Rosie Vela and Her Little Known Album, ‘Zazu’

Everything that should have worked for Rosie Vela, worked against her. She was stunningly beautiful, a model who graced the cover of Vogue fourteen times. Billed as the next Kate Bush, she opened for The Fixx and former The Police guitarist, Andy Sumner, on his 1976 US tour. Her debut album, Zazu, featured two of her musical heroes, Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.

If you’re lucky, you might have stumbled across a copy of Zazu in the $2 bin at the record store.  But chances are, you won’t even find that. Which is too bad, because Zazu is an incredible album.

The album is fiery and lovelorn. “Tonto” and “Taxi” are defiant in a way only the ’80s songstress could be. There’s a sweetness, too — the sun-drenched “Magic Smile” was selected as the single and peaked at 27 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts. The follow up, “Interlude,” was a favorite of Becker and Fagen. The perfect showcase for her smoky, velvety vocals.

What makes Zazu such a masterpiece, is that it sounds like nothing else. Vela was a classically-trained pianist and studied opera, but when she discovered The Beatles and Jimmy Hendrix, her focus turned to pop music. After her husband, guitarist Jimmy Roberts, was diagnosed with cancer  he bought Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill and played it over and over in his hospital room. Cementing her love for Becker and Fagen’s musical talents.

Widowed young, she moved to New York City to try her hand at modeling, using the proceeds from her shoots to build a small home studio.  To unwind after a long day, she would come to her home studio and write her songs. Eventually, she recorded a demo and sent it to producer Gary Katz. He signed her immediately.  “The thing about Rosie is she doesn’t think in structures,” Katz told New York magazine in 1986. “She writes a passage because she likes it, then another and another, sometimes in the same key. And it works.”

Zazu might have been a little too weird for some. Evocative lyrics over Fagen’s slick melodies and Becker’s ambling guitar work, jazzy chord changes and dreamy lyrics made for a package that wasn’t quite smooth enough for the yacht rock crowd, too electronic for the singer-songwriter crowd, and not dance-pop enough for the club scene.

Her second album, Sun Across the Altar was lost to the A&M studio vaults, leaving Vela a footnote in the Becker/Fagen playbook.  She sang backing vocals for Electric Light Orchestra on their 2001 album Zoom, and dated ELO lead singer Jeff Lynne for a time.

Vela deserves to be recognized. Her work could, and should find a new audience. She’s not just someone’s girlfriend, or the woman who got Steely Dan back together. She deserves to be recognized for her talents. Maybe one day we will finally see Sun Across the Altar.

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Libby Cudmore's debut novel The Big Rewind, received a starred review from Kirkus, and praise from USA Today, Booklist and Publisher's Weekly. She is a frequent contributor to Vinyl Me Please and Albumism, as well as Classic Album Sundays, The RS-500, The Collapsar and the Captain's Blog at YachtRock.com, and her short stories have been published in Stoneslide Corrective, Barrelhouse, PANK and the anthologies Hanzai Japan, Welcome Home and Mixed Up.
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