In the beginning there was light, “Ray Of Light”.
Crucified by the media for years, Madonna has rarely been recognized for her achievements. She has dominated the music industry since 1985, and has even collected more consecutive top five US singles than the Beatles (see Goldmine’s first Madonna feature “Deca-dance” July 1992), but praise has been hard to comeby. This year that has all changed. Her latest album “Ray Of Light” was honored at the 1999 Grammy Awards with six nominations and four awards, including a win for pop record of the year. Born again with a fresh sound, co-produced with electronica wizard William Orbit, her peers have taken notice. Over the years, we have come to expect the annual metamorphosis from Madonna, but we continue to be surprised. The reincarnated Madonna is an older, wiser, and kinder sort. “Ray Of Light” gave us a peak at her recent introspective journey.
Borrowing a line from the album’s title track, “trying to remember, where it all began….”, this feature will explore Madonna’s early genesis and will reveal some never reported details about her unreleased catalog for the very first time. Some of these recordings have surfaced on various bootleg releases of varying quality while other Warner Brother’s era masters remain in storage like the Dead Sea scrolls.
Here I will report which titles have been confirmed to exist with my exclusive interview with former Madonna collaborator Stephen Bray, and through online database searches of the public US copyright records at the Library Of Congress locis.loc.gov. This was not an “on-site” investigation, and the database does appear to contain errors, including name spellings. Madonna has multiple author entries under names like “Modonna”, and her last name is sometimes spelled “Ciconi”, among other creative combinations. Even Stephen Bray has an entry under “Brey”. Madonna is almost always credited for lyrics on these recordings while her various collaborators are usually credited for music. Some of the unreleased Madonna songs found in the public copyright records actually have original cassette demos on file at the Library Of Congress in Washington DC.
Media sensationalism has plagued Madonna for many years, and sometimes her early days have been made to sound more dramatic than they probably were. The truth is probably somewhere between the published extremes. Her early press described Madonna as growing up in poor, racially integrated neighborhoods that somehow helped shaped her world vision and her music. She was raised in two Detroit suburbs, Pontiac and the upper middle class Rochester Hills. Both of these cities reside in Oakland County, one of the most affluent in America. A few miles away are many homes of the corporate elite that work in the auto industry and related fields. Aretha Franklin also lives nearby. The Ciccone family in fact, did well enough to send her to a private catholic elementary school.
Her ballet teacher Christopher Flynn exposed Madonna to a wider cultural horizon. He took Madonna to art museums, and one of their frequent haunts was the mostly gay disco, Menjos, in Detroit. It was there she learned about racial and sexual diversity, and the dance club scene. With Flynn’s encouragement, Madonna decided to pursue a professional dancing career. She enrolled at the University Of Michigan in Ann Arbor after graduating from Rochester Adams High. There she would meet her future song writing and production collaborator Stephen Bray at the now closed Blue Frog Disco over a Gin & Tonic. In the years to come, the pair would collaborate to produce several international top 5 hits including “Into The Grove”, “Angel”, “True Blue”, “Each Time You Break My Heart”, “Causing A Commotion”, “Express Yourself”, and “Keep It Together. At that time however, she had no intention of becoming a songwriter or vocalist. In the end, neither career could take off in Michigan. In the summer of 1978 she attended a dance workshop in North Carolina, and then left Bray behind to obtain real work in New York City that July.
Contrary to popular belief, Madonna’s arrival in New York City was also not as poverty stricken as portrayed in many of the “tell all” biographies. The traditional story line reported is that she had a cab driver drop her off in Times Square where she walked until a stranger took her in for a few weeks. This is usually followed by stories of date rape, fires in lofts, eating nothing but popcorn, and working at Dunkin Doughnuts. I once assisted a crew shooting footage for A&E’s Madonna Biography back in 1993. They taped an interview with Madonna’s brother Martin Ciccone. He described off camera the reports of Madonna eating out of the trash as, “bullshit”. He mentioned that Madonna’s father knew someone in New York before she went there, and that she frequently received money from the family. He maintained, “She was taken care of, and those reports hurt our family”. No doubt she had a rough time at the beginning, and many describe her first NY apartments as less than attractive, but exactly how true the stories are, only Madonna knows for sure.