Sunday, October 24, 2010

Genya the Survivor

Genya is a Holocaust survivor.  She is 70 this year.  She became one of the great artists of rock and roll. And almost 50 years after she began her career, she still is.

  It's a miracle she exists at all.  On the 8th of September, 1939, the city of Lodz, Poland, was captured by the German army.  A thirtysomething wife and mother of three named Zelkowitz was around three months pregnant then.  The 233,000 Jews of the city of nearly 700,000 were forced into a ghetto and used as slave labor to produce supplies for the army, while being systematically starved.  Anyone smuggling food in was typically shot.  At one point the ghetto number grew to about 300,000 from people being brought in from the surrounding area, but that is not a total; trainloads of Jews (and at least 150,000 others) were being shipped out to the death camps on a regular basis.  The Zelkowitz family would soon be among them.  By the war's end only about 900 Jews would remain alive in the city.
   Six months into the occupation, on April 19, 1940, a baby girl was born in Lodz.  Genyusha Zelkowitz would spend much of her first five years in concentration camps.  Families of both her parents would die – her grandparents from both mother's and father's families, uncles, aunts, cousins, all of them, plus her two brothers.  Her father saw all nine of his brothers killed.  When the Russians came, they were no longer in Nazi concentration camps, they were in “displaced-persons” camps – moved from one to another to another.  They were still not free.  The little family – her parents, herself and her sister Helen – escaped their liberators (she remembers lying flat in the grass after the initial bolt out of the camp, feeling suffocated by her mother's hand over her mouth), made their way across Europe, and ended up in another displaced-persons camp in the US-controlled area in Germany.  But at this camp, they were free.  And ships sent by people trying to help the refugees would take them to either the newly forming state of Israel or to the USA.  The next boat out of Germany was to the USA.  They came by ship through Ellis Island in 1947 and ended up in an apartment on the lower East side in New York, her father starting a candy store with the help of their sponsor.  They had to have sponsors to immigrate; the volunteer sponsors who took the Zelkowitz family under their wing were named Solomon.
  Her mother called her Goldie now instead of Genya because she thought it would help her fit into the new country.  Goldie would fall in love with Rhythm and Blues with her ear against the radio speaker, turned way down in the wee hours of the morning.  The whole working-through-the-pain approach of blues really connected with her experience.  Her first English teacher was that radio.
  Through her teenage years she became more rebellious and independent.  Her parents arranged a marriage that didn't work at all; she ran away to California riding on the back of a friend's Harley, then came back and got an annulment.  (Some garbled accounts of her life claim she met Ginger and founded Goldie and the Gingerbreads in Cali at 16, not true.  Read her book.)  She did “cheesecake” modeling work (for those unfamiliar with the term, that's skimpily clothed - or less - in sexy poses).  She met and became friends with Shel Silverstein (and his wife), whose song “Carry Me Carrie” she would later record.  She never stopped being in love with music... by her late teens she had developed some skill on alto sax, drums and harmonica.
  When she was twenty-one in the summer of 1961*, she was at the Lollipop Lounge in Brooklyn where a band called The Escorts was playing (one of at least three groups with that name). On a dare, and because she loved to sing, she asked if she could sing with them.  They stared at her bellybutton peeking between her low jeans and halter top – risque in the early 1960s – and agreed.  She did “Stupid Cupid” with actual expression and the crowd loved it.  They yelled for more.  She did another.  A few days later Richie (Richard Perry), the leader of the group, invited her to sing for them full-time... and she became a professional singer, working clubs and recording with them over the next year-plus.  “The Escorts featuring 'Goldie'” was on the label of their 45 RPM single “One Heart” with “Somewhere” on the flipside, both from Leonard Bernstein's “West Side Story” musical.  It charted well and “Somewhere” hit # 1 in Michigan, leading to their doing “record hops” with Marvin Gaye there.  But The Escorts were a preppie group that had to take winters off for college.  Goldie wanted more, and after meeting a girl drummer named Ginger Panabianco the next summer (1962), she began to see possibilities.
   In the fall of 1962, with Richie and the rest of The Escorts going back to University of Michigan, she and Ginger put together something new: A (soon-to-be) successful all-girl band, Goldie and the Gingerbreads.  Not a girl vocal group backed by invisible male musicians, but a band with all instruments played by young women and played well.  At first they didn't have a guitarist; later they would try several and keep Carol MacDonald, in 1963.  But their first tour was as a trio with Margo Lewis as keyboardist carrying responsibility for both the instrumental melody line and bass with her portable (barely) Hammond organ.  They went to Germany and Switzerland opening for Chubby Checker in late 1962.  (The latter's German version of “Let's Do the Twist” had been released in January, so his audience there was clamoring for live shows.  Adding to the excitement was the unprecedented return of his original 1960 English release to the Number One on the US charts at the same time.)  Tony Sheridan, a well-known English singer-guitarist who had collaborated with a new group named The Beatles on some recordings a year earlier when their drummer was Pete Best (just before they had Ringo Starr), was a star on the German part of the tour and sang some numbers with Goldie at some of the venues in Germany – to the great irritation of his rather rigid manager, who thought he should strictly solo.
  Goldie/Genya's feelings about being in Germany were edgy, and she freely admits she was wearing a chip on her shoulder.  Her earliest memories of hearing German spoken were from Nazi soldiers whose orders were to shoot food smugglers in Lodz, including perhaps her childhood friends, and then concentration camp guards.  Everywhere they went, she would go into jewelry shops and ask to see whatever they had with the “Star of David”.  She would usually end up buying something as they were almost universally nice.  But if they were out, she got upset.  And when one shop owner told her bluntly that she would not find one Star of David in the entire shop, she flew into a rage and began screaming at him.  Her bandmates had to drag her out and calm her down.  Between their reasoned talk and the very positive, friendly treatment she was overwhelmingly given by almost everyone there, she was able to gradually relax and enjoy their tour.
  They would achieve critical acclaim and some well-placing records over the next five years, and the appreciation of the soldiers at the military bases they toured.  Mainstream media coverage and respect was harder to come by, yet male musicians studied their techniques; they were known as “the musicians' musicians”.  They would get more respect in England and Europe than in America.
   The biggest impediment to a hit record in the US was, oddly, race.  Genya sounded “black” to the white stations so they mostly wouldn't play their tunes, and the black R&B stations weren't playing white artists.  In England and Europe, pop artists of all sorts and races were played on the same stations.
   Their biggest break was probably the 1964 “Mods and Rockers' Ball” in New York, with any artist of any kind who was anyone in attendance – and Goldie and the Gingerbreads being the entertainment act booked.  The Rolling Stones were there and found the Gingerbreads exciting.  So did Tom Wolfe, who wrote about it.  And so did Ahmet Ertugun, legendary co-founder of Atlantic/Atco Records.  He signed them immediately and Goldie would later fondly remember Ahmet and his people as both fair, and genuinely caring for their artists in an industry that most often exploited the artists routinely.  He talked them up around town too... though by the time they pulled the plug on the party at 4 AM and breakfasted with some of the “in” crown at the “in” place – The Brasserie -  the group was the buzz of New York.
   Also that year, The Animals' Eric Burdon, Hilton Valentine (whom Goldie later dated for awhile) and their manager Mike Jeffries were walking by The Wagon Wheel, a club where Goldie and the Gingerbreads were kicking out “I Can't Stand It” loudly enough to be heard in the street.  Thinking it was a black group, they stopped in to give a listen and were blown away by the rest of the act.  They  invited them to England, paid their passage and put them up in the duplex the Animals shared.  One problem:  Goldie visited Eric in his room just once, and it gave her the creeps, and it was hard to forget.  Eric was a WW2 memorabilia collector, mainly of Nazi items.  His room was filled with Nazi uniforms, helmets, books, swastikas... she didn't think he was one, but that stuff in her face was not where she wanted to be.  They later stayed in a fleabag hotel.  But... they toured with the Rolling Stones, the Hollies and others, and the U.K. and Europe loved them.  Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson took her to her first Indian restaurant.  Jeffries, with partner Mickie Most,would manage them for some time.
   In 1966, after recording backup vocals to a Georgie Fame tune in London, she started messing with a piano and sang an R&B song called Disappointed Bride, which was recorded and was released as a single under the name Patsy Cole. It made its way to Jamaica where it topped the charts.  Georgie's horns, Spencer Davis and Stevie Winwood joined in to back HER up on that one.  Dusty Springfield had been there for Georgie's backup too but left before Goldie started this.
   In late 1967, Goldie and the Gingerbreads parted ways.  Publicly, she wanted to explore her own direction.  The image of the group had become too confining – she wanted to rock more (Charles Chandler and Eric Burdon produced their recording of “Can't you hear My Heart Beat” and Eric kept saying, “Sing it like Diana Ross would sing it” instead of letting her do it as herself, which upset her).  More profoundly and privately, there was friction with the rest of the group about her overpowering role and personality.  They felt estranged from her and she didn't know what to do about it.  So she remained in the UK and the others returned to the States.  In 1972 Ginger and Carol would put together another even more innovative all-woman band, the jazz-funk-fusion Isis, later joined by Margo.
   In 1968 Goldie came back with a powerhouse 10-piece band named Ten Wheel Drive, and reclaimed her original first name, touring as “Genya Ravan”.  Ravan (sic) was a play on her “black” singing sound suggested by a jazz drummer friend as “Raven”, and she respelled it for uniqueness.  Ten Wheel Drive had guitars, keyboards, horns and of course drums... everything.  She was the only woman leading such a group, again.  (The most comparable group would have been Blood Sweat & Tears, all male.)  It sounded bigger than ten people because most of them alternated between two or more instruments.  Genya occasionally did her blues harmonica.  It was played on progressive FM stations, they did the Fillmore East regularly, et cetera.  They put out some amazing music, “tight” and strong, but are best known for the novelty tune that hit the charts in a big way, “Morning Much Better”. It was during this period she met Janis Joplin, they did a show or two (?) together and the two were inevitably compared, but Genya wasn't thrilled by the “sounds like...” comments at the time.  Frankly, I think her sound at full cry is closer to Aretha Franklin – not surprising since they both grew up listening to the same R&B artists, who were also Genya's first English teachers via radio.
   Ten Wheel Drive lasted into 1971.  In their time together they put out three albums, “Construction #1”, “Brief Replies” and “Peculiar Friends”.  Genya then put out three solo albums from the west coast: “Genya Ravan”, “They Love Me, They Love Me Not”, and in 1974, “Goldie Zelkowitz” with a cover pic showing her in some old-style East-European (?) Jewish dress... albeit open down the front... There was some critical acclaim for her work on all three, but little mainstream media support.  And she was frustrated by producers who didn't “get” her, or didn't care what she thought.  Becoming her own producer became more and more attractive.  She moved back east and eventually learned the art so well she made a name as a truly talented producer who could capture the best of an artist – the first successful professional female record producer ever.  She worked for RCA and also established her own label for a time, Polish (pronounced like furniture polish).
   She sometimes contributed tracks to other people's albums as appropriate, but still was doing her own, though – her “Love is a Fire” was heard in the movie “The Warriors” in 1979, and in her self-produced CDs “Urban Desire” in 1978, then “...And I Mean It!” in 1979.  She and quite a few others consider these some of her best work.
      One of the RCA projects was an album for a punk group called The Dead Boys (Young, Loud and Snotty, 1977), and she recalls unloading on them why they should NOT be using swastikas for shock value.  They dropped that, and she now considers that one of her best production projects.
   There were plenty of others too – Long John Baldrey, Kool and the Gang, Tiny Tim?!
   Polish produced the 1982 album “Siren” for Ronnie Spector, another Holocaust survivor.  This was another project she liked the results of, but working with the famously unstable diva was another matter.  She credits the expense of trying to finish the album with Ronnie as a major factor in the collapse of her label.  She took some time off.  She visited friends.
   All during her career Genya had been drinking, smoking and chemically enhancing her way through life.  She seemed bulletproof, immortal.  She wasn't.  It all caught up in the mid-80s and hit hard.
   She knew she was sick, and thinking over how she'd been living, she decided she had to get off the drugs and alcohol.  It was a good first step.  Bernie Segal got her started in AA. Getting off drugs, notably cocaine, took longer.  But August 11, 1990, she learned just how sick she was.
   Lung cancer.  Third stage.  Prognosis:  Three to six months to live.  But they didn't know Genya.
   She went through all the misery the medical profession could throw at her – chemo, then surgery, the works.  Her immense determination was challenged. In chemo, she was violently sick and her hair not only fell out, but her body was so hypersensitive she couldn't wear the beautiful natural hair wig that her sister and friends bought for her... though she kept it as a memento of their love. Her sister and her old bandmates came to help as soon as they heard. Older sister Helen, who had nearly died from a shrapnel neck wound in Poland and was saved by a nearby military mobile clinic, who had never projected the toughness Genya had, now was the emotional rock and caregiver as baby sister fought for life, fought to want to keep going. After the hospital treatments and surgery to remove the remaining cancer (and the upper portion of a lung), Helen took her to her home in Florida to recover.  At the time, she was focusing simply on living.
  She took up painting.  She learned more about websites and set one up for herself in 1997.  When she was stronger, she became a radio show hostess/deejay – eventually with two shows – on Little Steven's Underground Garage venue on Sirius Satellite radio. She helped discover Hilly Kristal, The Wives, Linda Potatoes.  She discovered TriPod at CBGB's in 2001 and produced their demo album, even contributing a vocal to one tune.  Would she sing again on her own?  Would there be any more albums by Genya Ravan?
   The question hung in the air while the 1995 “Best of Ten Wheel Drive” was released, followed by a personal-best collection of existing, previously unreleased tracks in 2003, “For Fans Only”.  She worked on her memoirs, and 2004 brought the publication of Lollipop Lounge, Memoirs Of A Rock And Roll Refugee (Genya Ravan, ISBN 0-8230-8362-4 ).
   Then, in 2006, “Genya Ravan Live” from a performance at CBGB's was released, and in 2010, “Undercover” is out.  She's back, she's seventy and she still rocks.
   I have to tell the truth.  The intense power of her squall in the late 70s – early 80s work is muted.  But her soul is here, deeper and more experienced.  Not less, just different.  Of the new stuff, “202 Rivington Street”, literally about where she comes from (as a child in New York), has with the most spill-your-guts feeling of revelation, I think.  And from what I've seen elsewhere, others have gotten the same impression.
   Genyusha Zelkowitz has continuously grown and re-invented her life from its beginning.  And with the perspective of nearly losing it some 25 years ago, re-found it as well.  She is exploring her visual (painting) talents, her music has returned in a new form, and I hear she has a full-time love these days.
  She is a survivor – of the Nazi death camps, the cold genocidal brutality that would have destroyed her and her remaining family had it had the chance.  Of being practically imprisoned by their liberators, and the flight to the west.  Of adapting to a strange new land with a new language and customs.  Of a sadly unwise, nearly forced marriage she wasn't ready for.  Of the ups and downs of the music business, of a curious combination of fame and obscurity.  Of her own self-destructive behavior culminating in cancer and chemo and surgery.  She has been pulled through some things by others and Providence, pushed herself and driven through other things, and seems to be in a good place now...
   Alive and kickin'.

Some firsts:
Co-founded the very first! successful all-female rock and roll band
Co-founded first female-led power rock band
First female professional music producer

   And from the Ten Wheel Drive – Fillmore East days, the boobie prize [sorry, had to say that]:
       The first female rock artist to remove her top onstage – and didn't even get arrested, thanks to body paint.  And probably the location.  According to one source, it was a vest that came off; under that she was wearing a dark but very sheer blouse thing but it was unbuttoned and highly see-through anyway.
       Though she WAS probably the first female rock artist arrested for public profanity onstage, after her colorful language when somebody started yelling “Sly!” while she was opening for Sly Stone.

* Re times and ages:  In the early 1960s she would have had to be at least 21 to be drinking (as per Pages 40 and 41 of her book) in a public lounge without them losing their license.  That places the first encounter with Richie The Escorts at Lollipop Lounge sometime after 19th of April 1961.  Considering they recorded her not long after that, went back to college that fall, did some “record hops” with her in Michigan that winter and then performed in New York with her the following summer when she met Ginger Panabianco which she states was 1962, the Lollipop Lounge encounter with The Escorts pretty much has to be the summer or fall of 1961.
   Genya states on page 40 that the Lollipop Lounge encounter was 1962, and on page 47 that “Somewhere” was released in late 1962... and on page 42 that they already had a recording contract by the time she was asked to sing with them and they went straight there – but on page 45 that "Sometime in the fall of 1961 we met with the record-company executives at Decca... " and describes the subsequent recording of "Somewhere" and three other songs.  THEN the boys went back to college, then the record was released, hit # 1 in Michigan, so she went to meet Richie and the group at UMich at Ann Arbor that winter and they did some record hops with Marvin Gaye to promote their music further.  Then she got together with the Escorts the following spring (after school, a/k/a next year) and performed together during the summer and she met Ginger that summer – which had to be 1962 because before the end of that year they had formed Goldie and the Gingerbreads and were touring Europe opening for Chubby Checker.  Assuming the remaining references to “1962” are valid, that is... as opposed to simply the only year number she can remember.
   So, my bottom-line analysis of all this is that dear Genya's memories of this time of her life are being recalled from the far side of a hellacious lot of chemicals, recreational and medical.  That doesn't change my respect for her or her art.
   And Yes, I realize I'm being obsessive with this.  It's my nature and my work – I've spent much of my life proofreading and verifying engineering documents.  It's as much a part of me as my love for music.
   The rumor repeated on several sites, even in the Wikipedia article on her, that she started Goldie and the Gingerbreads when she was 17 or even younger may have been a bit of disinformation started by an early manager or record company due to the perception in the sixties that popular music sung by teenagers was more authentic – and more profitable.  Being 22 and thereabouts could put her and her companions out of the running for being “teen idols”.  There is no way it can fit the time frames of other events, especially her birthday in 1940!  Or it could have been the simple messy tangle of third-hand information.  This has led to confusion on some sites as to her birth year, its relation to when the family arrived in America, the idea that she was born in a concentration camp (she wasn't; she was born in Lodz, they were taken to camps later) and lots of other stuff that makes no logical or mathematical sense when you compare them all.  So:  Categorically, the teenage start to Goldie and the Gingerbreads is malarky.  She was 22 at the time, and the year was 1962, according to the preponderance of evidence from her memoirs plus recorded facts on when records were made, when Chubby Checker's first German tour was, Tony Sheridan's remarks about working with the Beatles, et cetera.
  This is a tiny taste of a very rich and adventuresome life.  If you've read this far, you'll want to read her book: “Lollipop Lounge: Memoirs of a Rock and Roll Refugee”.

Her Sites:

Her Book:

Dates are not all correct, but it's a start:

This one gets her birth year wrong, but has lots of other good info:

An overview of female bands of the sixties including Goldie and the Gingerbreads: