Saturday, September 18, 2010

Exclusive: Interview With Jackie Starr Of Bim Skala Bim

In my humble opinion Bim Skala Bim remains the best American ska band ever (their recent invitation to perform at the London International Ska Festival in April 2011 is further proof of their enduring legacy and popularity in Europe as well). They toured the U.S. relentlessly throughout the 80's and 90's and in the process became one of the most popular ska bands of the era. I've always loved their unique mix of 2-Tone ska, Calypso, Rock and Pop with thoughtful and catchy lyrics and top-notch musicianship. Their sound is unmistakable and early songs like 'The Key', 'Jah Laundromat' and 'Solitary Confinement' from their first self titled album (which I wore out from playing over and over again on my turntable) as well as most of the 'Tuba City' record still get me bouncing. My band Bigger Thomas played a number of shows with them during our early days at City Gardens in Trenton, NJ.

The first time I ever saw Bim Skala Bim was at CBGB's during a 'New York vs. Boston' Sunday ska matinee in the fall of 1987 that was booked to bring band's from New England down to play for New York ska audiences. The band were in their classic line-up (which remained intact for most of the late 80's and through the 90's) and I was particularly struck by the interplay between the band's two lead singers -- Dan Vitale and Jackie Starr. Their shared co-vocals and energy powered the band's songs about social alienation and relationships gone awry and with trombonist Vinnie Nobile's manic stage presence and memorable melodies on top of the vocals the band had unmistakable chemistry.

Starr in particular was the band's secret weapon and her contribution to the stunning 'Tuba City' album (which included the sax playing of Skatalite Roland Alphonso) and the band's live show set them apart from most other American ska bands of the 80's. As the only woman on stage, the band's best songs (like 'Bangin'', 'Shoes', 'Let Me In' and 'Fathead') pivoted around her lead vocals and co-vocals with Vitale. Though she was in the band from 1985 to 1990, its her voice that still helps define the sound of the band to older hard core fans. Its testament to her key role in the band, that they chose not to replace her when she left to join The Donkey Show in California and later to form the punk/folk band Contra Guerra.

I recently connected with Starr who shared her memories of playing with Bim Skala Bim and what it was like to play a few reunion gigs with the band this past summer.

Where did you grow up?
Marblehead, Massachusetts.

When did you first get into music?
My Grandfather was a singer. He used to sing old jazz songs. My Mother also sang. She traveled with a cover band doing contemporary music, and some show tunes. I used to sit in on her practices and harmonize with her. I just had a natural rhythm and ear for music.

Do you remember the first record you ever bought?
Ha Ha.. A lot of tunes I would tape off the radio with my old flat 70’s tape recorder. Wow, that ages me! The first record I actually bought was probably a 45” of “Swing town” by the Steve Miller band.

Were you in any other bands before joining Bim Skala Bim?
The first band I was in was named ‘Apocalypse’. The other musicians were all in college. I met them through a friend in high school. We did cover tunes, with a few originals mixed in. I was really into Blondie then, so I did some of their songs. The drummer was a really good song writer. He was a huge fan of Ian Hunter and David Bowie. I had never heard most of the songs we covered before then. I had heard most of The Who’s hits, but we did some songs no one would think to cover.

How did you end up joining Bim in late 1985?
I saw their wanted ad in the Boston Phoenix. I called and sent them a demo tape of myself singing ‘My Boy Lollipop’ by Millie Small. It was a terrible recording because it was a project for a friend of mine at Berklee. What’s funny is, I hadn’t ever heard of them before. They were playing a show at Jack’s in Cambridge, with ‘Skin’: a funk band. I knew Jay, and asked him to put in a good word for me. [He had never actually heard me sing] Ha Ha.

Were you a fan of ska and reggae before you joined the band?
I was mostly a fan of rock and I was just getting into some punk rock at the time. I guess I liked all kinds of stuff. The first I had heard of ska was probably the Clash, and the Specials.

Tell me about the way you and Dan Vitale worked together as co-lead vocalists. I always loved the vocal interplay between the two of you.
Well, thank you Marc! The harmony was originally sung by John Ferry. He had the best ear for harmony. I just copied his. Later on I managed to find my own I guess. Dan has a sweet voice. I remember a friend of mine saying that he didn’t know why they needed another singer in the band. Sometimes the songwriter would tell me what to sing, and other times I would experiment and work off of Dan.

As one of the very few American Ska bands with a female lead singer, Bim really stood out. Tell me what it was like as the only woman in a scene full of men.
Ha Ha. I was not the only woman in a ska band. I am sure there were many more out there. ‘No Doubt’, for one. The hard part was touring with 7 guys. There wasn’t a lot of privacy. We were a DIY band, so we didn’t get to stay in hotels much. We camped out and slept in cars and stuff. I actually really miss that. We got to be real close. I am getting misty now. Ahem…..

What was the Boston ska scene of the mid-80's like? I always got the impression that it was a very tight knit scene.
I guess some were. We were friends with a lot of other bands that didn’t play just ska though. In fact, most of our friends and fans are/were Deadheads and Punks!

Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows that were particularly memorable?
Ha Ha. Oh my! So many! We got the plug pulled on us at a college gig. I think it was in Cambridge. We kept playing anyways.

Tell me about recording 'Tuba City' which many fans consider to be one of the best albums the band recorded and released.
Really? I liked ‘Eyes and Ears’ best. We did a bunch of recording at Studio One in Brooklyn. That was really fantastic. Meeting such great musicians as Roland Alphonso from the Skatalites was such a gift!

What are your lasting memories of performing with Bim and the American ska scene of the 80's?
Mostly I miss my buds. Some of who are no longer with us. The shows were fun, and I loved looking out into our fan’s faces and being silly with them. I mostly loved to make people smile and laugh.

Why did you leave the band in 1989?
I guess I was crazy. I was a raving alcoholic, and needed to slow down. Yes..really.
I was really into the ‘Descendants’, and ‘SamIam’ at the time and really always loved punk rock so I moved to California where most of my favorite bands were.

What have you been doing musically since before rejoining the reunited Bim?
Recently- nothing. When I lived in California I played guitar and sang with many bands. I had my own band, ‘Contra Guerra’ (picture above) and I sat in with an Irish Punk band ‘The Downs Family’. They were a lot like Bim. Not that they played ska, but there were many people in the band playing different instruments and they were great friends of mine. (You can hear some of Starr's work with Contra Guerra and her sole recordings on her ReverbNation page.)

The band played a series of show this past August. Was that a one off or is the band officially back together?
I think you would have to ask Dan that question. Most of the guys are living in different states or countries. For me I know my family would suffer if I were to join up full time again. Once in a while I can sit in with them if they play all ages shows so my little girls can go. They had a great time last year! They are still raving about how cool Vincent Nobile on the trombone was!


Steve from Moon said...

Thanks for doing this interview, Marc! Jackie's vocals really helped Bim stand out from the crowd--I really missed her singing when she left the band.

dublinsax said...

Great to hear they're doing some shows again. I particularly loved their slower reggae stuff...tracks like Edge Of A Knife, Golden Arm, Line to You etc.

Krad said...

Great idea for an interview! Nice to see Jackie reminisce, and SO good to see and hear her playing with the boys when she can - She adds a whole element that has been greatly missed!