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Not long ago, "Boogie Woogie Country Girl" and stripper-cum-feminist Candye Kane considered selling her soul for a recording deal. She'd already been gathering fans for years in Southern California clubs, ranging from the mighty Palomino in Los Angeles to the Lion's Club in San Diego. Her tangy, powerful voice wrapped itself around her idol Patsy Cline's sultry ballads and other you-don't-hear-that-on-country-radio-no-more standards like Ray Price's "Heartaches by the Number" and Ernest Tubb's "Walking the Floor Over You." She packed houses regularly and promoted the bejabbers out of herself.
Then it happened: She was extended an invitation to make a demo tape for Sony/Epic Records, which she did. But her excitement waned when a trip to meet the producing powers in Nashville turned sour.
"They wanted me to deny my past and change my focus completely," Kane relates during a telephone conversation from her Encinitas, California, home. Her even tones betray no rancor. "I eventually told them where they could put their deal," she says.
Her stand has since brought fundamental changes to her stage shows and her personal world view--none of which requires her to cover up her colorful history.
Candye Kane grew up in East L.A., the daughter of "bohemian" parents who encouraged her early interest in music. She sang on The Original Amateur Hour and on The Gong Show, where her version of "I Am Woman" finished as runner-up to a band of juggling dogs. Converted to Mormonism by a neighbor, she sang in and helped direct her church's choir. But her first test with a truly demanding audience came at Franklin High School, where she was one of very few non-Hispanic students. It was her always-frank, no-words-barred style of speech--which remains--that gained her notoriety among the student body.
"I'd get beat up a lot, because I was a white chick with a bad mouth," she recalls. "But I escaped a lot of stuff, too, because I could sing. The cholos loved oldies, so I'd sing 'Earth Angel' and 'Angel Baby.' It soothed the savage beast."
Kane dropped out of school in her senior year, in 1979, when she became pregnant. She also was excommunicated by the Mormon church for her indiscretion.
"In the end, it was God or boyfriend," she recalls. "I chose boyfriend--what 17-year-old girl wouldn't?--and the church kicked me out. I could've told the bishop that everyone was having sex, but I just said, 'Okay, fine,' and left." Kane longed to be a singer like Cline or Kay Starr. She tried briefly to earn her meat and potatoes through punk rock. And motherhood was to defer her pursuit of country-music stardom for several years.
"I was desperate for money--a young mom and all," she says, "so I answered an ad for phone-sex workers. The ad said you had to be attractive--which I didn't quite understand, because who'd see you on the phone?--but what they'd do is take Polaroids to send to customers who called--you know, to put a face--and whatever--with the voice. It was good money. I got calls from Canada, England, all over." The professional exposure helped her harness her next job. Kane is up-front about what it was exactly that made her a star of cult status in some circles.
"I was born with my big boobs," she says, matter-of-factly. "They're size 44 double-H, so you don't have to ask." The popularity she gained from the Polaroids led her to "print work--i.e., nude modeling.
"I'd met some porn stars when I was working phone sex--including Candy Samples, who's in her 60s and still modeling--and they tried to talk me out of it, but I knew there was excellent money there."
Indeed, Candye Kane parlayed her natural assets into a minicareer that not only brought significant money into the young family's coffers, but also allowed her to see herself in a positive new light.
"It helped make me feel attractive," she explains. "I have a Dolly Partonlike body--at least before Dolly lost all that weight, and did she have a breast reduction, too? Anyway, I was self-conscious about it. But I was absolutely thrilled the first time I made the cover of JUGS magazine. I couldn't wait to take it home and show it to my mom. I don't understand why she didn't like it," Kane adds, slyly.
But Kane soon discovered that this version of "show" business proved as competitive as any other type.
"There was always a girl who was more shapely, was prettier, had bigger boobs," Kane notes. Though lucrative, the work was not always steady. It was the occasional need to supplement her income, she says, that caused her to perform in a brief series of videos--solo, R-rated types."
"That was the downside," she admits, but she immediately discounts any reason to feel shame. "I could make $2,500 a day," she says. "I needed the money." That expeditious experience ended forever, however, when she embarked on the final--and most successful--phase of her clothes-optional career.
"I wouldn't be singing today if it wasn't for becoming a stripper," she announces flatly. "It brought out those old performing juices in me, and I suddenly found myself traveling all over the world. Then I was doing this show at the Market Street Cinema in San Francisco with six-shooters and a cowboy hat, and I got this sudden urge to sing. I ran off the stage and got my guitar. I started singing some country song, and they were like, 'Aw, shut up and take it off.' But I was hooked on singing again."
Kane began performing in L.A. clubs, singing straight country classics and her own chicken-fried originals while wearing heavy-on-the-outrageous outfits that featured bangles, black lace and vintage clothes. Although her fame as a stripper opened the doors to gigs, her true talent allowed her to stay, as the crowds loved her saucy way with done-me-wrong songs. In fact, "Please Tell Me a Lie," one of her own tunes, made it aboard Enigma Records' A Town South of Bakersfield, Part II, a compilation tape featuring L.A.'s up-and-coming twangsters. Kane's pal Dwight Yoakam appeared on the first edition.
In 1986, Kane moved to San Diego to be with then-boyfriend, now-husband Tom Yearsley, currently the bassist for the well-known roots-rock trio the Paladins. She quickly cultivated a following there, and continued marketing herself. It was the following year that the Sony/Epic offer came.
The demo tape that Kane sent to Music City was produced by Val Garay, whose credits include albums by Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, and the Motels, and Kane's manager was Sherman Halsey. The tape ended up in the hands of legendary Nashville producer Billy Sherrill, who beckoned Kane to visit him behind the Pine Curtain.
"It was a disaster," Kane says with a sigh. "They thought 'Val Garay' must be some exotic dancer--they'd never heard of him in Nashville--and Val wanted total control, which didn't make him any new friends. Halsey wanted me to act like a born-again Christian--literally--and change my wicked ways. He's Dwight Yoakam's manager, so you'd think he'd know better. And Billy Sherrill took one look at my wild hair and black lace and shook his head. This was all pre-k.d. lang and Lyle Lovett, so they had no idea what to do with me. I knew that it wasn't going anywhere. There's Halsey preaching at me to dress differently, telling me don't talk about smoking pot or my past, wanting me to transform myself into something I wasn't, while Sherrill sits there drinking bourbon at 10 in the morning."
Kane returned to the West Coast with a new focus. No longer was her whole aim simply to land a recording contract, and there was no way she was going to conceal her past. Country music--which she'd once fondly called "white man's blues--was losing its luster, too. Her brief time on Music Row had compelled Kane to examine her own roots. The net result of her self-searching manifested itself a couple of years ago in, of all places, Nashville. Kane was invited to showcase her talents at the Bluebird Cafe, a room known to swell with Music City songwriters, producers, A&R reps and the like.
"By then I stopped giving a shit about what they thought about me in Nashville," Kane says. "I was with [L.A. musician-producer] Robert Savery and [musician-songwriter] Jack Tempchin--who wrote 'Peaceful, Easy Feeling'--and we called it our 'Shake Up the Bible Belt Tour.' After my last visit to Nashville, I realized that country music was repressing me, especially the modern schlock oozing out of there. So I sang dirty songs, real lewd and lascivious stuff. I told the audience that I'd give a blowjob to anyone who'd give me a record deal. They looked shocked--like I was really going to do it."
Kane sighs and laughs briefly.
"You know, in L.A. they've seen it all at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go, and they're fairly jaded in Austin, too. But they're real backwards in Nashville, Tennessee."
Kane's show continues to rely heavily on old songs and originals, but now they are filled with bluesy, sassy, sexual innuendoes. Her new tape, the independently released Burlesque Swing, quite aptly portrays Kane's recent musical stylings. Produced by Robert Savery and featuring Kane's six-piece band, the heavy-on-the-horns Swingin' Armadillos, the tape harbors classically naughty ditties like George "Wild Child" Butler's "Put It All in There" and Bullmoose Jackson's "Big 10 Inch Record--as well as Kane's own juicy "The Meat Song." Burlesque Swing--recorded live at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, California--also contains Jack Tempchin's rocking "Everybody Needs Love" and Kane's show closer and rockabilly trademark, "Boogie Woogie Country Girl." "I'm brassy and outspoken," Candye Kane understates. "Even though it's not life or death anymore, I would not turn up my nose at a record deal--although it would have to be on my terms. I'd also like to find a manager who isn't afraid of the controversial aspects of my life."
In fact, Kane's recent commitment to undiluted self-expression includes work with the National Organization for Women (NOW). Kane founded a Campus Friends of NOW chapter at Palomar College in San Marcos, California, where she is just a couple of classes short of finishing her requirements for a degree in Women's Studies. Her efforts for NOW earned her that organization's esteemed Susan B. Anthony Citizenship Award.
She is also active in COYOTE (Call Off Your Old, Tired Ethics), an association of ex- and current madams and working girls seeking unfettered freedom to pursue the world's oldest profession. Kane has reservations about COYOTE--she advocates regulation and free, regular medical testing while COYOTE's hard-core group howls for total deregulation--but supports the organization nonetheless. Neither does she find any contradiction in embracing feminist principles while singing decidedly nonfeminist anthems.
"I don't have to agree with everybody, and they sure don't have to agree with me," Kane maintains. "You know, feminism typically has not been a place where strippers find solace and communion. A friend of mine who is a woman of color feels that way, too. But it's high time we made it our place to go."
Kane talks about how good it feels to be able to be her saucy self, while simply letting the recording-deal chips fall where they may. She does worry, however, about how potential audience members might perceive her show. She is concerned that she'll be prejudged.
"If folks come because they're curious about my stripper history and all, that's fine. But if people don't come see me because of my past, I'd have a hard time swallowing it, so to speak." She bristles at any suggestion that her sons (12-year-old Evan and 3-year-old Tommy) will be damaged by her previous employments.
"I'm a good mom and a good citizen," declares Candye Kane. "And I'm not whitewashing my past anymore. Now I'm just content to spread my juicy style of love and happiness wherever I go.
"Who could object to that?