A Rock-n-Roll Queen Goes Americana: It’s About Time for Ellen Foley
“Aw shucks! Go on!” coos Ellen Foley when I recall the occasion wherein she jumped on stage at My Father’s Place on Long Island, New York on a hot summer evening in 1979 to duet with Ian Hunter whilst guitar god Mick Ronson pumped out riffs as only a platinum-haired ex- Spider from Mars could. I assured her that all the young dudes in the club (myself included) fell in love with her on that starry, starry night.
At that particular moment in time Hunter and Ronson had recently produced and played on Ellen’s debut long-player Night Out which won critical acclaim yet garnered modest sales. She waxed two more brilliant records which were praised despite their lack of commercial success; Spirit of St. Louis which was helmed by Mick Jones and Joe Strummer of the Clash (Note: according to legend, Ellen was Jones’ muse for the smash hit “Should I Stay or Should I Go.”) and Another Breath.
However Ellen’s permanent place in rock ‘n’ roll history was secured long before she hooked up with the aforementioned British rockers by way of her iconic performance on Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” – no male rock singer had ever faced a more formidable foil than Ms. Foley before or since.
Film, theater and television fanatics are familiar with Ellen from her stellar roles in Night Court, Hair, Tootsie, Married to the Mob, Me and My Girl and Into the Woods among others. And for those of you who read album liner notes, that was Ellen singing back-up to Todd Rundgren (“Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light”) and Joe Jackson (“Is She Really Going Out With Him?” “Steppin’ Out,” “Sunday Papers”) on their signature compositions.
Fast forward three decades. Akin to many of Ellen’s Class of ’79 era alumni– Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and Ian Hunter to name a few, Ms. Foley has returned to making records – About Time is her first after a 30 year gap – with a decidedly Americana roots veneer. Her musical rebirth commenced when Ellen began her collaboration with singer-songwriter Paul Foglino –formerly of 5 Chinese Brothers.
“Paul created these songs for me it made me want to do it again” professes Ellen. “I met Paul on a musical we were working on at the New York Fringe Festival …Hercules in High Suburbia. It started small –we sat on my couch and I said ‘let’s be a Stones cover band! Paul shot back ‘no I can write you some songs…we can rip off the Stones!” Whilst sporadically recording, Ellen and Paul gigged at numerous New York City clubs over the ensuing years, including the Lakeside Lounge – the legendary venue operated by the undisputed King of New York Roots Rock and the “Lower East Side Opry” movement Eric “Roscoe” Amble. Amble, of course, is known to No Depression readers and the roots rock / Americana community as a member of the Del Lords and collaborator with the Yayhoos, Bottle Rockets and Steve Earle, among many others.
As co-producer, along with Matt Ettinger, Amble was the game-changer for Ellen. “When Eric Ambel got hold of the songs and started doing mixes –he gave it an organic sound that brought out a character in my vocals which I found amazing! I never knew anyone that could do that with a mix -but it’s like editing a movie –it comes alive and shapes what it is.”
Consequently, About Time was born. Ellen’s musical posse of renown players are downright incendiary: multi-instrumentalist Ettinger; guitarists Foglino, Amble, and Slim Simon; bassist JC Chmiel ; keyboardists Tommy Mandel and Rob Arthur; drummers Hilly Michaels and Kevin Baier; along with backing-vocalists Mary Lee Kortes, Kate Ettinger, and Monica Passin. They all serve the singer and her songs with grooves that swing, stomp, and flat-out rock. (Note: Michaels and Mandel also appeared on Ellen’s earlier albums and were part of the Hunter/Ronson touring ensemble.)
Ms. Foley is quick to note “Paul sticks to the ‘less is more’ theory when it comes to songwriting and recording. I listen to commercial radio where I always hear the chorus repeated over and over and over, so I figured we have to hit them over the head with it…but Paul kept it to the original basic song formula which still works after all these years.”
Among the highlights of About Time include a bluesy torch reading of the Randy Newman classic “Guilty.” Says Ellen “I have sung that song through the years –I love it and it shows.” The opening cut “If You Can’t Be Good” (“If you can’t be good, be careful/if you can’t be careful, be tough/If you can’t be tough, be lucky/if you’re unlucky, don’t fall in love,”) twangs in all the right places – as does “Nobody Ever Died from Crying.” Another blues cut “Madness” simmers with slippery, seductive jazz guitar licks and a bass-line that walks and walks and walks. Kudos to Ms. Foley for sticking to her guns by concluding her comeback collection with a tender and appropriate folksy ballad entitled “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.”
“My band originally told me ‘no you can’t do that!’ But I thought “whaddaya mean I can’t do that! So I started to end our live set with that song – and it really moved people! So that’s what I did on this album.”
At present About Time is available at BandCamp.Com and via Ellen’s website. Ms. Foley anticipates a distribution deal soon. “Vocally and in terms of performance I feel stronger than ever —growing older is a culmination of my life—I have a lot to build on, I feel good, I feel comfortable, I don’t envy other people, I don’t feel competitive at this point. This album is representative of me and I’m proud of it!”