Sound & Vision: Genya Ravan

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Welcome back to Sound & Vision, the Rumpus profile series that spotlights the creative talents of those working behind the scenes in the music industry. It’s my true honor to talk with Genya Ravan, a pioneering singer, producer, music executive, and radio host. In the early ’60s Ravan formed Goldie and the Gingerbreads, the first ever all-female rock band to be signed to a major label. Ravan went on to front the rock-jazz fusion band Ten Wheel Drive, record as a solo artist, and become the first female independent producer, for The Dead Boys, Ronnie Spector, and Tiny Tim, among others.

After overcoming both addiction and cancer, Ravan returned to recording in 2010 with the release of Undercover, a collection of her favorite cover songs. She followed up with Cheesecake Girl, an album of autobiographical songs paired with her memoir Lollipop Lounge: Memoirs of A Rock and Roll Refugee, and For Fans Only, a collection of previously unreleased material. Ravan also resumed touring, playing last year’s CBGB festival and selling out New York City’s Iridium. She continues to record and perform, and hosts two monthly Sirius/XM radio shows for Little Steven’s Underground Garage: “Chicks and Broads,” which features the often forgotten music of female artists from the ’50s to the present, and “Goldie’s Garage,” which showcases new and unsigned artists.

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The Rumpus: I understand you were born, in Poland, Genyusha Zelkowitz. You came to the US at age eight with your parents and your sister, the only of your relatives to survive the Holocaust. In your memoir, Lollipop Lounge, you said, “No longer a prisoner of labor camps, I found myself instead, in my new country, a prisoner of loneliness.” Was music a big part of overcoming that feeling of loneliness?

Genya Ravan: Absolutely. My learning came from the streets, and my English came from music, from the radio. It came from doo-wop, and from Mary Wells and Etta James and Ray Charles.

Rumpus: When you were singing along with these musicians on the radio, did you think, I want to do that someday?

Ravenpic2Ravan: No. Never, ever, ever. I never thought of becoming a star or even of singing. Everything for me was just putting one foot in front of the other, just surviving. Before I started singing I had been doing “cheesecake” modeling and making a lot of money. In those days, a chick who’s sixteen making a hundred bucks an hour—come on, I’d like to make a hundred bucks an hour now!

But the thing was, I was nude in these pictures. And I was still a virgin, and I could have ended up in a sleazy place. My singing started as a fluke: I got drunk at the Lollipop Lounge in Brooklyn, jumped on stage, and then was asked to join a band, The Escorts.

Rumpus: Do you remember the first time you heard yourself on the radio?

Ravan: After I joined The Escorts I got a call from the record company asking me to do record hops in Detroit where Richard Perry, the bandleader, was going to college. I was in the cab driving into town from the airport and there was my song. By this time I was going by the name “Goldie Zelkowitz” and the DJ said, “That’s Goldie Zelkowitz! She’s going to be at such-and-such tonight with Marvin Gaye and blah-blah-blah!” I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that they said my name, and I said to the driver, “That’s me!” And he said, “Yeah, right.” That started it all.

Rumpus: How did you come up with the idea to put together an all-female band?

Ravan: Let’s put it this way: When I started Goldie and the Gingerbreads, my thought wasn’t Let’s get rich! It was, Hey! This will be different! I’d met Ginger Bianco at a gig. She was a drummer, and when I saw her play, I said to myself, “Hey! I just met another punk!” I’d never seen an all-girl band before, never heard of one, but when I met Ginger I thought, why not? But we quickly found out there were no other serious chick musicians out there. We had to go through a lot of girls, and it took years to put together the rest of the band.

Watch Goldie and Gingerbreads performing their hit song “Can’t You Hear My Heart Beat” on the British TV show Not Only But Also—Ringo Starr got them this gig:

Rumpus: How did audiences react to your early shows?

Ravan: You’d see posters for us that said, “Girls! Girls! Girls!” But then they’d hear us, and they would freak out. They couldn’t believe we could actually play! The best part was after the show when guys would try to help Ginger with her trap cases—you know, Ginger is gorgeous; I mean she looked like a very young Sophia Loren—and she’d say, “No, I got it.” And they’d say, “Let us help!” And you could hear them groaning, then Ginger would say, “Forget about it,” and she’d lift the cases right up and make them feel so small. The band was tight. When a guy would come over and ask me out to breakfast, this would be about 4 in the morning, I’d say, “Yeah, we’d love to” [Laughs].

Rumpus: How did you get signed to your first record deal?

Raven_pic3Ravan: Back in those days, we were doing five shows a night with twenty-minute breaks. We’d stay in one place for weeks at a time, and we got to know the club owners. We were becoming the talk of New York. One night we were playing the Peppermint Lounge and Ahmet Ertegun, of Atlantic Records, happened to be in the audience. Pretty soon we were signed, and Mike Jeffries started managing us and then we were on our way to Europe to tour. We got our first tour with the Stones in 1963.

Rumpus: The band toured with the era’s biggest acts—not only The Stones, but also The Kinks, The Animals, The Yardbirds and The Hollies. But then Goldie and the Gingerbreads broke up, in late ’67. What happened?

Ravan: Relationships in the band were becoming strained. I wanted to do something different, and I was broke. We made more money before we started touring abroad because I didn’t need all the managers, roadies, and agents. When we played at Air Force bases you couldn’t even spend a dollar. I’d come back and buy a new car with cash.

Rumpus: So you basically started over. You dropped the nickname Goldie and started calling yourself Genya, formed Ten Wheel Drive, which had a very different sound, and then got signed by Clive Davis as a solo artist.

Ravenpic4Ravan: Yes, Clive Davis came to one of my rehearsals and signed me up. The problem was that when he came we where playing rock ’n’ roll, and by the time I got into the studio I had gone in another direction. Bob Dylan had growth and went electric, but no one dropped him. The Stones started doing disco, and no one dropped them. But with me, what Clive wanted was a replacement of Janis Joplin, so I got dropped.

Rumpus: How did that experience lead you to start producing?

Ravan: After Clive dropped me, I moved to California and wound up on ABC Dunhill. I played “You’re No Good” for the producer, but they said they could find me something better. A year later, out comes Linda Ronstadt with that very song!

That’s when I realized that if I wanted the creative control, I would have to start producing. But I was so tired of reinventing myself musically, so battered, that I didn’t record or produce my own music until I was able to sign with 20th Century Fox for Urban Desire. Musically, that album was exactly what I wanted to do, and we had the best campaign for it.

Watch a clip from New York City’s Channel 5 profile of Ravan, featuring the original recording band from her album Urban Desire:

Rumpus: Tell me more about that.

Ravan: Well, I had been living in LA for a while, and I saw that all the posters and billboards for male groups had women’s tits and assess all over the album covers. I wanted to do the same thing, but from my point of view as a woman. So I told my manager I wanted a guy on my record covering up his “privates” with a caption saying something like “he’s getting off on Genya Ravan’s new Urban Desire LP.” We actually went even further, bringing in a French model who had starred in pornos. We had him pose like he was jerking off behind the cover, and there was the campaign. Back in New York, I was walking down 57th Street and I saw it on the side of a bus and I was so thrilled! It was everywhere. Once, I was on the street and I overheard a woman comment, “Oh my! Would you look at that! Disgusting!” Mission accomplished.

Rumpus: You followed that up with another successful, self-produced album, …And I Mean It!, and then you decided to start your own label.

Raven_pic5Ravan: With …And I Mean It! I was neck and neck with Bruce Springsteen in radio play, but then the record company folded and gave my contract to RCA. The people at RCA were corporate and non-personal. In the late ’70s and early ’80s everything got mass-produced. They wanted everything to sound just like the thing that sold before. I knew I’d have to leave to do my own thing. The inspiration for my label, Polish Records—Polish, like the nationality—was the aggressive, creative, and profitable British punk label Stiff, which put out albums by Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Richard Hell, and others. For Polish, I went out and found the talent. We really pushed Polish’s lineup and successfully sought distribution deals.

Rumpus: Why did the label go down?

Ravan: There was too much drug action in that office. We were being watched by the DEA and I was being wiretapped at my office and my apartment. My lawyer advised that I leave immediately and shut down the label.

Rumpus: Wow. I understand your addiction had become pretty bad at that point.

Ravan: Yes, and it stayed bad for a while.

Rumpus: You started getting clean in 1990, and then you were diagnosed with lung cancer. The doctor gave you only a few months to live, but you pursued a second opinion. The treatment worked, and your sobriety stuck. As I think about your solo catalogue, I’m struck by the recurring themes in your music: hunger, need, chance, and survival. Can you tell me a bit about how sobriety has affected you as an artist?

Ravan: I was afraid to sing for fifteen years. I had so associated performing with drinking and drugging. They had given me a character, the badass who ate nails for breakfast. Drinking gave me fight.

Rumpus: How did you move past that?

Ravan: I went to Canada to perform a year after sobriety and I slipped. I had to stop singing until I knew that alcohol and drugs were no longer a part of my life, so I didn’t sing for many years. Then, after a long absence from singing, I made my first recording in 2007. I did the lead and all the background singing. I had to re-introduce myself, in my own head, to sing again. You know, start from the beginning. It’s all about feelings.

Listen to that never-before released recording of Ravan singing, “God Only Knows” (iPad/iPhone users click here):

 

Ravan: This song is where my soul lives, my childhood roots. Later on, I found out this song was also Marvin Gaye’s childhood favorite. I flipped out when I read that.

Rumpus: You’ve put out a lot of songs that are more directly autobiographical, and reference the various chapters and experiences of your life. In the liner notes for your song, “202 Rivington Street,” which was recorded live at The Bottom Line in 1981 and released last year on your album For Fans Only, you ask listeners to forgive the flubs in your performance, which you attribute to drinking and drugging. But what I hear isn’t so much the mistakes as the raw emotional honesty. It’s like you’re saying, “This is where I am. This is where I’ve been.” Where are you today?

Hear Ravan perform that live version of “202 Rivington Street”:

 

Ravan: Now, when I perform, the thought of drinking and drugging never enters my mind. I live and love life, not booze and [being] under a rock. When I wrote that song I was pretty much bottoming, and I was at Media Sound Studios on 57th Street—I used to live across the street, and I was looking at my life, like what was I doing, where was I heading—and as I wrote that song I went through the different stages of my life. For example, the line “one nighters in cities I don’t remember,” that didn’t come from Rivington, but I came from Rivington.

So many people had said to me at some point, “You know, you’ve really come a long way,” and I thought, “Yeah I came from 202 Rivington Street, a fourth-floor tenement and all the goings-on of the Lower East Side in the ’50s.” I had come a long way from there to where I was when I wrote that song, and since then I’ve come a long way past that point, to where I am today. And I’m still going. I wouldn’t change a thing.

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Bonus Material

1. That’s Ravan singing a cameo on Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle” (Reed also sang the duet “Aye Co’lorado” with Ravan on Urban Desire):

2. While Ravan was on hiatus from recording, Jay Z sampled her version of “Whipping Post” for his song “Oh My God”:

3. Watch Stana Katic’s portrayal of Ravan in the movie CBGB, which Ravan praises… though she says it’s been a bit dialed down from the real thing:

 

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This interview has been edited and condensed. If you’d like to recommend someone for “Sound & Vision,” drop Allyson a line here

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All photographs courtesy of Genya Ravan.


Allyson McCabe writes and produces stories about music for NPR, The Brooklyn Rail and others. More from this author →