By the time Cyndi Lauper became an international star with her 1983 debut album, She’s So Unusual, she’d spent most of the previous decade singing for various cover bands.
Her first dream, inspired by the Rolling Stones' backup singers, was to perform in the background. “That’s the most fun part of singing in a band, because you get to sing loud, proud and in the background,” Lauper says. “That’s what I thought background singing was, but apparently not.”
During her time with the group Doc West, which had quite a few Janis Joplin songs in its repertoire, Lauper recalls a lot of dancing and singing, which she had trouble doing at the same time.
“I kind of made a spaz-chic thing,” she says. “And the manager wouldn’t manage us unless the girl who kept falling in the back but sings good became the lead singer, and the lead singer who sang slightly flat but danced good became the background singer.”
During her first gig as the frontwoman of the band, Lauper says she played for about 10,000 people at Boardy Barn in the Hamptons on New York’s Long Island, kicking off the show with a cover of Bad Company’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love.”
Her next band, Flyer, which performed around New York in the mid-’70s, would play a set of songs by Rod Stewart, whom Lauper will join at the Pepsi Center on Wednesday, August 22, as part of their second tour together.
“Those songs and his work is kind of part of how I sang on She’s So Unusual,” Lauper says. “I wouldn’t have rasped my voice had I not been in that band in the shower, trying to squeeze my voice together to make that sound that he makes.
“To be on stage with him now, because I actually sing a song with him…honestly, I pinch myself to remember, because I’ve had these wonderful experiences — like when I played in a blues band and I played with those guys from Memphis and Charlie Musselwhite [on her 2010 album Memphis Blues]. I used to pinch myself, because I used to try and remember every minute, every second of singing with them, because it was extraordinary. To sing on stage with someone that you try to make your voice sound like now…”
Lauper says she sang with Stewart in 1985, but she says she was “such an idiot” because she couldn’t deal with being famous.
“They don’t have a book like How to be Famous for Dummies,” she says. “We need that, because you just need to know how to react to anything. And all of a sudden it feels like the same people who threw stones at you for what you wore are wearing all your clothes. So you of kind of don’t know which way is up for a second. And it was an interesting time for me. And I didn’t appreciate every moment that I lived. But now I do.”
Lauper has been busy these days. After composing the music and winning a Tony for the musical Kinky Boots, which is now in its sixth year on Broadway, she's been working on the Broadway adaptation of the 1988 film Working Girl. The LGBTQ nonprofit she cofounded, True Colors Fund, just celebrated its tenth anniversary, and last June released an index that rates all fifty states and Washington D.C. on their effectiveness in addressing youth homelessness, particularly among LGBTQ minors.
"I’m a friend and family member," Lauper says of her inspiration for starting the fund. "I saw civil rights being stripped and stripped. As it is now, I would hope that people would go out and vote, because if you don’t vote, we will lose our civil liberties. Voting is part of your right as an American citizen, and...if you don’t vote you will lose it. You need to vote.”
An advocate for equality for most of her life, Lauper attended last year’s Women’s March in New York City where she joined women holding signs that read “Girls Just Want to Have Fun-Damental Rights.” Even in 1983, when her hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” was released, Lauper says, she was speaking about women’s rights. She adds that it’s a big deal to her for her song “True Colors” to be embraced by different groups of people and that it gives them strength, power and hope.
Lauper’s performing a fair amount of her hits on her tour with Stewart, and sometimes singing them can take her back to the time she recorded them, like “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (which was written and first recorded in 1979 by Robert Hazard), at the Record Plant in New York. She remembers what it felt like, what it smelled like, how the air conditioner was too cold, and how she’d always bump into the signed John Lennon poster.
“With ‘Girls,’ we wanted to create a sound,” Lauper says. “We even thought it was reggae, but it wasn’t. It was a mixture of reggae and pop and the street sound of that gated snare. It was very important to create, for me. In the end, all of us were on the same page of creating a sound together that sounded like a band, because we’re all from bands. So when we came together, we became a new band, except we were in the studio, and we created a sound together. And that sound was the sound that She’s So Unusual became. At one point during the sessions for the album, Lauper says, she couldn’t take being in a fish bowl anymore.
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“I said, ‘I can’t be myself if you’re all going to just stand there and watch me,’” Lauper says.
KISS, who’d also been using the Record Plant at the time, let Lauper use its rehearsal room to record vocals.
“But I took my shirt off, because I couldn’t lose the third eye,” Lauper says. “I wanted to forget myself. So I took my shirt off. I was alone in the room. Nobody could see me. They could just hear me. And I started singing ‘She Bop,’ and I was tickling myself on my ribs, and I just started laughing because the whole thing was so ridiculous. That’s where the laugh of ‘She Bop’ is. I was able to feel free.”