This week, Billboard is celebrating the music of 20 years ago with a week of content about the most interesting artists, albums, songs and stories from 1998. Here, we round up the three house divas and producer behind the ’98 cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” — collectively known as Stars on 54, in honor of the movie the rendition was recorded for — to get the story behind the 20-year-old reboot of the 40-year-old period.
Twenty-one years after John Travolta strutted across the silver screen in a white leisure suit, Hollywood decided once again that disco didn’t suck. Miramax revisited the glitterball era in 1998 with 54, a splashy, fictional tale about the exploits of a young Jersey gent (Ryan Phillippe) tending bar at Manhattan’s iconic Studio 54. Mike Myers turned in a rare dramatic performance as notorious nightclub czar Steve Rubell in the film, while Salma Hayek, Neve Campbell and Breckin Meyer co-starred.
If you don’t remember 54, you’re not alone. By all accounts, director Mark Christopher’s initial cut of the picture had been chopped significantly (a good 40 minutes were removed), following a reported test screening at a mall in Long Island, where viewers reacted poorly to the bisexual nature of Phillipe’s character. After the studio’s edits — and, curiously, Polygram’s rival film The Last Days Of Disco, which hit theaters just two months prior — 54 unceremoniously did the hustle right off screens only a few weeks after opening in late summer 1998. (Curiosity-seekers should note that Christopher’s restored director’s cut got a DVD release in 2016).
One saving grace, however, was the film’s soundtrack, where nestled amongst classic disco fodder like Odyssey’s “Native New Yorker” and Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” was a thumping, fresh overhaul of Gordon Lightfoot’s tender 1970 breakup ballad “If You Could Read My Mind.” It was credited to the aptly titled collective Stars On 54 — a flip on the Dutch novelty act Stars On 45, who topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1981 with their Beatles-splicing “Stars On 45 Medley” — and comprised of a supertrio of star ’90s house divas: Ultra Naté, Amber and Jocelyn Enriquez.
Naté, a Maryland native and dance music veteran at that point, was riding high off her back-to-back hits “Free” and “Found A Cure,” both of which topped the Billboard Dance Songs tally and landed in the top 10 on the Official UK Singles Chart. Dutch siren Amber had scored a massive dance-pop crossover hit in 1996 with “This Is Your Night,” while California’s Enriquez was virtually inescapable to anyone who set foot in a dance club between 1996 and 1997, thanks to the one-two punch of “Do You Miss Me?” and “A Little Bit Of Ecstasy.”
To guide the recording of “If You Could Read My Mind,” label Tommy Boy Records enlisted the production wizardry of Frank and Christian Berman, known professionally as the Berman Brothers. The German siblings had already achieved massive global success after putting their touch on euphoric Eurodance like Real McCoy’s top 5 Hot 100 hits “Another Night” and “Run Away,” and Amber’s own “This Is Your Night.” Now the duo were tasked with taking a 28-year-old light-rock ballad and giving it not only a retro disco makeover, but a radio-friendly twist, featuring the vocal talents of three of the 1990s’ most recognizable queens of the dance floor.
Ultimately, the Stars On 54 rendition of “If You Could Read My Mind” wound up impacting the upper reaches of various charts worldwide, while in the U.S. it landed at No. 3 on the Billboard Dance Club Songs and No. 52 on the Hot 100. But you don’t have to be a mind reader to find out how they pulled it off; we reached out to all of the song’s key players to get the story on how one of 1998’s biggest club hits came together after just one New York recording session.
Head below to read the full account, and to hear Chicago house legend Steve “Silk” Hurley’s previously unreleased, ten-minute remix of “If You Could Read My Mind,” ahead of Tommy Boy’s forthcoming 20th anniversary re-release of the 54 soundtrack in September.
ULTRA NATÉ (singer): It still feels like it was yesterday! I was in crazy touring mode, with the madness of my Situation: Critical album and “Free” still raging in the charts. It was a really great year for me. I don’t even know I pulled it off, in hindsight. I should have had a nervous breakdown. In the midst of that, here comes Tommy Boy Records, who was putting the 54 soundtrack together for Miramax.
JOCELYN ENRIQUEZ (singer): Most of the dance artists at that time were around the New York area. For me to be able to be featured as an artist coming from the West Coast was definitely a privilege. I was fortunate because my record label was handling the soundtrack for the movie.
AMBER (singer): Jocelyn was signed to [Tommy Boy] as I was, so I had toured with her before. Ultra was signed to Strictly Rhythm at the time. I had not met her before we recorded “If You Could Read My Mind.” The song was chosen by the previous Vice president of Tommy Boy, Monica Lynch.
BILL COLEMAN (executive producer): We had just released Ultra’s Situation: Critical and received the call from Tommy Boy — thanks to Victor Lee, Eddie O’Loughlin and Monica Lynch — to collaborate on this cover with two of their own premiere divas. We insisted that some of our production family were brought on board in order to give it a classic feel, as the final version needed to sit comfortably alongside a solid soundtrack of disco classics from the film, yet still work with DJs and dance radio in 1998.
FRANK BERMAN (producer): At this time we did quite a lot of productions for Tommy Boy, and they were looking for a producer team who could blend the classic disco sound with a contemporary feel. Tom Silverman was the owner of Tommy Boy, of course, and when we signed Amber he kind of made a deal with us: “Since you’re Germans and you’re new to New York, why don’t you stay in my apartment for like four months, and every night our A&R guys will take you out and you’ll get to meet everybody.”
We met all these cool DJs — Hex Hector and all these people we did business with afterwards. We went to all the clubs. It was exciting and we really got to know New York.
JOCELYN ENRIQUEZ: They said, “This is a good opportunity, but you have to go now!” I want to say I was in New York within three days so that I could record the song.
AMBER: “If You Could Read My Mind” was recorded in one day. It worked out pretty fast and easy.
ULTRA NATÉ: The most difficult part was organizing all of our schedules, because Amber was touring a lot and Jocelyn was on the road a lot. So once we got that nailed down, we only had one day where we all went into the booth individually and sang the song from top to bottom. The Berman Brothers had already prepared the backing track, which is pretty much where it is now when you hear the final version of it.
FRANK BERMAN: We rented a full floor with two studios for two years, on 22nd Street, between 6th and 7th in Chelsea. That’s where we recorded “If You Could Read My Mind.” We love Gordon Lightfoot’s songwriting, and particularly this song was one of our favorites. It was quite a challenge to create something new and still be true to the original.
BILL COLEMAN: Lati Kronlund of Brooklyn Funk Essentials on additional music production and secret weapon, vocal producer Danny Madden, perfectly balanced the uber-pop sensibilities of the Berman Brothers.
JOCELYN ENRIQUEZ: We would all sing different harmonies and ad-libs, but never really saw the big picture until the end. So it was kind of mysterious how we recorded it.
ULTRA NATÉ: The Berman Brothers really made it easy for us to just jump in and rock it out. Then we left and didn’t even know what the end result was going to be. We heard it in the aftermath like everyone else, when the production was finished.
FRANK BERMAN: We had a lot of respect for the original. We felt we had to find something to give it a totally new life and a totally new meaning — and a very unique meaning, so it stands on its own. Sometimes when you do a cover, of course, the original is always better. But sometimes you try and it really works out. We love the gospel-soul feeling we added, with the vocal part after the chorus. It gave the song a totally new direction. Also, the different styles of the singers blend really nicely. Everybody has such different timbre, but they mix very well.
AMBER: It was decided last minute to get us featured in the film, after Miramax heard the final product. They were so excited about it that they actually interrupted the final cut and went back to the old Studio 54 one more time with extras to tape our performance as the final scene in the movie.
FRANK BERMAN: I’ve never heard something like that, where they reshoot the movie for a song. So they had to write [the singers] into the script and they reshot 54, which I think is such a crazy story. Nowadays, people wouldn’t do it.
ULTRA NATÉ: And then we had to schedule another day! Everyone asks, “Oh, did you meet Mike Myers?” No one was there when were there, actually. It’s all magic.
AMBER: They were cut in at a later time to make it look like they were with us.
JOCELYN ENRIQUEZ: My hair was so huge, oh my goodness. It was crazy! To be able film it at the actual venue, that was pretty cool.
ULTRA NATÉ: I had never been in Studio 54 in its heyday, because I was too young at that point. But I knew all of the culture behind it, so I really felt married to it in a lot of ways.
FRANK BERMAN: It was a great feeling to contribute a song to a movie with such an iconic New York story. We arrived from Germany in 1996, and two years later we had the luck to work with the finest artists and record label people in New York. It was amazing how the music industry opened their arms for us and gave us the opportunity. Also the feel of the ’90s was so positive. Everything was possible and people worked hard. And partied hard!
JOCELYN ENRIQUEZ: Even the words to “If You Could Read My Mind” had such a great meaning. At that time I was not so much up and coming, but establishing myself as a dance artist. With my name on “If You Could Read My Mind,” it almost solidified my being recognized as an artist that could be a part of something this big.
ULTRA NATÉ: It wasn’t my first day at the barbecue in terms of having a hit record. I had been in the dance music industry for quite awhile by then and I’d seen the ropes. I’d been on a major label and I’d had success at the major labe,l and then I had failure at the major label and I was kicked off the major label. Then I had no deal but suddenly had a massive record. So it was an amazing, crazy rollercoaster.
AMBER: In 1998, it was a fast life. There was hardly any breathing time, with lots of touring. But I feel blessed to have been part of the song. There’s not a show I am allowed to leave without performing “If You Could Read My Mind.”
JOCELYN ENRIQUEZ: I was just enjoying every moment. You never know how long your career will last. And of course, I chose to gracefully do other things. I’m now a mom of four. My husband and I are full time ministry. We’ve established ourselves with what we’re doing now. At the same time, I now and again have a desire to be back. When I go out and perform every so often, “If You Could Read My Mind” is always one of the opening songs I do.
FRANK BERMAN: I still hear it often in bars and clubs. When I go to Spain or Germany, “If You Could Read My Mind” is still played on the radio. That song became a classic, which is beautiful. It always fills us with pride to be part of that success.
The 54 soundtrack will be re-released by Tommy Boy on CD and two-disc 180 gram vinyl in September.