Ernest Kohl is the go-to man for feel-good dance remakes, and original uplifting anthems.
He injects an eternally '80s Hi-NRG beat to pop gems such as The Grass Roots' Sooner Or Later, The Partridge Family's I Think I Love You, ABC's Be Near Me, and Yazoo's Only You. He dares to cover dance classics such as Debbie Jacobs' Don't You Want My Love, and Stomp by the Brothers Johnson. And even has the balls to take Tim McGraw's Live Like You Were Dying and add a disco beat.
He's created memorable originals such as Bad To Be Good, To Save The Love, Say Adieu, and many more. And takes the best of the bunch and creates a new mix every few years to keep them fresh. And in 2013, he's still riding high from the recent success of the hit single Anyone Who's Ever Been In Love (and its record-breaking number of remixes.)
"But so many people saw me in that. And I give thanks to the late great producer Jeffrey Robbins for believing in me and giving me that job. And that's how I met the publicist John Carmen. He came to my dressing room and said, 'I want to sign you to management.' He had a management company with Cy and Eileen Berlin called Berlin-Carmen Management. They handled Grace Jones, First Choice, Double Exposure. He handled Stephanie Mills' publicity. Loleatta Holloway. They were also working with Melba Moore, Wardell Piper, Dan Hartman, Claudja Barry, Village People, The Richie Family, D.C. LaRue, the Bobby Orlando stable...so I was in good company.
"And when the show closed, I had offers from major record labels. And I signed with Blue Sky/CBS. But one thing that really upset me about Avantgarde is that every single male in that cast died, except me. I'm very fortunate to be HIV negative. And all the woman are still alive. But the men died so quickly. Including Jeffrey. We all became very close friends.
"One person in particular, Daryl Carpenter, become one of my very best friends, as well as a writing partners, co-producer, and back-up singer. He also sang back-up for Irene Cara, did the whole Flashdance tour. Did work with Moroder. And they all got sick and died so quickly. It's not like today with the drug cocktail. These people died really fast. But I remember back then, running into one of my very best friends Christopher, who co-wrote and co-starred in Avantgarde. I saw him on 72nd and Columbus and didn't even recognize him. One of my best friends in the whole world, and didn't recognize him. People died so fast back then.
"And when Avantgarde closed, I thought I was a failure. I didn't even go to the closing night cast party. I left in tears from the theater. I didn't even take my makeup off. One of the cast members, Lisa Navarre, we went up to Fulton's Cafe on 71st and Broadway and had a turkey club. And I thought the closing was my fault. For thirty years I thought that. I don't anymore."
Bobby O, Divine, and Flirting with Madonna
In spite of his theater background, Kohl 's handlers still pushed him toward pop stardom. Which soon led him to a promising young producer named Bobby Orlando.
"When I first met Bobby, his offices weren't on 57th Street. His office was in the Vanguard Records offices. I must have come in around the time he was working with Roni Griffith. I laid down some vocal tracks. I didn't even know what songs I was singing because I was singing them all in pieces. I was singing three lines here, four lines there, and I didn't even know what it was.
"And some time after that I went to Studio 54, and I was on the dance floor with my friends. And all of a sudden I heard this record and thought: This sounds familiar. Then all of a sudden I heard, 'She knows what you're looking for, she knows how to make a score, she knows all the things you adore.' And I said to my friends: That's me! That's me singing! That's me! And my friends said, 'Ernest, what is wrong with you? Are you drunk?'
"But now that I talk about it, some people say I'm an evil bitch. But I was really young back then. I trusted people. But I don't take shit anymore. And I'm going to get credit for my work. And I'll give Wendell Morrison credit. He sang those great high notes on the backing vocals on She Has A Way. And there was also a girl singing in the chorus. I can't remember her name. Was it Leslie something? But she was a really good studio singer. And Bobby used her a lot. And I don't mind sharing the spotlight. It's not an ego boost. It's simply setting the record straight. Like Martha Wash. When they were using her lead vocals on Black Box and C+C Music Factory. And not giving her credit. She actually helped get laws changed to give vocalists the credit they deserve. I wish that had been in place in the early '80s when I worked with Bobby."
It would take an entire decade before Kohl actually sang the song to a live audience. And even that happened without warning.
"It was the president of one of the labels I was on in England, Loading Bay Records. I was in the middle of a gig in Manchester. And all of a sudden he puts on the instrumental of She Has A Way. The 12 inch, okay? And I was like, Oh my god, I haven't sung this in years because by now, we're in the middle of the '90s, and I'm on a UK tour. And there I'm having to do the full version. And normally I would edit a song for a show. But the crowd went wild. They absolutely went wild. And that's the very first time I felt justice."
With that reaction, you'd think Kohl would be tempted to re-record a version under his own name. But not so.
"Because a drag queen covered it. And I don't want Bobby to make anymore money off me. And that's the truth. Because he wrote it. One thing I can say, he is a brilliant musician. I actually saw him pick up a cowbell, not run it through a computer, but pick up a real cowbell and a drumstick, and play it from the top of the 12 inch to the end of the 12 inch, and hit it every single beat exactly and perfectly. He's a brilliant musician, and he can play classical piano like nobody's business. He's a brilliant writer, he's a brilliant musician.
"Bobby also used my vocals on his studio group One-Two-Three. He put people who kind of looked like us on the record cover. And one of the models on that cover was actually Joanne, one of the owners of Unique Recording Studios in New York. I also sang on I'm So Hot For You, The Letter, and who knows what else.
"I was at the party on top of Danceteria, on the roof, standing next to Seymour Stein. He'd just signed Madonna to Sire Records. She may have released Everybody by this point. But that night she debuted Burning Up and Physical Attraction. And I turned to Stein and said, 'Burning Up is a hit. You need to remix that and put that out as a single.' And Stein said, 'You think so kid?' And I said, 'Yeah.'
"And awhile after that I ended up auditioning for Stein at his apartment. I think it was in The Dakota. You know, where John Lennon lived. And if my manager hadn't been there with me, I think the audition would have ended up in the bedroom."
On The Road w/ Dead or Alive
Kohl released his first solo tracks in 1985, the same year Dead or Alive dominated radio and clubs with You Spin Me Round (Like A Record.) And when you listen to Kohl's early songs, produced and arranged with Steve Skinner, you can hear the Stock Aiken Waterman zeitgeist. So it was a natural fit for Kohl to join DOA on US tour dates.
"Pete Burns had a thing for one of his male dancers. But got upset because his male dancer had a thing for one of my female dancers. So things got pretty lively at our hotels," says Kohl. "The night Pete trashed a hotel lobby, I stayed in my room and put a deep conditioning mask on my hair."
By 1986, Kohl was enjoying his own breakout hit, an energetic cover of Sooner Or Later. "That's the one that still gets the most radio play. It put me on the map."
Kohl still performs his hits from the 80s and 90s. But moving into 2013, Kohl still wants to create new classics. "For one of my most recent release, I went back to my stage roots. And picked a song from musical theater. Anyone Who's Ever Been In Love." The song recently spent nine weeks at #1 on the EuroDance Chart. And at last count, spawned at least three dozen remixes. And Kohl rang in the new year with a new mix of Happy New Year, which is still rising up the EuroDance Chart. "Radio really jumped on it. And it's great to have a song that will be played every holiday season. Maybe I'm creating a new kind of nostalgia now."
Kohl is aiming for another #1 in 2013. The long-awaited release of the title cut of his current album, Eternally. "I spent a year remixing it," says Kohl. "And it could be my final record. So many changes in my life right now. I'm so proud of my career. And love my fans. They've been so faithful. And I've been able to be a part of Dance Music since the tail end of the Disco Era in the late 70s. Through the exciting Hi-NRG music of the 80s. The retro wave of the 90s. And seeing so much come full circle in the 21st century. I'm glad I started so young in this business. To be able to meet so many influential people. To work with so many fine artists. I've lived several lives. And maybe--just maybe--I have a few more surprises in my future. That's half the fun. You never know what successes are waiting for you around each corner."
© 2013 Kelly Hughes
The Ernest Kohl Saturday Night Dance Party
In no particular order, a collection of Kohl favorites to get your party started...
My interviews w/