In the latest instalment of The Story Of, we get the lowdown on a Kisstory classic courtesy of it's creator. Released in 1991, Crystal Waters' "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)" is a timeless slice of chart-friendly house music. Ahead of her set at the 51st State festival later this year, we asked Waters to give us the lowdown on a summer holiday classic that still sends shivers up the spine a quarter of a century on.
I knew about clubs from a very early age. My family were very musical. My great aunt, Ethel Waters, was a very famous actor and singer in the 1940s, and my father was a jazz musician for his entire life. My uncle was the lead saxophonist with MSFB, if you remember them? I grew up with all of that, and there were rehearsals in our house, and I'd go on tour with my father in the summers, so the musician's lifestyle was just part of my life.
Fast forward 20 years and I found myself working for the DC government, in the computer division, issuing arrest warrants. I said to myself, "No, this isn't going to do it for me." Luckily I had a workmate who's cousin owned a recording studio and I found out that they needed backing singers, so I went down and got the job. A bulb went off. This was it. I realised, though, that if I was going to do this properly, I was going to have to write my own stuff. So that's when I put an ad in the local paper and met a keyboardist. We started writing some tracks together, as you do. I went to a conference in Washington DC and met the Basement Boys. At the time I wanted to be the next Sade, and I had the ponytail and everything, so I was working on jazzier material, but the Basement Boys were making house. They sent me a tonne of stuff and said that they wanted me to keep writing in the style I'd been doing. The first two songs I wrote for them were "Makin' Happy" and "Gypsy Woman."
Now, house back then was big in New York and New Jersey, but it was slightly more underground in Baltimore and here in DC, but we're not really that far apart. It's like one big east coast family. I remember being in clubs when the music policy was transitioning into house records, and you'd hear it on late night radio, and you'd think, "what's this same beat that keeps pounding?" It was definitely here but it was very much something you'd really only hear in black clubs. I was sneaking into clubs back then, by the way! When we first got successful people boo-hooed us and said we weren't making real music. It was a fight to get it out.
When me and the Basement Boys came up with the song we didn't think of it as a house record. We just called it dance music, which is what we called anything with an 808. The track was kind of there before the vocals were written. I know some people like to work the other way round, but I always like to write after the track's nearly there.
When it comes to the song itself, the lyrics came straight out of reality. It's about a woman who stood in front of the Mayflower hotel in Washington, DC, on Connecticut Avenue. My sister worked in the hotel and I'd walk past this woman around once a week, and she looked fine. She didn't look like she was homeless. She always had a full face of makeup and black clothes and she'd be singing these gospel songs. I used think, "Well, why don't you go and get a job instead of asking me for money?"
Then there was an article on her in the paper! It said she'd just lost her job in retail, and she said that she thought if she was going to ask people for money then she should at least look presentable. And that changed my idea of homelessness. It could happen to anyone. Before that, I just had to hook down. Then I read that and the lyrics came to me. Like she was singing it.
I never had any idea it'd have the impact that it did. I thought it'd just be a Washington record, a Baltimore record, maybe a New York one if I was lucky. I even kept my job for two years after it came out. I remember doing Top of the Pops and thinking, "Yep, maybe I can go part time now…" It took me a while to realize just how big that song was, and still is. I could never have foreseen it. I just feel grateful and thankful that I sat down and wrote the song. It came at a time when you sit down and think "I can either stick with this 9-5 job or take a risk and do something different." And I'm so glad I did.
Crystal Waters will be performing "Gypsy Woman" at this year's 51st State festival. Head here for more information.