#SleptOnSoul: Still Looking Good, Bernadette Cooper by Michael A. Gonzales

Still Looking Good, Bernadette Cooper by Michael A Gonzales

Still Looking Good, Bernadette Cooper by Michael A. Gonzales

Although former Klymaxx singer, songwriter and producer Bernadette Cooper has never been anything like the women the Beach Boys harmonized about on their sunshine soundtracks, she is still a California girl. Raised in Compton, the “hood” that blessed us with both Barry White and N.W.A, Cooper got into music at a young age. Whether singing Aretha Franklin songs in first grade, listening to Sly Stone on the radio or admiring the drums on Isaac Hayes records, she knew early that music would be her life.

“My family never supported my music emotionally or spiritually,” Cooper says from her home in California. Currently working on her second solo album Last Diva on Earth, the project is her first solo venture in twenty-four years. “I was and still am, completely self motivated.” Becoming more serious about the funk when she was in high school, in the late-70s, Cooper formed the all-woman funk band Klymaxx, who would go on to become one of the biggest acts of the 80s.

Inspired by the past generation of mack divas (Lynn Collins, LaBelle, Brides of Funkenstein, and Chaka Khan) as well as Prince’s computer blue funk, Klymaxx was on a mission to kick ass. Besides Cooper, the group also featured singer Lorena Porter, guitarist Cheryl Cooley, keyboardist Lynn Malsby, vocalist Robin Grider and, later, bassist/producer Joyce “Fenderella” Irby.

“The forming of Klymaxx felt more like it was an out of body experience. It was guided by a force that I can’t
explain,” Cooper says. “I remember the struggles and the sacrifice, but I also remember the camaraderie of six girls focusing on one goal. We sent out a few demos and immediately came to the attention of SOLAR (Sound of Los Angeles Records) through an executive named Margaret Nash; she urged her boss Dick Griffey to check us out. He came to our rehearsal, watched us play and offered us a record deal.” On the West Coast during the 1980s, SOLAR represented the new music of young Black America. Sometimes called “the new Motown,” the label was owned and operated by Dick Griffey. As the home of chart-topping artists Shalamar, Midnight Star, Bobby Womack, Lakeside, the Whispers, Carrie Lucas and The Deele, they were thriving in a time when hip-hop was creeping-up from the underground.

With Griffey’s empire located on 1635 N. Cahuenga in a building SOLAR owned, there was also a recording studio on the premises where his artists worked. A complicated man, Griffey was a mentor to both Babyface and Death Row founder Suge Knight. Although Griffey was seen as a gangster by some, to Cooper he was always a gentleman.
“Dick was a friend and a wonderful man,” she says. “He took a girl from Compton, and, not only taught me the music business, but he also introduced me to escargot and instructed me on great wines. If Dick hadn’t been around, I wouldn’t be pursuing my dreams.” While Klymaxx might’ve collaborated with a few male producers, they weren’t looking for anyone to control their sound, style or swag.

Releasing their underwhelming debut Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman in 1981, it wasn’t until Klymaxx’s new wave electro third album Meeting in the Ladies Room (1984) that they became a femme force in the industry. With the catchy “The Men All Pause,” “Meeting in the Ladies Room” and the mushy ballad “I Miss You,” their most successful single, Klymaxx had become more self-contained, writing tracks and directing the sessions (“The Men All Pause” was co-produced by Joyce “Fenderella” Irby and Cooper).

“We started writing for ourselves, because we were tired of men writing us lines like, ‘When you get home baby, I’m going to rub your feet,” Cooper. “We complained to Dick and he said, ‘Fine, do your own album.’ With that, Klymaxx became real. We had freedom, and that’s a beautiful thing.” As seen in “The Men All Pause” video, with Cooper clad in fuzzy leopard-skinned top, it wasn’t uncommon for her to step from behind her drums to sing and talk smack on the mic.

At the same time, she was also making creative strides with her music. Griffey, a former drummer himself, had a knack for grooming producers including Leon Sylvers III, Reggie and Vincent Calloway, LA and Babyface and Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam. Klymaxx was the first band Jam and Lewis recorded back in 1982 when the emerging duo produced the group’s second album Girls Will Be Girls. In the studio, Cooper closely observed the duo at work. “I was completely inspired by them and their methods and approach to music,” she says. “I watched, listened and I learned.” While women are often excluded from the production process, Griffey took a chance. “He just purely saw my talent,” Cooper says. “There aren’t many men in this industry who respect the vision of woman, but Dick wasn’t afraid.” Cooper’s sound became a mixture of Minneapolis styled synthesizers, George Clinton’s cosmic slop, James Brown eternal funk and the majestic pop of Quincy Jones, that was distinctively her own.

“The producer is more than someone who just plays keyboards and says, ‘I produced this.’ The producer is the overseer, the person who brings in the right elements while making sure the music and vocals are correct. Sometimes I play all the instruments, sometimes I just bring in the right people and sit back.” After releasing four studio albums, Klymaxx broke-up in 1986.

Bernadette Cooper stayed in Los Angeles producing tracks for Cheryl Lynn, Shalamar, Mazarti, Nia Peeples and Madame X, a funky new wave trio she put together with singers Alisa Randolph, Iris Parker and Valerie Victor. Releasing one single from their self-titled 1987 album, the hypnotic “Just That Type of Girl,” the trio broke-up the following year. With no other projects on the horizon, Bernadette retreated to the lab and began working on her solo album.

Signed to MCA Records, which had absorbed the SOLAR in 1984, Cooper worked with Louil Silas, the executive who had taken Bobby Brown, New Edition, Pebbles, Jody Watley and Bell Biv DeVoe to multi-platinum success. “Louil was a very interesting gentleman,” Cooper says. Trusting her professionalism and creativity, Silas let her be. “They (the record company) let me do whatever I wanted to do.” In the fall of 1990, Cooper released her first, and thus far only, solo album, Drama According To Bernadette Cooper.

Staring at the bizarre, cover shot by Glen Wexler, one of the first digital photographers in the business, Cooper stood in front of an eerie movie theater clad in a black straitjacket. Artfully, the title was spelled out on the marquee. “The name of the album summed up what I was going through at the time,” Cooper says twenty-four years later. “I was going through a lot of changes. I found the black strait-jacket in a club one night and decided to wear it for the shoot.”

With some completed material and a lot of ideas, Cooper went the familiar ground of Studio Masters. “That’s where a lot of the SOLAR acts worked; I had a relationship with them and I was used to the place.” It was also the spot where Funkadelic, Bootsy’s Rubber Band and Diana Ross recorded. Cooper recruited engineer Gerry Brown, who also worked with her on Madame X.

“I first met when Bernadette when she produced ‘New Dress’ (1987) for Cheryl Lynn, and we’ve been working together ever since,” he says. “Bernadette is smart and funky as hell, and as a producer, she knows exactly what she’s doing. The way she worked with the musicians, she guided them toward delivering some great work.”
Brown has since gone on to a renowned career working with many top-tier artists including Jill Scott, Usher and Leon Ware, but he and Cooper remain good friends and collaborators.

“Whatever came out of my head during those sessions was what we did,” she says. “There were a lot of things that made the album and much that didn’t. I work best when I don’t have someone hovering over me, so what you hear on Drama is the sound of freedom.” A few of Cooper’s other collaborators on Drama included an uncredited Lenny Kravitz as well as her good friend Teena Marie, Chuckii Booker, John Patitucci and Rob Bacon. Although Drama wasn’t Bacon’s first session, it was his first commercial release.

“I played electric guitar on two or three songs, and an acoustic guitar on ‘Nothin’ You Can Do,’” the Detroit native says. Currently on the road with Chaka Khan, the famed ax-man has played with DJ Quik, Raphael Saadiq and in the band of Arsenio Hall’s recently canceled show. Cooper met guitarist Bacon in 1989 while she was leasing a megaphone at Audio Rents, where he worked as the in-house techie.

After inviting him to the studio, Cooper listened to him play and, liking what she heard, urged him to stay. “Bernadette came up with great concepts for each track and those concepts always helped me when coming up with the music,” he says. “Forget about being a good producer for a woman, she is just a powerful producer period.”
Famed soul singer Teena Marie, who had befriended Bernadette a few years before when Klymaxx performed at the Roxy on Sunset, was another regular at the Drama sessions. “Teena came over to me after a Klymaxx show a few years before and said, ‘You’re the baddest one in the group.’ I was cool on the inside, but inside I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s Teena Marie.’ Afterwards she invited me to her limo to smoke a joint and we became buddies.”

Teena sang on the comical title track and “Epilogue: Movie Produce Her.” Says Cooper, “Back then, things were different. We’d just call each other and say, ‘I’m working on a project, come by,’ and we were always there for each other. Of course we got our credits, but there wouldn’t be any discussion of money or anything. We’d just show-up at the studio and do our thing; now days, with many musicians, it’s about the money first and the artistry second.”

Teena Marie’s former housemate and protégé Lenny Kravitz also came by Studio Master. Laying down the chicken-scratch guitar over Cooper’s dominant drums and bass on “Let’s Be Discreet About It,” the song has a lustful vibe as Bernadette sings about creeping and cheating with a married man. Having recently signed to Virgin Records, Kravitz didn’t want to be credited. “He had his reasons,” she says. When Teena Marie died at the age of 54 on December 26, 2010, Kravitz released a statement saying how she cared for him in his young days, back when he was still calling himself Romeo Blue. “Teena gave him a place to stay, fed him and taught him a lot about the industry. I wish he could’ve reciprocated that before she died. It would’ve been nice if he put her on one of his albums, but that’s all I’m going to say about that.”

While Cooper maintains that there was no formula to the album, she regrets adding a rapper to the track “I’m That Girl.” Although it had worked for her label-mate and former Shalamar member Jody Watley, who used Rakim on her song “Friends,” the rapper Cooper hired was no microphone fiend. “I don’t even know who that guy is,” she says, “he was just some random guy and his rap was wack. The song would’ve been fine without it.”

Still, at the time, she had more pressing concerns. In the spring of 1990, after handing in Drama, things began changing at MCA. Louil Silas left to start his own label and his replacement Ernest Singleton seemed indifferent to Cooper’s project. Though it was decided that the first single would be the campy funk of “I Look Good,” a track that recalled the retro-pop goofiness of Cab Calloway by way of Kid Creole and the Coconuts, not much was done in way of promotion.

“We shot a video, but at the same time, Ernest was telling me he didn’t believe in videos,” Cooper says. “I think ‘I Look Good’ was a good record, but we were going into the hip-hop era and the sound of music was changing. It was more about rap and Teddy Riley’s new jack swing sound. What I was making was different, a little more sophisticated.”

With the single doing poorly, MCA decided that the music wasn’t “Black enough,” switching her abruptly to the alternative division. “The alternative people had no idea, so I just got caught-up in a little ball of confusion.” After releasing the second single “Stupid,” about a woman so sprung that she buys her man a Ferrari while putting his name on her checking account, the record was virtually ignored within the company and soon faded to black. “I’m also guilty of getting involved in situations, and before you know it, you’re paying somebody’s rent.”

Despite its brilliance, the 1990 album remains an underrated gem. Seven years after Drama According to Bernadette Cooper, was released, with the diva having relocated to the east coast, superstar Bette Midler covered “I Look Good” in her stage show Diva Las Vegas, which was also a HBO special. “I moved to New York to write music, not leave the industry, but for a change of atmosphere,” Cooper says. “I received a $10,000 advance from my publishing company EMI and came east. I needed a different energy.”

After a couple of months of staying in a hotel and with friends, she decided to move to New York permanently. “I worked on a few projects and started developing new acts.” In 1996, Cooper moved from Battery Park to New Jersey, where she opened the vintage clothing shop Museum 68 in Jersey City. Although the shop was successful for eight years, Cooper returned to California in 2004 to care for her sick mother.

Currently touring the country with her Diva and a Turntable revue, performing material from Klymaxx, Madame X and Drama According To Bernadette Cooper, she is also putting the finishing touches on her latest recording project Last Diva on Earth. Assembling her super friends including Bacon, who co-composed the single “I Am Your Diva Savior,” and Brown, she envisions the album as a raw, lo-fi affair that will be released before the end of the year.

While this will be Bernadette Cooper’s first new release in twenty-four years, the diva is still funky. “There have been times when I felt stagnant,” Cooper confesses. “When I’ve had some kind of musical fear, but I’m over that now. As an artist I write songs and make music for myself, but I still hope people that will like them.”

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