Genya Ravan, 'Rock And Roll Refugee,' Has Stories To Fill Two Lifetimes Ravan came to the U.S. as a refugee of postwar Europe, learned English listening to the radio and, before long, heard herself on it. Her life in pop and rock is the subject of a new off-Broadway show.
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Genya Ravan, 'Rock And Roll Refugee,' Has Stories To Fill Two Lifetimes

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Genya Ravan, 'Rock And Roll Refugee,' Has Stories To Fill Two Lifetimes

Genya Ravan, 'Rock And Roll Refugee,' Has Stories To Fill Two Lifetimes

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She came to this country as a refugee and learned English listening to the radio. Goldie Zelkowitz went on to become a pop singer herself. Then, under the new name Genya Ravan, she led a jazz band and became a successful producer. And that's just part of her story that's told in a new off-Broadway play. Here's Allyson McCabe.

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: Her name has always been a bit of an issue.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Rock fans have come to know her as Genya Ravan.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Here's Genya Ravan.


JIMMY FALLON: Her name is Gina Raven (ph).


GENYUSHA ZELKOWITZ: My full name is Genya Ravan a.k.a Zelkowitz. But if you want to say it right, it's Genyusha Zelkowitz.

MCCABE: Her story begins in hiding in war-torn Poland. She lost two brothers to the Holocaust. Then Zelkowitz and her surviving family made their way from a displaced persons camp to New York's Lower East Side and a cold-water flat on Rivington Street.

ZELKOWITZ: The apartments were tenements. And you know, forget air-conditioning. My sister and I used to sleep on the fire escape in the summer, right above all the garbage.

MCCABE: Her mother renamed her Goldie to sound more American. Her father ran a candy store, and she became friends with an African-American man who worked there. He gave her a radio, and her favorite station played doo-wop.


ZELKOWITZ: I could barely hear the station because it was in Jersey, going in and out, in and out. And then I'd be hearing my songs, my fabulous songs.


THE HEARTS: (Singing) Lonely nights, lonely nights,

MCCABE: Singing along with the radio not only helped her with her English. It also gave her an identity. One night in 1962, she went to a club. And behind the courage of a few drinks, she got on stage on a dare to sing along with the band.

ZELKOWITZ: Well, never dare me to do anything. And there was a standing ovation. And they fired their lead singer and asked me to join them.

MCCABE: The band was called The Escorts. And with Zelkowitz behind the mic, they scored a regional hit.


ZELKOWITZ: (Singing) There's a place for us.

THE ESCORTS: (Singing) Place for us...

MCCABE: That would be a story in itself. At least, playwright and director Chris Henry thought so. The singer's early years are the basis of Henry's new off-Broadway musical, "Rock And Roll Refugee."

CHRIS HENRY: I mean, her stories are epic - growing up on Rivington Street, learning to speak English by listening to black radio stations. Everything in her life made her who she became as an artist.

MCCABE: But that's only the first act of Goldie Zelkowitz's real-life drama. Two years after joining The Escorts, she was fronting the first all-female band to be signed to a major label. Keep in mind, this is 1964.

ANDREW LOOG OLDHAM: Hark, hark, an all-female band. This was a revolution.

MCCABE: Andrew Loog Oldham was The Rolling Stones' original manager and producer.

OLDHAM: We were used to The Shirelles or The Ronettes. But a band, that was a completely different story. But wonderful they were.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: And now our guests from America, Goldie and the Gingerbreads.

MCCABE: Goldie and the Gingerbreads toured Europe with the Stones, The Kinks and others and scored their own U.K. hit.


GOLDIE AND THE GINGERBREADS: (Singing) Every time I see you looking my way, baby, baby, can't you hear my heartbeat?

MCCABE: But the band broke up. And three years later, it was time for a new group and a new first name - Genya, short for her birth name, Genyusha.

ZELKOWITZ: And so the drummer said to me, yeah, you should also give yourself a nice second name, like something for the way you sing, which is black. And I went, Raven, but I want to spell it R-A-V-A-N. So people used to say, Genya Ravan.

MCCABE: Genya Ravan was fronting the jazz fusion band Ten Wheel Drive.


TEN WHEEL DRIVE: (Singing) Remember you said you'd always, always love me. Remember you said you'd never, ever, ever leave me. Remember, remember, I'm asking you. I'm begging you. Oh, no, no, ooh... Stay with me, baby.

MARTIN: The band was a favorite with critics and fans. But Ravan left after three albums. Clive Davis signed her to a major label deal. But Andrew Loog Oldham says Ravan's experience with the music business was not a happy one.

OLDHAM: They were seemingly trying to make her their next Janis Joplin. But if you don't follow your heart, you die. And Genya knows the gift she's got. And she's been true to it because she knows it gives her life.

MCCABE: So in 1978, Ravan decided to produce her next album herself.


GENYA RAVAN: (Singing) Shadowboxing in the rain up on 7th Avenue.

MCCABE: It gave Ravan her first taste of creative control and led to work as one of the first female independent producers in the music business. But her lyrics also pointed to a long-running struggle with drugs and alcohol.


RAVAN: (Singing) And when you want to find me, baby, I'll tell you where I'll be, on these steps of Roseland and 52nd Street. Drinking Gallo muscatel. I keep it in my bag...

ZELKOWITZ: I was starting to go downhill badly. So I said, either live or die, you know, one or the other. And I decided to get clean.

MCCABE: That brings us to Ravan's third act. She did get clean, only to be diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. But once again, Ravan beat the odds. Returning to music proved a greater challenge. Without drugs or alcohol, she didn't know if she could muster the courage.

ZELKOWITZ: What brought me down was also my strength at one time. And I thought to myself, I will never write a good song again. I will never be able to sing well again. I just thought it was the end. Little did I know, it was quite the beginning.

MCCABE: She now hosts two radio shows of her own. And she's working on her fourth album since getting clean.

ZELKOWITZ: You know, at least I found my voice.

MCCABE: For NPR News, I'm Allyson McCabe.


RAVAN: (Singing) Oh, darling, the New York traffic jammed my brain...

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