Donna, could you give the readers some background on yourself?
Donna Destri: I was born in the wagon of a traveling show, my momma used to dance for the money they’d throw…No honestly, I grew up in Brooklyn during the early 60’s, the time of the British Invasion. It was such a special time for music and naturally, as a child, I mimicked the singers of the era…Dusty Springfield and Lulu were among my favorites; however, I also liked legends like Peggy Lee and Julie London. My Grandmother would always make me sing songs (especially girl group tunes) at family gatherings and I was a little ham. I guess you can say I come from a musical family. My mother and father always had music playing in the house and my uncle, who lived downstairs from us, was the drummer for Joey Dee and the Starlighters of Peppermint Twist fame. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of him taking me to rehearsals at the Peppermint Lounge and little me sipping Cokes with bee-hived women who hung around the musicians there. I was completely enthralled with that life. I thought it was so very glamorous. During the early seventies, when I was just about to enter high school, I hung out with a group of really tough chicks who had angelic voices…we would harmonize into the night and mimic all of the girl group songs. At that same time, my brother Jimmy was in bands, rehearsing loudly in the basement of our house to the utter dismay of my parents. It was at this time that my best friend Paul Zone told me that his brother Miki loved the way I looked (I had Marc Bolan hair, glam clothing, and Miki was very into T Rex at the time) and wanted to know if I would play keyboards in his band, The Fast. I played enough piano to get by and I joined the band.
However, my stint with them was short lived. Nonetheless, I continued to hang with Paul and his brothers and they took me to see the New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center. That was and is such a special moment in Rock and Roll History as far as I’m concerned. I’d never seen anything like the Dolls before. We continued to go to all of their gigs in NY and the Fast were also doing many gigs at that time, so we all became an integral part of that downtown rock scene which later became the Punk/New Wave scene. I consider myself very fortunate to have been in the front row during that musical period in NY history. It truly was a magical time that, in my opinion, has never nor can never be reproduced.
The world is currently struggling to make a time-line of your contributions to the music scene, could you help?
Donna Destri: I don’t like timelines! I prefer to think of time as a mythical construct created by naïve humans to make sense of what we are as yet incapable of understanding. I prefer to regard time as circular, not linear. I guess I’m feeling this way because I’m hyper sensitive about middle age these days, but if it helps I’ll tell you some of the things I’ve done over the years…
Shortly after Paul took me to see the Dolls, I got a job as a cashier/waitress at Max’s Kansas City. I was working there, doing all sorts of crazy shifts and getting tired of commuting to Brooklyn and imposing on friends like Phyllis Stein who was always letting me crash at her apartment. I felt I was living like a homeless person, so I eventually moved into an East Village apartment with my friend Janie Heath who was an NYU student at the time and needed a roommate.
The apartment was on St. Marks Place…I called that block Punk Street USA because it was home to Trash and Vaudeville and Manic Panic…two of the best punk shops in the city.
My first real music gig, shortly after moving to the city from Brooklyn, was in a show called New Wave Vaudeville. That show was orchestrated by Ann Magnuson, Susan Hanniford, Tom Scully and Andy Reese (a genius choreographer who is sadly no longer with us) and starred Klaus Nomi, Paul Zone, and Kristian Hoffman of the Mumps, among others. I got to sing one song initially, and then two and I got bit by the showbiz bug and decided to do a gig at Max’s Kansas City. That first gig had Jimmy playing keyboards and Frank Infante and Miki Zone on guitars. Later I would do a couple of gigs with Phillipe Marcade of the Senders on drums and Steve Shevlin (also of the Senders) on bass. Eventually, I started a band called Voodoo Shoes. Voodoo Shoes was a power pop band and we had some great songs that were written by Walter Lure’s brother Richie. It was at this time that I started to write songs as well and Richie was a big help as well as an influence. We played the Max’s/CBGB’s/Hurrah/Danceteria etc. circuit for a long while. Often Johnny Thunders would come up on stage and play with us. Around this time, Debbie Harry set me up with an audition with her friend and former mentor, Tony Ingrassia and I got a part in his play Sheila. I had to go to Berlin to do the show. Ingrassia was one of the Warhol people who directed and wrote the play Pork which Cherry Vanilla starred in. I was always enamored with those Warhol people (particularly Joe Dallesandro who every girl in NY had a crush on back then) so it was a great thrill to actually work with them. Later on I would work with Holly Woodlawn, another Warhol superstar, singing backup for her on several occasions.
Cherry also came to Berlin to be in Sheila along with Joy Ryder and Jayne County. It was in Berlin that I became really close to Cherry, Jayne and Joy and we’ve remained friends all these years. When I got back from Berlin, the Voodoo Shoes disbanded and I started to do gigs with Gabriel Rotello and the Uptown Horns as a backing band. During this time, Cherry also organized the Girl’s Night Out gigs at the Ritz and Limelight, using the Uptown Horns as a backing band. Those gigs were monumental. At one point Tina Turner was in the audience as we all sang back up for Ronnie Spector on Be My Baby. It was transcendental. Max’s Kansas City eventually closed and yet another scene emerged…the artsy Club 57/Pyramid scene. It was there that I met Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman who asked me to be in their play Living Dolls. Of all the people I’ve worked with over the years, Marc gave me the most confidence about my singing. He and Tony Zanetta (also of Warhol fame) helped me to put together a one woman show called Diary of a Bad Housewife. Marc played piano and Tony directed. The show was a funny dialogue interspersed with songs. I was brave in those days…
What track has been the most fun for you to record? You’ve worked with everyone, correct?
Donna Destri: I always enjoyed working with Paul and Miki Zone. I sang on so many of their songs…including additional vocals on their British hit Male Stripper. The backing vocals I’m most proud of though, are on Blondie’s comeback album, No Exit. I love singing backup. It’s like putting eyeliner on an already beautiful eye, or a frame on a picture…Corny analogies I know, but backup vocals really do enhance a lead vocal and I think I’m happiest behind the scenes.
Punk Globe: Can we talk about Blondie? You’ve sung background vocals with them off and on since 1979…
Donna Destri: Well I’ve always admired Debbie as a singer. I remember seeing her in her group Stiletto and thinking that she had star quality. Then I saw her a couple of years later in an early incarnation of Blondie (before Jimmy) and I thought, my God this woman is so gorgeous and her voice so distinctive…When Jimmy was thinking about quitting the band early on (I think Talking Heads were courting him) I did my best to talk him out of it because I knew instinctively that Debbie would be huge. I liked singing with Debbie because I think our voices blend really well.
Punk Globe: Besides the background vocals you’ve done, you were signed to MainMan in their last wave of productions. You recorded a cover of “Rebel Rebel”…
Donna Destri: Yes MainMan. I know that many people think Tony Defries is the devil incarnate, but he was actually quite nice to me. I think I’m the only artist that parted with him with severance pay. He gave me several thousand dollars to get my life back on track and for that I will always be grateful. I didn’t want to cover Rebel Rebel and I think it’s painfully apparent in the vocal performance. I wanted to do an early Bowie song like In the Heat of the Morning, or Can’t Help Thinking about Me but Defries did not have the publishing on those tunes. I can’t listen to Rebel Rebel…to this day. The video was fun to do, however. Incidentally, it won first prize at the Houston Film Festival.
The track was produced by Man Parish, was this the first dance-track you recorded?
Donna Destri: Yes it was. During my time with Voodoo Shoes, Bobby Orlando approached me to do a solo dance tune and I stupidly refused. I considered myself a hard core rocker. When Defries suggested Rebel Rebel, I wanted to do a different arrangement of it because so many people had already covered it and used the original arrangement. A dance track seemed most logical. Rebel Rebel did reach the top twenty in some dance charts around the country back then. Manny’s production was instrumental in that.
Punk Globe: MainMan was a huge management corporation, what were your thoughts after you were “signed?”
Donna Destri: Well, here’s a little secret…I never actually “signed” with Tony. I knew from experience (being so close to the Blondie manager from hell experience) that I would be in debt for 50% of everything I made once I signed that contract, so it kept getting put off. As it turned out, I never made anything anyway. As far as the MainMan experience, I had great respect for everyone in that organization. People like Lee Childers, Jamie Andrews, Tony Zanetta, Cherry and of course Angela Bowie were instrumental in creating the Ziggy persona and it worked. I learned a lot from Defries. He was sort of trying to reproduce the old Hollywood studio machine. He sent me for dance lessons, personal training sessions, hair and makeup sessions. To Tony image was everything, I think before talent sometimes. However, he did rather like my songs. I remember Tony telling me that I must never leave the house without being completely done…hair, makeup etc. because you never know who you’re going to bump into. That’s a rule I still live by.
Punk Globe: A music video was also produced for the song. It features you in a sexy, black, leather suit; do you still strut your stuff around town in it?
Donna Destri: Hardly!...although I still have those pants and they still fit, I’m proud to say! I wish I had the jacket. Those motorcycle jackets are a fortune now.
You retired from the music biz for a while…
Donna Destri: Yes I got married and had a child who’s twenty one now! The marriage didn’t work out and I found myself having to support myself, so I went back to school and got a Master’s Degree in Literature, so I could teach. I was toying with the idea of doing the PhD, but Academia can be so freaking boring! I do have half of my dissertation written…It’s about Dante’s Pagan references in the Divine Comedy and his association with The Fidele d’ Amore. I attempt to prove that they were an underground anti-Catholic sect, similar to the Troubadours…riveting right??
Punk Globe: …BUT now you are back, and releasing a track soon… What’s the scoop?
Donna Destri: Well actually, I became friends with the producer Steven Jones on Facebook. I liked the quality of the stuff he was doing and would comment on his posts frequently. I asked him who his producer was and that’s when he asked me to sing on one of his tracks. I liked the song, so the rest will, hopefully, be history.
Can we expect a world tour to follow? I understand Bowie is looking for an opening act…
Donna Destri: Oh my goodness...that’s getting ahead of things. For the most part, I like to concentrate on the moment. Still, I would like to go to England for a while…
Punk Globe: Thanks for the time Ms. Donna, any words for the readers out there?
Donna Destri: Well, for a long time I didn’t sing or write music and for a long time I was very unhappy. I think when you do the things you love to do, you find happiness in every other area of your life. The universe will not reward you if you don’t celebrate your imagination. So there!