Bernadette Cooper rose to fame in the 80’s as the founder and frontwoman of Klymaxx, the girl group best known for their platinum-selling album, “Meeting In The Ladies Room“. She also founded Madame X, another female outfit that scored a hit in 1987 with “Just That Kind Of Girl“. Due to my chat with Corney Mims, Bernadette and I came into a contact and discussed the possibility of an interview that would include her longtime engineer, Gerry Brown, whose 40+ year resume covers everything from The Gap Band and Ronnie Laws to Alicia Keys, The Roots and Raphael Saadiq. A few weeks later we jumped on a call to talk about Bernadette’s and Gerry’s history, their thoughts on the music industry, and their current work on a new music project that’s titled “How To Survive A Midlife Crisis”.
– Hi guys. Thanks for making time to talk to me about your careers. Let’s begin with some of your early experiences. Bernadette, you started off by playing drums in church alongside your brother, correct?
Bernadette: Yes, I did. My brother was a bass player whilst I was a drummer, and he was my guide for how to be more aggressive as a musician. The church we attended had a 100-voice choir that would compete with other choirs around town, and we used to win a lot of those sing-offs because there was a slot for the girl drummer to do a solo, which gave me a chance to showcase my abilities as a drummer. So that was how I fell in love with being in a band. I was actually on my way to being a lawyer, but because of those experiences I realized that music was my purpose and I focused on that instead.
– What was your first break as a professional musician?
Bernadette: When I got my first record deal. I’d assembled an all-girl band by putting ads in the newspaper and auditioning several applicants. Once I found the girls, we’d constantly rehearse our music and later sent a demo tape to SOLAR Records, which led us to being signed by the label head, Dick Griffey. We’d played shows at small clubs here and there, but I wouldn’t call that “professional” work per se. The record deal changed all of that.
– What about you Gerry? I’ve heard that you got your start in the late 70s at ABC Studios.
Gerry: Yes, that’s right. After graduating from one of the first audio engineering schools in LA, I started my career in the tape library at ABC Studios. In those days, there wasn’t a flood of audio engineers in LA, and certainly not a lot of black engineers, so I was very fortunate to be able to train under some of the best, like Al Schmitt and Roger Nichols. One of the black engineers I worked under was Barney Perkins and another was Reggie Dozier, the brother of Lamont Dozier from Holland–Dozier–Holland. So I was there for two years, and it was great environment to learn, especially since I was focused on improving as an engineer. You need to have tunnel vision to work in the music business, which is part of the reason I gravitated towards working with Bernadette – she has that too. In fact, I would occasionally go to the same church that Bernadette played at as a drummer, though I didn’t know her at the time. I was raised Catholic, and the choirs in those days were humongous in LA, so we both came from that tradition of music and it informed a lot of our sensibilities.
– Can you talk about the engineering school bit? ABC Studios was connected to a school?
Gerry: Yes it was. The guy who ran ABC Studios, Brian Ingoldsby, also ran one of the first audio engineering schools called Sound Master Recording School (later rebranded as Pinnacle College). Prior to me enrolling there, my high school teacher would let me practice recording at his garage studio. He later told me to go to engineering school, and since my parents weren’t wealthy, I had to pay for it myself by working on the side. I would record all my lessons on a tape recorder so I could play them back later, and I was later offered a position at ABC by being the top person in the class.
– ABC Studios shut down in 1979, but was later reopened under different incarnations, like Scott Sunstorm Studios, then Concorde Recording Center, and finally as Lionshare in 1981. Did you work at any of those later versions of the studio?
Gerry: You really know your history (laughs). After ABC shut down, I went to work for Total Experience Studios, where The Gap Band was. My first Gold record at Total Experience was “Oops Upside Your Head“. The official version was a rough mix I did which they couldn’t match with their other mix engineer, so they released it as it was. After working there for a year, I went to work for the different ABC incarnations that you mentioned, although I continued doing sessions for The Gap Band. I left Total Experience for Concorde Recording Studios because they offered me an additional $10/hour, but I left soon after Concorde was bought by Kenny Rogers and became Lionshare. ABC and Concorde had always been a supportive of black artists, but Lionshare started pushing all the black acts out once they got set up, which I didn’t like. So I left.
– Were you at Lionshare for the recording of “We Are The World” ?
Gerry: No, I had left by that time, and later got picked up by Ed Eckstine at Wing Records to work with their artists, which led to a lot of recordings with the likes of Tony Toni Toné, Vanessa Williams and Brian McKnight.
– How exactly did you end up at Total Experience Studios? I believe Lonnie Simmons owned the place.
Gerry: I was out of work at the time, and was searching a job at a new studio. I ended up getting an interview with Lonnie’s wife, Melanie. Back in those days, I would get hired by telling people that I was a workaholic, which is what they wanted to hear. They would usually hire me on the spot once I said that, and that’s how I got the job at Total Experience. My first gig was to handle the editing on The Gap Band’s “Shake” and “Open Up Your Mind“, which was a bit nerve-wracking.
– Can you elaborate on what it was like to work on The Gap Band sessions? And what was the gear setup like at Total Experience Studios?
Gerry: I started off as the second engineer, which involved doing all the menial tasks, from setting up the live room to cleaning the studio and the toilets. But after I did “Oops Upside Your Head”, the studio put me more in the lead seat. I also lived two blocks away from the building, so I was able to go there and practice all the time, and I think the staff gravitated towards me because I was a hard worker.
Concerning the gear, the studio was built around an API console with a 24-track Studer tape machine. The one at Total Experience was the standard API, but the one at ABC Studios was a Frank Demidio design. He was the king of console designers at the time, especially custom APIs. I can’t tell you how many hits we made on API consoles. They were very simple in terms of the components used, and the SSL desks that replaced them changed the sound of the records to become more hifi-sounding.
Total Experience had other things like the Lexicon 224 and 480L, but there wasn’t a lot of gear at that studio. We did have some great-sounding chamber reverbs though. Our building used to be one of the first studios in Hollywood, formerly called Angel Sound Studios. The guy who built it was called Armin Steiner, and he placed a lot of focus on having great chamber and plate reverbs, which is what you hear on a lot of the records we worked on. I spent a lot of time practicing my mixing by working with existing tapes, which allowed me to become familiar with the reverbs and make the most out of the gear we had. I don’t see a lot of that anymore with today’s assistants. A lot of students who come out of audio schools are relegated to being runners and aren’t given the opportunity to move up for several years. Back in the day, it was common for an artist to book studio time even though he didn’t have his own engineer, so if the in-house engineer was sick, the assistant would get a chance to handle the session if he was ready. That’s what happened to me.
– As people who worked in LA in the 70s and 80s, could both of you talk about how technology changes affected the developments of the recording industry?
Gerry: Recording technology really accelerated between 1977 and 1985, and we started using things beside just consoles and tape machines to make music, like MIDI and synthesizers. I didn’t have a problem with embracing the technology developments at the time because my focus was always on the song. If the song was good, the technological considerations were less important. For others, technology was a crutch they used because their songs weren’t up to par. So it either made you lazy or it allowed you to work more efficiently.
Bernadette: I wasn’t very technical in the beginning of my career but I’ve developed those skills since then, and it’s amazing to see how Gerry progressed from small mixers to working on large SSL consoles. He was also the king of cutting and editing tape on the 24-track machines, which meant the artist didn’t have to do a lot of work with re-recording stuff.
Gerry: I remember going into tech shops and they would have a list of which studios had what gear. So people were always keeping track of the technology changes taking place. But the biggest change that occurred wasn’t in the 70s or 80s. It was around 1997 when everyone suddenly switched from 24-track tape to using Pro Tools. I had already used it in 1994 when the drummer I worked with played something crazy that I had to fix. So Pro Tools was only meant to be like a digital tape machine in the beginning, but ended up becoming more advanced when they added in plugins and additional editing capabilities.
– Bernadette, what led to you getting signed to SOLAR Records? Could you also talk about the relevance of Dick Griffey in providing that platform? ‘
Bernadette: Klymaxx started off as a group that rehearsed everyday, had to save up money for most things and kissed up to studio owners to get more studio time. So we struggled a lot in the beginning, especially before Joyce Irby joined the group. The lineup consisted of myself, Cheryl Cooley, Lorena Shelby, Robbin Grider, Lynn Malsby and later Joyce. We had sent out a lot of demo tapes to different companies before Cheryl finally sent one to Dick Griffey at SOLAR, and he personally came to watch our rehearsal after hearing it. To be honest, we didn’t sound that good – both our gear and the PA system were so cheap. But he saw the vision of what we could be and decided to sign us,which we couldn’t believe. So if it wasn’t for Dick Griffey, I wouldn’t be in this business, and I always thank him for that.
As everyone knows, the music industry is run by men, and it takes a particular kind of man to see the creativity in a woman. Mr Griffey saw that in me, and provided every possible opportunity for me to be a star. He’s the one who told me I was a producer. Even when I replied, “No, I’m not! “, he still gave me money to go produce music. I remember standing in the bathroom and crying because I was so afraid of giving someone else directions for how I wanted the song to go. Mr Griffey had sent me to Tennessee to work with my first artist called Cat Miller, and when the studio engineer saw I was a girl, he just laughed at me. He continued to laugh every time I asked him to do something. But his opinion of me changed by the end of the session, and we later became good friends.
– What was the industry response to what SOLAR’s releases? Was the label taken seriously, or was there pushback against Dick Griffey because of his success?
Bernadette: Dick Griffey had a lot of new artists in the 80s who he believed would become groundbreaking. Granted, he also had groups like The Whispers, Shalamar and Dynasty who already had some success, but he also had new acts like Klymaxx, The Deele, Leon Sylvers and Midnight Star. So when all of those developing acts started having hits, people in the industry began taking him more seriously. Not only the new acts, but even the established ones like Shalamar continued to have hits. Additionally, L.A Reid and Babyface becoming a huge production duo, and even Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were bought in to work on projects like Klymaxx’s second album. So people who didn’t take Mr Griffey seriously ended up having to do so.
– Gerry: Back in the 80s, there were two record companies that were competing for the number two spot. Motown was already at the top, but right behind them was Total Experience Records, who had The Gap Band and Yarbrough and Peoples, and SOLAR Records. SOLAR was having a lot of success in that contest and so we all did our best to compete with them, which could be tough at times.
– Bernadette, with regards to Klymaxx’s beginnings, is it true that one of the group’s early percussionists, Bonnie Thompson, helped you put the band together?
Bernadette: It’s funny you should ask that because I’m writing a book called “A Cry No-One Heard” which is dedicated towards Bonnie Thompson, who was the invisible force behind my career. My family had turned against me when I dropped out of college to focus on forming Klymaxx, so all I had was my idea for a girl band, but no money or resources to make it happen. I decided to use the Yellow Pages to call record companies at a time when Bonnie was working as an A&R person for a label in Watts. She picked up the phone when I called, and after hearing my idea she said, “I’m interested. Why don’t you come down to the Motown building and tell me more? “. So I went down there and we clicked instantly; she thought the idea of an all-girl band was great. She didn’t consider herself to be musically talented, but she wanted to be involved in the business, so she decided to help by becoming the financier of the group. By dating wealthy men, she would use the money she got from them to pay for our rehearsal time. She also did her best to integrate herself into the group. For example, she got a Syndrum with a pair of drumsticks was like, “I think I can play the this…“, even though she couldn’t because she had no rhythm (laughs). She eventually left the group, and I continued on to find the line-up that became successful. But Bonnie and I are in touch right now and are best friends. Her story is in the book, which is part of a series that I’m releasing next year.
(Below: Cover of “A Cry No One Heard”)
– What kind of record deal did Klymaxx get from SOLAR for their first album, “Never Underestimate The Power Of A Woman” ?
Bernadette: Not a very good one (laughs). But we had an up-and-coming attorney at the time who’s name is Ron Sweeney. He’s famous now for his work with hip-hop artists like Lil Wayne, but at the time he had just graduated from law school and we were pretty much his first clients. He guided us through the first deal.
Gerry: Every music act pretty much got a bad deal on their first record though.
Bernadette: Exactly. That’s what he told us. He said, “This isn’t the best deal, but what other contracts do you have to choose from? You should sign this, and if you get a hit record, we can renegotiate all of it “, and that’s exactly what happened.
(Above: Bernadette Copper and Ron Sweeney in the May, 1986 issue of Black Enterprise)
– Unless I’m wrong, neither the first nor the second Klymaxx album yielded any hits, correct?
Bernadette: No, they didn’t. When we walked into our first studio session, the label already had producers in place who had their own idea of what the band should sound like. So we didn’t play a lot of our instruments on the first album. Even the second album that we did with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis produced no hits. By the third album, Dick Griffey finally allowed us to be our own writers and producers, and then we got our first hit with “The Men All Pause“. Once that happened, we renegotiated our contract and everything changed.
– Where was the first album recorded?
Bernadette: It was recorded at Studio Masters, on Beverly Boulevard. All of Dick Griffey’s acts recorded there. He later built a dedicated facility for SOLAR Records, which was called Galaxy Studios, and had an SSL board, but it was hard to book time there because L.A Reid, Babyface and Leon Sylvers were always in there. So we did most of our work at Studio Masters or Larrabee Studios.
Gerry: Studio Masters had a Harrison 32 console. I think the tape machines were an MCI JH-24 and an Ampex, which is what we used at ABC also. Studio Masters was also one of the first places to acquire an SSL console, whilst the rest of us were using APIs and Harrisons. I remember there was a guy by name Jon Gass, who was one of the few engineers I looked up to because of his drum sounds. It took me years to grasp how to use compression effectively, but due to his background as a drummer, Jon understood how to do that really well. I still talk to him to this day and he’s such a great engineer. He was also a real friend to the musicians. Most of the engineers who survived that period put the musicians first, rather than the record companies.
Bernadette: I believe Jon Gass engineered “Meeting In The Ladies Room”. He did a lot of work with Klymaxx in those days.
– Gerry, where were you working when Bernadette got her record deal around 1980? At Lionshare or Total Experience Studios?
Gerry: I was at Total Experience at that time, but I started doing sessions with SOLAR artists right after L.A. and Babyface produced “Rock Steady” for The Whispers’. But my path didn’t cross with Bernadette until later.
– And how did you transition from Total Experience Studios to working at Chick Corea’s studio, Mad Hatter?
Gerry: You seem to know where all the bodies are buried (laughs). I was doing freelance work at Larrabee at one point, and I happened to go to the Hard Rock Cafe where I heard a song by Cameo called “She’s Strange“. Oddly enough, when I went back to the studio, the owner said, “Hey, Larry Blackmon from Cameo is coming tomorrow and needs an engineer to help with a remix “. So I ended up working on that, and soon afterwards I went to New York with Cameo to work on a Syreeta Wright record. But when I came back to LA, I didn’t have much of a client base anymore. I lived around the corner from Mad Hatter studios and had already worked there with Stanley Clarke and Roy Ayers, so I walked in and said, “I usually work as a first engineer, but I don’t mind seconding to earn my spot here “. That’s how I got the job. Mad Hatter was also the place I got connected with Bernadette when I was working with Cheryl Lynn. I had done a rough mix of a track for her and she later suggested I record a different song of hers that Bernadette had produced. So we became acquainted through that
Bernadette, did SOLAR insist that their artists produce a certain kind of sound that reflected the times? A band like The Whispers had a distinctive 70s sound prior to coming to SOLAR, but that changed as early as 1980 with the “Imagination” album, which featured more synths and drum machines. Even Shalamar, who made a textbook 70s record like “Uptown Festival” , switched their sound on “Circumstantial Evidence” in 1987.
Bernadette: I think it was a product of times, as well as the producers that Dick Griffey put in place behind the scenes who were responsible for creating those sounds. He didn’t require anyone to make a certain type of music, but he just kept hiring the same guys who made the last hits. Leon Sylvers had a lot to do with creating the sound of SOLAR in the 80s, and so did L.A and Babyface. So the sound of the label was more about trying to replicate past hits. But Klymaxx’s sound changed with the third album because we took more control of our music, which is why you hear less trends being followed on that one.
– The sound of the 70s, which people describe as warm and wide, got displaced by the sound of the 80s, which was more about punch, reverb and brightness. It seems that a lot of that had to do with new recording equipment that prioritized a pristine signal path over anything else. What can you tell me about that, Gerry?
Gerry: Well, the turning point for the sound of the 80s was when everybody started using drum machines and MIDI. Prior to that, we would spend a lot of time trying to get a good drum sound, which involved everything from waiting for the drummer to arrive at the studio, to setting up the microphones and adjusting the levels on the console. So if the engineer didn’t have the time to do all that, it would create pressure during the session, especially since we were required to do three songs in three hours back then. There just wasn’t time to set up the drum kit properly if you wanted to meet certain deadlines. So it wasn’t unusual for an engineer to settle for whatever sound he had time to get. But when MIDI came out and drum machines like the Linn LM-1 became popular, it enabled us to work faster than with acoustic drums. So most studios gravitated towards that, and it changed the sound of music. Ironically, I get hired a lot nowadays because I still know how to record acoustic drums, and I work with that a lot at The Village. So it seems people are trying to get back to that sound, despite the prevalence of sample packs.
– Once Kenny Rogers rebranded Concorde Studios as Lionshare, there was a gear overhaul at that studio. For example, a new Neve 8108 was put in Studio A. What kind of sonic changes occurred to the music because of adjustments like that?
Gerry: Look, some of those 8100 series Neve units just sounded cheap, and there were a lot of engineers that I respected back then who confirmed that. Mick Guzauski was one of the only people I knew that could make that console sound great. He was based out of Conway Studios at the time and worked with artists like Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, and played a large part in creating the sound of 90s pop music. We still spend a lot of time talking about music technology and how it affects our work today, and both of us came to the conclusion that it’s more about the music than the gear. Sometimes younger artists forget that. I work with a lot of young people nowadays, and they get excited when I pull out old analog gear because of how different it sounds from what they’re used to. But I also tell the vocalists that I don’t use autotune on my sessions, and that either they can sing or they can’t. Back in the day, if a studio session had been set up for you with an engineer, producer and session musicians, you had come ready to perform, and I still have that approach today.
Bernadette: Gerry would always bring word-class musicians to the sessions, like Paulinho da Costa or The Waters. So if the supporting talent was top notch, and the newer, younger musicians couldn’t perform at the level of the veterans, they were dismissed; it was a merciless process. We’d thank the new guy for coming, erase his take the minute they left, and call someone we knew who could do the job.
– A lot is said about the musicianship of 70s acts like Stevie Wonder or Fleetwood Mac, and the vintage technology that was used at the time. But not much is said about how those things informed one another. The musicians of the 70s were still around in the 80s, but the sound of their music changed to reflect the times. So it seems that many of them simply did as the technology dictated. For example, Michael Jackson’s “Off The Wall” is considered to be a landmark 70s album, but “Thriller” went in the opposite direction by using synths and drum machines, and it’s widely held up as the more relevant album. So did the artists even have a choice but to comply with the new technology?
Bernadette: That would depend on the artist. Michael Jackson could have recorded anything he wanted to, and if he didn’t like it, he didn’t do it. So using drum machines and synths on “Thriller” was definitely a deliberate choice.
Gerry: Right. Most of the musicians who worked on “Off The Wall” considered it to be the better-sounding record, but I can’t be mad at “Thriller” either. The sound of those albums had less to do with technology and more about the vision of Quincy Jones, Bruce Swedien and Michael. They wanted to push the envelope, and Bruce was meticulous about everything. He would even go to inspect the vinyl printing of the record to make sure it was done right, and I think the response to “Thriller” validates its quality in the eyes of the public.
Bernadette: The sound of “Thriller” was also determined by the session musicians that played on the record, which were the best in the business. Whenever Akai, Roland or Yamaha developed a new instrument, they would generally send the first units to famous artists and session players before releasing them in stores. So people like Stevie Wonder and Greg Phillinganes would have access to new sounds before everyone else, and that’s what you hear on “Thriller”.
– I understand what you mean about Michael Jackson, but we can take a different example of a less famous artist who Gerry worked with. Ronnie Laws recorded two different albums at ABC and Concorde studios: “Friends and Strangers” and “Solid Ground” respectively. Gerry recorded “Solid Ground”, but it sounds very different from “Friends and Strangers”, and the latter is generally considered to be the better album. Isn’t the influence of changing technology apparent when contrasting the two?
Gerry: I have to agree with you on that. I loved “Friends and Strangers”, and to be perfectly honest, I hated “Solid Ground”. It sounded too bright, and we rushed through the process of recording it with the newer Neve consoles. That was a case of technology hurting us. I’d also gotten to the point of being tired of recording jazz and wanted to move into other genres, and I think it reflected in the final results. I never listen to that album anymore.
– Were you involved in the making of “Friends and Strangers” ?
Gerry: No, not really. I did do a few mixes of it using an API console, but nothing more. My main contribution to the Laws family discography was the Hubert Laws, “Family” album, which I’m very proud to have been a part of. I worked on “Family” whilst also doing Natalie Cole’s album, after which I did Debra Laws’ “Very Special” album. I moved away from recording jazz after that, although I came back later to work on a few Stanley Clarke albums, like “The Stanley Clarke Band“, which won a Grammy.
– Bernadette, you started off as the drummer for Klymaxx, but I noticed that the first and second albums mainly features drum machines. Does that mean you handled drum programming on those? If so, what were the primary drum machines Klymaxx used?
Bernadette: I did some of the drum programming, but we were newcomers to the business and a lot of things had a learning curve for us, especially since our producers had a sound they already wanted us to put out. I hadn’t worked on a drum machine until we got into the studio for the first album, and prior to that I was a conventional drummer for the band. As time went on, I learnt how to program and write songs better, and by the third album I became a vocalist. At that point, we hired a drummer to go on the road with us. For “Meeting in the Ladies Room”, we primarily used the Linn LM-1, but also the Oberheim DMX.
– How did you transition to become the vocalist of the group?
Bernadette: Basically, my personality outgrew the drums as the group became more successful. I played the drums when we toured, but our profile increased as the third album gained popularity, and with that came a desire to be more expressive with my personality. To be perfectly honest, I never felt that I was the best drummer, and I was more interested in being a personality than a drummer. So things naturally progressed that way.
– Gerry, what were you hearing about Klymaxx prior to meeting Bernadette? Did they pop up on your radar?
Gerry: Sure they did. I knew they were a girl group with a crazy front-woman that were having a bunch of hits back to back (laughs). I was always a fan though. I’d go to clubs and hear their songs and I thought they sounded funky, in large part thanks to Bernadette. I also gravitated towards people who came from a church background, and when I learnt that she used to be in a choir, it gave us another reason to bond over music.
Bernadette: People like Michael Norfleet and Chuckii Booker came from the same background as us. In fact, Chuckii’s mother, Celestine Booker, used to be the choir director at our church. Even though he used to have a crush on me, I have to say Chuckii doesn’t compare to his mom as a musician, who was an amazing writer and pianist (laughs). When you come from the church, you have a very high standard of musicality, especially for vocalists, and a lot of singers today lack that. That’s why no-one makes you feel like Aretha Franklin does. Some singers have their niches, but I’ve yet to hear someone that could move your emotions like Aretha. Whitney Houston was in the same category of singer whose standards were very high.
– Do you put Beyoncé in that category?
Gerry: Not really, to be honest. She can certainly sing, but it’s different.
Bernadette: I love her as an entertainer. I wish I could produce for her though. I’d like to bring things out of her that new school producers don’t focus on. It would be nice to get back to the days when one producer worked with a singer to develop a trademark sound for them. I don’t believe Beyoncé has that. She does have major hits, but it would be nice to see a real strong-woman album from her that talks about real issues, like Aretha Franklin has. Aretha will make you pull over to the side of the road in tears, whilst Beyoncé is more of an artist of the moment for the new generation. But I’m still a fan of her work.
– My understanding is that the first two Klymaxx albums didn’t chart, but how did they perform in the long run, commercially and critically?
Bernadette: They did okay, but I think long-time fans remember those albums even better than some of the band members. We were still trying to find our sound at that point, and the songs were already made or halfway done when we walked into the studio. Otis Stokes from Lakeside was one of our first producers, and we didn’t really click with him because he had an opinion of what he wanted a woman to be, which we didn’t agree with; we weren’t going to come home, cook his food and rub his back all night. We were independent and wanted to show that in our music. It became easier when Jimmy and Terry came in. They helped me understand that I could talk about my own vision for how a woman should be. They also gravitated towards the kind of music I wrote. I had a four-track TASCAM recorder at home that I’d make demos on, and they’d always ask to hear what I’d made when we met at the studio. They thought of me like the female Morris Day, and would often compare me to him. So Jimmy and Terry opened up the door for us to become better writers and producers, and by the third album I was able write “The Men All Pause”. We knew we had something special with that song, even though Dick Griffey was like, “I’m not putting out a record called “The Menopause”, and I was like, “No, you got the title wrong…” (laughs). But he eventually gave us the go-ahead, and the record was even more of a success than we expected, especially since I wrote lyrics in only a couple of hours after Joyce presented the track to me.
Gerry: One of the differences between being an artist now and in the 80s is that Klymaxx was allowed to develop as an act. Nowadays if your record stiffs, the label drops you like a bad cheque. That’s why I applaud Dick Griffey as someone who allowed his artists to develop. Today’s A&Rs are so scared that they’re always thinking, “If I don’t get a hit, I’m fired “.
Bernadette: You couldn’t say anything negative about Dick Griffey to me. He’s the reason we made it. Some people say that he took money from them, or this or that, but the money we spent on our music career is what allowed us to still make a living to this day. Mr Griffey was hands-on with us in a way that most record executives wouldn’t have been. For example, Jimmy and Terry wrote “Nasty Girl” for us, but Mr Griffey was like, “You’re not doing that song “, and I didn’t understand why not because we really wanted to record it. Vanity 6 later ended up getting it, but looking back, I’m happy Mr Griffey stopped us. Can you imagine if we had to get on stage in our 50s and sing, “I wish I was a nasty girl ” ? So he had a vision for his artists that helped us in the long run.
Gerry: One of the funny things about Dick Griffey was how he reacted to music he didn’t like. I think it was Shalamar who brought him a tape of their new music to listen to, and if he didn’t like it he would destroy the tape on the spot (laughs). He didn’t want anyone else to hear it if he thought it was bad.
Bernadette: He was a good guy. He’s deceased now, but I was allowed to see him one last time when he was in the hospital. We had developed a close relationship outside of the music industry, so his family let me thank him for my career and spend some time with him. He passed away the next day.
– With “Meeting in the Ladies Room“, Klymaxx finally got some commercial recognition. What changes occurred in your career when you sold a million albums with that one?
Bernadette: Everything changed. At that point, we’d released two failed albums and our mindset was a bit jaded and the excitement was waning. I was even wondering whether I’d have to go back to college, and none of us expected the third album to be a success. It came as news to all of us during the Christmas season. That was in December when everyone at the record company was on vacation. Me and the girls were driving somewhere in the car when we heard on the radio , “Here’s the new hit by Klymaxx! “, and they played “The Men All Pause” – we went crazy. We pulled over the car and started dancing in the street. By the time the label staff came back from vacation, we had a hit, and everything changed after that. We got so much money on our hands that we didn’t know what to do with it. We were able to get nicer cars, nicer homes, new clothes, and most importantly, we were able to tour. But whilst the band members had been equal in poverty, the money and success ended up creating divisions, which led to the break-up of the group.
– I’ve read some comments Bernadette made years ago about how the music industry has changed to the point where major labels don’t even know what they want from their artists. That made me think about some comments Frank Zappa made about the evolution of the music industry (see video below). Can the two of you talk about any changes that were brought about in the industry because of staff changes at record labels, and how that had a negative impact on which projects got prioritized?
Gerry: One thing I noticed whilst working under Ed Eckstein and PolyGram for eight years is that if an assistant to someone influential within the company happened to express an opinion about a record, he was all of a sudden made Head of Publishing at another label, even though he had no experience in the business. So a lot of power was being given to guys who only wanted to chase trends. In contrast, the older cigar-chomping guys that we grew up with knew a good record when they heard it, whilst the generation that came after them didn’t. I remember when Soul II Soul blew up; I was doing a lot of remixes at the time, and label heads would say to me over and over, “Make me a Soul II Soul version of this song “. They didn’t care that the remix wouldn’t fit the artist in question. So the reality is that today’s major labels don’t have record people anymore. The current A&Rs are so scared that they don’t take any chances, and if you don’t sell a million units on your first album, they’ll drop you. So that was the biggest change I saw in terms of staff.
Bernadette: Those cigar-chomping gentlemen from back in the day knew a good record even if it was a bum on the street humming a tune. Nowadays you need at least four finished tracks before a label will even consider you. I remember when I did my solo album in 1990 – they started bringing in all these college graduates to fill positions at the label. They would tell me, “This guy just graduated from Howard University and is going to be your new point person “, and I was like “Okay, but what does he know about music? Nothing “. Then they started giving A&R positions to people from the financial department, which only made sense if the bottom-line was to make more money. It was very disturbing to me. That’s why the focus of my new project with Gerry is to create good music, and not to write hits. We’re currently working on a project called “How To Survive A Mid-Life Crisis“, which I’m producing and Gerry is executive producing, and the focus is to make real music that reflects the legacy we want to create moving forward.
Gerry: In today’s music world, it’s more about social media followings than the quality of music. The bottom-line always used to be how many people you could play to live. Most artists back in the day weren’t focused on over-producing albums because they knew that the real money was to be made on the road. I see some of that with Adele. She doesn’t have to release new music all the time because she has a successful tour life, in addition to album sales.
– Bernadette, why weren’t you a part of “The Maxx is Back” album, given the success of the previous “Meeting In The Ladies Room”?
Bernadette: Klymaxx was going through a lot internal issues at the time, and my personality had become so large that it attracted a lot of people to me. It was a situation where multiple women had worked equally hard to achieve fame, but they weren’t being paid equal amounts of attention, and it bred hostility. So I made the decision to leave the group because I felt I was being picked on. I’d already come from a background were I wasn’t supported by my family for my music decisions, so when the girls I loved started attacking me it felt horrible. It didn’t make me into the kindest person in return either. But despite our disagreements, I still told the group, “I can move on and do other things, but I’ll stay in the band under such and such conditions “. They didn’t agree, and so I left. Even Joyce and Lynn quit the group, which only left three members to do “The Maxx is Back“. They even used one of my songs for the album, which I let them have because I’d already moved on. I’d gotten a record deal with Sylvia Rhone and was working on Madame X, so I had no animosity towards the band. If I hadn’t moved forward with my career, I wouldn’t have been able to become a successful producer. The times were changing and bands were becoming less relevant anyway. It was becoming more about boy and girl groups, and then Bell Biv Devoe burst onto the scene to change everything with the New Jack Swing movement. So I regret nothing concerning my departure from the group.
– When we talk about girl groups with pop crossover appeal, people regularly throw out names like Destiny’s Child, Spice Girls, and TLC. Where do you think Klymaxx fits into that category? I don’t hear their name mentioned much, and I’m wondering if there’s any reluctance to give the group their due for whatever influence they had in the music industry or on pop culture?
Bernadette: I’m glad you brought that up. It baffles me why we aren’t given much credit. I believe Klymaxx were trailblazers in the attitude that women in music industry have today. It’s not widely known, but I created the word “diva” in the marketplace, and I don’t think many women were talking about self-love the way Klymaxx did at the time. I even created the concept of designer clothes in music with lyrics like, “My Gianni Versace blue-leather suit “. So I often wonder why others, especially women, don’t give us credit for that. Ironically, more men give us credit than women do.
Gerry: I don’t think you can deny the cultural relevance Klymaxx had, and still has. How many girl groups do you know that still have their music being performed on Saturday Night Live? The latest one was in April, and featured Emma Stone.
(Video may be unavailable outside of the US. Alternatively, you can watch it here)
Bernadette: That was the second skit SNL has done on us after the one with Halle Berry in 2003. So Klymaxx are still known as a culturally relevant group, but it’s odd how our credit is kept under wraps. But I’m hoping that this new project, “How To Survive A Midlife Crisis”, will put the band’s name out there again on a positive note.
– To the best of your knowledge Bernadette, was there ever an agenda put in place where a certain of kind of girl image started being pushed by records labels and MTV, where being shallow and oversexualized was rewarded over being articulate and talented?
Bernadette: I think that change came after us. During the Motown and SOLAR era, label heads didn’t allow women to be seen like that. They were very particular and protective of the image of their female artists. Klymaxx did what we did without shaking ass or showing tits, and not only were we successful as artists, but two of the women from the group went on to become famous producers, and Lynn Malsby wrote one of the biggest hits of the 80s with “I Miss You“. So I think the oversexualization agenda came out with the subsequent generation of artists.
– But Madonna had no issue with being hypersexual in her visuals as an 80s artists, and the industry supported that.
Bernadette: Yes, but Madonna was in control of her own stuff, which is a different situation than a label head dictating the direction and image of a female act. It’s the same thing with Cardi B today. She’s a former stripper, so sex appeal is what she’s chosen to sell. I love what she’s doing, but the fact is that most girl groups have been traditionally assembled and produced by men who had their own idea of what the girls should be. We’re now seeing a whole crop of girls that are running their own careers, from Cardi B and Nicki Minaj to Megan Thee Stallion. Even if their music is meant to follow the trends of today, I’m still a fan of them managing their own careers and saying what they want.
Gerry: Personally, I like what Billie Eilish is doing. Her music is aggressive without being contrived. It’s easy for new artists to have an attitude that’s not accessible to public, but she doesn’t suffer from that. It’s also easy for new acts to suffer from a lack of identity. For example, I really can’t tell one mumble rapper from the next, but Billie Eilish does a good job of standing out as a pop act. What I don’t like is how Nicki Minaj and Cardi B continue to bash each other though.
Bernadette: I don’t understand that. Can you imagine how popular a duo of Nicki Minaj and Cardi B would be? It’s very disturbing how women can’t come together. Even when I reached out to different women to involve them in “How To Survive A Midlife Crisis”, I couldn’t get them to come together for it, especially the older ones; it’s the weirdest thing to me.
– Gerry, at what point did you start working with Raphael Saadiq?
Gerry: I was doing a lot of work with PolyGram, and had heard one of Tony Toni Toné’s songs called “Little Walter“. Ed Eckstein later told me they were trying to get away from their production team at the time, Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy. So he gave them $3000 to get out of that situation and suggested I work with them. I went into the meeting thinking they would ask me to be a producer and I kind of blew it by giving them too many demands, but they still asked me to engineer a few of their songs. So we did “Feels Good” and “It Never Rains (In Southern California)“. After that, I remember sitting in the studio with Raphael and he said, “I really like what you do as an engineer “. So even after the group broke up, I decided to stay working with him.
Bernadette: A lot of Gerry’s success has to do with him being more than just an engineer. He has opinions that he can share, and he brings qualities to a song that even the artist doesn’t think about. Frankly, he should raise his prices because he plays the role of both producer and engineer. For example, he worked on Andra Day’s Grammy-nominated “Cheers To The Fall” album, and I was in the studio to see how he contributed more than just mixing to that.
– It’s been a while since Raphael’s last album, “Stone Rollin“, and it’s hard to predict what his next record will sound like. Is there any anticipation in his camp that the next album might not be as acclaimed as past ones?
Gerry: I think that if you make good music, the people will come. I’ve heard the new singles from his upcoming album, and I love it because he’s still making good music. The new album took us eight years to do, and it came to a point where I was wondering if it was ever going to come out, or if he was worried about having a hit. I remember when the record company heard the album and weren’t that interested. They wanted him to make a second “The Way I See It“, even though Raphael wanted to go in a different direction. But once he let that kind of expectation go, things started flowing again. So I’ve always admired that he doesn’t chase trends or obsess over the label’s definition of commercial success, which is what real artists do.
– But when you say true artists don’t chase hits, I don’t see that in the case of Michael Jackson. He was known for being obsessed with his commercial performance, and even left Quincy Jones for people like Teddy Riley in order to secure more hits, allegedly because he felt Quincy wasn’t getting the job done.
Gerry: I was close to that situation so I can speak on it a little. Michael felt he knew better about where he wanted to go, and Quincy didn’t want to do another album with him because Michael was bringing in music that he didn’t particularly like. Personally, I love the “Dangerous” album specifically because of Teddy’s involvement, but “History” was different. For that album, Michael had keyboard players lining up out of the studio in his attempt to catch a new sound that could sell records. He didn’t have someone like Quincy Jones to help him, who understood about arrangements and production, and I think it shows on that album.
Bernadette: At that point, Michael was just testing different things to see what would work. I think he and Quincy had a falling out because he didn’t want to give Quincy the credit he deserved. So when you’re left on your own accord, you naturally gravitate towards whoever the hottest producer is. I also think Michael was little out of his lane, which I say respectfully. Back in the day, each aspect of a song would be handled by a specialist; you had a lead vocalist, a background vocalist, a producer, a songwriter, etc, and Michael probably realized how profitable it could be to do all of it himself.
Gerry: He was definitely out of his lane. You can’t put him in the same category as Quincy as far as being a producer. Quincy came up doing everything from Lesley Gore to Frank Sinatra. So it got to a point where Quincy and Michael didn’t feel comfortable continuing together. Most people don’t know, but Michael didn’t even want Quincy on stage with him at the Grammys when he accepted all those awards for “Thriller”. So ultimately I think he went down the wrong road with that, even though I do like the “Dangerous” album.
– Gerry, you’ve also done work with The Roots on “Illadelph Highlife“. Can you talk about that?
Gerry: Sure. I had just finished working on the last Tony Toni Toné record, “House Of Music“, which we did at Brilliant Studios. By the way, I consider that to be Raphael’s first solo album because he ended up contributing most of it. I remember when the A&R guy came in to hear the album and Raphael had already done nine songs with his own band. The other two members had only done one song at the time, though they ended up with three more on the final album. The rest was done by Raphael. Soon afterwards, Questlove called and said that The Roots wanted to do a song called “What They Do“. I had gotten tired of working at big studios at the time, but I still wanted to record all the band members together, so I found an old warehouse in the Mission District of San Francisco that I filled with gear and we did the recording there over two days.
– You also worked on the “Lucy Pearl” album, correct?
Gerry: Yes. Lucy Pearl were having some internal issues at the time, so I was brought in by Raphael to work with Dawn Robinson because I had a good relationship with her. Additionally, I ended up doing a few songs on that record at Larrabee Studios.
– As someone who’s mixed countless of records in the 90s, what would you say is the most characteristic aspect of urban music from that period, sonically speaking?
Gerry: Firstly, compression played a major role in the music of that time, which is a concept people don’t seem to understand very well anymore. Secondly, bass frequencies also became an important consideration in the 2000s. We were printing vinyl in the 80s and 90s, which only offered so much bandwidth. But once we got into the digital age, it allowed us to put more bottom-end into our records. Given the people I worked with, if you didn’t emphasize the low-end in a mix, you wouldn’t get the job. Finally, you really need to make sure that mastering engineers don’t mess up your record. A lot of them use digital tools nowadays, but I still use Bernie Grundman in LA. He sticks to analog stuff, and that allows me to achieve the right level and bottom-end. I think Bernie is focused on mastering jazz records now, but there’s another guy at his company who handles the urban music work. There’s also a guy named Herb Powers Jr that I still work with. He used to work at the Hit Factory, and we’ve done on a lot of records together in the past. So I go back and forth between New York and LA for my mastering needs.
– And how did you become involved with John Legend’s projects?
Gerry: That came about through Raphael. He called me up and said that he had an album he wanted me to mix, without saying who it was for. So I called up some friends to ask what it was about, and learned that it was John Legend’s “A Legendary Christmas“ album. Me and John hit it off really well, and he later asked me to work on his upcoming album, which is almost done. We’re recording vocals for it right now. From what I’ve heard thus far, I think it’s going to be a major success. Also, the Christmas album is getting a re-release in November with four new songs, which I mixed.
The thing I appreciate about the people I work is that they let me do my job without standing over my shoulder. John might be working in the studio across the hall at Raphael’s Blakeslee Studios, but he won’t even come into the room when I’m mixing until I say I’m ready. That allows me the freedom to be able to get the mix where I want, and it leads to a better result.
(Below: Gerry Brown)
– Can the two of you talk about how Madame X came about?
Bernadette: In the midst of me leaving Klymaxx, I got call from Sylvia Rhone. She asked what I intended to do next, and I told her about my idea of putting together another girl group. One of the wonderful things about the old school cigar-chomping executives is that they could understand a concept. So Sylvia signed the concept of Madame X before I even formed the group. Gerry was with me when I found the girls and Corney Mims helped produce “Just That Type Of Girl“. Corney’s my guy by the way. I’ve had him on a lot of Klymaxx music as well, like “Sexy“. He’s a bad bass player. “Bad” as in really good (laugh)
Gerry: I engineered “Madame X”, and was also involved in helping to find the last member of the group. Bernadette had already found the others, but we were missing a really good singer. Alisa Randolph was the last person we auditioned. After we heard her, we stepped into the hallway and were like, “That’s the one! “. Making that album was such a joy for us, and it let Bernadette flex her muscles as a producer, which allowed me to just kick back and focus on engineering.
– Have there been any trademark issues with Madonna since she used “Madame X” as the title of her latest album?
Bernadette: No, because I don’t have a trademark on the name.
(Below: Album cover for “The Drama According To Bernadette Cooper”)
– Following Madame X, you released your solo album, “The Drama According To Bernadette Cooper” in 1990. How were you able to obtain a record deal for that, and how did the album perform commercially?
Bernadette: After I left Klymaxx, Louil Silas came to me and said he wanted to sign me to an artist deal, and I used that to release my solo album. The album was critically acclaimed by the public, but didn’t do so well in sales for different reasons. Firstly, the record company didn’t know what to do with me. I was just a different artist to them, and they ended up moving me over to the alternative music division. They were also changing label heads every few months, and I remember one of them saying that he didn’t believe in videos, despite the recent rise of MTV and with me being such a video-centric artist. Once Bell Biv Devoe blew up I just got lost in the shuffle of the new generation of artists. But the album received a lot praise in Europe, and even Bette Midler opens her show with “I Look Good” from the album. Saturday Night Live are familiar with it too, so a lot of good things came out of that album, and I feel like it did what it was supposed to do.
– After your solo album, there doesn’t seem to be much Bernadette Cooper material being released in the 90s. What happened with your career during that decade?
Bernadette: Like I said, I kind of got lost in the shuffle of the new generation of music that was coming out at that time. One thing Dick Griffey taught me was to be in it but not of it. So I just started doing other things, and I also had family to take care of. I had moved to New York and opened up a business there, but was called back to take care of my mom, which I still do, and I’d been taking care of my grandmother prior to that, who later passed away. Then I developed a love for writing books about women, which I’m working on now, and eventually Gerry and I decided to hook up and work on “How To Survive A Midlife Crisis”. The project is kind of a secret because of the people involved, and you’re the first person we’ve talked to about it. A lot of it will be released in the UK, which is a market I’m focusing a lot on. In Europe, there’s a bigger hunger for good live music performances nowadays, and even though I’ve been touring the US for the last ten years, I want to do things a bit different with the upcoming release.
Gerry: I was talking to Raphael about this the other day. Over in Europe, they seem to get that the music is the most important thing about an artist. Audiences have a different level of appreciation there, regardless of the genre.
– Why the title, “How To Survive a Midlife Crisis” ? Aren’t you passed that point? Or do you mean something else by “midlife crisis” ?
Bernadette: I don’t just write my music for myself. I write for others also, and my audience demographics are generally people who are over 40 – people who struggle with different things that I can talk about, like how to live your life fabulously after your 40s. Even I struggle with that sometimes. For me, “midlife crisis” means getting to a point in your life where you can’t move forward; maybe you’re stuck in a situation you don’t want to be in anymore, or you’re wondering how you can move forward but still be the best person you can be. I can’t really speak to younger kids about that, but I can speak to my demographic audience because the topics I write about are usually things I’ve experienced. Much of my music is about emphasizing self-love and being fly until you die, and the best way to do that is by focusing on yourself and letting go of things from the past that no longer work for you. That’s what this album is about.
(Above: Bernadette Cooper)
– Thanks for talking to me guys. It’s been a long chat, but I’ll end things off with a question for each of you. Bernadette, even though you’re a longstanding artist who’s legacy is assured, I find that the average person on the street under 30 doesn’t necessarily know much about that legacy. So what kind of industry respect can Bernadette Cooper command in a world were music seems to be at its most disposable?
Bernadette: I do have respect, that’s for sure. Especially among my peers and sometimes even among their daughters and grand-daughters, thanks to their mothers playing them my music. I think people know me as one of the only female black producers who changed the game, and that’s enough for me. I’m not trying to make everyone love me. Hopefully my legacy will be strengthened by the upcoming album and other things like my books. So I’m just moving forward with my life, and grasping onto the things I love. If someone wants to come along with me on that, that’s cool, and if not, that’s cool too.
– Gerry, as someone who’s resume is quite extensive, why have you chosen maintain such a low media profile? With the endorsements offered up by companies like Waves and UAD, as well as shows like Pensado’s Place finding success, it’s become common for engineers to attain celebrity status through a constant media presence, yet I don’t see much of that from you.
Gerry: Well, I’m now a part of a new team called The Humanz, and we’re starting to become more visual in our branding, but I’ve always looked at myself as a craftsman. It’s never been about how famous I could be, but rather how famous the music I worked on for others could be. I still get people telling me I should be doing more media, but it’s never been a focus for me. My recent talks with Waves about possible plugin collaborations only came about because they approached me with the idea. Frankly, my relationships have always been more important to me than my exposure. I’m grateful for the remarks I get from people who say that I’m a legend in what I do, but sometimes it’s like they’re trying to give me a Lifetime Achievement Award, as if I’m dead or something (laughs). I don’t dwell on it too much because I’d rather think about what my next project is going to be, and my priority is to make good records. I have enough clout in the industry that when I walk into a room, people know I’m going to do a good job, and that’s the most important part to me.
Keep an eye out for the upcoming November single from “How To Survive A Midlife Crisis”, titled “No More Sex”, by Klymaxx feat Bernadette Cooper with Lorena Lungs.