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Separate Checks

© Fine Times, March 1986

BY LINDA RASTELLI

Don't wanna be a local hero
You're a legend in this town
Second to none—the best around
A gambler's game, you lay your bet
Even the best lose at roulette
-Local Hero

The five musicians comprising Separate Checks cannot go into a restaurant in Philadelphia nowadays without being asked facetiously, "separate checks?" As "Philadelphia's Rock & Roll Sweethearts," Sharon Wilde, Mary Lee, Pamela Warner, Judy Whitely, and Cathy Amerling are often recognized locally. But their long-term goal is to take their hard-edged pop sound beyond the local music arena and obtain national recognition.

Having played "every remote corner of Pennsylvania," and its environs, and headlining frequently at Philadelphia's major rock venues, the band has developed a loyal fol¬lowing. But the five Philly natives all concur that opening for Nils Lofgren at the Ritz in New York City was their biggest thrill to date. They are now considering a Latin American tour this spring, according to manager Alan Newman, which would include Panama and Puerto Rico.

Just released is their first single, "Don't Ever Wanna Let You Go," b/w their own unique version of Lulu's 1967 hit "To Sir With Love."

High energy characterized the band in performance. Vocalist Sharon can take her voice from a raspy heavy metal screech that projects to the back walls to a high, breathless, little-girl whisper in a matter of seconds, as she does in the rocked-out cover of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Were Made For Walking."

In fact, it has become a favored technique to take such "hokey" old tunes and "rock them out," keeping the original melody but doing it with a twist. Rhythm guitarist Pam and bass player Judy engage in a guitar duel during "To Sir With Love," alternating riffs that were certainly never heard in the original version.

"I like to sing it and it gets the best crowd reaction; it's always very consistent," says Sharon of the song.

Last April the Checks opened for the Hooters at Lafayette College, the largest crowd they'd ever played for.

"You feed your energy from the crowd," explains Mary, who admits she doesn't perform as well in front of small audiences. As one of the Checks' founders, the main songwriter, and lead guitarist, she is the driving force behind the band. "Melodic" is how she describes the music she enjoys and the sound she aims for, matching her original music to lyrics drawn from personal experience and observation.

All of the band members except Pam bring experience in other bands to Separate Checks. What results from their differing influences and preferences is a mix of styles, from the reggae-flavored cover "Disappearing," to the pure pop sound of "Come Dance With Me," to hard rockers such as "Stop Wastin' My Time." Separate Checks is Mary Lee's third and, she believes, most compatible band.

"The most important things are to get along and be musically cohesive," she says. "If you don't have those two things, you're not going to get anywhere." Above all, Mary believes the music should be danceable. 'We don't do too many ballads," she says. "They seem to bore people."

The Checks are firm believers in entertainment first and politics second. Says Sharon, "It's hard to be serious when we're having so much damn fun out there."

* * *

Preshow at the Chestnut Cabaret in Philadelphia, Pam is teasing Mary's hair into thick waves that project from her head like spikes. She is the group's resident hairdresser and wears her own swept over to the right side of her head, so that it looks like she's caught in a strong wind blowing from the southwest.

She isn't known as "The Hurricane" for this, however, but for her unruly habit of blowing into practice sessions and upsetting equipment.

She survived the hazards of waitressing ("One time I was walking up to a table with about ten plates and tripped and slid on my knees down the aisle. I kept all the food from spilling, and the whole place stood up and applauded") and took the name Separate Checks from her former profession.

"Most of us worked as waitresses at one time or another," adds Mary. "These women came in one day where Pam was working and ordered all this stuff and halfway through the meal asked for separate checks, and she said to herself, 'That's it. I'll name the band after something I hate.' It stuck."

Pamela had never been in a band before meeting Mary, but soon thereafter they began working together. She had been playing guitar since high school.

Five years ago, Mary was in a band called Minority Girls with Judy Whitely, now the band's bass player and the inspiration behind "To Sir With Love." It was Judy's idea to add the punchy bass line and include it in their set list.

"I always admired Heart, two sisters playing together," Judy says, crossing one spandexed leg over the other. "I thought it would be really cool if me and my sister could do that since she has brown hair and I have blond hair." She leans back and laughs.

"I got my bass in high school. I heard about Mary when I was working at United Parcel. We met and started jamming. I was so nervous for that first audition."

The first Separate Checks, which they all emphasize was nothing like the present Checks, had Judy, Mary, and Pamela, but a different singer and a male drummer.

Meanwhile, manager Alan Newman was looking for a woman to play drums.

"Otherwise people could say that there weren't any female drummers good enough to play with them," he said. So he found Cathy Amerling.

"Four years ago I went into a club," says Cathy, now sitting backstage at JC Dobbs. "I was watching the drummer and it looked really interesting and I guess that's when it hit me; it starts gnawing at you, like, Oh God, I gotta play! I got a pair of sticks at Sam Goody's and a lesson book. I took my first lesson and the day after I got my first set. Four months later I was in a band. Three months later I got into another one, Vital Signs, and finally Separate Checks."

She's known for her theatricality onstage, twirling her drumsticks wildly, and for her constant grin, even on the rare occasions when she misses a beat. A heavy metal fan, she admires the late John Bonham of Led Zepplin, "the perfect drummer."

In September of 1984 the band played their first date together at the Empire Rock Club in northeast Philadelphia. Their new vocalist, Sharon Wilde, had only been with them for two weeks and had to learn the songs in that time. Although she claims she doesn't know how she did it, she somehow pulled it off.

Sharon always wanted to be a singer and has been performing and training since the age of three.

"When I got to be a teenager I wanted to do rock and roll; you know, rebel against my parents," she says. "I lived in New York for 3-1 /2 years. I played with a band called Chet Bolins. But my luck wasn't going well." Newman had seen her in New York and called her to come to Philly.

"I walked in and I said to the girls, 'Yeah, I heard about the deal you have here. Alan told me you’re all getting a $200-a-week retainer for doing this,’ “ Sharon recalls. “The looks on their faces was great; it was happening! They all just looked at me and I said, “Oh, I’m just kidding.’

"Well, the next time I auditioned, they played me a tape of this girl who was awful and said This is your competition. We're going to hire her or we'll hire you,' so they got me back."

Sharon likes to comment on stage that "This is more fun than people should be having," but sometimes they have to deal with some harassment. If a fan yells "Take it off," their standard reply is You take it off; we'll watch."

Mary Lee lists the Go-Go's and Heart as important in opening possessively guarded doors in the male bastion of rock music. Even so, they still feel that they are not always taken seriously as musicians.

"They're not boy toys," says manager Newman, who they call a "Jewish mother.", "I insist that they be respected."

"Clubs were a little leery at first, because they didn't know what they were in for:' says Cathy. "Now that everybody around here knows us, it's not a problem."

"We always say if somebody walks into a club and doesn't look up at the stage, they won't know it's a 'girl group' (a phrase they find distasteful)," says Mary.

"We're a rock and roll band that just happens to be all women," adds Sharon. "We write from a female viewpoint because we can't write from any other viewpoint."

No drugs, no sex, no perverted
thoughts in their heads
Behind the scenes the judges' faces would turn red
Men will be boys, girls are just toys
And Penthouse magazine will help them get ahead
God save the beauty queen
-Beauty Queen

"Beauty Queen" was written in response to the Vanessa Williams' scandal and be cause Mary Lee finds the Miss America pageant to be a "total farce." Although outspoken, she does not want to be seen as making a political statement.

"I don't feel it's my place to go preaching feminism or anything else," she stresses. Separate Checks does not consider feminism their issue and deliberately de-emphasizes the political.


 

The Collegian May 3, 1985

ENTERTAINMENT

Tangy sound of 'Separate Checks’ an all-women sensation
by Michael Beck

The Multi-Purpose room rocked Tuesday afternoon to the tangy sounds of "Separate Checks," a Delaware Valley band consisting of all girls.

Although the band formed only eight months ago, the bulk of their material is original. "Separate Checks" is better than most of the bands that have played here this semester. The main reason is probably the fact that they believe in their songs. There's a definite tightness that comes from playing your own material and this band achieves it.

Mary "Pinky" Lee, daughter of BC3 teacher Bill Woodward, writes most of the band's tunes. Her style is a cross between the "Go Go's" and "The Pretenders."

Pamela "The Magnet" Warner plays rhythm guitar and sings back up. She plays inthe same chordy style as Jane Weildin. Her voice together with Lee and Wilde blends to form a pleasant three part harmony.

The lead singer of the band, Sharon "Tiger 7" Wilde is equipped with a powerful voice and has stage charisma that is fun to watch. She constantly plays off Lee and Warner to further the excitement.

Judy "Booty" Whiteley plays the bass in a jagged single note style and prefers to loom far to the back of the stage, in the same style of E Street bass player Gary W. Tallent. She sways quietly from side to side and quietly mouths the words to herself with a smile.

Cathy "Boom Boom" Amerling is probably the most noticeable member of this all girl band. Her hair resembles Rod Stewart and she looks as much like a drummer as Cyndi Lauper looks like a nun. But whe she sits behind her drum set, the only adjective to describe her is...awesome. Every drum is wired and when she plays, she plays hard and good. She flamboyantly twirls her sticks as if she's been playing since birth.

"Separate Checks" is managed by Alan Newman and are currently trying to scrape up funds to release a 45. If you're in the mood for some good original music tonight, head on over to New Hope at John and Peters where "Separate Checks" will be jamming up a storm.

 

 

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