Vocalist Linda Clifford Was Not Only A Steadfast Presence During the Disco Era but in the AIDS Community As Well
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
POW! This song instantly blasts me back to the time when disco was the rage worldwide. Once this record hit the turntable, the club crowd urgently scurried to the dance floor, mesmerized by the frenetic beat. They were spellbound on the dance floor.
“If My Friends Could See Me Now” was sung by the powerful voice of Linda Clifford. Originally written for the Broadway show-turned-film Sweet Charity, Linda made a brief appearance in the movie that starred Shirley MacLaine [A&U, April 2000]—“who I had a great time with.” The massive disco hit was number one on the dance chart for twenty-six weeks and Ms. Clifford became a disco diva, even belting it out at New York’s legendary Studio 54. Accolades bestowed on the singer include an American Music Award nomination for Best New Artist, Record World Magazine’s Best New Female Vocalist, and Cashbox Magazine’s Top Female Vocalist Award. Ms. Clifford has had twenty-five hit singles on the dance, R&B, and pop charts and some of those have gone platinum and gold.
During the mid to late seventies, all of the great popular songs of the day were disco-ized, breathing new life into the old American songbook. Disco’s popularity had crossover appeal and practically every artist of the day wanted to record a disco song. Paul McCartney, Cher, Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow, and Diana Ross all added their voices to the disco craze. Even Barbra Streisand teamed up with Donna Summer to record “No More Tears,” which went gold. Broadway legend Ethel Merman (Gypsy, Annie Get Your Gun, and Anything Goes) got in on it, too, and cut an album. I Love Lucy didn’t escape either. The iconic television show’s theme song was spun disco!
“If My Friends Could See Me Now” came along more as an offhand idea. Someone at Linda’s record company came up with the idea. She was doubtful, and thought it sacrilegious to alter a classic standard. But she went ahead and cut a track. After hearing it, Linda loved the song. Everyone, she believed, knew someone in their past they wanted to tell, “Hey, remember me? Look at me now.” Linda didn’t pay much attention to the marketing of the song until the president of the company called her with the news, “You’re number one in Billboard!”
She found fame thanks to a diverse career, however. In 1966 she won Miss New York Sate (the first African American ever to be crowned); she played a corpse in the film The Boston Strangler; she worked as a cocktail waitress at Hollywood’s famous Whiskey A Go Go (where she served Jim Morrison of The Doors); and though they never met, Linda lived in the same apartment complex in Los Angeles as Janis Joplin, where Janis later died from a drug overdose.
Raised in Brooklyn, New York, Linda now resides in Chicago. For thirty-eight years she’s been married to Nick, “my honey and my rock,” and the couple raised two children, Walter, an archeologist, and Gina, a singer and actor. (Whitney Houston’s hit “All the Man That I Need” was written for and about Linda and Nick.)
In the nineties, Linda began doing commercial jingles and voiceovers so that she could stay close to her family. She pitched for McDonald’s, Coke, Maybelline, Pontiac, Tropicana, Oldsmobile, Michelob Lite and her voice graced the themes to The Phil Donahue Show and the police drama Chicago. Throughout the years, she has never tired of singing the song she became known for.
When she was promoting her number-one hit, Cy Coleman, the original songwriter, called into the radio station in the midst of an interview and thanked Linda for reintroducing the song to the public. (Clifford also made a disco hit out of Simon and Garfunkel’s somber classic, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”)
With its chilling lyrics, “If My Friends Could See Me Now” became an anthem of sorts for those of us who were somewhat outcasts and who now had a purpose. The tune is nearly five minutes in length, so it gave us disco-ers ample time to strut around the dance floor in our bell-bottoms, blousy shirts, and long hair. This was the late seventies, but AIDS was about to stop the music.
For Linda, it was a thunderous jolt. Within a matter of three weeks, she lost both brothers to the disease.
Since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the entertainer has been on the frontlines volunteering to raise funds and awareness. In 2014, Linda teamed up with two other disco mavens, Martha Wash (“It’s Raining Men”) [A&U, January 2012], and Evelyn “Champagne” King (“Shame”) and brought their show, The First Ladies of Disco, to Palm Springs to benefit the city’s AIDS Assistance Program.
Linda has also preformed with Sheryl Lee Ralph’s [A&U, August 2015] DIVAS Simply Singing. The proceeds went to Angel Food Network, which delivers food to adults and children living with HIV and AIDS. Ms. Clifford offers her talent to other charities, including those devoted to cancer, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis. She’s performed for the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon and The Ronald McDonald House Benefit.
For R&R, the singer heads to the island of Lanai, though it’s her dream to visit Japan one day. As for Linda’s favorite city, it’s her hometown of Brooklyn.
Over the years, the songstress has recorded with Curtis Mayfield, Luther Vandross, and Isaac Hayes. She has excelled as a songwriter, as well; Cher, Gladys Knight, and another disco diva, Gloria Gaynor [A&U, April 2013], have recorded her compositions.
Dann Dulin: Has there ever been anyone you were completely starstruck over?
Linda Clifford: Sammy Davis, Jr., and Frank Sinatra! I’m very old school.
So what’s your favorite disco song, Linda?
There’s no way to have only one! But…“You Should Be Dancing” (Bee Gees), “Mighty Real” (Sylvester), “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (Thelma Houston), “Disco Inferno” (The Trammps)….I’ll stop here. There’s so many more!
How did being crowned Miss New York State affect you, especially with the pageant being held during the tumultuous civil rights era?
It was quite an ordeal. My parents had to hire bodyguards for my trip to the Miss USA pageant. My life was threatened, my family had to leave our home, but I refused to let them keep me away.
It’s surreal that you lost both brothers to AIDS. How did that happen, Linda?!
It was 1986 and my older brother, Clinton, fell into a coma. I didn’t even know he was ill until I received a call from a New York hospital. They told me his name and asked if we were related, since they found my name in his belongings. I said, “Yes, of course, he’s my brother, but there must be some mistake. I spoke to him just a few days ago and he was fine.”
He complained of a little back pain, but that was something we both did, and we’d laugh about getting old. Then they said he was not going to make it through the night. “He’ll die before you catch a flight to New York,” they warned. [Linda resided in Chicago at the time.]
Did you catch a flight?
I did. I would not let my brother die alone!
I took the first available flight and went directly to the hospital. He was in intensive care, white as a sheet, thin as a rail, and looking so peaceful. He was not alone. I held him and told him that I was with him.
So he lived long enough to see you….
They were wrong. He lived three more months. After my initial encounter with him, they threw me out of the room every twenty minutes. But I found a back staircase. I would sit on the floor and hold his hand. I talked to him about everything I could think of. Then I remembered how much he loved Puerto Rico, so I started planning a vacation for us. Suddenly, he squeezed my hand, ever so slightly. I ran for the doctors and told them. They said, “No, that’s impossible,” that it was just a nerve reacting to medication. I insisted that they come to his side. As soon as I mentioned the beaches of San Juan he squeezed the doctor’s hand. We all went crazy! My brother began to wake up, he started to speak, and for three months I was right there with him.
How about your other brother?
In the meantime in another hospital on the other side of New York, my younger brother, Garry, was taken by ambulance for a “rare form of cancer.” I remember thinking: “This can’t be, this is not happening.” I wanted to scream!! [Linda’s older brother was forty-seven, and her “baby brother” was thirty two.]
What calls to mind about that challenging time?
While they were in the hospital, I became the Florence Nightingale for the [AIDS] ward. I would make a daily list of things that everyone wanted or needed from the store, shop in the morning, and deliver it to them in the afternoon.
My heart would break listening to others who were infected talk about how their families were afraid, or just didn’t come to see them because they didn’t understand or approve of their lifestyle.
What do you think happens after we die?
I believe our energy goes out into the universe.
What motivates you to continue to perform for charity?
Because I can. I fight for those who can’t. Sounds so corny, but it’s true. I myself have struggled with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia for years.
Who’s your personal hero?
My mom—absolutely! I wish she were here now so I could tell her what a genius she was. I learned so much from her. I only hope I’ve done as good a job with my children as she did with us.
During the early years of the epidemic, anchored right by your side was your husband and children. How did you confront your kids to play safe?
We raised our children to respect others as well as themselves. This was not a time to be shy or hold back, this was life or death and they needed all the information they could get. As a parent, it was my job to make sure they were well-informed about this and so many other things in life.
Regrettably, HIV infection is spreading rapidly in the African-American community. Can you address this?
The African-American community seems to be the last group of people to listen to anything regarding the AIDS epidemic. They just don’t think it can happen to them. Safe sex is so important for…everyone.
It’s unfortunate that so many young people don’t realize what they’re playing with. They think now that there’s medication and that they have nothing to worry about. That couldn’t be further from the truth! You and I know it’s not just taking a pill and getting on with your day. Sometimes you become ill from the meds; sometimes different drugs and strategies are considered due to finding the right treatment and then there can be serious reactions to some very strong medications.
This is medicine that you have to take…for the rest of your life. If only I knew how to reach them better—to spare them. I pray they announce a cure soon. I want life to be easier for those suffering with this disease, and for the families who have to watch their loved ones die.
For more information about Linda Clifford, log on to: www.thelindaclifford.com.
Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor of A&U.