Toni Basil gets her 'Mickey' acclaim — and copyright — 40 years later: 'I really thought I should put my foot down and receive money for it'

Toni Basil, American dancer turned singer, in Britain to perform her single 'Mickey' on Top of the Pops   (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)
Toni Basil, American dancer turned singer, in Britain to perform her single 'Mickey' on Top of the Pops (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

Toni Basil was already a 38-year-old showbiz veteran when her bouncy hit “Mickey” was released in the U.S. in May 1982, and in many ways the song was just a blip on her dizzyingly lengthy résumé. The daughter of a vaudevillian acrobat/comedienne and a Vegas orchestra leader, Antonia Basilotta had literally grown up watching the likes of Nat King Cole, Josephine Baker, Judy Garland, and Frank Sinatra from the stage wings of the Sahara Hotel in the ‘50s and ‘60s. By the time the ‘80s and her Devo-assisted debut album Word of Mouth came along, she’d danced and/or choreographed for Shindig!, The T.A.M.I. Show, Viva Las Vegas, the Monkees’ Head movie, and American Graffiti; acted in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces; choreographed David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour and Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” and “Crosseyed & Painless” music videos; and founded/managed the pioneering street-dance troupe the Lockers (who actually once toured with Frank Sinatra).

But despite all those impressive credits, many fans will forever know Basil for “Mickey,” one of the greatest one-hit-wonders of the ‘80s, or possibly of all time. “Mickey” was actually a remake of the 1979 single “Kitty” by British glam-pop group Racey, written by the famous powerpop production duo of Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn. But the track wasn’t a smash until Basil added that infectious and iconic “Oh Mickey, you're so fine” pep-squad chant — inspired by her own cheerleading days at Las Vegas High — and slipped back into her old high school uniform for “Mickey’s” low-budget yet Grammy-nominated music video, an early-MTV staple that she conceived, directed, produced, and choreographed herself. (Basil is still in possession of the video’s storyboard.) However, it took 40 years for Basil to actually obtain the rights to “Mickey.”

In January 2020, Basil released a “recut from scratch” new recording of her signature song under the title “Hey Mickey,” featuring “one of the original Dorsey High cheerleaders that originally did the chant in the first place,” because, as she tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume, “I really thought I should put my foot down and receive money for it.” But last week, after a nearly decade-long legal battle and Basil claiming that she never profited from the single, the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit Court ruled that the now 78-year-old artist is the sole owner of the recording copyright for “Mickey” and Word of Mouth. “There is strong evidence that artistic control lay solely with Basilotta, not with the recording company or — by extension — [record producer Greg] Mathieson,” the judges wrote. “Basilotta appears to have primarily wielded creative control, selecting songs and instrumental musicians, devising the creative concepts for the recordings, and even helping Mathieson mix the master tapes.”

Basil made her recording debut back in 1966 with the title song for Bruce Conner’s short art film Breakaway (which is considered by many pop scholars to be one of the first music videos), but then, as she explains to Yahoo/SiriusXM, her “career took a different lane” with choreography and acting. But 10 years later, she sang the jazz number “Wham Rebop Boom Bam” on both Saturday Night Live Season 1 and The Merv Griffin Show, which led to sold-out shows at the Sunset Strip’s Roxy club and renewed interest in her as a potential pop star.

“All of a sudden, this European company wanted me to do videos,” Basil recalls. “They said, ‘We need you to make some videos, because that's how we sell records and promote in Europe.’ This was pre-MTV, but I’d had a whole underground film career, and I had a career in regular TV.” Initially signing to the U.K. record label Radialchoice in 1981, Basil “started to look for songs,” but she initially passed on “Kitty” because, she says, “It was too cute for me.”

But Basil always thought about the bigger picture, and she’d always had the idea to incorporate cheerleading chants into her act. “I remembered on the basketball courts [in high school], how extraordinary it was when we used to cheer and stomp and clap; I loved it. And then in the Lockers, we used to do same thing: We used to do rhythm, and stomp and clap. One night at the Roxy with the Lockers, we were opening up for Cheech & Chong, and I kept thinking, ‘Wow, this [stomping sound] is a record. This is a record,’” she explains. “I couldn't figure out how to use it, but then when I got this opportunity years later, I thought, ‘I'm going to write a cheerleader song!’”

After an attempt with create a cheerleader anthem with songwriting great Allee Willis didn’t work out, Basil “started to go to cheerleader competitions” for additional inspiration. “And wow, the cheerleaders were really different in 1979, ‘80 than they were when I was cheerleading in 1959 and ’60! I thought, ‘Man, this is funky!’ And I changed the name of the song from ‘Kitty’ to ‘Mickey,’ and all of a sudden we had a chant that went on the front of a song.”

Incredibly, the powers-that-be at Radialchoice were unconvinced. “The record company thought it was a terrible idea,” Basil chuckles. “My manager thought it was a terrible idea. Nobody thought it was a good idea. Nobody really knew what to do with it. But what is a record company in England going to know? If I'm saying, ‘I'm going to put a cheerleader chant on this song,’ they don't even know cheerleaders! There was no such thing there! So, I said, ‘Look, I'm going to put [the chant] on it. I'm doing a video. And if it ever becomes a single, take the chant off — um, that's a joke. Don't take the chant off!’”

Luckily for Basil, she was “just flying by the seat of my pants,” with Radialchoice “just leaving me to my own devices. The record company was in England and they barely ever showed up. They sent me money and said, ‘Have a great time, man.’” Basil shot the “Mickey” video with the championship squad from Los Angeles’s Carson High School, and when Stateside record label Chrysalis signed her and released “Mickey” in 1982, the chant had remained intact — and it was “the right song at the right time.” Basil “came in armed and dangerous with a video ready to go” for a rising cable network called MTV, and “Mickey” eventually went to No. 1 and sold double-platinum in the U.S.

“That video was nothing like anyone had ever seen,” Basil points out. “People had seen jazz dancers, and go-go dancers once the ‘60s happen, but nobody ever saw real cheerleaders — and they were real cheerleaders. … I used the real thing. I used real street dancers, real cheerleaders — real, real, real, authentic, authentic. It's organic, and it grabs you, and I think that's so damn important. So, people were seeing a style of cheerleading that they'd never seen on TV before. The video was quite groundbreaking. I was mixing cheerleading with locking and a little bit of boogaloo.”

While Basil (whose more recent credits include choreographing for the films That Thing You Do!, My Best Friend's Wedding, Legally Blonde, and Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) says, “What it changed to a very ugly thing later on,” as she dealt with “a lot of legalities” that now thankfully seem to finally be resolved, she stresses: “Let me tell you, I'm so glad I did all of it. All of it. It was a joy recording. It was a joy doing those [Word of Mouth] videos. Once again, everybody left me alone, and I got to do my work. And my work is out there. They say you can't take it with you, but the bottom line is yes, you can: You leave your videos and your work behind, and it's all there.”

The above interview is taken from Toni Basil’s archived two-part appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of those conversations is available on the SiriusXM app.

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