Here to stay: Rock’s shapeshifting sister Marcella Detroit reflects on her five-decade career

Published On June 21, 2024 » By »
The cover photo for Marcella Detroit's 'Jewel' album, 1994.

The cover photo for Marcella Detroit’s ‘Jewel’ album, 1994.

Most casual music fans probably best recognize Marcella Detroit, aka Marcy Levy, as the operatic, glass-shattering voice of Shakespears Sister’s gospel-tinged space-ballad “Stay,” which topped the British singles chart for eight straight weeks (and still holds the record for longest-running U.K. No. 1 for an all-female group) and rocketed to No. 4 in America. But long before the former in-demand background singer formed that glittering Goth-pop duo with Bananarama’s Siobhan Fahey, she’d already amassed a multi-page CV of jaw-dropping credits — working with legends like Bob Seger, Leon Russell, Aretha Franklin, David Foster, and Alice Cooper, and even co-writing one of Eric Clapton’s most iconic hits, “Lay Down Sally.”

“It was funny, because when I was doing promotion for ‘Stay’ I was doing some interviews, and I was already almost 40 when it became a huge hit. I was doing this interview for this magazine called Smash Hits, which is a teenybop magazine, and one of the questions was, ‘Do you think you’re going to be doing this kind of thing when you’re 40?’ And actually, I was going to turn 40 in two months,” Detroit laughs. “And I was thinking to myself, ‘Um, why don’t you ask me in two months?’”

Detroit was never one to rest on her laurels, before or after Shakespears Sister. And in 1993, just as that band was imploding in a spectacular, quite Shakespearean fashion at the Ivor Novello Awards ceremony, she was commencing work on her second solo album, Jewel. And now, as Detroit celebrates her 72nd birthday on June 21, that album is getting the deluxe, double-disc treatment to celebrate its own 30th birthday.

This is an important and redemptive career moment for Detroit, since while Jewel racked up three top 40 singles in Britain and garnered positive reviews, it didn’t perform quite as well as it could or should have in 1994, considering that the Ivor Novello-winning “Stay” had seemingly served as the perfect springboard for Detroit’s solo career. “It is inexplicable, really. It’s a mystery. You just never know what’s going to fly and what’s not. You do your best, you give a million percent, you work your ass off… and you just never know,” shrugs Detroit, who admits she was “disappointed” when Jewel didn’t totally take off upon its original release.

“Maybe the fans didn’t really [want this direction],” continues Detroit, who was “looking to do something a little bit more adventurous” on Jewel. “People are nostalgic. They don’t want change. They want things to stay the same — especially things that are really successful. So, my guess is that maybe Shakespears Sister’s true diehard fans didn’t like that I was doing my own record and didn’t care for it. It sounded a little bit slicker, maybe, than Shakespears Sister. It wasn’t quite as dark, except for some songs. It was just different. But I’m not going to sit here and analyze my own work.”

Few artists have had such a varied and storied career as Detroit, but her journey, as is the case for most lifer musicians, hasn’t always been easy. After getting her first big break in her late teens/early twenties touring with Seger, she developed a personal and professional connection with her childhood idol Russell, who actually wrote “Time for Love” about her. The two dated for “about nine months” in the early ‘70s before, as Detroit puts it, the situation “just got weird” and “a little bit crazy,” and they mutually lost interest. “It’s a long story,” she says, confessing that she was “madly in love” and “infatuated” with the renowned Tulsa singer-songwriter at the time.

“I had posters of Leon Russell all over my walls [as a teenager], and my mother thought I was crazy. He looked kind of weird. He had this long silver hair and this paint on his face, and my mom was like, ‘Who is this?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to sing with him one day, Mom!’ … And then a few years later, when I did, it just proved to me that you can do whatever you want,” marvels Detroit. “If you obviously have the skill and you really put all your heart and soul into something, you can achieve whatever you want to. … That, to me, was a huge win. I set this goal and I achieved it. And then I just kept achieving more.”

Detroit, who has been married to British artist (and contributing Jewel songwriter) Lance Aston since 1989, doesn’t regret her brief but intense relationship with Russell, and she stresses that she didn’t date him “because I wanted to further my career.” But in the boys’ club of rock ‘n’ roll, becoming romantically involved with one of her musical collaborators did lead to some “moments that were difficult.” When Detroit later worked with Clapton, she recalls someone in the industry rudely assuming that their partnership was also romantic, bluntly asking her, “‘So, did you eff him?’ That is so disrespectful to me, as a singer and as a woman, to think I would have to do that to be respected for what I do. I also had someone do that to me once onstage: They introduced me and said, ‘This is Marcy Levy, and she co-wrote, “Lay Down Sally.” Hey, Marcy, did you [sleep with Clapton]?’ And this time it was a woman, too! I was really shocked.”

For the most part, though, Detroit recalls being respected among music’s elite, thankfully experiencing little sexism or, later on, ageism. Even when she once was doing a jet-lagged photo shoot with her friend, Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, and was “wearing a kimono thing” and, much to her embarrassment, it “flew open and my tits were out,” no one on the set gave her hard time, she chucklingly recalls.

“World-class producers were calling me because they wanted my sound, my voice — even though it does stand out, and cuts clear through, it also blends really well with other people,” Detroit explains. Her main gripe about her two stints with Clapton is she didn’t get her proper share of the “Lay Down Sally” royalties. “That’s what a lot of big artists do, is they give you a writer’s share,” she says. “But I was threatened that if I didn’t give up my publisher’s share, then the song wouldn’t be on the album. And this happened to me with almost every song that I wrote with Eric… or not for Eric, but when I wrote songs with Richard Feldman [like Clapton’s eventual recordings “Tangled In Love” and “Walk Away”]. Because it was a guy perhaps, he gave Richard the publishing, and [Feldman] administrated my share of it. But yeah, unfortunately I didn’t get the publishing… [even though] my writer’s share was pretty lucrative, and I still get residuals.”

By the time Detroit had the chance to make Jewel for London Records, however, she was the star, and rock’s A-listers were backing her — the album’s personnel included Jools Holland, Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, renowned session players Phil Spalding and Chuck Sabo, and even Sir Elton John. Jewel’s sound was in part inspired by the electronic work of Björk at the time, but Detroit believes “it was a good idea to bring in the live elements and real musicians playing, to give it more of a real kind of feel.”

Jewel’s Elton collaboration — “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” a nod to the hometown that inspired Levy’s stage name, “with a ‘Sexual Healing’ kind of groove” — came about after the Jewel’s producer, Chris Thomas, was invited to produce Elton’s all-star 1993 Duets project. Thomas was unavailable because of his Detroit commitment, so “Elton said, ‘Oh, well, I’d love to do a duet with her. Have her pick a song.’ … And I was like, ‘What? Oh my God!’” Detroit incredulously recalls. She and Elton had actually met once before, during her Clapton years, although John unsurprisingly had no recollection of that encounter. “One crazy night when we were partying, we went over to Elton’s house in England. It was outside of London out in the country, and we were all doing drugs, and they were passing an album around with the ‘crazy white powder.’ Yeah, so we had partied before — but he didn’t remember that,” she laughs.

Now that the Jewel deluxe reissue is coming out on London Records — Shakespears Sister’s label in the ‘90s, and the label that originally released Jewel in March 1994 — the label’s current staff is pushing the project enthusiastically, releasing it on sapphire-blue vinyl with a slew of B-sides, unreleased demos, live and acoustic versions, and remixes. This 30-years-in-the-making comeback gladdens Detroit, because she feels the ‘90s London Records staff gave up on the project prematurely. “It’s like you can tell when a boyfriend or somebody is going off you; I have a crazy, innate sense where I can feel the interest slowly waning,” she says. Amusingly, after Detroit parted ways with London and released the 1996 single “I Hate You Now…,” that song made headlines because the U.K tabloids presumed it was about her falling-out with Shakespears Sister’s Fahey — “They made it into an Oasis thing,” Detroit laughs — but the single was actually about an unnamed ‘90s London Records executive “who was at one point supporting me and at the next point turned against me, restricting me and holding me back and not allowing me to be who I was as an artist.”

Detroit also recalls the label “asking me to do things that I felt that didn’t really show me in any kind of light with integrity” back in ‘94, and being “concerned about my look, that it was maybe ‘too much.’” But three decades later, she’s still sporting her signature razor-sharp jet-black bob and kohl-ringed eyes, joking, “I was emo before emo was cool, man!” And now it seems the label and the entire music world has caught up with Detroit, and she is, no pun intended, here to stay. Ironically, she theorizes that maybe it wasn’t her “lot in life” to be a household name because — despite what some haters insinuated during her Russell/Clapton era — she “wasn’t willing to do some things that it might’ve taken… like maybe sleep with the right people to get me to where I had to be.” But with a stellar body of work in front of and behind the scenes, and a seemingly endlessly scrolling Wikipedia page packed with superstar credits, she has no regrets about her career.

Marcella Detroit sporting her signature style in a London Records photo shoot, 1994,

Marcella Detroit sporting her signature style in a London Records photo shoot, 1994,

“I don’t want to criticize or denigrate anything that I’ve done up to this point, because I’m really grateful for what I’ve achieved. I don’t take any of it for granted,” Detroit says during this stock-taking week. “You just have to ask yourself, ‘Why did I get into this? Was it for the fame?’ Initially, I didn’t really care about money. I just wanted to sing. Of course, you realize after a certain point that you’ve got to make a living, you’ve got to support yourself, so making money at it was helpful. I’m not a starving musician living on the street, and I am grateful for that. And I’m always trying to learn new things, push, experiment. … I don’t take it any of lightly.

“To me it’s like, ‘Wow, you can really achieve anything you want to if you want it bad enough and do it with integrity. Just be good at your craft and put your blinders on and really go for it,” Detroit declares. “And I’m so proud of so many achievements that I’ve accomplished.”

Watch Marcella Detroit’s extended interview in the split-screen video above, in which she also discusses working with Alice Cooper and her “vocal idol” Aretha Franklin; appearing in the infamous Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie and on the Times Square soundtrack with Robin Gibb; how she and Eric Clapton wrote “Lay Down Sally”; performing with Clapton at Live Aid; being nicknamed “the Rene Russo of rock”; and if there’s any hope for another Shakespears Sister reunion.

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