The Legends: Amii Stewart

The Legends: Amii Stewart

The disco star's four decades in Italy haven't just been a chianti and pasta-fueled idyll.

The disco star's four decades in Italy haven't just been a chianti and pasta-fueled idyll.

Text: Alexandra Ilyashov

This article originally appeared in V109, on newsstands August 31. 

Amii Stewart shimmied onto the disco scene in the late 1970s in dramatic headpieces and outré outfits. The D.C. native trained professionally as a dancer before arriving in London in the late ‘70s, where she starred in and helped choreograph a Broadway show on the West End. After seeing the show in ‘77, a record producer approached her and asked if she wanted to record. The next year, she released “Knock On Wood,” her hit cover of Eddie Floyd’s 1966 song.

Her gloriously out-there costumes were created by a woman named Miranda in the English countryside: “Everyone would ask who did my costumes, and I wasn’t giving that name up for anything in the world!” Her fantastical looks and hefty headpieces were pioneering at the time. “Cher stole some of my stuff—I came first and she came after,” Stewart says. “But I thought it was the greatest compliment ever, so I wasn’t mad; I was quite pleased.”

Her disco career lasted for a few brief, raucous years. “There were these huge shows, with Tina Turner, Sylvester, Sting and the Police, Boney M., everyone was there—backstage was like a big party, we were so happy to see each other,” Stewart recalls. However, she disliked the genre’s reliance on covers, like her successful version of the Doors’ “Light My Fire.” As she explains, “I didn’t want to get stuck in the disco scene. When you’re labeled like that and the fad is no longer there, you die along with the fad. I didn’t want that to happen to me.”

Stewart’s quest for her next act led her to an Italian record label that offered her carte blanche musically. “They gave me full artistic control over my career,” Stewart relates. “Italy was the only country that didn’t look at my skin color and say, ‘You have to sing rhythm and blues, or soul, or jazz.’” She moved to Italy in the early ‘80s and met her husband five years later. It’s difficult for Stewart to imagine how her career would’ve panned out had she stayed stateside: “In America in the ‘70s and ‘80s, you had to be labeled something in order for a record company to feel comfortable marketing you,” Stewart points out. “Only after Whitney Houston was it possible for a black woman [in the U.S.] to just say, ‘You know what, I’m gonna do it all.’”

Stewart’s made good on the promise of artistic freedom that initially lured her to Italy: She’s done modern operas, musicals, TV shows, and has worked with luminaries like famed Spaghetti Western composer Ennio Morricone and Life Is Beautiful composer Nicola Piovani. “If you’re not doing something in America, people tend to think that you’ve fallen off the face of the earth,” she says. “But in fact, I’ve been incredibly busy my whole life.”

Currently, Stewart is part of a jazz trio, an R&B quartet, and 30-piece orchestra. This summer, she staged a concert touring Italy dedicated to disco’s greatest hits. There’s been interest in bringing it to Europe and even stateside, though she’d need to reacquaint herself with U.S. audiences: “We’re filming [the show] and putting it online, so people will go, ‘Oh, holy hell! She’s not a grandmother, sitting in her rocking chair.’”

She has another throwback project coming in 2018, timed to the 40th anniversary of “Knock On Wood.” “I’m doing a show all about my music and what I’ve done in the last 40 years—it’s incredibly eclectic,” Stewart says. She occasionally visits the States, but she’s never thought of moving back. “I’m just traveling the world, singing my songs, and it’s a wonderful feeling to be able to do that after all of these years.”

Credits: IMAGE COURTESY OF KEYSTONE PICTURES USA/ALAMY STOCK PHOTOS

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