Pearly Gates graciously brings a revealing look at her incredible career, from her early days in the group The Flirtations to her most recent solo project, On A Winning Streak.
Justin Kantor: Hi, this is Justin Kantor of Soulmusic.com. You're listening to my interview with Pearly Gates. Pearly Gates may not be a household name, but she has quite a history in the music business. She got her start with the girl group, The Flirtations, which scored an international Soul and Pop hit with “Nothing But A Heartache” in 1969. Since that time, she has worked with a lot of people and done a lot of things. I hope you enjoy this interview, as she tells us about her history and her new album On A Winning Streak, released through Night Dance Records out of Denmark.
JK: You were born in Shorter, Alabama. What do you remember about growing up there?
PG: [Laughs] What don't I remember? My darling, it was extremely hot like it is in Florida, but I think it was even hotter than this in Alabama. When I was little, I picked cotton, and when I was five years old I was a waterboy in the cotton fields. No one could stay at home to keep me, so I went into the cotton fields. I was so little, and the water bucket would bang up against my legs. What amazes me is that I have no regrets or sorrow. I look back on it with great fond memories. I was in the heart of Alabama. In the 1950’s, you can imagine what it was like.
JK: What are the fondest memories you have?
PG: If I wanted plums, we would go and pick the first plums off the tree. If you wanted to eat blackberries, you could go pick blackberries. Everything we ate was fresh.We grew our own vegetables, and everything we ate was fresh. Because of my upbringing, I think it made me the woman that I am today, as far as my complexion, my health, my strength -- we lived well.
JK: I read in the liner notes of On A Winning Streak that you entered talent contests growing up.
PG: [Laughs] Yes, my sister and I went to a very small school in Shorter called Prarie Farm. Elementary and high school were all together. That’s all we had to do. The kids who went there lived in the country; so you had about 13 in high school, and seven kids in elementary school. When I was a junior, they built a school called Deborah Cannon Wolfe. Then, I went to live in Tuskegee, Alabama with my sister. I went to Tuskegee High School with Lionel Richie, and also in the Commodores was a young man named La Pread, and he went to school with me in Shorter, Alabama. Lionel Richie was from Tuskegee, which is a small town, but we did have the University and the hospital. You had all the wonderful things, like the Booker T. Washington Museum, and the George Washington Carver Museum.
JK: Were you in classes with Lionel Richie, or how did you know him?
PG: When I was a Senior in high school, he was a Sophomore. He’s two years behind me.
JK: Were you involved in music together?
PG: No, but they knew me. I was the one singing at the Junior/Senior Prom, so everybody knew I was a singer. Lionel Richie had joined the Commodores, and he recognized me. They’d say, “Billups!”
JK: They called you by your last name?
PG: We always did that in Tuskegee.
JK: How did you manage to make a move to New York when you were a teenager?
PG: When I was born in Birmingham, there wasn’t a plantation; but Mr. Hall owned the land. Although there were six houses on the land, we worked and got paid to work, and the overseer of the land was a guy called Mr. Sprotling. He and his wife had a TV, and we had no television. They had a black & white television, and they invited us over three to watch. Once we watched "The Ed Sullivan Show" and then "The Little Rascals." That particular night, Elvis Presley was on -- but they only showed him from the waist up. I never forgot that image. JK: That’s why you mention him in the song "On a Winning Streak"? PG: Absolutely. We were watching Ed Sullivan. I remember the professionalism about these performers, and then later on it was Elvis Presley and the Beatles and Sam Cooke. Those are the people that got me out of Alabama. In Alabama, in the hot sun, never seeing the next city, I didn’t want that. I got a chance to go to New York to work as a mother’s helper. It was with a doctor who had a nanny, a cook and a maid. My job was to get the kids ready for school and walk them to school. I loved it that summer. I got a chance to see the World’s fair that summer. I was in 11th grade, and I came back and finished high school. I had sung at different schools, but after seeing New York and seeing something different, I studied very hard. I turned down the Air Force, I turned down the Scholarships, and said, “No, there is something bigger and better for me out there.” I went back to New York and went to the employment agency. In those days, they would call you by the alphabet, and he called me ‘H’ and said, “What can you do?” and I was stunned. He said, “Can you type? Can you do short hand?” I said, “No. I can sing!” He looked at me and said, “I might have something for you. I’ll call you.” They went to lunch, and at the end of the day I thought he forgot about me. I’m sitting there like an idiot, but I never left. He said, “I don’t know how this will work out, but there is a club called The Spice of Life. They have Bar Mitzvahs and graduation parties. You might have to sing a couple of Jazz numbers. Can you do it?” I said, “Yeah.” I went, and Mr. Sam Delano was there, and the rest was history. I made enough tips to dress my group, who later became the Gypsies. I made so many tips, that I used to fall asleep at night with money all over me. This was on the Island, and so many people come there for the weekend and then go home, and some people said, “I want to take you into Manhattan. Let me introduce you to some people.” I formed the group called The Gypsies, because we were wandering the streets in Manhattan, and a man said, “Are you a group?” and we said, “We’re the Gypsies,” because we were wandering around the streets like a bunch of gypsies. His name was Randall Stewart, and he was one of the members of The Fiestas, which did "So Fine." JK: A lot was happening really quickly. PG: He immediately took us upstairs to meet the head of Old Town Records, Hy Weiss.
JK: Was that the “Jerk It” single that I read about?
PG: “Jerk It” and "Woman’s World.” That time in New York, we worked the Apollo, Paramount, Brooklyn Pops, the Royal Theatre in Baltimore. I was at the Grand Theatre in Detroit, and had just spent time with the Temptations. We were invited to do a television show with Billy Stewart. I was on television with my group singing, and I was crying.
JK: Why were you crying?
PG: We had a chance to come to England and one of the girls didn’t want to come. The gentleman’s name was Bob Urie, and I asked if there was still an opportunity to go to England. He said, “I didn’t know you weren’t going." I said, “I’ve been having trouble convincing the group. One of the girls doesn’t want to go.” What I didn’t know is that when we got to England, we were billed as the Marvelettes. They never saw anybody, except the Supremes. That was an opportunity for three girls to go and do that. JK: Was this in ’69? PG: Yes, early ’69.
JK: They had never seen the Marvelettes at that point?
PG: Not at all. They had only seen The Supremes and The Four Tops.
JK: You mentioned the Grand Theatre in Detroit. I was speaking to another singer named Rena Scott. She had started there as well and was telling me how they had talent scouting shows.
PG: Absolutely. When I worked the New York Apollo, the group Chairmen of the Board were called The Showmans. They opened the show, then The Gypsies came on. The Manhattans, Bettye Lavette, and Tommy Hunt topped the bill. He now lives in England, and had a massive hit called “Human.”
JK: When you got over to England, what was your initial reaction?
PG: My first reaction was, I came to England because of the Beatles. I loved the haircuts and the way they dressed and their accents, but funnily enough, Cockney is my favorite English accent now. Isn’t that funny? For many years, I lived near Paul McCartney. About a year ago, I was in a hotel in London, celebrating a girlfriend’s birthday, and Sir Paul McCartney came into the restaurant and kept staring at our table. My friends said, “Pearly, he’s looking at you.” I said, “Oh, come on. He wouldn’t remember me.” But naturally as I stood up to leave he said, “You still live here?” So he did remember! I said, “I live here, and it was because of you that I came here and I still live here.” He was so lovely. George Harrison -- I was in a recording studio, and I had a boyfriend named Vic Smith who was a sound engineer. George Harrison and Billy Preston were doing a session. They were putting down vocals, and I said, “That’s a flat note." George said, “Who said that?” and Vic said, “It’s a friend of mine in the studio." George said, “Do you know what the note is?” I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “Come down here and sing it!” He was my favorite Beatle! You can’t tell anybody that. [laughs]
JK: So you ended up singing it?
PG: Hell ,yeah! I went in, sang the note and felt very chuffed with myself.
JK: Was this around the time that you first came to England, or what were the circumstances that you were in that studio?
PG: I changed the name from The Gypsies to The Flirtations and we were with Decca, and that’s why we were in the big studio recording some stuff there. That was two years after I came to England.
JK: What made you change the group's name?
PG: In England, there’s no way we could keep that name, because the word gypsy has a negative connotation. Someone said we had to change the name. We had a manager named Barry Class, who was a manager of a group called The Foundations. One day, while we were trying to get the name together -- with three women in the group it’s impossible to agree, I just said, “Flirtations is what it is, and that’s final.” Wayne Bickerton walked into the office, because he worked with Decca and was also a songwriter, and he said, “Are you a group? Don’t leave the building.” That’s a true story, and the rest is history. He lived near the office, we went to his house, played us a couple of records and that was it. We went to his house and his partner Tony Waddington was there, and he began playing stuff on the piano. We started harmonizing, and that was it! Two weeks later we had a deal with Decca.
JK: You got an album deal right away?
JK: That wasn’t a common thing in England for Black artists at the time.
PG: We were lucky.
JK: Was that because he had faith in you?
PG: We had some great songs. One of the tracks on the album was “Can’t Stop Loving You,” and it was our second release in America. When it started to do well in America, Tom Jones heard the song and wanted to do it, so they pulled our record.
JK: So that’s why they stopped promoting for you, when he recorded it?
PG: We were with the same record company, and Tom Jones was Tom Jones. He had a #1 album with that track.
JK: I saw a video of you performing it outside near Abbey Road.
PG: Yes. It was a big one.
JK: When you did “Nothing But A Heartache,” what was the pace with that? I know it ended up being an international hit here in the US and in Spain.
PG: We went to Spain, and Luxembourg and Holland, and we did the whole of Europe. We were quite big in Japan, too.
JK: Did it start in the UK, or take off in other countries first? PG: The funny thing is, we never charted in the UK with “Nothing But A Heartache.” I was pissed off, because they were just coming out of the group thing. A lot of the hits by British groups were being covered by American artists. All of those hits were covers, and they did that to get their own recognition. We were a year or two late.
JK: Did you live in Spain and Holland?
PG: Oh yes. We were massive! We appeared on television shows and everything. It was wonderful.
JK: What was the response in England when you did some of your follow-up songs, like “Take Me In Your Arms” or “Someone Out There"? Was it better received elsewhere at first than in England?
PG: “Someone Out There” was used in Holland, I think they still use it as their national lottery theme.
JK: When you went solo, had you always had the longing to do the professional solo recording career, or how did that come about?
PG: I went solo, because with any group there were problems. There were two sisters in the group, and when you have sisters, they’re always going to stick together whether they’re right or wrong. In this instance, it backfired on them, because I went on to enhance my career as a solo artist and had TV appearances and concerts and everything. Recently, when I put the group back together, that’s when we started working again. We’re more in demand than ever! We have a couple of shows coming up that we have to do, and after that I’m putting all of my time back into being me again.
JK: The first solo record that you did, “Johnny & The Jukebox,” is something that you re-did for this album as a medley. What was the story behind that song? PG: When I became a solo artist, Wayne Bickerton and Tony Waddington, who wrote that song for the Flirtations -- they loved working with me. I asked if they had anything in their catalog for me to use, and I still think I sang it too high when I originally recorded it. When I re-did it, I think it came out better. But it’s amazing how many people pick that song out when they talk about the album!
JK: The title is a very grabbing title and has a different spin to it, so maybe that’s why. With that record, you went by your nickname, Vie. What exactly transpired that made you change your name to Pearly Gates?
PG: I did a television series in England with Cliff Richard, and one of his guests was Olivia Newton-John when I did the show with the Flirtations. When I left the Flirtations, Bruce Welch, one of the Shadows -- he and Olivia were going out and they split up. I said to him, “You need to do something. You need to get your act together. Why don’t you manage me?” He said, “Artists are a pain in the ass.” But one day, he walked into the office and said, “Hello, Pearly Gates!” My agent and I looked at each other and said, “He’s lost it completely.” He said, “This is your new name. People will either love it or hate it, but they will never forget it.” There was a songwriter named Lynsey De Paul, and she and Bruce co-wrote the first single I had as Pearly Gates. JK: Another song you had out from that time that I really liked was “Make it My Business,” which you performed on the "Supersonic" TV show in Germany. You also hosted with "The Cliff Richard Show," right? PG: I was one of the regulars every week on that show. The Flirtations worked with Cliff at the London Palladium, and he asked if we would do the show. On the show was a group called the Seekers, and Olivia Newton-John. They were regulars and we were regulars, doing one number a week and some vocal backings for Cliff Richard. They had a segment called 'Good News and Bad News,' and I said to the producer, “Why is it that The Flirtations aren’t appearing in 'The Good News and The Bad News'? He said, “You aren’t actresses.” I said, “I don’t think that’s fair,” and they said, “This is how it works.” The third week, I approached them again, and by the fourth week, they said, “Okay,” and passed the script out to the Flirtations. It was Olivia Newton-John and The Flirtations, and the script read: Olivia said, ”My boyfriend and I want to get married, but we can’t have a white wedding!” and this is live television by the way. They cut to the Flirtations, and our line was, “Huh. She thinks she’s got trouble.” (laughs) First of all, Shirley said, “I’m not going to do it because of the racial joke,” and Ernestine said, “I will do it with you.” This is live television. We did the rehearsal on Friday night, and on the night, everybody had their marks, and I came down and Ernestine decided she was not going to do it with her sister. I came down, and they said, “Where’s Ernestine?” and I said, “She’s not doing it.” They said, “Do it yourself." I did it, and I got so much fan mail. From then on, it blew out of proportion, really. It was good.
JK: Did you live in Luxembourg, because you hosted radio there?
PG: One day I was driving from town, and I was still at the stage where there weren’t a lot of Black people doing a lot. I was listening to the radio, and I thought “I can do this standing on my head.” I got home and I had a message from a guy called Tony Prince. He runs the Elvis Presley fan club from England, and he was also a producer or executive for Radio Luxembourg. They were getting celebrity DJ's to come in and host one show for Radio Luxembourg, and it was freaky. I went in to see them to do a 30-minute show, and 15 minutes into the show, the head of the radio station and Tony Prince came into the booth and said, “Would you like a job?” I did a year for Radio Luxembourg. JK: Were you also doing commercials as part of that? PG: Yes, I did commercials.
JK: I read about a spot for Pepsodent that gained some popularity. What was the deal behind that?
PG: I was in the office and I was a little bit perturbed. I was at the BBC fighting hard. There was an Israeli singer named Dahlia Lavi, beautiful woman, and we were both in the makeup room together talking. She left the room, and came back screaming, “Take it off! Take it off!” They had made me up, and they didn’t have the right makeup. She said, “You were beautiful 20 minutes ago. Now you look like a dough face.” That’s when I went to the head of the makeup department and told them they were using the wrong makeup. You're using Max Factor Pan-Stik for the black and white mystery shows.That's not my complexion. You don’t have the right thing. You know, in life when people think you’re speaking up too much, they don’t like it. But I made the BBC like me properly, so anybody who came into the BBC being Black, they benefited from my being there first. You ask any Black artist in England, and they’ll tell you Pearly Gates paved the way on the BBC. It was easy for me to stand up for myself, because I’m from Alabama and I had to stand up for myself, but not in an aggressive way. I made a point, I told them that everybody would benefit from that, I told them it was important to put the proper light on us, and they said, “We can’t change the lights because it’s a live show, to change it from white to Black.” I don’t give a shit! Get the lighting right!
JK: Your new On a Winning Streak CD and DVD brings together a lot of what you've done throughout your career. You have songs from so many different time periods of your recording career, and a lot of styles represented -- house, Northern Soul, pop, R&B ballads. What was the process of putting it together like? Was it difficult licensing.
PG: In 1977, I went to Los Angeles and recorded with H.B. Barnum. Streisand was in the studio before I came in. The only way I could do this recording was, I had to be available. Whatever time the previous session was over, I needed to get out of my hotel and get to the studio immediately that night to sing. The four tracks I did were just a joy. Ray Parker, Jr., was one of the musicians. I woke up at 6 AM, got dressed, and got in the taxi to get there. The hotel knew my schedule, so there was always somebody available to take me.
JK: How did you know H.B. Barnum?
PG: He came through London. He was directing the Temptations' and the Four Tops' big concert tour. I happened to be at The Commodore one day, and he was there. Meanwhile, Neil Sedaka wrote for me "Love Will Keep Us Together." I say that he wrote it for me, because he was at the Talk of The Town in London. I went backstage with my producer, Wayne Bickerton. I went back to the dressing room, and Neil said, "You're the only one out there that understands what I'm doing. You have to be a singer. I have a song for you." Within the next two weeks, he sent me "Love Will Keep Us Together." H.B. Barnum did the track for me. The producer didn't release it and gave it instead to Mac & Katie Kissoon, known for "Sugar Candy Kisses" -- which had also been written for me. I called H.B. Barnum up and said, "I would like to come and work with you in America on my own production, that I have the rights for." We struck up a financial deal, and I went to L.A. I paid for the recordings, so I own them. Bronze Records in England had a subsidiary in Sweden called Sonet. They released an album with me on the cover, and used five tracks.
JK: What's the story behind "Broken Bottles," written by Barry Gibb?
PG: in the '80s, Dick Ashby, who looked after The Bee-Gees, had come to England. I said to him, "Is it possible to get Barry to write me a song? I know I'm not Dionne Warwick or Barbra Streisand; but I need a break. I thought nothing would ever come out of it. He sent me a song, and the letter stated, "This song was written for Dionne Warwick. Barry thinks it's one of the best lyrics he's ever written; but she didn't like it. So, if you can do something with it, you're welcome to have it." I got it and thought, "There's no way I can sing this song" -- if you heard the way it was originally done. I've held off on it since the 80's; and they've never recorded it with anybody else. So, when I started on this album, I thought, "I need something in my sleeve notes that going to make people take notice." I wasn't feeling doing it in a disco style, so I asked Barry if he'd mind if I change the melody a little bit. The answer came back, "Do whatever you want." So, I gave it to some producers. Apparently, the melody sounds a little bit like the Keyshia Cole style. So, I sent the song to Barry. He sent it back and said, "I think you've made a mistake and sent the wrong track." I was terrified to call him; I was thinking, "They hate it." I plucked up enough nerve to call Dick Ashby and tell him, "We're gonna do a disco version and a house version, but that is the song." He said, "I'm sorry; but the song was so good, we never knew you sang that well." I said, "Well, what about when I asked you all those years ago for Barry to produce me?" He said, "I was just messing around. We never knew." So, Barry's very happy with the song.
JK: It's great that you've maintained that relationship through the years.
PG: I was very lucky to still have the song available. When I wrote e-mails to find out, I got back a one-line reply: "Of course. Bye."
JK: Two of my favorites on the new CD are "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" and "A Day Without You." You recorded the latter back in the 90's, but it went unreleased until now.
PG: Yes, that's the time when I first realized I could put pen to paper and write a lyric. The writing credit is listed as Vie Billups and Freddie and Tee Morris; but to be honest, they were the producers. I wrote the lyric. We were doing a production deal, so we just said we were writing everything together. I got a fan letter, and one of the lines in that inspired me to write the song. It's very personal. "Once Bitten Twice Shy" is about falling in love and nothing becoming of it.
JK: You wrote that one with Ian Levine and the late Clive Scott. What would you sum up as Clive's contributions to your music and its style? His passing was a really big loss.
PG: I met Clive when I was a DJ at Radio Luxembourg. He worked in a management office in that same building. I lived in Hartford Street in Mayfair. Right across from my place, I could see Radio Luxembourg. That's when I went and met this band called Jigsaw, known for "Sky High" in America. He was a gentleman; out of all the guys, there was something about him that was wonderful. When I went into the studio with Ian Levine, I realized he was that same gentleman. He was a musical genius. He sympathized with other artists. Over the years, we would meet at functions. When I met him in the studio with Ian, I said "What are you doing?" He explained to me that he co-produced with Ian. If you know Ian, he's very talented; but he's very Phil Spector-like and hyper. Clive is the one who kept me there and grounded. Every time I went in the studio, he would tell me, "Every time you come in, you sound better and better. I'm sorry that I didn't approach you years ago and work with you."
JK: Did you know Viola Wills?
PG: Yes, when I left The Flirtations, I was trying to come up with a name: Viola this, Viola that. Someone said, "There is only one Viola: Viola Wills." I had the chance to meet her. I also partook in her memorial in London.
JK: I had the chance to meet her when I lived in Los Angeles. I thought of her when you talked about working with Ian. She was the first person of many who told me that everybody has a story about him; that watching him work is some kind of show! P
G: Absolutely, but I got on with him very well. I knew when to back away -- and when he stepped too near the mark, how to get him off. I like him as a friend. He's known me for 35 years. And he would say to you, I've never let him down. Anything he's asked of me, I've done for him. I got The Flirtations back together so he could record them. I do backings for him. It's show business. You never know when you're going to cross people's paths again. A lot of people get very selfish and say, "It's not my track. I'm not singing it. I don't care if it's "Three Blind Mice"; I'll sing it.
JK: How would you describe your working relationship with Soren Jensen, the guy behind getting out On a Winning Streak?
PG: In life, one has a lot of ambitions. When you're young, those ambitions -- if you're lucky -- become a reality. When you're older, the chances are very far and few between. I was managing a boy band called Dyyce. I was at the Jazz Cafe in London, and this guy was staring at me. I thought, "What the hell? He's too young to be looking at me. What's going on here?" He came over to me and said, "Pearly Gates?" I immediately said, "Where are you from?" He says, "I'm Danish." I said, "How do you know about Pearly Gates." He said, "I have everything you've ever recorded. I know more about you than you do yourself." We got to talking. About a year and a half later, I went into the studio with Ian Levine, and he was sitting there.We talked and laughed. Four days later, he called me up and said, "This is your MySpace." He set the whole thing up to show how much he knew about me! He said he was starting his own recording company and asked if I would be interested in doing a track. I said, "Of course!" I'll sing at the opening of an envelope! We did one track that we loved; and then he said he'd like to do an album. He had a couple of friends who were doing photographs, and a book on The Flirtations. I'd been wanting to do an album; but in today's market, it's a bit difficult. I never thought I'd get the chance to do it again. I said, "Let me show you what I got." He said, "I know what you've got. You've got all the H.B. Barnum stuff, etc. But you need 13 new tracks. Let's do them. Get five from Ian Levine, and we'll go into the studio for the remaining ones."
JK: In today's industry, i can be so hard to get an album out there.
PG: If you're not online, you've had it!
JK: Earlier in your career, you did cut an album with Ian Levine, which didn't come out for some reason. PG: Some legal jargon. It was back in the day when you had to get an entry visa to come to England. He had been working with this girl, Cobie Jone. He was looking for an America singer. Someone introduced me to him, and I covered the whole album.
JK: It must be thrilling to see the finished product of On a Winning Streak come to fruition.
PG: You can't imagine how happy I am about this album -- from the cellophane on the package to the last note on the album.
JK: You're going to be doing a few shows with The Flirtations in the near future?
PG: I've got a couple of things coming up in October. Then, I'll be doing my own shows with P&O Cruise Lines. My first will be at the Bilbao cruise resort.
JK: What kind of repertoire will you be performing?
PG: Well, on cruises, you do two shows a night. I've been working with my choreographer. We've got a format for one show. For the second show and the three or four numbers in the VIP lounge, I'd like to do some of my jazz favorites, like "Secret Love" and "Days of Wine and Roses." That's my heart. It's easy money.
JK: Do you have input in selecting songs for these, or are you given a set selection?
PG: I choose everything myself, except for the lighting and the timing. I'll also throw a little bit of comedy in there. Gotta make them laugh! Today, record companies don't sign you unless you have an act. Part of the deal is that they get a percentage of your performance.
JK: I thank you much and have really enjoyed talking with you. I hope we'll speak again soon. Enjoy your birthday!
PG: Thank you so much. Have a wonderful holiday. God bless.
About the Writer
Justin Kantor is a freelance music journalist with published works in Wax Poetics and the All-Music Guide. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Business and Management program, he regularly writes liner notes for reissue labels.