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Genya Ravan Interview

Genya Ravan, April, 2014
conducted via FaceTime


Femme Metal is an expanding category in the music scene. MFVF is attended by large numbers, bands like Nightwish, Epica, Within Temptation and others travel the world to sold out concerts. But, these women are not the first in rock and metal, far from it. And, much as we appreciate the work that has been required to get them to this point, they benefit from others who came before them. One of these is Genya Ravan. And hers is a story that makes the others pale by comparison. Genya was a Polish Jew whose early years were spent as a prisoner in Nazi Death camps in WWII. After liberation by Russian troops, she, and what was left of her family, were transferred to a Russian work camp. They escaped and, with the help of sympathetic western aid groups, found themselves in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City where Genya grew into her teens. From there, Genya found her way into the music scene in New York, later in Europe and continues her career today. Sonic Cathedral’s Dr. T has long followed her illustrious career and recently arranged the following conversation via Face Time in New York.


Doctor T:  Hi Genya, I’ve really been looking forward to talking to you. Let’s start out with a general question. You have an interesting background, both in the music business and from your youth. Could you tell us a little about your life before the music business, where did you come from?

Genya:  I came from Poland, and my parents were in concentration camp. I didn’t speak a word of English when we got here. I moved right to the Lower East Side where I started to learn English through a radio, listening to R & B, the Do Waps. That’s how I learned to speak English. As far as growing up it was a rough time for me because the Lower East side was filled with refugees and nothing to do but get in trouble. That’s why when the whole Punk thing came up I said, “Hey, I was a punk long before you guys. Like Marlon Brando was a punk in the Wild Ones.” So, the Lower East side before it was fashionable to be living there.

Doctor T:  Genya, people come into the music business from a variety of ways, some prepare for it for years, others just decide that’s something they want to do and do it. How did you get into the music business?

Genya:  Believe me, it was not because it was a dream to become a star, and not something planned, not something I thought about. It wasn’t even a thought in my head. But, I did sing along with the radio all the time. It not only helped with my languages but it kinda made my ears like sponges. That’s what Ornett Coleman said to me one time, now I know why you don’t need any charts or music but you can pick up so fast, it’s your training. My training was a street training of radio. But, back to the question, it was on a dare, I was in a club called LolliPop Lounge in Brooklyn and I was singing along because they were doing all the oldies. Richard Perry was in that band and they were called the Escorts. I jumped up on stage, I was dared to go up on stage. But even then, I didn’t start, I was drinking and even though people loved it it was just a dare. Richard asked me what key and I said, “What do you want my key for?” I didn’t even know what a key was. It’s like people ask me about charts, I said, “I went to the doctor, nobody said anything about charts.” I just did not know anything of music, nothing. But, the next thing I knew people were loving it. That was the first time I heard my voice on a microphone and I loved it. Actually, I still do. But, the next thing I knew Richard Perry asked me for my number and I gave it to him and I just thought he was coming on to me, and in a way he was but well, the next thing I’m in a recording studio and I’m singing Somewhere from the West Side Story which I did not like. I’m into R & B. Give me a Ray Charles song, give me a Do Wap song. Here I am doing whitey white song (starts singing, “There’s a place for me . . . ). But, it turns out to be Number one in Ohio, parts of Detroit. But, that’s how it began, it was a good time for me. I feel sorry today for the kids coming in, I really do, because for me it was clubs. Six shows a night was my schooling. There was no such thing as getting horse. When I started producing girls would complain. I said “sing”, I wanted to belt her. Take some speed, whatever. I was doing cheese cake modeling at the time. I was about 16. That’s when you’re nude but you don’t show everything. I was getting $100 an hour, in the 60s. I don’t have to tell you what that is for a young girl. I would have been happy doing that, but a higher power intervened. I don’t know where I would have gone from that. But, I also danced. I liked stripper music so that could have been interesting. But, it’s a good thing singing came in because I had no schooling. So, that’s how that happened.




Doctor T:  Women have always been a part of the music business, but they weren’t always a part of the rock music business, especially early on. What was it like for you when you first started? How were you accepted by people, other musicians and the labels?

Genya:  OK, this is easy until I went solo. When I came into the business, I got Goldie and the Gingerbreads, the first all-girl rock and roll band right after the Richard Perry Number One record. I started the all-girl band. We were so unique but the players were amazing. My keyboard player was like Jimmy Smith, played a big Hammond organ, Leslie speakers. I had a great drummer that nailed it down; that was Ginger, my partner at the time. When we came into the business it was, I didn’t feel the wrath, what I felt was being put on pedestal. We got paid more because we were women. So really, you had no complaints from me until I had to call shots. And I don’t mean with Goldie and the Gingerbreads, I’m talking about Ten Wheel Drive now on to producing, you know. I was known in recording studios and with engineers as the bitch to work with and I remember saying to one of my engineers, “You know, it’s very funny but when this bitch here tells you she doesn’t like that particular sound on a base drum I become a bitch yet when a Tony Vescante says I don’t like that base drum he’s a genius. Why is that? You don’t like taking orders from a woman, is that what the problem is here?”. Was it a hassle, yes. Bless Mike Bernica from RCA. He gave me my first production job. He asked me about the budget and I told him what the budget would be. That’s part of a producer’s job. You gotta come up with the costs, what the musicians are gonna cost. . . . any charts, whatever. He said OK but we’ll hold on to the budget as you go along. I said, “What, are you afraid I”m gonna get a washing machine, I mean, do you think I’m gonna go shopping with your money?” It was a difficult thing but I gotta tell ya, my sense of humor from having Goldie and the Gingerbreads helped. We were managed by the mob, we couldn’t be around more chauvinistic people in your life. We took advantage of it. So, you’re asking the wrong woman if she felt anything. I feel it more today than I did then. I came in pretty underground with an all-girl band doing cover songs, of course. It all started with, I felt the push and pull when I went on my own and was calling the shots.

Doctor T:  You’ve had a lot of experience with labels both as a performer and as a label yourself. What are some of your thoughts regarding labels, both from the standpoint of a performer and as a label?

Genya:  It is a touchy one. Labels, how do I put this? I’ve had a long career so I’ve watched the companies eat themselves up, I’ve watched them going down, I’ve watched them being bought up. Do you see any A & R men walking into clubs today looking for talent? No. You get a Shakira and then sign 9 Shakiras. You get whatever. There are no companies anymore. It’s Universal, CBS, all of them, there are no record people anymore. What it use to be, listen, I had a label called Polish Records which I spelled POLISH which is Polish (Nationality) and I did that for a reason. I had tee-shirts made that said “Who do I fuck to get off this label”. And in the front it said POLISH RECORDS, this is no joke because every joke in the world is a Polish (nationality) joke. I mean, I used all of that to my advantage and I produced a group called El Futuro, the first Puerto Rican rock n roll band, I had em’ do it in English. Anyway, that was my label. I tried to do Virgin, I mean, what was that label, Stiff, Stiff Records, that was the best. They were the best. In order to have talent you have to have people go out and find talent. You don’t just get people who sound like other people, and that’s what they do. There are no labels, none. I feel bad for the artists that are coming in right now. It’s like fast food, where are the balls, where is something different. And radio, I’m so glad Little Stephen (van Zant) is doing what he’s doing. I’m able to play my two shows, Chicks and Broads, I get to play all the women who rocked your world. And also Goldie’s Garage. I’m out there looking for new bands. I have a label that I want to start using. It’s called Tawdry Music. I want to start doing that, but I’ve got too much on my plate.

Doctor T:  The music scene over the years has changed. You’ve seen most of the changes in the rock /metal scene. How would you describe those changes in general, what are some of the major developments that have influenced things during these years?

Genya:  Well, OK. I watched the music industry eat itself up. Today, all I’m saying to you is there is no music industry. There are corporations. People are looking for something right now. Listeners are dying for real music. These so called record companies are pushing things down people’s throats right now. Between TV and video, what happened was the whole industry ate itself up. It started with MTV, which was good for a while. It’s a business of more, more, more. And it became a business rather than the business of art. There’s not one family where someone’s not pushing some kid to be a musician. When I came up it was taboo to be a musician. Today parents are pushing it. My kids’ gonna be a star. No lady, you don’t want her to be a star. Send her to college.

Doctor T:  You’re one of the few performers who have worked extensively in both the US and outside the US, especially Western Europe. What are some of the differences you experienced between those two environments?




Genya:  Huge, a huge difference. I was talking about that to a friend of mine the other day. It’s like, you know how a guy will screw anybody’s sister? But if you screw his he’ll kill ya. That’s how this country is about their music. Look at the blues guys. You know who brought them back? The English. The Germans. And what about France with Jazz. They’re keeping us alive. And there is a time in England you didn’t make it till you came to the States. But for the Americans it was you didn’t make it till you went to Europe. You know, Lou Reed for example, he didn’t make money here, he was nothing here. He played big arenas in Europe. He got top money in Europe. But when he died he was headlines in the New York Times you know. Cause he’s dead. When you’re dead here you make more money you know. The United States is this, let me fuck your sister but you can’t have mine. Alright, and if it wasn’t for the English and if wasn’t for the Germans and if it wasn’t for the European market, the music scene, I don’t know what would have happened. Number one, there would have been no Stones, and you know, they’re still going strong, I toured with them and I gotta tell ya I have a warm spot in my heart for these guys. And London, it was a music town. Melody Maker, New Music Express, I went over there I thought I’d died and went to heaven. Everything was based on press and, they loved Americans, again we’ll screw your sister but don’t touch ours. In those days we were exchanges, the Stones couldn’t come in without an American exchange, which I thought was a great idea.. Because if the Stones were gonna make money here somebody from the States has to make money there.

Doctor T:  I’ve always been interested in how music is developed. What models did you utilize both in terms of developing the music and the lyrics and what was your typical involvement?

Genya:  The lyrics come from my experiences. If you listen to all of my lyrics from Revington Street to Pedal to the Metal, Jerry’s Pigeons, these are all stories of mine from the Lower East Side. This last CD which I did, all of the songs are chapters of my life. So it’s kind of a score to my book. Lady of the Harbor will break your little heart. There’s a play being done on my book right now, it’ll be a musical. Ray Charles was the biggest inspiration for me, and how did I do it, my lyrics come from what I feel and how did I do it? I sang along with people that I admired and that I loved. And my scope of music is not just R & B. I listen to Betty Carter, King Pleasure, James Moody, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklyn, all of that music and all the Do Wap that I grew up to, Earth Angel, Sincerely by the Moon Glows. That’s how I did it. There was no schooling. Matter of fact, first time I recorded with the Richard Perry and the Escorts I told Henry Jerome “I’m going to take singing lessons” and he said “Don’t you dare, you have a sound, don’t change the sound”. I thought alright. I thought I would get myself better and he said “No, better could make it worse”. That’s what happened to the industry.

Doctor T:  Touring is often the lifeblood of bands in the rock / metal business. It has its good and bad parts. What has that component been like for you? How would you compare it to having regular dates in your own geographical area, like staying in New York City?




Genya:  They’re important. Touring and performing in front of an audience is important. I’m not talking about Madison Square Garden, I’m talking about face to face, in clubs. You hone your talent that way. To get up in front of cameras, to get up in front of a live audience. I tell ya, I’m one of those personal performers. And I believe, and he did it, Bruce Springsteen is a personal performer. He’s from the same school. You got to do freekin’ clubs. You’ve got to be on more than 3 minutes. You’ve got to be interlocking with your audience. I even told that to my musicians in Ten Wheel Drive, you know, now that’s chauvinism by the way, the horn sections of Ten Wheel Drive, three of them I fired, three full horn sections. Those were chauvinists. They’d have loved if I had sat on the side like in the 30s, they had women sitting on the side of the stage and then they’d come up and sing a song. Now wait, where was I , oh yea, performing. You know, I use to say to my players, “Listen, when I call a break, it’s ‘cause I know what the fuck I’m doin’. I call a break ‘cause I’m the one that’s looking and talking to the audience. You’re not. You’re behind a chart, you’re behind an instrument. I am the one that is connecting.” That’s why Mick Jagger is such an important part of the Rolling Stones, you know. There’s your connection, there’s yer mouthpiece. So, where do you get that, from being in Madison Square Garden or Carnegie Hall for 15 minutes? No. You get that from 6 shows a night, twenty minute breaks, period.

Doctor T:  Your career has seen time spent in a number of capacities within the music business performer, label, pretty much everything. How does this influence your thinking regarding the business and have you seen many others who took this path?

Genya:  I know, sometimes I feel bad. It’s almost like there’s no future. You know what I’m saying. How do you plan your life with no future? You’re as good as your last performance. Where are the Arme Hurnagens who will work with you for the next album instead of dropping you? Where is that? It’s all about the money baby, that’s it, we’ve lost heart. The music business has no heart and thank God for the internet ‘cause I didn’t even know that I had as many fans as I did. I had no idea, you know. I got a web site and I started to get fan mail. It floored me, that’s why I started to sing again. Matter of fact I put out one CD called “For Fans Only” of all the outtakes and stuff and people loved it. Now I have the independence of recording in my house but there’s nothing like an audience. Nothing like it.

Doctor T:  Your music covers a lot of time. Could you talk a little about some of the themes your music, especially the lyrics addressed? There sure were some differences between the music of Goldie and the Gingerbreads and Ten Wheel Drive. What influenced those musical / lyrical directions?

Genya:  Well, growing with the times. News changes, music has a slight change, it’s like Dylan going electric. Everybody was up in arms you know. When you’re young and in this business, you grow with the business. It was a part of a growth. I didn’t say deliberately after Goldie and the Gingerbreads, “Well, I think I’ll start a jazz horn band”. It wasn’t that, it was evolving. When you’re young you evolve, we evolved in the business. And I was lucky I was allowed to evolve, matter of fact sometimes I evolved so much I was ahead of the game which never worked but I opened a lot of doors. For example, Pat Benatar, when I put out Urban Desire, that was the most picked album, me and Springsteen were the most picked albums. And radio stations wouldn’t play me, they said hard rock isn’t happening. I said “Yea, watch what happens, I know who’s in the studio”. But being a pioneer and being first is not always a good thing. But, I was evolving with life, with music, you know. Music has saved my life. The difference, my roots will always be my roots and you can hear it everything I do. And my roots are the Etta James, the Moonglows, the Penguins, the Doo Whaps. All of that stuff is my roots and you can hear it. I had a friend of mine tell me the other day, “You know listening to the oldies, when you’re singing it, you sound like the oldies and I never realized it before that you brought that into your music today.” And it is, I haven’t changed that, my voice hasn’t changed. Lyrics and thoughts have changed. The 70s were a pretty heavy time. It was acid, it was love, although I have to tell you, and I did a lot of stupid stuff, I never did acid, matter of fact I was afraid of it. That’s why I had to have my roadie open my drink for me on stage. When you tour with the Chambers Brothers you worry. So anyway, it was a time, I evolved with the times and I grew and the music business grew. Is it growing now? NO. It’s about money now, that’s the difference.

Doctor T:  Well, I remember playing Through the Eye of the Needle  on the radio and getting different reactions in different parts of the country at the same time. Not always positive, especially in rural areas where they didn’t get much music like that.

Genya:  Well, the single we had out, it was banned. The track I Usually Like it in the Morning Much Better was banned.




Doctor T:  Well, trust me, Needle got banned too.

Genya:  Ahh, Through the Eye of the Needle, it doesn’t say anything. What do you think it talks about?

Doctor T:  Well, it obviously has the drug connotation but I always saw it as having to do with thought.

Genya:  Exactly, it had nothing to do with drugs. It means you’re going through a hard time. You’re trying to make it. (Sings, “I ain’t gonna make it baby).

Doctor T:  That’s what I thought. And it was always one of my favorites.

Well, that’s all the time we have. On behalf of Sonic Cathedral and our readers, I want to thank you for your time today Genya. This has been a most interesting conversation. And I look forward to many more years of enjoying your music. It is clearly timeless.

Genya Ravan’s music is available on Amazon and iTunes FaceBook