Crystal Waters, singer, songwriter
My father was a jazz musician and my great-aunt Ethel was a famous singer and actor, but I didn’t initially follow the same path. I got a job in the Washington DC parole board, issuing warrants and calculating jail time on the computer. One day my mom suggested I go see a psychic, who told me I wasn’t doing anything with my voice. I thought: “What is she talking about?” When I got back to work, a friend told me his cousin who had studio was looking for a backing singer. So I went along, got the job, made $600 – which felt like a million dollars – and thought: “This is what I want to do.”
I made a demo and went to a music conference in Washington. The first people I met were [production team] the Basement Boys. They loved my songwriting and asked if I would write and sing some lyrics to their house music tracks. They sent me Gypsy Woman on cassette. It was different then, but had the familiar bassline. I rented a four-track and just sang “La da dee, la da da” because I couldn’t find any words to fit the short syllables. When I sang that hook for them, they fell out of their chairs.
I sang it in the bathroom of the recording studio
I felt the song needed to tell a story and was reminded of a woman who used to stand outside in Washington. She had full face makeup and always dressed well, but she sang gospel songs in the street and had a hand out asking for money. Homelessness was really bad in DC at the time and at first my attitude had been: “She needs to get some work.” Then the local paper did a story about how she had lost her job at a cosmetic counter and fallen fast, but she felt that if she was going to ask for money she would look clean and respectable. Her story changed my whole opinion about homelessness, so I sang her life in the song: “She wakes up early every morning / Just to do her hair / Because she cares y’all.”
The Basement Boys intended me to become a songwriter and we’d actually written this song for Ultra Naté, but after I made a demo of it they asked me to come back and record it properly. Their studio was in their basement and I sang it in the bathroom. They told me my voice suited the song better because I knew the story and sang it with emotion.
After it came out, I was walking to work with my Walkman on and thought I heard someone call my name, then realised it was the DJ on the radio introducing Gypsy Woman. When it became a hit, I didn’t think people were listening to the lyrics, so for the second pressing we asked the label to put “she’s homeless” in the title so people would know what it was about.
Neal Conway, songwriter, production
I started with the Basement Boys as a studio keyboard player but after I began composing my own things, they gave me a songwriter’s contract and I wrote some stuff on Ultra Naté’s album, Blue Notes in the Basement. I didn’t go to the Washington music conference where the others met Crystal, but when she came to the studio we started to engage. I loved the way she could observe something and then write it down in a song, like she did with Gypsy Woman.
At the time there was a lot of house music coming out of New York and Chicago, but my big influences were Barry White, Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes. I started Gypsy Woman with the piano, added the bassline and drums and then played strings and orchestration on my Leslie organ speaker. The Basement Boys said what I did was perfect for the radio but they also did a lot of DJing and felt it was too pretty to be played in clubs. So for the B-side [The Basement Boys’ Strip to the Bone mix] they took out the orchestration and just had me playing keyboard. All the clubs started playing the B-side, so we expected it to be a big club song. We didn’t expect it to become an overnight international sensation like it did.