Pop stardom works in mysterious ways.
Who would figure that Jennifer Warnes, who went seven years without even making a record, would suddenly end up at the top of the charts with "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," the hit single that's propelled the "Dirty Dancing" sound track into the No. 1 album slot on the Billboard Hot 100.
In fact, who would figure that Warnes would emerge as one of pop's most prolific sound-track vocalists--she's had the featured song on seven sound tracks in eight years, including another No. 1 hit with Joe Cocker on "Up Where We Belong" and a 1979 Academy Award for "It Goes Like It Goes" from "Norma Rae."
Yet she's attracted so little major record company interest that her latest album, a much-praised collection of Leonard Cohen songs called "Famous Blue Raincoat," was released on the tiny Cypress Records label earlier this year.
Is this any kind of career for a singer who made her professional debut, at age 7, wrapped in the American flag singing "The Star Spangled Banner" accompanied by 300 accordions?
"To be honest, this is all just as puzzling to me as I bet it is to everybody else," said Warnes. "I'd love to be able to make records like 'Raincoat' all the time. But I spent three years on that album and didn't earn a dime.
"I'm still renting my house and paying off my car, so I do songs for movies. It's good work, because they pay--and they pay on time. And I really enjoy it, especially when I can find songs I really care about."
Warnes gets completely caught up in each song--so much so that she insists on recording her vocals on a dubbing stage with the movie projected onto a screen in front of her.
"I've always been moved by pictures," she said. "When I was a kid and saw paintings by Mark Rothko and other artists for the first time, I thought I could sing to them--that there were sounds and motions which somehow fit each picture. For me to be able to sing to a Sally Field goodby scene, with the film rolling up on this huge screen as I sing, is pretty breathtaking--it's like singing to the heavens."
After being involved with so many movie projects, Warnes also has a raft of delightful anecdotes about the inner-workings of the sound-track process.
"(I've Had) The Time of My Life" from "Dirty Dancing": "Since the film was set in the early '60s, they obviously wanted someone reminiscent of that era--hence Bill Medley. How I fit in I'm still not sure. Still, it was great singing with Bill. His voice is so distinctive--it's like a saxophone in the bedroom. We both come from Orange County and Bobby Hatfield (Medley's Righteous Brothers partner) went to high school with my sister, so it had a nice hometown feeling to it. I can still remember, as a kid, how weird it was to see two guys from Orange County singing soul songs in Nehru jackets."
"It Goes Like It Goes (Theme From Norma Rae)": "Waylon Jennings was supposed to do the original song, but he wasn't available so someone called me. When I saw the film, I thought it was really tough--and the song was too sweet. It needed something more colloquial, like out of Randy Newman or John Prine. So instead of keeping my mouth shut, I went up and told (director) Marty Ritt how I felt and luckily he's the kind of guy who appreciates that. And he hired David Shire and Norman Gimbel to write a song in a more Randy Newman-type style."
"One More Hour" from "Ragtime": "The nice thing about 'It Goes' was that it prompted Randy Newman to call me about doing a song in 'Ragtime.' He said he really liked that 'Norma Rae' song. And I laughed and said, 'I thought you'd like it.' So he sang that little ditty over the telephone, asked me what my key was and could I come in and sing it in the studio on Friday. It was such a little song that I figured it might just be him and me, but when I got there he had the biggest orchestra I'd ever seen before in my life--and I had to sing it live!"
"Up Where We Belong" from "An Officer and a Gentleman": "It's great singing with someone like Bill Medley or Joe Cocker, because they're very masculine and I sound very female, so both opposites are represented. It almost gives the illusion of conflict--and if you're lucky, a little spark occurs. Actually, they didn't really know who they wanted for 'Up,' so I suggested Joe Cocker, and everyone ended up going along with him. I'd wanted to sing with him for the longest time--but my manager was pretty upset. He thought I was ruining a perfectly good solo project."
Will all this movie attention bring Warnes a major-label deal? "I owe a great debt to Cypress Records for supporting such a risky project," she said of "Blue Raincoat," "but I am finally getting offers from several major companies. And since I have a non-exclusive contract with Cypress, things look very promising. It makes me feel pretty good that someone out there is interested."