The Disco Diva’s Diva
Photo credit Gor Megaera Photographer

The Disco Diva’s Diva

An Interview with the Legendary Linda Clifford

By Gregg Shapiro

As disco divas go, few are as down-to-earth, warm and genuine as Linda Clifford. More than 40 years after the release of her breakout album If My Friends Could See Me Now was released, featuring the chart-topping dance club hit title track, Clifford is still hard at work, regularly touring as one of the First Ladies of Disco (along with Martha Wash, Evelyn “Champagne” King and Norma Jean Wright) and performing at various festivals and fairs. Four of Clifford’s most cherished albums, the aforementioned If My Friends Could See Me Now, as well as 1979’s Let Me Be Your Woman and Here’s My Love, along with 1980’s I’m Yours, have all been released in remastered expanded editions from Blixa Sounds. I recently had the honor of speaking with Linda about her career, reissues, and the Ultimate Disco Cruise 2020.

Gregg Shapiro: Linda, I’d like to begin by congratulating you on the expanded CD reissues of your albums If My Friends Could See Me Now, Let Me Be Your Woman, Here’s My Love and I’m Yours. What does it mean to you to have these albums available again?

Linda Clifford: Honestly, it kind of jump-starts your whole life. At one time, certainly when I was younger, and these things came out. What was it, two or three years ago [big laugh]. More like 40. You’re young and you’re out there on the road, this is so much fun. When you get a little bit older, you realize, “Wow, I had some amazing things happen and I did some great things.” Now, I’m so much more appreciative of the career that I’ve had and the love that I’ve received from people over the years. It means an enormous amount to me and I’m so grateful to the record company, Blixa Sounds, and everyone involved in putting everything together.

GS: In the case of If My Friends Could See Me Now, it was originally released on the late Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom Records, and Curtis produced a couple of tracks and played on the album. Do you remember what it was like to work with a legend such as Curtis?

LC: I remember very well [laughs]. We actually toured together for a while. That, in itself, is really something. Curtis was like his music. If you think back to the things that he wrote, a lot of it was laid back, but forceful at the same time. It had so much to say without being in your face. Not like the music that we listen to today. That was Curtis. He was just the coolest guy, a cool cat!

GS: Was your cover of If My Friends Could See Me Now a nod to your acting career, when you played a dancer in the movie version of Sweet Charity?

LC: That cover version was an actual surprise. The song was mentioned by one of the secretaries at Curtom. She said, “You should do a disco version of this song.” Nobody knew that I had been in the movie. She said that to me and I wanted to slap her. “I will not do that!” Here I am thinking Shirley MacLaine, Gwen Verdon, Broadway, fabulous people. She wants me to turn it into a disco song? I said, “There’s no way you can do that and do it well!” They went ahead and recorded the track and they played it for me. I went, “Holy crap! This is great [laughs]!” That’s my song!

GS: On Let Me Be Your Woman, you performed disco covers of “One of Those Songs” and “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” Please say something about what was involved in selecting standards to get the disco treatment.

LC: I think that at the time we were on the lookout for not just a standard, but a good song with which we could do something. If you listen to the very beginning of “One of Those Songs,” we start out with, “What is the name of that song that keeps me dancing?” and immediately you think of the clubs, Studio 54, the Red Parrot and all of the jumping New York hot spots of the time and everybody dancing, and that lyric just felt so right. Before we even went into the verse of the original written song, we wrote something new to lead into it. When you take a song and you want to change it around a little bit, you have to be thoughtful and careful about how you put it together. (Producer) Gil Askey was a master at that.

GS: “Red Light” from the 1980’s Isaac Hayes-produced album I’m Yours was also featured in the Oscar-winning movie Fame. What did it mean to you have a song featured on a best-selling movie soundtrack?

LC: To me, it was amazing. It meant the world to me. I actually recorded the song for the soundtrack when I was working with (Oscar-winning songwriter) Michael Gore. I was seven months pregnant. I was like, “Come on baby, help me push these notes out” [laughs]! When the movie came out, my husband said, “Before you go into the hospital, you’re going to see this movie so you can see your name on the screen [laughs]!” We went to see Fame and I had no idea where the song was going to be placed. I didn’t know if it was going to be background music or something. When they started the film and the intro came up, I was like, “Oh, my gosh! They’re actually auditioning to my song!” It was incredible!

GS: Did you ever have a chance to meet Michael Gore’s sister Lesley Gore?

LC: I never got to meet Lesley. She had so many wonderful songs that I used to sing [laugh]. No, I never got a chance to meet her. But he was wonderful to work with.

GS: Chicago, where you have lived for many years, was the site of the 1979 Disco Demolition at Comiskey Park. As both a Chicagoan and a disco artist, do you remember how that made you feel?

LC: Devastated. I was devastated. I thought, “This man doesn’t care what he’s done!” Aside from putting all of us out of work and totally dissing a major part of the music industry, he destroyed (the baseball) field. To this day, he still talks about it like he’s proud of it. I never met him, but I think if I did, I’d probably punch him right in the face.

GS: He would deserve it.

LC: I’m still angry about it. I think it’s so unfair and so careless of someone to do that, and on that scale. Sure, I don’t expect everybody to like disco, or every type of music that’s ever been created. But, my God, use your brain. When you have that kind of platform, a radio show that reaches hundreds and thousands of people daily, don’t come out and encourage this destruction. There were albums flying all over the field. When I saw it, all I could do was cry. I thought, “This is really horrible.”

Photo credit Mike Ruiz

GS: Of course, the ultimate revenge is that disco outlasted Steve Dahl in popularity and endurance. As proof, we have the Ultimate Disco Cruise, the first of which set sail in February 2019 from Fort Lauderdale with stops in Key West and Cozumel, and featured performances by Gloria Gaynor, Thelma Houston, Evelyn “Champagne” King, France Joli and others. What do you think of that concept?

LC: I kind of love it! I absolutely love it. I know that a lot of musical cruises are happening now and they’ve been doing that with the jazz market for years. It’s been very successful and very helpful to the musicians who might not get the major concert venues like some other acts do.  They have this venue that they can go to and have fun doing what they do. It gives people a chance to enjoy the music. I think the whole idea of a disco cruise is pretty awesome, especially since I’ll be doing it!

GS: What does it mean to you to be performing on the Ultimate Disco Cruise 2020, which sails from Miami, with stops in Key West and Nassau?

LC: I’m so delighted! First of all, I love cruising. It’s a great way to vacation. This is going to be a bonus, to go on this cruise ship and do a show for people who are specifically there to see and hear your music. It’s one thing to do a show and people are there because someone dragged them along. But this way you know people are coming specifically for that music, to have fun, to enjoy some of the things they maybe did in their youth.

GS: Along with Martha Wash and Norma Jean Wright, you are performing on the cruise as one of the First Ladies of Disco. What has the experience of being one of the First Ladies of Disco been like for you?

LC: It’s been incredible. Like a lot of acts from that era, a lot of us were overlooked by agencies and promoters with the whole disco is dead thing (that you mentioned), which is obviously not true. A lot of people didn’t work and then suddenly we’re popular again because of many issues. I think the books written by James Arena (Legends of Disco and The First Ladies of Disco) were a huge help for many of the disco acts. He has since gone on to write other books about disco and the people in that industry at that time. For me, it’s like a second round of my career.

GS: What do you like best about performing in front of a live audience?

LC: It’s so funny because I’m on Facebook as most people are. I get letters and notes from people all the time about when we met, like 40 years ago, and what dance they did to a particular song of mine. That kind of thing. When I get to see them in person, we get to talk about the stories we discussed online. It’s fabulous. I love meeting the people who loved the music. It brightens my day.

GS: Does performing on this kind of themed event, with others from the disco domain, feel like a family reunion?

LC: It really does. Sometimes it’s even better [laughs]. You know how family can be [laughs]. But you get to see people you haven’t seen in ages. You get to talk about what happened back in the day. You’re dancing to the music that brought you so much joy. What could be better? Maybe winning the lottery.

GS: We began by talking about the 2018 Blixa Sounds reissues of your Curtom recordings. Are there any other albums from your past that you would like to see reissued in expanded editions?

LC: The possibility of four more CDs coming out is very strong. We’re working on trying to get that done right now. I’m so grateful for Blixa coming in and helping me with some of the legal work that had to be done in order to get these songs and albums to me. I now have ownership of my own music. For the first time in all these many years, I get to make some of the decisions, and that was not always the case. I’m certainly no exception to the rule. This was done to many artists. I’m very excited about the possibility. I just hope they do it soon. I’m not getting any younger [laughs].

GS: But you are getting better with age.

LC: I try!

GS: When we spoke in 2018, I also asked you about the possibility of a new Linda Clifford album, and you said there were offers coming in, but nothing was confirmed. Has that status changed in any way?

LC: It has changed, but not necessarily for something that I would consider great. First of all, the music industry has changed so much, it’s so different. A lot of the companies are not doing much anymore. They’re not signing artists, and if they do, they’re looking for 12-year-olds. They don’t want an old person [laughs]. No matter what your track record is, no matter what you’ve done in the past. The only way to do something would be to produce it myself and put it out on my own label. I’ve been writing for other people and sending out songs. It’s just a whole different industry now.

GS: Finally, over the years you have amassed a large international following, which includes a sizable following in the gay community. Is that how the filming of your 1984 music video for “A Night With The Boys,” came to be filmed at Trianon, a gay bar in Chicago?

LC: Honestly, I don’t think so. From the very beginning of my recording career, especially with “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” one of the things that we made a point of doing when I was doing promotional tours, we didn’t just go to straight clubs. We went to all the bars. I made so many friends. In fact, the godmother to both of my children is a gay woman. Someone that I met during that period. I had an older brother who was gay. Gay doesn’t scare me [laughs]. I ain’t scared! I would perform in these clubs and not be afraid. What was there to be afraid of? These are my friends, my fans and they love me. They would protect me. I’m not worried about it. Doing the Trianon thing was just a boost. It made people think, “OK then, maybe she is real!” I love all my fans; gay, straight, black, white or purple. I don’t care.