Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Amazing Cassandra Peterson

All Photos:  Alan Mercer

Cassandra Peterson was born in Manhattan, Kansas, and grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  She was scalded by boiling water when she was five years old and underwent seventeen skin grafting operations over the course of her childhood to repair the scar tissue.

She began her career at age 17 as the youngest showgirl in Las Vegas history in the show "Vive Les Girls" at the Dunes Hotel. After receiving advice from "The King" himself, Elvis Presley, she traveled to Europe where she pursued a career as a singer and actor. She worked in several Italian films, including Federico Fellini's Roma and performed throughout Europe as lead singer of an Italian rock band.

Upon returning to the United States, she toured the country as star of her own musical-comedy show, "Mama's Boys". She eventually settled in Hollywood, where she spent four and a half years with L.A.'s foremost improvisational comedy group, The Groundlings. In 1981, she auditioned for the role of horror hostess: on a local Los Angeles television station. Her show, ‘Movie Macabre,’ and her newly created character, Elvira, became an overnight sensation.

Cassandra has used Elvira's celebrity status to bring attention to many worthy causes and organizations over the years, including her well-known work for animal welfare and raising money and awareness for the prevention of HIV/AIDS. In addition to co-writing and performing in both the local L.A. and nationally syndicated television versions of ‘Movie Macabre,’ she co-wrote, produced and starred in two feature films, ‘Elvira: Mistress of the Dark’ in 1988 and ‘Elvira's Haunted Hills’ in 2001. Her latest endeavors include producing, writing and starring in the reality series ‘The Search for the Next Elvira’ on Fox Reality and the nationally syndicated series ‘Elvira's Movie Macabre.’

Cassandra Peterson has spent over three decades solidifying the Elvira brand and building it into an international cult icon that has become synonymous with Halloween and the horror genre.  She was inducted into the Horror Host Hall of Fame in 2012, as her character Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

AM:  Cassandra, I’d like to start off talking about Elvis.  I have photographed many women who knew or dated Elvis so I find it interesting.  What was your Elvis experience like?

CP:  Yes, mine was very innocent.  You couldn’t even call it a date.  I was with Elvis one evening at a party and he kind of just stuck with me.  I was a showgirl but only seventeen. Today I am kicking myself wishing it hadn’t been so innocent!  (Laughter) We spent an entire evening, night and the next day together.  I typically didn’t go to sleep until the sun was coming up anyway. 

AM:  What did you do?

CP:  We were talking, singing and he would show me a belt that President Nixon had given him.  He also gave me advice about show business and that turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. 

AM:  You pretty much said the same things all the other woman have said.

CP:  He was gentlemanly and so sweet with a naive quality to him.  It was easy to see how he could have been taken advantage of by the Colonel. 

AM:  Speaking of innocent, did you feel innocent as a seventeen year old showgirl?

CP:  I don’t know if innocent is the word.  I had been go-go dancing since I was fourteen when I moved out of my family’s house.

AM:  How did you get away with that at fourteen?  Were they not strict back then?

CP:  I guess not.  Supposedly I was not allowed to drink.  I did look mature for my age.  I was the one who my high school friends sent out to buy liquor. 

AM:  Why do you think you looked older?

CP:  Probably because I wore tons of make-up and a wiglet on the top of my head and I had a lot of cleavage.  So people just got a vibe that I was a lot older. 

AM:  Did you have the emotional maturity to go along with it?

CP:  No I wouldn’t say that.  I was street wise because of being on my own but emotionally….I always say Elvira is me as a teenager because I was a smart ass know it all.

AM:  Aren’t you from the Midwest?

CP:  Yes I was born in Kansas and lived there until I was seven.  Then from seven to seventeen I was in Colorado.  My parents started out on a farm.  I grew up in a really small town of 350 people. 

AM:  We have similar beginnings.  I grew up in Nebraska.

CP:  Did you really?  My Mom is from Nebraska.  I could walk through the town and see all my relatives. 

AM:  So Las Vegas must have been very uptown for you.

CP:  It was my dream after seeing ‘Viva Las Vegas’ with Elvis and Ann-Margret.  I just knew that’s where I’d have to be.  I obsessed about it all the time.  I was fourteen and telling everybody that I wanted to go to Vegas and be a showgirl. 

AM:  How did people react to this?

CP:  Everybody just laughed at me.  My relatives told me I wasn’t tall enough or pretty enough. 

AM:  Were they telling you these things because they didn’t want you to get disappointed?

CP:  Some people did.  They’d tell me things like that don’t really happen.

AM:  I love that you proved them wrong.

CP:  That’s what I always did.  I think because I had a tough upbringing I was always rebelling.  I was one of those people who if someone said to me I couldn’t do something I wanted to prove them wrong. 

AM:  So were you part of the Vegas scene that included Frank Sinatra?

CP:  Oh yes! 

AM: I know you knew Tom Jones.  Did you like him?

CP:  Oh I loved him.  I wasn’t a big Tom Jones music fan because I was still so enamored of Elvis and I felt Tom Jones was cutting in on his territory. 

AM:  So how did you get interested in Tom?

CP:  A couple of male dancers from my show took me to see him and I thought, ”Oh my God!”  He was the sexiest man alive!  I couldn’t believe it.  His music just wasn’t for me.

AM:  You were much more rock n’ roll weren’t you?

CP:  Yes I was.  I even stopped liking Elvis music after I was a teenager.  I was much more into the Beatles and I became somewhat of an infamous groupie after a while. 

AM:  Being a groupie at that time was more fun than now wasn’t it?

CP:  Yes and it wasn’t sleazy.  Pamela De Barres calls me the virgin groupie in her book because I would hang out with these guys and wash their hair.  Nobody ever forced me to have sex. 

AM: I think we need to educate people today that it wasn’t an orgy scene.

CP:  It so wasn’t.  It was always about the music.  If I didn’t like the music I didn’t even want to talk to the group.  If you weren’t seriously into the music you wouldn’t be around. 

AM:  How did you get into the world famous Groundlings?

CP:  I was lucky I got in the Groundlings when I did. 

AM:  Beautiful women don’t even make it in that group.  It’s the smallest demographic.

CP:  It is.  I think there are more beautiful women today doing comedy but back then you had to be Phyllis Diller, Totie Fields or Anne Meara.  I don’t know what it was.  I’m sure pretty women could be funny but you just didn’t see it. 

AM:  Did you know you were naturally funny?

CP:  I did.  I was always self-deprecating and made jokes mostly about myself.  I grew up with scars all over my neck and my back from being burned as a child.  I had kids making fun of me and I was bullied a lot.  I was very quiet and super introverted so I discovered in Jr. High that if I acted goofy people liked me.  If you talk to a lot of comedians they will tell you similar stories of how they were not popular for one reason or another.  I don’t think I know a comedian who didn’t have a hard time as a kid. 

AM:  I think everyone knows the story of Elvira so I don’t think we even need to talk about her.

CP:  Oh thank you.  I’ve talked about her enough.

AM:  I don’t know how you keep answering the same questions.

CP:  It’s automatic pilot.  I just turn on the switch.

AM:  So are you content in your life now or do you still have some burning ambitions?

CP:  I’m pretty content and happy with my accomplishments.

AM:  You’ve already done more than most people could do in ten lives.

CP:  I’m happy about that but I don’t feel completely over it.  I don’t want to stop.  I wouldn’t know what to do if I wasn’t working.  I am trying to write my autobiography and I’m not trying very hard yet! 

AM:  That’s a great idea.

CP:  I’d love to do that and get an animated Elvira going.  I believe the character can live on even if I’m not doing it. 

To keep up with Cassandra as Elvira visit her web site

Monday, October 26, 2015

Jon McLaughlin Makes Beautiful Music

All Photos:  Alan Mercer

Born and raised in Anderson, Indiana, singer/songwriter Jon McLaughlin began taking classical piano lessons at an early age. Though he lost interest in the instrument during high school and was side-lined by an accident that injured both wrists; he rediscovered his talent during senior year and began incorporating his piano skills into soulful pop music. Jon enrolled in the music program at Anderson University, where he studied piano and spent his free time writing songs. Eventually, he won a school competition that allowed him to release his self-titled debut album in 2004.

‘Indiana’ a follow-up EP, ‘Songs I Wrote and Later Recorded,’ came out the following year, and Jon was soon given the opportunity to audition for three major labels. One such label, Island, signed him to its roster, which led to the nationwide release of ‘Indiana’ an album that included re-recorded versions of two songs from his first effort  in 2007. Later that year, McLaughlin's profile received an extra boost when he contributed an Oscar-nominated song, "So Close," to the Disney film ‘Enchanted.’  He also performed the song during the 2008 Academy Awards Ceremony and used the resulting momentum to drum up support for his third studio album, ‘OK Now.’

Since signing with Island Records, Jon increased his public image by providing music for the NBC comedy Scrubs, episode "My Conventional Wisdom," on May 10, 2007. Jon McLaughlin's song, "Human" was included in the episode. The same song appeared at the end of the episode "The Walk-In" of Ghost Whisperer. "Beautiful Disaster" can also be heard in the hit TV series, ‘A Little Thing Called Life’ in the season two episode titled "The Greatest and Worst Halloween Ever." "Beautiful Disaster" sold over 420,000 digital copies.

To date, three Hollywood-released films have included songs from Jon. The song "Another Layer" appeared on the soundtrack for the Motion Picture ‘Bridge to Terabithia’ and "Beautiful Disaster" is used in the 2007 film ‘Georgia Rule.’ Jon McLaughlin also made an on-screen appearance and performance of the song, "So Close" (written by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz) in the Oscar-nominated Disney film ‘Enchanted.’ The song received an Oscar nomination. This led to Jon performing at the 80th Academy Awards, which he attended with his wife Amy.

Jon parted ways with Island after the release of ‘OK Now.’  In 2011, he rallied with the self-released ‘Forever If Ever.’  The album gained enough good word of mouth that he wound up with a contract with Razor & Tie, who added a couple of tunes to ‘Forever If Ever’ and released it under the title ‘Promising Promises.’ Two years later, the all-new ‘Holding My Breath’ appeared on Razor & Tie.

In 2015, he announced a new album ‘Like Us’ with the premiere of his single "Before You" in July.  A follow-up single "I Want You Anyway" was released in September.  The album ‘Like Us’ was released on October 9, 2015.

Jon lives in Nashville with his wife Amy and two daughters.  I met with him at Poor David’s Pub in Dallas right before the opening night of his tour.  

AM:  Jon, I have to tell you the new album is so amazing.  I absolutely love it.  What was your inspiration?

JM:  It’s supposed to be a relationship album.  Writing songs about relationships is not groundbreaking but I wanted to write a whole album of songs that covered ‘not just love at first sight songs.’  Amy and I have been together for twelve years so I wanted it to be the kinds of songs I can write now.   These are songs that you can’t write after twelve weeks. 

AM:  I know you are inspired by your daughters now.  Did you write anything for them?

JM:  I’m in a house of girls so I did write ‘Don’t Mess with My Girl’ for them.  I don’t write many songs like that but I grew up listening to Ben Folds.  I like those nerdy, ironic lyrics. 

AM:  All of your music has a theme that is you.  How do you describe it?

JM:   I don’t know.  I’m terrible at that question.  People often ask me how do I describe myself as an artist.  It’s so easy to be a fan of somebody and say they are like this and their artistry is about that, but for me I’m right in the middle of it all the time.  I do feel like I am changing all the time so the further away I get from my past projects, I can then see the continuity of it.  Sometimes I think I’m doing a jazz record!

AM:  I can hear the jazz influence and even some classical influence.

JM:   I grew up studying classical music.  As far as jazz goes, that comes out with me trying to do the thing I never did.  I never played jazz although I grew up listening to Harry Connick Jr., Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson.  The jazz scene in Anderson, Indiana is not too big!

AM:  Do you still live in Anderson?

JM:  No, I live in Nashville now. 

AM:  But you did live in Indiana for a long time?

JM:  Yes for thirty years.

AM:  How do like living in Nashville?

JM:  I love Nashville.  It’s everything it’s supposed to be.  It’s not just a bunch of hype.  There are so many insanely talented artists in general.  I’ve never been to a place like it.  It feels small in the way it’s not an LA or a New York City where everything is bursting at the seams.

AM:  It’s the perfect place for you.

JM:  I really love it and wish I had made the move earlier than I did. 

AM:  This is the first night of your current tour.  Is there anything different about this one?

JM:  For me the biggest difference is using these great musicians.  On the record it’s a lot of me playing bass on a moog.  There’s not a lot of real bass on there.  I wanted it to be real instruments.  Having the real musicians there is a night and day difference. 

AM:  You’ve been in the business about ten years now haven’t you?

JM:  Yes I guess so.  I made my first album in college in 2003, but my first record deal is ten years ago.  I cannot believe that.

AM:  Is this record considered a concept album?

JM:   I feel like this one is the first concept album.  Whenever you put a record out you are supposed to have some reason for the album as a whole, especially when people ask what the meaning of the title is.  I always answer I don’t know.  There is no big congruent idea in any of my other albums.  This one was the first.  There were some songs that I really liked that conceptually I didn’t go on this one.

AM:  Will they go on another album?

JM:  Yes I still love them and they will go on another album because I really wanted to stay true to doing the concept album.

To learn more about Jon visit his web site

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Inappropriate Humor of Saffron Herndon

All Photos: Alan Mercer

She made her national TV debut a little over a week ago when she appeared on the NBC Today Show.  She left hosts Matt Lauer, Al Roker and all the others laughing out loud at her ‘inappropriate material.’  In the past month, ten year old Saffron Herndon has gained quite a following with the viral videos of her stand-up act.  Yes you read that right; Saffron already has two years of experience on stage and she writes her own material.  Some say she is well beyond her age.

Saffron has several comedy festivals under her belt including Gilda’s Laughfest in Grand Rapids, Dallas Comedy Festival and Austin’s Out of Bounds Comedy Festival. Saffron has also competed as a semifinalist in the 2014 Funniest Comic in Texas as well placing runner up in the 2014 East Texas Comedy Festival.  She is on her way to make her Los Angeles debut this week. 

Saffron has grown up in comedy clubs thanks to her stand-up comedian father Steve. After years of begging him to let her give it a try, he relented and Saffy (named after a character on the British comedy, Absolutely Fabulous) began making the open mic circuit. Her father is on hand of course to make sure the clubs are clean and covers her ears if any of the other comedians’ jokes are too unsavory for a 10-year-old.

She is being courted by TV stations like NBC, Fox, and TBS who have all reached out to try and land deals with her.  An increasing number of comedy fans have been exposed to Saffron's routine. Outlets like BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post have featured her story and several memes created by her father have become popular on  Her comedy heroes include Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Phyllis Diller.

I met with Saffron, her father, Steve Herndon and Amanda Austin, the manager of the Dallas Comedy House in Deep Ellum for our photo session and conversation.  

AM:  Saffron!  I’m so excited you just returned from doing the Today Show!  How did you get invited on there?

SH:  What happened was my Dad put me on Reddit and I got “reddit famous” so people started asking me for interviews.  Then I did some Buzzfeed which is pretty cool.  I guess the producers saw everything that was going on so they asked me if I wanted to be on the show.  It’s New York and the Today Show so I said, “Of course!”  Is that what you think Dad?

Steve H:  Yes, it’s pretty much what she said.  Reddit really started it all.  From there she started getting personal interview requests.  Then boom!  All of a sudden we start hearing from all these television shows.

AM:  Saffron, do you feel any kind of a pressure to stay funny?

SH:  I don’t feel pressure to because I know I will. 

AM:  Where did you get all your self-confidence?  Was it encouraging parents?

SH:  My parents are encouraging.  Lots of people are encouraging.  I think I was just born with my confidence.  I have been helped with my confidence by these two very nice people (her father Steve and Amanda Austin).  People are so nice.

AM:  Amanda do you feel like you’ve played a part in developing Saffy’s talent?

Amanda A:  Oh no, I just let her perform here at the Dallas Comedy House. 

Steve H:  Amanda is a very big supporter of Saffy.

AM:  Well letting her perform here is a big support!

Amanda A:  She’s been doing stand-up here since she started two years ago and it’s crazy to see how much she has improved in two years.  It’s tremendous as we are actually watching her grow up.

AM:  You are obviously very intelligent Saffron.  Do you get good grades in school?

SH:  Yes, I try.

AM:  Do you see getting an education as important?

SH:  I do believe education is pretty important.  If you don’t know how to divide and you have to divide in order to get past a monster or if you could save the world by doing division, what would you do?  Say, "Sorry I can't save you because I didn’t go to school."

AM:  You make a good point there.

SH:  I think it’s important and I keep up, but school has always been easy for me.  At school you do... the... same... thing... every... single... day.

AM:  What do you say to the naysayers who think you do not write all your material?

SH:  Well if my dad wrote my jokes, I’d be on stage talking about how my marriage is a sham! (laughter)

AM:  Do you sit and try to come up with topics?

SH:  If you just sit down and try to come up with ideas there’s not usually something you can write about.  You can’t really write like that.  It usually comes spontaneously.  Then you look for different ways that you can turn it into a joke. 

AM:  What is your goal with stand-up?

SH:  I want to be on ‘Saturday Night Live.’  That’s what I want to do!  Also I have an autobiography that I haven’t come up with a name yet, but it will have something to do with a unicorn. 

AM:  Do people ever concern themselves with the fact that you are a child in an adult world? 

SH:  People do think that and some people say it.  I just ignore them because I am OK with all of it.  I am used to coming in and sitting at the bar.  Nothing really bothers me.

AM: Wow!  That's a real blessing!

SH:  It doesn’t bother me when people say anything like that because I am the one making my dreams come true.  They are the ones heckling a ten year old!

Saffron and Steve Herndon

To learn more about Saffron visit her website

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