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Back In The Solo Album Groove With John Cavazos

In an exclusive interview, member of the Citrus College Singers recollects his "first taste being in the big time" in the studio with Gene Simmons and a nerve-wracking experience with Cher.

Interview by Tim McPhate

KissFAQ: John, you are one of the singers frof the Azusa Citrus College Choir on Gene Simmons' 1978 solo album. At that time, what year were you in at Citrus?
John Cavazos: I was in my last year there.

KF: And your major was music?
JC: It was music. It was a junior college and so I went on afterwards to Brooklyn College in New York after I moved there. And I'm actually now finishing up another degree. It's been a long journey for me because show business got in the way of my education.

KF: How many years were you at Citrus?
JC: I was there for three years. And the reason is because of the performing group, most of us who were in that group would stay for three years. There were lots of opportunities and doors that opened.

KF: Were you in the choir for all three years?
JC: Yeah. It was actually an ensemble. I know [Gene] listed it as a choir. It really wasn't. There were I think 30 of us and we did more than just sing classical music. We were all dancers as well so we performed pop music as well.

KF: What was the exact name of the ensemble?
JC: We were actually known as the Citrus College Singers. It was a very diverse group. To be in it you had to be able to sing classical repertoire as well as pop repertoire and you had to be able to dance. So it was all inclusive. And it was perfect for me because I went into musical theater in New York.

KF: Before we get to Gene's album, let's chat about Cher. In his 2001 autobiography, Gene Simmons recounts the story of how the ensemble sang for Cher on her birthday in May 1978. Can you tell us about this experience?
JC: Yeah, actually I was the guy that sang the solo to her. It was her 30th birthday and they obviously were dating at the time. And Gene invited us to come to [his] bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. And he surprised her. I'm sure she wasn't too happy about it at first because, you know, she didn't have any makeup on or anything. But we sang a capella the song "If" by the group Bread. And it happened to be in the pop show that we did. It happened to be my solo with the group backing me up. So he brought her out and after a couple of seconds she warmed up and smiled, and we started singing. And I started walking toward her to sing the solo and, as I would normally do, I would take the lady by the hand. And so I took her [hand] and when I did she grabbed me and I was really nervous. You know, hello it's Cher! And she took her hand and put it on my heart and I'm sure it was bumping a mile a minute. And as I was singing, "And one by one, the stars will all go out," she looked at me and she goes, "Oh, you're nervous. How sweet." And I about pooped my pants because I thought, "Oh my gosh." (laughs) She was actually very, very sweet about it and she knew we were just kids and we were in awe of who she was. And of course, KISS was very popular at the time and nobody had ever seen them without their makeup. It was really a super cool moment for all of us.

KF: Did you sing any other songs, or was it just one tune that you performed?
JC: We sang that one tune to her. And then she said, "Thank you." She was very gracious and then she kind of disappeared back into the bungalow. And then Gene was standing and talking to Ben [Bollinger] for a couple of minutes. And I think that's when he approached him and said, "Hey, I'd like for you guys to sing on the album." I think that's where that moment happened. And the rest of us, we were kind of over to the side taking pictures like geeky kids. It was fun.

KF: As a college student at the time, what was your opinion of KISS?
JC: Well, I was not a rock and roller although I appreciated what [KISS] did and they were certainly incredible musicians. I had great respect because I'm a musician as well; I play keyboards as well as perform. I was more of an Earth, Wind & Fire, Chicago type of guy. And of course disco, because it was the big thing at the time. There were some solo artists that I liked; I'm a big Billy Joel fan. So that was kind of the music that I listened to. Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago -- those were my two groups. I did listen to some rock and roll. I did listen to Three Dog Night and I listened to Led Zeppelin, as I think all teenagers did. You could experiment listening to different groups in trying to decide what you liked.

KF: John, what do you remember about heading out to Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles for Gene's album?
JC: The first couple of times, I think we went out in vans. But it was done in sections. There was this one part, I can't remember what song it is, it's where the turnaround goes [sings the ensemble's part from "True Confessions"]. And we were singing in octaves. I think that was really the only one where everybody was singing. They had us all in the studio and Gene was in the center. And he was in his glory; he loved it because he loved young people. And he was in the center kind of waving us on and making us smile and getting us all excited. And it was fun. It was just so incredibly cool. At the time, I had done some studio work, and I ended up in the business. Besides what I did in New York, I also did a lot of session work. So it was kind of my first taste being in the big time. Even though he was jumping up and down and having a lot of fun, it was serious business. We had to get it done. And they broke us up into groups for the other two songs, depending on what they needed. I think for one group, I think there were six or eight of us. And we sang some "aahs" and some "oohs" and then we sang something where whatever Gene was singing, he was singing some kind of a line, and we were singing in unison with him in the same octave or up an octave, and trying to make it sound ethereal. They did a lot of experimenting with the sound. And of course, like I said, here's Gene and we're going, "Oh my gosh, he has no makeup on. We see him." (laughs) I mean, everybody sees them now but at the time it was a big deal.

KF: Yes it was. I believe it was a three-day period during which you recorded -- is that what you remember?
JC: Yeah, (pauses) I think the third day it was just a smaller group of us that were out there. I remember there was one particular day where everybody was crammed inside the studio, all 30 of us, singing at the top of our lungs. And then they broke us up into groups. And I think maybe the third day, it was a smaller group. But yeah, it was three days.

KF: Ben described Gene as being wonderful with the students and really interacting well with all of you.
JC: He really was. I mean, he even stuck out his tongue out for us.

KF: That's Gene. (laughs)
JC: You know, if you've seen my website than you know I went to New York and had a career on Broadway. And I worked with some of the biggest stars in the world and some of them were really nice. And some of them weren't very nice at all. And Gene was absolutely just as nice as he could be. [He was] very friendly [and] very unassuming for a guy who had achieved so much. Onstage, he had a persona. But he really dug us and he really liked who we were and he admired what we could do and he let us know that. And that was very impressing, I think, to all of us. I know it was to me. He was very generous and very respectful of who and what we were. I think there were maybe some engineers [who said], "Who the heck are these kids?" But he didn't. He thought it was the coolest thing and he loved our sound and said, "You guys are so talented. I wish I could sing like you." He was great.

KF: That's a nice snapshot. Ben also said there were a couple of artists around the studio. He specifically mentioned Grace Slick and members of Queen. What's your recollection?
JC: There were a lot of people in those sessions. Cher was there for one of them, sitting in the booth. I don't know, she was kind of incognito. I do remember a couple of the session singers, some of them went on to do a lot of session work with people like Streisand. There was a guy, I can't remember his name. You know, if you know anything about this industry, you know that people come in and out of those sessions all the time, to hang out and give their opinion. So there were people floating in and out. I don't know that I particularly paid attention to them. Even then, I was pretty focused on what I was doing.

KF: What are your recollections of how Gene articulated what he was looking for in terms of the vocal parts on the three songs?
JC: I think that was probably the biggest challenge because most of us were used to reading charts and reading music in front of us. We were all musicians and could all read music. So I think Gene just knew that he had a vision in his head and wanted a sound, but he couldn't really articulate it on paper. So we experimented a lot. We got in there and he said, "OK, let's have you guys try this and let's have you try that." And we also interacted, as well as Ben. He would say, "Well, the girls could do this or the guys [could do that]." And we would say, "How about if we do this?" And he would listen to it and go, "That's really cool. I like that. Yeah, let's do that." It was very collaborative and he was pretty open. For the first one hour, maybe it was a little rough in terms of actually getting into it because we were trying to figure out what this was going to sound like. But once we did, we listened to the track over and over again, [and] he would explain to us, "This is what I'm looking for. This is what I want it to sound like." So, because he was collaborative, he was open to the suggestions. And sometimes we would sing something, and he'd go, "No, I don't like that." Or, "I want it more like this. Let's try this." And we finally got it and then we started the takes.

KF: The ensemble is featured on three songs: "True Confessions," which also features Helen Reddy. Then there's "Always Near You/Nowhere To Hide," which was more of an experimental song for Gene. And then there's the Disney cover "When You Wish Upon A Star."
JC: Yes, that's correct. I don't remember us singing "When You Wish..." And that could have been a smaller group. I know one of our girls had a really high voice and they wanted her to do something and that might have been "When You Wish..." And so it may have just been her on that one particular song because I know she did something by herself. I don't remember what it was, but she was brought into to do some kind of an obligado. From what I remember, it was "True Confessions" and "Always Near You[/Nowhere To Hide]" -- I think those are the ones that the ensemble was used on. Again, that was a long time ago. I don't remember exactly. But I know that one of our girls did something on her own and I think it might have been that one.

KF: Here it is, I'm asking you questions like this all just happened last week. (laughs)
JC: Yeah. I mean some of it is very clear to me. Of course, my friends that love KISS think it's the greatest thing every time I tell them about it or they ask me about it. They're like, "Oh my God! You sang with Gene Simmons!" And I will tell you this: When I first began in the business, I used it on my r�sum�. And there were people who would look at it and go, "You sang with Gene Simmons?" -- because I was in the theater. I was like, "Yeah." And they said, "That's really cool." So obviously it helped me.

KF: In listening to these tracks some 35 years later, what are your thoughts, John?
JC: I was really surprised. I think "True Confessions" is the one that I really have the most memory of. I really don't have memories of the others at all. I don't know why. I think because we probably spent the most time [on it]. "True Confessions" was the first one we did and it was the one that took the longest because we were trying to figure out what the heck we were doing. That one kind of stuck with me because there's a hook in the song that we sang. And so we all sang that wherever we went -- we toured a lot all over the world and we'd be on tour singing it and humming it and talking about it. And we still have pictures -- I've got a picture on Facebook, unfortunately not with Gene, but right after we came outside of the studio.

But I was surprised at how well it came together when we were recording just our part of it. To me, it sounded corny, like, "How's this going to go together with this guy who's really a rock and roller?" And when we all got a copy of the album and when I listened to it, I went, "That sounds pretty good!" Obviously it's very, very different, but I thought it got his desired effect. He was happy with it. He was a professional and he was not going to release something that he didn't think was good. It's actually a great album. Like I said, I'm not a big fan of super hard rock and roll but they're great musicians. And I admire and I respect what they do.

KF: And the interesting thing is Gene's album is eclectic. There are straight-ahead rock tunes, but there are also Beatleseque excursions, some songs with orchestration and the Disney tune. To be candid, his album kind of threw some KISS fans for a loop.
JC: Well, I think it tells about what kind of a guy he is. I think at heart he's a musician and I think he appreciates all types of music. And he's obviously pulled from all of those for his inspiration. So why not?

KF: You mentioned getting a copy of the album. Did you actually go out and purchase it?
JC: (pauses) I lost the album -- the album got accidentally thrown away or something during my move. I was moving from one apartment to another in New York and I lost it. But maybe about five years ago, I bought the CD because I wanted to have it because some of my friends were like, "Oh come on. You didn't ..." I was like, "Dude, I sang on it! Look." And I'd show them. Because it's so random, I mean it's so freaking random.

KF: Ben intimated that this was a unique occurrence for the ensemble. But he also said that the ensemble got a lot of invitations to perform on other artists' albums afterward.
JC: Correct. You know, we did a lot of stuff in Hollywood. We sang for a lot of star events, so we sang for a lot of celebrities. We were invited to sing for "The Mary Tyler Moore" show, I think back in 1976. We were actually on the set and we sang for her show. And Valerie Harper was still on the show and Cloris Leachman -- so all these people were there. We did stuff like that. We constantly sang. We did private parties in Beverly Hills, Bel Air and Hollywood because they would hear us and then they would invite us to their home and say, "Can you come entertain during Christmas?" And we would come in and we were in the room with these huge stars, some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and they would sit still and listen to us sing. So we were used to having that kind of an experience. That's why many of us were in that group, because it afforded us that. And for those of us that went into the industry and made it a profession, it was in some ways a door opener. Gene happened to be one that offered us this opportunity. And yeah, there were a lot of other things that came our way. And Ben was very careful. We were his kids. He was not going to expose us or subject us to anything that he felt was not [good for us]. Even though we were 18, our parents were entrusting him as we traveled, not just in California, but all over the country and all over the world. They were entrusting that he was watching out. And there are things that younger people should not be exposed to. And so I think Gene was obviously very respectful because Ben didn't care who anybody was. He was very respectful and very honorable and we never saw anything that was, you know, questionable. So I think in that regard, hats off to Gene because he respected that, hey, we were college kids. Obviously, we weren't naive and we probably saw worse. But still, we were on company time, so to speak. And things have to be done in the right way. And there were a lot of other stars that were very much the same way. Cloris Leachman, in fact, I just ran into her not too long ago in Orlando, and she was just as sweet as she was then. We took a picture together. We worked with Carol Burnett and she was just as sweet as she could be as well. You know, there are people in this industry who are like that. And Gene was one. He was very, very nice to all of us. It was really great.

KF: John, the KISS solo albums were widely promoted when they were released in September 1978. Was the sense among the ensemble that, "Hey, this is a pretty cool thing that we're being featured on a solo album by a member of KISS"?
JC: Oh yeah. I mean, we had a lot of different people who were huge rock and roll fans and were big KISS fans. So yes, are you kidding? We were like instant celebrities In our neighborhoods and at school. We were running in the halls, "Oh my God. Look at this!"

KF: Ben mentioned that he had to change his phone number. Since his name was listed on the album cover, apparently he got calls from a bunch of fans.
JC: Oh I'm sure he did. You know, I left right after that. In fact, that was one of the last things that I did in the group because I moved to New York. Some of those kids were first or second year students and that was one of the last things I did before I left.

KF: Ben described you as one of his top students. Can you speak about what he meant to your career and the importance of your experience at Citrus College?
JC: Ben is one of my mentors. I had great mentors in high school; I went to an award-winning dramatic and music high school. I really didn't know that a group like this existed at a junior college because I had other plans. But Ben scouted me out and the girl that I was dating at the time -- we were in the same school -- and he brought us both into the group. He groomed us and gave us wonderful opportunities. He was a task master, but in a great way. He was very demanding. He gave me tons of opportunities -- we did a local television program, it was a religious program, and he gave me the opportunity to go on there and sing. He challenged me in every way possible. He demanded a lot from me and put me in positions of leadership. And I think I took that and the other things that I learned from the other mentors in my life and I brought it into [my career]. Like I said, I spent about a decade in New York working in theater. I respect him and all that he did for me. It was invaluable.

KF: John, can you outline the arc of your career and talk about what you are up to nowadays?
JC: Well, like I said, I moved to New York in the late '70s and spent up until the late '80s doing Broadway shows and everything that actors do -- commercials and national tours and all that kind of stuff. The church that I belonged to in New York, right in the city, was actually started backstage at "Dreamgirls." So it was a church full of actors, performers, dancers, musicians -- people in our worship team were the bass guitarist and lead guitarist for Roberta Flack. It was pretty cool. I got married and I had two children. We decided to move to Florida in '99. I had no intention of working for Walt Disney World, but be that as it may, it turned out that way. And I've been there for 10 years and my daughters are grown. I sing with the group Seven -- it's seven guys, it's kind of like Il Divo, but more religious and patriotic and kind of Americana-type music. And I do a lot of session work here in Orlando and in Nashville for commercials, background on people's albums. And for Disney, I do some session work for some of the stuff that you hear when you go to Disneyland or Disney World or in a commercial or something like that. And I sing with a group called the Voices Of Liberty at Epcot and that group's been there for about 30 years. So I keep myself pretty busy.

KF: And here's this random Gene Simmons thing on your r�sum�. I'm curious, do you get a lot of questions about this particular project?
JC: Oh people talk about it all the time. One of the guys I work with is a huge KISS fan. And when I told him, he totally freaked out. He was like, "Oh my God dude. I can't believe it. Tell me everything about it! I want to know what it was like." Because it is, it's so random and it's so off the cuff. I'm basically a musical theater performer -- how did I end up singing backgrounds for Gene Simmons?

(KissFAQ thanks John Cavazos for his time and contribution to Back In The Solo Album Groove, our 35th anniversary retrospective dedicated to the 1978 KISS solo albums.)



About John Cavazos:
John Cavazos (known as John Caleb in theatrical circles) is a well-known voice teacher, vocal coach and session singer in the Orlando, Fla., area. A trained dancer and singer, Cavazos made his Broadway debut in the 25th anniversary production of "My Fair Lady" with Rex Harrison. He was chosen by Stephen Sondheim to appear in a leading role in "Pacific Overtures," in which he received unanimous rave reviews from critics including Frank Rich of "The New York Times." He made his debut at Carnegie Hall with Marilyn Horne in the opera "Tancredi." In addition to performing with Seven, Cavazos also performs with the gospel group ReGeneration and has appeared in concert with the Orlando Philharmonic as well as the West Coast Symphony. Originally from Los Angeles, he is an alumnus of the renowned Citrus College Singers ensemble and attended Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music in New York as an opera and vocal performance major. He is also currently an adjunct music professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.