Stephanie De Sykes, (Stephanie DeSykes) is best remembered for her early solo hit, Born With A Smile On My Face and as one of the vocalists on Cerrone's disco classic Love In C Minor, and several Alec R. Costandinos' disco projects such as Romeo and Juliet... She is interviewed for DiscoMusic.com by Jussi Kantonen who is a DJ and author of the book Saturday Night Forever. Enjoy the Stephanie De Sykes interview.
Getting hold of a conceptual studio group disco album you'd immediately turn it around to see who the producer was, who did the arranging and importantly, who the featured backup singers were. In an American record you looked for names like Jocelyn Brown, Diva Gray or the trio Carla Benson, Evette Benton and Barbara Ingram, known as The Sweethearts of Sigma. If a European production could boast Sunny Leslie, Kay Garner, Madeline Bell or Stephanie De Sykes, you knew you had a quality product in your hands. These tantalizing ladies were the unseen, yet distinct and recognisable actresses and stars in their own right in the cinematic disco dramas directed by luminaries like Alec R. Costandinos.
DiscoMusic.com is honoured to be able to talk to Stephanie De-Sykes, featured singer in what are considered some of the greatest dance records ever like Cerrone's Love In C Minor and Sir Alec's immortal Romeo and Juliet. Stephanie also did the impossibly infectious Born With A Smile On My Face, a bubblegum era classic and number two pop hit in Great Britain.
Let's start a bit predictably with the very beginnings. Stephanie, did you have a musical background?
My mother's father had been a silent movie pianist in the early part of the 20th century; one of her brothers became a session pianist and she herself always played and wrote songs although, as the mother of four children, she could only pursue this activity as a hobby. I had piano lessons as a child, and loved to sing in the bath, but I just thought all households were full of music as mine was - it never occurred to me that it might one day become my career. Drama was my passion, and I was determined to be an actress.
My son, Toby Slater, had a hit here in 1989 with his first band, Catch, with whom he was lead singer. The song, which he wrote, was called Bingo. They were signed to Virgin, and were very successful for a while in Asia. His current band is called Tough Love; it has a drummer and two percussionists and the music they play is a kind of tribal rock. A recent review described them as "Adam Ant meets Scissor Sisters." His father, Stuart Slater, was lead singer with a 1960s R & B band from Liverpool called The Mojos. They had a hit with a song called Everything's Alright (written by Stuart, then known as Stu James), which was covered by David Bowie on his Pin Ups album. Stuart's daughter from his first marriage is married to and manages the hugely successful mixer extraordinaire Mark "Spike" Stent.
My sister's son, Richard Beadle, son of that producer who recommended me for the Born with a Smile job, became the youngest musical director in Europe. He is currently MD of Grease (his first West End MD job) and is about to open, again in the West End, with Priscilla - Queen of the Desert as MD for that.
Was the above- mentioned monster hit Born With A Smile On My Face your first job in a recording studio, and how did it come about?
It came about by way of a mixture of accidents and coincidence. I'd stumbled into singing quite by chance a few years earlier when I was a struggling, usually unemployed actress, and was fortunate enough to find myself doing session/studio work - mostly backing vocals at that stage. Having learned the piano as a child, I could read music which, in those days, was pretty much essential if you were to be a session singer. In 1974 The producer of the UK's most popular soap opera, Crossroads, was looking for an actress/singer who could play the part of a pop star in a forthcoming story line, and the man he approached for help in finding a suitable person was producing an album at the time with me and three male singers, calling us "Rain." Len Beadle (the producer) immediately suggested me for the job: not only did he know of my previous acting experience but he'd recently met my kid sister and was shortly to marry her. Furthermore, one of the guys in "Rain" was Simon May, who'd written Born with a Smile on My Face anyway!
In 1976, you were summoned to the studio to take part in the recording of Jean Marc Cerrone's Love In C Minor. Can you tell us how this happened?
Thank you for telling me that it was 1976, because I've been searching through my old diaries to try to work it out - and they only go back to 1977, so no wonder I couldn't find any reference to it. I know that all the work I did for Alec Costandinos was booked by the fixing partnership of John and Monica Watson, so I presume that they just phoned a bunch of us and offered us the work - that's how sessions mostly happened. I had no idea that the job would be so interesting, nor that it would lead to so much more wonderful work with Alec over the coming years. What a lucky phone call that was.
Inevitably, the next question focuses on the prologue heard on the European pressings of the Love In C Minorrecord, the legendary exchanges between the predatory female clubbers sipping that champagne and sizing up the talent in the bar. Were you one of the participants in that narrative?
Ah, yes I remember that very well! I was indeed one of the participants although I confess that as the proceedings became progressively more raunchy I and one of the other girls (Jean Hawker, as I recall) eventually elected to sit out the remainder of that part of the recording since we were both becoming somewhat embarrassed. My mother has always said that I'm a bit of a prude at heart! I remember listening to some of the other girls sounding more and more orgasmic and thinking "Gosh aren't they brave!"
Was Jean Marc Cerrone in the studio while you worked on the vocals of the tracks, or did he stay in Paris?
He was there, yes, although he remained in the control room upstairs - so far as I can recall he was up there the whole time, watching us through the huge window.
The following all too few years were the golden age of Disco, and you were involved in many of the era's most beautiful and spectacular productions. Can we discuss Alec R. Costandinos, the now-reclusive producer and songwriter now held in iconic esteem? What was it like working with him?
Is he (Alec Costandinos) reclusive now? That's such a shame - not least of all because I'd love to know how he is. And what a waste of an extraordinary talent. Working with him was an absolute joy: he was totally professional while managing to be warm, personable and fun. He was also a highly intelligent man - you don't necessarily get too many really bright people to the pound in the music business, but he really was one of the exceptions. He was incredibly considerate, kind and generous, too: he never, ever tried to pay us less than the going rate for the job (unlike many others), and since we usually recorded through the night (a typical session for him would start at 10.00 p.m. and end at around 6.00 in the morning) he would make sure that there was food and drink brought in for us. I remember many piping hot pizzas delivered direct from the kitchen of the Pizza Express in Dean Street, Soho - and we were given long "breaks" in which to refuel ourselves. To cap it all, of course (I'm less of a prude these days), he happened to be devastatingly attractive! So he was a man blessed with riches.
Were you given musical sheets in advance to get familiar with material like this prior to the recording sessions? Also, did you sing over pre-recorded master tapes or did you ever get to see for example, the string sections in work?
Although we were all capable of reading music my recollection is that when working for Alec we were not given "dots," but were told what he wanted us to sing and where to sing it (once we'd arrived in the studio, though - we certainly never had any prior knowledge of what we were going to be doing). We were also adept at improvising harmony. We all knew one another and worked together in London regularly (not all of us at the same time, you understand, but we were part of a small coterie of people doing the same job in that industry and so would inevitably be booked to work together - any two or three of us - on almost a daily basis). Because of this we knew instinctively who would sing the top line, who would sing the middle and who would sing the bottom (that would often have been me!) Alec would choose who should sing particular solo lines or feature in any spoken narrative. As you know, certain themes would crop up any number of times throughout the piece, and it was essential that we could repeat the performance in an identical fashion at every point. Alec would have bookmarked all these stages, and so little time was lost in moving on from one to another - as I told you, he was tremendously professional, and knew in advance precisely what was requirednot only of us, but of himself and of the engineers. Speaking of which, he cast engineer Peter R. Kelsey the engineer at Trident Studios, in the role of Simon Peter for the narrative—another example of Alec being prepared to break new ground.
Trident Studios was very much at the cutting edge of recording technology at that time: certainly it was the first studio to go to 48-track - this being achieved by linking the 24-track desk in an upstairs studio to another in the studio downstairs. Going back to my reference to repeatedly re-singing the same thing over and over again, this was before the days when you could "fly in" a segment from one part of the track to another so, what with the double, triple and quadruple tracking of our voices - let alone having to repeat the exercise at various other points - we quickly learned our parts off by heart.
Trident was one of the best studios in London, and we all loved to work there (being set in the heart of Soho it was so convenient, too, so getting there from another session was never a problem).
We always sang onto pre-recorded tapes, so didn't work with the musicians - this is probably why we started so late at night. I do remember, though, a drummer (it could have been Barry Morgan) complaining about the disco scene in general and longing for the day that the fashion might fade: he loved having all that work, but said that hour upon hour, day upon day of beating out "t'ka-tse-t'ka'tse-t'ka-tse" was driving him insane!
Which particular Costandinos project is your personal favourite?
I'd always dreamed of playing Juliet (an ambition which was never fulfilled) because it is my very favourite Shakespeare play, so obviously I enjoyed singing on Alec's version of Romeo and Juliet - and in any event the music was, as ever with Alec Costandinos, quite beautiful. But I've always had a bit of a soft spot for the religious one with Simon Peter. I'm not religious at all, but the concept was so completely bizarre and was a perfect demonstration of Alec's willingness to break new ground.
At the time when records like Accidental Lover or I Found Love (Now That I Have Found You) by Love and Kisses were in heavy rotation in clubs did you enjoy going out? Did you get down to the sound of your own voice blasting thru the speakers?
Honestly I didn't go out clubbing a lot. So sorry to disappoint, but when you make music all day the last thing you want to do is to have it belting in your ears after you've left work. I go to live gigs much more now - I suppose I must have come to miss the music. Also, the hormone fairy alighted on my shoulder during that era and I went into baby-making mode, so after work I'd rush home to be with the little ones. I do remember one late night session I did for Alec when I was pregnant - it was the Simon Peter stuff, and I think I was doing some Mary Magdalen narrative. I became really, really tired, so Alec arranged for me to go to an unoccupied room upstairs at Trident to rest for an hour or two. I told you he was a gentleman!
Any other anecdotes from the recording studios, or from the golden era of Disco in general that you'd care to share with us?
I also remember singing on another huge hit - Voyage. Was that by Voyage or something to do with From East to West? We were working so much back then that such details get forgotten. I'd love to know the names of the guys (French, I think) responsible for that stuff. They were the only people I worked for who were quite happy for me to breastfeed my new baby in the control room - everyone else made me go behind a curtain!
The featured Voyage team was Marc Chantareau, Slim Pezin, Pierre-Alain Dahan, Sauveur Mallia and vocalist Sylvia Mason.
I KNEW you'd know who the French lot were! The name Marc certainly rings a bell. I don't remember the others, and am not sure whether I sang on the whole album. I remember doing two successful tracks - Voyage and Souvenirs. There were just three of us - I'm almost certain that no-one called Sylvia Mason sang on those. It's funny that in truth you know more about all this than I do! You must understand that we were merely jobbing minstrels - we'd get the call and we'd pitch up at a studio, sometimes not even knowing the names of the people we were to work for, let alone the titles of the songs we would sing or the titles of any albums on which they would appear. A few months later you'd be listening to the radio and think "Blimey - I'm singing on that."
Have you been in contact with the other members of the legendary Birds of Paris group, since the halcyon days?
I'm still in touch with most of them. Some of us are pretty much retired now (I certainly am); Madeline Bell, however, is still working - lots of live stuff at places like Ronnie Scott's in Soho - and is singing better than ever. She's obviously inherited a gene that make her look and sound younger with every year that passes.
I'd just like to say that I still can't believe that I was given the opportunity to work with all these remarkable people - and to be paid for the privilege - when I would quite happily have paid them in order to have had the chance to do it.
Happy times indeed!
Thank you ever so much Stephanie De-Sykes for taking this time out to do this interview. It has been a real pleasure!