Interview with Nu-Soul/Nu-Pop diva Ava Cherry
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How was life growing up for you in Chicago culturally and what are your memories of the Regal Theater where you saw legendary artists like Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown? And did that inspired you to become a singer?
I grew up in Woodlawn, which is in the Southside of Chicago. My mom worked for Playboy and my father was a trumpeter who also worked for the Post Office for over fifty years. I inherited my dad’s love of music and growing up, music was an important part of my life.
I remember when I was a teenager every Sunday we used to go along to the Regal Theater, which was where all the kids in the neighborhood went to see all the artists they loved. Back then, we saw everyone Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Michael Jackson.
Then every other Sunday they gave a concert at least 8-10 of these acts were on the bill, and we just drunk it up and were screaming and loving it. It was fantastic and made me realize that I wanted to be an artist, someone on a stage whether it was film or music or whatever. I wanted to be an artist and gave me the impetus to learn music.
With your father and mother working hard for years to provide for their family, it appears you are very strong-minded and determined and do not care what people’s opinions are. How did you end up working for Hugh Hefner’s Playboy brand and ultimately embark on your modeling career?
My mom and dad were always very supportive of my modeling career and everything I did. My mother worked for Playboy in the corporate office, and that was how I was introduced to Playboy. However, I had girlfriends who were Bunnies and they introduced me.
I was underage, and they introduced me to Hefner who gave dinners every Sunday and showed the latest movies and they invited me along. And one day Hugh Hefner was sitting there playing backgammon which he loved and I was sitting there at his table. I was always sitting there, and during a round, I happened to say to someone I was getting ready to go home.
And he turned around and said to me you might as well move in as you’re here every night. He was a lovely man, a wonderful and very sweet, generous and a nice man. I enjoyed that relationship.
In the early seventies, you were introduced to Stevie Wonder who was dating your friend Coco. How did that experience increase your ambition further in being a performing artist?
I knew Stevie Wonder from way back. How I met him was my girlfriend Coco, who was dating Stevie Wonder. “She said I’m dating Stevie Wonder” and then she started taking me around Stevie and I got to be around many sessions and hear him creating.
It was just beautiful. And when I decided to go with David Bowie I mentioned it to him and he said that I should do it and that it was a good idea. He and became friends and remain friends until this day. He was a wonderful inspiration for me.
Is it true that you were introduced to David’s music by the manager of the Genesis nightclub where you worked?
It was an amazing story, just a month before we met for the very first time, the manager of Genesis, the club in New York I worked in gave me a copy of Ziggy Stardust. I took the album home and played it over and over again. Little did I realize that I was going to meet David Bowie just a month later.
What are your memories of your first meeting with David Bowie, and what were your initial thoughts about him?
When I met David in Genesis, my manager had told me about him and wanted me to meet him and was someone I’d never met before and was a very enigmatic and charismatic person on Ziggy Stardust the cover.
I finally met at him at this party that I helped to give for Stevie Wonder, at a club called Genesis and my manager came over to me and said: “guess who is in the room? He said, David Bowie.” I said what!! I couldn’t believe it like a month before that I had just seen his record. So he said I’m going to go over and introduce him to you.
And when he brings him over to me, his hair was tall and red and mine was blond and he walked over to me and said I love your hair. And I said I love your hair and that’s how we began our conversation.
He was a total gentleman, English suave and sophisticated and I was totally attracted to him. I was totally attracted to him, but I was totally attracted to him from his record.
How did David Bowie come to invite you to go on tour in Japan and can you remember what did he say?
Then we started talking and singing, and a bunch of people was singing. I think Stevie was singing and he said are you a singer? I wasn’t a professional singer yet but of course, I said yes, you never say no if you can do it, right.
He said: “I have something I want to talk to you about, a project.” So I said okay and then we met the next day and he introduced me to his manager Tony de Fries and I auditioned for him (David Bowie). I made the addition and he said I was going to tour Japan and it was going to be in a month’s time and where do we send the records. I said I’m going home to Chicago to say goodbye to my parents, so send them there and I’ll leave from there.
Unfortunately after giving up your job and everything to go on tour in Japan due to David being taken ill. What emotions did you experience after that?
So I quit my job, got rid of my apartment and I left New York and returned here to Chicago. Five days later I got a telegram saying the tour had been canceled and David was ill and they were really sorry and David would get back to me. But I was so sad about it, that I cried about it for a couple of days.
Then a friend invited you to join them in Monaco, in the south of France for a holiday. When you flew to France had you even thought about trying to find David Bowie, or was it a spur of a moment thing?
Then I remembered a friend of mine had asked me to Europe to Monaco. I’d never been to Europe before but I told them no. When that happened, I said I’ve got to get to Europe to find David.
That was all I was thinking in my mind. I was determined to make something happen rather than wait for it to happen. So I went to Europe at $200 and I took the ticket and flying into Monaco which is the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. It’s like a fairytale.
So I spent a couple of weeks there and then the guy I went to see, I didn’t really go to be with him. I liked him, but I didn’t like him as a lover or anything like that and I was miserable.
The whole time I was playing David’s record and thinking about David. I wanted to be with David and I parted company with the guy after three weeks and he sent me to Paris with one thousand Francs in my pocket.
When I got there I had my model’s book in my pocket he told me to check into a hotel in the Boulevard of St Germain and go to Café de Flore which is very famous for celebrities who went and you’ll meet people. I went there dressed very well and said does anyone here speak English, and this guy who was North African and very well dressed a representative from the Cerruti clothing house started talking to me.
He was gay and beautiful and wonderful and he said what are you doing and I said I’m a model and I’m looking for this guy David Bowie who I’m going to sing with but I just checked into a hotel. He said I can help you with an agency and you can stay at my house despite my not knowing the guy. He got me an agency, got me working, looked after me just like a brother. It was a wonderful experience and I was very happy working in Paris, where my fairytale began.
Eight months later and I’m a bar having a drink when I hear some David Bowie’s name and I ran down and ask a guy have you seen David Bowie? He told me he was across the street in Castel’s a very exclusive upscale club for the very rich.
I wasn’t in dripping in diamonds but I looked nice and I went running over there. It had a stairwell that went down and I saw David’s bodyguard Stuie and he saw me and said: “Ava what are you doing here?” I said I’m looking for David and so he goes oh my god, the guvnor as he calls him, is talking to someone. He looks up and sees me and goes: “Oh my God Ava, oh my goodness what are you doing here?”
I said you can’t just leave me like that, I loved you and was in love with you and you can’t just leave me high and dry after I left my job and quit New York. So he looked at me and I said I’ve been all this time looking for you in the last eight months. He said something to the women next to him who I think was trying to take him home.
He said: “Let’s go and we spent the most beautiful, romantic time at a recording studio in Deauville in the South of France and in a seventeenth center castle. It was the most beautiful experience and I felt so in love at that moment in time.
In the recording studio, we were doing little demos and things and trying to work out what we were going to do. We worked on bits and pieces that would go on The Astronettes album. And we worked on his stuff and at the old Marquee and I did a whole bunch of stuff. He put me forward I guess as to his protege. It was wonderful working with him.
Having managed to find David in Paris, this was the start of a friendship that led to a love affair as well as a professional relationship. Your life must have been transformed. How did you adapt to being in a relationship with one of the most innovative, charismatic and successful singers and songwriters of the seventies, as well as working alongside him as one of his backing singers?
All I can say is David was the first man I ever loved, he treated me wonderfully and lovingly. I loved him and I cared for him deeply and he was the first that I ever loved. I felt so close I can’t even tell you how I felt at that time.
You and David came from different backgrounds and embarked on what must have been like an amazing roller coaster ride of an adventure together. How do you describe the chemistry and synergy between you both and your attitude to the bohemian life, music and fashion world you lived in and were part of?
When I first met David, he didn’t do drugs he was a wine drinker, maybe smoked a spliff but he didn’t do drugs. That happened towards the middle to the end of my relationship with him.
Prior to rerecording his Young Americans album, you inspired David Bowie to visit the Apollo Theatre in Harlem where he discovered Luther Vandross and Carlos Alomar and they like you became backing vocalists in his band. How good were those years working with David Bowie during his ‘Blue Eyed’ or ‘Plastic Soul’ era and what are your best memories of these days?
Then David said what about me doing a soul album? Where can we go so I said we need to go to the Apollo to get a band. So he sent me ahead. We had already talked to the Apollo people and somehow had hooked up with Carlos Alomar.
Then one day we pulled up outside the Apollo in a limousine and we got out, he had his red hair and I had my blond hair and all these black people are going who is that? David Bowie. Who is David Bowie and they were shocked at what he looked like, but he looked great? It was an eye-opener. We went on that day and there were The Temptations, The Spinners, and Richard Pryor and Carlos Alomar’s band Listen to My Brother.
When we went backstage and met everyone afterward. When we met will Carlos he said we’ll meet you at the studio because by then David had decided wanted to work with Carlos.
When Carlos Alomar arrived at the studio with his wife Robin Clark, they brought Luther with him. That’s how we met Luther Vandross and when David heard Luther’s voice he wanted to work with Luther.
You recorded “People From Bad Homes” as Ava Cherry And The Astronettes in the mid-1970s. What’s the story behind the recording the album which David produced and features some of his songs?
David started recording with me and wanting to produce me. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t let me work with any other producer even though I begged him. We started working on Astronettes and we got bits and pieces done. Then all of a sudden the negative stuff with his management company and about his money being stolen came out.
He said; “listen we’re going to finish this record,” and I said what about anybody getting the masters? He said: “I’m gonna put them in my vault and nobody’s gonna get these masters. I’m gonna put a safe place” until this stuff I got to go through is over.”
They were demos not finished tracks, I want to let everyone know that. They were bits and pieces that somehow they sing together to make it sound like a finished album.
I was very upset by that when Tony de Fries finally released it about seven years later and made a bunch of money because David’s name was on it as a producer. It was wonderful working with David on these things if we had been able to finish them. I’m disappointed we weren’t able to finish them.
Tell me about the making of your debut album ‘Ripe’ album and working with Gil Askey, Bobby “Electronic” Eli of M.F.S.B. and The Salsoul Orchestra and the legendary Curtis Mayfield who owned the Curtom label.
So when we broke up I came back to Chicago and started working with Curtis Mayfield. First I started working with Gil Askey the musical director of Motown and Diana Ross for a while. He was a great producer but he had a problem with me because I had worked with David Bowie.
He was always razzing me about it and finally, I was really upset and went to Mark Stewart who was his manager and said I want to work with someone else because Gil isn’t happy with me because I’ve worked with David Bowie and it’s not a great relationship. So he put me with Curtis directly.
I got on like a house on fire with Curtis Mayfield a brilliant producer a wonderful human being and I just loved working with him and felt happy working with him. He had such a sweet temperament and I loved working with him on “Love Is Good News” and “You Never Loved Me” which are both Curtis songs. It’s an album which I loved making and still love.
Now I own my masters as of January 2020 and we’re doing a film about my life with David Bowie. It’s beginning to shoot in June 2020 in Canada, France, and England and is a coming of age story about my life with David Bowie from I was seventeen years old. Look out for that it’s going to be incredible, and let everyone know who I was, and what I was and why I was there as well as loving David and being his woman.
Ripe!!! is an oft-overlooked hidden gem of an album that features tracks of the quality of “I Just Can’t Shake The Feeling” and “You Never Loved Me,” which features on Disco Demands Volume 6 which has been compiled and edited by Al Kent and will be released on BBE. What’re your favorite tracks on the album?
Ripe!!! is an album I enjoyed making, and my favorite track is “Love Is Good News” and “You Never Loved Me” second.
The followup album “Streetcar Named Desire, was released on Capitol and make a change in style. How did you feel about this?
Then I went off on my own again and I went off to Capitol and we worked on “Streetcar Named Desire” with the great Bob Etsy who worked with Donna Summer, Cher and wrote so many top artists and has just died. I had a wonderful relationship with him.
He was a great dance music producer and I loved working on that album. I worked with a white group Zoo Drive who were incredible musicians and played funkily and we had an incredible record.
They spent a lot of money on that album, but unfortunately, when they released it Bobby Columby who was with Blood, Sweat and Tears who was pushing us saw the vision but the rest of the company didn’t have black promotion and play. And they didn’t have my picture on the album and people thought it was a white group.
Then when they sent them man picture they stopped playing some of the songs like “I Love To Be Touched.” It was all a bad drama and there seemed to be a lot of political stuff going on the whole time I was signed to Capitol Records. I was signed by Don Zimmerman, the President, but they didn’t know what to do with me or with most of the recordings I did. They promoted me wrong or they didn’t promote me at all.
And after spending all that money to record it. With “Streetcar Named Desire” they sent a lot of money on the album which was ahead of its time. Sadly, it was all that corporate mix up and malfunction which disappoints me.
How would you describe David Bowie, who did so much to champion black music at a time when rock and pop were the most popular musical genres?
David didn’t have a racist bone in his body and loved all black people and black music. He loved Aretha, Marvin Gaye, James Brown and loved everybody and all black music. That was why he wanted to do it and it was a great experience.
Maybe people didn’t even like that I was with him that I was black, but he didn’t care. He was like you don’t like it too bad. I care about this woman and she’s with me and that’s it.
You’re now signed to Pepper Gomez’s Wake Up Music label and have just released a cover of David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance.’ What’s next from you will you touring or playing live in the UK?
I met Pepper Gomez of Wake Up! Music and we decided to work together and we’re having a wonderful relationship. We released Let’s Dance as a single, which I performed at the Philly Loves Bowie concert on Saturday the ‘11th’ January. Philly was fitting as that’s where we began Young Americans and performed at The Tower.
Coming right behind Let’s Dance is a song I wrote, I Testify In The Name Of Love and that will be my first Ava Cherry vibe. It’s just me. My music is world music and I want to reach as many people as possible in love and peace and joy as I can. I’m looking forward to the new music coming out.
However, David Bowie is in my heart and my spirit forever and I will continue to tribute him. He’s in my karma and I will continue to tribute him for the rest of my life and it was an honor to appear at Philly Loves Bowie and sing my new single Let’s Dance, which is the latest chapter in my story.
We’ve also got a film coming out about my life with David Bowie and we’re going to shoot in June in Canada, in France, and in England about my life and how I saw working with David Bowie. So lots of exciting things coming up.
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