Born and raised in St. Louis, Ellen Foley went to a Catholic school and sang in the choir. Said Ellen: "I basically didn't blend in, but the nuns let me sing by myself in the musicals that we put on. My mother was encouraging, so I knew
early on what I wanted to do
". She later was in a band at the local Webster College with other class mates (pictured right with Jmmy Porter and Doug Isaac), and after graduation in 1973 she moved to New York "to study acting for a summer. I guess I believed that myself.
" At nights she would sing in her boyfriend's rock band. She also pursued an acting career and soon found herself working in off-Broadway and Public Theatre productions. Said Ellen: "I started studying at H.B. Studios in Greenwich Village and found a great acting teacher, Alice Spivak, still my mentor. I started going to cattle-call auditions where literally hundreds of people were trying for one role. I first got non-paying work off-off Broadway in "new" plays such as 'Sophia Equals Wisdom Part 2' and 'Charlie Chestnut Rides The I.R.T'. My first paying job was singing in Tuxedo Junction, in a very straight musical comedy revue that played in the Catskill Mountain hotels, a resort area. It was corny with me in false eyelashes and the boys in glittery jumpsuits. I was fired, I was too odd, thank God!
". Around 1974 Ellen recorded demos with a hard rock group from Atlantic City named Big Jive and stayed with them for 6 months as lead vocalist. Ellen: "We played in bars in Atlantic City, by the sea, in the winter time, definitely off-off season. We made demos, got nowhere, the drummer took back his P.A, and we disbanded.
" Their material consisted of originals, Top 40 songs and Bessie Smith tunes. "That was before the casinos
", Ellen said, "it was a contrast. I sang Frank Sinatra's "That's Life" which was interesting to me (and a predecessor to Sid's "My Way", by the way). When that ended I was back in New York, going to school, and auditioning for theatre. I was a token female in a comedy called "Boy Meets Boy". I feel lucky that I have always been able to find work in my field. It's a good thing, because I waited tables for three weeks one summer and I was pretty bad at it."
In 1975/76 Ellen got a part in the touring company of 'The National Lampoon Show', "completely tasteless, sacrilegious - and a lot of fun
", Ellen later remembered, and added: "it was a great opportunity because Martin Charnin, who wrote Annie, was the director
". Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman were also in the show, and in early 1977 Ellen joined Steinman at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, in a one-off workshop production of Jim Steinman's play, 'Neverland', a futuristic rock version of Peter Pan. Ellen played the role of Wendy, and sang "Bat Out Of Hell" and "Heaven Can Wait" among others. Steinman then got Meat Loaf involved and began rehearsing 'Neverland' in New York, but it wasn't long before it began to metamorphose into "Bat Out Of Hell".
In between 'The National Lampoon Show' and 'Neverland', Ellen got involved in a show called 'YMCA' in which she reportedly played a pregnant baboon, Patty Hearst, a cheerleader and a fairy! The television series '3 Girls 3' followed next, a variety show about the lives of three cabaret-style singers which was an American attempt at the British 'Rock Follies' TV show.
"One day I went to a general audition for a television show called "3 Girls 3", .... all singing, all dancing, all comedy. I was flown out to Los Angeles for a screen test, and got the job. They auditioned 300 people for the parts and chose three of us. Mimi Kennedy who I'd first met at National Lampoon Show also got a part,
" Ellen later said. Debbie Allen was the third girl on the set. Said Ellen: "It was an amazing jump from working for free. It was a four part mini series. I had my own song each week, attempted comedy, was made very blonde and wore fancy gowns. I worked with such people as Bob Hope and Steve Martin. But I was glad it was all over. I was out of place.
" In retrospect, Ellen feels that the 'television thing' was a crucial turning part in her career. "(3 Girls 3) was the ultimate fake situation, all Broadway, Vegas, Hollywood. I had to get back to reality,
" Ellen later explained, and added "at the time I had already started recording with Meat Loaf, and I spent half my time in the studio doing some heavy rock 'n' roll.
" NBC ran the four '3 Girls 3' episodes during March - June 1977 (pictured left, from episode 3: Ellen, Mimi, guest star Carl Reiner, Debbie).
Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman finally got a record deal with Steve Popovich, and snagged Todd Rundgren as a producer, Said Ellen: "So I was going from straight television to that world. Interesting. Back then I was like, Who am I, who is Meat Loaf, what is my motivation? I was awed that Todd Rundgren was producing, and that Meat Loaf was sitting in a chair and that I got to rant and rave at him. I just thought that it was fun. You know, it was amusing. Eight million records later....
" The Meat Loaf album was a very slow climber on the charts (released in October 1977), it took almost a year to reach the top 10, so Ellen was free to pursue her acting career again. She was a summer replacement in a couple of soap operas, 'Search For Tomorrow' (in which she played a deranged Nurse's Aide reject) and 'One Life To Live' (a student radical). When they were resurrecting 'Hair' on Broadway in the fall of 1977, Ellen played the lead role of Sheila. This in turn led to a different role in the film version directed by Miles Foreman later in the year (and released in 1979). Foreman and choreographer Twyla Tharp allowed Foley considerable freedom in her rendition of "Black Boys", one of the best-received sequences in the movie.
At this point the record people began taking an interest in Ellen because of her contribution to the Meat Loaf album which was climbing to the top of the charts world-wide. Meat Loaf (pictured right, with Ellen circa 1977) wanted her to tour with him, but Ellen was afraid she would just become another back-up singer who would only come out and do certain numbers. Steve Popovich had seen Ellen auditioning with Meat Loaf and he arranged for her to record demos backed by the Boyzz, also signed to Cleveland International, at the Paragon Studios in Chicago in December 1977. Said Ellen: "I did these demos and I just took a big risk and said 'No' to Meat Loaf, 'cause I really wanted to try and do an album by myself. And I was right; without too much stress and strain, I was signed to Epic. Then the working and waiting game of making records began.
" It was Karla DeVito, who also participated in Steinman's 'Neverland' workshop a year earlier, who joined the Meat Loaf tour instead (she also lipsynced to Ellen's vocals in Meat Loaf's videos). Steve Popovich took on the role as Ellen's manager, and he gave Ellen's demo tape to Ian Hunter (whom he also represented) and Mick Ronson. Interestingly, one song on the demo was a cover of Hunter's Mott The Hoople classic "All The Way From Memphis", "we're talking of maybe releasing it sometime,
" Ellen said in 1980 (but sadly it never was). Ellen spent two weeks with Mick Ronson and Ian Hunter in Woodstock in the summer of 1978 to see if they could work together. "We could,
" Ellen said, "and I spent that fall and winter looking for material and going a bit stir crazy as I recall. I met Fred Goodman at the end of that period and co-wrote "We Belong To The Night". Finally in March of 1979 we got into the studio and made the record.
" The album was recorded at Media Sound Studios in New York. Explained Ellen: "It used to be a church with a great curved ceiling. To me it made you feel like you have this sanctified project. It's really how I wanted to do the record, to be able to take a break and go out, walk about on the street a bit. I insisted on making the album here, rather than go to one of those studios out in the country. I couldn't imagine doing a record out in New Jersey or something like that.
In October 1978, Ellen joined the Boyzz onstage at the Agora Ballroom alongside Meat Loaf, Karla DeVito, Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson for a Cleveland International showcase. The concert was recorded for local radio and television, and is memorable because it is the one and only time Ellen and Karla both shared the stage with Meat Loaf!
The Hunter Ronson team was important in building the name of Ellen Foley and she acknowledged their talent. "I got on real well with Ian, he's a lot more verbal than Mick who doesn't say much, you can just watch him play and you learn everything you need from that. He doesn't have to say anything, you can just sense his motive by his playing,
" Ellen later recalled. The album was titled "Nightout", after a Philip Rambow song, and received rave reviews when it got released in August 1979. Ellen got her first taste of US and worldwide promotion, talking to press and radio. "Promotion work can be more exhausting than performing, but it was a wonderful time because I travelled to the UK, Europe and the Netherlands, where my album and first single topped the charts. It was my first time out of America.
Hunter and Ronson were close to finish recording Hunter's "You're Never Alone With A Schizophrenic" album when they teamed up with Ellen (it was released in April 1979), and they invited her to add backing vocals to several tracks. Possibly Hunter's finest record (pictured below, Ian with Ellen at the launch party for "Schizophrenic"), it also marked the start of Ellen Foley's successful career as a backing vocalist. For the next few years she would contribute back-up vocals to numerous albums and singles, including two more Hunter albums. Ellen met Eric Bloom at the Schizophrenic sessions, and was invited to sing on Blue Oyster Cult's "Mirrors" album, released later in the year.
Ellen really wanted to tour in support of her album, but the musicians from the record had all ended up in Ian Hunter's band. She agreed with Hunter to not schedule her own tour until after he had finished his six month US tour (June - November), and then use his band for her own tour. Ellen would often join the Ian Hunter Band on stage that summer, singing back-up, and she also recorded several TV shows as a guest with the band. In the first week of November 1979, Hunter recorded a live album, "Welcome To The Club" in Los Angeles. Ellen did not sing on the live tracks, but she duetted with Ian on one of the four new studio tracks which made up side 4 on the album. It was titled "We Gotta Get Out Of Here" and was soon lifted as the first single from the album (with a nice 'featuring Ellen Foley' credit on the US edition!) Hunter also made a four-track promotional video for the live album, which featured Ellen.
In December Ellen finally took Hunter's band on the road. They appeared on Don Kirschner's Rock Concert (TV), and recorded a live radio session for Robert Klein. Said Ellen: "Then I put a band together and did a club tour in the USA. The record had much success in parts of Europe and Australia so a European tour was planned for January 1980. It was postponed a bit due to the fact that I broke my arm on a motorcycle in the Californian desert. But I soon ignored that disability and had a great time playing in Paris, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Sweden and London. I returned to New York for two weeks and took off on a promotional tour of Australia and Japan. Not many people see these places and it was really thrilling.