How a pop star evolves

Cyndi Lauper, above, will perform at Chumash Casino on Aug. 26.
Cyndi Lauper, above, will perform at Chumash Casino on Aug. 26. COURTESY PHOTO

During the Huey Lewis and the News concert at the Chumash Casino a couple of weeks ago, the band kicked off its set with four songs from an upcoming album, leading some in the crowd to murmur, “Play the old stuff!”

Cyndi Lauper also plans to perform new songs at the Chumash. And like Huey Lewis, Lauper’s “new” songs are actually covers of old songs. But she doesn’t expect any calls for “She Bop,” having made clear that this is not a greatest hits show.

“This is a blues tour,” she said. “And the musicians I have with me are some of the greatest blues guys.”

While most of the set list features songs from “Memphis Blues,” at the end of the show, Lauper will sing some of her hits — “in a blues kind of way,” she said. (In past shows, the hits portion has included “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” “True Colors” and “Time After Time.”)

It’s no surprise that Lauper would mix things up a bit. After all, this is the same performer who drastically changed her look and music soon after her debut smash “She’s So Unusual.”

“Change is wonderful,” she said in her trademark Brooklyn accent. “Everything changes in the world, and that’s good. And also I didn’t want to just stamp out the same thing over and over, because I was really hoping to become a great artist someday.”

Raised in Queens, Lauper began her career belting out Janis Joplin covers. But before she even got famous, she suffered a collapsed vocal chord in 1977. A doctor suggested she sing softer country and western tunes, but she wasn’t into that.

“I found a vocal teacher who taught vocal therapy, and I studied that for the past 20-odd years, on and off,” she said in a phone interview.

Her vocals restored, she began writing her own music with keyboardist John Turi as part of the band Blue Angel. While the duo generated a nice New York following, the band’s debut album flopped, Lauper declared bankruptcy and the band split. Later, she met manager David Wolff, who would help make her a solo star.

She was already 30 when “She’s So Unusual” hit the charts in 1983. But her baby doll voice, orange hair and funky thrift store fashion made her seem younger. Meanwhile, her reconfigured “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” — originally written from a man’s viewpoint by Robert Hazard— became a girl power anthem. Others hits from the album included a cover of a Prince song, “When You Were Mine,” “Time After Time” (featuring Wolff, who had become Lauper’s love interest in the video), “All

Through the Night” and “She Bop.”

Long before “Seinfeld” took the taboo out of masturbation in its episode “The Contest,” “She Bop” was an ode to self love, though thinly disguised as such.

“I wanted to write a song that adults could listen to one way and children could listen to another,” she said. “And to me that’s the best part of writing. Even in the blues, it’s all written in code. Nothing is overt. I mean, they can be talking about this, but they ain’t really talking about that.”

After the wild success of “She’s So Unusual,” Lauper scaled back her ragtag look, stopped promoting wrestlers, and veered toward a softer, adult contemporary sound with the “True Colors” album in 1986. By 1993’s “Hat Full of Stars” album, she had started writing about more serious topics like homophobia, racism, spousal abuse and abortion.

“That was like my second coming,” she said. “That’s when I actually came out and started singing in the rhythm of my own speech.”

Later, she would release “At Last,” a soft rock/standards cover album, and “Bring Ya To the Brink,” a dance record. While those albums showcased her diversity and underrated vocal range, none matched the commercial success of “She’s So Unusual,” and she faded from the public eye.

But a recent appearance on “Celebrity Apprentice 3” and her star-studded True Colors benefit tours have helped Lauper stage a comeback. “Memphis Blues,” which quickly shot to the top of the Billboard blues chart, continues the trend.

Lauper recorded the album at the Electraphonic Studios in Memphis, using 8-track tape and guests artists such as B.B. King, Ann Peebles and Jonny Lang.

“I always knew (Lauper) was a great singer,” Lang told the Tribune in May. “But she surprised me big time. She was incredible. She understands the old stuff so well — I wasn’t expecting that.”

Featuring familiar blues tunes such as “Crossroads,” “Down Don’t Bother Me” and “Early in the Mornin,” Lauper chose uplifting songs she thought would apply to today’s bleak economic times. Meanwhile, she wanted to pull away from heavy production, so songs were recorded live in one whole take, without overdubs.

“To make this music come alive, you don’t want to study it and beat it to death,” she said. “It needs to have a life, and it needs to be magical and feel otherworldly and suck you in. And the only way to do that is to have the moment of discovery on tape. And if you go back and fix this and fix that, all of a sudden it just gets a little too smooth and slick and saccharine-y.”

Her live shows, she said, are capturing that, thanks to blues musicians including harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite, Booker T. and the M.G.’s drummer Steve Potts, and Isaac Hayes guitarist Michael Toles.

Now dug deeply into her comeback, Lauper’s roll isn’t likely to be short-lived. She is currently composing music for Harvey Firestein’s musical “Kinky Boots,” she’s writing an autobiography, which will be released by Simon & Schuster, and she will soon have her own reality show.

At 57, she apparently has no plans to slow down.

“Joints are jumpin’,” she said.

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.

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