Whether it’s stoking the embers of nostalgia or symbolizing a simpler, sparklier time, the demand for disco is still going strong today. In the hearts of many, the sound of disco is found in the soulful singing of the women who provided the timeless voices that defined the era.
Linda Clifford is one of those definitive voices, with her impact on the disco scene and influence on the music industry continuing for generations.
Known for her phenomenal voice and electrifying stage presence, Linda took the music world by storm with her disco remake of “If My Friends Could See Me Now”, which shot up to #1 on the dance charts. Her songs have seen a total of 60 weeks at #1 on the Billboard charts, with hits including “Runaway Love,” “Gypsy Lady,” “Red Light” (from the Grammy-nominated Fame soundtrack), “Shoot Your Best Shot,” and “It Don’t Hurt No More.”
Today she is as passionate about the music as ever, performing solo as well as touring with the First Ladies of Disco alongside Martha Wash, Evelyn “Champagne” King, and Norma Jean Wright. Her recorded music is finding a fresh audience too, with the recent reissue of four of her classic albums: If My Friends Could See Me Now (1977), Let Me Be Your Woman (1979), Here’s My Love (1979), and I’m Yours (1980), on Blixa Sounds.
Through all of her accomplishments and landmark moments, Linda continues to radiate humility, kindness, and most of all, love. Like her music, her words bring a smile to your face and a warmth to your heart. It was such a pleasure to speak with her, and to sense through her stories the essence of what makes disco so special: the people who love it.
First I want to say congrats on your huge reissue, that’s so awesome!
That’s so exciting, I’m just so thrilled about that. I keep posting it on my social media like “Oh my God look what happened!” They did such a tremendous job on it. All the CDs sound so wonderful, it’s like they’re brand new and they’ve just been released. The sound is so up to date and fabulous, I just love what they did. Blixa really did a good job, I’m happy.
What does it feel like to look back on all that you’ve accomplished?
I tell you, it’s amazing. At my age – it’s not like I’m a spring chicken any more – I’ve been doing this for such a long time, and when you get really busy and you’re working, you don’t really think about some of the stuff that happened. But honestly, I think finally I’m starting to become really amazed at some of the wonderful things that have happened, and some of my accomplishments. I’m so thrilled that I’m part of a display at the African American Museum at the Smithsonian.
Going into a place like Studio 54 and hearing your music play and watching the reaction of the crowd – that kind of stuff really shakes you to your core.
Wow that’s amazing, it must be surreal.
Yeah! I’m like “Oh my god I have to go!” and I haven’t been there yet, so people keep sending me pictures of it saying “Look! Here you are!” So that’s a huge thing for me, and the fact that I’m leaving tomorrow to go play Las Vegas which is also pretty cool. You know, to be working quite a bit at this stage in my life is just tremendous, so I’m really very happy and very excited about what’s to come.
That’s so exciting! Did you ever take a break from the music, or have you just kept going?
I did take a break when my children were small; when it was time for them to go to school, I wanted to be at home. I didn’t want to be on the road. I didn’t want them to be road warriors, you know what I mean? So I took a break from the industry.
But what I did, was I started doing jingles here in Chicago. Chicago was the “jingle-town” for such a long time. I would put them on the bus in the morning and then I’d get in the car, drive downtown, do my voiceovers and my jingles, and I’d be back home in time to get them off the bus. That was an awesome thing to have available to me, I’m just so grateful for that. Because a lot of times in this crazy business you take a break and there’s nothing for you to do.
But that was something that was open to me, and I tried to take advantage of it by keeping the family going and helping out wherever I could. I wanted to be a good mom, that was the most important thing to me.
That’s so special, that’s wonderful that you were able to make that happen. So when they were grown up and moving out you decided to start singing and go on the road again?
Yeah, that’s when I went back! Everybody went off to college and it was just my husband, and I was like, “What the heck am I going to do?” My husband is a drummer so he’s been working all these years and playing, and we kind of talked about it and we just decided, “Let’s just go back full force”. I worked some very small venues here in town, in fact I worked Davenport’s, and I put together a show that was a tribute to Nancy Wilson. So I did a Nancy Wilson tribute, just to be able to sing again, and to let people know that there’s other types of music besides just disco.
You know a lot of people who do disco get labeled, and then they think well they’re disco singers that’s all they can do, but that is not the case with many people who are on this side of this business. So I did that. I worked many clubs, I did a tour on the West Coast, which was very successful I must say, and then this amazing opportunity opened up. James Arena wrote a book First Ladies of Disco and he interviewed 32 people who started the disco movement that were stars in that area. I’m so excited to say I’m the first interview he did. And he asked “Do you know so & so?” and I gave him the numbers of some people I knew, and he went on and ended up with 32 incredible singers. So now as I result of that, aside from doing my own thing, I’m part of this amazing troupe – it’s called the First Ladies of Disco. It’s myself and Martha Wash from the Weathergirls and then we pull in special guests. At once time we had Evelyn “Champagne” King, we now have Norma Jean Wright from Chic.
That is so much fun!
Yeah, it’s amazing! We have such a great time. It’s a great way to continue working and doing what you love. So that’s what I’m doing!
Are you mostly doing one-off shows, or are you on the road often? How does it feel different than touring back in the day?
I think the difference is at this stage in my life and in my career, I can pick and choose a little bit more of what I want to do. And I don’t have to be on a bus five days a week, jumping in and out, trying to do stadiums and that kind of thing. I really kind of like that because as I said I leave tomorrow, I’ve been working feverishly like a lunatic for the last two months, so after the Vegas show I’m actually going fly to LA and spend a week with my daughter with my feet up. So I’ll get to see some friends; I just spoke with Mary Wilson from the Supremes, and Freda Payne, and some of the girls that I haven’t seen for a while and we’ll just hang out and do lunches – you know, a “lady lunch” kind of thing. I’m looking forward to that. Back in the day when you’re touring you don’t can’t do that kind of stuff. You don’t get to see anything, or go to museums, or anything that’s happening, but now you can do that a little bit. So I’m really grateful that I made it to this age.
The music of that era was really quite happy, it was uptempo, you put on your very best clothes, you went out and just had a great time with your friends. And that’s something that’s kind of lacking today
Well you worked really hard to get to this stage, and that’s amazing to still be able to do what you love… it just sounds fun.
Yeah, it’s really, really great. And I think the same thing with most of the other ladies who have been doing this for so long, they’re so grateful that yes, people still want to come and hear me sing. When I hear from a fan I’m like “Oh my god I love you” – it’s so great. They often write to me and I try to make it a point to write back, especially on Facebook and Twitter. I’m not the most savvy person on the internet… but I do write back to them, and so many people are writing now because they want to order the CDs because I autograph them. They’re like, “We don’t want to wait until they come out on Amazon, we want you to send them!” and I’m like “Okay!”
That’s so nice of you!
It’s so much fun, I’m really just so happy about all of this new found… I don’t know if “fame” is the right word… this joyfulness that is coming out of these new releases, the remastered records. They’re just incredible, they’ve seem to have brought back interest in a lot of the acts that were kind of being left behind. You know a lot of times after you reach 30 years old the record companies are like “Who? What?” and the music industry has changed so much. So I just feel really good about everything.
That’s wonderful to hear! And it shows that there’s still a love for the way that the music industry was, and that sort of pure soul that was in the music at that time.
I think that the real thing is too, that they’re seeing it. If you turn on your TV and watch anything for a half hour you’re going to hear a lot of the old acts that were out there. In the commercials you’re hearing is music from the ’70s and ’80s, because people really sang. And this is not a slap against rap, I know that there’s a special talent there to be able to do that, but if you want singing, if you want a melody, if you want to be able to sing along, those are the things that people are starting to get back into. So I’m really excited about that.
You grew up singing? Did you know that was always what you wanted to do?
Pretty much, I think from the time I was four or five years old I was singing. I just felt that it was going to be my job, so to speak. I wanted to do that, and the family wanted me to be a school teacher and they said, “No, you have to go to school, you have to be a teacher.” I went to school for a little bit and I tried it and I said, “You know, this is not for me.” You know, college is not for everybody, and I just felt like I really had to follow what I was feeling, and that’s what I did.
And that worked out.
It did work out. It took a while, but it worked out. It’s so funny, when I used to do so many TV shows that are no longer on, and people would interview me and they would go “You’re an overnight sensation” and I’m thinking “Overnight! If you only knew!”
Isn’t that funny! They’re not following you along while you’re learning and you’re growing.
Exactly! People just don’t get it, I don’t know.
Did you have like a moment when you were like “I made it”?
I had one moment where I thought “This is really happening!” I never really felt like “Wow, I made it.” I don’t think I ever got to that point. But I saw things happening and heard my music everywhere and I thought, “What is going on, that’s me!” I remember at one point walking out of my apartment and looking up and there was a billboard with my face on it, and I said, “Oh my god, I know that girl!”
That’s kind of intense!
Yes, absolutely, it made me shake all over, just amazing. And going into a place like Studio 54 and hearing your music play and watching the reaction of the crowd – that kind of stuff really shakes you to your core. It makes you think “Wow, I did something right.”
Yeah, and we question ourselves all the time whether we’re doing something right.
Exactly! Because no matter what you’re doing and what career you’ve chosen, you do question yourself and you think, “Is this the right thing to do, should I ask for the raise now, what am I doing?” You do question yourself a lot. Even in the music business I think people do that. I guess at some point you realize, “Okay, then this was the right thing to do?” and I made it to that point – Yeah!
How did it start out that you got into disco? Did you know what you were getting into and that disco was where you were headed?
Well, actually no, it wasn’t that I planned a road to head in that direction. I think what happened was, I was in the studio, we were recording, we’re doing all this stuff, and somebody mentioned a particular song and I thought, “No we can’t do that, a Broadway musical tune, that’s not going to work, you can’t make that disco.” And they were like, “She’s dumb, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, we’re going to do this anyway,” and they did. They did the track and I heard it and said “Oh my god, that’s my song!” so that’s how we ended up with “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” That was the beginning. That was the beginning that led me down the disco path.
What happened with that song was amazing, it took me all around the world. I did the Venice Music Festival, I did all these tremendous shows in Europe that hundreds of thousands of people, millions even, were involved in or got to see, so that was a moment where it was kind of “Look where you are!”
Wow, that is amazing. Did you have a favorite concert that you did at that time?
Oh my gosh, a favorite concert… that’s a hard one. It’s hard to choose because there were so many incredible venues that I played. But I really think the Venice Music Festival stands out to me because I made so many friends, it was like the who’s-who of music and the music industry, and that’s where I met Sylvester and Martha Wash and Chic and so many other people in the industry, we were all performing on that show. The show was actually filmed and it was like a 3 or 4 day event, there was no way you could sit through all those acts in one day. That one really stands out for me.
Did you guys have a feeling like you were a part of something special?
Yeah, it was like, “We’re kind of making history, this is just amazing. How on Earth is this happening?” Because it was not just acts from the US, but acts all over the world who were invited to perform for this. There was a limited number that they would invite from each country and to be selected was a huge honor, so that was really quite special. As I said, even now even after all these many years I still think about that. I can’t speak for the other acts that were on it, I just know how I feel.
That really sounds incredible. What do you think it was about the atmosphere of disco that drew so many people to it?
I really think the fact that it changed so many things. For instance, people would get dressed up again. Suddenly it’s the weekend and I’m going dancing, I’m going to go out and dance, and have a good time. The music of that era was really quite happy, it was uptempo, you put on your very best clothes, you went out and just had a great time with your friends. And that’s something that’s kind of lacking today because you kind of worry about, “Am I going to be safe here?” A lot of the music has very angry lyrics. There’s a lot of anger in some of the music now, and it’s different from 40 years ago, the kind of stuff that we did. So to me, I think that was the main thing: people felt good with disco music. It’s just something that made them feel good, and who doesn’t want to feel that way?
Yeah absolutely! So that must have been a lot of what you enjoyed about singing disco, that it makes you feel good and is helping other people feel good?
Yeah! And relating to the audience and getting to meet the people who love your music and love what you’re standing for. Just being on the stage and making contact with people, that’s an awesome thing. You’re making contact with all sorts of people. It’s not about race, it’s not about money, it’s just about the music. And that has always been the most important thing: having it be about the music.
What was the hardest part of being a professional singer?
I would say it was just being on the road for such an extended period. After a while your body just says it needs a rest because you’re literally just going from one end of the country to the other and in between and all over the place, and somehow the booking agents never took into consideration that there’s a time that you’re driving and you cannot reach the other side of the country in 6 hours! So you know, trying to prepare for these major trips, packing, unpacking, the hotels, that kind of thing. So that wears on you, it’s very difficult. Everybody doesn’t get to have the bus or the travel arrangements that some of these acts have now. We certainly did not have that kind of Dolly Parton bus. It was like, “It’s your turn to stay up and keep the driver awake!”
Who did you tour with most of the time?
I toured with Eddie Kendricks who was formerly with The Temptations, I toured with Teddy Pendergrass, myself, my own group, Curtis Mayfield of course. So there was a lot of touring going on, and not a lot of money. We were out there, trying to promote our stuff, to let people know that you’re a real person, “Here I am, please go buy my music!”
Those were some of the great people that I got to work with, that was really incredible. When I was with Teddy we played the Lincoln Center in New York, which was incredible. Oh my gosh, there were so many wonderful rooms, and engagements, and cities, and towns where we got to meet people and really connect with them. That was a great time in my life.
I also read that you’ve been a coach for stage presence and performance?
I did that for quite a while and I really enjoyed it. A lot of young people will come out, and if they don’t have 50 people dancing behind them or all this craziness going on, there’s no real performance. You want your audience to really get involved and to enjoy what they’re seeing so you have to learn to perform. A lot of people will come out and kind of stand there and they don’t know what to do unless somebody instructs them on how to do it. For a while I was doing that at Roosevelt University, and I was actually doing it my home initially for contestants in pageants and that kind of thing. Helping them to select the right songs for their voice because a lot of times people hear a song and go, “Oh I’m going to do that in my pageant” and I’m thinking “You can’t sing that song. That is not right for you.” If it’s not the right song for your voice and you go out and really force it you can hurt yourself and really make some bad judgment calls. So I tried to help as many of these young women as I could. I had been a former Miss New York so I know the stress of walking out on that stage in a pageant. My daughter was in the Miss Illinois pageant and she was first runner up to Miss Illinois, and she is a tremendous singer herself. It’s a lot of pressure, it’s a lot of work, I know a lot of people think it’s putting on a bathing suit and a dress and walking out, but they have no idea what’s involved in these pageants. Special diets and exercises for certain parts of your body and that kind of thing, so you have to put that much thought into your performance as well.
I’d love to hear about your experience living in Chicago too, the energy of the city and what you enjoy about living here.
First of all, I have to say that the first time I saw Lake Shore Drive, I knew I was not leaving. I fell in love with this city. I still love it. My husband and I have been married – it will be 40 years this November – and our reception was at McCormick Place. So there are so many venues and areas of the city that are special to us. My son is an archaeologist and part of what he did with his work was work at the museum. Those are special moments for us, so Chicago is definitely home. I am so grateful to the people here. It’s always so nice, when I perform here people come out and they’re like “We love you” and I’m like “Oh my God I love you too!” I’ve worked Market Days, Taste of Lincoln Avenue, Ribfest, all of those wonderful events that go on here. So I’m just thrilled about this city.
It’s safe to say the city is thrilled about you too. Thank you Linda!
Blixa Sounds’ reissues of four of Linda Clifford’s LPs from Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label – If My Friends Could See Me Now (1977), Let Me Be Your Woman (1979), Here’s My Love (1979), and I’m Yours (1980) – are out now.