Ellen Foley might have the most eclectic resume in rock ‘n’ roll. She’s not just a solo artist with a commanding voice and a tough new album (Fighting Words), she has worked with such luminaries as girl-group legend Ellie Greenwich, Stephen Sondheim, the Clash, Ian Hunter, Jim Steinman. She has also been a sitcom star, appeared on the cover of TV Guide, and starred in a Jonathan Demme film (Married to the Mob). Jim Allen talked with the amazingly versatile Ellen Foley for PKM.
Ellen Foley has been a lot of things over the last four and a half decades — a solo artist, a film actress, a Broadway singer, a sitcom regular, a backup singer to the stars. But through it all, she’s kept close touch with her true identity. She’s got the kind of pipes that have allowed entrée to everything from cabaret to Broadway, but at her core, Ellen Foley is a rock ‘n’ roller. “I never lost who I was,” she confirms. “Even on TV, I think I came off in part as sort of this punky kid who probably didn’t belong there.”
Foley’s new album, Fighting Words, may be her rawest rock ‘n’ roll statement to date. At the same time, its songs — mostly penned by Foley’s right-hand man, Paul Foglino — are among the smartest in a discography that boasts custom-made material by everybody from Ian Hunter to Mick Jones and Joe Strummer.
Foley left her hometown of St. Louis, MO in 1972 to bust into show business. From her first stage work to her debut album and beyond, her path is full of twists and turns. But like everybody else, she looks back at her life as a series of moments. So, let’s look in as she frames her achievements with the special memories from each experience that still stick in her busy brain.
That National Lampoon Show
“I think of the sketch that I did with Meat Loaf wherein I was this happy peppy gal, I came in and I threw up my hat and I couldn’t catch it because I was blind. Meat Loaf came in and he was my boyfriend, and he was doing all these terrible things while he was saying really sweet things. He would hump my leg and say it was my dog.”
Foley’s first real break came when she joined the stage production of That National Lampoon Show in 1976-’77. Besides working with some of the era’s most gloriously twisted comedic minds, she found herself thrown in with a couple of rock ‘n’ roll misfits who would soon have a major effect on her career — Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf.
“Even back then before Meat Loaf was Meat Loaf, he was a rock star,” remembers Foley. “He got mad at one of the other cast members one night. We were performing in an elementary school and we were getting dressed in this classroom with these teeny, tiny little desks. Meat Loaf was mad at this guy, he was walking around with only his shirt on — Meat never minded exposing himself — and he was kicking over these tiny desks, it was really like a Japanese monster movie [emits monstrous growl].”
But Foley still had a couple more adventures ahead of her before Meat Loaf and Steinman re-entered her life.
“I’m not a dancer per se but I could do [Twyla Tharp’s] choreography because somehow it fit in my body. So that was a blast, that was thrilling, I love her to death. Then she brought me back to dance with her company in the LSD dream segment, so I’m in there too. It was for me kind of a magical time to have somebody like Twyla Tharp be into what I did physically.”
When the original Broadway director of archetypal hippie musical Hair brought the show back in 1977, he tapped Foley for the role of Sheila, who sings “Easy to be Hard” in the show and the controversial “Black Boys.” She recalls, “The first night we performed, the opening night I sang ‘Easy to Be Hard’ and I got a standing ovation.” You don’t expect that, or at least I didn’t expect it in a Broadway theater, that was pretty great.”
When film director Milos Forman, coming off the triumph of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, put together a movie version of the show, Foley was also on hand. And legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp’s aforementioned involvement took the film to another level.
“Black Boys-White Boys”-from Hair, the movie:
3 Girls 3
“The first scene in the show was the setup of us auditioning, and also auditioning were Carol Burnett, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Florence Henderson. We got the parts instead of them, it was really a great concept.”
Appearing on NBC as a 1977 summer replacement, 3 Girls 3 was a meta-variety show that only lasted for four episodes. But the structure of it being a show about a show allowed for a mind-boggling array of high-powered guests like Steve Martin, Flip Wilson, Bob Hope, and the legends mentioned above, who are beat out for the main spots in the show by Foley, comedic actress Mimi Kennedy, and future dance legend Debbie Allen.
“I got to sing some great songs on it,” remembers Foley, “and of course we all did the sketches.” Though the show probably wasn’t seen by a huge audience, Foley’s solo singing spots gave her the opportunity to show off her chops, absolutely crushing tunes like “Since I Fell For You” and “New Kid in Town.”
Paradise by the Dashboard Light
“I’ve never sang on a record before…. and I did ‘Paradise’ in one take. It wasn’t in a booth, it was in an open studio. I had Meat sitting in a chair so I could communicate it to him, and it was one take. I can hear Steinman telling me, ‘Funky’ — he called me Funky — ‘make it urgent! Urgent, urgent!’”
When Meat Loaf and his songwriter Jim Steinman scored a record deal shortly after That National Lampoon Show, they called on their old pal Foley (who also sang in Steinman’s short-lived show Neverland) to fill a crucial role. She’s the vocal foil to Meat Loaf’s frustrated back-seat suitor in the horny rock operetta “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” the evergreen single from Meat Loaf’s smash debut, Bat Out of Hell.
Todd Rundgren lent his production skills to the epically over-the-top album.
“I just remember him laughing a lot because he was getting it and the outrageousness of it,” says Foley. Recalling Steinman and Meat Loaf’s working relationship, she says, “He and Meat, they fought a lot, but I never did. He [Steinman] worshipped me and I worshipped him. That sounds a little braggy, but he has called me ‘the Maria Callas of rock n roll,’ so…”
Foley’s involvement with Bat Out of Hell ended with that session. She didn’t even appear in the song’s video; Meat Loaf’s touring singer Karla De Vito mimed Foley’s part instead. But the album’s phenomenal success led directly to what was perhaps Foley’s biggest adventure.
“What was so cool was that they were great arrangers, and back in the day it was still within a budget to have a string section, so one night the string section came in. They were from a whole other world, classical musicians probably, and sat down and played my songs, and that was kind of extraordinary, something that was unexpected.”
The runaway success of Bat Out of Hell, buoyed in large part by its sweaty Meat Loaf/Foley duet, led directly to Foley’s solo career. She remembers, “Steve Popovich, whose label Bat Out of Hell came out on, Cleveland International, afterwards he said, ‘Let’s go make some demos and I’ll take them to Epic and tell them I want you on my label,’ and that was it.” Popovich put her together with Ian Hunter, late of Mott the Hoople, and his guitarist Mick Ronson, already famous as the match to David Bowie’s glam-era flame. Their production and playing helped make 1979’s Nightout a rocker to remember.
“I was a very American singer coming from the tradition of the girl groups,” says Foley, “and it would be such a cool combination bringing the British Ian and Ronson sensibility to what I did. I had a great time. Ian treated me like his dopey little sister who didn’t know what the hell she was doing, he guided me along, but not in a bad way. Ronson, he was great, he seemed clueless but then he would just put it all out there on the take.”
Foley’s big, commanding voice brings new life to tunes like Graham Parker’s “Thunder and Rain” and the Rolling Stones’ “Stupid Girl.” But her own drama-filled power ballad, “We Belong to the Night,” unexpectedly made her a star in the Netherlands, where she tours for a hardy fanbase to this day.
“Stupid Girl” (Jagger/Richards)-Ellen Foley:
Spirit of St. Louis
“’Torchlight,’ I think that was my favorite moment. It wasn’t like Meat Loaf rock ‘n’ roll and it wasn’t The Clash. It had this wonderful marimba sound to it, and it was really up and joyful and positive. I wasn’t feeling that kind of feeling all the time at that point. It was beautiful, God I love that [marimba] sound.”
“Torchlight” was a single from Foley’s second album, Spirit of St. Louis, a drastically different record from its predecessor. Produced by her then-beau, Clash guitarist Mick Jones, it’s sort of an alternative-universe version of The Clash’s contemporaneous Sandinista (on which she guested) with Foley up front. Jones, Joe Strummer, and Sandinista contributor Tymon Dogg wrote most of the songs and The Clash was the backing band.
Like Sandinista, this this was no punk rock record, but rather an exotic, eclectic, sometimes inscrutable array of ideas. “The Sandinista record was being recorded at the same time,” recalls Foley. “It was part of the same vibe as them writing that other material, although it didn’t sound like it. They knew I was kind of an actor and could handle the bizarre images and lose myself into the stories. ‘Death of the Psychoanalyst of Salvador Dali’ – that was the mind of Joe Strummer. He didn’t come from that hardscrabble world of the punk scene. Strummer came from a really educated and sophisticated place, so I think maybe this was his opportunity to do some of that, where he didn’t have to be the everyman in The Clash, so he got to write some of these weirdo songs.
“Lose This Skin”-The Clash, featuring Ellen Foley on vocals:
At times, especially when Foley tucks into “My Legionnaire,” made famous by Edith Piaf, the album has a kind of neo-cabaret vibe. “That was the feeling,” she says, “because Mick Jones was so anti-American rock n’ roll, he didn’t think I should be a part of that anymore. So I got stuck with this record. I think it’s a really good record, it’s interesting, I love their playing on it. But I think I’m the weakest link on that record, because I wasn’t doing my thing, I wasn’t getting to let loose and rock out so much.”
“I had a neighbor who lived across the street from me who was a songwriter, and she was friends with Ellie [Greenwich]. Ellie reached out and wanted to write together. You can imagine what it was like. I feel like I spent months just hanging out in her apartment.”
The woman who wrote “River Deep — Mountain High,” “Be My Baby,” and a heap of other ‘60s classics became an unexpected songwriting partner on Foley’s third album, Another Breath. Tunes like “Boys in the Attic” and “Run For My Life” bear some of that vintage ‘60s DNA, the strands of the sounds that influenced Foley early on. But they were pulled into the present by the album’s New Wave-tinged production.
Around the same time, the Broadway musical Leader of the Pack was being built around Greenwich’s life and work (an unusual project in that pre-”jukebox musical” era). One of the songs that Foley and Greenwich’s songwriting sessions yielded, “Keep it Confidential,” didn’t make Another Breath but was sung in the show by Nona Hendryx, who also had a hit on her own with the song.
Ellen Foley-“Boys in the Attic”:
“Michael Richards came on the show, and this was maybe four years before Seinfeld. He played this character that thought he was invisible. And his physicality is so incredible, here’s this guy doing all this physical stuff thinking he’s invisible but he’s not, and he’s 6’5 or something like that. And it’s just cool when you see an amazing talent that later emerges as somebody that everybody got to know.”
After Another Breath, Foley stepped away from rock ‘n’ roll, making the most of her acting skills for roles in films, television, and the theater. In 1984 she became public defender Billie Young for one season of NBC’s long-running sitcom Night Court, working alongside comedic powerhouses Harry Anderson and Dan Larroquette.
L.A. life wasn’t for Foley, though. And before long she made her return to the stage. But she still admits that being on the cover of TV Guide was a blast. “I have it framed in my apartment,” she says. “That was huge.”
Night Court scene, with Ellen Foley and pre-Seinfeld Michael Richards:
Into the Woods
“During the rehearsals the director was kind of on my ass. I wasn’t his favorite person. When we performed, I got all the reviews and everything, and Sondheim comes up to me and he goes, ‘You go girl, you showed them.’ Just having Sondheim really pat me on the back and say, ‘You did it.’ That was a moment. After we did it on Broadway, at the cast party the last night they gave everybody copies of the score and he wrote to me, ‘You are my alpha and omega.’”
Though Foley was higher up on the marquee for the Broadway revival of Me and My Girl, originating the part of the witch in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods was probably her meatiest role. For her, the rigors of the theater were more demanding than TV but more rewarding.
“When you’re doing a show eight times a week you’ve gotta live like a nun,” she says. “Your body and your voice you really have to protect. But I got to do the roles onstage that were more fulfilling. I got to sing too.”
Scene from Sondheim’s Into the Woods, featuring Ellen Foley:
Married to the Mob
“Before we started shooting, I was in my apartment one night, I’d never met the other people in the cast, and I get a call. My character was named Theresa. The phone rings, and somebody says, ‘Hello Theresa, this is Angie,’ and it was Michelle Pfeiffer. ‘Come over to my place, let’s have some drinks, the other girls will be there.’ That was a trip, that was a great moment, hanging with her, getting to know her.”
In the late ‘80s, Foley had a short but memorable movie run, including appearances in Cocktail, Fatal Attraction, and the Jonathan Demme-directed comedy Married to the Mob, where she played a mob wife opposite Pfeiffer, Mercedes Ruehl, and Joan Cusack.
Foley remembers her big-haired role as a huge amount of fun. “When you have hair and costume and makeup like that your job is practically already done for you and you just go with it,” she says. “Look who was around: Michelle Pfeiffer, Alec Baldwin, my old buddy David Johansen played a priest. To have Jonathan Demme at the helm, this was a guy who made it really a pleasure to be on the set.”
Clip from Married to the Mob (1988)-featuring David Johanson as the priest:
“My kids were a little older and I had some freedom, and I went and did this show at La Mama on the Lower East Side that Paul [Foglino] had written the words and music to, and just really struck up a creative relationship with him. He started writing me songs and we put a band together. It’s so great to be with somebody like Paul who has such an organized mind, because you get things done.”
Foley married in the ‘90s and eventually turned her focus from performing to starting a family. She still kept her hand in the theater world, though, which led her to songwriter Foglino in 2005, and ultimately back to rock ‘n’ roll and record making. In 2013, she released About Time, a relatively stripped-down, rootsy album occupied mostly by Foglino’s songs, which fit Foley’s voice like a bespoke pair of gloves.
“It was a good jumping-off point for what’s come now,” assesses Foley. “A lot of people called About Time ‘Americana.’ Now I think this [new] record really rocks.”
“If You Can’t Be Good”-Ellen Foley:
“Writing the song ‘This Won’t Last Forever’ just really stands out in my mind. It’s just a great song and I got to help develop it. ‘This Won’t Last Forever” came out of conversations we had about what it was like when we were younger and living the music life full-time. Specifically, that weird mixture of suspended-animation unreality mixed with the day-to-day slog and grit.”
If eight years seems like a long time to wait for Foley’s fifth album, Fighting Words, it’s an eyeblink compared to the time between her third and fourth. Foley and Foglino made the most of that time, getting a batch of songs together that are rock-solid, and assembling a similarly unstoppable band that includes NYC session hero C.P. Roth on multiple instruments, drummer Steve Goulding (Mekons, Graham Parker & The Rumour), guitarists Slim Simon, Stephen Antonakos, and Michael Jung, and more.
“This record is so guitar-driven,” says Foley, “and having Steve Goulding on the record, that drumming, you just realize the difference it makes. If you don’t have good drums, you don’t have a good rock record. The songs are there, the execution, the growth in this band has happened, and it’s made it so much better. This is just like a dream for me, this record coming out.”
Musing on his working dynamic with Foley, Foglino says, “The place where we bond is in our love of girl groups and the Rolling Stones. So when I write with her in mind, I usually think of the Shirelles backed by Mick Taylor-era Rolling Stones. I think of what we do as girl groups grown up.”
But one of Foley’s favorites on the album is actually among the least rocking: the compassionate “Fill Your Cup.” Describing the way the spare, acoustic tune’s imagery connects with her on a gut level she says, “There’s this really long table and you’re able to give the people who need the love, who need the warmth, who need to be fed. Maybe I’ve grown up enough and I’ve been a mother and I’ve been able to do that.”
Still, Foglino relishes his ability to be Foley’s rock ‘n’ roll enabler. “For me as a long-time folkie singer-songwriter,” he says with a signature drollness, “it’s liberating to write for one of the great rock ‘n’ roll voices. I find that I can write a lyric and a framework for the melody and let her go from there; I write the consonants and she takes care of the vowels.”
“At the core of it, it’s Paul’s songs,” declares Foley. “It’s all one really strong box of songs. It’s gonna be what it’s gonna be,” she says with a caginess born of a life in show biz. “I didn’t expect it to be anything, so it’s icing on the cake of my life. ‘Icing on the cake of my life,’ that should be your last line.”
Fighting Words is available now.