Interview with Marcella Detroit; Four Decades of Music and Still Going Strong

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When a musical artist re-invents him/herself, it is more than just a rising of the phoenix from the ashes. Sometimes, it is a whole new re-birth of a musical sound as well. Moreover, when a performer does it many times, and each time with a powerful outcome, the music world is obliged to take notice.

With a music career spanning over four decades, Marcella Detroit (aka Marcy Levy) has pushed the boundaries of so many genres, she is deserving of her own genre. She has proven to be a vocal powerhouse in rock, jazz, blues, alternative, and even opera. She deserves the moniker “diva,” but is as friendly and approachable as a trusted next-door neighbor.

Marcella was born and raised in suburban Detroit, growing up at a time when the Motor City was burning up the radio waves with its musical output. Everything from the classy R&B of Motown greats to the rock strains of MC5, Ted Nugent, and Bob Seger gave listeners something to appreciate Detroit for besides automobiles. All of this and more impacted the road Marcella would take “School played a big part, as I’d always participated in choir and had school partners to do duets, quartets, and quintets with. I learned recorder and violin, and my father taught me a bit on ukelele and piano. He loved music himself. Apparently, his father was a classical violinist as was his great-grandfather. I would say it was a primer, as all of that experience before entering the business inspired me to pursue a career in music.”

The city was filled with live performance venues that a young Marcella frequented with keen interest and passion. “ In the summer, there were these great outdoor concerts where bands like The Rationals, MC5, SRC, and The UP always played. There were also some great clubs like the Grande Ballroom and The Eastown, where I would see The Faces, Leon Russell, Elton John, and more.”

Marcella worked in a number of local bands, with her first taste of success coming in the mid-1970s with the band Julia. “That band did quite well in Michigan and surrounding states. Word got through from Bob Seger’s manager Punch Andrews that Bob was looking for a new backup band. Bob came to see us, liked us, and hired us all. We toured with him in the South and East for about nine months.” She also appeared on Seger’s album Back in ‘72.

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After the stint with Seger, Marcella and a few other band members relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma and began working with Leon Russell. “I worked on his Stop All That Jazz album, with The Gap Band as his backing band. Leon got me to do a lot of studio work for other artists, such as the O’Neill Twins and Michael Bolton, back when he was known as Michael Bolotin.

“It’s always different performing in the studio. At times, you feel like you are under a microscope and you don’t have the luxury of a live audience giving back energy. So you have to create that feeling yourself and use it in the studio. The Tulsa music scene felt more like a family to me in a way. Everyone knew everybody, and every night you could go to any given club and see friends playing, sit in with them, have a few drinks, and jam – just have a great time! I learned a lot about the cool, swampy groove in Tulsa with some of the finest musicians I’ve ever worked with. Detroit was more of a rock scene and, in a way, more competitive and spread apart.”

After touring with Russell, Marcella was invited to come to Jamaica by former band members who were now performing with Eric Clapton. “After singing on several songs, Eric asked me if I wanted to be in the band. It was a real honor and thrill to be working with him. A year before, I was singing his version of “After Midnight” in a cover band in Detroit. I had no idea that this would happen to me a short time later, along with being with all of my friends in the band.”

Marcella worked with Clapton for about six years, serving as backup vocalist and occasional harmonica player. Her voice can be heard on EC albums 461 Ocean Boulevard, There’s One In Every Crowd, No Reason To Cry, Slowhand, and Backless. She also co-wrote a number of songs with Clapton, including two classic rock standards, “The Core” and “Lay Down Sally.” I never imagined my songs would become rock standards, and I am really grateful for and proud of that. Sometimes, I’ll hear them playing in a store or on the radio, and I feel like a proud mom thinking, ‘That’s one of my babies!’ I’ve often thought that if I were to tell the person next to me, ‘Hey, I wrote this!,’ they would look at me like I’m a nut. So I just smile and hold on to that good feeling.

“It’s funny, back in 1994 while I was living in England, I got an award from ASCAP for “Lay Down Sally” being played over 3 million times on the radio. That means, if you started playing it now, it would take over 16 years to stop!”

Although serving as a backup singer, Marcella still strived for a solo career. “When I moved to Tulsa, I was the lead singer in a band and would write on my own as well as with other band members. I was always writing and recording demos for myself. It’s hard to switch from being seen as a background singer to a solo artist. There is a stigma attached to it. It’s more demanding and takes more understanding of who you are as an artist, what market you might appeal to and seeking it out.”

Marcella soon moved to Los Angeles, doing session work with Bette Midler, Aretha Franklin, and Alice Cooper, as well as touring with jazz legends George Duke and Stanley Clarke. “I truly learned from all of my experiences. As a solo artist, it’s always been a bit of a struggle, finding that identity and settling on one thing, since I am interested and can do a few styles pretty convincingly and authentically.” She released a self-titled solo album in 1982, which highlighted her songwriting. In 1988, she was introduced to Siobhan Fahey of Bananarama fame by a mutual friend, and was later asked by Siobhan and her husband Dave Stewart (of The Eurythmics) to join Shakespear’s Sister. It was at this time that she changed her name from Marcy Levy to Marcella Detroit.

“If you think of my role in the band, I added the soulful R&B element. Siobhan was more into bands like The Smiths and T Rex, even though I loved the latter because they were very blues-based themselves. I was able to use my musical and vocal sensibilities in that band, and brought that to the table whenever it fit.”

While Marcella’s songwriting is laden on the group’s debut album Sacred Heart, it is the sophomore album Hormonally Yours that showcases her musical talents, playing guitar, keyboards, and harmonica as well as singing lead vocals. The single “Stay” topped the UK charts for eight weeks, and was a Top 10 in the US. Other hits from the album included “I Don’t Care” and “Hello (Turn Your Radio On).” Shakespear’s Sister was truly innovative for its time, influencing later bands like Garbage and artists like Dido. “That second album was exciting to let me be more creative musically. I suppose we were (innovative) and were part of the whole 90s alternative rock scene.”

Shakespear’s Sister was also innovative in its visual aspect of music, producing a number of dramatic interpretations of its songs. “I had been interested in acting even before joining the band. I went to a few acting schools in LA. I really enjoyed doing our videos, we had a great director named Sophie Mueller who was Siobhan’s best friend.”

During her tenure with Shakespear’s Sister, Marcella was also planning on recording another solo project. “Siobhan and I discussed that after touring on the second album, she would take a break and I would do my own album. I had an option with our record company London Records to do my own record at some point.” In 1994, she released Jewel. “It was a combination of my soul roots and rock-n-roll and pop with a creative sense. You can hear my blues roots in “I Believe,” my Motown influences in “You Don’t Tell Me Everything” and the cover I did with Elton John of “Aint’ Nothing Like The Real Thing.” I wouldn’t have minded if it was a bit funkier and quirkier, and sounded a little smaller and warmer, but that’s not the way it was produced.” Adding to her acting resume, she appeared twice in the hit British television comedy “Absolutely Fabulous” (a number of her songs also appeared on the soundtrack to the show).

In 2002 Marcella formed the Mary Levy Band, returning to her blues-rock sound. “I started joining some of my LA friends at blues gigs and festivals in the States. I felt like my music was sounding contrived, so I wanted to reconnect with my blues roots, re-focusing on something that was more pure and authentic to me.” She released the band’s 2006 album The Upside Of Being Down on her own LoFi Record label. “I don’t think that doing business necessarily effects one’s actual writing or performance. These days, you absolutely have to be a business person if you are in the music business, as the business has changed so much. There’s so much competition, as anyone can do a record and form a label these days. There’s still the hurdle of marketing your music and bringing awareness to it, finding clever ways to let the world know about it.”

Around 2010, about the time the Marcy Levy Band was disbanding and while recording two solo projects, Marcella was asked to participate in the first season of the British television reality show “Popstar to Operastar,” in which pop and rock singers are trained to perform opera. Marcella came in third place that season.

So how was it to make such a drastic musical turn as performing opera? “Terrifying! Opera is so different from the blues, I can tell you that! There is not much musical freedom, everything is very strict, sticking with the melody and no room to play. Every time I would even veer slightly from the melody, I would get verbally bitch-slapped! Well, maybe not, but it was definitely a no-no. I lived and breathed that music for the six weeks I was on that show. Also, singing songs in languages you don’t really speak was difficult. Singing live to four million people every Friday night was a bit daunting, too. I truly loved singing with the orchestra, it was a dream come true and I’ll always treasure that. They also gave me some of the most amazing arias to perform, like “Un Bel Di” from Madame Butterfly, which is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard.”

During her varied career, Marcella has used a number of guitars, but as far as electrics, she sticks primarily to Fender Stratocasters. “I’ve also played some Gibson 335’s and a Fender Telecaster. As for acoustics, I’ve always loved Martins. I have a 1949 00-18, which is a beautiful, warm guitar. I also have a newer Martin acoustic-electric that is very dependable, and a D-28 that I play around the house.”

Currently, Marcella is working on her memoirs, and is looking to get the book published. In the meantime, she is performing in various projects as well as continuing her songwriting. “I may do something different with my music, do another album, or work with some other people on a project. I would love to work with Stevie Wonder, or T-Bone Burnett, who is a great producer. I may do a more soulful influenced record. There’s still life in this ole girl yet!”

Cover Photo Courtesy of Marcella Detroit

~ Matt Merta

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