Lipps Inc., Disco's Littlest, Oddest Conglomerate, Turns Minneapolis into An Unlikely 'Funkytown'

updated 07/28/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/28/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It sounds like a Kiss knockoff or maybe a Suzy Chaffee music act, but Lipps Inc. doesn't depend on its coy name (lip synch, get it?) for recognition. Indeed, despite its corporate tag, the Fortune 500 is about the only chart Lipps hasn't conquered since its single, Funkytown, became the year's most hard-to-avoid hit. Thanks to a danceable double dose of thumping drums and high-pitched vocals, Funkytown topped not only the disco but the pop and soul listings as well. The song also pumped Lipps' first album, Mouth to Mouth, past platinum. And worse, some critics might say, it provided temporary resuscitation to fast-disappearing disco.

The funkiest fact about Lipps is its origins: The group includes only one main mouth, no band at all, and the town is Minneapolis. Vocalist Cynthia Johnson, 24, was a police department secretary and weekend performer when she heard that another local musician, Steve Greenberg, 29, was auditioning singers. After picking Johnson for her full-throated vocals last year, Greenberg laid down five instrument tracks himself, added others, then took the shrewd mix to Casablanca Records executive Bruce Bird. "Bird called everyone in, from the secretaries to the vice-presidents," remembers Greenberg, "and they were all packed into this little office, dancing around. I'm in a corner, sweat pouring off my body, thinking this is what I've waited all my life for."

The son of a wealthy Minneapolis businessman who died in a 1971 car crash, Greenberg had long fought off pressure to join his brother in the family storage business. His mother, Leonora, though, was once a champion banjo player and used to jam with his band in high school. For eight years he played in local groups before putting together a mobile disco operation and then a production company that failed after a year. With Lipps' breakthrough, however, he has now hired his former wife, Joyce Lapinsky, to help in the office and has traded up from his pad in a singles complex to a new three-bedroom house.

Cynthia is house-hunting even more urgently. She and her husband, contractor Ted Morgan, 23, are expecting their first child next month. Cynthia started singing in the Mount Olivet Baptist Church choir (and still solos at weddings and funerals) and took up the saxophone when her fourth-grade teacher ran out of "girls' instruments." Her divorced mother, a 3M chemist, was horrified. Yet Cynthia's sax skills helped her become Miss Black Minnesota U.S.A. in 1976 and got her seven years of weekend work with a local group, Flyt-Tyme, before she met Greenberg.

The two still haven't agreed upon the final details of their contract ("It'll get right," assures Cynthia), but the Lipps Inc.-ers are already cutting a new LP, tentatively titled Pucker Up, for September release. Greenberg is also putting together a six-member band to duplicate his studio sound for a tour this fall. "I used to drive by the studio all the time and think, 'Oh, if I could just get in there for five minutes,' " he sighs. "Now I think, 'Oh, if I could just get out of here.' "

Neither Greenberg nor Johnson, however, is ready to leave homey Minneapolis. "I'm glad I live in Minnesota," says Cynthia. "Nobody knows me. I can walk to the store. I need this time to get my head together." And Steven? "I'm just sitting here in the Midwest writing music," he says. "Funk is a rhythm I hear."

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