Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features backup vocalist Michelle Cobbs.
Every few days, Michelle Cobbs turns on the radio en route to her job at a Long Island hospital and hears her own voice coming out of the speakers. Sometimes it’s from her days working with Nile Rodgers on disco-era mega-hits like Chic’s “Good Times” or Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out,” while other days it’s an Eighties classic like Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” or Paul Simon’s “Gumboots.” It might even come on the hip-hop station since Puff Daddy sampled her voice on Biggie’s “Mo Money Mo Problems.”
“Depending on how I feel, sometimes I’ll say, ‘That’s me on there,’” she says on the phone from her home in Westbury, Long Island. “Sometimes I just smile to myself and say, ‘Those were good times.’”
When the rise of grunge and hip-hop dried up work for many background singers in the Nineties, Cobbs went to college and became a social worker specializing in drug and alcohol addiction. But she has fond memories of her time touring with the Police, Chic, Roxy Music, Duran Duran, Luther Vandross, and Gang of Four, and she shared many of them here with us.
How has your Covid year gone?
Wow. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. I currently am social-working with some patients who have addictions. Working in a hospital setting, part-time, can be grueling, let’s put it that way. The last year has certainly been a lot of ups and downs, but I weathered the storm. We weathered the storm. I got vaccinated and here we are today.
I want to go back here and talk about your life. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New York in Queens. I spent my early years going to dancing school as a hoofer, tap-dancing. At the time, it was very difficult. These were different times and a lot of the dancers at my studio went on to be Rockettes. Because of the times, I wasn’t able to audition for them. [Ed. note: The Rockettes didn’t hire a single black dancer until 1987.] But that was great that a lot of the people I went to dance school with went on to become Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall.
That’s part of my early years. From there, I was singing in the church choir and then went on to Music and Art High School, which was a noted Fame-type high school.
Who were the pop artists that you loved in your younger years?
My father took me to my first concert when I was 13 or 14, and it was Al Green at the Apollo Theater. I knew at that moment that was something I wanted to do. I had an affinity for the male artists, believe it or not. It was Al Green and Marvin Gaye and the Four Tops and definitely the Supremes. That whole Motown era is where I started loving the music.
Where did you start to sing?
That was in church. I had family members who were also vocalists. I gained a lot of insight into singing by watching other family members. But truly, my real introduction in terms of a professional level was going to Music and Arts.
It must have been intimidating when you first arrived to meet so many talented kids your own age.
Oh, my God, it certainly was. I’m so grateful that people have written memoirs about what it was like in high school that I can go back to and look at. The school itself was amazing. We called it the Castle on the Hill. My audition was singing Dionne Warwick’s “Alfie.” I love that song and I love her. That was my introduction. They enjoyed the performance and that’s when I was in.
Even before that, I was in the All-City Junior High School Band and Choir. That was age 14. It was a remarkable experience in it itself. I had the chance to perform for [Israeli Prime Minister] Golda Meir and the Shah of Iran. For me, that was the most incredible thing.
Where did your career go after you gradated high school?
While I was in high school, I was hanging out with [pianist and music arranger] Nat Adderley, Jr. He introduced me to Luther [Vandross] and [singer] Fonzi Thornton when I was 16. They were forming a group and Nat told them about me. I went down to audition for Luther, who was playing keyboards at the time. I auditioned with Roberta Flack’s “Reverend Lee.” I’m talking to you about all the male artists, but I certainly adored female artists. They gave me the job.
We were really ahead of our time. We were doing choreography and the whole nine. I don’t think anyone was ready for us. We were initially called Fonzi and then we changed it to F360. We were evolving.
But back to me since they had their own history. I starting singing background for Loretta Long, who was on Sesame Street. That was my first time onstage as part of a trio singing backup. We did a Sesame Street tour all over the country.
This is with the puppets and the whole deal?
The puppets were there. It was amazing. It was 1971 or 1972. And when the tour ended, I’d rehearse with Fonzi day in and day out. Fonzi attended Columbia and we went there to rehearse. We had the luxury of using one of their halls and we’d rehearse sun up to sun down.
Tell me about working with Luther at this time. This is pre–David Bowie. He was basically unknown. Could you tell he was a future superstar?
It was evident. They all started from another group, Listen My Brother. That was Nat, Luther, Fonzi, and [future David Bowie guitarist] Carlos Alomar. A number of those people came out of that particular group. And it was evident at that time that Luther certainly was talented. He did his own thing, had his own group prior to the  Never Too Much album.
And Fonzi was a showman from the beginning. So the emphasis at the time was on him. We’d rehearse and do gigs around the city, all the clubs, Leviticus and all the cellars. This was before people recognized us and would hire us to do backing vocals for various people.
What sort of people?
We’d perform with local groups and different artists. Some were more popular than others. And it wasn’t so much working with other artists as trying to perfect our own craft so we could hopefully get our own record deal, which we were aspiring to do. But our focus was really enjoying what we were doing. We were taking acting lessons and all of that.
Tell me about learning the art of background vocals and what skill set that requires in the studio.
We were interested in formulating a particular sound. You have different vocal ranges: alto, tenor, soprano, and bass. You know what your vocal attribute is for that. We’d go and put the vocals together so we know if you’re harmonizing in the context of a song.
When you’re formulating a song, either the artist has their own idea of what the background vocals are or the person who is putting the vocals together actually knows what parts you’re going to sing and then actually puts the vocals together. The harmonics are going to vary depending on what style the artist is looking for.
Tell me about the J. Geils Monkey Island sessions. That’s one of your earliest credits.
That was through Luther. I’m trying to remember the vocal. They were a different type of band for me. That was one of my first in terms of being professional and learning what that was. It was the beginning of learning what backing vocals was about. You hear the song and they have an idea, maybe, of what they want the vocal arrangement to be. But at the time, a lot of the rock bands were looking for a soulful type of background vocals. We gave them what they wanted.
How did the Chic chapter of your life begin?
There was a conglomerate of backing vocalists back then and we knew each other and were close. Luther was one of the initial background vocalists for Chic when they started flying off the charts. And Nile [Rodgers] came from that Listen My Brother Apollo Theater scene, so we all knew each other. And when Luther left Chic to do other things, he presented to Nile and Bernard Edwards that we’d take over his slot.
Alfa Anderson moved up to lead vocals and Fonzi and I went on to do the backing vocals. We toured and recorded with Chic for a few years.
What do you recall about recording “Good Times”?
We knew right away. When the bass line was formed and the whole beat of the song was there, we just felt that it was going to be a hit. Nile and Bernard know what they are doing. It’s simple. They always wanted to do less rather than more. The simplicity of it created the hit. The vocals were very short and simply and exact. They knew what they wanted. They had the beat there. They had the musicianship there. We just went on to do what they asked of us for the vocals. The sound was already there. Everything just worked like clockwork.
Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin are two of the lead vocalists on the song, and we just added to it. We just added to what it was. They needed the meat of it and we were there for it. All of us sing on that whole record.
This was Chic at their absolute peak. What was it like being a part of that?
It was amazing. It was amazing to see the crowds. The audience was amazing. It was huge. Being on the stage and getting all the accolades. We were entertaining them and there was so much excitement.
How aware were you in 1979 of the “Disco Sucks” backlash?
I was just talking to someone about that. We were just like, “Wow, this is working so well.” It was the Studio 54 era and there were hits. People were enjoying this music and partying to it. I don’t really understand or know where that came from. All of a sudden, they were trashing disco. There’s always room for all kinds of music, but I guess … I don’t who was in charge of the decision, but it was like, “Disco is dead and we’re breaking all of the vinyls.”
Do you recall hearing about Disco Demolition Night?
Yeah. [Laughs] Absolutely. I remember that. I said, “Wow, OK. I guess it’s time for a change. On to something else.”
Many people today see that whole movement as just blatantly racist and homophobic.
I agree with that. When you get to the racist part of it, who was in charge of the disco thing? It was [acts like] Donna Summer and Chic.
Yeah. It was a rare moment where the white rock bands weren’t the dominant force. The notion was, “The Knack should be the big thing right now, not you people.”
Right. You know what? There’s a place for that, too. When I look at the music that is out there, there is room for everybody. Those bands are still everywhere. They can still perform in big venues. We don’t have the bands anymore. As black artists, I don’t see bands coming up. It’s totally different. In that instance, it’s very sad.
It’s very sad. You made great records with Chic in the early Eighties, but they didn’t find an audience because the disco era was just deemed to be over.
Absolutely. It could have been made into so much more. But I see what Nile is doing now. The whole brand of who he is, is still there. He injects that into all of his music.
Tell me about the Diana Ross record you worked on in 1980.
That was exciting. The beat was there. Chic’s sound was always there. They were in it. Whether it was Sister Sledge or Madonna or whoever, you always saw that it was still there. Going in there with Diana Ross, they knew what they wanted. The sound was there because this is what Chic’s sound is. It created the sound of the record, like on “I’m Coming Out.” It was something everybody was able to relate to.
And meeting Diana was super exciting. I was a fan to from the early days and to actually see and meet her … she still had that same professionalism and talent. It was very exciting to work with her.
Then you were with Aretha Franklin on Jump to It.
That was amazing, working with Luther there. Again, just the opportunity to work with all these different artists and to be a part of their history was amazing. The record was there; the sound was there. The artist who creates the song is always going to put their stamp on it.
How did you wind up on the Roxy Music Avalon tour? That’s a very different kind of act than the ones you’d worked with before.
I loved that. Bryan Ferry is remarkable. He’s a great, great person. The music was very different for me, going over to Europe and experiencing what that was. I love Roxy Music. I had never heard of them until I got to to them.
What was it like learning these British glam songs?
It was very different, but I fell right into it. I didn’t see it as anything outside what it was. I grew up with all types of music. I liked classical music and at Music and Arts, I was exposed to all sorts of things. It was like, “This is a different kind of music. I’m going to really enjoy this.” And then I fell in love with it. I loved working with Roxy Music.
Was Bryan Ferry a good boss?
Yes. So nice. So humble. So generous. There is nothing negative I could ever say about Bryan Ferry.
Avalon is such a great album. “More Than This” is beautiful.
It’s funny you mention “More Than This.” I was talking to somebody that I worked with in the hospital. They were like, “I didn’t know that you worked with Roxy Music.” And they brought up “More Than This.” I love that song. I can go back to it and think of so many memories during that tour.
They were playing huge places on that tour. It was really their commercial peak. And that tour was especially big in Europe.
Yeah. And as African-American artists, we have a different kind of respect in different countries than we do sometimes in the States. That was very welcoming. I have a grandniece right now that makes music and she periodically goes to London since gets more of a welcome to her music there.
The tour ends in May 1983 and you go right to the Police tour a few month later. How did that happen?
Well, Sting was looking for some background singers in Long Island. We went out there for the audition. He wanted two females out of all of us. It was myself and B.J. Nelson. That’s pretty much how I got the gig.
And then Duran Duran came on the scene at approximately the same time and there was some juggling going around. I don’t know if it was good for everybody involved, but I wound up doing some things for Duran Duran. I was on Seven and the Ragged Tiger. I went to Montserrat to work on the Duran Duran album, but I went on tour with the Police.
Did you miss any Police shows to do that?
No. Somehow it overlapped so I didn’t have to miss anything. B.J. Nelson stayed with Duran Duran and I went on to do the Police with Tessa Niles and Dolette McDonald.
How much of the Police’s music did you know before landing that job?
I did know of them. I knew some of the music. As I started working with them, I’d hear different songs and be like, “OK, I remember that song.” It was very interesting working with them as well. They had a kind of different feel in terms of what their band repressed. It was a lot of reggae flair and rock & roll. It was a mixture of both. They were different than Duran Duran and any of the other bands I’ve worked with.
I spoke with Tessa and Dolette. They both said Sting didn’t want any vibrato and that was tricky for them.
I didn’t realize that. It wasn’t a problem for me because heavy vibrato was never in my own repertoire, so that was a shoo-in for me. Everything was pretty much staccato and, knowing what they wanted, very simple. They knew exactly what they wanted, specific things. That’s what made it work. The mixture of Dolette, Tessa, and I was a different sort of mix with Tessa being from England. That was a different genre of music, kind of, and we did exactly what they were asking.
What songs did you particularly like?
“Synchronicity” itself was really a lot of fun. I enjoyed all of them, though. There was no song where I said, “I can’t wait until this one is over.” I got something out of all the songs they were performing.
The accommodations must have been nice too.
It was amazing to be on a private jet and just have that luxury to yourself. When we toured the southern parts of the United States, we were stationed in New Orleans and we’d just fly from one city to the next in the South. To be able to have that stationary place where we’d be able to enjoy the town was great. And it was the same thing with Roxy Music.
This was also a band about to break up. Did you sense that?
I don’t know if Tessa or Dolette had an idea, but I certainly didn’t.
Dolette remembered Sting getting very frustrated with the three of you at the end of the tour and saying you were out of key. Do you recall that?
I don’t. It may have happened. I do remember that he was a little bit dissatisfied with a number of things. I didn’t think it was directed towards us in any way. But I felt like he felt like it was time for a change for him. There may have been some issues with the other members of the band. I think he just felt, “It’s time to do the solo thing.”
Let’s move on to Duran Duran and going to Montserrat to record Seven and the Ragged Tiger.
It was awesome. The studio was a little island onto itself. We never saw anyone or went into town. Duran Duran was in a separate house from where the backing vocalists were staying. We had the studio completely to ourselves. We could go in at any point in the day or night. We had our own cooks. We didn’t have to go into town for anything. It was amazing to just be on this island. We were there for a few weeks.
Duran Duran were a lot younger than the Police, so different things were going on. But for me, it was a hoot to go down there and perform vocals and to have this luxury where it felt like being on vacation.
Tell me about recording “The Reflex.”
That gave me a chance to explore the upper parts of my voice. That was interesting. I welcomed it. I said, “This is what you want; this is what you’re going to get.”
That whole intro part of “ta-na-na-na, ta-na-na-na” is you, right?
And now tell me about “Union of the Snake.”
Again, they knew what they wanted. They wanted stratosphere vocals. And B.J. is a soprano, but it was challenging for me. I loved it, though. It gave me a vocal exercise.
Did you tour with them?
Yes, but only for a short time because the Police were there. I kind of left them to do the Police tour.
Tell me about the Duran Duran shows you did play.
They were exciting. It felt like the Beatles to me with all the young girls. That whole vibe felt like what it must have been like for the Beatles.
It’s funny you go from Chic at their absolute peak to the Police, Duran Duran, and Roxy Music at their peaks.
Yeah. The Eighties was really an amazing time for me. That was my era, at least until rap came around.
Speaking of rap, you are on “The Fat Boys Are Back.”
It’s amazing that you mention them because my brother-in-law is one of the Fat Boys’ brothers. And I know that one of the Fat Boys [Prince Markie Dee] just died. And of course, I know Damon [Wimbley] now. He wasn’t my brother-in-law’s brother at the time I did that song. But it was amazing to go in there and work with them. I don’t even remember how that came around. It was one of those things where they were like, “OK, we need you to do this.”
How did you feel about hip-hop in those days?
I wasn’t sure really if I understood what it was, although some of the message songs came through to me in hip-hop. I was able to understand that there was a new era coming up and this is their form of expression and a lot of people were able to relate to it. But a lot of what we were doing died out because rap came on the scene. For me, that was a time to reflect. A number of other things came up.
Tell me about singing on Paul Simon’s “Gumboots.” I love that song.
Ahh. That was an incredible thing. They called Dolette and I to do the backing vocals for Graceland. We just went in there. He knew exactly what he wanted. He may have rejected one or two things to make it what it was, but Paul Simon knows what he wants. All I could say to myself was, “How amazing is this?”
That album sold by the millions. Do you still get paid these days for songs as big as “Good Times,” “The Reflex,” or “Gumboots”?
Oh, yeah. Royalties come in several times a year.
Did you go on any other big tours in the 1980s?
I did spot dates here and there with Luther. He had a particular look he was going for and a particular sound. I went on tour with Nona Hendryx. Those were basically the tours I was working with. Oh, and Gang of Four. That was a different experience for me. We toured in England. I had toured there before with Candi Staton and the Stylistics, but this was very different. It was a different time there. I was grateful to be doing that.
When the Nineties started, there was a lot more hip-hop and grunge and fewer acts with backup singers. Were there fewer opportunities?
There were. It died down. I don’t know what was happening in that time musically, but you make the decision to go do what you have to do to pay your bills.
What did you do?
I went to college for social work and studied addiction. That’s my speciality.
That must be very rewarding.
It is. I work here in New York at one of the hospitals in Long Island.
Do your patients know much about your history?
It depends. I tell them when I feel like I need to tell them. I’ve been working with some of these people for the past five or six years and I told them very recently about what I did. I don’t want that to be noted. I don’t want them to look at me any differently because I’ve done this. I want to just be in the lane I’m in right now.
Do you use any of the skills you learned in the music business with your patients? Is there any commonality?
Sure. I do my own form of music therapy with some of the patients. It’s very rewarding in that respect because I also used that skill with children with autism back in the day. I find it very rewarding. It’s also a tell-tale of who these people are. Music has a wonderful way of getting people to express their feelings in a different way.
How often do you sing?
Not as often as I should or I’d like. Sometimes I’ll go in with Luther’s people and do a tribute to him. It’s virtual now, but occasionally there will be a performance in one of the clubs.
How did you feel about Twenty Feet From Stardom? Do you think that painted an accurate picture of life as a background singer?
I certainly enjoyed it. I enjoyed seeing it. I didn’t think they had nearly enough of the people who worked as part of that scene. I think they left out some of the people who were vital in that time in the Eighties.
I think it created an impression that all background singers are dying to be in the front.
That’s not true and I’m certainly one of the people that felt that way. I enjoyed being a background vocalist. I didn’t have a real interest to go out front. To me, what I did was very satisfying.
And you found fulfillment and purpose elsewhere. Drugs like Fentanyl are plagues on the country and so many people need help.
Absolutely. And it’s alcohol, too. That’s a primary one for so many people. I work with them and give them tools to work with so they’re successful. And it’s not cookie-cutter. We give you tools and it’s up to you to utilize them. It’s a revolving door for everyone that comes back and forth. You want to ask them, “What went wrong? What happened? Were you able to do X, Y, and Z? If not, what interfered with that process?”
It’s definitely very rewarding. I love it when people come back years later and say, “I’m still clean.” That’s the best.
When I Googled you, I was like, “Wait, is this addiction specialist the same person as the singer?” It’s almost like you’re two people.
Yeah. I have different lives. It’s crazy.