Toni Basil’s Tenacious Tumble To “Mickey”

“It changed my life, but it hasn’t changed my bank account”

“There’s nothing better than being head cheerleader, let me tell you.” ~Toni Basil

Even before she became head cheerleader at Las Vegas High School, Antonia Christina Basilotta had lived a lifetime on the stage. The daughter of the bandleader for the house orchestra at the Sands Hotel and a dancer with a troupe called Wells and the Four Fays, Toni was onstage as what she calls a baby ballerina. Eventually, she became part of a dance team supporting Connie Francis at the Sahara Hotel while still a teenager. With her Las Vegas High diploma in hand, Toni headed for Los Angeles in 1962, where the combination of her formal training and her exuberance proved to be very useful in the Hollywood of the 1960s.

“I worked right away,” Basil said, “because I’ve always been a great dancer. And quite frankly, the looks weren’t too bad either.” She landed a slot in an L.A. revival of West Side Story featuring most of the original Broadway cast, along with another young cutie named Teri Garr, who remained Basil’s lifelong friend. By 1964, she had opened a school of dance in Hollywood with another West Side Story veteran named David Winters. Winters’ work with young Hollywood hoofers led to a job as the choreographer on Elvis’ Viva Las Vegas, with Toni assisting and making a cameo appearance. That helped Basil get a gig as a go-go dancer on the legendary 1964 film The T.A.M.I. Show (alongside Teri Garr), and then a full-time slot as an assistant choreographer on a new pop music show called Shindig.

The pop world was exploding in 1964—Toni’s mom’s old troupe, Wells and the Four Fays, were slated to make their third appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show when they got bumped so more time could be allotted to a British band called the Beatles. Youth culture was being splashed across not just popular music but movies and TV and fine art as well, and Basil had enough talent—and connections—to make her mark across several art forms. In 1966, through her friendship with the pianist and arranger Jack Nitzsche, someone (she doesn’t remember who) decided Basil should record a single, “I’m 28.”

The B-side, a Motownish number called “Breakaway” (not the same song as the later Art Garfunkel single), caught the ear of experimental filmmaker Bruce Conner, who decided to make a short film out of it. It’s exactly what we would later call a video. Featuring Basil (billed as Antonia Christine Basilotta) dancing in black and white, the film’s raw sensuality and blink-of-an-eye cuts would fit comfortably into the oeuvre of Paula Abdul, except for the flashes of nudity. BREAKAWAY (Conner insisted that the titles of his films be rendered in all caps) was arguably the first MTV-style clip, along with the Beatles’ “Rain” and “Paperback Writer” from the same year.

Dennis Hopper (left) talks with Peter Fonda as Toni Basil stands nearby during the filming of Hopper’s directorial debut ‘Easy Rider,’ New Orleans, 1968

But that was the end of Basil’s vocal output for the better part of a decade; rather than transitioning into singing, her Hollywood contacts instead led to a series of acting bits, including nonmusical appearances in such outsider movies as Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. She choreographed the Monkees’ swan song Head (which also featured an extended cameo by Teri Garr) and danced a lovely duet with Davy Jones during his big Broadway-style production number. (It helped that they were the same height.) It wasn’t so much that Basil stopped being a singer, but that she was willing to do anything on stage and on film, and there just wasn’t any reason for her to go back to recording. “I was in the middle of everything—in the middle of rock & roll, in the middle of the art scene,” she said. “I came out of that time period where a dancer could sing. I didn’t feel it necessary to be just a singer.” This is a woman, who when asked to describe what she does, is likely to declaim, “I am a visionary!”

Toni handled the choreography for the film American Graffiti in 1973

With her googly eyes, flared nostrils and skinny little body, Basil was never destined to be a movie star. By the early 1970s, she had become focused almost entirely on her choreography—she handled the dancing in American Graffiti—and on her work with a street troupe called the Lockers, which she had formed in 1973. The Lockers generally consisted of five or six black dudes (including the late Fred “Rerun” Berry, later of What’s Happening! fame) and Toni Basil. Their work caught the eye of Angela Bowie, David’s wife, who recommended he use Toni for his highly theatrical 1974 Diamond Dogs tour. Basil remained friends with David Bowie for years thereafter.

The next year, the Lockers were asked to dance on the third-ever episode of NBC’s Saturday Night, which at that point was more of a variety show than the comedy-sketches-plus-musical-guest format it would soon adopt. No one was quite sure what the show should be, including that week’s host, Rob Reiner. Frustrated with the quality of the content and with his own performance, Reiner announced after the dress rehearsal that he was not going to appear on the live telecast. “This is going to be awful!” he screamed at producer Lorne Michaels. “I’m not doing it!”

But the show went on, and the Lockers appeared just before that night’s Weekend Update. They must have been as alarming as the brand-new program itself: six young black men in baggy pants and vests, plus a white girl in a sort of clown outfit, popping and locking to instrumental funk. Eventually, Basil screamed, “We don’t need no music! We don’t need no music!” and the performance continued accompanied only by the dancers’ shouts and scatting. As with so many of Basil’s performances, the music was incidental: It was there to help define the movements that accompanied it.

Toni performs on Saturday Night Live, January 1976

Eventually, she got the bug to start singing again and developed a nightclub act that combined her vocalizing with both street and ballet dancing. Following her appearance with the Lockers, Toni was asked back later in Saturday Night’s first season, in January 1976, to do a piece of that act. “Just in case you don’t know what the word inimitable means, we’re going to show you a living example,” said an obviously wowed host Buck Henry. “And her name is Toni Basil.” Basil came out and sang a song called “Wham Re-Bop Boom Bam.” She had still never recorded an album, and hadn’t had a single out since 1966.
In 1978, Basil conceived and choreographed a short film for SNL that featured members of the Lockers dancing Swan Lake alongside some ballerinas. It aired on April 22, 1978, on a show hosted by Steve Martin that is widely considered one of the best episodes in SNL history; it featured the Blues Brothers, the Wild and Crazy Guys, and Martin performing his hit single “King Tut,” among many other delectable moments. Basil’s mix of street and classical dancing fit right in.

Simon Lait, the founder of a fledgling British record label called Radial Choice, had noticed Basil’s work, and in 1979 he asked her to make a three-song video collection as part of a video album that Radial Choice was putting out. This is credited with being the first-ever long-form video, all before the debut of MTV. “She was clearly a star waiting to be discovered,” Lait said later, ever the publicist.

David Bowie and Iggy Pop had introduced her to the music of Devo by this time, so Toni chose three Devo songs to make videos around. (She would later end up dating Jerry Casale, Devo’s bassist and “chief strategist.”) This was successful enough in the U.K. that Radial Choice gave her money to make a whole half-hour show’s worth of videos, which would eventually be called Word of Mouth.

Toni had an idea for something she’d always wanted to do, featuring cheerleaders dancing and chanting and stomping. But she needed another song.

In the early 1970s, Nicky Chinn was the scion of a family that owned a string of petrol stations in England. Mike Chapman was an Australian émigré living in London, struggling to get his band Tangerine Peel off the ground and working as a waiter at a restaurant called Tramp, which just happened to be frequented by Nicky Chinn. The two struck up a friendship that eventually turned into a songwriting and producing partnership. Their first big project was the glam band the Sweet, for whom they wrote and produced songs like “Little Willy” and “Ballroom Blitz” that were smashes on both side of the Atlantic. They also scored major U.K. hits with such acts as Mud and Smokie, who never made a sound in the United States, as well as leather-clad Brit wondergirl Suzi Quatro, who eventually did score in the U.S. with Chinn and Chapman’s “Stumblin’ In,” and appeared as Leather Tuscadero on Happy Days. Exile’s “Kiss You All Over,” which reached Number One on the American charts in August 1978, was also a Chinn/Chapman song.

The pair had sort of broken up by the late 1970s—Chapman moved to the U.S. and produced, on his lonesome, Blondie’s Parallel Lines—while Lait went to his friend Nicky Chinn, who was in Los Angeles at the time, to see if he could come up with a song for his fledgling star. Lait wanted youth-oriented material, seeing Basil as someone who would appeal to the kids, despite the fact that she was already in her mid-30s. He knew that’s exactly what Chinn could deliver. Chinn suggested “Kitty,” a song he and Chapman had done for a post-Bay City Rollers pop combo named Racey (which was initially called, in all seriousness, Alive n’ Rockin’) on their 1979 album Smash and Grab. Racey had a few hits in England, but nothing over here in the U.S.; “Kitty” hadn’t even been a single for them. But Chinn thought it might be worth resurrecting for Toni Basil.

For Basil, the song at that point was an afterthought; she just wanted to make a cheerleading video. “Kitty” was given the new title of “Mickey,” because it was the closest-sounding male name to “Kitty,” although a rumor later developed (and was planted on Wikipedia) that it was because Basil had developed a crush on Micky Dolenz while making Head. None of the other lyrics were changed, so “Any way you wanna do it, I’ll take it like a man” had a different, racier meaning than it did in the Racey version.

The biggest change was the opening chant—“Oh, Mickey, you’re so fine / You’re so fine you blow my mind / Hey, Mickey / Hey, Mickey”—which Basil devised on her own. “I remember the echoing in the basketball court of the cheerleaders, of us, stomping and chanting,” she said. “The record company begged me not to put the chant on it, because they thought that was ridiculous. So I said, all right, I’m just going to do it for the video.”

As with her solo SNL appearance, for Basil, it was conceived as an entire performance, with the song itself serving as just a small part of the overall piece. “Mickey” was almost certainly the first song to be conceived as a video first—which is amazing considering it was created before the dawn of MTV. In the video, which Basil directed and choreographed herself, she sported the very same cheerleader’s uniform she wore while leading the girls back at Las Vegas High School. Basil went to cheerleading competitions to find girls who could back her up, and found two Los Angeles-based troupes: stomp-style cheerleaders from mostly black Dorsey High and stick cheerleaders, specializing in mounts, from largely Samoan Carson High.

Although the Dorsey High cheerleaders performed the opening chant, it’s the Carson High cheerleaders you see in the video. The Dorsey High girls were invited to appear, but they didn’t bother to show up. “There was no MTV yet, so they didn’t really see the point of a video,” Basil said. “They thought, ‘What in the hell is she doing now?’ That’s been the story of my life: ‘What in the hell is she doing now?’”

When the BBC saw the cheerleading video, it asked Basil to make her own half-hour TV special around it. The Radial Choice execs didn’t realize “Mickey” was the hit from her retinue of videos until their teenage kids kept playing it over and over again. Released as a single, “Mickey” went to No. 2 in the U.K. and No. 1 in Australia (where it stayed for two weeks in June 1982) before Chrysalis Records gave her an American deal. Basil was still making her living mostly as a choreographer—she worked with Talking Heads on their 1981 video “Once in a Lifetime,” teaching David Byrne to be herky-jerky by showing him film clips of epileptics.

Toni taught David Byrne his herky-jerky dance moves (photographed together in 1987)

“Mickey” wasn’t released in the United States until February 1982, with a full album, Word of Mouth, coming out shortly thereafter. It was roughly three years after the song had been recorded but a year or so into the reign of MTV, which would be instrumental in the song’s success. “I was lucky that it wasn’t released before that,” Basil said. “It would have been before its time.”

By the time the kids went back to school, and football season was in full swing, a cheerleading video started to make sense, and “Mickey” finally reached the Top 40 in October 1982. MTV was in the business of serving kids just home from middle school, watching TV and eating Doritos while their mothers made excuses to be out of the house. A significant chunk of this audience wanted either to be a cheerleader, or to become the focus of a cheerleader’s attention.

At the same time, this was not a cohort that was savvy enough to recognize the difference between celebrating genuine youth and being served a simulacrum. In a year where the Boston bar veterans the J.Geils Band could go to No. 1 with a song about a homeroom angel, “Centerfold,” and 31-year-old John Cougar nee Mellencamp could do the same with his tale of teenage angst “Jack & Diane,” there wasn’t much space between aging and high school. Simon Lait had been clever enough to notice that ever-youthful, ever-street Toni Basil could deliver that balance, even before he saw her in a cheerleading outfit. America was ready for Toni Basil, at the age of 39, in pigtails and a short pleated skirt, to become the nation’s prom date. On December 11, 1982, “Mickey” replaced Lionel Richie’s “Truly” as the No. 1 song in America.

Toni Basil has estimated that, since 1982, “Mickey” has earned her the grand sum of $1500 in royalties. Although she concocted the song’s memorable opening chant, she never expected it to be on any sort of audio-only release, so it never occurred to her to push for songwriting credit. She assumed it would be edited off of the single—if there ever was a single, which wasn’t even all that likely when the song was recorded. When it remained on the record, she complained to Chinn and Chapman, but was told it was a minor alteration to the original song and not worthy of a credit. So Basil ended up with no publishing rights whatsoever.

“It changed my life,” she said, “but it hasn’t changed my bank account.”

The follow-up single from Word of Mouth was “Shoppin’ From A to Z,” which peaked at Number 77 on the Billboard charts. Undaunted, Basil prepared to record a followup album, for which she wanted to go “blacker and funkier,” she said, harkening back to her street-dancing days with the Lockers. Chrysalis was not impressed. “They said, ‘This sounds like a white girl with black music,’” Basil said. “I said, ‘Yeah! That’s what I wanna do!’” She felt somewhat justified when Madonna went on to build a long-lasting career as a white girl with black music.

Instead, the label wanted more new wave/dance music, releasing Toni Basil in 1983, with three more Devo covers. The first single, “Street Beat,” peaked at No. 81 on the Hot 100 and would be her last chart single, although the clip for “Over My Head” won an MTV Video Award. The album failed to chart at all. Radial Choice folded in 1984—in its brief history, the label’s only other hit had been “I Eat Cannibals,” by the British band Toto Coelo (renamed Total Coelo in the U.S.A., since we already had a band named Toto).

Basil went back to her day job. She reteamed with Bowie to choreograph his 1987 Glass Spider tour, and did those great Gap khakis commercials with all that bossa nova-style dancing in them. Even into her 60s, she choreographed the dancers for a Tina Turner world tour and for Bette Midler’s revue at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The “Mickey” video is now officially in the Museum of Modern Art. And Toni will have you know that she can still fit into that cheerleading costume.

Follow Tom Nawrocki on Twitter @TJNawrocki
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