Vocalist details her experience working on Ace Frehley's album, lending her "Brooklyn street" sound to the three tracks she sang on, her tie to Neil Bogart, a recent meeting with the Spaceman, and why "New York Groove" has "balls."
By Tim McPhate
KissFAQ: Susan, how did you receive an invitation to sing vocals on Ace Frehley's solo album?
Susan Collins: I had worked with Eddie Kramer, going back to Jimi Hendrix. I worked with Eddie on a number of projects back in the day at Electric Lady. And David Lasley and I had done many, many projects together as background singers. I think what happened, Eddie had requested me and we had lost contact over the years. And I got a call from David and he said, "It's funny, I got a call to do this record and I was going to call you and Eddie Kramer asked if I'm still in contact with you." And he told Eddie, "I was going to call her anyway." So it was really perfect.
Susan Collins with "Ace Frehley" awards
Courtesy of Susan Collins
KF: You would have sang during the sessions at Plaza Sound in New York, correct?
SC: Yes. Back in the day, I used to go from studio to studio. I could be doing three of four sessions in a day at places like Electric Lady, the Hit Factory or the Record Plant. I had actually never worked in this specific studio before. It was in the Radio City Music Hall building. It was quite interesting for me because it was a fantastic studio.
KF: Was Ace around during your session?
SC: At the session that I did, he was absolutely there.
KF: Was that your first time meeting Ace?
SC: Back in the day, I was singing with the Electric Light Orchestra so there were many, many different parties and people would come to see you and you would be introduced. But no, I never really had an opportunity to sit there and have any cohesive conversation with him at all. I had many more conversations prior to this with Paul, a couple with Gene, but nothing memorable. But Paul and I were friendlier.
KF: So what were your first general impressions of Ace?
SC: You know, I have to be honest and tell you he was the nicest and sweetest guy. He knew who I was by my reputation and he wanted, through Eddie Kramer, "my sound" on his record. That's why he hired me, for my sound. But he didn't know what he was going to be getting when I walked into the room. He was so respectful and so sweet. When I said, "Ace, what do you think about this?" He was like, "Susan, just do whatever you want. I'll take whatever I like and I'll leave the rest." He really respected and allowed actual creative freedom.
David Lasley, fellow background vocalist on "Ace Frehley"
KF: I want to get into the process for your vocal parts in a minute. But regarding the album's credits, you are credited as singing background vocals on three tracks: "Speedin' Back To My Baby," "What's On Your Mind?" and "New York Groove." The credit actually reads "David Lasley and Susan Collins & Co." Can you shed some light?
SC: Yes, I'll tell you why because this is what happened. Are you familiar with David's sound? David has one of the most gorgeous voices you've ever heard in your life. I happen to love the way he sings low, but he's a very high singer. He always sings higher parts. The reason Co. is listed is this -- when we did "New York Groove," I did "New York Groove." I tripled myself. My voice is tripled.
KF: Your voice is very prominent on the track.
SC: Well, that's why. And what happened was, after that, they had called in Benny Diggs, they called in three guys, and they have all since passed away. And one of the guys that they called in at the end of the session I did, they called in to do a low voice. They put his voice on and then they took it off. They never used it. So I guess, in all due respect, they said "& Co." because they didn't end up using a lot of the vocals that they recorded. I know that for a fact. And two of the three guys, I was trying to remember the other black guy's name, who was fabulous. Benny Diggs also sang with Luther [Vandross], who should rest in peace, and sang on both of my solo albums. Oh, Phillip Ballou was the other one. He also passed away.
KF: So these guys came in, tried some vocal parts, but they got left on the cutting-room floor?
SC: I know that they didn't make "New York Groove" and I know they didn't make "Speedin' Back To My Baby." But David Lasley did do some work on "New York Groove." We did the "oohs" together. That's just me and David and the oohs are actually mixed way back, if you notice. I didn't know about them calling the other guys. And I'll tell you how I found out. A couple of years ago, "New York Groove" was used as a jingle. And I had called the union because I said, "You know, we should be getting T&R [talent & residual] royalty checks." I called David Lasley before I called the union and said, "David, have you heard the spot?" And he said, "Yeah, but I don't think it's us." And I said, "It sounds exactly like the track, what are you talking about?" And he said, "Susan, I don't thnk it's us." And we listened back together. And he told me back in the day, they had called Benny and Phillip to put in additional "oohs" to give it a more soulful sound, and that it was not what they wanted, so they mixed it way back. And P.S., it was not us on the track, I want to say it was some jingle company out of Detroit or Chicago, that emulated exactly what we did, because they didn't want to pay for the buyout. Oh well.
KF: Did Ace sing background vocals with you at all?
SC: No, he was not part of the backgrounds. But he never left the session.
KF: In terms of your vocal parts, Ace let you have free reign to try ideas?
SC: I came up with a couple of things for "New York Groove." Where he gave me more free reign was "Speedin' Back To My Baby." He just let me go wild.
KF: Your voice is very prominent on that song as well.
SC: (Sings main chorus melody) That's me. I don't think that David worked on any of those lines.
KF: And Susan, near the end of the song, you're cutting loose with some improvisational lines.
SC: Yes, I go (sings line) "Oh, Speedin' back..."
KF: That's it! How did that part come to be?
SC: They played the track and I just did my thing. As a matter of fact, I wanted to do something else and I came up with an idea as I was singing. I said, "No, no, I have another idea," because I was so excited. Ace and Eddie were like, "No, no this is perfect! Susan don't overkill it."
KF: Did you put any of the other ideas down on tape?
SC: I tried a couple of things. You always try a couple of things. It's very rare that you keep the first thing that you do. I think I tried a couple of things and they put them down but they didn't make the record. And to Eddie and Ace's credit, of all the KISS solo records, Ace was the only one to have success. Ace was instrumental in choosing parts as well. And Eddie was a genius. I think on any record you put down a number of ideas on different tracks and you pick and choose.
KF: Your voice provides a perfect complement to Ace's on "Speedin' Back To My Baby."
SC: Thank you very much.
KF: As you mentioned, "New York Groove" was a big hit. Were you specifically trying to add a "New York"-style personality to your part?
SC: That's why they called me. I was always hired for my tough Brooklyn sound. And that's what Eddie wanted. He wanted that New York, street, Brooklyn sound. That's where I started singing, on the streets of Brooklyn. When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I was in a pizza place across the street fromt the projects where I grew up, and I heard a song called "Be My Baby" on the jukebox. Everyday after school, my mother would give me a quarter to get a slice of pizza and a small coke, and I would have a nickel leftover. And I put the nickel in the jukebox and played "Be My Baby." Well I found out that for a quarter I could play it six times instead of five. So I would play "Be My Baby" over and over again. These very tough guys from the projects who wore leather jackets -- you know when you're 12 years old, and guys are 16 it's like they're 50 -- well the guys in this group were a capella singers and one of the guys came up to me, and he said, "You are really good. You wanna sing with us?" Of course, I said, "Yeah, I wanna sing with you." You know who was in that group? Neil Bogart.
The Ronettes, "Be My Baby"
SC: Neil Bogart grew up in the same projects I grew up in. One of the guys was from Vito & The Salutations. All these guys are dead now, everyone of them are gone. We used to sing a capella, underneath the stairwell, to get the echo. They would sing "Duke Of Earl," "A Teenager In Love" and they would make me sing the lead on all these boy songs, because they never sang girl songs. And I only wanted to sing girl songs. So I now have a show "You Can Take The Girl Outta Brooklyn" that is all about how the song "Be My Baby" changed my life and how I was signed to Don Kirshner with my first publishing deal, and Donnie said to me, "Sue, babe, if there is anyone you'd want to write with, who would it be?" And without missing a beat, I said, "Ellie Greenwich," because Neil Bogart bought me a 45 becaue he knew how much I loved "Be My Baby." By this point, I guess I was 14 and on the record it read, "Written by P. Spector, J. Barry and E. Greenwich." And he told me who the names were and when I heard Ellie, I knew Ellie was a girl and I wanted to write with her and that meant I could really be a songwriter. Ellie became one of my closest, dearest friends till the day she passed away. She was my son's godmother.
KF: That's a neat story. Susan, were you familiar with the original version of "New York Groove"? A group named Hello had a hit with it in the UK in 1975.
SC: You know, I have to tell you, I did not know that. I always thought that Ace's was the original.
KF: "New York Groove" has been able to attain the rare status of being a song that has transcended generations. It's been used by the Yankees and it's been featured in television and commercials. Why do you think that song has made such an impression?
SC: I love MOR [middle of the road] music. I love Karen Carpenter and schmaltzy, beautiful ballads. Every song about New York -- from Frank Sinatra and Billy Joel to everybody -- was always MOR and poppy. "New York Groove," to put it bluntly, had balls. It had New York balls. Even a doctor or a lawyer or a surgeon would say, "Boy, that song has balls." That's why. "New York Groove" put it exactly the way it should have been put. "I'm back in the New York groove." It's timeless, it's ageless. You could sing it and refer to it as back in the '30s or you could sing it right now in 2013.
KF: An interesting aside, the song was actually written by an Englishman, Russ Ballard. Susan, how would you describe the atmosphere for your session?
SC: Well, I can only speak about the session that I did, and I worked my ass off at that one session. And that session was supposed to start earlier, but I was coming from another session. I was coming from the West Side, I think I was at the Record Plant. I was booked for a session with a possible hour, which meant they had the right to keep you an additional hour. Well, when that hour was over, I had a lot more work to do, they said, "Now we want you to sing on this." I don't remember who it was for. So I had to call and say, "I can't start until 7 p.m." And it was supposed to start at like 3 in the afternoon. They were totally cool. I felt so badly. David said, "Don't worry about it. Ace is very cool. He doesn't usually show up on time." When I was arrived, he was there, Eddie was there and the engineer -- everybody was all set up. It was like, "OK, put your stuff down, let's listen to the tracks and go in and do it." So it was professional from the minute we walked in. There were no drugs there. I have to be honest, and I know that Ace was notorious, there was no drugs. He was working and he was a pleasure to work with. He was respectful, nice and sweet. Anton Fig was also there.
KF: I was going to ask if there were any other musicians hanging around.
SC: While we were doing the session, two guys walked in. They stayed and they waved to me, I waved to them. For the life of me, I don't know who they were. When I did some part, they looked at me from the control room, they were like, "That was fucking incredible." And then they left. Anton Fig stayed for quite some time. Anton's a very softspoken, shy guy. And it was only when I started working on Letterman, that Anton reintroudced himself to me.
KF: Aside from accolades for Ace, Anton has received much praise for his drum work on the album, and rightfully so.
SC: Anton Fig is just incredible. His drum work is incredible. I know that they're still very, very good friends. I have to tell you that Anton Fig was such a good friend to Ace Frehley and really got him through a lot of stuff. He was the definition of a friend. I'm best friends with Paul Shaffer to this day. And we were both signed to Donnie Kirshner. Beside Paul Shaffer in the dictionary for friend, it says Anton Fig.
KF: Would it be fair to say that your favorite track from the three you sang would be "New York Groove"?
SC: It's "New York Groove," because I have a jukebox in my house. And everytime I hear that song, it puts a smile on my face. Not because I'm on it, just because the song itself is like a no-brainer. It just makes you smile.
KF: The KISS solo albums were a major event in the music industry in 1978. What do you recall the industry chatter being like?
SC: On a scale of 1 to 10, among the musicians, don't forget [KISS] were in a certain genre, so within that genre, that was a very big deal. That was probably an 8 or a 9. Were they with the musicians that I was with? The studio cliques ... Hugh McCracken, Jimmy Maelen, John Tropea, David Spinozza, Will Lee -- all of these guys. On a scale of 1 to 10 [for these guys], it was a 5.
KF: When we spoke with John Tropea, he expressed a simiar sentiment. He said it was a big session, but maybe not at the top of the heap.
KF: Susan, you got to hang out with Ace at one of his book signings in 2011. What can you tell us about that?
SC: A guy named Jimmy McElligott, who is also a fabulous guitar player, he called me and said, "There's a book signing in New Jersey tonight at a store called Bookends. Why don't we go? It's Ace." And I said, "Come on, it's raining." And he said, "Come on, let's go. We'll go to dinner." We went and in the rain, mind you, there was a line out the door, around the store, in the parking lot to the back of the store. People were waiting in line. The line continues to go in the store and they're waiting. I walk in the store and Jimmy and [his wife] Joanne said, "Come on, we'll get in line." So I went into the store, they were like, "Susan, what are you doing?" And my husband said, "Just follow her into the store." There's this big burly guy up at the top of the stairs, obviously in Ace's camp, with the owner of the store. And I said, "Would you please go and tell Ace that Susan Collins is here." And the guy looks at me and says, "Who is Susan Collins?" And I said, "I'm Susan Collins." "Well, where does he know you from?" I said, "I'm the voice of 'New York Groove.'" This guy looks at me, he had to be 6-foot-4, he became a 5-foot-2, 90-pound child. The owner of Bookends went down and came right back up -- now again, there was a line going down the stairs, all around the entire lower floor of the store, with these barricades. People were waiting in line to buy the book for him to sign it. She comes back up the stairs and says, "Please follow me. How many in your party?" I go down the stairs, there's a desk set up with a red-velvet drape underneath. There were two bodyguards with Ace sitting at a table, and this blonde bombshell sitting on the side. A totally voluptuous blonde. I walk straight up to him and he looks at me and I went, "Hi Ace." And he goes, "Susan!" He jumps up and comes from behind the desk, hugs and kisses me. It was so hysterical, in true Ace fashion, he said to her, "Babe, this is Susan Collins. This is the voice of 'New York Groove.' This is the girl I told you about." She gets off her chair and I hug her. She was going to shake my hand. And I hugged her. And he introduces me, "This is my fiance." I hug her and tell her what a sweet, lovely guy he is and how respectful he was. And Ace goes, "Susan, I can't tell you what a thrill it is. I've been sober five years." That's what he shared with me. I said, "Ace, I'm so proud of you. And I'm so proud that you've done this book and that you have such a beautiful and nice fiance. I wish you only the best." The whole interaction was like five to seven minutes, because there were people waiting. I said, "Ace, get back to what you're doing. You have all these people waiting." He said, "Wait, wait, I've got to sign this book for you." I said, "Let me buy it first!" He looked at me and said, "This is my pleasure." And he signed the most beautiful thing in his book to me. Well, there were people in line who had already bought the book, and he looks at them, and they had already heard the whole exchange, and he announces to them, "This is the woman that sang 'New York Groove'!" So as I'm leaving, diehard KISS fans are saying, "Would you please sign my book?" By the time I got out of there, I signed so many books. And by this point, my poor friends were waiting for me.
Ace is really a nice guy. It was so great. He looked so good. The fact that he shared with me that he was sober and in the program and doing so well -- I know that under the influence people do very stupid things. And it's not necessarily who they are. And I know that he's burned a lot of bridges. But you've got to forgive and forget because when people do things under the influence, that's not who they are. And thank God, his best friends were people who did not indulge so somewhere in his psyche, at least he chose a very quality group of people, especially Anton Fig.
KF: That's a great story. Susan, you mentioned your acclaimed autobiographical musical revue, "You Can Take The Girl Outta Brooklyn (But You Can't Take The Brooklyn Outta The Girl)." Are more performances in the works?
SC: I took the summer off because [my musical director] Bette Sussman was out with Cyndi Lauper for a while. I won't work with anyone else. But come the end of September, I will start doing it again at the Cutting Room and I'm doing different dates around town. The dates will be on my professional Facebook page.
Courtesy of WireImage.com
KF: You mentioned the great Paul Shaffer. He has said, "Susan Collins is my favorite singer ... period!" That's pretty high praise, Susan.
SC: Yeah. I met Paul before "Saturday Night Live" was even a TV show. I got a call from Anne Beatts, who was married to Michael O'Donoghue, who was the head writer for "Saturday Night Live." He has since passed away. They since got divorced and she became the producer/director for a TV show called "Square Pegs" that ran for a couple of seasons. I got a call from Anne and Martin Mull to write a song called "A Letter To Patty," which was about Patty Hearst, and do a demo for an up-and-coming possible show called "Saturday Night Live." So I went to Martin's apartment, this is way back in the day, and I wrote a song with them. I went in to do the demo and there was a kid on the drums, cutting the drum track. I said to this guy, "Who's that guy on the drums?" And he said, "Oh, it's this new kid in town from Canada." When he was done, I went in to put my vocal on. And he came up to me after and he said, "Do you know any Ronnie Spector songs?" I said, "Are you kdding me? They call me Ronnie!" And he played the piano and I sang every possible '60s song there was. And they were all Ellie's songs. And that was Paul Shaffer. Paul played the drums because they didn't have a drummer. He was the best keyboard player I had ever heard in my life. My musical director at the time was a guy named Kenny Ascher, who is incredible. Paul Griffin was a musical director and keyboard player for me, who has since passed away. He was incredible. Paul Schaffer was in another league. Paul said to me, "Susan, you're the reason I moved to New York. The reason was to hear a voice like yours." He lived two blocks from me and we became the best of friends. "Saturday Night Live" went on the air and I became the vocal contractor. Paul worked on the show for a very short time. He brought me up to Kirshner, he was signed to him, and they did the TV show "A Year At The Top," which was a Norman Lear show. It was about three guys who sold their souls to the devil to become rock stars. Paul was one of them. And Donnie was the partner with Norman Lear. And Josh Mostel was the devil, Greg Evigan was the other second guy in the rock group and Donnie Scardino, who is now an enormous director in L.A., [he was the other guy]. Jeff Barry was the producer of the theme song. Everything was going full-circle. Unfortunately, the sitcom didn't make it and Paul had to come back to New York. But the good news was he came back to "Saturday Night Live." He's my son's godfather and Ellie Greenwich was his godmother. My son Tucker Caploe, he's going to be 21, he's one of the most incredible singers you've ever heard. He's a quadruple threat -- he's a dancer, singer, songwriter, and actor. And Paul said to him, "Tucker, whatever you do, you're going to make it because you've really got the goods."
KF: Susan, are there any other projects or activities that you can update us on?
SC: I'm producing a couple of very young artists. I'm mentoring them as songwriters and collaborating with them and teaching them how to write songs. I'm a voice teacher now. In September, I will be the in-house vocal coach at the Clive Davis Institute at NYU. Back in March I did a paid audition workshop for NYU. Paul came up and played two songs with me so I could perform for the kids and show them how to sell a vocal. The thing today about kids, and mind you all these kids at the Clive Davis Institute are enormously talented, but they're emulating vocal sounds that are all electronically created. So they end up sounding like they're whining. They're all whining and what they don't get is that when you go into a studio, you don't rely on Auto-Tune. You do it yourself. If you can't make the note, don't go in the studio. They all rely on Auto-Tune [because] they want a certain sound. They all try to sound like whomever it is that they're emulating. It's not real. I teach my kids how to be real. So I have these two girls, one I wrote a song with, called "Won't Take It Anymore." It's by Alexa Natalie. She's only 14 years old, but the song really stands up. And it's a story about bullying. I've been working with a guy named Art Labriola, who has won Grammys. I've been working with him for 25 years, he's amazing. So I do projects with Art. When I auditioned for the Clive Davis Institute, I was very honest and said, "You have guys with Ph.D.s in music. You have people who can pull out a syllabus. I don't even know what this is. I quit school when I was 15. I learned how to read and write just by doing sessions. I faked my way at the beginning. I was self-taught." And when they called me, I have to tell you, I did not think I was remotely close, but they said, "You're exactly what we want and you're exactly what we need. Because you're the real deal." You know what, that's what it's about. It's not about emulating. It's about being true to who you are and knowing that what you have is something very special.
(KissFAQ thanks Susan Collins for her time and contribution to Back In The Solo Album Groove, our 35th anniversary retrospective dedicated to the 1978 KISS solo albums.)
About Susan Collins:
Described by legendary musician Paul Shaffer as "my favorite singer ... period," singer/songwriter Susan Collins started out a cappella on the streets of Brooklyn in the '60s and went on to work with Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker, Todd Rundgren ("Hello, It's Me"), NRPS, Electric Light Orchestra ("Evil Woman," "Strange Magic"), and John Lennon, among others. On Ace Frehley's solo album, Collins' background vocals added a female Brooklyn-street sensibility to the tracks "Speedin' Back To My Baby," What's On Your Mind?" and the hit single "New York Groove." Collins' acclaimed autobiographical revue, "You Can Take The Girl Outta Brooklyn (But You Can't Take Brooklyn Outta The Girl)," earned rave reviews during an exclusive run at the Cutting Room in New York earlier this year. An hour-long vocal extravaganza, Collins intersperses tales of sessions, songs, and concerts spanning her career, along with performances of mega hits by Ellie Greenwich, a tribute to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, a rendition of Dusty Springfield's "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me," and a performance of her own ASCAP Award-winning song "Sweet Life." Collins is scheduled to resume "You Can Take The Girl Outta Brooklyn" on Friday, Oct. 4 at the Cutting Room in New York. Find out more information about Collins' career and drop her a line on Facebook.