The Real Thing

The truly significant thing about my work with Bonita was how totally out of my league this woman was. This was a brilliant, thoughtful, beautiful, tall, light-skinned African American woman who has savant-like control over an amazing triple-octave voice she could effortlessly scale from deep contralto to mezzo-soprano and back again. At some point I simply stopped worrying about keys because Bonita could adapt at will to whatever the song was doing. I have not, to this day, met or engaged anyone with her level of talent, and have bought fairly few cd's of "professional" artists who are her equal. Incongruously, Bonita's demo work, presented here, consisted mainly of cast-offs and hand-me-downs of noisy, poorly-recorded 4-track cassettes I'd first recorded myself, mostly in an effort to win another woman's heart. The paradox became this: some of my best and most professional work also features some of the crappiest recording quality. By the time my little 4-track empire jumped to the next level, Bonita and I were living very different and separate lives. I've made two separate cross-country journeys to search for her without success. I can only hope that, in this age of Facebook, we will eventually reconnect. I have absolutely no idea why this woman doesn't simply own the recording industry. Hers was the whole package: beauty and amazing talent, limited only, here, by the wretched condition of the material we had to work with.

The other remarkable thing about working with her is she made me want to take the work seriously. Before Bonita, I never paid much attention to my own singing. I just kind of bellowed out Bruce Springsteen hollers, not worrying overmuch if I was actually on key or if the singing was any good. I was embarrassed to sing with her, and actually recorded my solo on This Time of Year alone, a week after Bonita had laid down her vocals. Subsequently, I began working harder on my own singing, hence Pandora's Box, which is essentially a second stab at Girls, features much-improved moose howls on my part. Nothing even remotely in Bonita's league, but her influence and patience with me led to a marked improvement.

I met Bonita Therese Marshal, a skinny, pale looking 22-year old, in an office supply store sometime in 1986. She worked in the store and I heard her humming little tunes as she busied herself. She was like this beautiful stray cat, an object of under-appreciation and neglect. "High yella" and fine, I thought about hitting on her before I realized she was wearing a wedding band and talking on the phone to someone she kept calling, “honey.” The voice, though, was phenomenal, like nothing I’d ever heard, so I asked her if she sang and she said she did. I thought I might use her on some background tracks or something.

In 1985 I’d recorded a cover of Dionne Warwick’s classic Stop, Look & Listen with Dinky for my young friend Michael Hammond. This, and Louie, Louie, were the only covers I’ve ever recorded. I’d been impressed by Luther Vandross’ re-addressing of classic songs. He’d pretty much write an entirely different groove, imbuing the new effort with deep, R&B muscle while retaining the familiar melody. Stop, Look... was my attempt at the Luther Vandross / Nat Adderly, Jr./Marcus Miller sound, and it achieved at best mixed results.

We never did anything with the track, and it was sitting around gathering dust when I brought Bonita over to try it out just as a kind of screen test. Bonita blew me away. I could not believe someone with that level of control and craft could be working in an office supply store.

By the way, no one who worked on Stop, Look... had ever heard the original. Bonita assumed I’d written it. Neither Dinky nor Michael had ever heard the song before.

I dug out several other old sore demos, stuff I’d written about Darlene, a woman I’d desperately loved but wasn’t speaking to (long story). That Says Love To Me was written around ’81 as a little ditty to Darlene. I'd embarrass her by playing it on piano at bars. This is one of my best songs, with this great bridge that subtly modulates the key, and Nita's amazing, transparent purity. This Time of Year, was written about Darlene; about missing her voice, her friendship, her company.  I recorded it once or twice before in crude attempts at the home studio thing. Bonita ate it up, breathing new life into the song. By 1986, Darlene and I were speaking again, though we were never involved again. I borrowed a book of Darlene’s poetry, where I found the lyrics to Fool In Love With You, a poem I believe was written about our situation from ’81 (long story). Fool ... was the first new tracks I recorded specifically for Bonita, and she hated the song. Well, maybe not hated, but she didn’t care for it.

This made for an awkward moment when Bonita connected with Darlene by phone. They got along instantly, thick as thieves, but Bonita felt obligated to tell Darlene she didn't care for Fool... mainly because she didn't like referring to herself as a fool. The refrain Fool In Love With You was my invention, not Darlene's, and I was happy to take the blame for it. Always the professional, however, Bonita sang the devil out of that song. If she hated it, she didn't let it show in the work.

We spent several days working on Fool..., ruining the complex, layered background vocals one afternoon when I hit the wrong button. Fwoosh! Eight hours of work up in smoke. After which Bonita went home and got assaulted by her husband, who, moron that he was, assumed it only took three minutes to record a three-minute song, so Bonita and I must have been fooling around. This guy was a monkey of epic proportions. Bonita and I were as close as sister and brother, and that was the nature and extent of that relationship. Trooper that she was, she continued to make her sessions as we continued compiling her work.

By 1988 I was deeply infatuated with Yanick, but keeping a reasonable distance. First True Love sprang from Yanick lamenting her boyfriends’ emotional inexperience. I turned to her and said, “Hey- there’s a song in that idea,” and went home to record the Motown-inspired First True... My reading was awful, and I later gave it to Bonita who set the world on fire with it.

It's Alright, my single foray into Go-Go, sprang out of another story Yanick told me, this time about running into an ex and not being intimidated by him. It was a good fit with Bonita’s turbulent love life. Yanick's bassist, Derek Jackson, laid a monster Go-Go bass line on this track for me— I mean, I was literally cringing behind the board while he melted the paint off the walls— but, regrettably, that master is lost to posterity, so we're stuck with my lame bass playing.

Once Yanick became available, I wrote You’re All I Need, an overlong syrupy plea with a disastrously stupid monologue. I mailed it to her but she never got to the post office to pick it up, and the package was returned to me unopened.

In Bonita’s hands, though, You’re All I Need became a lightning rod. Things that sounded ridiculous and pathetic when I sang them sounded searing and urgent in her reading. The song sprang to life and suddenly had dimension and meaning and power. The only problem was Bonita’s speaking voice was, uh, rather duck-like. She couldn’t do a convincing monologue, so I recruited Tuesday L’Anette Cooper, a college girl I’d met in Rutgers University Bookstore, to do the voiceover. It took hours to get her in the right zone, which she ultimately accomplished by turning off every light in the room except a pen light over the script, and kind of lying on her side to get into a lounge-like state.

During one of Bonita’s particularly down periods, a sick, emaciated, pregnant Bonita (who later lost the baby) made friends with my nieces, Nakia (NeeNee) Wells (13) and Sheena Owsley (11). It was love at first sight for the three of them. To cheer Bonita up, the girls decided to make a tape of That Says Love To Me (Kids Mix). I coaxed two very skittish preteens through a nervous reading of the song, and then chased them around the studio with a water pistol to get them to giggle and scream properly. We also dubbed in a series of toasts to NeeNee’s cats and to “No Boyfriends.”

By now Yanick was in my life, and Bonita was anxious about Yanick because she felt that I would concentrate all of my energy and time on Yanick and not on her. I don’t think Bonita realized she herself was the reason I stepped back from her, that Yanick had nothing to do with it. For her part, Yanick was extremely intimidated by Bonita’s powers and couldn’t stand listening to her demos. Bonita, pregnant with twins (who both arrived safely), tried to make friends with Yanick, but it never really took. These two lunatics, intimidated by each other for completely different reasons, did The Eggshell Dance Of Extreme Politeness, but that was about as far as the relationship went.

Christopher J. Priest
January 2000  UPDATED OCTOBER 2013

Next:  Pandora's Box