In 1980, DJ Bill Motley saw an opportunity to form a band that catered to San Francisco’s large gay clientele. In his search to form a group, he auditioned hundreds of vocalists, both male and female. Local cabaret singer Cynthia Manley captured the lead spot.
Cynthia Manley hit the dance music community like a lightning bolt. With the support of Bill Motley’s productions, Moby Dick Record’s ground-breaking marketing concepts, and surrounded by the Boys Town Gang, she helped to re-vitalize a whole genre of music. This team warranted Cynthia 4 top-10 BILLBOARD dance hits, including the #1 classic hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, between 1981 and 1986, when Bill Motley passed.
Because Cynthia never signed a contract with Moby Dick, she never received a penny from the royalties and success. She was paid a flat $300 for her time in the studio. She says “He offered me $200 a week and a limo to take me anywhere I wanted to go. I was like ‘Dude, I already make more than that and I got a car! I can drive myself wherever I want to go.’ We could never agree on terms for a contract so I never signed a contract. That was a huge mistake. I was the first hit record they had on Moby Dick Records.”
The idea was originally for one 12″ single with two tracks of high energy music. Motley, a Diana Ross fan, picked two Ashford & Simpson songs to form a medley for the A-side. For the B-side he wrote a disco drama in four acts. A record label was founded to release the two songs. When “Remember Me”/”Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was released, the song took off, with Manley’s vocals propelling the song into the top of the club charts.
The four-act explicit “Cruisin’ The Streets” was a snapshot of Castro and Market Streets at sundown in the early 1980s. The extended version of the song includes a lengthy dialogue taking place at night in a gay cruising area in an unspecified city. The dialogue consists of gay men cruising each other, discussing their sexual encounters and conversing with a female prostitute. At one point, a police car stops and two policemen step out and confront two men who are engaging in sexual activity. One of the officers asks the other officer what should be done, and the other officer states that he knows “just what to do to ’em.” And from the subsequent noises it is obvious that the officers are having anal sex with the two men, while the female prostitute moans, obviously masturbating while watching the scene. Manley departed after the release of these two records and Jackson Moore took over lead vocal responsibilities in 1981.
Today, Cynthia is a touring artist and keeps a very busy performance schedule, sometimes as many as 300 shows in 365 days, tearing up stages with her unique combination of DIVA style, Rock’n’Roll spirit and passionate vocals. She will join Paul Goodyear for ‘Where Love Lives’ at Beatbox this month for a special live performance.
Given your perspective, how do you feel dance music has evolved over the years? I’m old school, honey. I am! Darling, to be quite frank with you – when I listen to music, it’s usually Aretha, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, or Otis <laughs> I mean, I couldn’t really tell you what’s ‘hot’ in dance music today. I do love some of the stuff I hear at the gym that I can sing along to, but honestly, I have no idea what it is. That’s about as close as I get to hearing new stuff. But if people find joy in any music – whatever it is – then I think it’s brilliant.
You got your start here in San Francisco, right? I did! I was actually out in Sacramento; that’s where my family lived. Back then I was making $400 a week singing covers in a cabaret act. To be honest, that’s what led to a lot of the trouble with Bill Motley. He offered me $200 a week and a limo to take me anywhere I wanted to go. I was like ‘Dude, I already make more than that and I got a car <laughs> I can drive myself wherever I want to go.’ <laughs> We could never agree on terms for a contract so I never signed a contract. That was a huge mistake. I was the first hit record they had on Moby Dick Records.
You regret that? Oh, absolutely. I regret it more than anything. But back then I was a coke-head and Bill had his problems too. We were both stubborn and neither one of us knew what we were doing. We both felt like we didn’t need each other.
Where are you from originally? I hear an accent. <laughs> I’m an Oklahoma girl, baby. <laughs> And you’re down in LA now? Yes sir. I have a big lot and humble hillside home, but I got all kinds of big shade trees and it’s just beautiful here. I am a lucky girl.
You’ve got a lot of soul for an Oklahoma girl. In fact, if I just heard your voice and didn’t see you, I’d think you were a black R&B artist. I get that a lot actually. Back when I was with the Boys Town Gang, we’d show up at a gig and they always thought I was the road manager. They’d be looking behind me to see where the black singer was. <laughs>
Did your parents influence you musically growing up? Well I was raised on a farm and we weren’t allowed to watch TV or listen to a radio. I was kept separated from all of pop culture until we moved to California when I was a little girl. I actually started in church. I knew I could sing. I have five sisters and we all sang in the church choir.
I can hear that gospel foundation in your delivery. Who are some artists that influenced you? A white girl that influenced me was Lydia Pense. A lot of people don’t know who she was, but she was the front woman for this band called ‘Cold Blood.’ I sang every lick, every note of every song she sang. To me, she was the epitome of what I wanted to be. I was like ‘OMG, a white girl can really do this?!’
She has a Janis Joplin sort of sound. Yes! She does! In fact I played Janice in a one-woman show years ago. But when you are playing Janis and doing that night after night, it trashes your voice. After about six months I had to give it up. I didn’t want to end up on heroin and screaming.
Bill Motley was a marketing genius. He was loud, gay and proud. A big bear with a big soul and he was a love bug until you crossed him and got on his wrong side – which I seemed to do a lot <laughs>
So you’ve always been embraced by the gay community? You know what, I didn’t start my career in the gay community, but my first big success – and the community has supported me for more than 30 years – was, and has always been, the gay community. I didn’t even know what gay was, David. I had no idea. I mean, I was young and naïve from Oklahoma – totally sheltered my whole life – but I knew that there weren’t very many women at my shows <laughs>. I also noticed that the men weren’t looking at me but they were looking at my shoes and my outfits.
Did you just figure it all out as you went along? It took me a while. I was always flirting with gay guys – I thought I could change them! I was a cocky little bitch on cocaine so I just figured I could get anyone to do anything I wanted back then. <laughs> Imagine that?! It was a fun experience to be introduced to all those gorgeous men, but it was a compliment when I realized that they loved me – and didn’t want to have sex with me. They liked me for me and that was very special to me. I loved all those men – all those beautiful men.
You were here in the 80s during the onset of the AIDS crisis. Did you experience any of that? By the time AIDS was something we were all aware of, I was back down in LA. I was young and stupid and bullheaded – I fought with Bill and took off for LA and signed with Atlantic Records. But honestly, at that time, I was a big fan of Sylvester.
You must know Martha Wash and Jeannie Tracy and those girls? Oh, I know Jeannie! I adore that woman. There is so much talent and love in that woman. I worked with ‘Two Tons of Fun’ but I was a bad girl <laughs> And they were good girls. They would just look at me and think ‘oh, you poor thing.’ <laughs> However, I felt like they always respected me because I could sing. One of my biggest thrills in life was doing the Jerry Lewis Telethon. Holy shit, do you remember those?! <laughs>
Yes! Back when we had like 4 channels on the TV and it was on for like 12 hours?! Yes! Well, Sylvester was in town doing that and he was invited to do a gig at a gay piano bar in Ft. Lauderdale. Of all the talent in town, he asked me to do that job with him. I got to do three nights with us singing together. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Sylvester wasn’t just some drag queen who sang disco. He was kind; he was spiritual and the man could sing his ass off. He was so fucking talented. Talk about singing Aretha and Otis… Oh. Singing with Sylvester was one of my biggest boners.
Do you have any other regrets? I do. If I knew then what I know now, Bill Motley and I would have ruled the world. He was the first gay man to create a label based on the power of the gay community. We went to number one. He did that by targeting all these record stores that catered to the Gay community. I would go there and perform and sign records. I would have realized more what he had to offer, looking back. We just couldn’t get on the same page about anything – we were volatile. He said ‘fuck you’ and I said ‘no, thank you.’
‘Cruisin’ the Streets’ was a pretty controversial song when it came out. It was truly the first time someone was singing about being out gay and loud and proud. Of course, the lyric from that song ‘You can find anything that you’re looking for – you might find a big ‘ol boy – nine inches or more’ is outdated. A guy told me recently, ‘Cynthia, you know, nine inches really isn’t that much these days.’ <laughs> Really?! Will someone tell straight men this?!
Cynthia Manley will appear at Beatbox on Valentine’s Day, Saturday, February 14th at Beatbox for Paul Goodyear’s Where Love Lives.