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Madonna Goes All the Way

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Bray notes that Madonna was not exactly the most popular person on the scene. "I think there was a lot of resentment of someone who's obviously got that special something. There are so many musicians out there, but there are only a few who really have that charisma. The community out there kind of, I think, frowned on her about that. She had trouble making friends."

It didn't matter much to Madonna, who felt that most of the groups there wanted only to hit it big among their pals. She wanted to be big nationwide, and the scene didn't approve of such a desire. "It was like living in a commune," agrees Bray, "very close-minded thinking – if you're good in New York, if you can get regular jobs at CBGB's or at Danceteria, that's fine, you've made it. And that's definitely not the case."

Her band changed names like socks: first they were the Millionaires, then Modern Dance and finally Emmy, after a nickname that Dan Gilroy had given Madonna. ("I wanted just Madonna," says she. "Steve thought that was disgusting.") By any name, it was a hard-rocking outfit that was continually beset by snafus, especially when it came to guitarists. "She was playing really raucous rock & roll, really influenced by the Pretenders and the Police," says Bray with a sigh. "She used to really belt. If we'd found that right guitar player, I think that's when things would have taken off . . . but there are so many horrible guitar players in New York, and we seemed to get them all."

The money was too short, and the band finally split up. Meanwhile, a manager heard a demo that Madonna had put together (it was an early version of "Burning Up") and signed her up. As part of the deal, she was put on salary and moved out of the Music Building, ending up in spacious digs on New York's Upper West Side. Madonna was quick to pull Bray onto the gravy train. Her new band – called Madonna – started playing the circuit yet again.

Madonna's notion of music, however, was starting to change. It was the heyday of urban contemporary radio in New York, and Madonna was captivated by the funky sounds emanating from boom-boxes all over town. She started writing material in that vein, but the band and her manager hated it. "They weren't used to that kind of stuff, and I'd agreed with my manager to do rock, but my heart wasn't really in it."

She would rehearse rock & roll with her band, then stay behind with Bray and record funkier stuff. There were fights, arguments, the band was pissed off. She'd come so far; how could she turn back now? But . . . "I finally said, 'Forget it, I can't do this anymore. I'm going to have to start all over.'"

And so she did, with the loyal Bray once more at her side. During the day, she and Bray would write songs; at night, she'd hit the clubs: Friday night at the Roxy; other nights at Danceteria, the offical home for white hipsters with itchy feet and a sense of humor. It was fun, sure, but it was also a way to press the flesh, to work the room, to bounce up into the deejay's booth, lay a cozy rap on him and slap a tape into his hand.

At Danceteria, she caught the eye of Mark Kamins, a widely respected club deejay with ties to record companies. "She was one of my dancers, you could say," says Kamins. "There was a crowd out there that came every Saturday night to dance." Did he know she had other ambitions? "Hey, everybody does at a nightclub, but she was special." He was impressed enough with what he saw to hit on the young woman now and then. She gave him a copy of her vaunted funk demo, a recording she and Bray had made that included a song called "Everybody." "I was flirting with him," she admits. Kamins and she started dating. He listened to the record and liked it. He put the song on at the club – just a four-track demo! – and people danced to it. He went into the studio with her and produced an improved version. And he went to Sire Records and single-handedly got her signed to a deal.

Bray was jubilant – at last he'd get to produce Madonna for real. What he didn't know was that Madonna had promised Kamins that in exchange for his work on her behalf he would get to produce her debut album. Executives at Sire and its parent company, Warner Bros., had already given their okay.

Madonna, however, had a surprise for them both. Neither Kamins nor Bray would be producing Madonna. The job instead fell to former Stephanie Mills producer Reggie Lucas. Why?

"I was really scared," she says. "I thought I had been given a golden egg. In my mind, I thought, 'Okay, Mark can produce the album and Steve can play the instruments." Uh-uh – Steve wanted to produce. "It was really awful, but I just didn't trust him enough." The pair had a bitter falling out. "Steve didn't believe in the ethics of the situation."

"It was very hard to accept," he says today.

And what about Kamins? "Similarly, I didn't think that Mark was ready to do a whole album." Kamins got the word, not from the woman who had promised him, but from Sire. "Sure, I was hurt," he says gruffly. "But I still had a royalty coming from the record."

Madonna was still performing, but not with a band. Instead she'd hop onstage at dance clubs and sing to backing tracks or lip-sync, enlivening her performances with the sort of lusty dancing that has now become her trademark. That's where Lucas – unaware of the intrigue that had preceded him – first saw his newest act.

"I wanted to push her in a pop direction," he recalls. "She was a little more oriented toward the disco thing, but I thought she had appeal to a general market. It's funny about that thing with Kamins. The same thing that happened to him pretty much happened to me on her second record, when they had Nile Rodgers."

And the rest was history, though it was a history that was a long time in the making. The LP's first single. "Holiday," was not an immediate success, but Madonna was content. "All I said was, 'I know this record is good, and one of these days Warner Bros. and the rest of them are going to figure it out.'"

It's likely that her videos were the breakthrough, as Madonna perfectly merged her dance training with her knowledge of the randier things in life. How did she manage to put across such seething sexuality where so many have tried and failed? "I think that has to do with them not being in touch with that aspect of their personality. They say, 'Well, I have to do a video now, and a pop star has to come on sexually, so how do I do that?' instead of being in touch with that part of their self to begin with. I've been in touch with that aspect of my personality since I was five."

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Song Stories

“Nightshift”

The Commodores | 1984

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