From Rock 'n Roll Queen to Mrs. Bernstein
Female rocker Ellen Foley is best known as the powerhouse voice behind Meatloaf’s multiplatinum 1977 legendary duet, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.”
Ellen left St. Louis the day after she turned 21 and moved to New York to study acting. She went on cattle-call auditions and got a few parts on stage, but her first paying job was singing in a music comedy revue in the Catskills. “It was corny with me in false eyelashes and the boys in glittery jumpsuits,” she says. “I was fired. I was too odd. Thank God.” Ellen started a band called Big Jive and performed in Atlantic City before there were casinos.
She then got a part doing more edgy comedy with “That National Lampoon Show.” “It was completely tasteless, sacrilegious,” she remembers, “and a lot of fun.” During her tour with National Lampoon she met fellow actors Meatloaf and Jim Steinman, who would write "Paradise."
After "Paradise," Ellen received several gold records and awards for her three solo albums (“Night Out,” “Spirit of St. Louis,” “Another Breath”) which were produced by high profile rock legends, such as Ian Hunter, Mick Ronson, and Mick Jones and Joe Strummer of The Clash. (Many believe Ellen’s tumultuous relationship with Mick Jones inspired his hit “Should I Stay or Should I Go.”)
Her Broadway stage career includes starring in “Hair,” “Into the Woods” and “Me and My Girl.” It was Ellen who originated the role of the witch in Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater. Reportedly, Sondheim’s “favorite witch,” he called her the “alpha and the omega.” Ellen performed a dance number in the movie “Hair,” choreographed with Twyla Tharp and directed by Milos Forman. She also had featured film roles in “Tootsie,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Married to the Mob” and “Cocktail” with Tom Cruise.
Many of her fans know her as public defender Billie Young in the TV series “Night Court,” which she starred in for the first season. Now when she sings a ballad of heartbreak, she likes to joke that she has plenty of experience to draw from. “You don’t know pain until you’ve been replaced in a role by Markie Post,” she says.
As for real heartbreak, it’s been awhile since she’s endured any in her romantic life. She met her husband, actor and writer Doug Bernstein in 1989 when she was staring in “Me and My Girl.” “Before I met Doug, I was the walking cliché, always falling for the inaccessible guys,” she says. “But I got smart and fell for the nice Jewish guy. I realized I could just love and be loved.”
By show-business standards, they have been married for an eternity: 24 years. During that time, Ellen taught at the School of Rock (featured in the film of the same name starring Jack Black) and continued to act on stage while raising her two sons, one is now in college and one just graduated.
It was during a production of a play called “Hercules in High Suburbia” in 2005 at New York City’s famed experimental theater La Mama that she was inspired to resurrect her recording career. She met her current collaborator, musician and songwriter Paul Foglino, who wrote the songs and music of the show. (Two of the songs in that production – “Madness” and “Everything’s Gonna be Alright” – are on their current album.)
“It all happened organically,” says Ellen. “I loved the songs Paul wrote for the play and we became friends. His writing is sophisticated and ironic, but he has an earnest, heartfelt integrity about him that I liked.”
With a background in folk and roots rock, Foglino was a slight deviation for Ellen, but the woman knows talent when she sees it. Together they found common ground in pop rock, the sound of the Rolling Stones and powerful ballads about strong women, and released Ellen’s first album in over 30 years, “About Time.” The album has been well received from reviewers who have called it a “kick-ass roots rock affair” and acclaimed Ellen for “being one of those rare artists to make their best record three and a half decades down the line.”
Today, at 62, Ellen has the same rock ‘n roll energy and great stage moves she did when she was fighting off Meatloaf at the dashboard light. She is also starring in a new movie called “Lies I Told My Little Sister” that is being shown at film festivals in the U.S. and Canada. In the fall, she will be touring in Amsterdam, Belgium, Luxembourg and select European cities.
And there is talk that she may be coming full circle with one of her career highlights: Jim Steinman, writer of Meatloaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” album, is working on a song that will reunite Meatloaf, Ellen and Karla DeVito, who performed on the video, lip-syncing to Ellen’s voice when Ellen went on to record a solo album. “I’ve seen my share of paradise,” says Ellen, “and I will continue to do so.”