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December 9, 1997

The Maureen McGovern Interview

by Gary James

Maureen McGovern is one of the most respected singers of our time. Her talent spans recordings, concerts, the Broadway stage, films, televisions, and radio.

Her recording career began with the Number One chart topping gold record "The Morning After," the Academy Award-winning song from The Poseidon Adventure. She recorded another Oscar winner, "We May Never Look Like This Again," from The Towering Inferno, in which she made a cameo appearance. She was honored with international gold records from the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, the Philippines, and England, as well as a Grammy award nomination. She also won the Grand Prize Award at the Tokyo Musical Festival, starred opposite Sting in the Broadway production of The 3 Penny Opera, and appeared in the motion picture Airplane! as the guitar-strumming nun.

Maureen McGovern's latest CD release is titled The Music Never Ends: The Lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman (Sterling Records).

Q: Is it hard for you to find good material to record these days?

A: It's harder. Let's put it that way. In the hey day of the great American songbook, it was an embarrassment of riches. Everywhere you turned there was one great composer and lyricist. I love a great lyric and a great melody. Some of those are few and far between these days. (Laughs)

Q: You can sing just about anything, can't you?

A: Well, I probably won't be a rap star. (Laughs)

Q: You could have a CD titled Maureen McGovern Sings the Greatest Hits of Country Music?

A: Well, actually we've got something along that line in the works.

Q: What I'm trying to get at is, would the same people who are pitching songs to today's Top 20 recording artists, also include you in that group?

A: No, not necessarily. They tend to continually go after the Top 10, or the Top 20 stylists. But, I think Diane Warren is a great writer. I love the writing of Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Sting and Annie Lennox. Those are singer, songwriter people whose work I really love. I love Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Elton John, people who are just very well established. James Taylor is wonderful; he writes some beautiful songs because he understands the craft of songwriting. So, it's hard for me to find material today, but it's still out there. There are some great, great songs.

Q: How did you get to record "The Morning After"? That is the song that launched your career, isn't it?

A: Yes. (Laughs) I'd only been working professionally since June of 1972. I was performing in Cleveland. My then manager had me performing in all the Holiday Inns and Ramada Inns across the great mid-west here, (Laughs) doing endless Top 40. The diva with the lounge band. I grew up in northeastern Ohio, Youngstown, Ohio. My producer was from Cleveland. His barber had come to hear me at a Ramada Inn on the outskirts of Cleveland, and went to him and said you've got to hear this young woman. He took a tape of mine around which essentially was just our lounge set. All of the record companies turned me down except for Twentieth Century Records, and Russ Regan who was head of Twentieth Century Records at the time, heard something in my voice and literally signed me sight unseen. He said, "We'll look for something, and 'The Morning After' was the very first thing they sent me to record. I thought, being a totally unknown artist, that by all indications, this movie was going to be huge, The Poseidon Adventure. So, they had me record it. I was working in Canada at the time and flew into Cleveland. I had a cold and it took awhile to make it not sound like "The Borning After." (Laughs) Maybe I should get a cold every time I record a million-seller. That was in November, 1972, and the song was released along with the movie in December, 1972. The movie took off. It was huge, a blockbuster. The song did absolutely nothing, and the record company dropped it. So then in the Spring of '73, it was nominated for an Oscar and a lot of radio stations started playing the song, as one of the nominees. Then, when it subsequently won the Oscar, more stations started playing it, and there was this huge groundswell of phone requests from California to New York. It forced the record company to re-release the song and by August '73, it was a gold record. So it took a full nine months for that song to happen. Even in December of '72 when it was first released, I auditioned for the Mike Douglas Show with that song and they turned me down. So then in August of '73, I went on his show. For years, he was a very sweet man, made a joke about it.

Q: How many records did "The Morning After" eventually sell?

A: At that time, 1.2 million. For the past 25 years now, it has continued to sell.

Q: When "The Morning After" broke, were you a headliner, or opening for other people?

A: Both.

Q: Who did you open for?

A: The very first one was Gilbert O'Sullivan. I did a tour with him. I opened for Frank Gorshen, Don Rickles, Dom DeLuise.

Q: You didn't open for any rock groups, did you? Did you get any strange billings?

A: I did some horrific rock thing on Long Island. I can't even remember. Pure Prairie Dog...

Q: League.

A: League. Thank you very much. What am I talking about. Pure Prairie League and REO...I don't know. Actually, before I even went out on the road professionally, I did open for the Temptations once. (Laughs) I was a folk singer playing guitar at the time. That was an old bill.

Q: You do a lot of Broadway work, don't you?

A: Well, I've done three Broadway shows, and one off-Broadway, and a lot of regional and some stock. I did "Pirates of Penzance." I replaced Linda Ronstadt in 1981. I loved that show. I had never even done a high school play. Just 3 weeks prior to being signed to do Pirates, I was on my way to Pittsburgh to do one week of summer stock with "The Sound of Music" and Joe Papp had asked me to come to New York and audition, and they hired me on the spot. I was coming from California with enough clothes in my suitcase for 2 weeks, and went right after that to New York, and stayed for the next 17 years. I just recently moved back to California.

Q: Was it your idea to become a pop singer or did you have it in the back of your mind that you wanted to be on Broadway and this would be a good stepping stone?

A: As a kid, all I wanted to be was a pop singer. I was extremely shy. People kept telling me you've got such a big voice, you have to go into theater. But, I was very, very shy as a child and a slow reader. But, even in my early days of performing, I could sing in front of anybody, but then I would go quickly into the next song and say as minimal an amount of words as possible. I never entertained the idea of going into theater, although my idols were Judy Garland, Streisand, along with Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, and Cleo Laine, and Judy Collins, and Joni Mitchell and Dusty Springfield. So, I had a wide, cross-section of people that I greatly admired. But, theater was not something I was really interested in. When I went to New York and did "Sound of Music," that one week of summer stock, I'd found a real home on Broadway. Opening on Broadway three weeks later was one of the most daunting things in my life. Theater actually grounded me as a performer, much more than the years and years of concerts that I'd done before that.

Q: Isn't Broadway hard work?

A: Well, there's a real discipline that goes with it. It's eight shows a week. To use the mere four octaves I use every night, you have to get enough sleep, and I work out, and I'm a vegetarian. You really have to approach your life like you're in training.

Q: What happens if you're not in top form?

A: I have sung through colds and sore throats. In theater, I missed one day of "Pirates of Penzance." I had a migraine, and was flattened. I couldn't stand up. But, I would pretty much ride out colds, and really didn't get sick much, as other people did. The theater is sort of like kindergarten. One person gets sick and it goes right through the whole cast. So, you try to stay as healthy as possible.

Q: What did you do with yourself between "The Morning After" success and your Broadway work?

A: At the end of the 70's, when my records in the States weren't selling, and I was without a record company, I went back to being a secretary.

Q: Where?

A: Out here in California, in the marina for a p.r. firm and a publishing company in the Valley. My mother always said have something you can fall back on, and she was right. But, I decided I didn't want to chase that three minute and 10 second record and that there was more to me than that. It was even suggested to me in the late 70's to change my name, because it was easier to launch a new artist than someone who was deemed a one-hit artist. So, I just decided I was going to record things that meant something to me, and I walked away from the recording business until I could do it on my own terms. I didn't record a solo album until 1986. I started writing children's music and working in theater. I just started working in the charity work I wanted. In the 70's it was the grind of trying to find a hit record, and there's more to life than that. (Laughs)

Q: Tell me about your work with the North Shore Animal League. Are you an animal rights activist?

A: Yes. I love animals. My two puppies are the light of my life. I think North Shore Animal League is a great organization. They have a pet adoption every year, finding homes for unwanted pets. People abandon animals like you would not believe. It's just horrifying.

Q: What would you tell people who believe animals have no rights?

A: That's absurd. There are many people who believe that animals and the earth are ours to consume and take from constantly. I think as intelligent human beings we have to evolve a little more spiritually to the point where we must give back to the earth. This disposable notion that people have is destroying everything around us.

Q: How about people who continue to wear fur?

A: It's ridiculous when there's virtually no reason for it. There are faux-furs that are just as warm and just as stylish. That they would slaughter an animal just for a social thing is ludicrous to me.

Q: Do you prefer the music of the past over much of today's music?

A: I have a huge CD collection of jazz and classical and I love the Big Band Era, and I love all kinds of music. I listen to today's music, but not with a consistency. It's sort of like fast food to me. It goes right through you. (Laughs) I will just savor and absorb older music probably with much more satisfaction than I do current things. But, I do listen to current music.

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