Pom-Pom and Circumstances Turn Choreographer Toni Basil into An Overnight Pop Star
Gimme a B, gimme an A, gimme an S-I-L. What’s that spell? BASIL, as in razzle, as in dazzle, as in Toni Basil, the beguiling pixie responsible for the rah-rah rhythms of Mickey, the nation’s No. 1 pop single last month. “I’m surprised by the success of anything I do,” says Basil, “but it’s gratifying when the public approves.” If acceptance can be measured in terms of record sales, then Toni must feel gratified indeed. Featuring real-life cheerleaders from L.A.’s Dorsey High, her pom-pom paean has sold more than one and a half million copies since its August release and promises to push her debut LP, Word of Mouth, beyond gold.
At 34, Basil may be a fresh voice on the pop scene, but she is hardly a show business freshman. She has worked as a dancer, an actress and a video director, and she is well known as a rock choreographer. David Bowie, Linda Ronstadt and Bette Midler have all followed her footsteps. Basil says Mickey was inspired by her rediscovery of what she calls “an American art form”—cheerleading. A former cheerleader herself, Basil visited some high school tryouts, “got completely compulsive about it and couldn’t think of anything else.” The result was Mickey. Basil gave a boost to her preoccupation by sponsoring a recent cheerleading competition for 21 Los Angeles-area high schools.
Coupled with her songwriting talents is Basil’s knack for using video, an increasingly important tool in the music business. Word of Mouth, in fact, was originally a sound track for a video presentation which was a smash in Europe before its popularity began spreading to the States last August. Besides working on her own, she helped conjure up visuals for New Wave innovator Devo, and a clever clip she co-directed for Talking Heads landed a showcase spot in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Born in Philadelphia, Basil comes by her entertainment instincts naturally. Her mother was a dancer until Toni was born and her father fronted a big band at the Carmen Theater and later conducted the house orchestra at the Sahara Club in Las Vegas. “I grew up thinking of show business as a business,” recalls Toni. After becoming head cheerleader at Las Vegas High, she went to Los Angeles with intentions of becoming a dental technician. She quit after just three months of studying when she was hired as a dancer in a revival of West Side Story. Basil went on to fashion dances for a series of B movies such as Viva Las Vegas, in which she high-stepped beside Elvis and Ann-Margret. She played spacey chicks in both Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces and choreographed the dance sequences in American Graffiti.
In the early ’70s she formed a group with seven guys she encountered in Watts, who were “doing amazing things like dancing on the walls.” Called the Lockers, they performed on a variety of TV shows including Saturday Night Live. “We were never really a troupe,” she explains, “we were just eight soloists who came together for a while.” In 1977 she was hired by David Bowie to stage his exotic “Diamond Dogs” tour and says it gave her “the bug to perform again.”
In spite of her burgeoning career as a songstress, the 5’4″, 105-pound Basil maintains the strict regimen of a professional dancer, which includes constant dieting, lots of iron and no caffeine, tobacco or drugs. She has never married, but for the last four years she has been linked romantically with a punk fashion designer who calls himself Spazz Attack. They live in a two-bedroom house in L.A.
Basil is already working on a follow-up to Word of Mouth. After that? Hard to say, but “I guess I feel pretty confident about my prospects,” says Toni. “If I like something, it seems a pretty good bet that other people will, too.” GO TEAM!