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'Mama' Takes More Than One Look

August 01, 1987|DENNIS HUNT | Times Staff Writer

For soul/gospel singer Doris Troy, her 1963 single "Just One Look" has been more than just a hit. It's been a career.

Troy, who also wrote "Just One Look," still gets royalty checks from this hard-edged, mid-tempo, R&B-flavored song which has been recorded by numerous artists, including Linda Ronstadt and the Hollies--and been featured in a Mazda TV ad campaign.

The snappy tune is also spotlighted in the gospel-musical "Mama I Want to Sing," which is at the Beverly Theatre through Aug. 9. Troy co-stars in this road company production of the show that's based on her early years as a Harlem gospel singer.

"Just One Look," Troy's only Top 40 single, was also the singer's entree into the swinging British music scene in the '60s. She worked with the Beatles, hobnobbed with the Rolling Stones, toured with stars like Neil Diamond and Johnny Hallyday. Elton John, then a teen-age pianist known as Reginald Dwight, worked in her backup band. George Harrison was so impressed that he signed her at Apple Records and co-produced the "Doris Troy" album.

A glow came over Troy, lounging in the lobby of her Beverly Hills hotel the other day, as she reminisced about those years.

"I gotta tell you it was heaven," said Troy, who's somewhere in her 40s--though she wouldn't say just where. "I was a queen over there--royalty. I traveled all over Europe. I was hanging out with the stars. I even went to Mick Jagger's wedding in St. Tropez. People loved me. I had no competition over there. I was the big American black singer. It was a once in a lifetime thing. It was heaven, I tell you, just heaven."

A large, jolly, chatty woman with a robust laugh that never seems to quit, Troy said, "I always look on the bright side. I don't dwell on the other side, that dark side. Like when I was in England, I had my ups and downs. But I grooved on the ups and acted like the downs weren't there. I was flying high."

But when she decided to return to America in 1974--after living in England for more than six years--she came crashing down to earth.

Troy may have been one of the reigning soul queens of England, but she was just a memory in America--another one-hit wonder. Her comeback on Midsong Records in the mid '70s fizzled, so she moved to Las Vegas (where she still lives) and worked in the lounges.

Adjusting to obscurity wasn't easy.

"I went from a queen to a nobody," she recalled. "You feel like saying, 'Look at me, look who I am.' But they didn't care. It was a blow to the ego. That could knock some people out. But not me. I was down but I wasn't out."

"Mama I Want to Sing" brightened her spirits by finally lifting her out of obscurity. Her younger sister, Vy Higginsen, and Higginsen's husband, Kenneth Wydro, wrote this buoyant musical about Troy's trials and tribulations as a youngster in a Harlem church family. In the play, young Troy, a gospel soloist, moves from church singing and into pop music against the wishes of her mother. It is not without irony that Troy plays her mother in the show.

"I know my mama pretty well," she explained. "I remember that whole situation very, very well. So playing her in that situation is easy. Mama thinks I do a good job."

The musical opened on a small scale in an abandoned Harlem theater in 1983 and slowly mushroomed into a hit. When the critics finally discovered it (Time magazine called the show one of the best theatrical productions of 1984), "Mama" was already packing them in. While the road company is spreading "Mama's" gospel around the country, the show is still playing in New York.

The musical has been a boon to gospel and is credited with attracting many blacks--particularly churchgoers--who've never been to the theater. Troy acknowledged that it's done a lot for her too:

"I was happy being back in this country but I needed something--something was missing. I admit I missed all that recognition I was getting in Europe back in the '60s. I missed the fun and the glory. I don't really want things to be like they were. It was too hectic, too fast. That's for real young folks. I just want a taste of it now. And that's what 'Mama' gives me."

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