Evelyn “Champagne” King’s rise to fame and fortune in the music business is as close to a “Cinderella story” as you can get. The R&B and disco diva was discovered while singing at age 15 in the bathroom at Philly International Records, where her parents worked on the maintenance crew.
When producer Theodore T. Life overheard her singing in a washroom, he assured the girl he would make her a star. And, he did. Her 1979 debut single, “Shame” was an instant crossover smash and disco anthem. For the next decade, Evelyn turned out a wide-ranging slew of hits including “I’m in Love,” “Love Come Down,” and “Betcha She Don’t Love You, ” while establishing her reputation as a live performer who gave fans all she had.
But, those same high spirits left her vulnerable, not only to the slings and arrows of the music business, but to real life episodes of personal tragedy.
Now, 30 years out and still going strong, Evelyn King reveals to “Unsung” the unvarnished tale of a showbiz survivor.
“I haven’t stopped working since ’77,” reflected King. “But, there are a lot of us that either gave up or said ‘forget it.’ I refuse to say ‘stop, ‘give up’ or ‘forget it.'”
King’s natural range and energetic delivery even left fellow entertainment professionals amazed at the big voice emanating from the petite teen. “The Mike Douglass, Merv Griffin and Dinah Shore shows were looking for me when I had to do their show,” recalled King. “I’m standing right in front of them all scrawnny and skinny with a soft voice saying, ‘I’m right here.’ Of course they were expecting a 300-pound woman, and it’s because I sing from the gut.”
Her uncle Avon Long had played the part of Sportin’ Life in “Porgy and Bess” and worked with Lena Horne at the Cotton Club. Her father sang back-up for groups at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. “I sang gospel in church, my dad was a tenor, my uncle Avon Long sang in ‘Bubbling Brown Sugar,’ so it’s instilled in the family,” said King. “God gave us that thing to just sing.”
King, who attended West Philadelphia High school, has been married for 20 years to guitarist Freddie Fox, who also serves as her music director. In 1988, the couple only child died at age two.
“I really don’t want to go into so much because it was so heavy, but I really loved my parents-my dad, my mom and my brother – who have all passed away,” said King. “And they’re all namesakes: My daughter, Johnniea Champagne King, was named after my mom, Johnniea. And, my brother who passed away, was named after my dad, Erick, so it’s Erick Sr. and Erick Jr. – gone. They were on the road with me (along with two other siblings) and (even today) it feels like they are on the stage with me, so I know they are there. But, it’s an awkward feeling because you’re getting in the business so young. You’re a little naive to what’s going on. You’re just there, really to just go out there and shine so much for just everyone else that is backing you instead of yourself because you don’t get to see what you worked hard for. Yeah, I was taken for a ride for a while, but I’m still here.”
In 2006, King had an emergency health crisis that left her clinging for life. “I had a fibroid, which a lot of women and a lot of young girls need to keep up on,” said King. “You can have a fibroid that takes things away from you, and it took my life. Literally. I had to be brought back, and if it wasn’t for my husband being with me I wouldn’t be here to speak on it.”
King’s original childhood nickname of “Bubbles” was transformed to “Champagne” in early branding session for her Gold-plus debut album “Smooth Talk.” The potentially provocative lyrics “Shame” caused her parents some concern.
“I was only 15 and I’s singing ‘Momma just don’t understand how I love my man’, my father wanted to shot somebody,” laughed King. “My parents were listening to the words, but I wasn’t paying no attention. There’s a lot of that song that I never paid attention to lyrically because I just loved singing-and I would sing it.”
In 2004, King’s “Shame” became one of the first records to be inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame. On August 14, 2007, King released her first studio album in 18 years, “Open Book.” “I haven’t left the scene,” explained King. “I love my fans, and I’m respecting them to say I don’t give up.”
Evelyn “Champagne” King shares her life story on an all-new episode of TV One’s NAACP Image Award-winning “Unsung” series.