Monday, September 28, 2015

The Open Heart of Lindsay Wagner

All Photos:  Alan Mercer

Lindsay Wagner makes little distinction between her life as an actress, advocate, mother, humanitarian or author.   What unites these various parts is a commitment through her work and her personal life to advancing human potential.  Early in her career this commitment was evident in her Emmy Award winning portrayal of “The Bionic Woman”.  Her use of media as a way to communicate ideas to help people in their personal process is demonstrated in so many of her films.

Films such as "Shattered Dreams" on spousal abuse and domestic violence starred in and co-Produced by Lindsay in 1991; "The Taking of Flight 847" on the root complexities of terrorism (1988); "Evil In Clear River" on the quiet rise of the Neo-Nazi movement in America (1988); "Child's Cry" on child sexual abuse (1985);  "I Want To Live" on the moral dilemma regarding capital punishment (1983); and "The Incredible Journey of Doctor Meg Laurel" on the battle between the naturopathic and allopathic healthcare (1979).

Off screen, Lindsay continuously works both publicly and privately in advocacy and public education.  She shares the knowledge and experiences, which have greatly impacted her life and have profoundly enhanced her awe of our often unrecognized human potential.  Lindsay has co-authored two books: a best-selling vegetarian lifestyle cookbook entitled, The High Road to Health (Simon & Schuster) and a book on acupressure, Lindsay Wagner's New Beauty: The Acupressure Facelift (Simon & Schuster). 

From 2003-2006 Lindsay co-facilitated a support group for convicted batterers and their families.  In 2004 she co-founded “Peacemakers Community”, a non-profit organization that offers families and individuals more constructive and peaceful ways of relating to each other and oneself in order to help end the cycle of family violence.  Her work utilized a range of psychological techniques and Spiritual encouragement.

For the public, Lindsay has been offering experiential “Quiet the Mind & Open the Heart” retreats and workshops. These programs are designed to help us access more deeply the peace and joy which is naturally within us and to realize how the conscious and unconscious concepts we carry in the mind often have a life diminishing influence on others and ourselves.  For many, it can be the catalyst needed to break through old or undesirable patterns affecting our family dynamics, intimate relationships, self-image, parenting, friendships and our work/career.

AM:  I know you are teaching acting now.  Have you been doing this for a while?

LW:  Several years ago I taught a class called from stage to screen because obviously camera work is my expertise.  I have been taking people who already have a lot of good training and teaching them how to be more authentic for the camera.  You can get away with being a lot more inauthentic on stage.  The camera will look right into your soul. 

AM:  I imagine most people are not so good at it. 

LW:  That is the biggest challenge for film acting to reach the depth of authenticity of what you’re feeling and being fully present and fully in the moment with that scene.  It’s not about saying the lines or hitting your mark.  That has to be second nature.  You have to learn your lines to the degree that you don’t ever have to think about them.  This allows you to be spontaneous and really in the moment so you can trust that those words are going to come out right. 

AM:  Did you have any trouble memorizing lines?

LW:  I memorize scenes in a way that most people don’t teach.  I think my dyslexia taught me how to creatively learn how to memorize.  It actually worked very well for me.  I believe that’s what helped me to be more authentic much earlier in my career.  I didn’t learn them mentally.  First I learn the emotional arc and once I get that down, the words just start making sense assuming it was written well. 

AM:  Was it harder if you were playing a doctor and didn’t understand what you were saying?

LW:  I never played a doctor like that and I would so not want to do that.  Actually I did play doctors but the parts I chose were never about the disease, they were about the people.  It was a personal drama and they happen to be a doctor.  The personal story is secondary to the disease in most medical shows.  That’s how it is with the cop shows.

AM:  You haven’t been devoting every last moment to acting in the last few years and you seem to be a very connected person.  Is that true?

LW:  One of my passions in life is body, mind and spirit.

AM:  I think along those same lines.  Has this always been natural for you or did you learn it somewhere?

LW:  I’ve had some extraordinary mentors in my life.  I began studying acting when I was twelve.  This only happened because I was babysitting for an acting coach.  One of the things he taught was to go out and people watch.  Not just watch what they do but to also watch your reaction to them.  If you are having a negative reaction to what you are watching someone do, then something inside you is judging that person.   If you are judging that person and you get called to play that type of person, it will be difficult for you to do. 

AM:  Why is that?

LW:  Because your personal ego gets in the way of letting you go to that place that says I actually have that place inside me too.  The exercise was to recognize our judgements.  It doesn’t mean you can get rid of them just like that, but when you are aware of it, you can release them at least temporarily. 

AM:  How does this benefit you?

LW:  This way you can play that character more honestly.  That is actually a lesson in consciousness.  Then at nineteen when I had my illness, I was taught meditation and visualization along with awareness of my thinking process and how this affected my health.  All of this was intentionally teaching me consciousness and how profoundly the body and the mind and our spirit, the unknown, that which is great than oneself, all blended into everything else I was learning.  By the time I really started acting, I’d had a lot of training of knowing myself.  The more you know about yourself the better off you will be when you try to perform.  You know these things about yourself and how to trigger them. 

AM:  One thing I didn’t realize is how much of a practical joker you are.

LW:  That’s because I’ve played in so many dramas and serious movies after the ‘Bionic Woman.’

AM:  You are good at comedy too!

LW:  I grew up in a family who had humor.  My mother and grandmother were very funny and sarcastic.

AM:  You mentioned that you were vegetarian.  Were you raised vegetarian?

LW:   No, far from it. 

AM:  Did you grow up eating steak?

LW:  No, it was more TV dinners.  (laughter)  a lot of aluminum in this body…a lot of macaroni and cheese.

AM:  When did you turn vegetarian?

LW:  When I was eighteen.  I was a child of the 60’s.  I started really taking care of myself.  Everybody was starting to become conscious of the treatment of animals and that kind of thing.  The whole social revolution was going on and we were learning about factory farming and how many chemicals were being pumped into the animals.  Those things seemed like a no brainer to me.

AM:  It took until now for this knowledge to become main stream.

LW:  Evolution is slow.

AM:  I really appreciate that you have chosen to help all of us learn more about happiness and peace.  Do you feel you have found both of these things?

LW:  Sure, but everybody still has ups and downs.  I am light years from where I used to be and I’m grateful to be there. 

To learn more about Lindsay Wagner visit her web site

Monday, September 7, 2015

Brigitte Zarie Will Stir Your Soul

All Photos:  Alan Mercer                 Lighting:  Eric V.

From the beginning, Brigitte Zarie has been as unforgettable as her music. Hailing from Toronto, Canada, she had the benefit of being raised in a home that thrummed with the rhythms and melodies that shaped her into the artist she would become.

With parents originally from Casablanca, Morocco—her father was a multi-instrumentalist while her mother was a singer—she was exposed to the world of jazz at an early age, and developed a love for classic artists like Frank Sinatra and Stan Getz. “I used to go to sleep listening to ‘Strangers In The Night’ or break up with a boyfriend and cry myself to sleep with the music of Stan Getz in the background,” she says.

As one of ten children, there was no shortage of other people to play and sing with. “My brother Joe used to play guitar and make me sing and make up words to everything he would play,” says Brigitte. “So I was writing songs since day one.” A defining moment for Brigitte occurred when her family traveled to Buffalo, NY when she was a child. “My parents had a big van so we slept in it one night, and across the street was a jazz club. I remember hearing this be bop music, and loving it while my folks were asleep. I was really stunned by what I heard. I tried to stay up and listen to every note that was played. I can still hear and see that night as clear as day. I know I was supposed to be in that exact spot, listening to that music for a reason.

From that moment on, Brigitte answered her calling, knowing exactly what she wanted to do with her life: devote it to creating the music that she was so struck by as a young girl. She kept singing and crafting songs, many of which were recorded by other artists. She played in bands and was a featured vocalist in films and commercials. She even explored other musical genres. But throughout it all, jazz remained her utmost passion, and soon she chose to focus exclusively on her own material.

Seeking to express the experiences of her own life, she penned the songs that would become her debut CD “Make Room For Me,” a searingly emotional collection that offers a freshness and originality uncommon in the world of jazz.  With her second release, “L’Amour,” she follows up with an album that is just as unique and soulful, but also offers an emotional dimension that showcases her evolution into an artist not afraid to confront life’s essential truths.

Love in all its forms is the topic here, and Brigitte unearths stories of uncommon honesty and unforgettable resonance. Once again backed by a fantastic cadre of notable players, including Randy Brecker, Blue Lou Marini, Sean Pelton, John Tropea and other luminaries, Brigitte has created music both entertaining and timeless. “’Make Room For Me’ had a bold, raucous big band sound, while ‘L’Amour’ uses strings to evoke a more lush and passionate feeling,” she says. The music is polished, energetic, and just as powerful as before, only this time her singing has evolved into a more personal, reflective tone. One might call it soulful and even wistful at times, but one thing is certain: this is a deeply personal work that comes from the most meaningful depths of Brigitte’s heart.

Brigitte Zarie carries forth the classic jazz musical tradition in her own unique and distinctive way. She brings bold determination, sassiness, originality, and unwavering insight to every song she writes. The result is a listening experience that is warm and uplifting. And a work of art that is timeless. Brigitte Zarie. A songwriter who moves the heart, stirs the soul, and is the voice of whole new generation of jazz.

AM:  Brigitte, I discovered you through facebook.  After seeing a photo of you I wondered what you sounded like and I was so impressed by your talents, not only a singer but as a songwriter!

BZ:  Thank you, yes I write my songs.  That’s why I’m so weird.  I am always thinking about the words I am singing.

AM:  What inspires you to write?

BZ:  First, it’s cathartic.  I feel that standards have been sung so many times and with all due respect it’s because of those standards that I am writing my own stuff.  Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer are great teachers.  The thing is I have my own experiences and they have to come out somewhere.  I have to talk about them, whether I was happy or sad.  Those are my experiences.

AM:  If you have the talent to write you should.

BZ:  The great songwriter of the day who have passed on shared ‘their experiences.’  ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ and ‘My Funny Valentine’ were their broken hearts and happy days.  So my songs are my moments.

AM:  Did you always intend to write your own songs?

BZ:  I didn’t do anything on purpose.  I just do what I do.  My songs are a great way for people to get to know me.  That can’t happen the same if I sing somebody else’s song.  People might say she has a great voice but this way they get to know my pain, my voice and my experience. 

AM:  That’s what I loved so much about your music and style.

BZ:  A lot of people hear my music and think they know the song, but it’s my song.  That is the biggest compliment.  You know I’m writing off the classic writers coattails.  They are amazing songwriters.  I’m not an ingrate by any means.  They made me who I am.  I’m very grateful to be doing what I’m doing without discrediting these amazing people from before. 

AM:  Brigitte, I find you very unique and one of a kind.

BZ:  Thank you, that’s a huge compliment.

AM:  You are a lifelong artist.  You will be recording when you’re sixty and seventy.

BZ:  I hope so.  As long as I’m writing my own music it’s a never ending process.  I’m always having experiences so there is always something for me to write and sing about. 

AM:  Your music has a blend of the contemporary experience and a classic sound.  That’s why people think they’ve heard your original songs before. 

BZ:  It’s difficult because the music can be embraced and accepted or it can be resented.  People can wonder, what is she doing.  Why isn’t she singing standards?  I’ve had that happen.  I’ve had radio people tell me I was getting poor advice and I should be singing standards.

AM:  You don’t listen do you?

BZ:  No, I can’t. 

AM:  Those people just don’t get it.

BZ:  No, especially the original material.

AM:  You’re a little ahead of the curve so you have to lead the way.

BZ:  That’s exactly what it is. 

AM:  How is the new album coming along?

BZ:  It’s great.  It’s different than the first two.  The first album was a little more big band, Vegas style.

AM:  I love it!  I love ‘Money, Money, Money.’

BZ:  I wrote ‘Money, Money, Money’ when I was walking along Fifth Avenue and I looked up and saw Donald Trump’s building.  I was thinking money, money and it just came to me.

AM:  The melody comes to you like that?

BZ:  Yes, and I wrote Vegas the same way.  I wanted to go to Vegas and just started thinking how cool it is.  I’ve been there a few times.  These songs come to me, but I am being challenged at the moment.  The new record is named ‘Marie’ after my Mom who passed away. 

AM:  You recorded ‘I Walk The Line’ for her didn’t you?

BZ:  Yes and it was during that recording that she passed away.  A lot of people didn’t understand why I recorded that song, but it was her favorite and I love Johnny Cash. 

To learn more about Brigitte visit her web site

Monday, August 17, 2015

Maxayn Lewis: Goddess of the Wind

Current Photos:  Alan Mercer  
Make-up:  Rudy Calvo
  Hair:  Leverne Tate

There are singers and then there are Vocal Architects. Maxayn Lewis is the latter - not only a coveted session and touring vocalist but a passionate and conscientious instructor and coach for people in all walks of life to use their voices to their maximum capacity. Just call it "The Max Factor!"

The resume of Maxayn Lewis is an impressive one that includes recording with artists ranging from Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross and Celine Dion to Michael Jackson and Madonna. She has toured with Quiet Storm greats Brenda Russell and Gino Vannelli, jazz legend Les McCann and renowned blues man Bobby "Blue" Bland, as well as many superstars in the Japanese pop world such as Omega Tribe, Toshinobu Kubota, Anri, Akina Nakamori, Sanno Motoharu and Namie Amuro.

Maxayn (pronounced max-ann - the "y" is silent) grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma as Paulette Parker, a region renowned for producing great musicians - from rocker Leon Russell to funk masters the GAP Band (both of which she has worked with). She came upon her vocal gifts naturally from her mother, C. Lorene Parker, who was a fantastic gospel singer but, more practically, a chef by trade. Maxayn cites her as well as the incomparable Nina Simone as major inspirations. She sang in a classical conservatory and later honed her chops in jazz nightclubs and the particularly demanding Marshall amplified music of rock clubs.

Her big break arrived when the legendary Tina Turner blew into town and recruited her for a world tour. On this tour, Maxayn wowed critics and musicians alike including English rock royalty David Bowie and Mick Jagger, who referred her for gigs. Working with Tina required Maxayn to move to Los Angeles where her career truly took flight in the realm of recording sessions for not just pop music but also film scores and commercials for radio and television. It is this multi-faceted professional music background that she called upon when she carved out another niche for herself as a vocal instructor. Who better than someone who not only has and knows what it takes, but someone who has a method and is willing and able to share it with others?

The origin of the vocal building technique began with a gentleman named Gary Catano through whom a wide range of creative people have fortified their vocal instruments, from singers Seal and Mariah Carey to actors Angelina Jolie and George Clooney, even former President Bill Clinton.

While living in Japan, Maxayn became one of only two other people certified to teach "The Catano Method," but developed her own method, "The Max Factor," that goes a great deal further and is helpful to a wider range of individuals seeking to strengthen their voices and communication skills. 

"The original method gets you ready to sing," Maxayn shares, "but I added the mechanics of singing which teach you how to drive that new Ferrari you have throttling in your throat!" Maxayn targeted behind-the-scenes professionals such as voice-over actors and session singers, plus became a godsend to production companies by helping them cultivate the vocal prowess of the aspiring superstars of tomorrow.

Beyond supporting the music of others, she recorded three albums as the leader of a funk-rock fusion quartet called – what else – Maxayn. The group consists of Maxayn as lead singer and keyboardist, Andre Lewis on organ and bass, Marlo Henderson on guitar, and Emilio Thomas on drums.

Most recently, Maxayn was featured on rock n’ roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis' critically acclaimed 2007 CD, Last Man Standing, gracing The Killer's take on the Jimmy Reed classic "Bright Lights, Big City."

Summing up her enviable career as a vocal entrepreneur, Maxayn concludes, "It's been a wild ride…but I still feel as though I'm just getting started - building a world of song… one voice at a time!"

AM:  Maxayn, I have to tell you how much I love the three Maxayn albums.  They are so funky and they were released before other groups like Rufus.

ML:  Thank you, yes we were before Mother’s Finest too.

AM:  You were before everybody!  What was it like being ahead of the curve?

ML:  It was a lot of fun.  My band originally was the Buddy Miles Band.  They were stars already. 

AM:  How did you hook up with them?

ML:  They saw me when I was doing a Blues tour with Bobby Blue Bland.  Two of the guys said they wanted to be in a band with me.  One of the guys was Andre Lewis and that’s the same day I met Donny Hathaway.  Donny gave me his card and said he wanted to produce music for me.  Andre told me I could go with the man in a three piece suit or I could go with the men who just came to earth.  They looked like they came from outer space, so different; the way they dressed was more rock n’ roll. 

AM:  What was your personal style at the time?

ML:  I was more cutting edge fashion because I had already been with Ike & Tina.  I had a lot of clothes from Europe and Asia. 

AM:  How long were you with Ike & Tina?

ML:  Three years. 

AM:  You must have many stories from that time.  Is it worthy of a book?

ML:  Oh yes, it is definitely worthy of a book.  My book wouldn’t be what everybody might think it would be.  It would be about when I met them, before any of the crazy drugs that Ike fell into later in his life. 

AM:  What were they like when you worked with them?

ML:  Working with them was like going to the ‘university of how’ to be in the entertainment business.   Ike made sure we all understood what contracts were, what riders were, he felt very responsible for this big group of young people that he had on the road.  He didn’t allow anything out of order on the buses.  They were always clean.  He wanted to keep us safe and to get enough rest and good nutrition.  He said it was a hard job and you have to be ready for it.

The Ikettes 1968 (l-r) Ann Thomas, Paulette Parker aka Maxayn Lewis , Pat Powdrill & Jean Brown
Photo courtesy of The Rudy Calvo Collection

AM:  And you were ready for it.

ML:  We were.  We did 347 one-nighters in 365 days. 

AM:  Did it ever get too much for you?

ML:  No, when you’re young you are fearless and you think you are immortal.  When you’re nineteen and twenty years old you don’t have any pains.  We’d be super tired but we could dance.  We worked really hard.  We didn’t have knee pain and back pain yet. 

AM:  When did you leave the group?

ML:  That was when Tina considered leaving.  She was going to psychic readers and they were telling her all sorts of things like in the future she would be doing something else.  Nobody knew what it was though.

AM:  Do you believe in psychics?

ML:  I think everybody has a bit of psychic energy in them.  You can see to the corner but you can’t see around it. (Laughter)  Tina was always wanting to drive out of the city and go where no one would know her to go to a psychic.  I would often ride with her. 

AM:  So you got along like a good family.

ML:  Very much so.  She was like an athlete so we all had to be athletes with her.  I was already an athletic person before I ever went on the road.  The job was tough on a daily basis but it made me and everyone else mentally tough.  We were ready for everything. 

AM:  I don’t think that happens as much today. 

ML:  No the young kids today have their ups and downs because they really don’t have any role models of how to be professional.  Your family can’t teach you that.  They can teach you how to be polite but not professional.  There is no school you can go to in this industry.  You have to learn from those who have come before you.  I was very fortunate to meet Ike & Tina at that time. 

AM:  How did you get the name Maxayn?

ML:  My uncle is who came up with that.  He used to ask me to sing for him and he would call me the Goddess of the wind.  I’m from Oklahoma so Native culture was always big.  In the Mayan culture there was a Goddess of the Wind named Maxayn.  

Jewelry: Claudia Tate

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Jan Strimple: The Crown Jewel of Dallas

All Photos:  Alan Mercer 
 Assisted by Eric V. & Psymon Imagery 
Hair & Make-up: Gary W. Parson

“One of the most sophisticated models in the world”
-CNN’s Elsa Klensch

“Dallas’ favorite model”
-Dallas’s Park Cities People

“Model nonpareil”
-Dallas Morning News

“The incomparable Jan Strimple”
-The Turtle Creek News

“The most professional model I’ve ever known”
-Model Agent Kim Dawson

Respected as Dallas's premiere fashion event producer, Jan Strimple's shows have rocked the runways from New York's Fashion Week to Dallas/Ft. Worth's most high profile fashion luncheons and award shows. Known for her creative theatrical productions, Jan equally relishes opportunities to showcase emerging designers in a straight forward, but edgy style. Trusted by established designers like Carolina Herrera, Lela Rose, Yeohlee, Max Azria, Bob Mackie, Rodarte and Phillip Lim to Project Runway designers Daniel Vosovic and Shirin Askari, she enjoys the partnership and challenges that each production brings.

Jan produces for corporate clients and Dallas’s most exacting non-profits including The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, The Salvation Army, Mary Kay, Fashion Group International, Dallas Market Center, The Dallas Symphony Orchestra League, The Fashionistas, and Equest.

Jan was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame for her AIDS fundraising efforts in 1996 and in 2001 she was honored by the Design Industry Foundation Fighting AIDS as a “Legend in the Fight Against AIDS.”

In 1999 she was nominated for the Ray Kuchling Award for outstanding contributions and support of the human rights campaign. She continued to receive kudos for her philanthropic work in 2006 when Philanthropy World Magazine honored her while recognizing socially conscious citizens in the philanthropic world.

Fashion Group International awarded Jan the Fashion Forum Career Achievement Award in 2003 and the Fashion Innovation Award in 2008. These awards recognized Jan for transcending the ordinary and raising the bar in her industry.

In 2009 'Women That Soar' honored Jan with their 'Brilliantly You' Fashion Award for empowering, supporting and inspiring other women on their personal and professional journeys.

Originally from Kent, Ohio, she relocated to San Antonio as a teenager.  At six feet, Jan had been modeling since the age of 13 and she didn’t pause moving to Texas.  In 1980 she made her way to Dallas where she very quickly started modeling for Leon Hall at The Dallas Apparel Mart and much more work through the Kim Dawson Agency.

After walking for Bob Mackie, Carolina Herrera, Mary McFadden, Bill Blass in her first season in New York, she went to Paris and was booked by  Dior, Lanvin and Givenchy for the Haute Couture season in Paris. Her international career was born that year and it spanned the 80's and the first half of the 90's.

Jan has been married to her high school sweetheart, Dan Strimple, a PGA golf professional, for over forty years.  

AM:  Jan, I know you started modeling at 13.  What kind of job was that?

JS:  It was not very glamorous.  It was a job holding rat killer.  The product was in focus and I was out of focus.  I’m from Kent, Ohio originally and there wasn’t a lot of high fashion work there!  The third most important fashion college is in Kent now.  I was amazed!

AM:  As a child were you always interested in fashion?

JS: Yes, my mother tells a story of when she put me in a ruffled dress to go to kindergarten, I remember this too, well I didn’t want to wear it so I screamed and ran around the house and I would not get on the bus.  I hated ruffles when I was five.  I was never very girlie.  I already had strong opinions about fashion.

AM:  Was it not sophisticated enough for you?

JS:  It just wasn’t my taste.  I’ve never worn a lot of girlie things.  Now I have a lot of black in my closet because it’s a good contrast color for my white skin and red hair. 

AM:  Did you have a suspicion you would be tall?

JS:  My mother is five ten and my father is six two.  There are three girls in my family and I’m the dreaded middle child.  I laughingly told my father one day that I was the son he never had because I look like him and I got the unusual height.  I’m just shy of six foot. 

AM:  Was being so tall ever uncomfortable for you?

JS:  No, and you know why?  It’s because my mother was in theater.  We had musicians and theater people in our home constantly.  My parents were entrepreneurial and owned their own business.  I did not have a Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 parent who came home.  My mother had perfect posture and so did my father.  It was required of us to live in the household to carry our self with dignity.   How you carry yourself and your posture is how you’re asking people to treat you  and receive you in the world. 

AM:  I absolutely agree with that.  Your parents were ahead of their time.

JS:  Very much so.

AM:  Do you do anything special to keep yourself fit and upright now?

JS:  I have a ballet bar and I do stay stretched, which is nice.  As you age it is the most important thing.  When you think about it, standing up straight and tall keeps your organs in alignment and then they work the way they are supposed to.  

AM:  You know a lot about all this.

JS:  A model makes her living with her body so she has to have an awareness and stay in tune with her body.  The combination of modeling and dance keeps me aware of myself. 

AM:  That really helped walking those runways I’m sure.

JS:  Starting in Ohio, I never had that idea on my horizon.  I knew I loved fashion but I was more interested in the business side.  I have a brain and I use it.  It was never about me.  After moving to San Antonio in 1977 I started working at Frost Brothers, which was the Neiman Marcus of San Antonio.  The man who owned the store played tennis at a tennis club where I was the buyer for the women’s clothes.   One day he said I needed to come to the store so he could talk to me about working for them.  The fashion director hired me immediately.  I did some modeling there and then I moved to Dallas in 1980 thinking I would just list with an agency and do a little modeling work until I started working in the business side again.  Neiman Marcus was here so I thought I would do something with them.  Overnight I started working, but not in Dallas.  I was too tall and odd looking.

AM:  You were exotic and made for couture.

JS:  Yes and Dallas didn’t really have that other than Neimans.  The tallest girl working in Dallas was 5’10”. 

AM:  So how did you get your big break as a runway model?

JS:  I was working a hair show in Las Vegas and I met a man who came up to me and asked, “Who are you and where do you live?”  I told him my name and that I lived in Dallas.  He told me he came into Dallas and produced fashion shows.  He said I would be his star.  His name was Leon Hall.  So he put me on the runway and I would open and close his shows.  He was the first to really believe in me here in Dallas, as well as Lou Lattimore, which is a fine store.  In fact I was doing a floor show at Lou Lattimore and Bob Mackie came in doing his very first trunk show and at the end of the second day, he told me he didn’t know what I was doing here but that I would be going to New York to work his runway.  So I walked the runways in New York and within ten days I had agencies in fourteen countries. 

AM:  You also have a mannequin made in your image.

JS:  Yes, that is one of my biggest honors from the Rootstein Company out of London.  That was truly amazing.  I have the original bust that the sculpter, John Taylor made.

AM:  How do you keep your ego in check with all these honors?

JS:  I’m from Ohio! (much laughter)  Also I went to New York when I was 27 years old and for someone with white skin that’s a girl who should already be retired.  That’s when I started my international career.  They had no idea how old I was.  Nobody bothered to ask me. 

AM:  You’re timeless.  There is no age.

JS:  Thank you.  By the time I got into that whole scenario my head was screwed on straight.  Youth can still get in the way of good decisions and I may have handled things differently if I had been seventeen.  I was immediately immersed with the top girls in the world. 

AM:  You seem like you have always been grounded.

JS:  It’s the way I was raised and marrying a guy from the same small town.  We have the same Midwestern values. 

AM:  Have you been married a long time?

JS:  Forty-one years to an amazing guy. 

AM:  Now you are the Queen of the industry here. 

JS:  I do a lot of fashion production and I train the next generation of runway girls for five of the agencies here. 

AM:  What is the bottom line for these girls?

JS:  I’ll tell you the hardest thing for them to understand. There are a lot of beautiful young women, but they don’t understand when she is 5’6” there isn’t a lot for her to do.  Then they ask if she could just do cosmetics, well no.  It has nothing to do with the girl.  She just can’t stand next to a 5’11” beauty.  She will be diminished.  All she could ever do is something solo and those solo spots for diminutive people are now taken by actresses.  The fashion industry will take you if you are 5’8” or taller now. 

AM:  Do you give the shorter girls any other advice?

JS:  I encourage them to take acting classes and use their beauty in a different way.  They can be in another kind of commercial, just not high fashion.  

Monday, June 22, 2015

Denise LaSalle: All Hail The Queen

All Photos:  Alan Mercer

Denise LaSalle is America’s reigning "Queen of the Blues". Blues fans, musicians, music experts and critics internationally recognize this royal and honorary title Queen of the Blues. The legendary LaSalle has a distinguished career of nearly 50 years as a vocalist, singer, live-performer, songwriter, entrepreneur, producer and originator of the Blues and R&B genre. She is a singer, songwriter, and record producer who has a staggering output of 35 albums placing her among the most prolific female artists living. In the Blues tradition, the most senior and talented artist in both genders is accorded the title of King and Queen, and since 2009 following the death of Koko Taylor, Denise LaSalle has been recognized as the uncontested "Queen of the Blues".

Denise, a native Mississippian, has strong Delta roots and her spoken tribute at B.B. King’s funeral was an unexpected surprise to millions of Blues fans globally. She was born and raised in Belzoni in Leflore County just forty miles south of Indianola where her late friend B.B. King was born and buried.

Denise would sit in with R&B musicians and wrote songs, influenced by country music as well as the blues, before winning a recording contract with Chess Records in 1967. Her first single, "A Love Reputation" was a modest regional hit.  She established an independent production company, Crajon, with her then husband Bill Jones.  Her song "Trapped By A Thing Called Love" was released on Detroit-based Westbound Records. This reached #1 on the national R&B chart and #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song ranked at #85 on the 1971 year-end chart. The RIAA gold disc award was made on November 30, 1971 for a million sales.

She also wrote successful follow-ups, "Now Run And Tell That" and "Man Sized Job" which made #3 and #4 in the R&B Top Ten and also charted in the Hot 100. Her early hits were recorded at the Hi recording studios in Memphis, operated by Willie Mitchell, using the cream of southern session players. She continued to have hits on Westbound and then on ABC Records through the mid-1970s, including "Love Me Right." She continued to produce and perform live. Her co-penned song, "Married, But Not to Each Other" was included in the 1979 ‘The Best of Barbara Mandrell.’

In the early 1980s, she signed as a singer and songwriter with Malaco Records, for whom she released a string of critically acclaimed albums over more than 20 years, starting with ‘Lady in the Street’ and ‘Right Place, Right Time.’  Both albums became major successes among soul blues, R&B and soul fans and on urban radio stations.  In 1985, she enjoyed her only recognition in the UK Singles Chart, when her cover version of Rockin' Sidney's, "My Toot Toot", reached #6. 

After taking a brief break from the road to nurse husband James Wolfe back to health, Denise LaSalle has resumed performing and recording, and made a duet with Soul Bluesman Bigg Robb titled “Blues and Barbeque”. The Blues duo completed a music video on May 29th, 2015.

The passing of B.B. King has inspired LaSalle to prioritize Blues Education for younger generations, and is reviving her 501 c 3 National Association for the Preservation of Blues (N.A.P.O.B.) headquartered in Jackson, Tennessee. NAPOB aims to create an innovative and interdisciplinary Blues Education program including music training, technology, professional development targeted at youth with alternative programs for adult learners.

The Queen of the Blues is recording on a new album “Cougars on the Loose”, and is reviewing several documentary and collaborative recording projects including Blues and Country Music.
Denise LaSalle is a paragon among the last surviving legendary and pioneering Blues singers, songwriters and musicians that transformed a regional sounding into an internationally loved and respected genre that represents one of a few the only genuine American art forms.

In 2009, Blues critics and enthusiasts crowned Denise LaSalle Queen of the Blues.  In 2011, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.  On Saturday, June 6th, 2015, LaSalle was inducted into the Mississippi Blues Hall of Fame.

I took these shots at Poor David's Pub in Dallas, Texas at the KNON Benefit Concert.

 AM:  Denise, you are an amazing songwriter.  You are prolific and just brilliant.  Where is this coming from?

DL:  I don’t know, somewhere in the back of my mind. 

AM:  Are you always writing?

DL:  That’s how I got started in this business, as a songwriter.  I’ve been a poet since I was a little girl in school. 

AM:  So this led to songwriting?

DL:  Yes, usually when the words come to me in rhyme, they come with a melody.  The minute I put the words down on paper I know exactly how the melody will sound. 

AM:  I love the themes in your music.  You are so earthy and real.  Has this always been the case?

DL:  Yes, that’s all I know to write about, what is real life. 

AM:  You write a lot about relationships.

DL:  Yes, they are not always about my relationships.  I can be talking to a friend of mine and they will tell me something that happened to them and that rhyme will get in my head and when that rhyme comes to my mind with the melody, I have to think about what would make me say this and what would make me feel this way.  That’s how I get the scenario. 

AM:  Your lyrics are all so clever and often humorous.  When you wrote “married, But Not To Each Other” did you ever think it would be a hit for somebody else?

DL:  No and it was a surprise especially because of who it was.   I never dreamed a Country girl like Barbara Mandrell could take that song and make it a hit.  That’s a perfect example of another lady’s story.  A friend of mine was cheating on her husband and she told me about it.  She came up with the title and then I put my own words to it. 

AM:  Are you still writing?

DL:  Yes, I still write.  People are always coming up to me with song titles.  I just take them and work with them. 

AM:  You come off as a very strong woman in all your songs.  I especially love ‘EEE TEE.’  How did that one come about?

DL:  I had just seen the movie ‘E.T.’ and I was talking with my friends about an ugly man being good to you or a fine thing who is no good.  I just put it together that I would rather have a man who looks like E.T. and be good to me than have a fine man who would abuse me. 

AM:  Have you been able to stay strong in real life and avoid some of the pitfalls of show business?

DL:  I think I have.  I think I’ve avoided quite a few, although I’ve been in some problems. 

AM:  How did you avoid them?

DL:  I believe in being honest so I always let people know what will be and won’t be and what I’ll take and what I won’t take. 

AM:  What do young girls ask you the most?

DL:  There is so much more to get into today.  It’s not like it used to be with just a few things to do.  I just always tell them to be careful and look before you leap.  

Follow Denise LaSalle on her facebook and twitter pages

Monday, June 8, 2015

Leon Isaac Kennedy Returns To Hollywood

All Photos:  Alan Mercer

Leon Isaac Kennedy is already in the history books as a creative pioneer in radio, TV and movies.  His trailblazing broke down barriers.  Today many more doors and opportunities are open for minorities in front of and behind the camera. Additionally, many more opportunities are enjoyed by African Americans, Hispanics and Women in all of today’s media.   But it was Leon, the kid with a dream, with no help from agents, managers, or any support system, who opened many of those doors.

Leon is a child of the media, one of the rare few, creatively blessed to write, produce and perform in all aspects of radio, television and movies. Raised in Cleveland, Ohio, while some inner city kids were taking drugs and getting involved with gangs, Leon was only 15 years old when he sounded crazy to some of his friends for announcing that he had decided to be a Movie Star! Writer! Producer!

Even at age 15, knowing how to dare to dream and overcome reality, Kennedy realized there was not much opportunity for Blacks. So he formulated a plan. “I’ll be a disc jockey… then become a big time air personality … then get my own television show … then do movies!”

Immediately working on his plan, by the time he was 16 Leon made history by becoming one of the youngest disc jockeys in a top ten market.  Still working on “his plan” Leon had his first TV show “Teen-A-Rama” by age 19. He was promoted from Teen Weekend DJ in Cleveland, Ohio to full time in an even bigger market, Detroit – Motown!

It was in The Motor City that Leon started to become a radio legend as ‘Leon The Lover!’ Almost 45 years later fans still ask about Leon The Lover and his classic Leon’s Lover’s Lane! Some say it was his voice, others say the poems he personally wrote to go with his theme song and slow jams as Leon sometimes charmed, sometimes made them cry and certainly made them tune in.

As recently as Berry Gordy’s Motown Musical opening, while exchanging hugs legendary performer, Gladys Knight reminisced how she and her cousins, The Pips would sit out on their front porch and listen. It was like every house, every car radio was listening to Leon The Lover!

Leon reminisced, what better place for a young teen to grow up as a top disc jockey than The Motor City?  While others my age were just beginning college, I was friends with all of the Motown Legends.

When Leon made personal appearances or played records at a club, lines for entrance circled around the block. Modestly Leon laughs, “It wasn’t just to see me; on any given night, Dennis Edwards or the great David Ruffin from The Temptations might sing and my dear friend, Stevie Wonder judged Leon’s Pretty Leg Contest. Living and DJ’ing in Motown I made lifelong friends in a slice of time and history that can never be replicated.”

Still pursuing his dream Leon moved onto Washington, D.C. doing both radio and television.  The wonderful Businesswoman and Entrepreneur, TV One’s Cathy Hughes remarked, “Leon, with his great talents and Lover’s Lane, took Black radio to a higher level of class and talent.”

Leon next took on Houston, Texas wherein he hooked up with one of his mentors and great friends, Disc Jockey Extraordinaire, Mike Payne.  Not content to be just an on the air personality, Leon with Mike wrote, produced and co-hosted “Outta Sight”!  Leon was the driving force that syndicated this “Laugh In” type comedy show. Think of “In Living Color”, only 20 years earlier.  Always the pioneer, Leon again made history. Prior to “Soul Train” it was Leon with “Outta Sight” that had the nation’s first Black Syndicated TV Show.

Leon then met the beautiful Jane Harrison, the first Black Miss Ohio, who through their marriage became Mrs. Jayne Kennedy. One week before their marriage, Leon astounded all of their friends by announcing that he and Jayne were leaving Cleveland to make it in Hollywood. What was astounding was that Leon knew no one in Hollywood. -- They had no jobs waiting, no semblance of beckoning security, and he had resigned from a very lucrative radio and television position.

Leon hit Los Angeles with the tenacity and faith with which he tackled every project. He became one of L.A.’s top disc jockeys and promoted and owned a string of discos. This gave him the economic freedom and time he needed to go after bigger things.  He carefully launched and helped guide his wife Jayne’s career - helping her to become not just a star -- but a household name. Leon stated, “We were a great team. As a young couple we worked hard together, broke down a lot of barriers, set a variety of high goals and realized them!”

Leon vowed it was about faith! And believing in your dreams! With a lot of prayer, hard work and tenacity, from knowing no one, he helped make them both into someone all would come to know.

Leon once stated, “It certainly was not easy for a young Black man or Black woman back then. The career opportunities just were not there. I had to use my own money and create our own opportunities.”  Leon also explained how he’s been told it was impossible to achieve every goal he’s ever had. But with positive prayer, of God’s Word and its Spiritual Principles -- positive action -- always equals positive results!

Once cast as “Two Sweet Gordon” in ‘Penitentiary,’ Leon became an immediate bona fide star. Fan magazines named him, along with John Travolta, Sylvester Stallone, and others “… Box office Stars of the 80s.”  Leon Isaac Kennedy’s ‘Penitentiary’ was the number one independent film of the year! ‘Penitentiary’ broke box office records all across the country.

Done for less than $500,000, it grossed over $18 million in just the U.S. box office, resulting in a whopping profit for participating investors.  Back then ticket prices were $3.00 and in some theatres 99¢. In today’s market -- Penitentiary represents a $70 million film done for less than $500,000!

Unlike many Hollywood products, Leon was not a manufactured studio star. He created his own product, his own image - his own good!  Kennedy showed the range of his talents in “Body and Soul” which he wrote, starred in and produced. He starred opposite Muhammad Ali, Jayne Kennedy and movie legend Peter Lawford.

He has starred with such super stars as Chuck Norris in 'Lone Wolfe McQuade,' Sammy Davis, Jr. in 'Knights of the City,' Barbara Carrera, Peter Lawford, David Carradine, and Academy Award winners, Ann Archer, Oliver Reed and Ernest Borgnine.

Then, at the top of his career, Kennedy suddenly stopped. No acting -- no writing -- or producing. Kennedy simply walked away from the business and industry he so dearly loved.

Kennedy, the international star, was not seen on a Hollywood movie lot -- but instead was discovered speaking, devoting his time to visiting detention centers, drug rehab centers, homes for unwed mothers, churches and hundreds of prisons. He explains: “I’ve never done drugs -- nothing tragic had occurred in my life -- God has always blessed me. Yet, so many people were going down the drain of drugs -- gangs -- hopelessness and despair -- there was a tug of God on my life. It was just time to give something back.”

“The Hollywood film business and movie making process has always been one of my great loves. However, positively impacting the lives of others is far more significant than winning any Hollywood trophy.” 

AM:  Leon I know that you have been an evangelist the last several years.  What is your main message?

LIK:  We are all God’s children and we should treat each other as God’s children.  It doesn’t matter if someone is a so called star or if they are an extra. 

AM:  Well that’s the right message.  Some people just don’t want equality for everyone.

LIK:  That’s too bad.  That is just ignorance.   God loves all of his children.  We are all his creation and he wants us all to treat each other as such.  In some form or another we are all interconnected. 

AM:  Why do you think some people think they are better than others?

LIK:  It’s ignorance again and they are compensating for their own low self-esteem.  That’s something that people have to grow out of.   We have to become more evolved.  I call it graduating.  It’s spiritual graduation.  Many people are in the kindergarten of their emotions and the way they let their emotions dominate them.   That affects how they treat other people. 

AM:  Did you hear a calling to be an evangelist?

LIK:  It was a calling for sure! (laughter)  It was never part of my ten year plan!  When I was attending school, I was always going to be a doctor.   Then when I was in tenth grade I went to a hospital with a pre-med club and it seemed so depressing.  I was in a school play that same week and I had just read Errol Flynn’s autobiography and I realized I wanted to be like him.  That started me on my path to acting.  I had to get a plan because there weren’t many parts for minorities at that time. 

AM:  What was at the heart of your plan?

LIK:  I thought I would enter the business through the back door.  First I would be a DJ and turn into an on the air personality and from there I would get a TV show and from there I would be in movies.  I really followed that plan.  Thank God it worked out.  So then I’m writing, producing and starring in movies.  I was doing a film in the Philippines and I got saved.  That started my spiritual journey. 

AM:  What did you do to get started?

LIK:  I started studying.  I have always said “Lord, I’ll do whatever you want me to.”  Many atrocities have occurred in the name of the Lord and God had nothing to do with any of it.  So the call of God came into my life.

AM:  And you never wanted to be in the ministry before?

LIK: I never wanted to be in the ministry at all so I ran and ran.  I learned you can run from God but you cannot hide.  Eventually I stopped running from God and started running to him. 

AM:  Did your life change at this point?

LIK:  It’s been a wonderful journey going out and touching other people’s lives.  This is not the kind of ministry where we put people down and tell them if they don’t act like we think they should, they are going to hell.  It’s about bringing the best out of every single person.  Everyone has some great, God given talents.  Many people haven’t discovered their talents and don’t know the divine part that is in them.   When you start cultivating those talents you see life much differently. 

AM:  Tell me about the new films you are starting to produce.

LIK:  I’ve been away from the industry for over fifteen years because I went into ministry.  Now it’s been put in my spirit to come back into the industry and make, what I call transformational films.  These are films that will entertain and be profitable by dropping some golden nuggets of inspiration and motivation. 

AM:  How many films are you looking to produce?

LIK:  We have four films that are on the slate now.  The first one is called, ‘Heavenly Stars.’  This will be a Christmas classic.  It’s about a DJ named Rock n’ Roll Eddie who gets a visit from some legendary Rock n’ Roll spirits.  They want him to produce a CD where the profits will feed and house the homeless.  It’s a wonderful, heartwarming, touching film. 

AM:  Who are these films for?

LIK:  These films will reach a great under served segment of the population.  There are so many people who want family, inspirational type films and they are not getting that product.  The major studios are not producing them and then they are surprised when the films do well.  I’m not surprised at all.  I know that audience and I know what they want.  We are going to give it to them. 

AM:  This seems like a return to your passions by mixing your experience in film and your calling for the ministry.

LIK:  Alan, you are absolutely right.  This is a combination of my whole life’s journey.  Also, as these films come out I am going to take the profits to do good for people. 

AM:  What else do you enjoy doing?

LIK:  There’s also been an entrepreneurial side to me.  We have a great skin care product that’s getting ready to come out.   My partner in this is my best friend and brother in life, Mr. Smokey Robinson.  This will be on the home shopping network in September.

AM:  You sound very excited to be where you are in your life right now.  Is that so?

LIK:  Yes, I’m excited about my return to the industry.  It’s giving me a chance to work with a younger generation in Hollywood.  There are a lot more opportunities now.  The equipment is so much different.  It doesn’t cost as much to make a film anymore.

AM:  So you are really enjoying this now.

LIK:  It’s refreshing for me to talk with the new writers, new directors and new talent.  It’s a whole new frontier and I have forty years’ worth of experience.  It’s very rewarding for me to share my knowledge.

 Follow Leon on his Facebook page and Twitter