It is exceptionally refreshing and highly unusual in this world full of phony and plastic people to meet anyone with the honest, sensitive and just plain real approach of Zulema. Without qualification, Ms. Zulema Cusseaux is one of the nicest people this writer has ever encountered because she has an innate sense of basic, down-to-earth everyday living which separates her from the average entertainer. And if we're talking in terms of superstars, Zulema is a superstar person any day. She is only just beginning to achieve public acclaim since pacting with R.C.A. Records late last year and her initial album for the company, which simply bears her name, is already gaining across the board airplay and sales. Indications are that Zulema is well on the way to achieving some of the recognition which has long been her due. Ever since she hit the recording scene as a solo artiste (after a period as "Faith" in Faith, Hope & Charity) a few years back, Zulema (or Miss 'Z' as she's been tabbed) has been a favourite amongst d.j.s. and industry folk but public acceptance hasn't been forthcoming on any large scale. Via the fine R.C.A. set and the first single pulled from it — the lady's updating of the Michael Jackson hit of a few years back, "I Wanna Be Where You Are", Zulema is at last hitting home. And about time too.
We're sitting in Z's manager's office in midtown Manhattan and the lady looks radiant if just a little shy. But once we get started, some of that for realness emerges. So, how did it all begin? "Well, I got into the music business professionally really via Sam & Dave. I was in New York and Sam, as you know, is from Florida — like myself — I'm from Tampa. I had a group together known as The Lavells and before we knew it, we were touring with the duo as back-up singers. Then, we came to the attention of Van Mcoy and through him, we met up with Larry Maxwell, who had just formed his own label, Maxwell Records. We recorded for the label and "So Much Love" was our first release and a big national hit. But we never saw any money from it and the company folded. It was Bob Crewe who changed our name from The Lavells, incidentally: he just looked at us and said, "well, here we have faith, hope and charity!'' and that was it!"
But Zulema's original musical "influences' — although she is totally disticntive talent hark back to her days in Tampa listening to country & western! "Yeah, I used to yodel and it wasn't until the tenth grade that I got into hearing rhythm & blues". She then proceeds to give an imitation of a countrified version of "Your Cheatin' Heart" and you know she ain't kidding! At the tender age of 4, Zulema was taking piano lessons and studying classical music and this early training has stood her in good stead for her present career.
But back to Faith, Hope & Charity. With the demise of Maxwell Records, Sussex Records was the next stop and it was by mere chance that Zulema branches out a soloist. "I had never wanted to be out front — I'd always seen myself as a background singer — but I'd been working on some tapes as I wanted to produce another group. Everyone kept telling me that they liked the material, but they also dug the voice — so the stuff never got to be used on the group! Sussex then decided to launch me onto the scene but instead of letting me start out at the bottom, they pushed me — right in at the top. And believe me, that's a lot of pressure to be under. My initial dates were with Bill Withers at Carnegie Hall and at The Bitter End with The Isley Brothers and when those kind of dates didn't keep coming in, I had to prepare myself to starve. It was really tough starting out that way because it didn't give the opportunity to build upwards. Anyway, the first Sussex album did O.K. but it really wasn't me. We had "This Child Of Mine" out as a single but the company really didn't know how to handle me: they were trying so hard to put me in a bag and pigeon hole me. Then, for the second album, they tried to make me sound 'more commercial' and although we were working on my own material, the producer was telling me how to sing them! Well, naturally, that was about it. And then came R.C.A."
Zulema admits that, initially, she was a little skeptical about singing with the company. "I really thought I'd get lost in the shuffle. So many people tell you not to sign with a big company because they have so many acts to deal with, but it seems that I did the right thing". Present signs are that Zulema-fever is currently raging throughout R.C.A. and with just cause. The album, "Zulema" is a true testament to the amazing talent of this young lady, with six of the songs original compositions, all penned by Z with the exception of one which she co-wrote. "I picked the three non-originals with care because I wanted the whole album to reflect different aspects of my music. I mean, not everyone wants to go to discos so we've got some things which are suitable for those who do and other things for the rest!'' Perhaps the most striking aspect of Zulema, aside from her evident vocal talent and musicianship, is her totally unique songwriting style. Her lyrics are like no others and one particularly example of the striking quality of this young woman's ability can be heard on "Hail, Hail America". "I guess you could say that the song is satirical — but everything I said in there is true. I like my writing to deal with everybody and situations that everyone can relate to. Like "This Child Of Mine". I mean, having an illegitimate child is no fun and in the past, songs that have touched upon the subject — like "Love Child" — have never looked at it in anything other than a light way. And I feel that we should deal with songs that people haven't dealt with before. I've just written a song about rape. It's called "Pity For Her Majesty" and rather than deal with rape too bluntly, I've described the woman in the song as having been "robbed of her virgin fruit". But a subject like that is hardly, if ever, mentioned in song and it is happening and is a frightening problem today, especially in the States".
Although she is obviously outspoken in that she'll deal openly with subject matter relevant to today, Zulema is not too fond of the current trend with all the talk about the other woman, infidelity etc. "No, I don't dig those things because I used to hear them all the time in the South when I was growing up. And basically, I'm a romanticist so if I have one man, that's all I want. You see, the trouble is that entertainers in general project images to the public and set examples — and generally bad examples. It's almost gotten to the point where people expect that if you're a woman in show business, you have to be a slut and if you're a man, you must be gay. And when you come down to it, those conceptions are only born because of the egos of so many artists. I've come across so many people who have one hit and there you go, they're riding around in their big cadillac showing everyone how great they are. Well, that's not gonna happen to me because if I have any success, sure I'm gonna go out and buy a cadillac — but it'll be for my Mom and Dad. And I'm determined that I won't change. Why? I guess because I'm country — I'm not a city slicker. It's very important to me that my parents are happy and I wanna go get them a house and all. You know, my Dad told me that when my Mom saw me on "Soul Train" she just wouldn't sit down — she just went crazy! And that makes me happy — to know that they're proud of what I'm doing." That statement typifies Zulema's strong 'for real' attitudes and if you want an example of the sensitivity which is so much a part of her, listen to what she has to say about one recent chart hit which she personally felt was offensive. "You know it's funny that a song with lyrics like "funky Chinaman in funky Chinatown" can just get by without any fuss. No one stops to think how a Chinese person might feel if they heard it but you can betcha if it said anything like "those funky niggers down in Harlem", there'd be a whole heap of fuss. Everyone's too busy boogalooing to stop and listen to the words, but I'm sorry, I do not dig it!" Zulema's feeling is "the world is just headed for destruction. I'm a great believer in the Bible and I think the way things are going, it's gonna be fire and brimstone, the whole bit. I mean there are people just going around murdering people — even their parents. I mean, there are just no values left — everything's just topsy turvy. "The words on "Hail, Hail America" on her RCA album will give you a chance to see where Z is coming from — Check it out.
Aside from getting her recording career onto a better level, Zulema is, through the astute management of Joe Fontana and the enthusiasm of RCA, beginning to floor everyone with her in person appearances. Not that the reaction to her 'live' is anything new. She walked away with all the honours for her appearances at The Push Expo in Chicago in 1972, recorded for the film "Save The Children" in which she performed "This Child Of Mine". But it wasn't that easy: "I was really terrified, you know. After all, I was the only unknown on the bill, with all those really big entertainers. And they kept changing me around. I started out doing five songs, then they said do three and I was sure I'd end up doing just one! I really got the feeling that they didn't want me around. To add to that, they had put me way, way back on the stage so that no one could really see me. But somehow, it just all happened — it was great. And you know, I get a real natural high form performing. I've had people say I'm stoned because they just don't believe that anyone could get so involved in their thing — but believe it, I do and I'm really looking forward to doing a lot more live work."
If there is any justice in the world, the 1975 will see Zulema Cusseaux achieve much of the success that an artiste of her tremendous importance and ability deserves. With the kind of human qualities that endeared her to this writer, she'll definitely make it, because Zulema is just for real. And that's the most important thing of all.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.