Pamala Stanley may be the most prolific recording artist you’ve never heard of. Unless you were hanging out in the dance clubs of the 80s, you’ve probably never heard her huge hits, like This Is Hot or I Don’t Want to Talk About It. But that’s OK by her because she has carved out a 60-year musical legacy that crosses all musical genres, from New Orleans blues and jazz to Broadway standards to pop.
Originally from Norfolk, she now makes her home on the Eastern Shore, halfway between her hometown and Rehoboth, where she is soon embarking on her 16th summer residency at The Pines.
On February 21 and 22, she brings her energetic stage show to the Little Theater of Virginia Beach to benefit the LGBT Life Center, and we spoke with her about that show, her memories of growing up in Norfolk, and her newfound appreciation for rap.
Tell me about your time growing up in Norfolk and how your music career started.
I grew up in the Poplar Hall area, and in the late 60s, I was dating this really nice guy from Elizabeth City North Carolina. His parents owned a pig farm. He heard me singing, and he took me downtown to see this agent. So we went on Saturday morning, and we walked into his little office. I sang Capella for him, and as we were walking out there was a band sitting in the lobby. And the guy says, “Was that you singing?” I said yes, and he said, “Well you’re very good. Would you like to audition for our band?” I said sure, when? He said, “How about tonight, do you know Harper Valley PTA?” And I said yes. But I did not! So we ran down to Frankie’s in Norfolk, I bought the record, and I ran home and learned the whole song. That night, I started out so good, and was singing right along until the second half of the song when I blanked on the lyrics. So I just kept singing and making up words until I found the end of the song. I walked off the stage, knowing I didn’t get it, and the guy said, “You’re in! Anyone who can ad-lib like that and still sound great is in.”
What a great story. Where did it go from there?
So it was country band, the Rudy Wesley Show, and I got to sing some of the greats like D-I-V-O-R-C-E and Stand By Your Man. We played all around Norfolk, and then we toured. I missed the last six weeks of my senior year and had to fly home for my graduation.
When you were growing up in Norfolk, was there a sense of a gay community?
I have to tell you honestly that when I was young, like seven years old, I had a good friend that I hung out with all the time, Michael. He lived down the street. We played Barbies all the time, and of course now I know that my first best friend was a gay guy. He had a better Barbie collection. He had the camper and the clothes, he had everything. I lost track of him until the 90s when I performed at DC Pride, and I saw him standing in the front row. I invited him to come back in the limo to my hotel, and we had the most delightful time catching up. Other than him, I didn’t think we were really aware back then. I don’t even remember anyone calling people names or making fun of them.
I’m impressed with your musical diversity. You’ve been all over the place in terms of musical genres. What are you grooving on right now?
I just saw Bohemian Rhapsody. Oh my gosh, I always through Queen sang great songs, but I never realized the genius in Freddie. I’m not too fond of the new dance club music. I think a lot of the production is amazing, but the lyrics today don’t make any sense, and they’re very hard to memorize. Classic club music always had some sort of storyline, even up through the 90s. I’m going to always be about 80s disco. It was romantic, the melodies were gorgeous, and they told such great stories.
I read that you made a conscious decision to move away from your club roots when rap came on the scene.
I honestly think it was more that I didn’t know how to change with the times. I really couldn’t get my head around rap. And about the same time, my son turned 10, so my husband and I decided that we would take a step back and be parents first until he went to college. And that’s when I sought out local gigs in Ft. Lauderdale, where we were living. I found jazz, blues and pop, and the audiences there loved it, so I did that for the next decade. And while I was in Florida, I was hired to perform on cruises, gay and straight. I’ve probably done over 200 cruises.
How were the audiences on the gay cruises back then?
Well, obviously, that’s where the most enthusiasm came from. I mean, I was a club hit for a long time before I started performing for live audiences, so I had a big gay following. But I love all audiences. I have 60 years under my belt, and now I just perform for people. I always say that every performance is like a first date. You have a whole different crowd. And I’m always nervous. I’ll be nervous when I walk out on that stage in February.
Speaking of your upcoming show, what can we expect from you on the 22nd?
I have no idea! I mean, naturally my hits. But I think I want to take you on a ride though my musical journey. I’ll probably do some Broadway, some real pop. And I have finally learned my first rap. Who knows, I might throw that in there.