By Francesca Lewis
Old-school dance and R&B divas Evelyn “Champagne” King and Thea Austin are the latest performers to be added to The Dinah’s stellar 2014 line-up. The two singers will be bookending the festivities, with King kicking things off at the TGIDF (Thank God It’s Dinah Friday) Pool Party at the Hilton hotel and Austin taking the stage at Zeldaz Nightclub for The Dinah’s official Closing Party.
Evelyn King was born in the Bronx, New York, and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There were musical influences in her life from an early age, with her uncle, Avon Long, working alongside Lena Horne at the Cotton Club and her father singing back-up for groups at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre.
She was discovered at the age of sixteen while working as an office cleaner with her mother at Philadelphia International Records. Producer Theodore T. Life overheard her singing in a bathroom and began coaching her. She drew from her childhood nickname “Bubbles” to create her stage name, Evelyn “Champagne” King. King’s debut album, Smooth Talk, was released in 1977, featuring the song “Shame,” a classic disco hit about loving someone your mother doesn’t approve of. Other hits included “I Don’t Know If It’s Right” and “I’m in Love.” In 1982, King released the album, Get Loose, which yielded two more successful singles, “Love Come Down” and “Betcha She Don’t Love You.”
Throughout the 1980s, King continued to be a fixture of the R&B scene until she faded from the limelight in the mid ’90s. In 2004, her legendary anthem “Shame” became one of the first records to be inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame. In 2007, King released her first studio album in 12 years, Open Book.
Thea Austin was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and has been fronting bands since she was in her early teens. Her love of music led her to a position as a staff writer at a major music industry magazine. This gave her a taste for the business and insight into the workings of major labels. However, she felt she was becoming too comfortable, describing a feeling of “wearing golden handcuffs” and left the magazine to dedicate herself fully to singing. Following this decision, she spent almost a year in Japan, honing her vocal skills.
Soon after returning to the US, she met Penny Ford, the former lead singer of Snap!, who introduced her to the group. In 1991, Austin travelled to Germany to begin work on Snap!’s album, The Madman’s Return, with the rapper Turbo B. She not only sang but also used her writing talent, co-writing the massive iconic hit “Rhythm Is A Dancer.” As always, though, she became restless, and left Snap! in 1993.
For the past 20 years Austin has been working on solo projects and collaborating with various artists, occasionally reuniting with Snap! for television appearances and events. In 2001, she released “I’m Addicted To You (You’re the Worst Thing for Me)” and the song was a run-away hit, topping the Billboard charts, and featuring on Queer As Folk and Sex & the City. Over the years, Austin has accumulated seven Top 40 singles, one platinum album, five gold albums and five Grammy Awards.
What makes our human experience on this planet so beautiful is that we are at once identical and unique. We are all human, but what makes us human is our differences, our individuality and the magical ways our individual experiences overlap. King and Austin both grew up in Pennsylvania, are both women of color and both singers, yet they are not the same. It is the celebration of these connections and distinctions that makes us here at T.H.E. smile.
King’s biggest hit, “Shame,” is a song about loving a person despite your mother’s disapproval of them. The lyrics speak of yearning, confusion and “tearing the rules apart.” This is quite different from Austin’s most famous song, the Snap! hit “Rhythm is a Dancer,” which is all about the freedom of mind and body that music can bring. It is not difficult, however, to read these songs as queer – both having to do with breaking tradition, being true to your soul and letting passion take over.
The addition of these two legendary divas to The Dinah’s 2014 festivities is a wonderful way to honor the queer community’s roots, when our art was filled with codified messages of acceptance, equality and self-love. In this world of increasing visibility and tolerance, it is interesting – and wise – to recall and celebrate the past.
To see King and Austin, along with Eve, Tegan and Sara, Hunter Valentine, Iggy Azalea and Mary Lambert perform live, get your tickets to the largest queer female music festival in the world, hosted in Palm Springs, CA (thedinah.com).