Lonette McKee is an accomplished actress, writer, singer, musician, producer and director. She has been in the entertainment industry for more than 40 years and is in no way about to slow down. Her first film role as Sista in the original Sparkle won her rave reviews and helped break open the doors into other avenues of show business. Here is her story.
Soultrain.com: When you were growing up, were you interested in going into show business?
Lonette: I actually grew up in the business; I began playing piano and writing songs and singing at an early age and was performing professionally in the metro Detroit area by about seven to eight years old.
Soultrain.com:. You act, write, sing and direct. As a singer, you had a lot of early recordings in the late 60s such as “Mind Intruder”, “Veil of Mystery” and “Blue Jeans”. What was it like recording those songs?
Lonette: Well, I was still a kid, but I knew enough to be elated that my dreams of becoming a recording artist who sang and wrote music were coming true. Music producers, Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey heard me sing and play and felt my songs and voice were good enough to record. Keep in my mind these guys were respected and well-established in the Detroit music scene, with several hits to their credit. So it was pretty cool for me when at 14 years old, we scored a regional hit with the record “Stop Don’t Worry ‘Bout It” on our first try!
Soultrain.com:. Your first album Lonnette, released in 1974, had some outstanding tracks like the funky “Save It,” “Do it To Me” and “I’m Alone”. Who did you work with putting that album together?
Lonette: That was an album I did working again with producers Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey. They had relocated to Los Angeles and were working with Clarence Avant for his Sussex Records label. When I also relocated to LA Clarence offered me a record deal and it was a natural to work with Mike and Dennis on it.
Soultrain.com:. You also appeared on Soul Train around that time. What was it like performing on the show and what would you like to say in memory of Don Cornelius, who died earlier this year?
Lonette: Yes, I was promoting the first single released from that Sussex LP, called “Save It Don’t Give It Away.” I was thrilled to be invited by Mr. Cornelius to appear on the show. He was a living legend and had given many newcomers with first records their big break. Everyone watched the show–including me. I was a huge fan!
Soultrain.com. You’ve had several other beautiful albums such as Words & Music and Natural Love. Are you working on recording any other material?
Lonette: Thank you for the compliment! Yes, I’m always working on new music one way or another. Writing is my first love. I just signed a distribution deal for all my new stuff as well as some of my older music.
Soultrain.com:. You were a part of the Soul Sisters on the Jonathan Winters variety show. What was it like working with him?
Lonette: Jonathan Winters was considered a genius. Although I didn’t spend much time with him because we taped our song and dance numbers separately from the comedy scenes he did on the show, I knew I had been given a wonderful showcase by being a regular on the show. The show also afforded me and partner Michelle Dellafave the opportunity to perform on camera with iconic stars such as Sarah Vaughn and Dean Martin. We were called the “Soul Sisters” on the show.
Soultrain You played a memorable, outstanding role as Sista in the original version of Sparkle. What was the audition process like for earning that role?
Lonette: My agent at the time sent me the script and asked me to prepare a song for the audition, not even knowing that my background was in music! I read the screenplay by Joel Schumacher and immediately knew I should play the part of Sista. But I had to win the part first. The day of the big audition I remember walking into one of those giant airplane hanger stages on the Warner Bros. lot to find hundreds of other hopefuls competing for those parts. The gods smiled on me and I got it!
Soultrain.com: What was it like overall being a part of Sparkle,which has become a classic iconic film?
Lonette: It was awesome. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect first movie. The cast and filmmakers were great and fun to work with. I got to sing and dance and play a tragic character in a very dramatic role. It was totally a blessing and dream come true. Sparkle is such a beloved film with a hyper-devoted fan base, so in many ways all of us continue to enjoy its blessings.
Soultrain.com: Are there any particular favorite scenes you like from the film?
Lonette: I like the songs of course. Curtis Mayfield’s music was killin’. It’s easier to just say I love everything about that movie! It was a rare moment in filmmaking where all the elements fell into place to make “movie magic.”
Soultrain.com:. Curtis Mayfield had Aretha Franklin re-record the songs from the movie for its soundtrack. How do you feel when your vocals were not used on the soundtrack?
Lonette: Of course I was disappointed because I was already a seasoned singer/performer by this time and firmly rooted in the music industry. But now that I’m a filmmaker myself, I can fully appreciate why the producers made that choice. I think they weren’t sure how to market Sparkle at the time because it was done after the Black Exploitation era, yet before we had Spike Lee, Tyler Perry, John Singleton and the likes. So Warner Bros. was probably looking for a “hook” to get distribution and ensure its box office revenue. And after all, we are talking about the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Anyone would die to have her on a project!
Soultrain.com: Have you seen the new version of Sparkle and if so, what is your reaction?
Lonette: No, I haven’t seen it yet, but I certainly intend to and I’m sure I’ll love it! I feel it’s a rare honor to have something remade in which I was so prominently featured.
Soultrain.com: Some feel that some of the cast members of the original film could have been utilized in supporting roles in the new version. What are your feelings on this?
Lonette: Speaking from the prospective of a filmmaker myself, if I were to remake a movie or a Broadway show, it wouldn’t be fair to my new project to demand we use the cast from the original. I think that’s kind of narrow-minded and small thinking. The Sparkle remake is a new and different film, done by new and different filmmakers and I fully support their creative choices. The new film only enhances the legacy of the original Sparkle movie and vice versa.
Soultrain.com:. Which Way is Up is one of my favorite Richard Pryor films. What was it like working with Richard in that hilarious movie?
Lonette: I had known Richard since my teens when I was a struggling singer-songwriter in Los Angeles. I’d tag along with my older sister who was friends with him, for visits to his home. I think we can all agree that Richard was a genius and trailblazer in the truest sense. He was such an iconic superstar and a genuine living legend. My memory of him is that he was a kind and generous man. He was very protective of me and always, always kind. My first film with him was Which Way Is Up and was made before Richard had that horrendous near-death experience with fire. No one was as funny as Richard in my opinion. He also broke the glass ceiling in terms of demanding the same control over his projects that Whites were allowed and fought for and won the right to be paid on par with non-white actors and performers; therefore Richard set a new standard for the entire industry and certainly elevated conditions for Blacks in the entertainment business.
Soultrain.com: You teamed up again with Richard in 1985 playing Angela Drake in Brewster’s Millions. That must have been a fun experience re-teaming with him.
Lonette: Yes, it was great working with Richard again along with the wonderful John Candy. I must say that Richard’s demeanor changed a bit after the accident; he seemed more introspective and a little less fun-loving, as is understandable after almost dying in an accident.
Soultrain.com:. Your role as Lila Rose Oliver in Cotton Club was, in a word, stunning. I saw the movie as a kid in New York and the scene when you sang “Ill Wind” has stayed with me since. It must have been an incredible experience working with Gregory Hines and all of the other cast members.
Lonette: Yes, it was a truly an awesome, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Every day I was on-set with Gregory Hines, brother Maurice, Richard Gere, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Gwen Verdon, Nicholas Cage, Bob Hoskins, Tom Waite, Fred Gwynn–the list of superstars who worked on that film is absolutely incredible! And to have been directed by the great Francis Ford Coppola with a production team just as impressive was amazing!
Soultrain.com: Working with Dexter Gordon in Round Midnight must have been an honor for you.
Lonette: Yes, of course performing with the great Dexter Gordon and Herbie Hancock for “How Long Has This Been Going On” was an honor for me. I also worked with Wayne Shorter and Bobby Hutcherson, Tony Williams and a bevy of other jazz greats on that film to include legendary French filmmaker, director, Bertrand Tavernier. We shot in Paris and it was a blast or, as Mr. Cornelius would say, “A stone gas, baby.”
Soultrain.com: You’ve done a lot of TV work as well in shows such as Miami Vice, LA Law, Law & Order, Third Watch, and an extremely funny role as a psychic on a two-part episode of Amen. What was it like working with the late Sherman Hemsley?
Lonette: Sherman was wonderful to work with…so very funny. I also enjoyed the stellar work of Clifton Davis, Anna Marie Horsford, Barbra Montgomery and Roz Ryan, who were the regular cast members on the show.
Soultrain.com. One of your greatest roles was playing Lorraine in the acclaimed TV movie The Women of Brewster Place. Working with Oprah Winfrey and all of the other women must have been a great experience.
Lonette: Yes, that’s another wonderful experience with so many gifted ladies. Working closely with Paula Kelly reminded me of what a great actress she is. I think she is very underutilized and underrated. She is certainly extraordinary in every way.
Soultrain.com: You had the privilege of working with Spike Lee in Jungle Fever and Malcolm X. What was it like working with him?
Lonette: Yes, and we did She Hate Me and He Got Game together as well. We also did an album together–Natural Love–on Spike’s Forty Acres and a Mule record label for Columbia, on which I was writer/producer and of course vocalist. I consider Spike a living legend, too. And he’s been a mentor for my film directing and a dear friend. Spike’s another person who broke the barriers down for Black filmmakers. He stood up to the White boys and demanded the respect he so deserves and refused to pander or cowtow. I also appreciate his work because he’s one of the very few Black filmmakers that refuses to be boxed into the “family churchgoing” film niche. He’s an artist that insists on doing edgier and sometimes controversial material. I think we should tell all kinds of stories from every point of view – not just the PG rated family stuff. We have every right to make the same kinds of creative and artistic choices as filmmakers that White filmmakers are allowed to make.
Soultrain.com: Ms, McKee, you have done it all. Is there anything in the entertainment industry you would like to do that you haven’t done before?
Lonette: Absolutely. I’ve written a bunch of new songs and tracks which I’m planning to put vocals on for a spring release. I’ve written several edgy screenplays which I’d like to direct and produce in the near future. I’m writing my memoirs as we speak.
I have two children’s books almost ready to publish. I have three television series that I’m pitching and would love to produce. I’ve been looking at opening a performance arts center in the NY Tri-State area with special attention to at-risk youth in our areas. I’m dedicated to establishing an urban wildlife rehabilitation center in the NY Tri-State area for birds and other city wildlife which is dwindling and is so neglected and underappreciated. The animals are the misbegotten, yet they bring such beauty to our lives and without them the world would be a very drab place.
Soultrain.com: You are about to have your directorial debut in a feature film titled Dream Street. Tell us about the project.
Lonette: Dream Street is a screenplay that I wrote. [The film is about] the bitter sweet journey of Lola Mars, a once promising hip-hop music writer/producer, as she struggles to rebuild her life and dreams after a freak accident leaves her disfigured, outcast and financially bankrupt. The beguiling, tragic and ultimately uplifting theme explores the ability of the human spirit to rise above hardships and overcome the blows that life often deals those on the fringes of society. I will not star in it but will direct and produce.
Soultrain.com: Do you have a word of wisdom that you want to share with readers?
Lonette: I would really like to see all of the people of the world begin to carefully reexamine our relationship to the earth, its animals and wildlife and our spiritual connection to those life forces and to one another. I believe we are in the midst of a necessary paradigm shift, in which we are being forced to become more enlightened and compassionate towards one another and the planet and all its species. We cannot continue to pillage, exploit and over-populate the earth and torment the animals and abuse our children as we have done. I believe if we do not elevate our consciousness soon, we will not be long on this planet, for she is weeping.
Lonette McKee will be performing in concert with Michael Henderson on Friday, November 2, 7PM at Aaron Davis Hall at the City College of New York. For more information about the show and tickets, visit www.adhatccny.org or call 212-650-6900.
For more information about Lonette McKee, please visit her website www.lonettemckee.com.
Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor/filmmaker, dancer, Soul Train historian and soul music historian.