Philly, get ready to party! On Saturday, March 5th, the Human Rights Campaign will be hosting a fundraising dinner at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel. Special guests include Philly’s own Amber Hikes, artist and activist Shea Diamond, Tony nominated actor Robin De Jesús and this week’s portrait, the Queen of Dance Music, the inimitable Crystal Waters.
A powerhouse singer and songwriter, Waters was named by Billboard Magazine as “one of the most successful dance music artists in the history of the Billboard Dance Music Chart.” Her anthem “100% Pure Love” was on the charts for 45 weeks. In her 30 year career, she has charted 20 songs on the Billboard Dance Club Chart, with twelve songs reaching number one. Waters has won two American Music Awards, six ASCAP Songwriters Awards, an MTV Video Music Award, and four Billboard Music Awards.
Though known for her danceable beats – I’ve been singing “Makin’ Happy” in my head for about 18 hours straight – Waters always emphasized lyrics that were positive and/or contained a message. Utilizing her skills as a poet, she has tackled serious issues from feminism to homelessness to child abuse. A long time ally of the community, Waters has never been afraid to vocalize her support. She took some time to speak to me about her journey.
So take me back to the beginning, I understand that you’re a Jersey girl.
I am, exit 3! I grew up in Deptford, NJ and a lot of my family lived in Camden and Philly. My father, Junior Waters, was a jazz musician who worked in Philly a lot. When I grew up, there wasn’t much in Deptford and most people worked in either Philly or Atlantic City. My mom was a Deputy Township Sheriff and did something with the government, I want to say the defense department. My father did a lot of traveling and most summers, I would go with him, so I’ve been on the road since I was about 7.
What did he play?
He could play anything, but he mostly played piano. He had a hit in the ‘60’s and was even on American Bandstand. As most people know, my Aunt was actress and singer Ethel Waters, and my Uncle Zach played bass for MFSB/Sound of Philadelphia. So I’m deeply rooted in Philadelphia music.
I was reading about Ethel, she was the second Black person to be nominated for an Academy Award, the first Black person to star on their own television show and the first Black woman to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award. Amazing! But back to you, how would your parents describe you as a kid?
Shy, introverted. I stayed in my bedroom a lot with headphones on and my little plastic record player. [Laughing] I used to listen to WDAS all the time and I’d record the songs they played on my cassette recorder. I guess you’d say I made my own mixtapes.
I read that you started writing poetry at 11. What kinds of things were you writing about at that age?
I was mostly imitating my sister. It’s not like I was a genius or anything, I think I wrote mostly about love. I remember I had the line, “Oceans blue, no-one’s as beautiful as you.”
Well, for a non genius you must have had something, you were the youngest person ever to be inducted into the Poetry Society of America.
Yes, my mom found my poems and submitted them and my poem was published in a book that they put out every year. It was very exciting.
So you have a sister, just the two of you?
No, I have a brother too, he’s passed, but he was also a musician. He could play any instrument he picked up.
Where were you in the lineup?
I’m the youngest; I was Daddy’s little girl.
And you went to Howard University, where several of my cousins went.
Yes, they’re actually giving me an award this weekend. It’s the 2022 Alumni Award for Distinguished Postgraduate Achievement. In school I originally wanted to be a physical therapist but our first week they had us go into the hospital and I realized it was not for me. It was kind of depressing and I didn’t like the smell! So I switched to computer science which suited me. Because I was so shy, I liked the fact that I could work alone doing coding.
Did your computer knowledge help you produce music?
Nope! [Laughing] You would think it would. I could build a computer, put together a motherboard, and write the language, but that didn’t translate. And I’m like the worst engineer, so… no.
How did you transition into music?
I was working for the parole board in DC and realized that I was never going to make the money I wanted there. I told my mom about it and she said that I should see a psychic. My mom was into all of that. It just so happened that there was a psychic fair in town that weekend, so my friend and I went. I don’t know what happened but I was fine that morning and somehow by the time I found the psychic, I had lost my voice, like laryngitis or whatever. She told me, “You should be doing something with your voice,” and then two weeks later a friend asked me to go to an audition for a background singer. Now, I’d never sung in front of anybody, ever, but I did it, and I got the job. I made $600! And it was like a lightbulb went on in my head and I realized that this was where I wanted to be. I started hanging around the studio and from my poetry, the one thing I knew how to do was write. So I put an ad in the local paper for a writing partner and I met someone and we started writing, my dad put up money for studio time and I guess the rest is history.
Where were you the first time you heard your song on the radio?
I was on my way to work at the parole board. I couldn’t afford to park downtown, so I parked a ways away and was walking back with my headphones on, listening to the radio on my Walkman and I heard someone say my name. I turned around to see who called me and then I realized that it was coming from the radio, Donny Simpson announcing, “This is Crystal Waters.” I was in the middle of the street and I couldn’t believe it! I went to work and it was just amazing. But I thought the song was just going to maybe be a hit in DC or Baltimore, I had no idea how big it was going to get.
Which song was it?
It was “Gypsy Woman.” I’d actually written the song 2 years before, but it took a while to get out, I didn’t even know they were releasing it, but when they did, it was crazy, the song just blew up. They rushed me up to the studio to take pictures and shoot a video, they even gave me etiquette lessons on how to do interviews and talk to people.
My first performance ever was on the “Top of the Pops” in the UK. I’d never been out of the country so they had to quickly get me a passport. It was the biggest show in the UK and I had never performed in front of anybody before. Then they flew me back on a SuperSonic jet to perform at the Palladium in NY. It was my first show and I had a full sized orchestra. The great artist, Dave LaChapelle designed the show, with these giant lips on the stage. I really hadn’t even heard the rest of the album because they rushed to put it together after the single came out. I had one day to learn the choreography for the show. It was chaos! But I was treated nicely, big hotels, etc. It was a nice change, though I kept my job at the parole board for two years after the song came out just in case!
What got you involved with the LGBTQ community?
I was still a very shy person when all this happened, and the people around me most were the dancers. So I was hanging with people with big personalities, like my friend, Kevin, who made me an honorary member of the House of Milan. They taught me how to emote and vogue, and one of the drag queens taught me how to do my makeup. They really took me in and I felt like one of the family. It was a place where nobody was judging me so it was a great experience.
You were one of the first celebrities to participate in Pride parades at a time when it wasn’t considered chic to do.
Oh yeah, people used to throw stuff at us going down Park avenue. You had people with signs saying “God is going to strike you down” and everything, but this was my family now. These were good people who were being judged just for who they were, and I was very protective of the gay community.
Did you get any pushback from the Black community? Especially back then where there could be a lot of homophobia.
Yup, a lot of family and friends didn’t understand it. I even had a friend accuse me of turning her son gay because he starting hanging around with me, stuff that didn’t make any sense. He was already gay! [Laughing] I knew it when he showed up with lime green shoes on.
I was at the 1994 Gay Games closing ceremony at Yankee Stadium when you rocked the place. You made quite an entrance with the Dykes on Bikes.
That was a very hard day. It was also the day of my father’s funeral. We had the funeral in the morning and then I drove to the stadium to perform. In a way it saved me because it kept my mind off of it. I remember getting there and being like, “Wait, we’re at Yankee stadium?” They told me I was performing for the Gay Games, but I didn’t realize how big an event it was. So I got backstage and Patti LaBelle, Cyndi Lauper and all these famous people were there and I was like, “Me, little old me, is here with all these people?” And then they said, “Okay, you’re going to be with Dykes on Bikes,” and they sat me on the back of a motorcycle and I was like, “Oh, Okay!” and we took off. I got on stage, and I don’t know if you could tell but I was dumbfounded by how many people were there. But it’s a good memory.
What I remember is that before you came out they started flashing “100 Percent Pure Love”, one word at a time on the Jumbotron and people (including me) started shouting along and cheering in anticipation. Then we heard the engines revving and you came out with the bikes and everyone really started going crazy, and then when they played the opening chords of the song, the crowd just lost their minds!
Awww, I never knew that! I don’t get to see it the way the audience sees it. That’s so nice to hear.
It’s one of my favorite memories. So let’s talk about what you’re doing now.
Wooo, a lot! I have a Podcast called, “I Am House” radio. I have 7 million listeners so that’s been going really well. And I have a Sirius XM show on Saturday and Sunday nights at 8pm channel 141, which is still I Am House, and I have a record label of the same name. [Laughing] That way I can make my own stuff and play it on my own radio station.
I also have “Boyface” which is a skincare line for men. At some point I’ll launch “Girlface” for women, but right now it’s all on hold because there’s too much going on. Especially with the pandemic, I sold out of product and it’s been hard to get the components I need to produce more. I have new music out; I just had a release on Atlantic Records in the UK called, “Never Enough;” on the Milk & Sugar label, I have “Gave you the World;” and I have another song with DJ Spen, “Party People,” that’s doing really well, and I have several others coming out this year.
I watched the “Unsung” episode about you, and it was clear that your kids really love their mom. One of them said that you were her favorite person in the world, and the other said that you were the most giving and generous person she knew. Do they work with you?
Awww. Well, my one daughter sings, but she’s more neo-soul; [laughing] I keep trying to get her to do house with me but she won’t do it! My other daughter is a graphic artist and she did the graphic work for the I Am House label and Boyface.
How did you get involved with the Red, Hot & Rio compilation?
I did “Red, Hot & Dance” first. It was done to raise money and awareness about HIV/AIDS. I had a lot of friends who died or were getting sick and I wanted to help get information out. Then they asked me to do “Red, Hot & Rio” and I alway wanted to do “The Boy From Ipanema,” so I was in.
It was a great version, but of course, all us lesbians were hoping you’d sing “The Girl from…”.
[Laughing] I didn’t even think about it, I just sang it the way I usually did in my head!
I’m just teasing you, I’m sure you get enough “Is she or isn’t she?” questioning already.
My manager used to say, “She’s gay on Thursday, Friday & Saturday, she’s whatever you want her to be”. A lot of people thought I was a drag queen; I had one guy even try to feel between my legs to see if he felt something! And I had one person who didn’t believe who I was, they said, “You’re not Crystal Waters, she’s a drag queen.” [Laughing] I got a lot of that.
Oh my! Okay, some random questions, what’s the craziest job or something that happened when you worked as a parole officer?
I was in charge of issuing warrants. When the inmates found out that I was Crystal Waters they would call the office to talk to me. It was a little scary at times, especially when they were trying to get me to rescind a warrant. I also worked as a maid in a hotel when I was young, so whenever I go to a hotel, I always leave the room clean and I tip well, because I remember those days and what it meant to us.
My daughters one threw me a surprise party; it was actually 3 parties in one day. They tried to plan it for 3 years but I was always too busy. I usually like to work on my birthday. To celebrate it while I’m on stage is a lot of fun, you know?
What’s a talent you wish you had?
I wish I could play the piano. I keep saying that I’m going to take lessons, maybe this year.
Dumbest thing you’ve ever read about yourself?
I was in Italy and saw a poster with my name, no picture, but my name saying that I was performing at a place that I was not performing at.
Would you go on a reality show, if so, which one?
The only one would be “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” but I’m too shy. Too introverted to be with so many people for a long time.
[Laughing] Then people will really think you’re a drag queen.
Hey, whatever works. I don’t mind.
I say this to my kids all the time, “This too shall pass. Nothing lasts forever and everything changes. It’s the only thing you can be certain of.”
I’m excited to see you at the HRC dinner, where else can people find you?
Best place to catch me is on instagram: @CrystalWaters.
For more info on the HRC dinner, go to: www.philadelphia.hrc.org/.