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A Belter Rides A Ballad To Stardom

February 16, 1986|DENNIS HUNT

Marilyn Martin really isn't too crazy about "Separate Lives," her duet single with Phil Collins from the "White Nights" sound track.

Sure, it went to No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart and was just nominated for a best-song Oscar. And certainly she's grateful that this single transformed her from an unknown backup singer into one of the hottest newcomers in the business. Not many rookies get a No. 1 single on the first time at bat.

So what's she complaining about?

"I'm not ungrateful. I love what it's done for me," she said. "I have nothing against the song. The only problem is that it's a ballad. I don't want to be classified as a singer who sings these quiet ballads. I know I look like a ballad singer but. . . ."

Interviewed at lunch in West Hollywood just before beginning a promotional tour, she did look like someone who'd be at home singing quiet love songs. Martin, 31, is a small, frail blonde with an angelic look and a very low-key manner. You'd certainly never think she could belt out rock 'n' roll songs. Yet that's what she does best.

On her new single, "Night Moves"--in fact on her whole album, also called "Night Moves"--she sings the way she likes to sing. Martin is a bona-fide rock singer, complete with the grit and growl, treading in Grace Slick-Stevie Nicks territory, where she feels right at home. Rising fast on the Billboard chart, the single just entered the Top 40 at No. 38.

Still, because of "Separate Lives," most fans know her as the ballad singer. "Separate Lives" is one of those dreamily romantic (some would call it mushy), easy-listening love songs. Martin's vocals on the single are smooth and soft, almost nondescript. "People think it's Crystal Gayle singing," Martin said, laughing.

Considering the strong possibility that the single would be a hit and she'd be saddled with that dreaded "ballad singer" tag, why did Martin consent to sing "Separate Lives"?

"I didn't want to be a backup singer forever. How do you turn down an opportunity to sing with Phil Collins? All he has is No. 1 singles."

"Also, I wouldn't sing a song I didn't like. 'Separate Lives' is great for what it is. It's just that I prefer singing another kind of song."

On her new album she's mostly singing that other kind of song, challenging the expectations of fans who know her as a ballad singer.

"I can't sing something just because fans expect it. It's so important to me to sing what I want to sing. If I was a singer who sang mostly ballads, I'd feel dissatisfied and ultimately empty. It's like being forced to live in L.A. when you're dying to live in New York."

None of this means that Martin will never sing another ballad. In fact, there are two on her album. Also, she has a duet ballad with John Parr, "Through the Night," on the new "Quicksilver" sound-track album.

Parr, a sound-track veteran who had a No. 1 single with the theme from "St. Elmo's Fire," also produced several cuts on Martin's new album. He's one of seven producers who worked on various tracks. Among the others are Arif Mardin and Phil Ramone.

"It's nice working with all those people, but it's not easy," she said. "You get used to one person's style and then you have to work with someone else. It's much easier to work with one producer."

Martin, who grew up in Louisville and still has traces of a Southern accent, doesn't look back fondly on her early career. She spent most of her 20s working bars with various bands in the Midwest and the South.

"It's great singing experience," she said. "You learn the basics, like how to deal with audiences. But it's also an ugly situation. Night after night you see people at their worst, drunk and crazy. You get used to it to some degree but it's always sort of a slap in the face when people are loud and rude."

Her big break came in 1983, when her talents were discovered, through a mutual friend, by former Eagle Joe Walsh. She sang backup vocals in concert for him and later for Stevie Nicks. Working with such prominent rock stars was fun for her but not really satisfying.

"I was singing in spurts," said Martin, who has also done backup vocals for Kenny Loggins and Tom Petty. "I was used to singing six nights a week, five hours a night. I knew I sang well enough to be more than a backup singer."

Atlantic Records President Doug Morris thought so, too. During a Nicks studio session, he noticed Martin's potential and eventually offered her a contract. She had just started working on her solo album when "Separate Lives" came along. "Doug thought my voice would blend well with Phil's," she said. "Phil had the final say on who would sing with him. They sent him a tape of my work and he said OK."

Though Martin and Collins were in the studio at the same time, they weren't singing together. "People always ask about that," she said. "They like to think we were at the same mike singing to each other. It's not like we're old friends. Before we started working together, I had met him for a few minutes backstage after one of his shows."

Was Martin the only singer considered for the duet?

"As far as I know I was," she replied. "I would have been a nervous wreck if I thought I was competing with someone else. Just thinking about the possibility gives me shivers."

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