Interview recorded May 9, 2012
The life of AUDREY WHEELER is indeed fascinating--former beauty pageant queen, top shelf session singer, member of Unlimited Touch who released two solo albums, one of which, LET IT BE ME, has been reissued on CD with bonus tracks. Today, music fans know her as the wife of fellow singer Will Downing. In between tours with the Men of Soul and Chaka Khan, Audrey sat down with Kevin Goins “The Soul Ninja” for this telephone interview.
Kevin: This is Kevin Goins with SoulMusic.com ,and today I am talking to a very busy lady. She’s been touring with Chaka Khan. She also was part of the Men of Soul tour, doing background vocals, but that’s not what she’s known for. She’s also known for two great solo albums.--one of them being reissued through the Funky Town Grooves label--her Capitol album from 1987, LET IT BE ME, which was released over a month ago, or reissued over a month ago with some bonus tracks, particularly the remixes of her hit single “Irresistible.”
Let’s welcome to Soulmusic.com, Audrey Wheeler, or should we say Audrey Wheeler-Downing. Hello, welcome to SoulMusic.com, Audrey.
Audrey: Hey, Kevin. Thanks for having me.
Kevin: Thanks for being with us, and like I said, you’ve been a very busy lady. Outside of working with Chaka and the Men of Soul tour, what else have you been doing?
Audrey: Well, I’m a mommy. I have a 15 year old, and that’s a job in itself right there.
Kevin: I hear ya.
Audrey: My husband is also traveling and working himself, so I’m just doing that, and it’s fun, because … it’s funny you should say that. My daughter, as well, wants to be in this industry and she, when people ask her, she’ll say, “Oh, I’m going to be like my mom. I’m going to do a lot of things. I’m going to be a mommy,” because she looks at is as a job. “I’m going to be a mommy, I’m going to be a singer,” and you know, you would be surprised, I also, I make things. I’m kind of like really crafty. My family thinks it’s funny. I just try to stay mentally busy, because on your down time, your mind can really, I don’t want to say play tricks on you, but it can make your mind wander in areas that you probably shouldn’t be thinking about. So I constantly keep myself busy.
Kevin: Well there’s a saying my dad used to say it as a preacher, an idle mind can be the devil’s playhouse.
Audrey: Absolutely. That’s exactly what was in my mind. I didn’t say it, but that’s what I was thinking. It’s true. I have so many friends who … you start off in this industry … I can remember the days when I was constantly recording with everyone in New York, and I remember myself and another pretty well known singer--we would just, we would sit down in between sessions and we’d be like, “I am so exhausted.” And I have another one in like an hour. We laugh about it now, what would we give to be back to those days, you know? Because it’s changed very much, this industry.
Kevin: Absolutely. Been through many changes, but I want to go back into time, Audrey, before the session work, before the two albums, before you met the gentleman who’s in your life, and I gave you all a clue, but we’ll get to that in a bit. You were Miss Black America for a while, and you were runner up in Miss Black Universe. Now, question, how did you get into music?
Audrey: Well, believe it or not, that very contest was a big stepping stone. I did the pageants immediately from … actually, I was in the 12th grade. I was a senior in school, so someone sent it around my high school, and myself and about 5 other girls from my school who were involved in the theater program--we were all told, “You guys are talented. You should go try out for the pageants.” I had never even thought of it in that way, but the pageant world kind of--it wasn’t as long as some people do it for longer periods of time, but I feel like it was a grooming, so to speak, because I was straight out of high school.
My parents had eight children so it’s not like they could run us to the store to buy the latest, not that I wasn’t wearing the latest trends, but you know what I mean. It’s not like now, when kids look in magazines and they say, “Hey, mommy, I want that.” It was totally not like that.
So I got into this pageant and it taught me a lot about how to carry myself. How to speak in front of crowds. There were people there that were more experienced with hair and make up, and I was a novice, so they taught me that. So, in the audience, there was a bunch of people who were judging. One of the judges actually, well two of the judges … one judge, the first year was a group called Crown Heights Affair, and they were the judges and after the whole pageant was over, people take pictures. You’re a runner up, so you get to take the pictures. You’re feeling like, “I really wanted to win and I was kind of treated like the baby.”
The choreographer of the pageant always came up to me and was like, “For your age, you’re just so talented. These girls are in their--some of them are 28, 29, they’re 10 years older than you. They’ve been doing pageants and this is your first time and look how far …” They were making me feel good about myself, and my parents were extremely proud.
So the judges come up to me and this group comes up and they take a picture with me and they take my dad to the side, apparently. And they’re like, “You should have won. Just based on your talent, you should have won.” I was like, “That’s so sweet; thank you.” “We’d like to talk to you.” They said this to my dad. “You know you’re only 17, we’d like to speak to your dad about maybe getting you involved in the music industry.”
So it started out--they came to the house; my parents were very strict. They had a lot of girls, so they came to the house and they talked to my dad and talked about contracts and things of that nature, and before I actually did a solo record, I was in a group called Unlimited Touch, which was really kind of more big on the east coast-- west coast, not west coast--but more east coast. And, we had a couple hits, I toured with them. So that was my first experience in the industry as far as meeting musicians and singing on, and once Unlimited Touch--we had a song out called “I Hear Music in the Streets.” It was like a dance hit. And then I sang on a song called “Searching to Find the One.” It was a club hit; it was huge in the clubs. They still play them now.
And then from there the producers used me on other recordings, and one of the big, big recordings that I sang on was “Funky Sensation.“ Me and the young ladies that were in the group, we sang on “Funky Sensation.“ I don’t know if you know it, “Can you feel it? My funky sensation.” That was like a huge hit and every producer in New York was like, “We want those girls.” That’s what they do. “Who’s singing on that?” And from that point on, I was constantly doing--I started working with Jellybean Benitez; I sang on the first Madonna song, “I’m Crazy For You.” He used me on a lot of stuff. “Sidewalk Talk.”
I just took off as a background singer in that way. Apparently, the producers talk among themselves, and it’s about a sound, so they wanted to know who was doing that sound. Then I wasn’t always called to sing with the young lady in the group. Then it became them putting me in with other vocalists. The Lisa Fischers and the Cindy Mizelles and Fonzi Thornton, who sang for years, and I just started meeting all these people whose names I had been reading on albums, and now I was standing next to them. It was just an amazing entry into the industry, as far as that goes.
Kevin: Wow. You basically took care of my next three questions right there.
Audrey: Oh, I’m so sorry.
Kevin: No, no, no. It’s all good. The key to interviewing is you ask an open ended question and you get a great answer, and you covered so much.
Audrey: Thank you. I’m glad, because that is the honest truth. People always ask me, how did I enter from the pageant world. It’s by the grace of God, the judges were … and then the second pageant, in the bigger one, the universe one, I met my manager at the time, which was a guy named Lionel Job, who had the group Starpoint. He was a judge in that pageant and he came up to my parents, as well. And, basically, was like, “I would love to manage her.” I didn’t have management at the time. Everything I was doing, I was doing on my own. That’s how I met him.
Then he took me--he’s the one that got me the, actually, that’s not true. I was going to say he’s the one that got me the recording deal on Capitol, my first deal, but that’s not true. I actually had sung on a couple of Freddie Jackson records, and every city that you go to, many people don’t know this but, there’s usually a rep in every city. And what that basically means, I know you know, Kevin, what it means, but they do in-stores, you go and do signings, and that person, if you’re in Atlanta, there’s a guy named so-and-so in Atlanta, and his job is to get you, pick you up from the airport and take you around throughout the city to all the in-stores and all the stops that you have to make.
So, in just about every city, the reps were--and it’s also representatives from the label, and they usually work for Capitol or Sony, or whatever record label you’re on, and in every city, Freddie would give us a solo, and I got a solo every show. And these reps were going back to Capitol, telling people, this girl is bad. You all need to see this background singer that’s singing with Freddie [Jackson]. She’s bad. And that’s how I got my record deal.
Kevin: Wow. A rep by the name of Fred Williams, who worked for Capitol during the ‘80s and ‘90s remembers you very well, and we’ve talked about your work, and he’s said that that album should have been a much bigger hit. I do want to backtrack though. The first time that I’ve seen you, Audrey was on American Bandstand. You were with Jeff Lorber doing “Step by Step,” and I remember seeing Dick Clark being very cordial to you during that time. What was it like working with Jeff Lorber?
Audrey: Well, that was another great experience and another thing that happened that was not, you know--before I answer the question I just want to say this for anyone that’s trying to get into this industry--I know it’s changed quite a bit, but a lot of times, unfortunately, you go into it hungry and you go into it trying to get someone to notice you.
And for me, that was never … I just loved singing so much, that I figured if I’m going to do a background, if I’m going to do a lead, whatever, I’m going to give it my all, and apparently that really showed because I was hired by … I don’t know if you remember a group called The System, Mic Murphy--they produced the STEP BY STEP album, and they were hiring me as well as a singer in New York, and I was there doing the record, not knowing that Jeff was looking for a lead vocalist for this song.
So he had been auditioning, trying people out in New York, and I was singing, and he asked them, “Oh, I would like for her to do … could you ask her if she’d like to try out and sing this song?” And I was like, “Sing what song?” I was just there to work. And I sang the song, and he loved my voice and he ended up asking me to go on tour with him. I actually was living in the West Coast for a minute.
I recorded with the Pointer Sisters, I did stuff with them. Anita Pointer actually wrote “Step by Step” along with Jeff Lorber. It was another stepping stone where I was meeting people who I had admired, looked up to, and I really wasn’t as well-versed. My brother was a big music lover, so he knew about jazz fusion. He had all of Jeff’s records, but I was just luck because he ran one of the Pointer Sisters. I grew up on them, I loved the Pointer Sisters. I used to imitate them. So now I’m singing her song and she’s telling me, you did a great job on my song and she sang the demo for me, and I’m going, “I’m learning a song from Anita Pointer. Oh my God.” So working with Jeff was incredible only because it got me into the music side of it, because we would do shows and it would be about jazz.
There were some numbers that were just jazz numbers, and I grew up from my brother listening to it. So it gives you a different sensibility, not only about vocals; you learn to appreciate the bass, the guitar, everything. Jeff was a very meticulous kind of guy, a perfectionist. So it kind of made me say, “Hmm, let me not just accept whatever; let me not be so hard on myself, but at the same time, if I don’t think that it’s the best take of my vocal, let me be a perfectionist, as well.
So it was a great experience. I got to meet his family. I traveled places that, unfortunately, sometimes R&B artists don’t get to go to, if you know what I mean. There are certain regions that you just, at that time, I can’t say now, but back then, there were certain … I went to Portland, Maine. Unfortunately, R&B artists didn’t come to Portland, Maine to do a gig. I played a lot of the jazz clubs that were famous around the world. It was incredible. That’s all I can tell you. I lived in the West Coast with him. They had me stay there. It was like my parents were thinking that I was going to move to the west coast and not come back to New York. So I got to see California This place that was another fantasy in my mind. So it was a great experience.
Kevin: And a great adventure. You could have had a reality series back then called the adventures of Audrey Wheeler.
Audrey: It’s true. It’s very true.
Kevin: I want to go back to Unlimited Touch, because you touched upon some music that I remember hearing in high school and playing on college radio. How did Unlimited Touch come together?
Audrey: Well, they were a group that was based out of Mount Vernon and the Bronx. They were already a formed … honestly, they were a formed group. It was two sisters singing background and, at some point, they decided that they did not want to do it. “We don’t want to do this anymore. It’s not moving the way we thought.” You know how that happens when you meet a manager and they say we’re going to blow you guys up. You’re going to be huge. They were being produced by Crown Heights Affair, the same group that saw me in that beauty pageant. So, after the 2 girls decided not to do it, they asked me, and I’m straight out of high school. Just graduated from high school. They’re asking me, “Would you like to ... we’re going to do a whole album on this. So, “I Hear Music in the Streets” had already come out, honestly, with the young lady’s voice on it, Stephanie James. So she was already on it singing with her sister and stuff, and eventually, I had to go back in and add my voice to it. So they started holding auditions, and just to name drop, some of the people that auditioned were Meli’sa Morgan, Lisa Fischer, and myself.
So, once they dwindled down the auditions, the newly formed group with the two new girls became Audrey and Meli’sa Morgan and then, unfortunately, there was--I want to say this politically correctly--there was a disagreement, in terms of the direction that one person wanted to take versus the way management wanted to take it, so Meli’sa ended up not being in the group, and then the record ended up really blowing up down south and New York we were hearing it crazy. It was a hit.
Then the original girl decided to come back. They just weren’t being patient. And her sister just really wanted to be a housewife. She was like, “I don’t want to do this.” So, they put her back, so it became me and her together. We actually work to this day together. We are both singing on the Men of Soul tour together again. So it’s like, we’re still good friends. We kind of met each other at 17 and 18. You end up having long friendships. So that’s what happened and then, all of a sudden, we were playing all the clubs and colleges. College radio was very good to us. They played us like you wouldn’t believe, and there was a club called Club Paradise, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. The Funhouse. It was so many places.
We played three or four clubs a night at the same, go from one club to the next. So that was a great experience, and it was a band--it wasn’t like track gigs. We were playing live; it was kind of like a group like Chic. That’s how they kind of painted us. It was two girls on the front and the guys in the back, so it was just great. It was a great experience. That was a very good stepping stone for me.
Kevin: Let’s talk about LET IT BE ME, and that was your album on Capitol. You got signed to the label as a result of the Capitol sales reps doing the cheerleading on your behalf.
Kevin: To get you signed and whatnot. So I love it when I hear stories like that.
Audrey: Yes, that is a nice story. That is true. I have to say. That’s based on your talent. Nothing else. So that is a good feeling.
Kevin: Exactly. Now, you worked with Preston Glass, great song writer, colleague of Narada Michael Walden. What was it like working with him on this album?
Audrey: Well, it was actually excellent, very calming and relaxed. He kept me relaxed, because this was my first record. This was my first big solo project and I really didn’t know what to expect, so there’s a bit of nerves that comes with that, because you want to live up to the expectations that have been set about me to him. So you’re hoping that he’s not like, “Well, she’s alright.” So there was a little bit of that going on, where I wanted to live up to it. My producers and the people who had talked to him about me were basically telling me just be yourself. He’s a really nice guy to work with, so what I loved about it was that he sat with me and before we ever recorded a thing, we just talked. We just got to know each other.
He wanted to know what my life was like. So we co-wrote a song, which was “Forget About Her.” He just basically said I want you to write one song. I really want you to tell me how you feel. Tell me what’s going on. So that song started out being about--it was actually about a relationship that I had just gotten out of. I had gone on tour and the relationship could not sustain, because I was traveling and it was new for him, so he thought he could understand and deal with it, but the fact that I was on a tour with Freddie Jackson, who was really--that was when his first record had just come out. A three-month tour turned out to be a six-month tour, and so I was never home and he didn’t deal well with a long distance relationship.
So, basically, when I wrote the song, and I started writing lyrics, it was very negative. It was forget about him. So Preston was like, “Well, yeah, I understand what’s going on, and I like what you’re saying here, but we can’t be that negative. That will turn off guys. It’s a little too negative.” So we ended up changing it around a little bit to forget about her. More of an I’m better than her type of song. Pick me over her type of thing.
Kevin: Right, kind of a precursor of the Toni Braxton song “You’re Not Man Enough for Me.”
Audrey: Exactly. I wanted to do that first, but they wouldn’t let me.
Kevin: There ya go. You also got to work with a San Franciscan legend by the name of Larry Graham. He did a duet with you on this record, and what was it like?
Audrey: He was a pleasure to work with. He came with his family, I think that was like, the way he did it was part of the agreement. That he would do it, but he had to bring his wife and that was another person who took the time to talk to me, the little gems that you get from people like that who are down to earth. I’m sitting there in awe of him and he’s just treating me with respect, not treating me like a novice or a newbie or anything like that. Telling me I had a nice voice. He was just very complimentary and gave me so much advice that I still use, to this day. So it was a great experience. It was slightly intimidating, but at the same time, he was very warm to me. He never made me feel that I was less than.
Kevin: Right. I met Larry in 1995 at Trammps in New York City when he brought Graham Central Station to that club, and met him backstage, and you are absolutely right, a very warm and sincere gentleman, down to earth, absolutely. Now the title track of the album, “Let It Be Me.” The song was recorded by a couple of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers--the Everly Brothers did it first; then Jerry Butler recorded it with the late Betty Everett in 1964, so it’s a well-traveled tune. What was the idea behind picking that particular song?
Audrey: Well, that, I have to be honest, was picked by one of the producers, Lionel Job. He said, “I really think that the mark of a great vocalist is to do a remake.” I wasn’t so much sure of that at first, but he said, “Hey, when you can interpret another song, or someone’s song and put your own spin on it and do it successfully, that goes a long way. People really like that.” And I was like, “Okay.”
I remember they played the song for me, and I believe they played Jerry Butler’s version and I was just like, to myself, how am I going to, what am I going to do, so that took a bit of working through the music, and them asking me how do you see yourself? How do you hear yourself? So it became me getting involved--I gave him the groove that I thought I wanted. I knew I didn’t want to do it exactly the same. It took a bit of work.
Kevin: I bet. I can understand it was probably a little intimidating because of the
Audrey: You don’t want to copy anything that’s already there. That’s the first thing. So you want to make sure that it’s your interpretation of it, basically.
Kevin: Well, that’s why I love it.
Audrey: That’s the hardest part.
Kevin: Right. Well, that’s what I loved about your version it’ss because, just like Jerry’s and Betty’s, and, of course, the one from Phil and Don Everly, you put your own stamp on it.
Audrey: Thank you, I tried. Also my parents were there. They flew them in; my dad is sitting there saying to himself, this is a standard. So you have that weighing on you, too. You want your parents to think well of you, and they’re already proud of you, but at the same time, they know these other versions. So you’re saying to yourself, of course they love you and they’re going to tell you, “Oh, you sound great.” But you’re hoping that they go, “Wow, my daughter did a great job on that.” So it’s not just all fun and games when you’re singing. It’s work.
Audrey: You know it seems like fun and games to people, because they can’t imagine it being hard work, but you do have to really focus.
Kevin: As I’ve reminded people where I live here in North West Wisconsin, for now, that they see me do these interviews and talk to people, and think, “Oh, well, it sounds like you’re just having a conversation.” “Yeah, but do you know what? Some research went into getting this interview happening. So, it’s not … it’s also reaching the artist and whatnot,” but that’s all part of another ball of wax.
Audrey: That is very good to say. You have to be a music lover to know some of the facts, the background of who had done a song over, who wrote them, who produced them, the years. So it’s research like you said. People think it’s just off the top of your head, you know?
Kevin: Also, I want to point out that you being from--your family being from Trinidad, from the islands.
Audrey: My mom’s people.
Kevin: Your mom in particular. These songs, particularly “Let it Be Me,” was very popular, especially Jerry and Betty’s version, which, by the way, for you music pundits, [the song was released in]1964 [on] Vee-Jay Records; there ya go. It was very popular in the islands.
Audrey: Yes. I don’t think it’s because of my actual background, but it’s funny. People don’t realize, from me having gone … I’m going to Trinidad tomorrow, actually, and I’m leaving, I’m going there with Chaka Khan. We just received an email, an urgent email last night that a song that maybe wasn’t--it was a solo song on one of her albums. We had to do it. We had to refresh our minds and remember it because they requested it. When we go to the islands a lot of times with artists, they end up doing, I talked to Jeffrey Osborne about that recently; he was saying that some song that were huge here, I come here, they go crazy, they know the words, they’re singing along.
But it’s not necessarily the song that they know here in the states. So it’s a different ear. They have the Caribbean thing, they have the different grooves that they like, and they listen deep into albums. They really appreciate everything, not just the single, they listen to the whole album. They love it. Sometimes they don’t understand, why didn’t they play this in the states, man?
Kevin: Audrey, I used to have customers come into HMV, from the islands, and they would look for specific songs that were very popular there that were not released here as singles in the United States. So it’s a very unique thing. Now, getting back to the album LET IT BE ME, and the single “Irresistible,” I remember seeing the video back in the day, and going, “Oh, my goodness.” I mean, Capitol went all out getting this video made. Absolutely.
Audrey: I remember that there was this really famous ballet dancer, an African American guy, and he was a legend, and they had him involved and choreography and Mtume’s wife--she made my clothing. There was no slacking when it came to that, as far as everything that you envisioned, that’s what it was.
Kevin: Was the legendary choreographer named Cholly Atkins?
Kevin: Cholly Atkins, as many soul people know, is a choreography legend. He’s worked with the O’Jays, he’s worked with Gladys Knight and the Pips, he’s worked with the Temptations; you look at those moves. He even worked with Tavares, who I wrote liner notes for recently, and Audrey, you were in the company of a master.
Audrey: I felt like I was. It was just a matter of everything was falling into place, as far as I was concerned. My dream was … I can remember spending many nights in the hotel room just--it’s like an anticipation of things to come. You do a lot of praying, you do a lot of talking to God, like, “Oh, my God, thank you so much. I never in a million years dreamed that this would happen, and now here we are.” So it was a really--you’re going out on stage, basically.
I had made a career for myself, making money, and sometimes you are what they consider a sideman, which is just playing in a band, playing live with someone, singing, or backing vocals, as they say in Europe. And you make a very good living, I just have to say, and you have to kind of go out on stage when you’re doing an album, you have to stop doing that for a period of time and dedicate your time to getting this record the way you want. So there’s a sense of fear, like, oh, my God, am I doing the right thing? I’m not making the money; everybody’s out making money, and I’m doing this.
So I remember, I was young, but there was a lot going on in my head at the time. It was really--I grew a lot as a person and I matured, I believe. I learned a lot about myself, because I was aware from New York. I was in San Francisco living there while I was recording it. It was pretty deep for me at that age.
Kevin: And she left her heart in San Francisco. Oh, sorry, wrong song. Anyway, the album came out in ’87, IRRESISTIBLE came out in ’87. I remember hearing the remix done by the great Peter Waterman of Stock, Aitken & Waterman, blew me away, blew away a lot of fans, but then what happened afterwards? Capitol Records had a little bit of a problem didn’t they?
Audrey: Yeah, unfortunately, Capitol Records went through a reshuffling, they followed like a lot of the staff at Capitol and just the condensed version of what that can mean to an artist is that when you have a staff of people that are working, they’re told we’re pushing these records. We want you to go to retailers, we want you to go to radio, in stores, we want you to do all of this, and these are the songs that we want them to hear. We want you to give out as many of these as you can. These are the songs. The ten or twenty songs in this order. And I think, at that time, I was very high on the totem pole.
I was up there and now all these staffers are fired and now they’re hiring new people who come in and they have this big meeting and the new person is saying, “You know what? We think number 8 is a hit. So, scrap that list, we’re going to redo this list and these are our priorities.” And for that particular person, I was not on that list. I wasn’t very high up on that list and it was basically just like it went from push, push, push to nothing. That can kill a career, kill an album, at least, and I’m not the only person that’s happened to and I won’t be … it continues to this day. It’s just the way it is. That’s the way this industry works.
And so, basically, we received a call from the people, some of the people that had gotten fired, and the guy who signed me--it was a guy named Stephen Ray. He called my manager to tell them that there was a conference call. It was just like, “We’re really sorry. I’m trying to get them to still push you,” because now he’s a leader, leading people that don’t respect him, that don’t know him, that have no relationship with him. I just was not the priority at that time. So, basically, the ball was dropped and the album just fell through the cracks.
Kevin: Right, and it sounded like the gentleman had a bit of mutiny on the Capitol ship there, too. And I want to make a note that Audrey wasn’t, like she said, she wasn’t the only one. Hush Productions almost came to a grinding halt in 1988; I remember that very well. ’87 seemed to be the year that Capitol Records came this close to having a very successful run in black music and Rhythm & Blues, and then, in ’88, when these changes happened, it affected Audrey. It affected Lillo Thomas, it affected Freddie Jackson, Meli’sa Morgan, Melba Moore, all artists who the year before had great albums and singles out, from Freddie’s ” Jam Tonight” to Meli’sa Morgan’s “Fool’s Paradise.” All these records, all of a sudden, hit a brick wall in ’88. So, having said that, moving onward, what did you do?
Audrey: Well, I went back to doing what I knew how to do best at that time, which was I went back, and thank God I had not cut off all my ties with any of the artists. Even when I came back from recording an album, I went straight back from recording in San Francisco and I went right back on the road with Freddie [Jackson] and Freddie was hyping my album. At that time, this was before the album came out, he continued to give me solos, told people that I had a record coming out on Capitol Records. So I was still getting hyped, but the record wasn’t being pushed like it should have, so it didn’t get to the masses like it should have.
So I continued with that; I worked with him, I worked with whoever hired me, still was recording, Jonathan Butler, whomever called me. So I just kept working. Thank God I had my head on my shoulders correctly from my parents, from management at the time, to continue on. Initially, they wanted me to stop training and going on the road and I said, “No, you’ve got to be kidding me.” I said, “Whether this record blows up or not, just for my mental state, I’ll be sitting around just thinking, what’s going to happen to the record?”
So I was just like, I have to go do what I do best … also, making money. I’m living, I’m paying my bills. So I just continued on and here and there, I got a couple of duets with people on their albums. I started doing jingles, as well. So I was still surviving. Inside, you still feel like would’ve could’ve should’ve, I wonder what happened. I wonder why this happened to me, but I just kept on pounding the pavement, as far as work was concerned.
Kevin: Absolutely. And big ups to Freddie for not only having you on his tour, but having you perform songs from the album and doing what he did to push your record because, you know, folks, I have to say, that’s a rarity. A lot of people think artists support one another and all this other great stuff, and they do, but not a lot of them do that.
Audrey: Not like that.
Kevin: Not like that. So, for Freddie to do that, I got to give him a thumbs up. Now, around this time that the album wasn’t being pushed by Capitol, you were working with Freddie Jackson. You met a gentleman by the name of I think Wilfred? Yeah, Will Downing.
Audrey: Actually, it’s funny, I knew Will before that. I had met Will early on in my career through Arthur Baker. I used to do a lot of sessions for him, and we did “A-E-I-O-U” and whatever was coming out of that camp, we were doing it. Between him and John Roby, the producers. So I was doing a lot of dance, disco, I was doing everything, R&B, jazz, whatever you needed me to do. And Arthur, I think Will requested me as a background singer, and that was back in the late ‘80s, I believe, actually a couple years before I met Freddie. I knew Freddie, as well, but Will had actually hired me to sing on his record.
We met and we just clicked. zzhe is just a funny guy. We clicked. We had a lot in common. He was one of the few people that I knew in the industry who was a dad, who was still working a nine to five, wasn’t like totally, there was a lot of sense of I don’t know how long this is going to last. I don’t know how stable this industry is. So he was one of the few people that didn’t leap out on faith and go and just … because I had a job, too, when I first got into the industry.
I was a make-up artist. I went out on faith. At some point, you’re going to miss work in the morning because you’ve been out all night singing at the Funhouse, or whatever. So you have to leap out on faith and finally leave, and it was scary to do that. You have to hope that you’re going to make enough money to sustain yourself, and I started doing that and able to get my own place.
So Will was one of the few people that still was working a job, and we just always stayed friends. We had been friends, really good; he was one of my closest male friends. I would say him and [James] D-Train [Williams] and Freddie Jackson. I’ve always been pretty close to them because they bring different things to me in my life, in terms of their conversation. D-Train and I started together on Prelude Records, so we had a separate relationship, friendship, too.
So with Will, I had always sung on his albums. Even if I was on the road, he would call me and say, “I’ve got two songs that I want you to sing on. So when you get off the road …” you know, he would say, I remember when I went on tour, I’d be gone for six months. He totally rearranged the recording schedule so that I could be on that album. So we’ve always been really, really good friends.
Kevin: Amazing. And at that time, when you met Will, Will wasn’t doing ballads. He was doing dance music, if I’m not mistaken.
Audrey: That’s right. That’s what he was known for, because, and he was always kind of big, dance music wise. He is actually going to kill me for saying this, but He was in a group … it wasn’t even named after him. It was a groove of him and another guy, Craig Derrick and they went around and had all of these hot dance records, and then I think he decided, or told his producers, “You know what I really want to do? I really want to do more of an R&B jazz thing.”
And so they took a chance and they did it. And the initial reaction here in the states, I don’t think was as welcoming as Europe, particularly London. And he blew up like, he was like Luther Vandross there. He was huge. He was able to go there and work and make a lot of money. That’s kind of weird to come back home and you’re getting crickets actually, but I think he did a remake and that got more attention here in the states than the original material that he was doing, and slowly started taking off here.
Kevin: It was a slow climb for him here, but I remember hearing about him when I was in radio back in the late 1980s--he was kind of diverse. Lets divert from Audrey for a minute, listening to Will’s records in the late ‘80s. I heard them from R&B stations who heard about him from London and that was kind of weird. I was like wait, this guy is from Brooklyn. What’s up with that? But it was great stuff. I played his duet with Mica Paris.
Audrey: I was going to bring up Mica. I was going to say that he was the first person to tell me about her and I remember, I think I went to London. I went to London to do a gig. I was in London working with Freddie and I remember shopping on some street and they kept playing this “You are My One Sensation,” great song.
Kevin: My One Temptation
Audrey: Right, “My One Temptation,” and this song--it was haunting. And they were talking to her; she happened to be doing an interview, and like a month earlier, I had been in the recording studio with Will and he was telling us about this girl. “You guys, wait until you hear her; she’s incredible, blah blah blah,” and she kind of reminded me of a cross between … I heard a little bit of Natalie Cole in her voice. I just couldn’t put my finger on it, which was great, because she sounded like herself. I mean incredible vocalist, and for those of you who don’t know, she did the original remake that Tamia did when she was signed to Quincy (Jones’) label. She did it first.
Kevin: “You Put a Move on My Heart”?
Audrey: Oh, she killed that song, if you’ve never heard the original. So, basically, I came back and I said to Will, “Remember you told me about this girl Mica; that’s all they were playing. Oh, my gosh, her voice is great.” He said, “I told you all.” He said, “Well, she’s doing a duet.” They were signed to the same management and they were actually on the same label together.
Kevin: Island Records.
Audrey: Yes. And then I went back to London, I think, with Will. I had come back with Freddie. You work with more than one artist. You do that to keep it moving and it keeps it fresh, as well. So he told me about her and when I finally did meet her, I remember, she came to a Chaka show. She saw me singing with Chaka and she was like, “Hey, how are you doing? Tell Will I said hey.” She’s just a lovely person, as well.
That’s another thing: I know we’re talking about the records that I’ve done, but you get to meet talent from all over the world and there’s no price you can put on that. Even though you yourself are recording and doing things, you’re still fans of people. So, when you get to meet people who are your peers, or who you look up to, it goes in the books. That’s a big deal.
Kevin: Yes, and I want to make a point that Howard Hewett made when I interviewed him back in the fall of last year, and the great thing about going to Europe, particularly London. He said this; he said, in the United States it’s the Janet Jackson song “What Have You Done Lately,” whereas when you go to Europe it’s like “What have you done?”
Audrey: It is so funny. Can I tell you a funny story? Whenever I go to London, scarily, I can be just touring with somebody and they introduce me, these people give me like standing ovations. They go crazy. I’ve actually gone there on my own, because they loved my last record. The one I did on Ear Candy. I did a gig there. They treated me like a queen. I sang with Bryan Ferry & Roxy Music. After shows, Bryan was kind of like, “They want to interview you. Are you willing to do that?” I was like, “Okay.”
And then, I remember, when I was with Will, he would be in this suite doing all these interviews and he would call my hotel room and say, “You need to get your butt down here right now,” and I’m going, “Why?” He said, “Because they know who you are and they’re big fans of you. “He said, “Come on girl, and get some of this shine.” You just can’t, like you said, everyone doesn’t do that.
For me, it’s been a lot more men that have given me shine, but I have to say, Chaka Khan gives me shine, so, and even to this day, they know that, because they print out … They do it differently than they do here in America. They, when you see a program, it has all the information about who’s on stage, backing vocals. It says backing vocals, they don’t say background singers, and it will break it down and they will have a little bio on you. It’s just done in a whole other way. And I’m not putting down America, but it’s just the respect level. In America, the purists, the people like yourself get it, and you do meet fans who are rabid fans and they’re at the shows; those are the ones that you see in the front holding the albums in their hands and they know who you are.
When you go to Europe, you have your own little fan club in different parts of Europe. I’m just recently coming back to singing with Chaka, and Chaka said on her Facebook page and on her Twitter page, people wrote in, “Oh, my gosh, Chaka Khan and Audrey Wheeler back together again!” She told me this out of her own mouth, and I said, “Get out of here Chaka.” She said, “Yeah, I can’ t believe it.” And that’s not just Europe. That’s the states, as well, but the bottom line is just, it’s different.
Howard Hewett, I’m actually on tour with him, too. I work with Howard, as well. He said it the best way. It’s catchy, and it’s cute, and he’s absolutely correct. America is what do you have out right now? Oh, I’m not interested. The respect level for what you’ve done, for how good your voice is, if it’s not current and it’s not on the radio now, they bypass you. In London, they don’t care about that. “My favorite song is this song. Do you still do that song?” That’s all they care about.
So it is two different worlds. So I guess, really, you should say to yourself, I mean a lot of us here in the states could move to England and live there comfortably. As a matter of fact, Jocelyn Brown lives there now. Jocelyn is a star there. She has made a life; she moved from the states, because they were the only place that gave her, and I know there’s other people there, as well, who have just relocated just because of that.
Kevin: Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Lavern Baker did that for many years.
Audrey: That’s right. You don’t want to feel that you should have to move from where you’re from in order to do that, but sometimes, in order to live and to survive and pay your bills, like people that relocate for jobs in the corporate world, it’s very similar to that.
Kevin: You mentioned in our conversation here, your last album with Ear Candy, and there was an album that was released on Nile Rodgers’ label. This is when, folks, I met Audrey Wheeler in 1991. It was the RCA studios. It was the release party and the cast of characters was as follows: Audrey Wheeler, the star, Will Downing, James D-Train Williams, Freddie Jackson. They were there.
Audrey: Johnny Kemp.
Kevin: Well, Johnny Kemp got there late. We won’t go into the story behind that, but … and, of course, Nile was there. Let’s talk quickly about the Ear Candy album, because it had the great song “I’m Yours Tonight,” which I loved tremendously. How did you get involved with Nile Rodgers?
Audrey: Well, once again, this was a situation where I was not actively pursuing a solo record deal at all. So, I’d like to say one thing about that before I say anything. I am immensely proud that I was never in a situation, everything that’s ever come to me has come to me based on someone else seeing me and loving my talent, and that, no matter if I never blow up to be the next anything or anything like that, or never did, that’s always something that’s prideful for me because there are a lot of singers, not even just in New York, in LA, in Chicago, and Detroit, all over the place who sing backgrounds or who sing with people and never get recognized.
So, for me, this was a situation where I was doing a lot of jingle work and a big time producer was just, “I don’t understand why you don’t have a record out?” And I said, “Well, I’ve done that, been there, did that already, had a deal on Capitol; it didn’t work out.” And this person just kept saying it. Every time I would come to do a jingle, he would use me as the lead. He would have me do background and then he’d say, “You stay. I want you to sing the lead on this. I want you to learn the lead.“ He didn’t have to do that.
And so he also introduced me to a lot of other jingle producers, so he helped me get really far in the jingle world. He had a friend, big guy who had just signed a big huge deal with BMG to start his own label, and I was like, “Oh, that’s so nice but I’m not interested in that.” And he was like, “Well, no, you’ve got to listen to me. This guy is getting ready to do … they’re giving him a beaucoup amount of money, and him and Nile Rodgers are starting a label. And their looking for their start, their female vocalist and I told this guy about you. I was like, “That was nice, but no.” He pressured me, no I shouldn’t say pressured me, but there’s only so much of that that you can say no to because someone is believing in you.
So, you say once again, well, maybe this is it. So, I meet with him; I go with him and I meet with this guy and the guy is telling me everything, their plans and what they want to do and we’re not going to start off with 1,000 artists. We’re going to keep it down to like 5 to 10 artists so that we can focus on them. You’ll be a our first signed artist. Then I go meet with Nile, and he, as well, noticed my career. I actually really never worked with Nile. I think I might have done one session with Nile.
So, basically, I signed the deal, it was very quick. It was a whirlwind, even more of a whirlwind than the Capitol experience, and they had built this brand new complex down in Tribeca in New York. They took over this building and put a recording studio in it, offices. It was just incredible. I had my own personal stylist who to this day--she works with my husband. She worked with my husband as well. It was like one on one, take her to, everything you see in the movies, it was like that. Take her to Saks Fifth Avenue and just get her some wardrobe. Get her some make up. This and this.
It was a dream and I’ll never, no one could ever take that away from me. So, I worked on the album, and again I was involved in picking the songs. I was a lot more involved in the stylization, the types of songs, the lyrics, writing, I was way more involved. Because you don’t want to feel like, okay, I’m not going to make what I thought was the same mistakes as before. Because as much as people might feel like the record got dropped or got … fell through the cracks, or that it was worthy, you end up beating yourself up thinking it’s something that you could have done differently as a vocalist. So, I wanted to try to do this one differently.
So I did that and they had me doing … once again it was on the radio, I had Najee as a featured saxophonist on the first single. He was in the video with me. D-Train sang on it, Will Downing sang on it. Freddie couldn’t because he was on tour, but it just was like a who’s who of what I wanted. I did a lot of my own backgrounds, but it was just basically a situation where it was whatever I wanted. Whatever you want. They treated me, I can say, honestly, like that.
I didn’t even drive to the sessions. They would have a car pick me up from my home, because I would get home sometimes at the crack of dawn and they would be, “I don’t want you driving.” And they would have the car take me right back to my house. But it was everything that you see in the movies, like I had to say that was really nice.
It was good because it helped keep me focusing strictly on the record and what people don’t realize is that at the time you do get an advance on your record and one of the advances, that’s money for you to live, money for you to pay your rent, your bills, do everything you need to do. So that’s how you’re able to stop working and stop doing sessions and stop touring with people because they give you a substantial amount of money to live while you’re in the midst of recording. So that’s where I was. Basically, I just sat around after it was done and waited for them to release it and do their magic.
Kevin: And it was magical that night, having you walk into the RCA studios singing to the track and it was just like, where’s Audrey? And here you come walking in with the microphone just singing and I remember I was standing right there, like ah, wow! “Hi, Audrey, let me not interrupt you.” It was a great night. Great album, by the way, and yet ,another brick wall.
Audrey: Exactly, and this situation, I don’t want to sound like I’m making excuses about anything, I would like to think that I’m educating people on the things that happen. You have artists, some people have their favorite artists, they say, “Well what happened to Karyn White?“ I can sit here and name so many people who are peers of mine that people would wonder, why did that record stop? Or why did they not do anymore albums anymore? When there’s a change in regards at a lot of labels, x amount of artists are going to fall by the wayside. And then you go see them like Johnny Gill. You’ll see Johnny on tour and you’ll be like, uh, why is he not singing? He sounds great! It’s not because the person has lost their voice. It’s just a matter of the labels are … it’s just like the perfect example, I’m going to steal this from Howard and hope he doesn’t kill me, what have you done for me lately?
It’s basically that type of feeling at the labels a lot of times. So, basically, I’m being told by people who were on the inside that, at the label, the label was very disgruntled with the fact that, I won’t even say the majority of the production on the record, the entire album was produced by a up and coming producer on the label. So it wasn’t done by Nile at all.
I think that they became very, we gave you all this money thinking that this was going to be a total Nile production, it’s just going to be the stuff that we’ve known you to do. And I think that that became, when the material came out, I think it was very well received and people would have loved it. It wasn’t the pop sound and it wasn’t the type of the material that Nile had done with, like Madonna and Chic and Diana Ross. That’s what they were expecting.
And, honestly if that’s the case, I don’t know that had he done it, we’ll never know, whether or not it would have been successful. It may have been successful and then I may very well have felt like I got a hit, but it’s not really the sound that is me. And a lot of people know the famous story about Tina Turner. She hated “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” and it was one of the biggest songs she ever had. So, sometimes, that happens as well, so we’ll never know if that would have happened had Nile produced the majority of the record.
Kevin: I remember Audrey, you came into the HMV Record Store where I worked. By the way, this is HMV Record Store on west 72nd and Broadway, New York City and I recognized you and I’m like, “Audrey what happened?” And I remember you said this, this was a year later, 1992, you said, “Had Nile been more involved, it would have been a bigger record.”
Audrey: And it’s true. It’s not just coming from me. This is, and I have to say that honestly, during the course of recording, there was a little bit of me feeling that, too. I remember asking, the powers that be, and everybody would get a little uncomfortable you know when you are like the kid that says, “Well, why is that going on?” And no one wants to tell you what. I don’t want anyone to think that I didn’t say anything, or that it was like I just left it. I asked the question, “Okay, so what song is Nile going to …” and not even just for, even if he had kept the songs that I had chosen, or the songs that we were doing, there’s a production value that he brings that I think that that would have went a long way for them. I mean, lets be for real, it may have been a situation where they would have just jumped on anything that said produced by Nile Rogers. It may not have even been the single that came out, initially. It may have just been a song. As long as they saw Nile’s name somewhere. The only place that they saw Nile’s name was on executive producer. And plus they know his sound; they know what it sounds like. So they knew they didn’t get that.
Kevin: And we’re not trying to turn this into a bashing of Nile Rodgers; it’s just what it is folks. And I will say this, around a year later, after Audrey did her album, Nile did a new Chic album with Bernard [Edwards] and two new singers, and it sounded just like an updated Chic album from the 1970‘s. Nile did have a deal with Warner Brothers. He did put out an album, a Chic version of Chic, a nineties style. So I’m thinking …
Audrey: And I still work to this day with those people. It’s funny. I mean, that’s what the label expected. So, once again, the long and short of it is that the person that gets punished is the artist.
Kevin: Exactly. I have had this question approached to me, and I know that you’ve had this question approached to you: an Audrey Wheeler, Will Downing album? A duet album. Will that every happen?
Audrey: I can’t say that it won’t happen. I know that people have asked him, people have asked me. I’ve actually … sometimes they interview him and say, “Oh, why haven’t she ever sang a duet?” And he’ll say, “She did do a duet on one of my albums.” So it’s something that is approached to us all the time.
We have another generation in our family, unfortunately we have a child who wants to do this same thing. She just recently starred in her school play and shocked up. We could not believe what was coming out of her mouth. And everybody always says, “Well what do you expect? Look at you,” and, it’s like no. There are a lot of children of singers who sound horrible. Let’s not assume that she was going to have a good voice, but it’s what she wants to do.
I always tell my husband, on your next album you should let your daughter, just let her do a bridge. Just let her sing one little section by herself, and he’ll have her do backgrounds but he hasn’t yet had her do that. So that would be something that I would approach, and I would be totally open to doing that. As my husband gets back in town today, I will ask him, I’m sure he’s heard it a million times, as well. It’s something that I would definitely love to do. It would be great. It would be family.
Kevin: I do want to ask one last question. And I’ve asked this of every person I’ve asked on SoulMusic.com. What’s next for Audrey Wheeler?
Audrey: Well, fortunately, at this time, I sing and work with the many artists that I work with, and I’m a mommy, I’m a wife, and you have different values when you’ve done a lot of things in your life early on. I never wanted to regret not doing something. I’ve had many friends who have had children early on and then it’s very difficult when your children are young to then go out now and try to work and have a little baby. For me, I did it the opposite. I waited later in life to have my child and I’d like to think I’m still a young mom. My daughter says that to me, but at the same time, now I’m getting back more into doing the singing and the things that I love doing.
I’m not going to sit here and say I’ll do a record, because my husband has asked me if he could produce a record on me. He has asked. If I do it, it would purely be for enjoyment sake. It wouldn’t be to … most people put a record out because they think they’re going to be the next, now we say the next Beyoncé. People, your aspiration is to be the next something. I’m not looking for that. If I did a record, it purely would be just because I wanted to sing. I definitely have a lot of fire in me. I’m a creative person. I’m not just a singer. I do make-up, believe it or not, I still do make up for people because I’ve just always been creative with my hands.
I crochet, I make sweaters and, you know, hats and gloves and leg warmers. I just keep myself moving all the time. I think that that’s a key, not just for people who are singe.s, but just for people in general. We get stagnant, we don’t allow ourselves to grow. We stop, we think when we get to a certain age, well that’s it. And that’s when you become depressed. That’s when you get down. You should always be like, hmm, Take it like I have sister who’s great at party planning, but she works for a law firm and she makes great money. She’s like, “I’m not going to leave.” I’m not telling you to leave, but why don’t you go out, you do so good at it, you enjoy it, you get so excited. If you do make some money, it’s extra money you didn’t plan on having. People, pursue your dreams. That’s what I try to tell people.
Kevin: And I’ve got to interject that you have a fellow crochet-er, Meli’sa Morgan.
Audrey: Oh, I did not know that. Are you kidding me? We were friends, are you kidding me?
Kevin: Check out the interview I did with her.
Audrey: I’ve got to call her.
Kevin: Check out the interview I did with her on Soulmusic.com a couple months ago. And we did discuss that because that’s what she does in her spare time. So, I know we’re getting off the subject of soul and the music and whatnot, but folks, this is a lesson right here ,of having other talents and other ways to channel your enthusiasm and whatnot.
LET IT BE ME is the name of the album, came out in 1987 on Capitol Records. It has been reissued onto CD by the folks at Funky Town Grooves. My man Donald Cleveland was the person who put this collection together before he left the label. And I want to give him kudos for a great job, along with Matt and Tony who own the label. Also, if you get the CD … when you get the CD, I should say, it’s available through Amazon, through the Soulmusic.com store, when you get the CD, you’ll see these great liner notes written by Mr. Will Downing, and those liner notes in particular were edited by yours truly, Kevin Goins. So this is the main reason why I wanted to do this interview with Audrey. So that we would get her voice involved as well.
The CD is available, it has remixes, particularly the remix of “Irresistible” done by Peter Waterman of the great team of Stock, Aitkin & Waterman, and Holland of Great Britain of the 1980s. And also I want to give a shout out to a big fan of yours, Lynn Rodriguez who helped me put this thing together. LET IT BE ME, reissued on Funky Town Grooves. Audrey, thank you for doing this interview, many attempts, but we finally got it down, and have a safe trip to Trinidad, That’s Audrey Wheeler with Kevin Goins on Soulmusic.com. Thanks for listening.
About the Writer
Kevin Goins aka “The Soul Ninja” is a veteran of the radio and recording industries, has authored liner notes for CD collections by Earth Wind & Fire, Melba Moore and Stacy Lattisaw. He's also the producer/host of the Internet radio interview series "Soulful Conversations" as well as a classic R&B show "The Kevin Goins Soul Experience".