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Maria "Funkyflyy" Granditsky: Barbara, the last record I heard by you was "Another Man". That was in 1984 and it was a big club hit here in Sweden. It was even played on the radio, which was (and is) quite rare for an independent dance record. I have to tell you that when you answered the phone, the first thing that came to me was that sassy spoken "rap" in "Another Man" (laughs). You talk the same way in "real life" as you do on record.
Barbara Mason:-(Laughs) Yes, it appears that I have the same talking voice, if I talk in a record, as opposed to when I sing in a record. It's a kind of tone in my voice and I guess I was born with it. I've been singing for about thirty-three years now and people always tell me that I sound the same way when I talk on record as I do in person. Well, I am the same person, so... (laughs)
(Laughs) I know you're from Philadelphia, but you have some kind of "southern twang" in your voice too.
-Yes, they've told me that also (laughs). No, I was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and I've lived here all my life. I've traveled in the south, but I am from Pennsylvania.
You've written and recorded songs in several different musical genres. You've done Philly-Soul, deep Soul, Funk and Dance.. Where is your heart?
-In everything you just mentioned. I also do country music, which no one has ever heard. I have some country songs that we are trying to get placed. People don't even know that I write country music, but I have some great songs that I would like to bring out. And the next thing that's close to my heart is Jazz. I can also sing Jazz music. I can sing in a movie, I can do a movie, there is almost nothing in terms of entertainment that I can't do. I think probably the only music I'm not versed in is Opera. Any other kind of music I can do. I was raised naturally on R&B, but I did not come out of a Gospel church. I came out of a Catholic church and we did not sing Gospel there (laughs). I have no formal background from singing in a choir. But a lot of people assume that just because you sing a certain way that you came out of a Gospel church. I did not, it's just the way I sound. I don't know of any other female that sounds like I do. I could not compare myself with any other female, including Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and Mavis Staples. These are three of my favorite singers and I don't sound like anyone of them.
No, you don't. You have a unique voice, just like the other great ladies you mentioned.
-Yes and I'm happy for that because it means that I will never lose my sound.
You've written many love ballads, is that your forté, you think?
-I have a tendency to write that kind of music, yeah. But I'm open to most anything.
Lets' start from the beginning. You were born on August 9, 1947. Could you tell me a bit about your family. What did your mother and father do for a living? Do you have any siblings?
-My mother was a homemaker. I had two sisters, Arnetta and Margaret, and my mother stayed home and raised the three of us. My father worked for the city of Philadelphia in the water department and by that I mean that when you went to pay your bills, to keep your water on, you would go to my father. He was more or less a collector of the water department. He did that until he retired some years back. My mother is deceased, she died some thirty years back, but my father is still living. I only have one sister left. My other sister who was five years younger than myself passed in 1992. So it's just us two children left and my father.
Do you have any children?
-Yes, I have a son. His name is Marc James and he lives in San Francisco and travels with me when I'm on the road. He drives for me and handles a lot of the P.R. work. He's twenty-eight years old.
Are you married?
-No, I never did get married. I wanted to, but it didn't work out, so I've remained single for all of these years and I raised my son alone. But who knows what the future holds?
How were you first exposed to music and singing?
-I came from a neighborhood of kids that sang on the corner. We would listen to the radio and sing the songs that we heard. I lived on Frances Street, which was just across the street from a playground called Francesville Playground where they held talent shows each summer. I would go over there and audition myself and every year I would win. It was myself and four other people that I would go out and handpick. It was like a group, it would be myself, a guy and two other girls. I was the lead singer and I would make up little songs and we would win. I would go from recreation center to recreation center around my city and every summer I would do these talent shows. Then I would go to different theaters, what you might call venues there, and I would perform again and win. That let me know that at least I had a talent for people liking what I did. But a gentleman by the name of Weldon Arthur McDougal III actually discovered my talent. He asked me if I would like to perform in an adult club. Now, I was only about seventeen years old and I was really not old enough to be singing in such places, but he kind of snuck me in. I had a group of girls with me and I did the old standard "Moon River". I used to like that by Andy Williams and by Jerry Butler. I basically did my version, but it leaned towards the Jerry Butler version and the people in the club gave me a standing ovation. At that point, Weldon asked me if I would like to make professional records and I told him "yes". Again, I was just seventeen, still in school, so I told him that I would have to go home and ask my parents if I could leave school. He said "what do you think? Will they let you?". I said "I don't know. I have to ask them." Lo and behold, Maria, they told me I could do what I wanted! I said "God, I'm just a kid, how come you're saying that?" and they said "well, if you think you can make an honest living from this, then go on". So I did it. I left school and I went into the studio and started recording. And I've been doing it ever since then.
I think your parents were amazing. To believe in your talent enough to allow you to quit school. That's some encouragement!
-Yes, I think they were amazing and I wish that my mother was still living. She was really the foundation of our family, she would probably have had more to tell you about my character. My father is kind of a shy and quiet person, he is the type who'll say "well, whatever my wife says". I assume he said that and then my mother said "whatever Barbara wants to do", so I don't think there was a big discussion about it. They both agreed and obviously it was what I was supposed to do, otherwise I would not have been as successful.
Tell me more about your "discoverer", Weldon McDougal, please. Was he a record man, a talent scout?
-Weldon came from an old group called the Larks. He had a little recording group, but he knew a discjockey in Philadelphia by the name of Jimmy Bishop. Jimmy was one of the hottest discjockeys in Philadelphia at that time. Weldon and Jimmy were friends, so Weldon took me to Jimmy and Jimmy had the money to form Arctic Records and to take me into a studio and produce me. From me being with Jimmy, he's a discjockey, he's got friends all over the country, my airplay becomes instant. Then I became too large for Arctic Records and I wound up with a company called National General, which I had a couple of little songs on. National General was distributed by Buddah, so when National General went out of business, I automatically went on Buddah which was a bigger company. Weldon was out of the picture by then and I was solely with Jimmy Bishop who became my producer for many years. He did my "Love's The Thing" album, he did most of my things on Buddah. I had many, many albums with Jimmy. The only other album that Weldon McDougal did on me was the "I'm Your Woman, She Is Your Wife" , which was the album and single I did for Prelude in 1978. Since then, I have not done anything professionally with Weldon, but I still speak with him. But I have not seen Jimmy Bishop or spoken with him in twenty years.
I've read that your next door neighbor was Billy Oxydene, another member of the Larks and that you and your vocal group used to sing on their shows sometimes, and that was how you met Weldon. I also read that Weldon produced your very first single which was called "Trouble Child", and which came out on the local Crusader label. The Larks sang backgrounds on it. This was before you met Jimmy Bishop, before you recorded "Yes, I'm Ready" which flew up the charts in 1965. Is this information correct?
-Yes, that's absolutely correct. I wrote that one in 1964. Actually, I had a couple of tunes before "Trouble Child", one was called "Girls Have Feelings Too". Jimmy Bishop was also involved in the production and financing of "Trouble Child". Weldon never did anything totally on his own. Jimmy Bishop was the one that had the money and the connections, since he was a discjockey. When we did "Trouble Child", Jimmy Bishop was in the studio, he helped produce it. I just wrote it.
And he became your producer and mentor after that. What were the some of the things you learned from him?
-One of his main things was diction. You're always able to understand every word I say in my songs. You don't have to turn your radio up to hear the words. Jimmy wanted to make sure that my diction was perfect and he also allowed me to be me. He never put me in a box, telling me to do this and that. He gave me suggestions, he and I also wrote songs together, but mostly, he would allow me to be myself and whenever I am allowed to be myself, you'll get the best out of me.
How did you feel when you got your very first record deal, with Arctic?
-It was the greatest time of my life. The most exciting thing was to hear myself on the radio for the first time, in the house that I was raised and with my family sitting around. We have a newspaper back here that still lists the records that are top ten and one day, think it was a Sunday, I read that "Yes, I'm Ready" was number three. I told my mother and she said "so what does that mean?" and I said "I guess three is a big number, so I guess that means I am a big hit". So my mother went out and bought this gigantic Hi-Fi. A Hi-Fi was something that you connected to your television set and you would play your record on the side. She really couldn't afford to purchase this, but she went and got this Hi-Fi machine and we sat all day long, listening to the same record. First we listened to "Trouble Child", then we listened to "Yes, I'm Ready" and before she died, the last record I made was "Oh How It Hurts". She died in 1968, so that was the last of my records she ever heard. I just wish she had lived a little longer, Maria. When I went to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., I saw my own files, with everything that I've ever written and it was such a wonderful thing to look at my own life on the screen. If my mother could have seen that.. To see my name in a book! She would never have dreamed that someone in a different country would know her first-born daughter. I was just a regular kid from the neighborhood, you know? She was honored when she saw me perform, but for this to continue is just incredible. And there's still more to come. I haven't even touched on a lot of stuff.
Had you been dreaming of a professional singing career since you were a little girl?
-Oh, no, no. All I dreamed about doing was going to school, graduating from high-school and probably become a secretary or something of that nature. My mother had a quite unique singing voice. I used to hear her sing around the house and so, the tone of my voice and my style really comes from her. When I started recording professionally, her voice and my voice were exactly the same. If I sound like anyone, I sound like my mother. She was not a professional singer, although she told me that once someone asked her to go to New York to do professional singing but my grandmother would not allow it. My mother was her only child and underage, so my grandmother wouldn't let her go. Possibly, I may have picked up my mother's karma and did what my mother couldn't. She did get a chance to travel to the west coast with me before she died. I went on a Dick Clark tour and she went with me. I was going out with the Turtles, Shirley Ellis, The Kingsmen, I was on that type of tour and my mother got a chance to see me perform and also travel with me. I was happy for that.
You're also an accomplished songwriter. Did that come from your mother too?
-No, no one in my family writes, no one else is a professional singer. I'm the only one to sing or write professionally in the Mason line. I know that for sure. Going back as far as 1876 to my grandfather, I'm the only one. Usually it runs in the family, like in the Jackson Five or the Five Stairsteps, but in my case, it's just little ol'e me, solo.
Did you start by writing poems?
-Yes, that's what I considered them to be, but they probably were songs. I play piano, but I have no formal training in terms of going to school, learning how to play. Whatever comes in my head, I just sit down and start playing it.
Who had the first piano you learned to play on?
-My grandmother. She lived with us and she had a piano in our house. It was the old, upright type which had the rolls that you could push with your feet. I would just mess around with it and come up with words to match the music. I was only eleven or twelve years old and I really did not know what I was doing. But I was creating what was to be my future. I was never in the glee club in school, I just sang around the house with the radio. I always had a radio, I mean, I even went to bed with the radio. I loved R&B music, that's all we had. For Philadelphia, there wasn't a lot going on, the Philly-Sound had not come out yet. I listened a lot to Motown, I loved the Blues and I still do to this day. I try to listen to everything that's out because I feel that I can always get something from someone. Some of my favorite Jazz artists are Sarah Vaughn, Nancy Wilson and Ella Fitzgerald. One of my male favorites is Johnny Mathis, and among the Jazz vocalists I love are Tony Bennett. There are so many people that have influenced me to write different songs or to come up with a different way of approaching a song. Radio was such a great invention, that's the one thing we had to listen to, to get inspiration from.
From what I understand, you were one of the first to record in the style that later would be called "Philly-Soul", that "Yes, I'm Ready" in fact was the very first song to have that distinct "Philly-Sound".
-Yes, that's what they say in some books I've seen too and I was awfully flattered when I read that I am the originator of the Philly-sound. Before me, there was no one that came out with that particular sound from Philadelphia. Everyone came after me; Brenda and The Tabulations, the Delfonics, The Stylistics, Blue Magic, we all used the same musicians. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who later formed Philadelphia International Records, sang on my songs. Kenny did backgrounds on "Yes, I'm Ready". He was just nineteen years old then, this was long before he became who he is today. Some think that the Philly-sound is Philadelphia International because so many artists recorded there, but the original Philly-sound began with "Yes, I'm Ready".
How would you
describe the Philly-sound?
© Maria Granditsky