An interview with Evelyn “Champagne” King
By Gregg Shapiro
More than 40 years into her music, Evelyn “Champagne” King has lost none of her effervescence. Perhaps best known for the 1977 dance music classic “Shame,” the single was released just a year before disco music reached its peak with commercial crossover acts including the Village People, Chic and Donna Summer, and others. These days King continues to be one of the genres most active and visible performers. Whether recording and performing on her own, or touring as one of the First Ladies of Disco with Linda Clifford and Martha Wash, King’s crown shines as bright as ever. King joins other disco divas, including Thelma Houston, Musique, Yvonne Elliman, Rose Royce and France Joli, on the inaugural Ultimate Disco Cruise (www.UltimateDiscoCruise.com), sailing from Fort Lauderdale to Key West and Cozumel, Mexico, from February 14-19, 2019. King was kind enough to take a break from her busy schedule to answer a few questions.
Gregg Shapiro: Evelyn, for the uninitiated, can you please explain where the “Champagne” in your name comes from?
Evelyn “Champagne” King: “Champagne” came from Bubbles which is my family nickname. My mom gave it to me as a baby. She says I used to blow a lot of spit bubbles [laughs]. Bubbles was already there; “Champagne” was added when I was starting in the music business. They were trying to figure out a name to go with Evelyn King. Mom and dad, and (Theodore) T. Life, who discovered me, decided “Champagne” sounds more fitting. Because Bubbles sounds like a stripper [laughs].
GS: Last year, 2017, was the 40th anniversary of the release of your smash hit debut single “Shame,” a song that was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame in 2004. All these years later, what does that song mean to you?
ECK: To me it means longevity. The word itself [laughs] applies in every aspect of our lives. It applies to me more as being recognized. My gay fans were the first to recognize the song. When I went to (gay disco) Jason’s in Boston, I knew it broke then. That was it. My gay fans made sure that Evelyn “Champagne” King was on the map. The (song)writers John Fitch and Ruben Cross, and the producer T. Life who discovered me, brought the song to me. Once it became a hit, I knew that I was able to do what God had given me, which was sing. That’s always what I wanted to do.
GS: When “Shame” was released you were just a teenager.
ECK: When I sang it, I was 15. It went to number one when I was 16.
GS: Wow! As someone who grew up in the music industry, what was the best advice you were given by an adult?
ECK: To be myself. That was from my mom. She always said, “Don’t be anyone else, be yourself, and always remember that you are no bigger than anyone else. You can be a star for the moment, but stars do fall.” She told me that in the back of my tour bus. I was crying like a baby because I was a little nervous. I was getting ready to tour with Parliament, Sun, The Bar-Kays and The Gap Band, and I was just a kid. She said, “If you don’t want to stay in this, you can just as easily say no and we can turn this bus around.” I cried and said, “I love to sing [laughs].” She gave me the best advice, to be myself, and I have always been.
GS: Now, as an adult, what’s the best advice you would give to a teenager experiencing success in the entertainment industry?
ECK: As I’ve learned and am still learning, it’s a dog-eat-dog business. It’s not as easy and cookie-cutter as they might think. They need someone to be by their side; to watch their funds, to learn the business. That’s what I would tell them; and to be themselves and be true to themselves.
GS: After many years of being relegated to the underground, and being kept alive by the gay community, dance music has undergone a huge resurgence in popularity. As a dance music legend, what does that mean to you?
ECK: I can honestly say that for me, it never really left. It’s just now it’s coming back full-circle. They’re learning about where it started. It means a lot. There’s more than just Evelyn. There were so many before me. We’ve lost quite a few of them already – Vickie Sue Robinson, Donna Summer. The icons that started disco. My producer who discovered me said, “I never recorded a disco artist. You are a dance artist.” He considered “Shame” to be dance, not disco. It was just (released) around the disco era.
GS: You mentioned your gay fans. Was “Shame” when you first become aware of your gay following?
ECK: Yes, that was the first song for me that went gold. They recognized the lyrics as well as the music. The writers made sure that it was a song that could be sung as well as a song to dance to. That made it successful.
GS: There was a message in the song.
ECK: Yes! Everybody needs love, first of all. The main hook, “Mama just don’t understand/Oh how I love my man” – they were singing the heck out of it [laughs]. Wherever I go to perform, and they’re in the audience, their singing it to the hilt; they have something they can identify with. There’s a personal experience in the song.
GS: Who are some of your music idols?
ECK: My other male idol is Sam Cooke. My female idols are Linda Jones, who sang the song “Hypnotized,” and Chaka Khan.
GS: Would you ever consider performing in a Broadway musical?
ECK: Let’s put it this way, I did try. It was a gospel play called Get Thee Behind Me. I, personally, don’t feel that that’s me. I think what’s me is what I’m doing, and that is when I hit the stage in front of the audiences that I have – I have a following in R&B, dance and slow-jams – what I do is from me. I always wanted to be an actress [laughs] as well as a singer. But something about that – it’s a totally different experience. Doing it a couple of times – I felt like it’s not me yet. I’ll put it this way – I might jump to it in my later years. I probably won’t be able to drop it like it’s hot like I do now [laughs]. I’m in my late 50s and I’m proud to say I can still get down with the youngsters.
GS: So you’re more comfortable on stage being Evelyn than being a character?
ECK: You got it! But Evelyn is a character. I’m telling you I am! My performance onstage is Broadway, is acting, is Evelyn dancing, is Evelyn being a musician. I bring it all onstage.
GS: You also perform with Linda Clifford and Martha Wash as part of the diva super-group First Ladies of Disco. How did that come to be?
ECK: It began with James Arena’s book First Legends of Disco. James Washington put the artists together. He called me personally and asked me if I would join him and Martha Wash and Linda Clifford. We did a song, “Show Some Love.” People love the song and we’re getting some great press. I’m enjoying doing something outside of Evelyn “Champagne” King. I’m experiencing something, with other women, women whose songs I love and respect – it makes it like a happy marriage [laughs].