She's worked alongside with Stevie wonder, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, and Madonna to name just a few. She was nominated for Best Soul Female Gospel Performance at the 27th annual Grammy Awards (1985). She was one of the women featured in this year's (2013) documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom. She is Tata Vega. When we spoke with Tata, she was preparing to go on the road with Elton John.
Q - Tata, when do you leave for the Elton John tour?
A - Tomorrow morning,(November 5, 2013) early in the morning.
Q - Where does the tour begin?
A - I think we start in Connecticut. We'll spend a lot of time in the States and then we'll go overseas to Russia and some of the Slavic countries.
Q - You've been with Elton John for a while now, haven't you?
A - Three years now. Three years and one month. (Laughs).
Q - And whose counting?
A - (Laughs)
Q - When you are out on the road with someone like Elton John, you don't have much time to develop your own career, do you?
A - Little by little I have little things brewing. Eventually I know that Sir (Elton John) will want to slow down for a minute and have more time to spend with his family.
Q - You've gotten some attention recently with this film Twenty Feet From Stardom.
A - Yes, sir.
Q - What are people saying to you about that film?
A - They love it. It made them cry and laugh. It gave them an insight that they never had before about the inside story for singers such as myself or many others. I've been the reverse. Many are backing those that have been being backing vocalists and then those that have been lead vocalists. And also the roots of people like Darlene Love, who I didn't realize was in all the groups that I thought, "That sounds like the same person" and inspired me and really formed a lot of the reasons I sing the way I sing.
Q - Where were you born?
A - I was born in Jamaica, Queens Long Island, St. Alban's Navel Hospital. My father was in the Air Force and we traveled. None of us in the family were born in the same place. We were all born in either a different state or a different country. We traveled a lot, which was amazing because it really prepared me for the life that I live.
Q - You were used to living out of a suitcase.
A - That's true.
Q - Someone who was a homebody might have found what you are doing to be even more difficult if they had entered the field.
A - A a lot of people do think it's a very glamorous life, but it can be pretty challenging. But I do love what I do, so the challenges are just a part of it.
Q - When you're not on stage and you're not sitting in some hotel room somewhere, do you get bored? Does that make you nervous?
A - No. Never bored. There's always something to do. Always some music. I have things that I listen to. I also write sometimes or read. There's never a dull moment. I don't personally get bored.
Q - When you say write, do you mean you are writing songs or are you working on your autobiography?
A - Yes. Oh boy, the book will come. Right now I'm working on a personal project, a musical project so I am writing. It's great. I feel really blessed. I'm very grateful to have this job. Then I do have a little time when we are off to do other projects. So it's not bad.
Q - What was it like working with Michael Jackson?
A - It was amazing. (Laughs). He was, gosh, very... When I think of him I still feel starstruck. He was a very sweet, brilliant young man. I loved working with him.
Q - What songs did you record with him?
A - We did the "History" album. At the time I was with Andre Couch. He's a wonderful Gospel singer. So, we usually did everything in a group. On the "History" album we did "Man In The Mirror". We did so many songs I didn't keep count. (Laughs). I'd just show up for the sessions and we get through doing 'em.
Q - Was Michael Jackson a hard guy to work with in the studio? Was he engaging? I know he was a perfectionist.
A - Yes. I never saw a difficult person. In fact, in one of the sessions, when my daughter was a little girl, she stayed on his lap where he was in the booth the entire time. He was very sweet to her. He was brilliant. When you are in a room with someone like that, you just try to soak up as much as you can, learning wise, how the big guys do it. I never saw a weird or difficult side ever. Not to coin a phrase, but it was thrilling to work with him.
Q - You started singing professionally when you were just 12 years old. Were you a part of a group?
A - Actually, I don't remember not singing, but the first time I sang with the band I was 11. It was at a picnic. It was the United States Air Force Marching Band. I remember the song. It was "Up The Lazy River". Then when I was 14 that was my first professional job and that was with a band, a bunch of GIs. Actually, I was 13, but that wasn't professional. It was on the radio with this band called The Mag 5. They were Puerto Rican. That was awesome. When I was 14, it was in the Panama Canal Zone with a band called The Time Element. They were all GIs. We were doing teen clubs.
Q - That must've been a fun time.
A - It was.
Q - You were also in a production of Hair.
A - I was. In the Los Angeles Broadway production of Hair. That was a blast.
Q - How long did you do that?
A - For about seven months. I met Dobie Gray there. We went to a group he was working with called Pollution. That was quite an experience. (Laughs)
Q - You were fortunate to be able to go from one project to another project, weren't you?
A - I was blessed. But we had our moments. Pollution lived up to its name. (Laughs). There was a dark period there. It was great but also a lot of drugs. I was with that for a couple of years. I had to get out of there. I was very confused. It was a confusing time for me.
Q - I never did understand what drugs had to do with making music.
A - Yeah. Most of the folks that came up with me are not here anymore, or they're alive but they're not here. I'm very fortunate and grateful that I came out of that. I'm good and still working. The business is a strange thing. It's feast or famine. When I came out here I literally did live on the streets. I sang on the street corner. That's how I made money. I just got that break. I just happen to know someone and I looked them up here, a friend of a friend. She actually got me that audition. I thought they hated me, but a month after that I got the message and I was in. There's always that thread that goes through of people that don't think that you are really the star type or have the right look. I have been blessed. Looking back I realize, wow! Somehow things would go terribly wrong and it seems God's hands have been on me the whole time and saw me through.
Q - When you say you were living on the streets, you don't mean you were living on a park bench, do you?
A - I slept on a concrete floor. It was outside of the church. It was like two walls, so you could go in and sleep in the courtyard. There were a lot of kids, runaways. I had permission from my father, but he had no idea that I was doing that. A lot of adventures.
Q - You didn't have money for an apartment or food, did you?
A - No.
Q - If you don't have the basics, it's incredibly tough.
A - Yes. It's like a dream. I don't really think you can do that anymore. It's so dangerous out there. It was dangerous back then. Many things happened to me out there on the streets. But here I am! (Laughs).
Q - Are you bothered by other singers who may not be as good of a singer as you are, but are making all kinds of money and getting all kinds of attention?
A - Well, that's a good question. I think if you really look at the picture, for example sometimes folks like myself lean a lot on their gift and lack the thing that these folks have which is discipline, a strong sense of work ethic. As far as the folks that, as you put it, can't sing, sometimes with the way things are today with auto tuning, they have a product and a way to sell themselves. But the public enjoys. I just say live and let live. I'd rather just continue to work on my craft and learn because you learn even from singers you maybe don't think are technically correct, but I'm not technically correct either sometimes. So no, it doesn't bother me. They always have something about them that is interesting. If it appeals to people, I think it's better to learn from them and see what it is.
Q - Tata, if all the people I interviewed were as nice as you...
A - Thank you Gary. I had my moments until I had a meltdown. I realized that being bitter, angry, sarcastic and jealous and envious and all those things were an amazing waste of time and energy. It was just a stupid place to go because it was really robbing me of enjoyment. I don't take the gift I have for granted because I know it can be taken away just like that. In a twinkling of an eye you could lose everything. Sometimes it's a struggle. I have to talk to myself and those voices in your head that say negative things, you have to say you have to go. I'm not going there, and be grateful and count my blessings. I have to do that. Nothing is promised. Gosh, the days seem like they go by so fast, the years go by so fast. I want to have as few regrets as possible when I look back. I felt horrible all the time and depressed. I didn't like that. You have to choose to look at the bright side and there is a bright side. There really is. You almost have to look at life through a baby's eyes in a way that every day is amazing. Every day is a clean slate, a brand-new start. Thank you Lord for another day. Another chance to get it right. And that's what keeps me going. So I feel I've been given a chance. I'm still here. So there's a reason for that. I don't want to waste it hating or wishing I had something somebody else has. I'm glad right where I am right this moment, talking to you Mr. Gary James.