Gary James' Interview With Moana Wolfgramm Of
They say the family that plays together, stays together. And so it was with The Jets in the 1980s. They are best known for songs like "Crush On You", "Cross My Broken Heart", "Make It Real", Sendin' All My Love" and of course "You Got It All", which was and is such a big hit and continues to receive airplay to this day. What is the story behind that song and all of the other hit songs of The Jets? Are they still together? Do they perform anywhere? We took our questions to original Jets member Moana Wolfgramm.
Q - Moana, as we speak, is there a Jets group that performs today?
A - There is. The majority of us live in Utah. There's only two members that live out of state, one in California and one in Arizona. So, the majority of the members live here in Utah, some in Salt Lake and just outside of Salt Lake. We pretty much are the original band. We just started getting together maybe two years ago. Ever since we finished the record last year, we're just starting to get back into the business and starting to do more shows.
Q - What kind of songs are you singing? Is it like The Jets of the 1980s?
A - Yeah. It's Pop material of course. Twenty-five plus years ago we were all teenagers. We do a majority of the eight Top Ten hits that we had that were in the Dance / Pop / Adult Contemporary charts. The other stuff we do is pretty much in the same realm. We're all older now. We're in our early 40s and getting into our 50s. We came into the business as an actual band, so we still enjoy performing and appreciate the fans who come out to watch the show and it's not just a set of mic stands with a track. We're actually a band that performs our music.
Q - Did your brothers and sisters play the instruments that we hear on the records or was a studio band used? Did your brother play the sax?
A - Well, my brother plays it 'live', but it's a different story when you're dealing with studio musicians and the musicians that are 'live' musicians. All of the work on our records was done by studio musicians, but The Jets did perform it 'live'. Nowadays, the last few albums we did, we did a lot more music on it.
Q - Realizing The Jets were a real band, what did the powers that be not like about, say your brother's sax playing for instance? Why wouldn't they let you play on your own record is what I'm asking.
A - Actually, the sax was put on that record ("You Got It All") and my brother Eddie learned how to play sax because of that song. That became a skill he inherited kind of by accident. We had a record that needed a saxophone player and Eddie's one of those jack of all trades, picks up stuff all the time and learns stuff on his own and next thing you know he's a master at it. In that particular instance, Eddie didn't know how to play sax. When it comes to bass guitar and keyboards, there are musicians that can play 'live'. When you're coming into the studio there's certain rhythms, you get a key, the timing, and there's just musicians that are great at it. When we were sixteen, seventeen, my brothers weren't able to keep the beat like that. They tried 'em in the studio. You're gonna hear that for over twenty, thirty years and there's just musicians that are professional and knew how to play it. So, when it comes to that, you kind of understand why there were musicians in the studio and we had to learn as singers.
Q - Learn as singers? You mean you had to sing differently in the studio than you did on stage?
A - What I mean is, we had been playing in nightclubs and bars. You gotta remember Liz and I were nine and ten years old, so we would learn a Donna Summer song and we'd basically just learn the melody and get the words out. You get in the studio and they can hear everything. They can hear your sharps and flats, if you're on rhythm, if you're on the right timing. They can hear if they believe what you're saying is true. So, we only learned how to sing from copying, singing from other singers. So, when we got in the studio, our producer, our manager would say, "Okay, you sound great. You were in tune, but I didn't believe a word you said." Or they would say, "You actually had all the right emotion, but you were just a little bit sharp." So, as singers we had to grow a lot and learn how to work the craft. I think that was probably the most educational part of it for me. I can appreciate, looking back, having to sing in the studio and they'd say, "You're going to hear this forever. It's on tape. That's it. Let's listen to it and let's really make this one count!" So for us as singers, we couldn't go find other singers. This was the voice. And then you had to bring out the personality. It's all about you. You can't borrow and borrow from other people, but then there's gotta be some kind of authentic you in the music and so that's kind of what I meant.
Q - Before "You Got It All" became a hit, you had quite a few hits. For some reason I always equate The Jets with "You Got It All". Was that your biggest hit or not?
A - It was one of our biggest hits and I think it depends on people's perception and their age. There's a lot of people my age, and I've just hit forty, they remember "Crush On You". They grew up as teenagers saying, "Yes, I remember The Jets and Crush On You." There's other people who were listening to the Adult Contemporary stations, so "You Got It All" was more of what they could remember and identify The Jets with. But I think "You Got It All" was probably one of our longest playing hits because it still plays on the radio regularly on the Light FM stations and the Adult Contemporary stations where "Crush On You" was more and had its current appeal and you can hear the flavor of the '80s in it, where "You Got It All" is a little more timeless. That's probably why I think it sticks out more.
Q - Your sister Elizabeth sang lead on that song?
A - Yeah.
Q - The way she sings that song makes it different. Maybe it's the inflection in her voice. Maybe it's an accent.
A - It could've been an accent. It also could have been the fact that she was so young and she had just an innocence. So, what she was singing was really genuine. Sometimes you get a little older and you learn your craft and you start over-thinking. She was so young. They would say, "Just sing it from your heart" and she would just sing it the way she felt and maybe that's what we're hearing.
Q - I think you're on to something.
A - She was literally caught off-guard because she didn't understand the lyrics. We both were in the studio and we heard it and we both were like, "This is boring." We said this at nine and ten years old. But everyone loved it. They said, "We want you to think about," and our manager said, "You got a puppy. I want you to think about what it is was like to have a dog." So she sang the song thinking about that and not actually what it's all about, relationship- wise.
Q - How did The Jets get that song? Through your manager?
A - I think it was through our management, Don Powell. He had a lot of old friends in the business that wrote. Rupert was one of 'em and he had thrown this song out there. It really was a key for our family, for our group, because it was a big hit. It was also a crossover, a timeless song that still plays today.
Q - I never knew that Rupert Holmes wrote that song or I would have asked about it, how long it took him to write it and where the idea came from.
A - I wish I could ask him that. We've read in music magazines that writers will say it's such an intricate song because it modulates so many times. So it's not necessarily a song you can pick up off YouTube and learn it pretty quickly. It doesn't repeat itself on verses. It keeps modulating so it's unpredictable in that way. I'm not really a musician when it comes to musical instruments, but it's kind of nice to appreciate a songwriter like that, a song that is intricate, but simply written.
Q - Did Elizabeth sing lead on all of The Jets' hits?
A - I shared the lead on a few of the first hits. I was kind of behind-the-scenes. She was super shy and she would stare at the ceiling. She had this big voice. My parents were like, "Moana, go up there and stand next to her so she's not afraid." I was kind of like her buddy on the side. I would just hang on and hold her hand. I didn't sing as much. I was kind of there for love and support and background singing. It wasn't until later that we both started singing more leads together. She's very shy to today. She's very introverted and never really cherished the spotlight. I was kind of like a big mouth, little sister. I loved hanging out. I loved the attention. It was like we were Yin and Yang. We worked good together. I sang a little bit later on. I just shared the lead on the fast songs and then on the third and fourth CDs I singing leads.
Q - The Jets were like The Osmonds and / or The Jacksons. Did you parents encourage you to go into show business?
A - Yeah. They came as immigrants, kind of looking for a new way of life. He had a landscaping business and they did these little Polynesian shows on the side. He watches The Jacksons and Osmonds on variety shows on TV and says, "We do that." In Polynesian culture, music is just around everything we do. So he said, "We should start our own group, our own band." So, our parents wanted to find something that we were good at. Then they supported and pushed us to do the music. I was really young, so I didn't really make the choice. The older kids kind of all voted. We had a big family meeting. "Hey, you guys want to do music or do you want to do yard work?" (laughs) It wasn't hard to pick. Once that happened, he bought all the instruments and said, "We're going to have to focus now and make this thing work." Our mother played guitar and taught the rest (of us) and she helped organize the group. She was our lead singer in the beginning. She sewed all of our costumes. She was kind of the music director. Once we got on our own feet, she kind of played a back role.
Q - This is incredible. Your father went out and bought all those instruments for the family?
A - After we made a decision as a family to either pick yard work or show business, he went the next day and bought all those instruments, set 'em up in our living room and everything looked great. The only problem was nobody knew how to play anything. Only my mother knew how to play guitar, but like a ukulele. They gave my oldest brother LeRoy guitar lessons for two weeks. They couldn't afford it, so they said, "You gotta learn it right off the radio." So, he learned everything by ear. He picked up the bass, learned how to play bass. Taught my brother Haini how to play the bass. He learned the drums, taught my brother Rudy and then he played keyboards and taught Kathi to play keys. So, I think it was naturally in the blood, so a lot of the kids picked it up. Elizabeth and I were the youngest at the time and they put us on leads. They made us sing and we did a lot of hula dancing. The neighbors thought my dad was crazy. He could barely speak English and used up his paycheck to buy all those instruments and his kids don't know how to play anything.
Q - If your brother LeRoy had not figured out to play those instruments, there would have been no Jets?
A - Oh, there would have been no Jets. I think my father had this inkling that there's music in our blood, we can learn it. It's really funny 'cause when we went into the studio to play and the musicians would say "What key is this?", we wouldn't know. We're just like, "Play it and we'll learn it." So, we could pick up music quickly by ear. We just couldn't read it. And so, when we'd go in to sing for other artists or do other projects and they's say, "Take it from the key of C to B," Liz and I were like lost. We would just say, "Can you give us a demo? We'll just learn it. I can pick it up pretty quick." That's kind of how we learned it. We're learning now how to read notes, but it was all by ear and all by feel.
Q - After you got the instruments and learned how to play them, you couldn't go into clubs, so where did you perform?
A - You see, my mother and father started the band in the '70s, like around '79 and we used to go to these church functions. My mother was Catholic and my father is Mormon. That's both religions that have big families. In the Mormon culture, there's a lot of activities, so we would perform for these big family get-togethers. We would do the nursing homes, the scouting events. "You need a group to come in and entertain you?" We would do these parades. So, our Dad was just determined to get us to play everywhere we could. So, we traveled with a little RV all over the West Coast, looking for work, trying to get a break. Eventually we got a contract to be the entertaining group for this Hawaiian Inn hotel chain in the Mid-West. Then we ended up in the Mid-West and the Hawaiian Inn went bankrupt. We were working in lounges in the area and we ended up getting "discovered" by our manager.
Q - I have to admit, I've never heard of the Hawaiian Inn hotel chain.
A - They were these hotels in Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. It was places for people to go who couldn't afford to go to Hawaii. We would bring Hawaii to them. They'd come to this Hawaiian Inn hotel. Our family would give them those leis and my father would put on a big luau and then we would be the entertainment. We would just travel from hotel to hotel every two to three months. They'd bus in all the old senior citizens. They're the guys with the money. "Yeah, we want to go to Hawaii. We're going to come watch your show and spend a weekend at The Hawaiian Inn."
Q - Were you in school at the time? Sounds like you were on the road.
A - We were on the road and our parents did home schooling and they had correspondence work. We would send on our work to the school district and they would send it back. That's what we did for awhile. We were in and out of public schools a lot. Our teachers thought we were crazy because we would go to school in the day from 7 to 3 and then we'd work the evening shift at the local lounge from 9 'til midnight. We'd do three to four sets a night. We did this for two years. That's kind of how it was. Our dad was our sound guy. Our mother was our costume person and the owner allowed us to be in there as long as our parents were there. They'd pay us, we'd go home, go to school and then rehearse and work at night from 9 to midnight.
Q - How did your manager discover you? Where did he hear about you?
A - We had a local agent that had heard he had retired. He (Don Powell) used to work for Motown Records. So they begged him and bugged him until he just ran out of excuses. He finally said, "Fine, I'll come out. I'm retired. I haven't been in the business for a few years, but stop calling. I'll check out the group. Quit bothering me." So he came out to see our family and I think it startled him to see eight brothers and sisters that not only sang, but played instruments. He was surprised that we were a self-contained band. That's when he decided he would go back into the business. He ended up getting back with some of his old friends in the business and helped produce the group and arrange for some demos and ended up shopping us and, because of the music people in Minneapolis, they ended up seeing The Jets.
Q - Did Don Powell have a production deal with MCA Records or were you signed directly to MCA?
A - We were signed I believe to his production deal. He had a company called Twin Town Sounds and he signed us to that. Then the record company signed that production company. I'm learning all this now that I'm older, but when you're eleven, you have no idea what's going on. We worked hundreds of shows every year. It was later on that you realized the good and bad that came from it.
Q - Did anyone at any time ever ask to see an accounting of the money coming in and the money going out? Your parents?
A - I don't think my parents stayed on top of it. I wish they would have. I think they were kind of caught up in the whole excitement of it, trusting him that they didn't ask any questions. It was when the money ran out... It took a long time for my parents to convince our manager we needed a house. We'd been working so hard, we'd been renting. We'd like to buy a house. We finally bought a home for the family. Not even a few years after that, people kept thinking; You guys are making so much money. You're working all the time. You're on tour. And we weren't really seeing anything. We were still a family of seventeen. The Jets make up the eight oldest of a family of seventeen children. We weren't living in these big cribs and had all these cars. We had two, fifteen passenger vans, a bigger home that we could finally call our home. It wasn't anything extravagant considering what we were making at the time. But the questions weren't asked until it was too late. By the time the third album came out, our manager was already having issues with the record company and the record company didn't want to deal with him. The Jets ended up getting screwed in the middle because we didn't know anybody. I learned now that relationships mean everything. We never knew anybody in the business. We would go in and say hi to record company people, but we didn't have real solid relationships. Everything he did, he had his contacts. A sad tale, but luckily we're still a family. We've actually made amends since then. We've seen him. We had a 25th Anniversary Show in Minneapolis and we invited him to it. It was a nice reunion to see him again. We let bygones be bygones and just moved on.
Q - If someone took money that rightfully belonged to me, I wouldn't have them in my company. And when I hear stories like yours, I always wonder why the artist can't recover money that management has taken. Why is that?
A - I think it becomes a crazy web. All these people. All these sponsors. Record company people. Promoters. Everyone working for the management. For awhile, believe me, we were all really bitter. We were all really hurt by it because we were young. By the time our career was over, I just turned seventeen. We had like a six year stint in the business. I'm seventeen and I'm like done. We were all in our late teens, early twenties. We had to go work in clubs and bars again. It was really humiliating for us to go back into casinos and get paid peanuts. We didn't know anybody in the business. It was like they moved on. "The Jets? That's old news. We've got New Kids On The Block. We don't need this little group." So, we were pretty much kicked to the curb. We started doing a few USO tours and then it started to hit us as a family. We fought a lot. We struggled on the road. None of us had a real education. It was like we all had G.E.D.s, education equivalent. None of us had gone to college. So, we really got tripped up and we didn't know anybody in the business and then we were back in Minneapolis, just working the clubs. It was very humiliating for a long time. We were bitter at our manager and just how everything went down. We all kind of walked away from the business. A few of my siblings got married and just thought, "You know what? I'll start my family. We had an opportunity. We were blessed by it. We got to travel the world and see places many people didn't get to see, but now we gotta move on and get back to reality." It was embarrassing to go back to our people thinking that we're these big, rich, famous people and we're trying to get work. That part really sucked. For a long time I didn't speak to my family. We just kind of went our way. I got married and lived in Hawaii for ten years. We never were estranged from our family and our parents, but this business really did a number and we all walked away. Luckily, we all are still very religious in our beliefs and we believe in our family and we all have children now. That alone I think kind of kept us together. It was just kind of like it's not worth it. Among all of us children, my parents have fifty-three grandchildren. It just wasn't worth it for us to be bitter for that long. We finally saw a manager a few years ago and just thought "You can't be that angry that long." He had a lot of health issues and I think he lost a lot of money. He used a lot our money to try and fund other music projects, but they never panned out.
Q - How much money were you taken for? Any idea?
A - In the '80s, what I can remember, just for the four years, and it doesn't seem like a lot now, but back then I think we made between four and eight million dollars. Eight million dollars is what we had made in our four year success for The Jets.
Q - Imagine if you had the money today and it had been properly invested.
A - You learn a lot of life lessons. You can either be bitter or you can move on and say, "Let's get smart. We've learned never to do this again." I look at the business today, and it's really a business. People say, "What happened? Where did The Jets go?" I say "We still do music, but we don't always necessarily do the business part of it." So, we're still involved with our music. We still love it. I hated music for a long time because it left a bitter taste after all the hard work we did. My husband is a musician too. He told me, "You really can't be angry. You got a gift and you can always use that gift. You can learn from your mistakes. Maybe they were out of your hands, but there's nothing you can do about it. It's life. You gotta move forward. If not, you'll stay bitter and use that to be unhappy. You just can't do that anymore." Luckily, we're still a family. We got together and we struggle together. We just put out a new record. We've survived as a family and I think that's what matters to us most. A lot of musical families don't make it. They either end up not talking to each other or they keep their distance. We're still very involved in each other's lives. We're a lot more cautious, but we're a lot more family oriented. The business almost broke our family apart.
Q - When The Jets were at the peak of their musical fame in the '80s, what kind of venues were you performing in?
A - I think some of the biggest places we ever performed in were the big dome in New Orleans. We sang for the World Series, at the seventh game in Minneapolis. We were in Tokyo for the Music Festival. We represented Asia at the Korean Olympics, the South Pacific part of Asia. We were in Seoul, Korea for that. Performing for the troops was like a highlight for us. Also, just being nominated for a Grammy and also being nominated for American Music Awards, something we were really proud of. Then, in our own country, the small Kingdom of Tonga, we were put on their national stamp. So, there's a Jets stamp from our own country. Then, some of the people we worked with were highlights. B.B. King, Tina Turner, Gloria Estefan. But I think overall it was the idea that this family from a tiny island Kingdom could actually make a little mark in music in the world is something we still go, "Wow!" It's crazy. Our parents couldn't speak English. Everyone thought my parents were crazy to start this family group and we actually did it. And we're grateful for the blessing of doing it and being able to travel. When we do shows today, people think of The Jets as a positive thing. The music is still positive in their minds. It was a good experience for them.
Q - How many records did you sell? Do you know?
A - The first two records we sold a million on the two and then a half million on the third. So, it was two Platinums and a Gold on the third. Then we had "Best Of The Jets" that went Gold.
Q - Where did the name The Jets come from?
A - Bennie And The Jets, the Elton John song. Our manager heard it on the radio coming to a show and he just said, "Your name, Quazar, doesn't work. Your last name is Wolfgramm and you don't look German. We gotta give you a name that works." That's just what he came up with.