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July 2002

Do Right Woman

Jennifer James—Pretty is as Pretty Does

If you chat with blues/rock singer and Munich resident Jennifer James for a few minutes, you may decide that her parents upstage her. After all, who can compete with a Hollywood starlet mother and a New York Yankee father? And it doesn’t stop there. The 30-something redhead’s grandmother, Celeste Rothe, was one of Ziegfield’s “pony” girls. But James, the daughter and granddaughter of these exceptional American icons, has her own success stories to tell. More interested in humankind than in her inherited and achieved fame, the humble recording artist would rather entertain US troops at “hardship bases” and the idea of renovating castles for needy kids than ride the coattails of her parents or flaunt her own impressive connections.
Born in Manhattan, New York City, and raised in Newport Beach, California until the age of 15, when she went to live with family friends in Los Angeles to train as a ballet dancer at the Stanley Holden Academy of Dance, James is the daughter of 1950s film star Lucy Marlow and third baseman Andy Carey. Those who try to follow family roots back to one or two surnames may have a difficult time. Carey was born Hexem, Marlow was born McAleer—“the studio changed her name without asking her, like they did back then in Hollywood”—and James adopted the name of her brother “as a tribute” after he was killed in a car accident shortly before the ballet dancer began her singing career as an early teen.
Having also been accepted to the London Royal Academy of Dance, James opted for six-day-a-week dance classes in LA and the pursuit of her other passion, singing. At the age of 16, James was discovered by record producer Gary Stone, who signed her to sing for the band the Ghostriders. Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Barry “Fish” Melton of Country Joe and the Fish subsequently produced a Billboard chart top-forty record for the group. “Things happen fast in LA,” laughs James. When asked about her exposure to drugs and alcohol at such a tender age—after all, she was once the opening act for America’s most infamous “hemp worshippers,” Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Co.—the singer says she has her band members to thank for her abstinence. “They protected me as they would a little sister,” smiles James. “I was allowed to drink the occasional rum and coke but the rest was off limits.”
The 1980s were good to the sultry-voiced crooner. Her first solo album was recorded at the studio of Journey lead guitarist Neil Schon and included the work of musicians Brad Gillis and Jeff Watson of the wild-haired rock band, Nightranger. Working as a session singer with the likes of Pat Benatar, Bonnie Raitt and Patti Smyth as well as demo tape backup on songs by Roseanne Cash and Ann and Nancy Wilson’s band, Heart, James was certainly wired into the current popular music scene. As with most actors and musicians, she held a number of “day jobs,” including administrative jobs at music trade publication Cashbox magazine, EMI and Capitol Records. “When I was working at EMI, I managed to sneak my video of the song “Passion” into the outgoing mail with other demos. Next thing I knew, my video was being played on VH1! I tried that at Capitol, too, but I was caught and reprimanded,” giggles James.
On one fateful night, James met a friend for life. Getting ready for a concert at LA’s now defunct Blue Lagoon Saloon, she was approached by a square-jawed rockabilly singer who asked if he could perform before her set. “It was Dwight Yoakum before he became famous,” explains James. “He said the execs that came to see him perform had to catch a flight and could I let him go on first. With a grin, I said ‘no way, there are record producers here to see me. Go ahead, but after 20 minutes I am pulling the plug.’” That night, Yoakum’s career took a step in the right direction. The two have remained friends ever since. “He’s the nicest guy,” says James. “So many stars are arrogant. Dwight is just a normal person.”
In the early 1990s, James headed for Nashville, Tennessee. “I left LA when Nirvana made it big,” shares the west coast extrovert. “I don’t do grunge.” In the home of the Grand Ole Opry, James worked on honing her songwriting skills and looked for gigs. “I quickly learned that, in Nashville, if you’re not doing country and western, you’re doing it wrong.”
There, she became involved in the American Forces Entertainment (AFE) program run by the US Department of Defense. “It’s like USO shows for those of us who are not big stars,” laughs James. “My mom did USO shows.” Traveling to Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Honduras, Croatia and other eastern European countries with her band, James enthusiastically entertained troops stationed in poverty-stricken lands. “This is the most rewarding work I do,” says James. “Singing for yourself gets old. But there is nothing like going out of your way to sing at a hardship base in Macedonia at Christmas.” The philanthropic singer has not only provided the soldiers with evenings of music, she has helped care for the locals. During a five-hour wait to hit the stage in Haiti, James offered her services to the Brothers’ Mission. “I worked as a dental assistant while in high school and I also studied to become a physical therapist at one point. I helped pull teeth and suture stab wounds. They said I was the first musician who had ever offered to help. My mother will be proud of that,” chuckles James.
In 1999, James, eager to try her hand at living and working in Europe, moved to Munich, where she is happy to enjoy the greenery of the city with her two hound dogs. She is still active with the AFE. “The Pentagon sets up our gigs, and I love working with the people there, they’re great. We don’t do it for the money, we just love entertaining the troops!” In addition, James is currently seeking a producer for her fourth album. In the future, she would like to arrange for grants to turn abandoned castles in Europe or ranches in the United States into camps for handicapped, poor and troubled youth. “My fantasy is to collect a bunch of abandoned, endangered or handicapped animals and birds and let the kids interact with them at five-day ‘zoo camps,’” shares James.
Thumbing through James’ portfolio, it is hard to ignore the accomplishments of her parents. “Lucy dear,” begins a letter on one piece of stationary embossed with the words “Joan Crawford” and signed “love Joan.” A Columbia studios biography of Marlow reveals that she played in the original A Star is Born with Judy Garland and in other films with a host of Hollywood stars of that era. A photograph signed by Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and the singer’s father is a reminder that Andy Carey was not a fly-by-night player, but part of a group of men that won five World Series and went down in baseball history.
Though James’ resume contains quite a star-studded list of the singer’s own achievements, she has never been a household name. But when James, speaking of her work with the Haitian poor and her desire to work with kids from violent homes, the tears welling up in her eyes, clutches her chest and says “it’s ten times better than singing,” it is clear that her talents are meant for more important things than fame.

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