Toni Basil at 70: Thirty Years Past Singing, But Still Cutting a Rug

Chris Willman
Stop The Presses!

Hey Toni, you’re so fine, you're so fine, you blow our minds. You're 70! You're 70!

Forming a human pyramid isn’t how we usually celebrate pop artists entering their eighth decade. But we’ll have to make an exception in the case of Toni Basil, the symbol of early-'80s sprightliness who slipped us a "Mickey" with her sole hit back in 1982. She turns 70 on September 22 and, if recent public appearances are any indication, Basil fits into that Las Vegas High cheerleader outfit just as well as when she starred in one of MTV’s most famous early videos.

She's a one-hit wonder who's enjoyed a successful career throughout the last 50 years. If that sounds paradoxical, it's worth pointing out that "singer" has really been the least important component of her multi-hyphenate singer/dancer/actress/choreographer/director legacy. Like Jennifer Lopez, Basil was a dancer who parlayed that into a musical career. But unlike J.Lo, she quickly went back to her former profession, retiring from record-making after her sophomore album stiffed in '83.

''People think, 'Well, she's not around because she's not in front of the camera.' You're not going to be that naïve, are you?” she complained to Entertainment Weekly in 1996, taking umbrage at the one-hit wonder slur.

It was hardly as if she could financially coast on the success of "Mickey," which continues to be the DJ's choice any time some ‘80s tunes are called for on the dance floor. "I don’t think my story is an unusual story for a lot of music performers," she told an English TV interviewer recently. "But I think that since 1982, worldwide, I have probably seen less than 3,000 American dollars in royalties."

Unknown to most pop fans who know her mostly for her work with pompons, Basil has been a virtual Zelig of pop culture — working alongside David Bowie, Elvis Presley, Talking Heads, the Monkees, Devo, Frank Sinatra, George Lucas, Jack Nicholson, Tom Hanks, Bette Midler, the Muppets, Matchbox Twenty, and even "Suite Life"-era Zack and Cody. Her latest credit on IMDB had her choreographing an episode of RuPaul’s TV show...which is a long way from dancing next to Annette Funicello all the way back in 1964's Pajama Party.

Basil really did go to Las Vegas High, per the uniform, thanks to her father/s longtime gig as the orchestra leader at the Sands. She soon came to L.A. to dance in an early-/60s theatrical revival of West Side Story, the cast of which included fellow dancer and BFF Teri Garr, who boogied along with her in Pajama Party, Viva Las Vegas, and "The T.A.M.I. Show."

"Boy, did I envy her!" Garr wrote in her memoir. "Toni grew up in a show business family in Las Vegas...At her apartment she had false eyelashes, hairpieces, and a waist cincher. This level of accessorizing impressed me. As far as I was concerned, it made Toni a real show-business dancer. I was in awe of her." Their adventures included being invited to sit in on the recording of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine," then going out for a full night of drinking and dancing with all four Fabs afterward.

Basil also hoofed it up for Bob Fosse in Sweet Charity and partnered with Davy Jones for a memorable production number in the Monkees' Head. But her allure was enough to land her non-dancing roles in Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider; in the latter, she played a hooker Peter Fonda took a shine to in New Orleans.

Hollywood suddenly had a thirst for the counterculture, but its elders didn't know how to service these crazy kids. As someone who knew how to keep dancing from looking musty on the big screen, Basil was uniquely positioned to start getting her own choreographing gigs.

She was well known enough by 1974 to land a cover story in New York's After Dark magazine, and, in 1976, to be praised as "the Pavlova of the Sunset Strip" in a feature in Ms. magazine.

"I was a cheerleader," she told After Dark, explaining her background, long before "Mickey." "During those years doing those homecomings and football games I learned all my choreography and musical staging I was David Winter's assistant on 'Shindig' and 'The T.A.M.I. Show'...When David came to New York to stage 'Hullaballoo,' I started getting calls to choreograph. Rock had finally begun to be used on television. All of the choreographers were older people who hated the improvisational nature of rock-music dancing. I loved rock; I was disciplined; I could stage numbers too. David was the first rock choreographer. I was now the second. I began to stage dances for films. I did Viva Las Vegas with Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret. By standing in for Ann-Margret for a week, I learned the feeling of being a star in a musical number."

That cover story coincided with Basil getting her biggest break to date, as the co-director and choreographer of David Bowie's Diamond Dogs tour in '74. (She repeated her duties for Bowie on 1987’s Glass Spider tour.) But an even bigger turning point in the mid-'70s came when she joined a dance troupe called the Lockers, as their only white member; they performed on the third episode of "Saturday Night Live" and proved highly influential on hip-hop dancers to come. Fred "Rerun" Berry off "What's Happenin'" fame was a fellow member. "Toni worked hard in the early '70s to make street dancing something people would know about," Bowie later pointed out. Said Basil, "We did change the face of dance. We were the first street dancers that formed a group, got on television, and actually earned a dime." Within one week, Basil noted, the Lockers opened for Sinatra at Carnegie Hall and Funkadelic at Radio City Music Hall.

She fit in just as well, if not better, as the punk/new wave era dawned. At one point she was going out with a young upstart named David Byrne (who had a thing for choreographers, since he also took up with Twyla Tharp). Their most notable collaboration was a video for "Crosseyed and Painless" that changed Byrne’s image from nerd to visually provocative nerd, as he took on the role of a jerky, forehead-slapping, Ernest Angley-style evangelist. Byrne’s label president, Seymour Stein, is quoted in a Talking Heads biography by David Bowman as having taken note of how Byrne's romances with Tharp and Basil rubbed off on his stage moves: "Boy, it's a lot cheaper than taking dancing lessons," Stein joked.

Said Basil, "'‘Crosseyed and Painless' started when Shabba-Doo — street-dancing star of Electric Boogaloo and Breakin' — called my attention an insane dance group called the Electric Boogaloos, from Fresno, California...That was the first time I saw Boogaloo Sam do the moonwalk, which is really called the backslide. Michael Jackson did not create the moonwalk! I showed the audition tape to David Byrne, and he wanted to use that style of dance for 'Crosseyed and Painless.'"

Then came the recording contract of her own, at which point, being a show-biz veteran in her 30s, she was hardly a babe in any of these woods.

"On my 'Mickey' video, I was the director, producer, choreographer, editor, singer — everything," she said. "I'd made very avant-garde 8mm and 16mm films...And I had been choreographing for TV since the late '60s, so I certainly knew how to shoot for TV. I didn’t have a calculated approach to 'Mickey' of Ooh, I'll wear a short skirt in the video because will guys will like it. If you don’t like my talent, then f--- you."

The song had already been out, in another form, as a single called "Kitty" by a (male) group named Racey, written by the then-hitmaking team of Chinn/Chapman, who’d also been responsible for smashes like "Ballroom Blitz." After being handed the song, Basil flipped the gender and, more importantly, introduced the chant.

"I was always a cheerleader and I remember the echoing in the basketball court of cheerleaders, of us, stomping, chanting," she said. "I said I would do it if I could put the cheerleader chant on it. The record company asked me not to put the chant on because they were concerned it would ruin the rest of the tune."

Not for 1982 audiences, it didn't, as the song soared to number two in England and number one in America. But despite the presence of Devo as the backup band on some of her tracks, music fans were being bombarded by so much novelty and color that they didn’t seem to want any Basil tunes that didn’t offer a chant.

Since then, she's faced the responsibility of trying to remind the public that she had the same career before and after "Mickey," which essentially stands out as a defining but uncharacteristic blip. "People don’t connect the girl that sang 'Mickey' with the girl who was one of the seven original Lockers or the same girl who was in Easy Rider or the same girl who choreographed David Bowie, Tina Turner, and Bette Midler tours. It's like I've led five lives," she said — four of them in relative anonymity.

Movie fans who put on films from American Graffiti to Legally Blonde are still astonished to see her name in the credits on DVD nights across America. Tom Hanks remembered that happening as he was looking to find someone to recreate the dancing of the '60s for That Thing You Do! "'Her name rolled by, and I said I'd be incredibly happy to get them to look like 'The T.A.M.I. Show.' Can we get Toni Basil? We made a phone call and she was there the next day.''

Some would look at only the pop-star part of Basil's career and see failure, while others would look over her filmography and spell L-U-C-K-Y. But she’s not all about the discography or filmography anyway, as dancers in L.A.'s hip-hop, swing, and salsa clubs sometimes spot her out in public, cutting a rug for its own sake.

"'You street-dance in a club, and you're performing,'' she said recently. ''Whether anybody sees me is a whole other thing. But it doesn't matter, because it fills my void.''