Dancer Amii Stewart Turns Disco Diva with 'Knock on Wood'
To lovers of classical music, Walter Murphy's A Fifth of Beethoven may have been disco's unkindest cut of all. But now that sort of dance floor desecration has outraged another group of longhairs: '60s hard-rock diehards. Light My Fire, the Doors' 1967 classic, is spreading up the charts again, this time with a disco thump, but there are a few exonerating factors: The singer, Amii Stewart, prefers Nancy Wilson to Donna Summer, doesn't own a disco LP and never planned to record a tune before last year.
Stewart, born 24 years ago in Washington, D.C., was starring with the London cast of Bubbling Brown Sugar when she was introduced to disco producer Barry Leng. He asked her to record his own material, but the tune that lit Amii's fire was a pounding remake of the 1966 Eddie Floyd hit Knock on Wood. Its stunning success should have her doing just that. Knock recently rocked past the platinum (two million) mark and propelled Amii's debut album of the same name to gold.
A humorously sassy free spirit, Stewart admits that her outrageous stage dresses, "slit up to the throat," haven't exactly slowed her career. After she hosted NBC's Midnight Special in costumes that make Cher's wardrobe look subdued, Amii laughs, "The phones were buzzing, wanting to know where I get my clothes. She's a German designer, but I can't tell which one, because if I did there'd be 55 Amii Stewart clones."
That experience notwithstanding, she was reluctant—and insecure—star material just eight months ago. She auditioned for producer Leng with "a cold that you would not believe," and when he said he liked her nasal tones, Amii remembers retorting, "What do you mean? I'm struggling up here, child, and you 'love it'?" Later, when she first heard the elaborate backing to her Knock on Wood remake, she popped off, "My dear, that is fierce. Why don't you just do an instrumental?"
Now, with that hit behind her, Amii is easing up. Some days she manages to pull her 5'6" body out of bed before lunch. "I'm like a bear that hibernates," she says. Afternoons, when she isn't out rehearsing, recording or promoting her music, she works out—"It's like a fix." Her one-bedroom apartment is in a fashionable section of London but isn't much inside, and Amii figures on "buying a villa" when her royalty checks come in.
Until then her hotel-supplier boyfriend of 18 months makes the pad more cozy. "He has a key and sometimes when I get back he's here and sometimes not," she reports casually. Still, Stewart has a maternal streak that may force a commitment. "I adore children so much, I ought to be a kidnapper," she laughs. "I'll raise them like my mother raised me: Do what your heart says to do."
The fifth of six children, Stewart "didn't have too many friends" while growing up in Washington, "but didn't really care." Her father taught her music when he wasn't working at the Pentagon on "secret stuff," printing confidential documents. Amii (the spelling was her improvisation, because there was another Amy Stewart in Equity) began to dance at 9. Her junior high guidance counselors told her to forget show business, saying, "You've been watching too much television." But her high school principal (an uncle) rearranged her schedule so she could study dance in the afternoons.
After two years at Howard University Amii dropped out to work full-time with the D.C. Repertory Dance Company, where she learned modern and ballet from teachers like Louis Johnson, who choreographed the movie version of The Wiz. In 1975 she hit the road with Bubbling Brown Sugar, first in Florida, then on Broadway, finally in London—where she also doubled as the assistant director and dance captain.
Amii plans to stay in London since she feels "it gives me a bit of mystique." But at first she found it "a culture shock. When I got here, it took me a long time to see one of those dark little faces and I was looking hard," she says. Amii pined for Open Pit barbecue sauce, grits and Jiffy corn muffin mix. Now she's more reconciled to the city's lack of soul, and working on another album and her own stage show. Stewart also hopes to do some acting and ultimately try directing. Why all the frantic diversification? "I don't want to be billed as a disco queen. Disco is going to die sooner or later," Amii says, matter-of-factly. Besides, she adds: "I am a total artist."
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