How Sweet Rachel Is—What Other Rock Star Would Go Home and Play Akron Graffiti?

updated 09/08/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/08/1980 01:00AM

On one of her first showbiz paydays, Akron's Rachel Sweet left a TV talent show with an electronic garage-door opener under her arm. Already ahead of her time—age 6—she sang I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. "I didn't even win," Rachel recalls. "I was third, behind some lady who did Climb Every Mountain.''

Sweet is 18 now and though she still doesn't use the door opener or even drive, her raw, propulsive rock-from-the-heels power has rolled her through all kinds of portals from Rubber City to the New Wave.

The only real complaint about Fool Around, her debut LP, was that she was "covering" works by artists like Carla Thomas and Dusty Springfield. "Nobody ever said that about Frank Sinatra," Rachel notes, but nevertheless she made a point of writing several songs of her own, including the teen-love chant Tonight Ricky, for her recent follow-up, Protect the Innocent. It has already sold a solid 75,000, and finally established Sweet (in the words of one critic) as "very much her own woman."

Though having won praise and a following for her sound, Rachel is still trying to shed what she calls her "jail-bait" image. "I've never been a punk rocker—or a nice little girl either," she says. On her recent summer tour, she strutted her stuff in jeans and a football jersey. "If I have to wear Spandex to be taken seriously, what is this world coming to?" But at least one of Rachel's fans—Grandma Sonia Sweet—would prefer clingy bodywear to another alternative. "She told me it's all cool," says Sweet, "as long as I don't do nude layouts in Playboy."

Akron—the city that has also given the music world Devo and the Pretenders' raunchy Chrissie Hynde—almost lost Rachel after what she describes as "five dreadful years" of piano lessons. Besides, she was already getting acting work in summer stock and TV spots in New York for Frigidaire, GE washers, Dole bananas and assorted junk foods. While in Florida one summer with her family, she walked into Joe Namath's Bachelors III club and demanded an audition with the manager. ("I'm not quite as forward as I used to be," she assures.) That night, at age 9, she performed with singer Frankie Valli—"and made five bucks, which was more important."

A year later Rachel joined Mickey Rooney on the supper club circuit. "I would sing five songs your mother would love, and then I'd say, 'Here's Mickey.' It was very shticky," she recalls. The partnership soured irreparably when Rachel turned up one night clutching a flashy new cabaret costume. "I had designed these outfits—sequin halter tops and sequin bell-bottom pants," she explains. "He sent his secretary out to buy me two little skirts, bobby socks and patent leather shoes."

After a short stint in Reno with Bill Cosby ("Much better—he treated me like a person") and an unsuccessful recording effort in Nashville, Rachel enrolled in Akron's Firestone High and began tending to her schoolteacher mother, who had come down with cancer. "I spent a lot of time learning how to give shots and things," Rachel remembers sadly. "To this day it really bothers me when I have to ride in a limousine. The only time I ever rode in one until a year ago was at my mom's funeral."

Though Sweet had been pulling an A average, she quit 11th grade after her mother's death in 1978. Talent scouts from England's Stiff label had heard her demo tape, then caught her belting tunes at a county fair and signed her to cut her Fool Around album amid the thriving New Wave scene in London.

That filled, but didn't turn, Rachel's head. She's back in Akron now, living in a three-bedroom home with brother Dan, 20, her stage manager, and her father, Dick Sweet, an ex-schoolteacher and later a masonry contractor and disco owner. Now his full-time job is managing his daughter. The other Sweet, sister Lia, 19, is off at Ohio State, so Rachel has filled her half of their shared bedroom with a new $4,500 electric grand piano, her one extravagance. "I could probably buy a Rolls," she shrugs, "but it would stretch my pocketbook. So many other things are more important." (She bought Lia a birthday diamond, and says she counts on donating "a lot" to cancer research.)

Rachel begins work on a new LP later this month and she's scanning a half-dozen scripts for possible movie roles. That leaves little time to visit with old schoolmates. "I still like to hang around with my friends when I'm home," she asserts. "I know what's going on—who likes who." Mostly, though, "the rock'n'roll life is never knowing what's going to happen. All my friends know they're going to be out at the pool. I know I'm not going to get out to the pool."

During breaks in her schedule, she sometimes heads for the Akron movie theaters. "I am a big fan of really scary films, although I can't stand the prices," she complains. "Last year I got in as 'under 12.' " Dates are strictly casual. "I haven't had a boyfriend since my homecoming dance last year," she insists. "It's very hard to have any sort of relationship when you're on the road or you have a career like this." Lest gentlemen fans try all the same, her father sticks close during tours and acts as chaperon "when I need one, which he seems to think is a lot more often than I do."

With her profits, Rachel plans to exit Akron later this year and buy her own Manhattan co-op. The move, she hopes, will serve notice that she has left adolescence as well. "Other artists are taken for what they are and not for their age," Rachel observes. "I can't seem to grow older quick enough. I pray for 21."

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