Secret Lovers was a popular band along the Jersey Shore in the mid-80s. They released a EP in 1986 which contained the hit song, “Desiree (I Know You’re Home Tonight).” That song would be played heavily on radio stations throughout New Jersey and Philadelphia.
Around 1990, the band had pretty much run its course and lead singer Alice Leon was looking for something new. The result was a band called After Alice that would have brushes with fame from two appearances on “Star Search” and songs featured on “The Guiding Light.” But by 1995, After Alice was finished and Leon had pretty given up on a music career. That’s when she was discovered by Sony and signed to a development deal. She’s currently leading the Alice Project, a band that has just released its third record and shows her growth as an artist.
I was able to talk to Alice Leon via phone to find out what it was like being one of the few female rockers along the Jersey Shore in the 80s and about the twists and turns her career has taken since then.
When did Secret Lovers actually get together?
We started in 1984.
I noticed that this stuff is kind of omitted from current biographies...
Of course it is! Well, first of all it’s hard to say that I’m 27 when I started in 1984! I did an interview with the New York Times a few years ago when they reviewed my album and the guy was like, “How old are you?” And I said, “I’m not gonna tell you how old I am, that’s ridiculous! How about if I tell you I’m in my extremely late 20s...” Anyway, the guy was so bent on finding out, he actually found out and put it in the newspaper. Let’s just say I was young... I was younger than the rest of them.
What was the most difficult thing about playing back then? It seemed like the scene was pretty isolated regarding female led bands?
That’s right! Isn’t that strange? It was very isolated, I can tell you. I’ve even tried finding other female players to work with and they’re really hard to find. Of course, few have stuck it out as long as I have, most have all thrown in the towel.
There were a couple of things going on at the time because I was the only woman. I’m trying to think back as to how I used to feel. I definitely felt younger than all of the other players. I was just coming up, I felt like a kid. There weren’t a lot of women I could draw off of either, so my style was being formed without having anybody to bounce it off of and that was different.
The changing room situation was always a pain. The Pony just had that one room, so I had to go back there or change where the ice machine was. Back in the 80s, the clothes you wore were a big deal and you never came to the club in what you were going to wear on stage. I used to wear things like lace gloves and crazy jewelry.
Actually, I still have some of the clothes that I wore in the eighties because I just couldn’t get rid of them. Nowadays, people show up at a club with the clothes that they’re gonna wear. They look like they just fixed their car and then go on stage. But they didn’t do that in the eighties. I remember La Bamba used to go to Chess King, which had nothing but shiny clothes. He used to always bring his clothes in a Chess King bag and we’d make fun of him!
Asbury in the eighties was a great place! It was nearly all original music at the time and people really came out to the clubs. It was just a different vibe than I feel there is now. You almost have to pry people out of their armchairs to get them into the club. The club scene has changed dramatically overall, but I think Asbury was a great place to play. We even did a really neat show with WNEW back when the station was really supportive at the Shore. We did a live outdoor morning show with the Asbury Jukes. It was such a scene down there! In my opinion, the scene’s just not there anymore.
Secret Lovers had a song “Desiree (I Know You’re Home Tonight)” that found its way on to a WDHA compilation of New Jersey bands. Did the band also release a record?
We had a 5-song vinyl EP.
Did that find its way on to any radio stations?
Yes, in 1986 or 1987, “Desiree” ended up on WPST, which was the big Philly station. It actually ended up on their charts. We were a top-5 most requested song for about half a year. We sold thousands and thousands of copies of the EP. So, that was kind of neat. But I think all of the money from the sales just went back into paying it off. I know it cost us a lot to make the record.
We ended up doing a lot of big opening shows, a lot of these 1000-seat college shows with guys like Glen (Burtnick), John Eddie and Tommy Conwell. We did all of the cabarets in Philly. We even did a show at Convention Hall in Asbury with Burtnick, Bon Jovi and us.
Was that a benefit show?
Yeah, I think it was a benefit. Everything was a benefit, I don’t think I ever got paid... Someone was benefiting! (laughs)
Where were some of your early shows?
Oh my gosh, every club that there was. It’s probably easier to ask me which clubs I didn’t play. We played just about every club that would have us in New York from the Bottom Line, the Bitter End, the Palladium and Kenny’s Castaways. We played Joe Pop’s and all the Jersey Shore clubs. At one point we were playing every Thursday at the Stone Pony with the Front Street Runners. John was recording his record for Columbia and so they had other people fronting the band, usually it was Bobby Bandiera.
A couple of nights, Springsteen showed up. That was always good for us because we would go on first and then Bruce would show up. So, we’d play, break down the stage and then Bruce would come on and whoever was to go on after us didn’t get to play.
Is it true that you didn’t really play live until college?
Right! I didn’t play at all. My freshman year at Rutgers, I was playing my guitar a lot and writing lots of songs. I used to play in my dorm room and my roommates thought I was good. So, I just got inspired and went up to all of those open mike nights in the Village. I wound up getting a steady gig at this one club called the Dugout, which is now the Peculiar Pub on Bleeker Street. I played there three nights a week from 1-3 a.m.
One thing led to another and I started doing background vocals for bands at school. I ended up meeting Scot, the guitar player, who told me he was looking for a girl to sing on a record he was doing. It turned out he didn’t even have a band! So, we put together this band with Dave LaRue and we got this pretty cool band that became Secret Lovers.
I don’t really think about this stuff that much because so much has happened since. Unfortunately, there is a big prejudice against women that are not 26 in this business. And so that’s the problem. My history can only go back ten years.
How did Secret Lovers bleed into the band After Alice?
I think our band member changes always revolved around spending a lot of money on band pictures. So, every time we would do a band photo someone would leave the band. Finally at one point, I think it was just the guitar player, a keyboard player and me left. This was around 1990. By then, I really wanted to have the focus put a little more on me because I was writing the music, I was the lead singer, I was booking the band... I was basically doing the whole thing. We ended up going with After Alice, which kind of changed the focus. That was when women were starting to make the scene.
After Alice was on the TV show, “Star Search.”
Yeah, we were. It’s so weird because recently I’ve been starting to feel like I’ve been in this so long. We were there in ‘93 and ‘94. In ‘93, we were doing a show in New York at Cafe Wha? A scout saw us there. It really wasn’t what you thought, you didn’t submit your stuff to them they actually had scouts for the show. They asked us to come for an audition and we set up at some studio where they videotaped us. I remember we didn’t take it very serious because we thought it was a pretty cheesy show, but it ended up being a lot of fun. They sent us down to Disney World for a week with all expenses paid and cool hotel accommodations, and then we played on the show.
We were supposed to be in the live band category, but we ended up going against six guys that were doing acrobatic rap stuff without instruments or anything and they apparently won. The next year “Star Search” called us again and apologized for the category mix up and asked us to come again. So, we did it two years in a row.
And then we lost again! We lost to these women who sang “I’m Every Woman” from The Bodyguard soundtrack. They sang to a pre-recorded track. I don’t know what’s happened, but it’s almost like the karoke market has taken over. It’s harder and harder to find places to play that will let you do what you do. They’re like, “We know you have a record, but what kind of covers do you do?”
It was around that period of time that you had a brief soap opera career wasn’t it?
Where did you find this stuff out? Oh my God, that’s right... I forgot! There’s actually another Shore guy that I did this thing with... It was Mike Dalton. They had called me completely separate from Mike because I had submitted some stuff to the guy that does all of the music programming for the “Guiding Light” and they ended up using a lot of After Alice stuff. So, I was on the payroll.
They didn’t know what I looked like, but somebody told the music director that I looked okay. He wanted me to come re-record the theme song and actually sing it on the show. So, I said, “What do I wear?” And they told me to wear what you’d wear at a wedding. Of course, I had never played a wedding before. So, I went out and got a dress and had it fitted. I showed up on the set and they ended up giving me all kinds of primetime! It was just one episode, but they were originally going to give me only one shot. They ended up giving me a lot of shots... I basically sang the entire song. Mike Dalton didn’t get to be in it because he doesn’t look as good as me!
Was it with After Alice that you were able to get a development deal?
Yeah, actually After Alice had finished. Everybody sort of started drifting their own ways. I guess the big push was done. This was in ‘95 around the time I was doing the “Guiding Light” thing. I was pretty much done. I didn’t know what I was going to do, then I went on the professional women’s tennis tour for two years as a coach.
In doing so, I started writing a musical. I came back and did the show in New York. And, after all those years of showcasing, when I really didn’t care at all a Columbia representative was there and offered me a deal and I said no. I said I wasn’t interested and that’s when they really pursued me. The secret was don’t give a crap at all!
Honestly, I wanted to get out of that weird chasing a dream that you have no control over. I didn’t want to have to worry about showcasing or appealing to A&R people, but they set me up with some producers and I gave it a shot. By 1999, we pretty much knew that they weren’t going to pick up the option. So, we released our first CD on our own. We went and recorded everything completely again for The Big Number by the Alice Project. I really liked the record and it got some airplay. Then we did the second, Traveling With Lady Berlin, which was critically acclaimed, and now we have Overnight Success.
What are your plans for the future? What are you trying to do?
Well, I just signed a licensing music deal with Westwood Music, which is based at the Shore. And we’re hoping to get a licensing deal overseas and get some placement. I’ve also been asked to do some writing for some pretty big artists. Jimmy Leahy and I are co-writing now, and that’s basically what we’re hoping to do. We’re trying to make our mark as writers, but we’re also not giving up on what we’re doing. We’re still recording and promoting this new record. I now have a young son, so my days of being out four or five nights a week are decidedly over.
What would you like people to remember about Secret Lovers?
It’s funny because I feel that the whole process for me has been kind of a development and learning experience. There’s been some wonderful moments with Secret Lovers and After Alice and with the Alice Project. I just hope that they thought I was really good with what I did.
We played a show up in Vermont last week and there was a guy in Killington that looked at me and said, “God, I feel like I know you from somewhere.” He thinks about it a moment and goes, “Did you ever play the Pony?” I look at him and say yeah. He’s like, “I remember you... you were hot!” And then he goes, “I mean, you’re still hot!”
From the book Beyond The Palace by Gary Wien
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.