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Bubbly and Blessed: an interview with Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King
Dance music legend on the comeback trail

by Gregg Shapiro

Then 16-year-old Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King just after the release of ‘Shame,’ and today, as she preparees for the release of her latest musical effort, ‘Open Book.’

In 1977, a year before disco music reached its peak with the success of commercial crossover acts including the Village People, Donna Summer, Chic, Peaches & Herb, and others, some of the most important and influential songs of the genre were released. Among those tunes was a little ditty called “Shame” by Evelyn “Champagne” King. The amalgamation of her powerful and emotion-laden vocals, the infectious melody and the persuasive beat, not only helped the song become a club sensation when it was released, but it has allowed it to stand the test of time.

King, who has been performing consistently over the years is putting out “Open Book” (RNB Entertainment Group/Jaggo), her first new full-length studio album since 1997. I spoke with her shortly before the album hit the shelves.

Nearly 30 years before the existence of “American Idol,” you were “discovered” when someone at a recording studio heard you singing while you were helping your mother do some cleaning.

That’s right [laughs].

Do you think that is a better way to have had your talent revealed than to be judged by a trio of so-called experts and the tastes of TV viewers?

Well, I have to say that I was very proud to be discovered that way. I was honored and shocked. But at the same time, personally, and I don’t have an ego, but I think that if it was going to happen, it was going to happen, even if it wasn’t in the Sigma Sound Studios while I was cleaning.

I always had a voice. I sang at 14 with a local band. God gave me a serious gift. I went to church and I was in a choir when I was a kid. I’ve had blessings beyond belief. When (producer) T. Life walked in and he heard me singing, he said, “One day I’m going to make you a star.” You don’t hear that every day (laughs). I felt like Cinderella. I was like, “Am I clicking heels or what?”

Two months later, I was singing “Shame” with the writers, John Fitch and Reuben Cross. Here I am, and I’m very happy about that.

In a recent interview you responded to the question about what you’ve been doing over the past few years between albums by listing your activities. Among which you mentioned performing at Gay Pride events and AIDS benefits. So would it be safe to say that you are aware of the impact your music had, and continues to have, on an entire generation of gay men?

From the photo shoot for her 1979 album, ‘Let’s Get Funky Tonight.’

Let me put it this way, they started “Shame.” I know where it started. With me doing the Gay Prides and the affairs, the benefits, the foundations and all, it does not matter, because no matter who they are, they recognize music. They recognize lyrics, they recognize songs. They made me go to where I am today. I still stand by that, because I know where I started. Without the gay audience, I wouldn’t have jumped on top like that. They embraced me. It means a lot to me, it really does.

Most people might not realize it, but disco had as significant an impact on music lovers during its prime as say hip-hop or punk rock did at the height of their popularity. Do you think disco will ever get the respect that it is due?

I think it didn’t get what it’s due. But at the same time, I personally never think it died (laughs). If you think about it, everybody wants to go back and take everything we’d done in the disco era and bring it back into their songs. You’ve got the rappers doing it. It’s just like the clothing, everything came back around. I don’t think it ever really left. They just gave the sound a different drive with the new technology.

Have you heard yourself sampled in any hip-hop tracks?

Plenty! I’ve heard so many of my songs sampled. “Shame” was the first one sampled, and that was done by Zhane. Ice Cube, too. They pick and choose what they like from the song. I do hear me and I’m flattered by it all. I love being me!

In March of 2006, the RCA Dance Vault made many of the classic 12” dance singles from the heyday of the disco era, some of which were long out of print, available via iTunes. What does it mean to have your music accessible to the iPod generation?

I’m trying to learn how to go with the flow of today’s music business (laughs). When I used to go into the record stores and they pick up your CDs and your records, that’s out of respect to the artist because you get to meet your fans, also.

It’s different when your fans are online and that’s the way you meet them. I feel a little uncomfortable, but as long as it’s being done legally, then I’m all for it. As long as we receive what we’re supposed to receive, because a lot of times, we don’t see it.

You have to really be in tune with what’s going on with your songs on the internet. Because it’s so sad how they’re doing things today in the music business. But I’m going to be one from my era to continue to fight and keep them in the stores. We need that. We need to see our fans. We need to hold their hands and say thank you, and pass them the CD.

Now that Tower Records has closed…

I know! And that hurt! I used to go in Tower Records and look to see if I could see me. And now I can’t go in there.

The big Virgin Music megastore in Chicago also recently closed, but there are still some small, independent and even dance-specific record stores that are hanging in there. So, you may still have a chance to have contact with your fans.

It’s very well missed, believe me. I’ve been trying to see if there is anybody else out there who agrees with me. I’m sure a lot of them that do, they would love to see it in the stores. We’re trying to keep up with the youngsters, but that’s not the only audience and generation we had. I try to respect all of the generations that I had, which is from the ’70s to now. I’m trying to hang in there with that, because I would hate for it to go under, and then it will be, “OK, whose fault was that?”

You co-wrote some of the songs on your new album “Open Book.” What can you tell me about your songwriting process?

Preston Glass, the producer, brought me to the attention of the record company (and said) “Evelyn hasn’t lost it, and if you’re willing to go with this, let’s do it.” I write with my husband, Freddie Fox, and Tony Haynes, who is the lyric writer, and he’s also a poet. I did the melodies. My husband did the arrangements and music on four cuts. I love love songs, I love danceable songs.

My contribution to the CD was very important for my fans because I know what they want from me, and that is real songs. I want to make sure that I build a concept on what’s going on with couples, how they feel when they are on the dance floor, how they love life, and that’s what it’s about.

Is there one song on the disc that has more meaning to you than the others on the album?

There are several (laughs). The first one is “Nobody Knows,” because I love my husband dearly, and that’s about us. When you’re in love, you’re relating things to couples. And also, “Open Book.” I lost my parents in ’97, and a brother, and a child in ’89. I cried while singing “Open Book,” that’s how personal it is to me. And my career is an open book. If you’re in the business, your life is an open book [laughs].

The album “Open Book” has a mainly contemporary R&B vibe to it, but there is a version of the song “The Dance” that is definitely geared toward the dance floor. Are you ready to dominate that realm once again?

I’m ready for anything. Like I said, I was given a gift to show off what I got. I’m versatile. I have been ready for so long and this is the opportunity that I’ve been given to go back out there so that everybody will know. I’m still doing what I do best.

Are there plans for you to make appearances in gay clubs in support of the new album?

If they want me, I’m still here!

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