The Number Ones: Lisa Lisa And Cult Jam’s “Head To Toe”

According to one of our preferred musical sources: 

"Latin freestyle was a time-and-place thing — a product of cultural collisions that could’ve only happened in major American cities in the mid-’80s. Freestyle showed up when singers and producers messed around with the sounds that they were hearing — the kind of post-disco dance-pop that Madonna was making on her first album, as well as electro and rap and synthpop and the various forms of Spanish-language pop that were part of the air in a lot of these cities. That sound made for a bright, dizzy, inventive form of club-oriented pop music. Freestyle never became dominant pop movement, but it hung around on the charts for a few years, and it left behind a whole lot of great music.


The early freestyle hits — 1983 tracks like Shannon’s “Let The Music Play” and Debbie Deb’s “When I Hear Music” — took the synthetic blips and gurgling computerized low-end of Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force’s earth-shaking 1982 club smash “Planet Rock” and translated them into breezy, euphoric roller-disco. That made for a hell of a combination, and it popped right away. “When I Hear Music” didn’t make the Hot 100, but “Let The Music Play” did, peaking at #8 in 1984. (It’s a 10.) Three years later, a young Manhattan singer and a group of producers from East Flatbush gave the genre its first-ever #1 hit.




Lisa Velez grew up in the Manhattan neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen, the youngest of 10 kids. Her mother worked as a babysitter. Her father was not around. (On the day that Velez was born, the #1 song in America was the Monkees’ “I’m A Believer.”) Velez’s much-older brother Raymond had played percussion and saxophone for salsa stars like Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe. When Lisa became a star, Raymond became her bodyguard.


As a kid, Velez sang in a church choir and in a traveling group that would perform Motown oldies and Broadway songs. As a high school senior, she decided that she wanted to become a pop star, and she had a plan to make it happen. Velez worked after school at a Benetton store, and she spent her evenings at the Fun House, a Manhattan disco. Velez heard that Madonna had been discovered at the Fun House. She wanted to be discovered, too.

In 1988, Velez told SPIN‘s John Leland, “I used to dance a lot, but I was always aware of where I was turning, so I would watch and find out who’s who, where’s where.” Her plan worked. (It helped that she was gorgeous.) A musician named Mike Hughes told Velez that he was looking for girl singers, and he asked her to go to Brooklyn to audition for his friends in Full Force.

There were six guys in the Full Force, but the Brooklyn group was centered around the three extremely jacked George brothers: Bowlegged Lou, B-Fine, and Paul Anthony. Those three guys looked like comically intimidating movie characters, and that’s what they would later become. In 1990, the three George brothers made an invaluable contribution to cinematic history as the bullies in House Party, a perfect film.





The George brothers had been performing together since 1970, when Bowlegged Lou, the youngest of them, was 10. Their father had once been in a band with Joe Jackson, the patriarch of the Jackson family. The George brothers’ father had similar plans for his kids, and he had similar ideas about how to achieve them. He put the three brothers into a band called the Amplifiers, and he drilled them relentlessly. The Amplifiers played amateur night at the Apollo a few times, but nothing came of it. Years later, the George brothers formed Full Force with three of their community college friends. They found a manager, but labels turned them down, so they became producers and songwriters instead.





In 1984, Full Force produced “Roxanne, Roxanne,” a single for their friends in the Brooklyn rap group UTFO. “Roxanne, Roxanne” was an underground hit that spawned a whole wave of answer songs, but it didn’t cross over. Full Force realized that they’d need to put together a pop act if they wanted to make real money. Lisa Velez showed up at their house at just the right moment.

Velez and Mike Hughes took the train to Brooklyn to sing for Full Force, and Velez started out singing some songs that Hughes had written. Full Force were not impressed. But when they asked her to sing something that they knew, she busted out Sheena Easton’s 1981 James Bond theme “For Your Eyes Only.” (“For Your Eyes Only” peaked at #4. It’s a 4.) In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Bowlegged Lou remembers the impression that she made with that song: “She sang it with such little girl innocence. That was what we were looking for. We weren’t looking for a Patti LaBelle or a Gladys Knight or an Olivia Newton-John. We were looking for a young girl so that when she sings a song, a lot of little girls all over the world can hear her and imitate her voice.”


Inspired by “Roxanne, Roxanne,” Full Force gave Velez the stage name Lisa Lisa, and they put her together with Mike Hughes and guitarist Alex Moseley to form Cult Jam. Lisa Lisa And Cult Jam signed to Columbia, and Full Force wrote and produced all the songs on their self-titled 1985 debut album. Lisa Lisa’s first single, the horny and percussive “I Wonder If I Take You Home,” became a club hit, topping the Billboard dance charts and peaking at #34 on the Hot 100. A year later, the group made it up to #8 with the ballad “All Cried Out.” (“All Cried Out” is a 5.)





In a genre where most artists didn’t last much longer than a single or two, Lisa Lisa And Cult Jam went platinum with their debut album. It must’ve been a tough act to follow. In putting together the group’s second LP, Full Force had the idea to fuse that club-ready Latin freestyle sound with classic-pop songcraft. The Supremes were a prime influence on 1987’s Spanish Fly, and in that Bronson book, Bowlegged Lou claims that the key inspiration for first single “Head To Toe” was Lulu’s 1967 chart-topper “To Sir With Love.”

“Head To Toe” does have some of the bright, euphoric simplicity of ’60s pop music, but it’s also got a serious beat to it. Full Force surround Velez’s voice with reverbed-out drums, a laser-focused synth-bassline, and programmed-in timbale and tambourine and handclap sounds. Velez’s voice just dances over all that. She sounds glorious.

Velez never had a huge voice, but as a singer, she’s a communicator. She’s all personality, and her charisma shines all over “Head To Toe.” On the song, her narrator is friends with some boy, and she’s shocked and delighted when they suddenly hook up: “Today started with a crazy kiss on our way home/ We were in for a surprise/ Who would have known?” That’s simple, relatable stuff, and Velez sells it. Some of the later lyrics are dumb and nonsensical, but they’re the fun kind of dumb and nonsensical: “When we make love, diamonds are forever.” (It’s cosmically appropriate that Lisa Lisa, someone who sang a Bond theme at her audition, should make random-ass Bond-movie namechecks on her first-ever #1 hit.) Velez sells that, too. She gives the song exactly the vibe that it needs.

There’s some Prince in “Head To Toe,” especially in the funky, rockabilly-ish guitar solo. There’s also plenty of the drum-machine clatter that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis put together for Janet Jackson’s Control album. But Lisa Lisa is enough of a presence to give the song its own personality. And the syncopation in the “Head To Toe” beat — the hesitation even in that big drum boom — gave the track its own flavor. “Head To Toe” works as pop music, but it works as straight-up Latin freestyle, too.

“Head To Toe” reached #1 a few months after Lisa Velez turned 20 — a triumphant moment for her, her band, her producers, and the entire freestyle genre. The song wasn’t the end, either. Lisa Lisa And Cult Jam will be back in this column soon.

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