Maureen McGovern Spreads Holiday Cheer at 54 Below
Popular and peerless vocalist Maureen McGovern returns to New York, appearing at 54 Below for the first time, with a mostly holiday-themed show, December 18-23, 2012.
McGovern first rose to instant fame as the singer with the #1 hit "The Morning After," from the film "The Poseidon Adventure"-which arrived in theaters forty years ago this month. She followed that with a string of chart hits, including several more themes from disaster movies and the Top Twenty hit "Different Worlds."
In the '80s, McGovern re-emerged as a Broadway and theater star, most notably as the replacement for Linda Rondstadt in "The Pirates of Penzance" and later for her Drama Desk nominated performance in "Little Women." She also became a popular cabaret and concert attraction and has released several more recordings since the late '80s. McGovern has been nominated for three Grammy Awards.
McGovern, from Youngstown, Ohio, now lives in a country home in Ohio and rents a small pied-a-terre in New York. EDGE spoke with her about her career and her upcoming show.
About "The Morning After"
EDGE: Is it true you were discovered from a demo tape and asked to record ’The Morning After’ based on that?
Maureen McGovern: My first manager put a lounge act together. Before that, I had been playing guitar and singing folk music; then, suddenly, I was touring across the Midwest performing in Holiday Inns. My music had gone from the personal to the mindless Top 40.
Anyway, one night I was playing at a Ramada Inn in Cleveland and a producer heard me and wanted a tape, so my manager gave him a tape of the act. Everybody had been turning me down, but that led to my being signed by 20th Century Records. I was signed sight unseen, and they wanted me to record ’The Morning After’ for ’The Poseidon Adventure.’ I recorded it in October 1972 and the film came out in December.
EDGE: It’s one of the most recognizable songs of the decade.
Maureen McGovern: The funny thing is the song did nothing and they dropped it as a single. Then, after the Oscars, radio stations started playing it out of curiosity and it became a big hit and went gold in August.
EDGE: Did you get to perform it at the Oscars?
Maureen McGovern: No, I sang three Oscar-winning songs, and they never asked me to sing on the Oscars. Howard Koch produced the Oscars back then, but it turns out he was also one of the producers of ’Airplane!’ When my manager heard that Helen Reddy had backed out of playing a demented nun, he called Jerry Zucker’s office and said, ’I have your nun.’ When I went to the audition, the receptionist was a fan of mine. I ended up getting it. It was a fitting end to my disaster decade, because ’Airplane!’ was the supreme send-up of disaster movies.
EDGE: That period was, I think, the golden age for American female singers on the pop charts-Barbra, Karen, Melissa Manchester, Linda Rondstadt, Dionne, Aretha. I miss those kinds of voices today.
Maureen McGovern: [Laughs.] Today, they can make anyone sound good. You know, I actually remember a record person telling me back then that there were only a certain number of times an hour a radio programmer would play a female singer because the frequency of the female voice was so high! [Laughs.] That was a consideration! So that was one of the barriers we broke through.
EDGE: I understand you went through some financial troubles early in your career. What happened, and what advice would you give to young singers today who are suddenly caught up in whirlwind success?
Maureen McGovern: That first manager had me sign a graduated contract that helped him earn up to 40% of my earnings. And there was a provision in the contract that my band would get paid whether I was working or not. In August of 1973, the record had sold 1.2 million copies and I had made about $12,000. By the end of 1974, there weren’t as many dates as there had been and I was flat broke. The lawsuits were not settled until 1981. So I tell young people that they have to believe in themselves more than anyone else does and that it’s those who don’t give up who make it. And I tell them to forget how to sign their name for as long as possible! Find a mentor you can trust.
EDGE: That sounds like a nightmare.
Maureen McGovern: It was a very frustrating time. The record company would give you ten songs and say ’Do it like so-and-so.’ In 1976, my mother was telling me to come home to Ohio, but I knew if I did, it would be over. I went to California and worked as a receptionist at a PR firm. But my records were still selling overseas, so I went by Glenda Schwartz the receptionist during the week, then I’d fly to the south of France for the weekend and my boss’s wife would take over the receptionist desk. I was so blessed with people who believed in me.
EDGE: But you did some recording in the late ’70s too.
Maureen McGovern: Yes, I got a second wind when I was asked to sing ’Can You Read My Mind’ from ’Superman,’ which I loved. Then I was assigned a producer and it was back to the same old thing. I’d had it at that point. I fulfilled my contract but decided I was not going to record again until it was on my terms. In 1981, Joe Papp hired me on the spot to replace Linda Rondstadt in ’The Pirates of Penzance’ on Broadway, even though I had never been in so much as a high school musical. So it was three weeks of summer stock, then Broadway. I didn’t know how terrified I should have been!
EDGE: That must have been quite an experience.
Maureen McGovern: I learned that those theater people do eight shows a week and then a cabaret show on top of that. I had always constructed my shows around the three minutes of ’The Morning After.’ But cabaret is the antithesis of your hits. Cabaret is where I learned who I was. In 1986, Mike Renzi and I recorded ’A Woman in Love,’ just piano and voice and just to please ourselves. In my mind, that’s my first album. When you strip everything else away, that’s when you get the true essence.
EDGE: Your most recent recording, ’The Long and Winding Road,’ a tribute to the singer/songwriters of the ’60s, has been very successful and you are still touring in support of it.
Maureen McGovern: It’s turned into a one-woman musical memoir called ’Carry It On,’ which I’ve put together with my director Philip Himberg of the Sundance Theater Institute. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, being out there on my own for ninety minutes. But people experience my life in tandem with the music of the time, which I call the second half of the Great American Songbook. Not only do the baby boomers love it, but the college kids come up to me and say they better understand their parents.
EDGE: Are you interested in treading the Broadway boards again?
Maureen McGovern: I’d love to.
EDGE: I teach at CUNY and I was surprised to learn you had received a Lifetime Achievement Award from us for you work with people with disabilities. You’ve also been a regular on Jerry Lewis’s Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon, and have done a lot of work on behalf of people with HIV/AIDS. That’s a lot of giving back.
Maureen McGovern: That’s what life is about. That fills me up as much as anything else I do. My youngest niece was diagnosed with Myotonia congenita early on, and thanks to the MDA, she responded to two types of treatment. She has graduated from college and is thriving. We’re all connected.
As for HIV/AIDS, people don’t remember what it was like back then, but in the theater, it was common to know five or six people a week that were dying. [Overcome with emotion.] So many people. We started doing benefits in ’83 and corporate sponsors had to remain secretive. I always said, ’If you can’t say it, you can’t cure it.’ It’s difficult to see young people getting infected today, they think they are invincible. Recently, I did a Help Is On The Way benefit in San Francisco and the speakers were talking about how a cure is getting closer. I hope I live long enough to see it.
EDGE: This is also the 22nd anniversary of ’Christmas with Maureen McGovern," one of my favorite holiday recordings of all time-and Amazon reviewers agree. With this upcoming show, you are with Jeff Harris and Jay Leonhart, who teamed with you on that CD. Can we expect to hear some of those songs at your show?
Maureen McGovern: Oh certainly. You know, I keep asking Sony if I can buy that CD from them and they won’t let me. [Laughs] They’re going to wait until I die and make a lot of money on it. But Jay and I will do ’Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town." There will be some Tom Lehrer, ’Hanukkah in Santa Monica.’ And the week I’m playing is the 40th anniversary of ’The Morning After’ and the end of the Mayan calendar. Jay has written a demented song about all of that. And a few things I did on Garrison Keiller.
EDGE: Have you seen the room yet?
Maureen McGovern: No, but I’ve heard it’s fabulous. I love an intimate room. I can’t wait.
Maureen McGovern appears at 54 Below, December 18-23, 2012. Go to www.54below.com for times and ticket information.
Watch Maureen McGovern sing "Long Ago and Far Away":