The gig was so good that Ednah Holt thought she would die when it was done. That’s at least what she told herself as she was experiencing the glee and creative joy on stage and in rehearsals with the Hall of Fame rock ‘n’ roll band, The Talking Heads, for what would become their standard-setting concert film, Stop Making Sense. The live performance, released nationally on October 18th, 1984, has become a cult classic and is shown on movie theaters decades since. Beyond the band’s lead singer, David Byrne, two of the show’s stars are Holt and fellow backup singer-dancer, Lynn Mabry. The two are mirth incarnate, magnets for eyeballs. For Holt, though, the gig almost never materialized. But when it did, she had the time of her life. So much so that she thought her life might have crested right then and there.
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“I thought I was going to die doing this gig,” Holt says, with a laugh. “I thought, I just can’t have fun every night! We had fun every night. We had a ball. Honest to goodness, I thought I was going to die when it was done.”
Before joining forces with the Talking Heads, both Holt and Mabry say they weren’t very familiar with the band. Mabry was invited to tryout through legendary keyboard player, Bernie Worrell, who had linked up with the Talking Heads prior and joined their crew. Mabry knew Worrell from her time singing with Parliament Funkadelic years prior. Holt had been invited to try out through a bassist friend, Tinker Barfield, and did a fine job in the audition. She found out there was another singer still being considered. But as fate would have it, that woman dropped out, uninspired by the music, and Holt got the job.
“I want to thank her every day,” Holt says. “I’ll kiss her toenails because without her, I wouldn’t have met Lynn. And I was honored to meet Lynn. She was so talented and had her head on straight.”
Mabry, who grew up in the Bay Area, came to sing professionally almost by accident. Whereas Holt had studied music in school, hoping one day to sing opera, Mabry would simply sing songs to herself in her bedroom and in the bathroom mirror. She never thought it would be a professional possibility – never even considered it. But, one day, while in high school, her boyfriend suggested she try out for a singing opportunity for a local artist in Oakland. Mabry got the job, which she enjoyed, and that gig, as luck would have it, provided interest from her cousin, Sly Stone, to record on his solo project.
“I was supposed to go to college,” Mabry says, with a chuckle. “I asked my mom if I could just go on tour to save money for college. She was all for it, but that never happened!”
Both Mabry and Holt grew up in church, the former in the Bay Area and the latter in Pittsburgh. Mabry thought one day she would be a psychologist (she’d been accepted to college to study it). But both ended up stage right of Byrne in one of the most recognized concert films of all time. Directed by famed moviemaker, Jonathan Demme, Stop Making Sense was filmed over four nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater in December of 1983. The film was released April 24th, 1984 at the San Francisco International Film Festival and then everywhere else on October 18th. Standout performances include hits like “Burning Down the House” and “Psycho Killer.” But Holt and Mabry shine on tracks like “Slippery People,” infectious, joyous and sublime beauties.
“I’m a firm believer that things don’t happen out of happenstance,” Mabry says. “This was meant to be. Ednah and I gelled the moment we started working together. We laughed together. We were foodies together. The joy people saw in us, that’s how we were when we were off stage. We did everything together. We traveled all over the place, went everywhere. She supported me as I navigated through a couple of relationships during our working together, and I helped with one of hers.”
Reminiscing, Holt and Mabry recall going on a double date together around the time they were rehearsing for Stop Making Sense. They’d gone out to dinner (or were on their way to dinner, neither can quite clearly remember). But what they do recall is walking into an “adult store,” all four of them. They’d noticed the sex shop as they were walking down either Sunset or Hollywood Boulevard at dinnertime. One of their dates said they should go in and check it out. Giddy, they did, laughing like school children.
“That was my first time!” Mabry says.
“That was my first time, too!” Holt echoes. “We were innocent, innocent.”
Love was in the air, it couldn’t be helped. Holt calls the Stop Making Sense collaboration a “romance” and a “marriage,” particularly when everyone was on stage. Teamwork was the name of the game and the ethic remains instilled in both accomplished women today. Both continue to perform and write music. And both work helping to expose it to others. Before the pandemic, Mabry had been performing with artist, Sheila E., with whom she’s collaborated with for two decades. Holt, too, composes new work, including heartfelt, butter-smooth songs like this and this. They’ve worked with some of the world’s best in their careers. And, in the end, that’s what they love most about music.
“It brings people together,” Holt says. “I believe music can break all barriers of racism and ageism and gender. I believe music is a miracle.”
“I think music is a love language,” Mabry says. “I really do. I believe with all my heart it’s healing because it’s healed and saved me on so many levels. The one thing I’ve always found refuge in was music.”