“I’m not a disco performer,” Evelyn “Champagne” King says, definitively. “The person who discovered me didn’t write a disco song. ‘Shame’ was in the disco era, but they consider it a dance song.”
It’s a popular misconception, but it also applies to her best-known song, the summer-jam-of-1982 “Love Come Down,” which reached No. 1 on both the R&B and Dance charts.
But, she says, “I don’t just do dance music. I’m an R&B pop artist. That’s what I’ve always been known for.”
King will perform twice over Pride weekend, first at the main stage along with acts like Korean-American house artist Yaeji, Our Lady J, and Le1f, the androgynous rapper from whom Macklemore essentially stole “Thrift Shop.” King’s second time around is almost certainly going to be more fun, and not merely because the audience will include fewer drunk teens in rainbow tutus. Hard French Hearts Los Homos, the otherwise mostly-retired soul party’s annual post-Pride fest, booked her to play at Mezzanine on Sunday, June 24, where she’ll grace the same stage that Ronnie Spector performed last year — and Genesis P-Orridge the year before.
The story of King’s discovery is almost too good to be believed. She was raised in a tight-knit musical family in South Philadelphia, among many brothers and sisters, all of whom participated in what she calls “King amateur hour.”
“We would have it at home, everybody getting up and getting ready to do their performances,” she says. “It was almost like looking at the Michael Jackson story — of course, except my dad wasn’t as harsh.”
King herself was in a band by age 14. Her father was a maintenance worker at Philadelphia International Records, where her mother was a cleaning woman and occasional receptionist. One evening, her sister fell ill and couldn’t accompany her mother, so King went instead.
“No one was supposed to be there. No one,” she says. “My mom said, ‘Let’s get in and get out.’ She would hum while she was working and I would sing while I was working. I was singing a song by Sam Cooke, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come.’ ”
A change certainly did come, in that the producer T. Life happened to be working late and found King pushing a vacuum cleaner.
“Just being singled out by them hearing me, that was like a Cinderella story,” she says. “I was 14 when I got discovered. I was 15 going on 16 when I started touring.”
Hers was a family act, with her parents taking turns as her road manager and her sister Wanda — who she’d filled in for while cleaning the record company offices — singing background and handling King’s makeup. (Wanda passed away in 2015, almost two decades after King lost both her parents and a brother in rapid succession.)
It was because of her family that King got her nickname. Her mother called her “Bubbles” because she blew spit bubbles as a baby, and the name stuck to this day. At the beginning of her career, the name Evelyn King sounded “too grown-up,” and an impromptu conference among her parents and T. Life batted around ideas before landing on the one that fit.
“We were trying to decide what we could put in between it,” King says. “I’m very bubbly, and they said, ‘Champagne, that’s it, that’s her.’ RCA took it out for a little while but I didn’t request that. When I was on the road, they did it — and when I came home and saw my record said ‘Evelyn King,’ I was like, ‘Who’s this?’ I was very upset, and I told them to put it back because the fans made my name where it was going, which was up. So they put it back and I kept it ever since.”
Curiously, King doesn’t care much for Champagne by itself apart from celebratory moments. (“I like mimosas for breakfast,” she says. “I like red wine better.”) She claims that Patti LaBelle is her idol, owing mostly to LaBelle’s on-stage energy — and while Prince is a close runner-up, Chaka Khan is her “vocal idol.”
“When I was in a local band, I was singing Chaka Khan songs, and when we worked together it was the most amazing thing, because your heart is fluttering,” she says. “She’s just a beautiful soul. She’s a great person to work with — and she’s an awesome entertainer. We get older and we learn from our peers, but I’m telling you, I just love me some Chaka Khan.
“When I first worked with her, I was in shock,” she adds. “Like, ‘Really? I’m on the same bill?’ I’ve never been nervous to hit the stage, ever. Even as a little girl, this is what I dreamed.”
So Chaka Khan is the only person that ever made Evelyn “Champagne” King get stage fright?
“It was only nerves because I was standing right next to her,” she insists.
If you’ve never seen King live before, a detour through YouTube yields some dazzling gems. Her 1982 Soul Train performance of “Betcha She Don’t Love You” is wonderful on the merits, but she also happens to be wearing some killer boots, Afro-Futurist shades not unlike what Cyclops from the X-Men wears, and a dynamite sparkly gold jumpsuit.
“I was younger and I was shy,” King remembers. “I wasn’t afraid, but I was shy. That was me being very calm and doing my song — but when I hit the stage, I’m very energetic. I have a little more meat on my bones, but I’m still bubbly. I’m just me, and I just enjoy what I do.
“You’re going to see what I do,” she adds. “I will be turning 58 on July the first, so things that people don’t do at 25, I can do. I get down — let’s put it like that.”
Hard French Hearts Los Homos VIII with Evelyn “Champagne” King, Sunday, June 24, 3-11 p.m., at Mezzanine, 444 Jessie St. $25-$35; hardfrench.com