Monday, June 10, 2013

The Life of a Working Musician; An Interview With Jazz Vocalist Kathy Kosins Part 1 of 2

Kathy Kosins photo by Ralph A. Miriello
The singer Kathy Kosins came across my radar screen sometime in 2012 when I received a copy of her Resonance Record release To the Ladies of Cool that year. The album is a well thought out compilation of the music of some West Coast female singers who had put their indelible mark on the music of the late fifties and early sixties. Choosing often neglected material by artists like Julie London, Chris Connors, Anita O’Day and June Christy, Kosins, who has a marvelously evocative alto, authentically recreated some of the feel of that era in American popular music with great honesty and respect. I was so impressed I named it one of my favorite cd’s for 2012. Intrigued, I later got acquainted with some of Kosins’ earlier work, which started with her first single, a dance tune called “I’ve Got the Night Off,” from 1987, followed by her first jazz cd, All in a Dream’s Work from 1995, the eclectic Mood Swings from 2002, Vintage, a cooking session she did with some young New York cats who are now top line players on the downtown progressive music scene from 2005, and the masterful To The Ladies of Cool from 2012.

In between recording, writing and producing her own material, this Detroit native and one woman whirlwind is constantly booking herself into a circuit of  festivals, concerts, performing arts centers and private functions around the country and abroad. Always the entertainer, her live shows offer multi-media presentations that are theme based upon the music.  Whether it be an orchestra backed show that features the music of cartoon icon Betty Boop, her  Ladies of Cool show with a photo montage from the West Coast cool era or her front line singing with the funk/soul group Detroit-Memphis Experience,  she is always formulating new ideas as to how to connect with her audience. She runs seminars on art and jazz and is a prolific painter of abstract art, which she also features in some of her shows.

Kathy was scouting out her upcoming October 17, 2013 gig at the Baruch Performing Arts Center at Baruch College in Manhattan when I got to catch up with her for this extensive interview.

NOJ: Let’s get a little history of your background. You were raise in Detroit and your father was a famous clothier there for many years. Can you tell us about that part of your life? Who was the jazz influence in your life?

KK:  My brother David, he was way beyond his years. He would buy records like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Lester Young and he’d listen to everything from Lester Bowie and the Art Ensemble of Chicago to Bud Powell to Miles Davis. John Coltrane was a favorite of his, as was Charlie Parker. So I had no choice, I mean, he was listening to this and his room was right next to my room. He had a turntable. He was two years younger.

Kathy Kosins photo by Ralph A. Miriello

NOJ: Before his influence what were you listening to?

KK:  I was listening to Soul and R & B. My dad took me to see the Beatles at Olympia Stadium and dropped me off at age eleven. Brian Epstein, the Beatles Manager, came into my dad’s store and bought suits and he gave my dad tickets and my dad took myself and my brother and my uncle Ben's kids and dropped us off at Olympia stadium and it was a mass of screaming kids, but I listened to soul music.

NOJ:  Where you always interested in singing?

KK: No, but I sang with the radio and I found out I could carry a tune. What really got me wanting to do a career in music was around 1967 my parents took me to NY. My dad would come here on many, many buying trips. He would come to NY and stay at the Warwick (hotel).  Later on he would stay at the grand Hyatt. When my dad came to NY, often times he would take me with him on buying trips here. Lou Rawls came up to my father one time in a menswear show and asked my dad to manage him. My dad was charismatic like Bill Clinton is, that was my dad.
Poster from Hair the Musical

He took me to see the play Hair. So when I saw this Broadway production of Hair , I said “Oh my God.” I knew then that I wanted a career in the public eye. I think part of me, on a subconscious level, I couldn’t see it then, I was a child who grew up by herself. My dad was always working. My mother did the best she could with me and my brother, but  I think she subconsciously resented my dad because he worked so much. I basically raised myself. As a child who was alone so much, I had a lot of fantasies, and in my fantasies I was in the public eye.

In my mind I wanted approval from my parents, which I never got, so I sought it from the audience. Remember the old saying “Children should be seen and not heard?” I wanted to be seen and heard.

NOJ: I read somewhere that you father wanted to be a lawyer. Did your father resent going into the family business, Kosins Clothing Store?

Label from 1960's Cashmere Blazer
Kosins Clothes courtesy of 
KK: He wanted to go to law school when he came back from service, he was so in tune to family, he did basically what was asked of him. So he forgoes his own dreams. He was sucked into the family business.

NOJ: You were exposed to many Motown artists in (your father’s) clothing store. Many got fitted for their custom suits in the exclusive “back room.” Did this exposure make an impression on you?

KK: No. What made an impression on me was shaking Dianna Ross’s hand or meeting Aretha Franklin’s father the reverend Franklin and meeting Marvin Gaye; meeting Smokey Robinson and all the guys from the Temptations and the Four Tops. They used to all come in. I used to work in the store when I was a kid. My Dad had the Motown clients and then also guys like Jerry Vale, and all these guys that would  come in to play concerts in Detroit. They would all come in. When I was a little girl my dad would say let’s go take Berry Gordy his suits, the suits would be tailored and my dad would take them home and after dinner would take them in the car and ride down Woodward Avenue. We lived right off Woodward. I grew up literally a mile south of where I live now.  Remember M & M’s movie “8 Mile” well I grew up right off of 8 mile. Woodward Avenue was like the main thoroughfare, like Second Avenue is a thoroughfare. So we lived off  of Eight Mile and Woodward. Berry Gordy lived where all the mansions are in the Boston Edison district. My dad said” Let’s go drop the suits off.” So I’d get in the car and sometimes Berry Gordy would have us in. He was a big client of my dad’s. Anybody who wanted to be fashionable went to Kosins Clothes.
Motown's Berry Gordy Undoubtedly in a Kosins Suit

NOJ: How big was your father’s store?

KK: It did more business per square foot in that store than any other men’s clothing store in the country. The first store was in downtown Detroit. My grandfather Max opened it in 1926 .During the 1967 riots, my brother went down there and sat down there in a window with a gun in case anyone would try to loot it.  The store burned down… I think it was an electrical fire shortly after my father Harry died in 1990.

He had a whole operation. He had a tailor shop. He had a pressing shop. They had a lay away  room. My grandmother used to take in the money. You would have pimps walking in there, that would buy a couple of thousand dollars’ worth of suits and they would put the money in a brown paper bag filled with one dollar bills from their drug money.  She would count it all. It was a scene. It was like a Fellini movie. You would have to be there to understand.  I was a kid and I only saw the tip of the iceberg. It’s my heritage. I was a product of my environment. Growing up around the store and around my dad’s being congenial, I think it took me far into my business, into doing what I do. A lot of people can’t do things without a manager or an agent. They can’t do the cold calling; they can’t sell the shows or do the bookings.
Harry Kosins (left)  and Unknown client
 courtesy of Kathy Kosins

NOJ: So more than anything the family clothing business influenced your business savvy?

KK: Totally! One hundred percent! He gets all the credit. Growing up in that household gets all the credit.

NOJ:  That’ interesting, but let’s get back to the music. Who were some of your favorite artists growing up?

KK: Janis and Jimi.

NOJ: You liked Janis?

KK: Totally. I went to see her at the Grande Ballroom and I saw Jimi Hendrix open for I think the Monkees. I liked the Stones and I still like the Stones. I loved Traffic. I went and saw, multiple times, Joe Cocker with Mad Dogs and Englishmen. He had two drummers and all those women background vocalists. When I heard the background singers, it was Rita Coolidge and Maxine and Marilyn Waters. That impressed me.

Who sang in the Court of the Crimson King? (That was King Crimson) I loved King Crimson, loved all those English bands, the Moody Blues. Other people were into bubble gum music but I couldn’t get into that. I liked the orchestral bands. I liked the band Yes ( who were)  into the synth thing.

NOJ: You played with Don Was and David Weiss in Was Was Not. How did you audition for that band?

KK:: I walked into the studio, you know timing is everything my friend, I walked in there and Jack Tann, who was friends with Don Was, whose real name is Don Fagenson. His mother Mrs. Fagenson was my high school counselor. I was twenty-three or mid to late twenties. I walked in cold.  He went to Oak Park High, half the Jewish kids went to Oak Park and half went to the school where I went to. We all knew each other. I think I gave him an audition cassette, with me singing, and I told him I had done this project with Michael Henderson ( the bass player who played with Miles Davis’).He said “we’re doing our first record” it was simply called Was Not Was and they had brilliant material like
"Out Come the Freaks”, songs like” Oh, Mr. Friction”, really crazy, crazy writings. These guys were like two mad scientists. They had a single before this album, it was a dance single. I forgot the name of it.

So he asked me not only to sing backgrounds but to contract the background singers.  So I got the two girls from the Henderson gig, Carol Hall and another girl. I wrote all these background vocals for this first record. He would give me pieces of it, in some cases he made me a cassette …and I would take them home and I
would write these triad parts. In some cases we wrote the parts on the spot.

 It was the best. It was like… it’s so melancholic for me. This really was for me the most creative project I think I was ever involved in. We all collectively would turn up in the studio about one in the morning; we all giged, we all had bar gigs, all of us, individually in separate bands. So we would show up at the studio in a horrible part of town. We had to get buzzed in. People ‘s cars would get stolen. My fortunately didn’t and you would show up at one in the morning and you didn’t have cell phones , so you took your life in your hands when you got out of your car and started ringing the bell.

NOJ : Your parents must have loved that?

My parents were so liberal. I moved out of the house when I was eighteen. I moved out of the house and into a hippie house at eighteen. My dad, God love him, my brother David grew an organic garden in the back yard and he planted marijuana plants and my mother and father said. “That’s fine, but we live on a corner and when they get this high (motioning to her waist) you must cut them down, because I don’t want the Southfield police to come by and throw us in jail. 

I never saw my dad.  He worked twelve hours a day seven days a week. He was wild.  He had clients, he partied, and he did everything.

NOJ: Let’s continue with your Was Was Not days

KK:  I told you we would show up at two in the morning and we would cut tracks till six, seven, eight, nine in the morning and then sleep all day. I mean everyone went to their homes and slept all day. The next night everybody would go to their gigs and then we would all go back to the studio. We actually did a little road work. We performed at the Peppermint Lounge in New York. Then, same time this happened, in 1985, I had a dance single out that I wrote. It was about a hooker that has the night off and she wants real romance. It was all fictitious stuff and it was called “I Got the Night Off.”  It was like one hundred and twenty one beats per minute. One of the guys in Was Not Was, that also had a studio, was doing a ton of projects at his place, sent it to Sony in France and I got a record deal, I got a dance single, it was the big time. They flew me to NY. I had a white limousine waiting for me at the airport. I got out of the limo at three in the morning in a little bustier.  It was right about the time that Madonna was doing dance records. I performed for a sea of gay guys. I did one gay bar after another, a leather bar uptown, a gay bar in the Village then I was whisked away.  There was a B side called “I’ll Kill You with Kindness.”  It was writing at its worst. That tune, “I’ve Got the Night Off,”   is still being played today and you can still find on Amazon and e Bay. They must have made a hundred different edits and remixes of this thing. It was released in Germany and all these places and you can still hear it today. I never got a dime. That was the same time the first Was Not Was came out. Then Don Was produced a single of me under the name of Slingshot. I re-recorded an AC/DC song of “You Shook Me All Night Long”. He didn’t want me to listen to the song more than once.  He didn’t want any pre-conceived anything. It was like a rap almost. I hardly got to sing anything but the choruses. He wanted me sing it real sultry and sexy. You know like speak it, speak it and then sing the chorus. He produced it. That record did very well.  It’s still out there.

NOJ: What attracted you to Don Was and David Weiss? Their crazy music or what?

KK: They were; they are geniuses. Don Was is like a master chef. He knows just how much spices and sauce to put in the rue to make it come out incredible. He played upright bass in a jazz trio, but then he played electric bass in Was Not Was.  He plays upright on certain tunes.

Producer Don Was

NOJ : And his genius comes from what; inherent musical genius or is he just a marketing genius?

KK: No, I don’t know (where it comes from). He has produced Kurt Elling, Emmy Lou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, The Black Crowes, Bob Dylan, The B52’s and now he got the gig with Blue Note. Don Was is still a genius. There is a mystique about this guy that has been there that was there when I knew him in the eighties. It’s like you can’t put your finger on exactly what it is, there is a mystery about him, but the other side to him is he will talk. He would give you an amazing interview. He will tell you he grew up listening to do-wop and all kinds of interesting music.

You know Bruce Lundvall (of Blue Note) almost signed me to a dance single in the eighties. The guy who was responsible for promoting my dance single “I Got the Night Off” heard some of my other writings, and he worked for Capital Records in promotion. He took one of my tunes to Lundvall, who was at Capital Records, and he was signing some dance acts in addition to the jazz stuff he had.  I had four or five songs to play for him when I went into his office in NY. I played him the song that he wanted to sign me with and he said “What else do you have?” And that’s when I made a mistake. I played him five or six other things that I had written so there was no cohesiveness to the song that he had liked, because I was a writer too and so each one was a little different. Instead of signing me on the strength of my talent on the one tune and pairing me with some writers who could write, he just passed. Then I had a guy from NY who wanted to sign me to a dance single. Eddie O’Loughlin, remember Salt & Pepper.  I had an attorney…, he took too long to make the deal and Eddie O’Loughlin lost interest. All I can tell you is it’s a hard business.

NOJ: You’ve been a songwriter for many years. How many songs do you have to your credit?

KK: That I have written? I have a song in a Snoop Dog movie called Soul Plane. To my writing credit I have at least a hundred pop and R & B tunes that I have written and thirty or forty jazz tunes that I have composed. I’m composing now as we speak.
Poster from the 2004 movie Soul Plane

NOJ: When you compose do you compose music and lyrics or just lyrics?

KK:  Melody and lyric, because I don’t read music that well. How I got through the commercial world without reading music, I did, I just have an ear, it’s like photogenic but it’s audio. I’ll usually come up with a melody first… I’ll play it into a recorder. Then I will hook up with a pianist like Aaron( Goldberg) or Tamir (Hendleman). We will painstakingly flush out the chords. Let’s say that we start flushing it out and I’ll say let’s try a substitute chord here, until I hear what I am hearing. Then I start working on lyrics or I’ll partner up with one of my songwriting buddies and we will co-write the lyrics.

The Johnny Mandel piece (“Hershey’s Kisses” from To the Ladies of Cool) was written by me on an airplane coming back from LA. I’ m fast with lyrics. I am working on another Johnny Mandel tune that he scored for… a movie called “I Want to Live,” it’s from the fifties.  It’s called “Little Black Night Gown” so I’m working on a lyric right now.

NOJ: What advice do you have for aspiring pop music writers?

KK: I get asked this a colleges and Universities because I do a lot of those through the year. People want to know, there students and I tell them categorically, you have to want to eat, breathe, sleep, live this business and give up stuff for it, if you want a career in this business, because if you think you can do it part time…. and there is no such thing as overnight anything, and if there is, it’s very short lived. I’m still building a career.

Clubs are bull shit. The club owner’s hate you if you don’t bring in a gang of people. The club owners want to give you a guarantee and a door. It’s so minuscule. So for me to fly myself into NY, put myself in and pay the band, and then they have the gall to take 30% of your cd sales.

NOJ: Have you had to eat breathe and sleep the music and the business to be a successful writer or musician?

KK: You have to do that to be anything. I don’t care if you want to be an actor, any art discipline, a painter, a dancer. I gave up everything. I gave up everything. I don’t miss  having children. I have a wealth of wonderful creative things in my life. It gives me the freedom. I can travel and I do take vacations. I mean I take off by myself. Most of my friends are either married or they are out of state. So if I want to go somewhere I book a ticket and I just go.When I am at home I have a routine. I work in my office, I work eight or nine hours a day, cold calling. I sit there, first I research. I find which performing arts festivals are looking for artists.

NOJ: Tell us about some of your other projects.

KK: I see the lines of jazz are being blurred by hip hop and R&B and so I did a hip hop version of my song “Night Bird” from the Ladies of Cool lp and I’m toying with releasing it as a bonus track on the new album. It’s more like Nu Soul.  Speaking of which you know the band Memphis-Detroit Experience record is getting played on jazz and R & B and blues stations all across the board. We took it to Radio Submit. It was like the future cd of the week. It’s being played all over the world now. These guys are playing my record and then they are turning around and playing Susan Tedeski, Sean Murphy, and then they will turn around and play an Elvis track and then another cut by me and then a Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings tune. I’m telling you this thing is going to explode. I also cut recently a version of “Lover Please” remember that old Clyde McPhatter tune?

NOJ: Sort of a Tower of Power sound?

KK:  Kind of, it’s cool. It’s got that Steely Dan funk sound. I am going to cut a Denise LaSalle tune next. It’s all writers or performers that came out of Detroit or Memphis that have nothing to do with Motown or Elvis. It’s Big Maybelle or Little Willie John stuff like that; its’ really interesting material.

Part Two of this Interview will cover Kathy's Records, her Artwork  and her Upcoming Projects


  1. Kathy Kosins is an excellent entertainer. Her witty remarks and historical/cultural references are unique to each show. Her voice is balanced with the melody; soft when it needs to be or vibrant with depth. She's captivating and worth it!

  2. You are a star and have a great voice and presence. This was a great, real and honest interview. Kathy you are a wonderful performer and person. You shine throughout this interview. From seeing you with Was Not Was and also singing Jazz at the Town Center, maybe 35 or so years ago. You are an inspiration to the music and arts community and to others like myself that are not musicians but appreciate your music, humanity and the smile and perseverance you bring to what you love and what inspires you. Look forward to your concerts in Michigan. Thank you. I had Don's dad, Bill (my Uncle) as a counselor at Clinton Jr, High. I saw him a little more than I'm sure he or I wanted. A lot of very good musicians came out of northwest Detroit and Oakland County, from High School graduating classes 1967 to 1972 and you are one of the best.