(I took the liberty of editing this 2013 article just a little. Big thanks to Greg Tate for sharing it. It generated a heated debate on who really sang on the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, which is barely mentioned here…)
In the summer of 1964, Emmaretta Marks pulled off her white gloves and took a walk on the wild side.
The Howard University freshman was visiting family in Manhattan. Walking past the Paramount Theater, Marks stopped where a crowd had gathered to see the rock group The Animals. A guard let her in, and she was enthralled by the group’s raw musicianship. Dressed in white gloves and stockings and wearing pumps, she felt out of place with the audience, but she loved what she was feeling. The helpful guard brought her back to Eric Burden’s dressing room. That day, the course of her life changed forever.
Tossing aside a possible career in fine arts and English, her two majors, she never returned to Howard. Marks began an affair with Eric Burden, lead singer of The Animals, and decided to stay in New York. She wanted to find herself in this new world she had just discovered. She thought she’d try her luck at singing and dancing with rock musicians; her luck was good. Her first job was with Al Cooper’s Blues Project. From there, she went to singing and dancing in the original cast of “Hair.” Next, she sang on the original recording of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Marks also sang for a few years with Ike and Tina Turner.
How did her middle-class parents — her elementary teacher mother and electrical business owner father — react to her decision to drop out of college? “They sent me checks until I got on my feet.” In between the big acts, there were small ones. She danced and choreographed a West Coast television teen dance show. She danced in a glass cage at Los Angeles’ Whiskey A Go Go, a bit that got her a movie credit in “The Tantrum.” “I had all these musical influences. I was born in the 1940s. My mother was into jazz, Cab Calloway. She played records, the radio, and she also played piano, popular sheet music. She would pick out songs, and I would sing.” Marks also studied ballet, toe and tap as a child.
Boyfriends came and went. After Burden, there was Rolling Stones bass player, Bill Wyman, whom she met at the New York discotheque Ondine. Their relationship was interrupted when the Rolling Stones were refused entry into the United States, following drug charges. When they finally did return, Emmy, as she was known in the tabloids, was nursing Brian Jones back to health after a bad drug trip. “Bill didn’t understand. I was helping a fellow human being.”
There was a short-lived marriage. There were a couple of miscarriages. One day, again, she was walking down a busy Manhattan street and she stopped to chat with a cast member from “Hair.” Jeanette Jacobs was then singing in the all girl group The Cake. On her arm was a tall, lanky fellow named Jimi Hendrix.
“Jeanette said, ‘We haven’t eaten in three days. I didn’t get paid, and we have a cat’. I had $3 in my pocket, and that’s all I had. I gave it to them and told them to go buy three cans of tuna so the cat could eat too. This was even before I knew he was a guitar player. They were just hungry!” Kindness led to friendship. Hendrix started giving Marks his lyrics as he wrote them, a page at a time, for her to correct the spelling or grammar. He had never finished high school. “He liked the way I spoke.”
From song editing, Marks began songwriting with Hendrix, working in his downtown Manhattan office on East 27th Street. She sang on his later recordings. A new musical project was planned for Hendrix’s return from England in the fall, 1970. Marks’ boyfriend, George Leery, was to play drums on the new takes. “We were waiting for him to come home from England to New York. I had the keys to his car, to his apartment. He said he would be back in nine days.”
Hendrix died Sept. 18, 1970, at age 27. The official cause of death was barbiturate-related asphyxia. Again, Marks’ life would change. “I heard it on the radio. I was in shock,” said Marks. “That day, I had to go to Godspell for an audition. I broke down and cried. They told me to come back. I never did.” Instead, Marks and Leery packed up, left Manhattan and moved to Woodstock, N.Y. They started playing the upstate circuit. Marks sang with Levon Helm and The Band. She also got to do what she had wanted to do since she was a little girl.
“I sang Top 40,” she said, with a gleam in her eyes.
“White Boys” from HAIR – Emmaretta Marks, Lorrie Davis and Melba Moore | Photo Credit: Friedman-Abeles
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Singer and actor Emmaretta Marks and her drummer, George Leery, a longtime companion, have a getaway in Woodstock, N.Y.
If you go …
Where: Harmony Cafe, 52 Mill Hill Road, Woodstock, N.Y.
When: Occasional performances at open mic on Wednesday evenings.
Information: (845) 679-7760