If you frequented European discotheques in the 1990s, chances are you cut some steps to the dance hits “Respect” or “Reach” by a vocalist named Judy Cheeks.
Cheeks…Cheeks…that name sounds familiar. No…it couldn’t be, could it?
The disco singing star who conquered Europe is indeed the daughter of the late Rev. Julius “June” Cheeks. Rev. Cheeks, an incendiary vocalist in his own right, sang with the Sensational Nightingales, the Soul Stirrers, and his own group, the Four Knights.
With her first contemporary gospel CD, True Love Is Free, Judy Cheeks is moving from the dance floor to the altar, though without losing the music propulsion that fueled her pop career.
As a young girl, Cheeks said, she grew up in the presence of gospel greats, such as the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Caravans, the Sensational Nightingales and the Davis Sisters. “These people were like extended family to me,” she said. “When people say I sound like Mavis [Staples], it’s because being around gospel singers was like eating food and drinking water. I absorbed their beautiful gift.”
Growing up in Miami, young Judy also made friends with future soul songstress Betty Wright. “Even though we were all brought up in the church and committed to God,” she said, “we didn’t think there was anything wrong with singing pop. We were singing because we loved to sing.
Judy Cheeks, ‘Happy,’ the first single from her album True Love is Free
In addition to singing at home and in church, Judy sang for funerals, starting at the tender age of seven. Once, after finishing a funeral, Judy was approached by a woman who gushed, “I just love your singing! If I ever hear tell of you singing that rock and roll, I’m going to tell God to take your voice away!”
“I went crying to my mom,” Judy exclaimed, “and she said, ‘Whatever God gives to you, no one can ever take away.’”
Judy started her professional singing career at eighteen. One might expect June would have persuaded his daughter to sing gospel, but when Judy said she wanted to sing pop, he encouraged her to “just be real. His Christian walk was very honest. He instilled in me that you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be real. He would say, ‘If you like it, I love it.’”
Moving to Los Angeles, Judy met Ike and Tina Turner. Ike thought Judy had a lot of soul and could sing blues. Her self-titled debut project, produced by Ike and Tina in 1972, was a blues album. “I wasn’t very proud of it,” Judy said, “because I was young, and I hadn’t lived the life.”
Still, the album enabled her to tour Europe with Ike & Tina, where she received offers from France and Germany to relocate. Ariola Records was particularly persistent, and so she picked Germany. “It was during the whole Donna Summer craze,” Judy said, “and people thought that any black girl who went to Germany was going to become the next Donna Summer.
Julius Cheeks and wife Margie Cheeks (on piano) & the Knights of Washington, D.C. perform ‘Morning Train’
Rev. Julius Cheeks & the Knights of Washington, D.C., ‘Mother Sang Those Songs’ (c. 1964)
“Maybe it was the blissfulness of youth or just insanity, but I went to Europe with $35 in my pocket!”
Pocket change notwithstanding, Judy’s fortune changed almost as soon as her feet struck German soil. Famed Austrian singer Udo Jergens wanted to record a duet with her. “Over there, he was like Andy Williams or Frank Sinatra,” Judy said. Their recording, “On the Day You Leave,” earned them a TV appearance on The Rudi Carrell Show, and made twenty-something Cheeks an overnight success. Her 1978 single “Mellow Lovin’” was also a hit.
Cheeks was a bona fide disco star in Europe. She remained in Germany and eked out a decent career, waxing several dance hits, notably the mid-‘90s anthems “Respect” and “Reach.” She even appeared in German films. She laughed, “I’ve never acted in English. All my acting has been in German!
The preacher’s daughter sometimes considered returning to the U.S., “but I thought it could be a shock to my system. There are certain freedoms you enjoy in Europe and the lifestyle is totally different from here.” Nevertheless, she returned to the States about three years ago, though with the intention of retiring from singing. She had simply lost the love of it.
Judy wasn’t in retirement long. Fans and friends insisted she return to music, so she rekindled a friendship with Michael B. Sutton, who produced her newest album. This time, however, it was going to be different.
“I’m at this place in my life when there are more important things in my heart than ‘Oh, kiss me baby, I love you,’” Judy explained. “There are more important things I want to say. Though it has been personal, my walk with God has always been there, so I wanted my music to be gospel this time. It felt good singing gospel. It was so liberating singing from my heart.”
She continued, “When I sing ‘Happy’ [her current single], people assume I’m singing because I’m happy. I’m singing that you should be happy, too, because God loves you. God loves everyone. He didn’t die just for people who are perfect or who are dressed right. How dare you tell God’s children that He doesn’t love them if they don’t look the way you think they should look? You’re not God. You didn’t make them. God made them.”
Disco Judy, 1978, ‘Mellow Lovin’’: ‘I’m at this place in my life when there are more important things in my heart than ‘Oh, kiss me baby, I love you.’ There are more important things I want to say.’
The album title, True Love Is Free, summarizes Judy’s belief system. “My view of Christianity is of total acceptance. I wrote ‘Where Love Is’ in response to people who judge others based on their appearance or lifestyle. They think they are being Godly, but they’re not. Jesus accepted everyone, and I think that message is being lost in Christianity. If we get rid of the façade and the outside show and live love through our hearts, we can receive the truth God is trying to give us on a daily basis.”
“This album is very pure,” Judy said. “It is the sho’ ‘nuff’ truth. I’ve already been criticized a little bit, but I’m at a point in my life where the truth in me will not be comprised. I believe God put this album in me. That’s not chance or luck, that’s God.”
Judy attends Sensational Nightingales anniversaries and stays in touch with members JoJo Wallace and Howard Carroll. Love and Honor, a book about her father and his career in gospel quartet singing during gospel’s Golden Age, will be available soon.
“Imagine you are traveling, spreading the word of Jesus and love,” she said, “and there are people walking around with sheets on their heads, trying to kill you. The group actually saw bodies hanging along the road, but they kept going. A lot of celebrities revel in a world of luxury that people like my father helped them have, and yet they are not even aware of them.
“I go deep into my family history and expose my father in a way people have never seen. Nobody really knows what was in my father’s heart. Only a daughter can tell that story.
True Love Is Free is available on iTunes and CD Baby, Amazon.com, and the Judy Cheeks store on her Facebook page: www.facebook.com/officialjudycheeks.