Evelyn “Champagne” King practically still had Similac on her breath when she picked up a mike to perform. The girl could sang! The young teen’s vocal agility and her powerhouse gospel-tinged voice made musical lyrics come to life.
Coming from a musical family, it was no surprise that Evelyn would one day be a singer. Little did the performer know, however, that stardom would come at such a young age and so unexpectedly. The disco era was kind of on the verge of exiting left when Evelyn was discovered.
Evelyn and her parents were part of a maintenance crew. The youngster was helping her mother clean a Philly recording label restroom when an executive overheard this mature-sounding voice belting out the Sam Cooke classic, A Change is Gonna to Come. The exec swore he had been eavesdropping on the seasoned vocals of an older and perhaps, matronly woman but was shocked to find out that the voice belonged to a petite 14-year-old girl.
Evelyn’s modern-day Cinderella story turned into a whirlwind after she was discovered and signed as a talent. The young teen’s life turned into consecutive recordings, performances at large venues and clubs, fans screaming for mega recordings like Shame (one of the first records to be inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame), I’m in Love, Love Come Down, I Don’t Know If It’s Right and Betcha She Don’t Love You.
On a personal note, Evelyn’s inner light dimmed when those whom she loved immensely and who were supportive throughout career ups and downs, passed away–mother, father, and three of her six siblings. Evelyn’s family members were her ride-or-die. Evelyn speaks with gratitude of a family who accompanied her on the road to protect her from the music biz ills. Life threw yet another unexpected curveball at Evelyn which was the death of her only child who passed away at age two, Johnniea Champagne King, who was named after her beloved mom.
Despite the pain that life sometimes hurls at you, Evelyn has forged on unceasingly. Grinding since 1977, she has refused to put the brakes on her stellar career. In 2007, Evelyn released her first studio album in over a decade, Open Book. It featured the single “The Dance”, which peaked at #12 on the Hot Dance Club Play Chart. In 2015, Evelyn formed a group with disco vocalists Martha Wash and Linda Clifford called First Ladies of Disco. The group released their debut single “Show Some Love” in March 2015 which peaked at number six on the dance charts.
Evelyn is still performing nonstop and has been in a loving marriage for nearly 29 years to jazz guitarist, Freddie Fox, who also serves as her musical director.
Still holding on to her fizz is Evelyn’s most ardent desire and it was evident, as she chatted with 50BOLD.com about all that it took to mold her into the phenomenal woman, who stands strong today.
50BOLD: How did Evelyn “Champagne” King come to be?
At age 14, I was already singing with a South Philly band called Volume One. I was always singing. I was musically influenced by my father who sang tenor with the Heart Tones back-in-the-day. Songstress Linda Jones, who sang the hit song Hypnotized also influenced me musically. I fell in love with Linda’s song when I was a little girl. I used to sing the recording to my dad and he would say, “You’re going to be a balladeer and will always be a singer.” At my house, we had Kid Amateur Hour. And my whole family, we were all so musically inclined. My mom played the keyboard, but she never pursued it as a career. My dad played the guitar and he would sing. In my family, there were five brothers and an older sister. My oldest brother who passed away in the early 70s, Anthony “Butch” Jerome played drums. I really, really miss him…. My older sister passed away four years ago and she played an instrument as well. I also had a brother Eric who passed away in 1997 along with my mom and dad; he was musical as well.
We listened to performers like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Coltrane. My parents played the oldies for us so that we could experience real music, musicians, singing, ballads, songs that were powerful and authentic.
50BOLD: You had three deaths during the same year?
Evelyn: Yes, my parents and brother Eric died in 1997. I also had a daughter who passed away in 1989; her name was Johnniea. I named my daughter after my mother. I know that they are all watching every step I take; let me get this out really quickly. My family traveled with me, every last one of them including my daughter. I had my daughter on the road with me for a little while.
50BOLD: When Shame became a hit, how old were you?
Evelyn: I was 14 going on 15 when I got discovered and then recorded Shame. And I was nearly 16 when the recording became a hit.
50BOLD: So many singers in this day and age use auto-tuning to enhance their vocals. You didn’t do anything to alter the depth of your sound?
Evelyn: No! We didn’t have to fake anything! The songwriters, John Fitch and Reuben Cross were so proud of the natural quality of my vocals.
50BOLD: You were discovered while singing the Sam Cooke classic A Change Is Gonna Come?
Evelyn: Yes! My mom and dad were part of a maintenance crew and they had an assignment at Philadelphia International Records. My sister usually helped my mom but she could not so I stepped in to help. I was cleaning a restroom while singing A Change is Gonna Come.
My mom had assured me that no one was in the office. So when I came out of the restroom, I was still singing. When I bent down to pick up a vacuum cleaner, all of a sudden this tall, dark, and handsome guy appeared. And I was like Ok, who’s this? He asked me, did I know who was singing and I told him I did not know and just kept vacuuming. I kind of just ignored him. And all of a sudden, he left and came back again and said to me, “I know it was you; you were singing!” Theodore then mumbled something and then said, “One day I’m going to make you a star!” And I responded, “Yeah, right!”
50BOLD: Wow, a real life Cinderella story!
Evelyn: Within a month or so, Theodore introduced me to writers, John Fitch and Reuben Cross. One day, I was in a living room with my mom, dad, Fitch, Cross, and another writer, T. Life. One of the writers picked up his guitar and wanted me to hear this tune. They let me hear the song’s melody one time and all I had to do was sing it. The song was Shame. After I had performed the tune, they all agreed the song would be a hit and I would be a star!
50BOLD: This story is so unbelievable!
Evelyn: It is such a Cinderella story!
50BOLD: Someone should make a movie of your life!
Evelyn: I have been told countless times that my life should be made into a movie; I only wish that many of the players were still alive…
50BOLD: When you hear stories about how celebs were discovered they are usually so embellished and typically by a publicist! I’ve read about how you were discovered but there are so many variations which is why I wanted to get the facts straight from your mouth.
Evelyn: There are stories that state I was in the bathroom while Theodore was using it. No, no, no! No one was in the bathroom when I was in there cleaning it! Theodore was outside of the bathroom when he heard me singing! My Cinderella story version happened without the glamorous dress! I had a bandana wrapped around my head and was wearing beat-up jeans while trying to get my job done.
50BOLD: Congratulations on such a beautiful story!
Evelyn: Thank you!
50BOLD: Now you were actually born in the Bronx, right?
Evelyn: I was born in the South Bronx and raised in Philadelphia. I moved to Philly when I was around age 12. I was basically a loner as well, oftentimes staying to myself. I didn’t hang with folks. I hung out with only my family because they are important to me. And I was also involved with the band in South Philly.
50BOLD: Did your family fuel you musically?
Evelyn: My family is basically the number one reason why I kept my musical career going because we were all involved in it! You know, we all did it together! My uncle Avon who appeared in the Broadway show Bubbling Brown Sugar really influenced me. He was very well known and knew the ropes involving road travel. And before he passed away his last words to me were, “Live your life and love the traveling aspect.” I think his last trip was to Paris. And he was just happy to advise me about things like being safe and careful. My parents stayed on the road with me, they were like my road managers.
50BOLD: Your parents were very protective of you as well?
Evelyn: My parents were VERY protective of me. My sister and my brothers were also very protective of me!
50BOLD: You were so young at the height of your fame. Did you find the recording industry to be particularly cutthroat?
Evelyn: Oh yes, the recording industry is very cutthroat! I was observant. Even as a young girl I noticed things involving the business aspect that wasn’t really handled the way they should have been. For instance, why would managers want to be on the road with the artist a lot of the time and here you are, the artist, paying for their travel? There were a lot of things that were going on that didn’t seem right.
50BOLD: So, had all of these folks on the payroll and you’re doing all the work!
Evelyn: Yes! These “managers” were doing things with the artist, but my parents were my actual road managers. They were the road dogs; they were taking care of their daughter. And I’m glad that they were there for me to protect my interests! My siblings were also there for me! They guided me in the right direction otherwise I wouldn’t be here now to talk about it. I could have been strung out on drugs! There were a lot of things that went on during the 70s era. I didn’t want to get involved in those kinds of dangerous goings-on.
50BOLD: When Shame debuted you were 16 going on 17, were you in high school?
Evelyn: I was in high school, yes.
50BOLD: Okay, so how does an Evelyn “Champagne” King with the #1 hit record in the country go to her senior prom?
Evelyn: I didn’t go to my senior prom. Never had the opportunity to go to a prom. I have a bucket list actually right now and I told my husband about it. I want him to make sure that he gives me a prom.
50BOLD: What a great idea!
Evelyn: I want a prom and I want it to be inside my home. We’ll have guests get all dressed up and we’ll dance; this is something that’s meaningful to me. I want to have one dance with my husband as though we went to my prom together. I didn’t know my husband back then.
50BOLD: I was going to ask if you knew your husband back in high school.
Evelyn: I met this man when I moved to California.
50BOLD: How long have you been living in California now?
Evelyn: I have been living on the west coast since 1989 which is when my daughter passed. I could no longer live on the East coast; I had to leave. I love my New York but it’s too cold!
50BOLD: During the time when you were still young and performing, what were your relationships like with your fellow artists? Was there camaraderie amongst you or was it more like a competition? Did people shun you because of your success?
Evelyn: I actually had fun with many of the other artists that I worked with along the way. They treated me with respect. I got to see the competition aspect of the business when I was in my mid-twenties. There were things going on like “Someone’s trying to pull the plug; what’s going on? Why is my mic not working!” There were a lot of fishy things going on. There was a little jealousy going on. I’d notice other artists trying to outdo me every chance they’d get. Meanwhile, I was thinking we’re all trying to achieve the same thing, so there should be no competition. We should be, if anything, proud of each other and of our accomplishments!
50BOLD: Are you still touring with singers Martha Wash and Linda Clifford?
Evelyn: I am no longer touring with Martha and Linda. Touring with the ladies was nice; I enjoyed it very much because we all appreciated and respected each other’s craft. I’m so respectful of the ladies. The experience just wasn’t for me anymore. So two years ago, I made the choice to say I’m done. And I’m telling you, those two women, are hilarious, nutty and we all still get along.
50BOLD: When you were touring did you perform your classics as well as new material?
Evelyn: Well, here’s the thing, I haven’t stopped traveling, so I’m still on tour. I’m still working. I have to give it all to the Almighty. I am also grateful to such great writers/producers as Fitch, Cross, T. Life, of course, Kashif. I’ve got a catalog of good songs. My fans love my songs, they are number one with me and keep me going. I am totally blessed! I have not stopped traveling since 1977.
50BOLD: In 2004 your record Shame which of course is iconic, became one of the first records to be inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame. Do you remember what other recordings you were up against at that time?
Evelyn: I really don’t recall what recordings were also honored but I know I was excited when I was given the honor!
50BOLD: Shame is your signature recording, but as far as your body of work which one is your favorite and why.
Evelyn: That is not a fair question because it is difficult to answer! I love every song I put my stamp on. I don’t mean to sound boastful! If I didn’t like a song, I wouldn’t have recorded it. Do you understand what I mean?
50BOLD: I do. Now speaking of stories, I know your music and I really do like your music. You don’t have to answer this question, but how old were you when you recorded
Love Come Down?
Evelyn: Oh wow, I recorded it in 1980. Ok, let’s do the math now. [laughs]
50BOLD: So you were no longer a teenager.
Evelyn: Oh no, I was able to sing the song, but I was like this cut ain’t really that deep!
50BOLD: Well, you know that being a brother and everything, Love Come Down was pretty…
Evelyn: And I love it! I thought Love Come Down was a good song for me.
50BOLD: That was a great song for you and us as well!
Evelyn: Oh yes, and the song was such a hit!
50BOLD: You’re exactly right. And for many of us brothers, when we heard Love Come Down we straight up wondered, if you were actually singing about, what we thought you were singing about! [laughter]
Evelyn: I said the same thing when I first heard the song. When I sang the words to Love Come Down, I thought how my parents were not going to go for this recording!!
50BOLD: All of us Black men, we love that song! We were like, “Go ahead my sista! Tell us what you want!” [laughter] Let me get back on track. Do you miss the disco era?
Evelyn: I do miss the disco era very much because I have to say, we had a lot of fun. There were great songs and the fans appreciated them. Everyone seemed to come together no matter what color, creed, or religion, it just didn’t matter. Songs and dancing brought people together during the disco era.
50BOLD: That is so beautiful. What do you think of today’s music?
Evelyn: These days, I don’t hear a lot of “sanging” going on. I hear technical effects, and a lot of monotones. I want to hear songs, and more “sanging.” So many singers are still trying to find their way. A lot of performers feel that they have to practically be unclothed in order to make their way. I didn’t have to be unclothed to sing. I kept my clothes on and I still keep my clothes on today to do what I do.
50BOLD: Who do you listen to these days? Who is on your playlist?
Evelyn: Everybody. I listen to all kinds of music, all genres. I love rock. I love rock-n-roll. I love Tina Turner, The Police, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and Chaka Khan. I was also musically influenced by Chaka because I sang her songs growing up. Chaka is also a friend of mine; I love her to death.
50BOLD: …What do you look forward to these days?
Evelyn: I look forward to putting out some more music and still doing some traveling. My thing is to still give the audiences what they want, that’s Evelyn. Until God says, “Hey, it’s time for you to chill, retire,” that’s when I’ll stop. But right now, I love doing what I do and that is performing. I can’t believe how blessed, proud, and happy I am. I wake up every day and know that I’m going to be hitting 60 next year and I feel good.
50BOLD: Congratulations! Gratitude makes you feel good indeed.
Evelyn: Life is a blessing and it is so good to still be here. We’ve lost so many artists, it’s scary. It hurts. I have traveled with so many people who are no longer here.
50BOLD: So on the flip side and getting away from the somber stuff, what puts you in an upbeat mood? What lifts your spirits?
Evelyn: Knowing that my family is still hanging in there lifts my spirits. We recently lost a cousin and then I lost a cousin’s ex-wife, death happens all the time. Just knowing that those loved ones I’ve lost are still with me and wanting me to keep going and not fail. And my family who is still here supporting and loving me makes me happy. It is comforting to know that they’ve got my back and I’ve got theirs. My husband lifts my spirits, he is my rock.
50BOLD: How long have you’ve been married.
Evelyn: On September 3, I will be celebrating my 29th wedding anniversary. My husband is also a musician, a jazz guitarist, and I very much support him.
50BOLD: How can our 50BOLD readers reach out to you. How can we follow your concert schedules?
50BOLD: Is there anything else you would like to share with us that people would want to know?
Evelyn: Yes, people want to know how did I got the word “Champagne” added to my name. Bubbles is my family nickname. My mom named me Bubbles because I use to blow spit bubbles as a baby. So, when I got into the music business, we were trying to decide how to jazz up the name Evelyn King. A producer and my parents put their heads together, and they came up with the middle name of Champagne. I could not see Bubbles as a middle name because I was not stripping for anyone. [laughter]
Author Leon Goodman hosted the Lou Rawls Parade of Stars for several years. A retired human resources executive, he is currently an actor who has appeared on such TV shows as Blacklist and Bull. He can be seen in the upcoming feature film The Drummer starring Danny Glover. Connect with Leon on his Instagram page, @goodmanleon.