fantasy of making beautiful music with The Boss both on - and offstage and reportedly contributed tot he breakup of his marriage to model Julianne Phillips, in 1988. Still standing by her man - and singing in his band - Scialfa is expecting Bruce's baby this year.
But according to all reports, most boss-backup couplings don't last, and fooling around with fellow band members can lead to trouble. "I've been involved with people who were in the limelight," Nicolette Larson reveals with a wry laugh, "but it's not so great, because everything becomes really public. My relationship with Neil Young was like a leading man and leading lady falling in love when we recorded his 1977 American Stars and Bars album. We really connected as we were singing, and we kind of had a crush on each other for about three months. When everything was going great, it was wonderful. But when it ended, everybody knew. It's made it really hard to work together since, although we have."
Lynn Mabry has a ten-year-old daughter, Akasha, as a result of her two-year relationship with Walter Morrison, a founding member of The Ohio Players. "When I met him on tour, I was very vulnerable and starved for affection," she confides. "He showed an interest in me, and I went for it. I left him when our daughter was five months old, because when he got home from the road, reality hit - and it didn't work out."
So how does a gal get a date? "It's really hard for backup singers," sighs Mabry, "because we're 'the girls in the band'. If you're single and on tour with single guys, it's convenient, and when you get to know the band staff, you might see someone who appeals to you. On George Michael's tour, there was something attractive about every guy in the band, whether it was his sense of humor, his love of music, his body, whatever. In my old days," she concludes with a sly smile, "I would have gone for it. But I've grown up since then, I know that relationships that start on the road are usually disastrous."
"I used to sit in my room on the road and think, 'Why can't I get a date? I'm not that ugly. I'm a nice girl,' Nicolette Larson remembers. "But what was I going to do? Go to a bar and look for somebody? Was a guy going to knock on my door and say 'Hello, is Miss Right in there?'"
If the backup already has a man in her life, constant traveling can take its toll on the relationship, as it did for Susie Davis. Her marriage ended because of the rigors of the road. "I was married for four years," she says, and I was gone for at least half of that. There was just too much time apart."
"I've been on tour now for nine months, and it's pretty tough, "says B.J. Nelson, who's been involved with a non-musician for the past ten years. "But this is the profession I picked, and it's what I enjoy doing, so I just have to deal with it. I've been very fortunate to have a really good man in my corner. We've got a lot of trust, and we're very honest with each other. I've got a fifteen-year-old son, Damian, as well and he and my boyfriend adore each other. When I get home, I disrupt their whole schedule."
Romance on the road may be a low note in their lives, but it's only one aspect of how female backups relate to the men who surround them. Being outnumbered by their male counterparts, they find their lady-in-the-locker-room status rewarding - and amusing.
"Don Henley used to say that having a woman on his tour kept him honest," Debra Dobkin recalls. "Guys will BS one another, play all kinds of macho games, and it becomes too much of a boys' club, with everyone trying to one-up each other with the best jokes, the best chicks, the best everything. With a woman around, that doesn't go on as much. I'm used to touring with guys, and it's definitely fun, but you can't lose sight of the fact that you are different: You're a woman in a crowd of guys. And I do get tired of dirty jokes."
"Being the only woman on a bus full of guys? It's great!" Che Zuro raves. "Am I blushing? Actually, the guys are very protective. Halfway through one tour, I was telling the drummer how no men ever came up to talk to me, and he said, 'Just tonight, five guys asked me about you, but they weren't good enough for you.' It was as if I suddenly inherited all these big brothers. If anything a little sleazy happens, like one of the guys getting drunk and grabbing a girl, they'd say 'I'm sorry you had to see that.' There were probably all kinds of nasty things that went on behind my back," she adds with a grin, "but the guys were never obnoxious in front of me."
"I don't know if it's because I'm five-two or because I have a young face, but when I sang on Van Halen's Woman and Children First album, even they treated me like a lady, and they're the hardest heaviest rockers there are," Nicolette Larson remembers. At one recording session, David Lee Roth put his arm around me and said, "Now this is a real woman!'" she jokes, imitating Roth's hoarse, dirty-old-man cackle. I figured I'd just been paid the hard-rock compliment of a lifetime."
Besides establishing brother-sister bonds, a woman working so closely with men has the rare opportunity to observe them from a unique perspective. "It's lovely to see men as they really are, in a natural setting with other men," notes Rosemary Butler, a pop perennial since the 70s, who's sung with Jackson Browne and has backed up James Taylor for the past seven years. "It could be a simple thing like going to man's room and noticing that he washed his underwear and hung it up, just like woman do with their nylons. Or just watching them shave or dress before a show, worrying whether they look right, just like girls do. One night backstage, all the guys in James Taylor's band were really into their mirrors, and it was trip watching them go through this whole number about their bodies. They're as self-conscious as woman, but they don't tell us about it.
"And I love hearing them talk about woman and being in love," she continues. "It's so exciting when they bring someone on tour, and watching them go from being single to married is really neat. But with no girls anywhere, except for occasional wives or girlfriends, I've had to learn a whole new etiquette. And it can be isolating - I can watch only so much football."
But isolation on the road is short-lived. So touring musicians crammed together day after day relieve the stress of constant contact and performance pressures by resorting to outlandish pranks and practical joke. "Humor becomes the major thing that keeps you going - you've got to be able to laugh about the long bus rides and all the weird stuff that happens," explains Debra Dobkin. Recalling the last night of a Wang Chung tour, she laughs at the memory of the sound technician who unexpectedly appeared onstage to sing with the band "wearing nothing but a Hefty trash bag, his socks, and a guitar."
"The crew is notorious for going completely berserk on the last night of a tour," adds Carol Steel, a percussionist and singer who's toured with Steve Winwood and Jeffrey Osborne. "I've been hit with Silly String, had toy men with parachutes dropped on me. Anything goes. One night, Steve Winwood's crew paid a woman to come on stage with a trenchcoat on and nothing underneath. She flashed the band right in front of Steve. The audience couldn't see her, but he got completely flustered. He kept right on playing, though."
Robert Palmer and his band are equally fun loving. "He played an outdoor gig where bugs attacked the audience, flying in their ears, up their noses - it was awful." B.J. Nelson remembers. On the spot, the band changed the lyrics of Palmer's latest hit from "addicted to love" to "infested with bugs".
All backups are routinely bugged by having to compete constantly with an ever-increasing crop of talent. And this being show biz, female musicians are often hired as much for their appearance as for their musical skills. "Alot of artists want a certain look, and I've been in situations where I didn't have enough of the necessary body parts," says Lynn Mabry, who lost out a gig with Mick Jagger because of it. "Mick wanted more T & A, and I wasn't wearing my push-up bra. But seriously, that kind of thing is hard to deal with, and there was time when it made me cry."
For other singers, too much of a good thing has been the problem. "When I started working with Luther Vandross, I weighed one hundred and seventy pounds - it was scary!" says Lisa Fisher. To keep the job, I had to lose forty pounds, so I panicked and started popping diet pills. I got crazy. But to wear a bodysuit, I had to pull out all the stops. Maintaining my weight now is a struggle everyday. After a show, I'm ravenous, but you shouldn't eat before going to bed. And if the hotel has twenty-four-hour room service, I'm in trouble!"
Lack of job security is another weighty problem for backup musicians. "You just go from tour to tour, so even though you make good money, the work isn't steady," says Susie Davis. "You'll tour, then be home for long periods, living off your savings. By the time you go on another tour, you're broke. I worked as disc jockey on and off until a couple of years ago. In the music business, you always want something to fall back on, because you never know when things will fall apart."
"This job has to be true love," says Carol Steel. "I mean, I'm a tough gal, but everybody out there isn't. Get married first," she advises. "Actually, if I had to do it over again, I'd want someone stable to be there for me, because doing it alone is really hard."
Yet, despite the disruption of their personal lives, the uncertainty of not knowing when they'll get their next gig, and the hassle of living out of a suitcase, the female backups I talked to aren't singing the blues when it comes to their careers. For the record, they wouldn't trade their jobs for all the hair on Bon Jovi.
"What could be better?" asks Debra Dobkin. "I love playing music; I play every night and get paid well; I travel to wonderful places; people take good care of me. I'm thrilled!"
"The smiles on people's faces as they look up at me, letting me know they're feeling what I'm playing, is the greatest thrill in the world," says Carol Steele. "I don't envision myself as a conga player at fifty," she says laughing, "but I think I've still got a few years in me to do what I love. The bottom line is making music because I love it - not because I want to be in the limelight or so people will notice me. I'm a lucky gal to be able to do what I love and make a living at it."
"Once you see through all the sequins," says Susie Davis, "the job isn't glamorous. But there's a certain joy in doing something so unique. In the overall population, how many people are accountants, and how many make a living as singer/keyboardist in Mick Jagger's band? Only me!"