Before Bluetooth (Episode 2): The Story of Anita Ward and “Ring My Bell”

Those of you who have been following the “Before Bluetooth” series closely since it’s introductory post, will be aware that the fabled origins of this legendary series date back as far as six days ago, but the seeds for this particular post were planted much much earlier courtesy of a 2015 Breakfast Club Interview with Damon Wayans. If I made money from these posts he’d probably be entitled to some kind of cheque, but I don’t, so he won’t be getting anything apart from my never-ending respect and gratitude for his contributions to our culture and that’s worth more than any dollar amount (let’s hope he fell for that).

During the interview he raised a really interesting point about pressurised nature of comedy and existence being akin to a shark in the ocean – either keep swimming and pushing out put new material or stop and cease to exist – but what stood out to me the most were the words “Comedy’s not like music, there’s no such thing as a ‘one-hit wonder’ with comedy [in music] you can do one song [forever], you can Ring My Bell [like] “Anita Ward”, she can still travel, she can still do concerts”.

I thought “Hmmmmmmmm one hit song? That can’t be right, ‘Ring My Bell’ came out in the late 70’s, she must’ve had another one, that song’s too good for her not to have at least stumbled on across another one”. There wasn’t another one, but before we get into that, let’s find out about/celebrate the one that she did have!

Anita Ward was born in 1957 in Memphis Tennessee into a family of music lovers, her mother and father, Juanita and James, both used to sing and her brother was a drummer. It was apparent from an early age that Anita had a passion for singing and like most black artists of that time, began her musical journey singing gospel in churches. It wasn’t until she attended college (Rust College) where she saw the potential to pursue music as a career and began training to perfect her craft. While auditioning for a musical play (Godspell) she caught the attention of Chuck Holmes; an administrator at the college who also happened to dabble in music on the side.

Holmes became her manager and quickly got to work trying to secure a record deal for his new act, but as you can imagine the story of a manager promising you a big break in the music industry and giving the usual “I’m going to make you a star” speech is one that we’ve all heard once too often. In an attempt to make sure that she was financially secure, Anita put the psychology degree that she had obtained at college to use and started substitute teaching at an elementary (primary) school. Luckily for Anita, Holmes was good on his word, connecting her with Frederick Knight – the owner of the independent record label, Juana – in 1978.

The story goes that Knight had agreed to work with Anita to put together a three song demo, but became so enthused by the promise of her voice that he decided that they should make a whole album instead! After all of the recording sessions were done, the album was more or less finished and ready to go, ‘more or less’ meaning that there was something missing, maybe just one song to set the whole thing off and Frederick thought he had just the song in his collection… a song by the name of “Ring My Bell” that he had written for Stacy Lattisaw, an 11-year old artist he was trying to sign to his label. Anita wasn’t too hot on the song and you can understand why to be honest. “Ring My Bell” was a gimmicky, jingle made to be sung by pre-teens talking telephones, basically some ‘Sesame Street’ bubblegum pop. Anita was a 23 year old woman and wanted to make warm, loving ballads instead, the type of music that made your heart weep for a love it had never felt before. Frederick respected her decision not to do the song and admired her artistic integrity at such a young age… yeah that didn’t happen. He basically said, “how about I re-write and change that ‘bell’ into an innuendo about (basically anything but a telephone) because we need to get in on some of that disco money”.

Anita pushed back but eventually recorded the new re-written version of the song and her life was never the same again. This version was a feverishly, infectious hotbed of euphoria and carefree youth and the best use of cowbell I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s a time warp track, you hit play and you instantly feel weightless, like your inhibitions are being carried off by a helium-filled disco-ball. “You can ring my beeeelll, ring my bell!” Anita’s whispery tone merges so well with the instrumental that it becomes part of its construction, that beat could only work with her on it. Once you’ve heard the song once the rest of the lyrics become irrelevant, they’re just time for you to recover in between the trying to hit the high note in the chorus. It’s a fun song and really captures the energy of the time. A time before sliding into DMs was a thing and people used to ring each other’s bells or try to ring each other’s bells, I don’t know what they were doing back then to be honest but I do know that as a devout Christian, Anita likes to point out that the song isn’t necessarily about what we all think it’s about and can be about anything you want it to be about. So I know the song sounds like it’s about SEX, but it’s not about SEX, just wanted to make that clear (even though it really really sounds like it).

The song was a hit at home and overseas, going Gold in two weeks and peaked at #1 in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Norway and New Zealand and held that position on the US Billboard Hot 100 for 2 weeks. The one-time school teacher went from preparing lesson plans to preparing her bags to travel the world to support her breakout hit, taking her to corners of the globe that the wholesome Southern girl to corners of the globe that she had only dreamed of before her breakout hit.

Outside of “Ring My Bell” the rest of the album didn’t have any standout tracks, Anita’s vocal range was unique but limited and it would take a special pen and production to unlock that energy again – repeating the trick was probably a stretch too far. Despite the rest of the album not doing what she had hoped, she was spurred on by the success of the single and her and the label decided to strike while the iron was hot and release a follow-up album, “Sweet Surrender” just seven-months later.

It failed to chart to chart in the Billboard 200 and only had one single, “Don’t Drop My Love”. It had the cowbell, the back up vocals, but it just didn’t hit the same and felt like a bit of a rush job.

From the top of the world to a distant memory in just seven months, how did it all unravel so fast?

Two familiar words, “contract issues”. When signing her contract with Frederick Knight’s label “Juana” (not to be confused with the Afro B song “Joana”), Anita also agreed to a distribution deal with TK Records to help her penetrate the disco market, but it came at a cost. The long and short of it is that the money was messed up or as Anita eloquently put it “I had everyone taking my money”. These contractual issues soured the relationship between her and Frederick Knight – the man who had written and produced her hit single – and stifled the release of her third album, which was already in the works at the time.

If that wasn’t enough to stop her chances at making another hit record, there’s more… in 1981 she got into a horrific car crash in Mississippi and fractured her skull, leaving her with in critical condition and putting an indefinite end to recording and touring.

There’s more… I know. In the same year that she had the car accident, her manager, Chuck Holmes, the man who had believed in her and got helped herget her big break, passed away.

The music industry is an unforgiving one. Whilst Anita spent the following years trying recovering from the head injuries, resulting sinus problems (which she still suffers from to this day) and starting a family, the music moved on without her. Disco was dead and as a new act she wasn’t afforded the same luxury that the bigger acts of the time were (e.g Diana Ross) where she could go away and come back with anticipation for her next release. I tried to look for more music after this period and I saw that she released another album in 1989, “Wherever There’s Love”, presumably after her health had improved, but it wasn’t a success. She just couldn’t recapture the magic of “Ring My Bell”.

I know it’s hard to believe, but the story of Anita Ward is far from a tragic one. That song has literally put food on the table for this woman for the last 40 years. From humble beginnings and with no aspirations of becoming a singer and lacking the ability to produce or write songs of her own, she became a star; “A one day queen is still a queen”.

And for those of you wondering, yes, she’s still touring. Just this year she was on the line-up with acts like The Jacksons and The Commodores on the Ultimate Disco Cruise, performing a collection of hits from other artists during that era and closing out every show with you guessed it, “Ring My Bell”.

The greatest song to come out of the one hit wonder phenomena? Quite possibly….

You think of Vanilla Ice, I think of Anita Ward.