When your crush uploads a selfie
Fish Out Of Water : Backup Singer Dolette McDonald Speaks on Touring With the Talking Heads, The Police, and the Beauty of Being Naïve.
Youtube is the portal of which most of my downtime is spent. I could watch music and cat videos for hours if my conscious didn’t step in and hold an intervention. The videos l watch the most are usually vintage concert footage. To think, a few people back in the day were smart enough to tape full shows, not even knowing that there would someday be Youtube.com, let alone people of future generations longing to know what concerts were like back then. I’ve seen full shows from Queen Live at Wembley Stadium 1986 to Funkadelic Live from Houston 1976. All from the comfort of my couch cushions. I recently stumbled upon a video of Talking Heads live from Rome 1980, which is in the link below.
I noticed a young black girl singing backup. Her stature was small but her voice was huge. Most backup singers that I have seen were stuck dancing behind the mic, but not her. She danced laps around the stage as if she owned it. I had to find out who she was. With the help of the Internet. I looked her up and discovered that the girl in the video was now 61 year old Dolette McDonald of Naples, Florida who still continues to sing. I contacted Dolette and asked her if I could interview her to learn more about what it must have been like touring the world with a legendary punk band at age 28. To my luck, she agreed.
So let’s start from the beginning. How did you first get into singing?
I started singing at 5 years old in church as did a majority of background singers. A lot of us started in the church choir. Then I went to school and I had this Fabulous music teacher named Miss Simmons. If I remember her, then you know she had a huge impact on me. We were in a lower income community in Newark NJ. Miss Simmons would come to school in a private car. She was just fierce all the time. In those days she would wear bustier dresses with no straps like she was going to the theater. She would teach us Broadway show tunes, which we all loved, but I would always add a harmony to it. Not even knowing that I knew how to sing harmony but I would just throw one in. One day she stopped and said, “Who is that singing that harmony?!” I nearly shat my pants because I thought I was in trouble. Then she realized it was me and that’s when I realized that I had something. That’s how it really started. That and singing in church choirs.
There was this choir group I sang in called Donny Harper and the voices of tomorrow. He was the director of the New Jersey mass choir that sang, “I Want To Know What Love Is,” which turned out to be a big hit for this rock band [Foriegner]. Although we were a gospel group, we didn’t dress like one. We didn’t look like gospel singers, and some of us were gay. It was just completely different from the norm. That was my first real introduction to something different outside of church. From there I was still working normal jobs but I started singing in clubs and singing background for local artists. I never wanted to be a lead singer. I always wanted to be a background singer. It made me happy plus the attention wasn’t focused on me.
Was there anyone at the time that you were dying to sing background for?
Would you believe that I never thought I could earn a living doing it? That was the furthest thing from my mind. I was just happy singing in clubs and going to work everyday. I was just young and doing my thing. This was before I moved to New York. When I moved to New York, it became a different story. When I moved to New York I started getting advice from complete strangers. There were magazines like Backstage and Show Business which had audition details and cattle calls, and someone told me to just go to all of them. I went to every single one of them and I would sing Beatles and Dionne Warwick songs at my auditions. From there, that’s where someone actually found me. I started singing backup for Cissy Houston. I started singing backup on disco albums and in those days, you would sing the lead on the album but you wouldn’t get credit for it. Whoever was the backup singer going on tour with the group would. Still, I wasn’t thinking about money. I was just thinking about honing my craft and having a good time. I did that for a couple of years and then I met a guy named Busta Jones.
Busta Jones was really instrumental in starting my serious career. That’s how I met the Talking Heads. He introduced me to their camp and I thought it was crazy. First of all, what is a Talking Head? That was my first reaction. My second reaction was coming from gospel and soul, I was like “Who are these people?” It really freaked me out a little bit because I thought they were weird to begin with. I had never been around people like that. I’m a little black girl from Newark, NJ and I had white friends but I didn’t have those types of white friends. They were punk! They dressed differently and not realizing it, they were really smart people. Although visually you wouldn’t know it, when they would start speaking I was like “Oh shit, I better up my game a little bit to hang out with these guys.”
It was funny because the rehearsals were very casual and very low budget so it was like a bar band to me. Then our first gig was in front of 80,000 people. Can you imagine? I needed a Depends!
[Laughs] You didn’t do any research?
Research?? How do you do research? Back in the day? Oh God, now I know I’m talking to someone who grew up with computers and the internet. Didn’t do any research? No! I was just happy to have a gig. It was in Toronto Canada and this is how big this gig was. I had no idea. We flew in to the gig on a helicopter. There were a lot of firsts. My first time on a helicopter. My first gig with this band in front of 80,000 people and after that, nothing could compare. Everything was a piece of cake after that.
When you were familiarizing yourself with their catalogue, how was the transition from gospel and R&B, to punk-funk rock? Was it easy for you?
Oh yeah. The good part of my personality that I love is that I am extremely adaptable. I didn’t look at it as anything other than another gig. I didn’t freak out about it. That didn’t happen until later when there was competition, and people had expectations of me. Talking Heads didn’t have any expectations other than for me to sing my ass off and that’s what I did. They didn’t tell me things like, “ Oh, we don’t want any vibrato”. I created my own harmonies. Every once and awhile they would steer me into a direction that they wanted me to be in, but it was just fun. It was drugs and rock and roll. It was the epitome of what that was about. It was fun.
Everyone looked like they were having the best time.
We really enjoyed working together. Buster is the black guy on the bass in the video.
And I’m very familiar with [keyboardist] Bernie Worell.
I had never worked with Bernie Worrell before and being able to say that I had the opportunity to work with him and Adrian Belew who is probably one of the most incredible guitarist on the planet. They were so normal, just regular dudes, and that was my relationship with them. It was fantastic. I can say the most fun that I have ever had with any gig was with Talking Heads. Fortunately I’m still friends with Chris [Frantz ] and Tina [Weymouth].
So you’ve seen Tom Tom Club gigs and stuff.
Yeah we’re still friends. I left Talking Heads not by my own accord. It was very political. I had an opportunity to work with Duran Duran so I just happened to say that I was going to go and work with them and the Talking Heads manager got really pissed. He told them [Duran Duran] that they better not hire me. All hell broke loose and I was out of two gigs. The good news is I believe the universe gives you whatever you need and those two doors closed but another one opened. I ended up working with The Police. It was supposed to happen. People think I’m crazy because I don’t get upset about stuff. If one door closes, there’s one more fabulous one getting ready to open. So I’ll do the work. I’ll be prepared and whatever happens, happens.
You enjoyed it for what it was?
I think part of the fact that I was so naïve about the business helped me enjoy it a lot more than I probably would have had I been more experienced, you know. Because they weren’t paying me shit. They got me dirt cheap! [Laughs] I didn’t know any better and I was having a good time.
But that was an industry making gig. Talking Heads were the first punk band to have black people at their gigs as part of the crew. They called it the augmented Talking Heads. After that, other people started adding it.
It was a very Sly and The Family Stone thing to do. But punk.
Yeah see that was the thing. Rock people had done it before but no one in punk rock was really doing it so that really opened the doors for other singers to get in that space.
Did you have any insecurity at that time?
Oh I still have insecurities! Yes I did. I felt a little bit like a fish out of water. Not as far as my voice was concerned because that was something I knew I always had going for me. It was my first time traveling out of the country. There were so many things that I did with Talking Heads that were firsts. It was like on the job training. I was learning A. who I am and how to manage being alone in the world. Coming from Jersey and going to Paris. It was a severe culture shock for me. I didn’t understand French so they were rude and nasty. I stayed in my room and cried. It wasn’t easy but as I got more confident as a woman and as a world traveler, it helped in those areas. Yes, I was insecure but nothing severe like “Did I feel insecure about being a black woman in a white environment?” No. I’ve always been the one.
Would Dolette now, as a well traveled, well seasoned singer, give Dolette then any advice?
To take voice lessons. To not drink while onstage. Instead of a beer, have water. If you care about your instrument, you’re going to do whatever you can to preserve it. The traveling ,the planes, all of that stuff has an effect on how you perform. I didn’t know that at the time. I just thought my voice was always going to be there. Then the inevitable happened. I got polyps on my vocal chords. I had surgery. One surgery went well and one went badly. I couldn’t sing or talk for a year. I couldn’t speak! Thank God for Joan Lader. You should look her up. People who win Grammys and Tony’s, They thank Joan Lader. She’s a vocal teacher. She was my savior. I studies with her for ten years.
The other advice I would give young Dolette is to be more open and don’t be afraid. I used to get really pissed off at other people who would just be themselves in any situation. I would get embarrassed for them. I would wonder, “Why don’t these people have any couth?” As my mother used to say. Sting used to tell me to get off my soap box. I would tell young Dolette to fucking loosen up. You don’t have anything to prove to anybody. Just be yourself. I lived my truth to a degree but the last bit of that puzzle was finally connected once I finally came out of the closet. I was in my 50’s. It was huge because I came from a family where if we don’t talk about it, then it’s not happening. I held this secret for so many years but when I finally said those words out loud it was liberating. It took me 50 years to actually learn that.
Radiohead: Hail to the Thief Metro Card
First N.W.A picture in 25 years. Salute.
"niggas with arthritis"