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Taylor Dayne
Before reinventing herself as Taylor Dayne, Leslie Wunderman released some dance singles under the name Les Lee. Teaming up with producer Ric Wake, she got a record deal from Clive Davis when her first effort, "Tell It To My Heart," became a surprise global hit.

Part of the Arista Records "machine," by 1991 she had 7 Top-10 hits, including the classics "Love Will Lead You Back" and "I'll Be Your Shelter." In 2007, her song "Beautiful" topped the dance charts.

Taylor takes us inside the machine - the hits, the videos, the marketing - and explains what it's like to become a huge star in a hurry with a whole new persona.

Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Seth Swirsky, who wrote "Tell It To My Heart," told us about how the song took off, and we wanted to get your side of that.

Taylor Dayne: I met Seth, I think at my first press - like a big spread in Newsday of this overnight sensation. But for me – I met a guy that I went to high school with on the West Side Highway. His name was Anthony, and he had just wrapped up a gig working over at Warner Chappell Publishing. I had done a couple of 12-inch singles by then under Les Lee. He was like, "Well, let me call a friend of mine that's still over there." We had already known how to work the 12-inch market: releasing a single and the club play and going for the mix shows and the midnight shows. So we had a promotional base we were working through; Ric Wake and I had buddied up at that point and had been working together on a couple of singles, and he was putting me on a lot of tracks he was starting to get production on, at least in background vocals. So "Tell It To My Heart" was on one of these tapes that this woman Mary gave me from Warner Chappell. It was on a list of stuff, and I said, "Ric, what do you think?" He goes, "This is the one. I feel this has the strength to at least cross over and maybe get us some radio appeal," or for getting bought by one of the majors; that was always the thing, we were looking at the Tommy Boys and the Jives then - I was doing indies way back then, and production deals.

So we went to my dad, we said, "Dad, lend us such and such amount of money," which was about $6,000. We knew what to do, and at least we knew we could pay him back. I'd be singing in the clubs at least, and then we could potentially get it sold to a label, but we knew we'd at least have that record. We went through a couple of promotion meetings, and the one that ended up sealing the deal was with Brad LeBeau, he was going to do the promo on the record. We made a deal with him, and then a little guy named Andy Furman took me over to Clive Davis' offices, or at least over to Arista, and I got a singles deal.

SF: So they just signed you for the single?

Taylor: Oh, God, they signed me for the single, single-option album.

SF: What does that mean?

Taylor: That means that they never did that again. (laughing) It means if you look at the original artwork for "Tell It To My Heart," I don't even have a picture on there. It's just a black cover with graffiti-esque colors of the rainbow and my name: "Taylor Dayne." No pic. It was released in Europe first in, I think, the summer of '87. It blew up and started going Number 1 throughout the rest of the world. And Clive and the rest of the company realized, "Holy shit, we have no record." And "how much can we make running singles?" They realized a phenomenon started. I'd been in Europe back and forth for the first six months of the single release, and then they released it in the United States. I was signed to a single-option album, and then that album came quicker than we thought. So did those negotiations and the changes and my career.

SF: So all of the sudden, you're thrust into this machine with Arista Records, what's that like?

Taylor: What was it like? It was like within a year's time I was opening up for Michael Jackson, who was at the height of his career with the Bad tour. And I was on the road; I remember I never came home for about 15 months.

SF: At what point did you stop becoming Les Lee and become Taylor Dayne?

Taylor: When I signed that dotted line and my dad gave me the money and I knew it wasn't going to happen that way anymore. There was something instinctually inside me. I just wanted to be somebody new. And at the same time you're inventing this persona. And that's what Ric and I did. And really, realistically, I don't know how we came up with Taylor Dayne. There's a long story behind that with Dee Snider and studios and what we were doing. But I guess I wanted to reinvent myself way back then. A baby book came up with "Dayne," but that was all based on that single and just moving forward.

SF: Do you go to the town hall and legally change your name, or does that just become a stage name?
(One of the "Les Lee" 12" singles.)
Taylor: At that point it was a stage name, just like what the studios used to do in the day. But I ultimately, within 2 years' time, changed it legally. Too confusing. (laughs)

SF: I think it's really interesting that you took a whole 'nother name. I mean, do your friends keep calling you Leslie?

Taylor: Well, look at Marilyn Monroe. And Lady GaGa ain't Lady GaGa. It's a fascinating thing. But I had legal things out with Leslie, I had a production deal under that, and I had singles out under Les Lee, I guess you could say Wunderman. But really you're inventing something. You're creating this entity – this artist, if you will - and that's what it was. Maybe subconsciously I wanted to leave something behind and move into something, which doesn't surprise me, knowing me.

SF: When did you first start writing songs?

Taylor: Oh, we were writing then. Even those 12-inches. Like, "I'm The One You Want" and "Tell Me Can You Love Me" all that stuff. But once you get into the machine, the machine doesn't want to break it. Here's the thing with writing: I'm not gonna sit there and say I was a singer/songwriter. But you want to become part of your process, because the process is so personal. I'm comfortable with saying yes, I'm one of the great singers. I'm very comfortable with that; that was always a gift and was something I treasured, and I also did the work to enhance it and work with this gift. So I was very comfortable singing other people's material. That's the interpretive part of it. But you want to become part of the process, because you're continuing to grow and make music. So the point is you have to be able to tell your truth; a truer story, something that's reflective of who you are at the time. That's what they should do, that's what they should appeal to. I mean, yes, we look at a lot of the records and we go, "Oh, it's just a pop machine." Which they are. But look at the Beatles, and you can't compare to that. There's a process to getting great with something. It's a muscle, you flex it, you practice it, you get in with great people. The pop world is very track related, but you can never dismiss it, a great song is a great song.

SF: Yes, and you speak about how it's an expression of yourself with these songs, and when you listen to a song like "I'll Always Love You," it's very hard to think you didn't contribute to it.

Taylor: Yeah, well, I'll be the first to tell you I didn't get that song at all. But you're talking about a 20-year-old girl that's all of the sudden told "sing this song." I'm like, are you kidding me? I'm coming from "Tell it To My Heart," "Prove Your Love," and you want me to sing this? I just didn't get it, but Clive did. That's a maturity factor. I didn't get that song, but the rest of the world did.

SF: What about "Love Will Lead You Back"?

Taylor: Well, by that time it was considered the sophomore years, this was my sophomore record. That was more like 1989, so at that point you're talking 3 years of really understanding, seeing more publicly what really moves people. You're part of the machine, and the machine's moving with or without you, because I was in that pop world. But I also understood that a great ballad, a great song like that can touch millions of people in such a way that you'll never understand, you can't comprehend. Yet you can look at your own history, like myself personally, and think of the songs that have moved me. "Love Will Lead You Back" was instant for me. I remember sitting there with Clive and he played me "Love Will Lead You Back" and that's one of Diane's biggest gems. Just one of those incredible, incredible songs.

SF: Do you know Diane Warren or have any collaboration with her?

Taylor: Do I know her? 100%. Diane is probably one of the most passionate, involved songwriters I've ever met in my entire life. She was calling the studio on that first record. We had no idea who she was, we just knew that this girl was Tenacious D. That's what we call her. She is Tenacious D right there.

SF: You went through a very intense period both personally and professionally in those five years starting around '85. And when you hear those songs and you hear your performance, it's just very hard to believe that there's not a piece of you in there.

Taylor: I studied classical music. I didn't write "The Marriage of Figaro," but I sure as hell got up there and sang my ass off on Puccini. Because that's your job. That's where your heart is. That's the difference. I remember sitting there with my vocal coach at one point, because I was studying classically, operatically, and there were a lot of his opera students that had technical expertise, but they didn't have the heart; it didn't come across. There was something extra, something else. There's a technical expertise, and then there's the heart. And it comes right through. I mean, I don't think Alicia Keys is a great singer, but, man, it just comes right through. She's achin' when she's singing her story. And of course they're her stories – she has that extra added bonus of being a great writer. My point is, though, she's not considered one of the great signers. She's not Whitney or Mariah, but at the same time, you know it's Alicia. Her soul is in there, and you just feel it.

SF: How come it took until 1993 to release a third album (Soul Dancing)?

Taylor: We were running singles up into late '91. In those days you're running a year-plus on touring and promotion. It was 3 months in between each single.

SF: So it wasn't like you were inactive.

Taylor: We were pushing 4 singles per record, so at that point it was wow, where are we gonna go? What are we gonna do? And that was the collaboration process. That's where I was coming in and starting to really collaborate with Soul Dancing and really wanting to stretch. And I think at some point the artist deserves the right to at least get in there without sabotaging themselves. That was always the thing: don't sabotage what we have. But at the same time, the cycle was changing. It was going out of the '80s from that whole pop/dance market, and there was a little city called Seattle that started popping some interesting stuff. Things were toning down, things were going in a different direction. And urban music was really pumping - the L.A. Reid, Babyface camp started really coming together. Hip-hop started dominating, and then you had the singer/songwriter period. I think Sheryl Crow broke '93 or '94.

It was changing, but that's the way it goes. Since about '99 it started turning back into the pop world, you started having your boy bands, your Britneys, all that stuff, and it started turning around again.

SF: You talked about how you always had this gift, and nobody ever questioned your vocal talent. And I think you've even mentioned about how it was almost ordained that you were going to be a singer. Can you talk about when you started singing?

Taylor DayneTaylor: I was born doing it. I grew up in Long Island, and my parents were very involved in independent theatre: the Manhattan Theatre Group, the Pap Theatre, La Mome. Every Sunday was called Family Day. We schlepped into the city, and for better or for worse, what an exposure for me. Because there it was. I saw some of the greatest theatre. I saw "Ain't Misbehavin'" in a little cabaret by the time I was 14-15 and some very avant garde, off-off-Broadway pieces. That's the way my parents wanted us to see the arts. And we experienced it through their eyes.

By 4 or 5 I was singing along with the radio, it was very evident. My dad gave me my first radio, and I turned it on and there was Stevie Wonder. I'll never forget it. I grew up in New York and that was WABC Music, that was our pop station. As I grew older, I started going into a little bit more of a rock direction and our top 40 went in a different direction for a period of time - it was more of the supergroups, the Jethro Tull, the Yes and all that. But I had my first solo by first grade. And in fourth grade I was singing Jacques Brel. Go figure. But it was a gift, and it was my salvation. It was my voice, it was my ability to have something to say and have a tool to express myself in the midst of all the chaos which was my home life. As much as my parents gave and were supportive of my arts and talents, it was a difficult home life. There was a lot of chaos going on in the family. So this was all mine, nobody else's.

SF: You've talked about how you've sung different types of songs. How has your music has evolved over the years?

Taylor: Well, it's funny to be considered a dance artist, and obviously the credibility factor. But think about it, what is Lady GaGa? You release what's called "records." I mean, it was very important, Clive, the system, that's where there were ballads, ballads, ballads, but I'm like, why is it so segregated? It's a hit factor. That's why my third single is this "I'll Always Love You." It's to prove your chops. And I don't understand what I have to prove so hard. The chops are there. These songs have become classic institutions. But that's in the game of proving your talent, proving that you have stability, staying power, that you're not a one-hit wonder. It's the whole machine thing.

It was the video market, too. I was making videos at the same time the David Fincher and Dominic Senas were, and they've all gone on to become huge film directors. But this was what was demanded of video. I was making half-a-million-dollar videos.

SF: What are some of your memories of those videos?

Taylor: Beautiful. Realistically, people can't afford that at all now.

SF: Do you have a memory of a certain video that stands out for you?

Taylor: There's a bunch. I've taken risks with a lot of photographers, because there's a fashion aspect to it and a beauty aspect. David Kellogg, he was working for Playboy and doing a lot of their Playboy video stuff. He did a video with a smaller artist, and I saw the beauty that he could create, and I saw the storyboard, and I said, "I want to take a chance on this guy." And he did "Every Beat of My Heart." When you look at that video, it is beautiful. Everything about it. And that guy went on to shoot Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson. You've got to take risks, you've got to take stabs, and that was a memorable one. There's been so many. "Shelter" with Dominic Sena, "Original Sin." When you work with real directors that are movie directors, you're creating a piece of art.

SF: Was Clive Davis or anybody else developing your look at that time?

Taylor: (Laughs) Everybody has opinions, right? Everybody. Yeah, I mean, Clive never held back. Let's put it that way. And of course, you're a young woman trying to develop, and yet the perception out there is stay hot and cutting edge. Clive definitely had opinions on how things should look and sound and that's just Clive Davis.

SF: Okay. The last thing I have for you, Taylor, could you just tell me about one of the songs that is very important to you?

Taylor: You want me to make the choice, you're saying?

SF: Yeah.

Taylor: Well, of all the hits, it's a difficult thing to do, because over the years of performing them live, each one has different memorable moments. But I would say that "Tell It To My Heart" is the signature anthem for any age group, any time. "Love Will Lead You Back," any age group, any time. "I'll Always Love You" is just like the wedding – it's in the top 20 of wedding songs. I've had 22 years to see this, and "Shelter" always brings the house down.

SF: You mean memorable moments performing them, like audience reaction?

Taylor: Yeah, the demographics are just so varied. And I can tell you over the years the ones that have stood the test of time and people react to so strongly are those four.

Comments: 3

I was really hoping she'd mention the time period between her 2nd and 3rd albums....there was supposed to be some album called "Trust" I remember reading about years and years ago. Like it even had a release date and everything! But then they scrapped it, re-tooled it, and it became "Soul Dancing" instead. (Kinda like what happened with Cyndi Lauper "Kindred Spirit" later retitled "A Night To Remember".) I wish Taylor had talked about that whole fiasco, cuz I've been curious about it for years now!
-DJ MichaelAngelo from Michigan

I love the this song so very much. thanks for all your beautiful songs just keep the standard
-Julian Nambi from Uganda

I love your songs and I can relate to them. I was glad to find your interview online and I enjoyed it. And thank you for the memories.
-clara from El Paso Tx

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