For one night only, Disco Spectacular is on Saturday 6 October at the Sydney Opera House and with an All-Star line-up of International Guest Vocalists such as Norma Jean Wright (Formerly of CHIC), Cynthia Johnson (The Original Voice of Funkytown), Ultra Naté (Stars On 54), Kym Mazelle, Denise Pearson (Five Star) and Pauline Henry (The Chimes) accompanied by a 45 piece orchestra making this is one show not to be missed.
Playing everyone’s favourite Disco songs including – I Will Survive, Good Times, Funky Town, September, Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough, Disco Inferno, Young Hearts Run Free, If You Could Read My Mind, Hot Stuff, Bad Girls, Upside Down, We Are Family, I’m Coming Out, I’m Every Woman just to name a few!
One of the guest vocalists, the super lovely Norma Jean Wright, original lead vocalist in CHIC, was gracious enough to give us her time to have a chat with Hi Fi Way: The Pop Chronicles.
You’re coming to Australia for the Disco Spectacular and singing at the Sydney Opera House. Will this be your first time singing in the Opera House?
I am totally thrilled to be coming to Sydney at the Sydney Opera House and to perform with a forty-five piece orchestra it gets no better than that! So, you guys are making me feel like a Queen!
Is this your first time in Australia? Are you looking forward to performing here?
This will be my first time! I’ve had connecting flights and I don’t remember where I was going but I remember the airport in Sydney and I’m like “Oh this is beautiful” but I had not been there to spend time so I am looking forward to visiting. I want to be doing a lot of sightseeing.
Will you have some time to see the sights because Sydney is beautiful?
Yes, I will have time. I’m coming in early so I can spend a few days just to, you know, to get a sense of the city and people. I’ve heard it’s a beautiful city.
Being one of the original singers of CHIC can you tell us a bit about that time in your life. How did you come about joining the band and what was it like?
It was a wonderful experience and I had no idea that it would become as iconic as it did. I was from Ohio. I’m not a native New Yorker so I moved to New York and my first encounter with the music side was working with this vocal group called ESP and Lucie Martin happened to be the female vocalist in the group so she and I met from like, day one almost. We became friends and then later I was introduced to Nile Rodgers by another friend Lanay Davis an actress and singer and she had worked with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards in a local band. She is the one that told me about them and said “I know these guys they are really good musicians, they’re talented. Their putting a group together and they’re looking for a female lead vocalist. I think you should audition.” So, I audition and got the gig. And so that’s how I met them. My first encounter hearing them do a jam session, I was impressed with their musical ability. I was blown away and I was “Whoah I really want to be a part of this!” And so that’s how it started!
The disco era and the hits from CHIC were and still are songs that stand the test of time. What was it like being a part of that great time in musical history? Any great memories you’d like to share with us?
Well I just know at that time there were a lot of creative juices flowing. I mean studios were so busy. I remember, you know just running into sessions here and there. There was a lot of work and people were working together and a lot of the people they were just very very…very talented. Most of the people had studied for years and were looking for an opportunity to put out music and hopefully have a career. And again, nobody knew that this would become legendary music and stuff. People were also at that time in the clubs and folks were dancing and just sharing and just having a good time! (laughs cheekily).
It looked like it! I wish I was part of that era!
It was like a renaissance almost. I mean as far as creativity was concerned. I just miss it. Some of it! (laughs cheekily).
Disco is making a resurgence so maybe you can relive it!
Well I don’t know if I want to relive ALL of it! There were also some other different things going on! Remember I’m from Ohio and a lot of the crazy stuff I was like “I’m not going over there!” (laughs hysterically).
You mean like Studio 54? (laughing)
Yeah! Studio 54 was wild. I mean there were certain kinds of things going on and of course me being from Ohio and I was always trying to pretend like I was “Oh yeah I’m aware of all this kind of stuff!” but in reality, I was like “OH NO!”
Your eyes were like popping!
Yeah…(laughs) oh yeah! But for the most part…. for the most part it was a wonderful time. People were working!
Earlier this year I saw CHIC live in Australia and it was such a thrill and highlight. Songs like Dance Dance Dance and Everybody Dance are classics and they are still being played today. How do you feel about these songs still wowing people thirty or more years later and younger generations are getting to experience the magic of disco?
I’m totally grateful and just feel so blessed that I’m a part of the legacy of CHIC because like I said who would have known that 40 years later…..I mean my son who is thirty now, he only now appreciates the music I was playing. He appreciates it now but it was so funny because CHIC music…. well he’s into Hip Hop right so when those songs were included in Puff Daddy songs my son was like “Oh wait Mom that’s your song!” I love it!!!! So, it took Hip Hop for him to really get into it but he appreciates it too now. But to answer your question I’m honoured and very very happy that I was a part of a sound that has lived for so many years. To me who knows thirty or forty years from now it will still be played. I’ve always said good music never dies.
You didn’t spend much time in CHIC as a Solo career was calling you and rightly so! Your hits like Saturday, High Society and my personal favourite I Like Love are classics. What was it like to branch out on your own and go solo?
Well you know what? The thing that’s so amazing, the solo career wasn’t calling me. That was planned! It’s amazing how the story was how I wanted to pursue a solo career……not even! I was very happy in CHIC. What happened was Nile and Bernard, basically after the album was such a smash there were record labels all over the place wooing us and so it was them looking for more projects to produce. It was them that said to me if this happens we’d like to produce a solo album for you. So, it was them and then there were executive producers involved as well and they said “Well we can get her a deal on Warner” and Warner and CHIC were signed to Atlantic Records so they were under the same corporation.
I was signed and they recorded my album and I ended up on Warner Bros. So, the whole plan was for them to produce my solo album but then I would continue on with CHIC. Ok that’s what the plan was! Well it didn’t turn out like that! (laughs) But what happened was the owner of the label that I ended up signing to he was the manager of Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan and other big artists. He was really more into soulful kind of music and wasn’t really into dance music and he ended up having creative differences with Nile and Bernard even with the marketing of my album. By the way his name is Albert Grossman and if you google you can see he was a man with his own mindset. What ended up happening is with the creative differences I got caught up in the crossfire. So, at that point it was kind of disheartening for me because my idea was that I would stay on with them and it didn’t turn out that way. Afterwards I picked up my little britches and said “Ok here I am!” So along with my solo career I was out there working with that, I ended up doing a lot of session work with Luther Vandross and Madonna. It just opened up a lot of doors. I ended up writing and so much more.
Even with your solo work you still worked with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. What was it like to work with them in a musical sense? What was it like in the studio? How did that turn out?
Initially working with them on the first album I was working with them. Well Bernard would give me ideas with the vocals, but Luther Vandross was involved and he would help with certain direction and instructions on those kinds of things too. But initially they would write the songs and they didn’t come to you and say “What key would you like them to be in?” or “Are you comfortable with that key?” No, they would just write it and then they would bring it to you! (laughs) It would be like “Here it is!”. That was a little challenging at first but it helped me to really strengthen my range because they didn’t change the keys and I just learned how to work with what ever they presented. It helped me to grow and probably in a lot of ways it also helped me later with working with so many other artists in sessions and being able to be so flexible.
You had to learn to adapt!
I definitely had to adapt. And I could do top, middle, bottom and in between. So, they helped me to become very skilled at my technique. Indirectly (laughs).
You will be singing with a forty-five piece symphony orchestra led by the respected conductor George Ellis. Tell us how you feel about that and have you sung with a symphony orchestra before?
You know what? This is going to be a wonderful experience for me. Here in the States I am working on a show called The First Ladies of Disco Show which includes Marsha Wash and Lucinda Clifford and we are performing on the 18th of this month in West Virginia with a symphony. This show we are doing we are working with a conductor so when I get to Sydney I will have performed with a symphony orchestra!
You will have experience by then!
Exactly! That makes me feel even better. It won’t be the first time! So, I will have had some practice!
But it still must be an amazing thought that – Sydney Opera House, an Orchestra, Australia – all these firsts for you!
Let me tell you – I am SO SO excited about this. And for this to be my first time in Australia and the SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE!!!!! A forty-five piece orchestra! This little girl is over the moon! Ok? (laughs)
It’s a wonderful venue and I’m excited for you to be performing there.
How large is the venue?
I’m sure it’s a few thousand. (after Googling it is 2679 capacity) It’s obviously not as big as a stadium as it was built more for Opera.
I’m happy that it’s not as big. I like it to be smaller. Like I said a forty-five piece orchestra and for this to be my first performance in the Opera House you have no idea how thrilled I am about that. So, I’m glad it’s not a stadium. I would probably be overwhelmed.
It’s a nice size. Its intimate and you can see your audience.
And you know with our music it’s so perfect to sing with an orchestra because you know you have strings, the horns, the viols and again I’m just speechless.
You will be speechless after you perform there as well!
I’m sure I will be! (laughs)
You will be singing with some amazing females singers such as Cynthia Johnson (the original voice of Funkytown), Ultra Nate (Stars on), Kym Mazelle, Denise Pearson (Five Star) and Pauline (The Chimes). Have you sung with them before or will this be a first for everyone collectively?
The only one I’ve worked with before is Ultra Nate. The other ladies – I’ve haven’t met them but I do know some of their music. Ultra Nate I have met and worked with her. We have performed together in New York and even in Europe so I’m looking forward to meeting these other great singers.
Do you still tour a lot within the USA or outside of America?
I do tour a lot and a lot of the work that I do here in the States is with Lucy Martin and Alfa Anderson. They are also former lead vocalists of CHIC and we work together. We do some of the classic CHIC music and we do some new music. Alfa has a new album and a new single called Perfectly Chic and we include that in our show. So yeah, we work here a lot. And I also perform with Linda Clifford and Martha Wash at The First Ladies of Disco Show.
Do you still enjoy working after all these years singing?
I do! I do still enjoy it because it’s not like I’m out there every weekend. I think if I had to do it like that I may not enjoying it the same way. Because you know, I’m not a teenager anymore! I work enough that I can still enjoy it but not so much that I get tired of it. The music is still appreciated by our fans so it’s fun to go out and work and do our shows. A lot of our shows are families with their kids so I’m blessed.
It doesn’t feel like work.
No, it doesn’t feel like work.
Do you have a website where people can find out when you are touring or singing at shows?
Yes, I do! They are:
The First Ladies of Disco http://firstladiesofdiscoshow.com/
Norma Jean Wright http://officialnormajeanwright.com/
Formally of CHIC http://formerlyofchic.com/
Have you ventured into singing more rock or pop or other genres?
Actually, I have done a little bit of everything. Because at the time of doing a lot of session work you had to be able to be flexible like singing rock, country and gospel. I love gospel. I kind of play around with all of it. I’m real open to experiment and learn! I’m still a student.
You’ve worked with a lot of high profile artists like Luther Vandross and Madonna. What’s it like to work with such artists? Do you feel like you are working with you own kind of creative people?
Well there were some I felt I was definitely on the same level and there were some for instance like Luther Vandross and of course Aretha Franklin that were like wow! They were people that I looked up to because they were so brilliant. Also, Chaka Khan I’ve worked with her on the road. But then with others at that time they were aspiring to become that level. When I was working with Madonna she was aspiring to become the Madonna that she became so each situation was different.
Were you star-struck working with people Luther Vandross and Aretha Franklin?
Not so much with Luther because he was so gifted so when I worked with him in the early days he was like a peer. So, I didn’t look at him that way but I was totally mesmerised by his talent. Aretha Franklin, I mean I listened to her to try and learn and be able to hopefully get into the music business. So yeah, she was someone who definitely was. She is the Queen B for me! She is amazing. I also looked up to Diana Ross.
Did you work with Diana Ross?
No, I didn’t but I did get a chance to meet her. Alfa Anderson and Lucy Martin got to work with her on the album. You know (starts singing) Upside Down and I’m Coming Out.
It was such a great era with such great songs. Some of these songs are older than some of the young kids today that love dancing and singing along to them. They are amazing songs.
Exactly that’s why I say good music never dies! I’ve gone to shows where we’ve performed and they don’t know who we are but they know the music. The young crowd were up dancing and it makes me feel really good that the music has really been tested. And those guys wrote hits. They wrote hits!
Interview by Anastasia Lambia
Be sure to catch this special event in Sydney at the Opera House and tickets from Metropolis Touring…