Whatcha Gonna Do?

Houston's Neutral Sisters look white, sing black and move to a reggae rhythm

"She was the epitome of elegance," says Tony. "She gave off an air of African royalty."

Lanier's children had attended school in Jamaica with the Noons kids, and Valerie Noons and Lanier had long been good friends, but Lanier never dreamed that she would one day work with Kyra and Bianca professionally.

"She heard 'Live & Direct' and got on board," says Tony. "She took the song to MIDEM and we got a big article in the French press. The Africans that were there heard it and found out they were from Kenya; they said, 'They're African! They're ours! We've got to have this girls!' There was an immediate identification. The South Africans and Nigerians wanted them to come do videos, but we told them we would come when the album was ready.

Studio sessions turned into much more for Bianca and local reggae mainstay Orville Adams.
Studio sessions turned into much more for Bianca and local reggae mainstay Orville Adams.

"So that was all Pele. And she was working with us to get us some gigs and such, including the one at Rebel Salute. She was coursing the record labels on our behalf -- Sony, all the labels. And then she came up here, visited with the girls, and everything was hunky-dory. I kissed her good-bye at the first-class lounge -- she always traveled first-class."

Tony didn't have a clue that he would never see Lanier again. "All of a sudden she dropped out of the scene. I couldn't work it out. All of a sudden she wasn't answering the phone. I thought, 'What the hell was going on?' And then one day I got a call -- Pele had died. We were absolutely devastated. We couldn't believe it."

Lanier had likely known she was ill for a long time, but she delayed going to a doctor about her cancer until two weeks before the tumors claimed her. "We just figured we had to fight on, we had to push on. We knew we had to finish the album quick. It gave us a huge jolt of reality, because you just don't know what's gonna happen."

"Women get passed by so much in the music industry, but she was a strength that couldn't be passed by," Bianca says. "She was great for women in reggae."

Another who was won over by "Live & Direct" was John "Pops" Dowling, the sound engineer for English reggae stalwarts UB40. Tony met Pops in Jamaica and slipped him a copy of the demo. Dowling, who by coincidence had grown up on the same street in Birmingham as Tony, delivered it to Sly & Robbie, who called Dowling around midnight the same day.

"They told him not to let the girls record with anybody else and to get them down here as quick as we could," remembers Tony. Sly & Robbie and Ernie Ranglin agreed to drastically reduce their fees for the project. After three weeks of recording in Kingston and Ocho Rios, Jamaica, the album was done. When it is released, it will be dedicated to the memory of Pele Lanier.

"In the music business there are so many different aspects of chauvinism," says Kyra. "You have to have a man representing you, unless that woman is Pele. From my own experiences, you can talk to men and they will look right through you. It does not matter if what you are saying makes sense. If there is a man sitting beside you saying the exact same thing, they will look at that. That's why we have been blessed to have our father representing us."

Despite the divorce, Tony and Valerie remain on good terms. Valerie, a massage therapist, helps Kyra look after Sadé and Jade. Luke Noons, Kyra and Bianca's brother, attends Houston Community College and helps Tony with management. (Brother Daniel is with the air force in Saudi Arabia.) Both Tony and his future son-in-law Orville have decades of experience in the music business for Kyra and Bianca to draw upon.

When planning their career, Bianca and Kyra first consult each other. Then they talk the plans over with their father. "If he doesn't agree with what we have to say, we'll debate it until we come to an agreement," says Kyra. "Ultimately Bianca and I have good heads on our shoulders."

"It's wonderful having this as a family affair," adds Bianca. "Arguments come and go, but we can always say 'We love you' at the end of the day."

And Tony's pride in his daughters knows no bounds. "When I was in Hair, I was the toast of the town," he remembers. "But that wasn't about me, it was about the show. They've taken what I've done so much further. They write their own stuff, sing their own stuff. It's a family affair, but they're the stars."

Whether they will be stars in places other than his eyes, of course, remains to be seen.

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