"Oh my God, she's white!," Valerie Day shrieked, mimicking a receptionist's reaction to her. The lead singer of the group Nu Shooz, Day was recalling what had happened when she walked into a black radio station not too long ago. The receptionist was stunned because she expected a black woman.
Nu Shooz has a hit dance single, "I Can't Wait," that sounds black. It's No. 9 on the Billboard magazine pop chart and, remarkably, in the Top 5 on the Billboard soul chart. "The receptionist had no idea I was white," Day said, chuckling. "I said, 'I've been this way since I was born.' She was surprised and I love surprising people. I was having fun with her."
Sometimes the racial confusion hasn't been so much fun. She remembered a time when the band, which features her husband, guitarist/composer John Smith, played a black club in Newark, N.J.
"They had heard the record and they thought we were going to be black," she said. "You could tell. There was that 'Oh-my-God-she's-white' reaction again. When we came out on stage, there was hostility. I said to myself, 'Oh, oh, this is not looking good.' I play congas and percussion instruments. I was working hard, real hard, trying to please this crowd. I heard if they didn't like you, they throw things. They didn't throw anything. That meant they liked me."
Since the song has become such a big hit in the last month, probably most music fans know by now that Day isn't black, which will spoil her fun.
"I like to shock people," she said. "It's great to have them think I'm one thing and then find out I'm something else. I like to see the expression on their faces when they find out I'm this white girl with a black style. It's a strange kind of thrill. I love it, though."
"I Can't Wait" isn't one of those boisterous, fast-paced dance tunes. It's catchy, medium-tempo, loping funk. Day's vocals, the most distinctive element of the band's sound, do sport rough R&B textures. But Smith, who writes Nu Shooz's material, is primarily responsible for the band's direction.
"He's a R&B fanatic," Day said of her husband, who formed the band about six years ago. "It's in his blood. It's almost like he was black. When he got the band together, that's the music he wanted to play."
The songs on the band's new Atlantic album, "Poolside," are basically danceable pop/funk. Most are as good as "I Can't Wait." One--"Point of No Return"--is simply terrific. It should be the next Nu Shooz hit single.
Though Day comes across as slick, hip and snooty in performance, she's an amiable girl-next-door type in person. "I'm the casual type," she said. "I'm not flashy or sophisticated. I'm from Portland (Ore.). That's what you expect from someone from Portland, isn't it?"
She was fairly defensive about her hometown, which is renowned for being damp and boring. Her husband, who grew up in Cleveland and Los Angeles, has to occasionally escape to savor the bustle of a big city.
"We're not backward up there," she said. "We're not that isolated. We don't live in tepees either, though a lot of people think we do."
For an R&B fan, she acknowledged, Portland is no mecca: "There aren't that many black bands up there. The radio stations don't play much R&B music. You get R&B where you can find it. John (her husband) would come to L.A. once a year and tape L.A. radio. That helped keep him up-to-date. It also helped to keep him sane."
But, Day insisted, there are advantages for an active, unsigned band playing in the Portland area: "The competition among bands isn't great. We played every weekend for the last four years, except for a few weekends off. Most big-city bands can't say that."
Day, who studied jazz vocal at Seattle's Cornish Institute, started with Nu Shooz as a backup singer and percussionist. She had a minor role on the band's first album, an experimental effort released on an independent label in 1982.
How did she get to be lead singer three years ago?
"Simple," she replied matter-of-factly. "I was good enough to handle the job, so I just took it."
"I Can't Wait," one of the rare hit singles to emerge from the Northwest, is an old record, released two years ago. At first, it seemed destined to be no more than a regional hit. But then it took a strange, roundabout route to fame. A dance-oriented remix of "I Can't Wait" was added to a compilation album that's mailed to deejays. A copy of the album was sent to Holland. Last fall, the "I Can't Wait" single created a buzz in Dutch dance clubs that was heard back in New York.
"There are people in New York who are fanatics," Day said. "It's like 'Saturday Night Fever.' They'll go out and buy $200 worth of records. They're always looking for the new thing. They discovered 'I Can't Wait' as an import. Then the discos started playing it. Then it got so popular that record companies looked us up. They thought it was strange that this record from Holland that was a hit in the New York clubs was made by a band from Portland. Atlantic wound up signing us.
"Sometimes I think this isn't really happening because it doesn't make sense the way the record got popular. But here I am sitting in a fancy restaurant in L.A. explaining how we got to be successful.
"Did you ever hear a weirder success story?"