(Full disclosure. While sorting through old studio tapes in producer Stu Gardner’s archive, I found a tape with “Irene Cathaway,” written on the spine, a name I remembered from reading album liner notes on one of my favorite records. There were four tracks on the tape, none of which I had heard. They were more than demos, with horns, background vocals and some inspired organ playing, along with the powerful voice of Ms. Cathaway. One of the songs was allegedly appropriated by a opportunistic music industry executive and became this. Stu and I agreed that these songs and some of the others in his stash deserved to be heard. A few weeks later, we started a company called Gardner and Belcher Entertainment (GABE), to share some of Stu’s unheard and forgotten music with the world. This is our first release, a 12 inch record of “Disco Madness” and “He Can Ring My Bell,” two of the tracks from that tape. Right now, it’s only available in the UK, thanks to our partnership with Super Disco Edits and at a few select stateside record shops. There’s more to come in 2015.)
In the 1970s, Irene Cathaway was a seasoned back up singer, lending her talents to projects with Connie Stevens, Helen Reddy, Mike Love, the Charlie Daniels Band and television variety shows. But while she was busy supporting other people’s music, she also did a little of her own, but most of it would go unheard. Now, with her second release and her first since 1977, Irene’s second act has begun, with some soulful disco tracks that have aged gracefully.
“Disco Madness” isn’t your first record. Tell me about the other song people may know you from, “Now We’re Doing It,” recorded in 1977.
I was approached by the producer, Steve Angelica. I guess he heard me singing somewhere and he had a song that he thought my voice fit, so we went to the studio and cut it. That’s basically how it went. I never heard anything else about it. I think I did one appearance, he took me to this gay club that liked the record, so … that was it. Really exciting!
You did a lot of background singing in the 1970s, for some top acts. But you stopped recording in the 80s. What happened?
I was mainly taking care of my kids, I have two girls. I settled in with day work because my children were becoming teenagers. I didn’t really think going on the road was probably the best thing. Now, they’re all grown up with kids of their own.
What do remember about the session for “Disco Madness” and how did it come about?
I was introduced to Stu [Gardner] and I did a tv show theme for Stu called “Wacko.” Stu, he says, “I’m going to make you a star. I’ve got these songs that I want you to do, there’s four of them.” So he got me and my girlfriend, Linda Moller and we went in to the studio in Orange County. We worked like 12 or 14 hours on these tracks. It was a labor of love, I tell you, it was great.
One of those songs that came out of that session was “He Can (Ring My Bell).” What did you think when you heard Anita Ward’s song, which came out later?
I was on tour, I think I was in Philadelphia, I forget who I was working with, and I heard “Ring My Bell,” and I thought “Oh my God, somebody just stole this song!” That’s the first thing that came to my mind! I said “Oh well, I guess I’m not going to be a star.” (laughs) Because you can’t put out “He Can (Ring My Bell)” [after] “Ring My Bell.” You can try, but that’s not ever going to work. I just thought “Wow, Anita Ward got herself a hit.”
Now, your song is finally coming out, years later.
I think it’s going to be great. I’m excited, I can’t wait.
Another song that came out of that session was a cover of The Moonglows’ “Ten Commandments of Love.”
Its a moving song. It’s very poignant. It’s a beautiful song. I was going to try to start putting it my act, my husband and I have a duo. This is a song that speaks to everybody.
Who were some of your vocal influences?
Of course Aretha, of course Gladys Knight. I like all kinds of music. My mother was into music, she really got me into the singing business, but she never went professional. I’m Mexican, so we played ethnic music … I like everything.
Where can people hear you sing now?
Right now we’re working at a place called the Epic Bar and Lounge in Sherman Oaks. We do a variety. We do a jazz version of “I Love the Way You Move.” We do some of the ’60s tunes, “Natural Woman,” and “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” We have a good time. We really play what we like, because you’ve got to entertain yourself.