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TVocalizers — Joey Arias

| Oct 10, 2011
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Last week, TGForum had a brief note concerning the return of Joey Arias, this month’s featured interview, to New York.  Joey had been performing in a long running show in Las Vegas, Nevada, produced by Cirque de Soleil.  Called Zumanity, the show ran for over six years at the New York Casino and Hotel.  His character was The Mistress of Seduction.

If that was Joey’s only credit, it would be a very notable one, and worthy of mention in any publication.  To work in a Vegas venue for an extended period of time is a feat in itself. However, that is definitely not the case here.  Joey Arias is an incredibly talented and diverse performer, who along with drag entertainment, performance art, and cabaret, also has had roles in theater, movies, and has sang with more than one band.

Originally from Fayetteville, North Carolina, Joey moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was young.  He sang with the band Purlie who released one album on Capital Records, and was a member of the improv troupe The Groundlings.   In 1976, Joey drove cross country to New York City.  One of his first jobs was working at the exclusive Fiorucci designer clothing store, where he and other store employees sometimes modeled in the store’s windows.  On December 4th, 1979, he appeared on Saturday Night Live as a back-up singer for David Bowie.  Once again, Joey was also part of a band. This time with Strange Party.

In the 1980s, Joey’s focus was cabaret and the performance arts scene in New York. It was during this time that his talent for practically channeling the vocal style and mannerisms of the late Billie Holiday emerged.

The Cirque du Soleil gig started in 2003. By 2010, Joey started working with master puppeteer Basil Twist, in a production entitled Arias With A Twist.   This show has toured and has also been filmed as a sort of docu-fantasy.  2010 also saw Joey present concerts in New York City.

Along with all of this, Joey has had a recurring role as Joan Crawford in productions of Christmas With The Crawfords in both New York City and San Francisco, and has amassed a decent film and TV credit resume’, which included: Big Top Pee Wee; Mondo New York; Elvira, Mistress of the Dark; Flawless; To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar; and Wigstock: The Movie.

Frankly, I’m a bit surprised Joey Arias hasn’t been featured in TGF before. Well, no matter — we’re proud to be able to present this interview with an entertainment legend.

TGForum: I know you moved around a lot as a kid.   Did that enable you to have any musical influences while you were young?

Joey Arias: At 6 years old, we moved to L.A.  I knew that I hated it and wanted to leave all the time. So music and horror films were my way out.  I loved singing. My mother played music all the time and sang all day, so it was natural, I think.  No real formal lessons, though I did take some breathing exercises.

My first real influence, though,  was my mother singing at home.  (Mother was also an actress, she starred in The Creature From The Black Lagoon.)  I would listen to all the records she played, and I particularly loved Billie Holiday , The Beatles, and Bowie.

TGF: If you don’t mind, talk a bit about the bands you’ve been in . . . Purlie and Strange Party.  How influential were these types of gigs in helping you become the performer you are?

JA: Purlie was the neighborhood band that came together with us just fooling around.  We would play at battle of the bands type things . . . and we stood out. A friend heard us and turned us onto Capital Records and we got signed. This was 1970, and it was kind of a teenybopper thing, although that’s not the kind of band Purlie was. But that’s how they marketed us. We had a single called Burgerette and we played it a lot. We started to record a second single, but the label dropped us because they thought we were too weird.

Years later, when I was working with Klaus Nomi in New York City, we both started working with what would become the band Strange Party. That band did one single called  Sleep Walking Through Life. The band was going to get signed, but there were just too many people involved. I guess the party aspect of being in bands influenced me, but it’s all added up to what I’m doing now.

TGF: You were also a member of The Groundlings, way back at the start of your career. How influential was that?

JA: The Groundlings came right after I left Purlie. My friend Gary Austin TOLD me to come and see a show, that it was something new, and that he thought I would like it. Well, I did. I ended up being with them for four or five years.  I’m one of the originals, before Phil Hartman and Paul Rubens.  I was the most outrageous one in that group. I think they were afraid of me . . .

TGF: Your use of Billie Holiday material is unique. Most younger performers don’t even know who she is. Has she been a main influence for you?

JA: It’s not wrong to say that Billie is where I still get my influence. I have always loved her easy way and approach to a song. I hate the screaming, even though that could be fun, but your voice only lasts for so long. I think her twist on songs and her feeling is pretty much also the way I look at them. I love to take a song and make it my own. And I like how she never really sang it the same. I’m not good at POP recordings, when you have to dub over the same style.

TGF: Okay, same kind of question, but in regard to your use of Joan Crawford as a character in your act.

JA: The play that I’ve done, Christmas With The Crawfords, the rights to that belong to the writer and producer of the show. If they want to bring that back, I’d enjoy it. But at this time in my career, I don’t know when that would happen. Actually, though, there is talk of us doing it again, although it’s a firm MAYBE.

TGF: Your work in Arias With A Twist sounds intriguing. Are there difficulties in working with puppets on stage that are unique to that kind of show?

JA: Working with puppets is almost like working with people . . . they come alive.  It’s like being a child. It’s make believe . . . I love it. It’s very easy for me. I love working with Basil Twist and the puppets and other puppeteers. I always had fun with it.

TGF: What is the status of the film on the life of your friend and collaborator, Klaus Nomi? What is your specific role in the project and what do you want to see accomplished by its release?

JA: We started the project about a year and half ago. Then the producer and the director got involved with another film, so we were on the back burner.  There was someone else who wanted to work on the project, but she had no idea what she was doing. Personally, I think it would be great for people to see a unique friendship and how real hard work can make dreams come true.

Arias (L) with Nomi (Center) and David Bowie on SNL.

TGF: Speaking of film work, you do have extensive film credits. Any plans for more work in this area?

JA: I love working on films, but it’s not what I go after. I had this agent who would only book me for parts as a hooker, drug dealer, or silly drag queen. I thought if I can’t be a nemesis to James Bond then I’m not interested. It seems to me all the films are starting to look like each other anyway. I’m not all that interested.

BUT . . . I am working with Manfred Theirry Mugler on a film called Z Chromosome. We shot it all last year and that was really tough. Very detailed and very strong. Many actors would have dropped out by now. He’s a great but tough director. He knows what he wants and he gets it. He used to be a designer, but not any more. That was years ago.

For more information on Joey Arias, go to  Joey is also on Facebook, and there are several excellent YouTube videos of performances spanning his career.


Storm Miguel Florez will be performing on Friday, Oct. 28th as part of the Acoustic Apocalypse-Transsexaul Zombies With Acoustic Guitars, 7-10 p.m. at Dolores Park Café, 501, Dolores Street, San Francisco, CA 415-621-2936.   Storm will also be part of the SF Transgender Film Festival, Thursday, November 3rd, the Tenth Anniversary Performance Extravaganza, 8 p.m., at Counter Pulse, 1310 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 415-626-2060.

Calpernia Addams has a new YouTube video, but this one is really different. The new video is a tutorial on how to convert a 15 chord autoharp into a 21 chord autoharp. Cal has several videos where she accompanies herself on autoharp, so I guess this is a natural progression.



This is Gloria Estefan’s 26th album, and her first English-language recording since 2003.  Co-produced by Estefan and Pharrell Williams, the first nine songs are a sort of story revolving around a young girl who comes to the big city looking for freedom and romance, only to be continually let down.  There is a four song addenda to the front part of album, produced by Gloria’s husband of 33 years, Emilio Estefan, which sort of continues the story line by having the young girl hitting the dance clubs. This part of the album definitely provides an appropriate sound track for that part of the story.

The album opens with I can’t Believe, which is actually kind of sparse . . . until the horn section comes in.  Estefan is known for the use of live horns, which is much in keeping with traditional Latin music roots. It’s a nice feel, that’s for sure.

Heat follows, with great Latin percussion and an infectious dance groove.

The tunes that’s getting all the attention is Wepa.  It’s hit #1 on the Billboard dance charts; has a video available on Vimeo, and has been remixed and released as The Wepa Club EP, in various versions. The album version of the tune is a cross between techno-dance material and Latin melodies, with excellent vocals.

Stand out tracks include So Good, once again a great Latin feel, containing some of the better vocal moments on the album; Time Is Ticking, laid back, with Estefan singing in a lower register.  She describes the song as being a very personal look at her life through the lyric content.  It can’t really be called a ballad, but it’s the most laid back thing on the project.  On On, Estefan’s teenage daughter Emily Marie contributes the guitar solo, making this tune the most rock moment; and Make My Heart Go, rounds out the project as one of the overall better dance music moments.

Miss Little Havana finds Gloria Estefan doing what many artists attempt but fail to achieve — pay homage their roots and artistic beginnings while looking ahead to the future by touching what’s current.  She manages to incorporate the old with the new quite well, without having to compromise to do so. Quite an achievement, but then what else could you expect from someone with a 30+ years career?


I received an advance copy of Lauper’s DVD/CD package of her recent To Memphis With Love gig.  I love Christmas in October. The DVD live footage was shot at The Warehouse in Memphis. Lauper’s backing band is a who’s-who’s of blues talent: Scott Bomar, Allen Toussaint, Charlie Musselwhite, Lester Snell, Leroy Hodges, Charles “Skip” Pitts, Howard Grimes, Marc Franklin, Kirk Smothers, Derrick Williams, Steve Potts, Archie Turner, Michael Toles, Steve Gaboury, William Wittman, Jonny Lang, Tracy Nelson.

Okay, so we usually review dance related material that works well in the clubs.  To Memphis With Love is pure blues, but so effing what? Sue me. Lauper is a supporter of the trans community and this is probably some of her best work. Her voice has an intensity on blues that was never apparent in her pop material. To hear real musicians actually play their instruments, backing a vocalists who obviously is having the time of her life — this beats ANYTHING that’s being put out in so-called popular music. Hell, Lauper’s rendition of Crossroads, which is closer to the original Robert Johnson classic than the Cream/Eric Clapton version everyone knows, alone is  worth the price of the 2 disk set.

Lauper not only nails the intense blues material, but delivers the same emotional effect on more laid back material such as Lead Me On, and Who Let In The Rain.  And of course, her signature Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, only this time sounding like an up-tempo blues stomp, with great blues harp, guitar and a killer horn section, is included.  It translates well from it’s 1980s original.

If for no other reason than the fact that Cyndi Lauper supports us, ADD THIS PROJECT TO YOUR COLLECTION.   You won’t regret it.

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Pam Degroff

About the Author ()

Pamela DeGroff been writing for TGForum since the start of 1999. Her humor column, The Pamela Principle, ran until 2005. She started the Perpetual Change music column in May of 1999, and in 2008, Angela Gardner came up with the idea for the Transvocalizers column and put Pam to work on that. Pamela was a regular contributor to Transgender Community News until that magazine's demise. While part of a support group in Nashville called The Tennessee Vals she began writing for their newsletter, and also wrote for several local GLBT alternative newspapers in Tennessee. Pamela is currently a staff reporter for a small town daily paper in Indiana, and is also a working musician.

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