Tata Vega is one of the featured artists in the Academy Award winning documentary film 20 Feet From Stardom, thanks to her amazing career as a backing vocalist with artists including Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Madonna, and Leon Russell.
In addition to backing other artists, she was in the groups Pollution and Earthquire, and has released eight solo albums. She was nominated for a Grammy award for Best Soul female Gospel Performance in 1985, and sang on four songs for the soundtrack of The Color Purple, including one (“Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister)”) which was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Original Song category.
This interview was for a preview article for the benefit concert for The Rhythmic Arts Project (TRAP) at SOhO in Santa Barbara on 3/13/16. Tickets to the event are available here. It was done by phone on 2/26/16. (L. Paul Mann photo)
Jeff Moehlis: You’ve been a big supporter of The Rhythmic Arts Project – I’ve been several of their events over the years, and I think that you’ve been at all of them that I’ve seen. What, to you, is special about the work that The Rhythmic Arts Project is doing?
Tata Vega: I see firsthand what happened to people that have been neglected, ignored by society, just written off. Some of the parents come and bring their kids in – or older, it spans as you know from children all the way up to the elderly. And I’ve seen what I call miracles. I would say miracles. Because literally there are people that have been living in darkness, in a sense. It’s as though this program is a light. It just draws people out.
I was just reading an article about a young lady that came in. She was curled up, nearly like an egg, in her wheelchair, with her hands all curved up. You couldn’t even see her face. And the parent didn’t even know if her child could even hear. They brought her in, she was in the back, and suddenly she noticed that her baby was rocking back and forth. That is something that she’d never seen, and she realized then that her child could hear. This is marvelous. And the fact that now children just like that can be brought out to where they are participating… Another story about a student that never spoke. Never spoke! Now he’s saying, “Hey, hey, ho, let’s go!” You know? It’s like, “What?”
There’s a lot of joy. It brings so much joy and fulfillment and enrichment, not just for the participant but the family. It is a whole new world. And it’s so unique. I bet if something like this was implemented in regular schools, even… Because it’s so much fun. It uses rhythm, beats, and colors to teach things that we learned in school – English, math, everything. I know I sound so scattered. But it’s very exciting to actually be there and see the look on these little kids’ faces, and the adults, and the love and the innocence that is there. It’s all very real. None of it is fake. How can I not support it? It’s a life-changer, even for people like myself.
Sometimes it’s not that you don’t care, it’s just that you don’t know. And how can you not care after you’ve been exposed to it? It also addresses how we as human beings can sometimes be so selfish, and so into our own heads that we don’t really think about anything or anyone else. And how much fun it is to give, and give without wanting anything in return. That is the return – when you give, you get it back immediately, especially with these kids. I really love them, and I see [drummer/TRAP Founder and CEO] Eddie [Tuduri]… I’m speechless. In fact, right now when I’m talking to you my eyes are welling up with tears, because this man suffered incredible injury, that I’ve known others that just give up. He just somehow, with drumsticks – it all began with rehabilitating himself, then he realized, wait a minute, I can do this. I don’t even remember how it was that he first started. I need to probably read his book or ask him, “Who was the first student?” He was, but then after that, what happened? Because it’s grown into something that is going all over the world. All over the world. It’s starting to spread. People are taking these books that he’s now created. He’s like the person that doesn’t just fish, he teaches everyone how to fish for himself. I really love that about him, and I respect that. I’m very honored to be remotely even a part of this thing.
JM: How long have you known Eddie? I understand that you guys go way back.
TV: I’ve known Eddie since I was a teenager. I remember sleeping in his garage when I didn’t have a place to stay, as a kid, you know? We were rock and roll! He was around then, but he was a different person. He was a completely different person. His whole life changed, and he changed. Because of that, it makes me think about what really is important in life. He really has changed my mind about a lot of things, by the way that he gives. He gives unconditionally. And he gives until he can’t stand up anymore. I’ve seen him do it. Life is just about this. I’m just, wow, in awe. Anything that he asks me to do, if I can do it, I will. No questions asked. It’s just, of course!
JM: Eddie mentioned that I should ask you about the band Pollution with Dobie Gray. Can you tell me a little bit about that band? I should mention I found a few of the songs on YouTube, and this is a band that’s ripe for rediscovery.
TV: Thank you. I was so young. At that time, unfortunately, we were all young, and drugs played a role. Finally I had to leave because it was just too much. Looking back, I realize that was one of the greatest bands. I’ve never seen a band like it since. Dobie Gray… I was extremely rebellious at that point, I had my issues as a young rebellious teenager, and Dobie was somebody that took me under his wing, or at least he tried. I’ll never forget Dobie Gray. He was the one that brought me into the group, and we were the first group to record an Elton John song. And Elton reminded me of that – I didn’t know that. Things like that. It was a self-contained group, so we wrote a lot of our own songs – well I didn’t, but the guys did. It was just incredible.
That was in a time when there were clubs everywhere. Live music everywhere. It was just an amazing time. We would sing at a place called the Brass Ring on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, and down the street at The Chronicle, Under The Pier. There were just all kinds of places. It was amazing. It was amazing, I have to say.
JM: Do you have any thoughts on why the band didn’t become bigger at the time? Was there just so much music out there that it was hard to break through?
TV: The whole scene – the drug scene, the drinking, the whole craziness – it messed me up so bad that I had to get away. So I ran away, and out of it.
Our manager was Max Baer Jr., who was Jethro in The Beverly Hillbillies. He just didn’t know how to manage. I found out just a couple of years back that we were getting offers to open for The Rolling Stones, and for all these incredible groups, but Max didn’t understand that you can’t ask for the exorbitant amount of money that he was asking for. He’s an actor, and he really didn’t know anything about the music business. Let me just put it like that. He really didn’t know what he was doing, and so he ruined a lot of what could’ve been.
Sometimes I think that had that happened for us, maybe I wouldn’t be on the phone talking to you today. You know? Because I was very young, very gullible, very vulnerable, and so many people were dropping dead all around me from overdoses. I don’t doubt for a second that if I hadn’t been one I would’ve certainly at least ended up in a hospital somewhere. So I’m kind of glad. Part of me wished it could’ve happened, but the other side of me says I’m kind of glad it didn’t happen. You never know. Like you said, you discovered something that you’d never heard before, and you liked it. So maybe other people will someday discover Pollution. Because it really was incredible, I have to tell you. Really incredible. Wow!
But Mr. Baer… I didn’t know. I just knew he was kind of weird. After I left, it just got weird and the band started to fall apart. Dobie left, and he went to pursue his own career, which he did. Remember the song “Drift Away”? Oh, my goodness, he recorded it and it was a hit. Then he came back a few years later with a group called Uncle Kracker. Uncle Kracker? I can’t believe the name! They redid it, and invited him to come back and sing with them, and it became a hit again. Dobie liked country music, and he was an incredible writer and performing.
John [Lambert], the bass player, went on to open a bed and breakfast in Arizona, with his sweetheart. Smitty [James Quill Smith], the guitar player, had a stroke and he’s in a rehabilitation center, very limited. He can’t play or anything. Dennis [Kenmore] recovered from his alcoholism and he’s working as a drummer, playing in bands doing the things that he loves. Chris [Christiaan Mostert], the sax player, ended up playing with The Eagles forever, then he started fixing up homes. Now he’s a multi-millionaire, but still goes and just jams because he likes to. It wasn’t a totally sad ending to it.
Max lives in Las Vegas, of course, trying to open up a casino based on The Beverly Hillbillies, and we don’t speak. I tried to get in touch with him, but he’s angry. So I don’t really know what happened. I may have been 17 and 18, but I was really more like a 14 or 15 year-old in my head. I needed guidance. But, you know what, everything has turned around. Every once in a while I call Smitty, and even though he’s very limited in what he says, you can tell he’s excited. It’s just a shame, I think, because they were such great players, and the music was so innovative at that time. It was kind of like alternative music for that time period. It was an incredible time.
And then I met Eddie! Eddie and a whole bunch of other musicians. Who would’ve thought? And then I did some projects with Eddie as well, later on in the years. Who would’ve ever thought we would have become such close friends, and still be going strong after all these years? I know Eddie had his bout with his stuff, whatever it was, in his youth. But now…
The thing about The Rhythmic Arts Project, too, is that when I started with Eddie, when he first invited me to come out and sing, it was scary. Because I didn’t understand it, and you feel awkward. You don’t know how to, for the lack of a better word, act. I think that’s what happens with most people. But watching him, and being educated, and opening my eyes for the first time and seeing reality, I started to be grateful for things. I didn’t take so many things for granted anymore. And it was a love that started to grow in my heart for people. I realized that they really were hipper than a lot of us people that think we’ve got it together. Those kids are hip, because they’re not fake. They can’t be. They don’t have any concept of being fake or false. It is what it is. They’re the real deal. So it keeps you really in touch with what’s the most important thing, loving others and really giving and doing for others. And not always just being in your head all the time.
I’ve seen such a transformation in Eddie. I started thinking, “Wow, he’s different. He’s not the same Eddie I knew before.” That’s really what the intrigue was for me. And then watching how he worked. The patience, and the love. You don’t see that very often anymore. People are too busy. They’re too busy. If they want to love their kids they just buy them something. This is different. This is somebody that takes time, and looks in their eyes. He looks in their eyes, and he touches them, and he takes their hand and shows them the beat. The joy that you see… And then the musicians that come and support it. That’s why every year, if there’s any way I can get away from whatever it is I’m doing to be there, I will.
JM: You’ve worked with a number of amazing musicians over the years. When I look at your bio, I see names like Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Elton John, people like that. Who stands out to you? And what is it like working with people of that caliber?
TV: Gosh, I know you can only imagine how amazing it is. But then you realize they’re just people like you and me. But being in their presence, yes…
The latest one was Elton. I was with him for five years. Here’s the deal with Elton. I went in as a backing vocalist, and I was really excited, because I actually begged him [laughs]. We were at a session, he was there, and I said, “This is my chance. If he goes on the road with this thing, I want to be there.” I ended up getting the gig.
And then there was a point where I felt I was taking a step backwards. “Wait a minute, I’m the artist. Why am I backing this person up?” Well, I’ll tell you. Ego is so destructive. I learned by working with him [laughs] that I was in no way his caliber. Being in that, and watching every night how he works, watching how he loves his audience and how he loves what he does, and watching the interaction between the audience and him, it became a dream job. It was a dream job for me.
And I learned so much. I’ve never seen anybody with a work ethic like that, because on our days off he’d go out and do charity events, or he’d go out and do solo projects. I don’t know how he does that. I don’t know [laughs]. Because, we’d do three hour shows out on the road, and sometimes in one day we’d hop to three countries in a 24 hour period. Or 17 hour bus rides. I don’t know how we did it! We were a team.
Let me put it this way. There were nights that Elton would be up there and I’d forget to sing, because I was so mesmerized and so fascinated. Sometimes, you just cry because you think, “How did I get here?” Here’s a man who I’d stay up and listen to his record, listen to it over and over and over, until I wore that thing out. You know, his first one, his second one, third one. He was just everything. And who would’ve thought that all these years would go by, and here I am with the person I’m a fan of, singing with him.
He would feature us on some things, and always introduced us every night. He’d call us “his girls”, “his angels”. Now, I thought, this is the best job I’ve probably ever had besides being a wife and a mother. This has been the greatest job on Earth. Of course, besides being a servant to the Most High God, because I love the Lord with all my heart.
Yeah, it’s been an incredibly exciting life, and it’s been an incredibly tragic life. You know, the highs have been really high, and the lows have been not at the bottom of the garbage can, but underneath. It’s been like that. But in any case you learn as you start getting older, that is how life is, and you have to make the best of it. And that it isn’t always about money. Yeah, we need it to live on, but it isn’t about the money. The way I look at it, because it’s happened to me, is that music is very powerful. It can actually make a difference in a person’s life, between jumping off a cliff or keeping you from jumping off a cliff.
I think that Eddie, when he does his TRAP program, I think many of the parents must come in and they feel helpless and hopeless. They come in, and they bring their kids, and they start seeing miracles upon miracles happening. And then it changes the whole family. The whole family comes alive. It’s life-changing. When you actually see that happening before your very eyes, how can it not affect your own life? Give you a different perspective on what beauty is, what beauty really is? These people are not invisible. They’re everywhere, and they’re beautiful, and they matter. I feel like God allowed them to live for a reason. There’s a plan and a purpose, or they wouldn’t be here. So to me they’re a blessing. If we would just take a minute and watch these kids, or meet one, or interact, you’ll see… I saw this phrase that this person used, and I believe it is – you will see the eyes of God. You really will. These kids aren’t all bogged down with all the crap we put on ourselves, you know, the race for money, the job, the gig, this person doesn’t like me, that person this, I’ve gotta get dressed, I’ve gotta look good, I’ve gotta put my bling on. All that stuff means nothing. Nothing. Nothing. I hope in the rambling you’re hearing something.
JM: Absolutely. For me, I feel a connection to what Eddie’s doing because my mother taught special education for several decades before she retired. You really can see the special things these kids bring to the world.
TV: They are special. You know, a lot of times they have more wisdom than you think you do. It teaches you to not be selfish, because you have to be selfless and completely give. Just block all the other stuff out, and just be zoned right in. I know you must’ve admired your mom, because it takes a very special person to do that. There’s so much love and patience, and kindness. You can’t get irritated with these folks. It’s different. When I grow up, I want to be kind of like Eddie. Because I’m not there yet. I’m still learning. I still have my fears and nervousness and awkwardness about it. But I embrace it, too. When I get there I feel scared, because I feel like I don’t really know very much. But I don’t let that stop me from hugging every single person [laughs]. That’s what I like to do. I love to hug people. And, boy, I tell you, my little buddies like [TRAP student] Dion, they know how to hug.
And the smiles on their faces. They express very well what they would like. But to see someone who was, in a way, in the dark, and this program brings them to the light, and you see the transformation happening right before your eyes, that in itself, right there, makes it all worth it. Because now – I know I’m repeating myself – it doesn’t just transform the person, the child, it transforms everyone around them, their family. It’s like a chain reaction, or like when you throw a pebble in the water and it just forms those rings, and it goes out. Endlessly this goes out, it touches everything. That’s what this program is doing.
Eddie, wow! Man, he’s a rock star. He’s way up there in my book. I don’t know anybody like him. He’s introduced me to a whole other scene that got me out of my own selfish… You know, you get into a bubble sometimes. It’s just all you, what’s happening to you. So then when I go over there, and I’m there all day with them, it’s like taking your car to the gas thing and filling up. That’s what it does. That’s what it’s like for me, to go there. Because I’m getting a lot. And what I’m getting, money can’t satisfy. There are no words for me to express to you what it means to me to be a part of this. I would like to continue doing this as long as I live. And be more hands-on. I’ve got a lot to learn still.
In our world… and I’m the chief sinner in that in one sentence I can tell you, “Oh, I just love you. I just love your hair. Oh, I just love that dress. I love hot dogs. I love yogurt.” It just cheapens the word “love”. When you see Eddie, and then you see the interaction, now you know what love is. That’s love! The other thing that we use… and I’m so guilty of it. I’m trying to learn to correct myself. Everytime I say, “Oh, I love your dress”, I really mean “Oh, I really like your dress a lot.” Love is, well, the Bible talks about what it is. It’s kind, it’s patient, it doesn’t demand it’s own way. I’m thinking, “Well, OK, gotta work on those.” You see that Bible verse in action when you see these programs in action. I tell Eddie, “I don’t know how you do it. I want to, I would like to. But I don’t know if I have that kind of love, really.” It just put a check on me, a reality check.
Do I really know how to love, really? It’s not the thing we see in the movies, romantic. This is a whole other kind of love. Wow, this whole world could use it. We’re in desperate need of this type of love, a love called agape. It’s a Godly love. It’s not romantic, it’s not a brotherly love, it’s not sexual love, it’s a Godly love. It’s just giving, and in the giving you’re getting. That’s it. Thinking of others. I’m not there yet, but I’m on the road. I haven’t achieved it. There’s little moments here and there, you know, and then you’ve got to not pat yourself on the back. “You ain’t that bad, honey, you ain’t not that bad.” And by “you ain’t that bad”, I mean “you ain’t that great”. Don’t think so highly of yourself. It’s just one day at a time. But he does this every day. He travels to other countries. And look at Eddie. He himself has difficulties. Yet this man goes to South America, he goes to all these different countries, states. How the heck does he do this?
JM: I was very happy to see you as one of the featured artists in the documentary 20 Feet from Stardom. What are your reactions to that documentary? Do you think it accurately captured the world that you’ve lived in? And was this something that has affected your life in any way?
TV: Yes, and the thing is although it was a story about singers, when you really look at the story, you realize this is a story about all of us. Because everybody at one time or another had a dream, and sometimes people around you, well-meaning, stamp that dream down. Or they’re jealous, or they don’t understand. Things happen to us, and we just think it’s too late for us. And that movie, I hope to God, sets something on fire in them. It sparks something. That the light comes back in their eyes, and they realize it isn’t too late. I can do something.
And it isn’t even about being famous. It’s really about doing the thing you love more than anything. You earn a good living doing that very thing, that to me means everything. Because being famous isn’t all what you think, what it appears to be. It’s a facade. Money’s good, and it’s nice to have things. But there’s something else that money can’t fill. And that’s that love, that only can come from God.
I think that that’s the key with Eddie. He loves the Lord, and you see it. You see God in action, through him. He’s a vessel that the Lord uses. He’s tired at the end of the day. I mean, I think I’m tired? [laughs] Oh no. No. I don’t know the meaning of the word. When I see Eddie working… Sometimes he falls, and he gets back up. “No, no, I’m fine.” He gets up and he goes on with his work. To me, that speaks volumes. Wow!