In a perfect world, Belton and Brown would be a prime time variety show straight out of Oakland. Kofy Brown would lead the house band, cracking wise from the side of the stage while her wife, Margaret Belton, interviewed guests, hammed it up in elaborately costumed skits and then delivered a song or two in homage to Patsy Cline. Yes, like Donny and Marie Osmond, Belton’s a little bit country, and Brown’s a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.
Sonny and Cher, another famous variety show team, provided the inspiration for one the most striking images in an art project that helped Belton survive sheltering in place with her high spirits intact. A singer and graphic designer who suddenly found herself severely underemployed in the early weeks of the pandemic, she decided to recreate iconic album covers using herself (and sometimes Brown) as the polymorphously adaptable model. Posted on Facebook, the images circulated widely, providing a welcome jolt of delight and numerous double takes, as instant recognition was followed by an uncanny feeling that something was subtly amiss in the all-too-familiar tableaux.
Belton had done similar montages before, “but with all this time on my hands I thought I’m going to take things up a few notches,” she said. “The response was immediate, with all of these comments saying ‘Thank you! I needed that!’ It snowballed into a weekly series. Creativity always lifts me, and I needed to do something creative and joyful. I also wanted to hone my skills on Photoshop.”
She enlisted Brown into an initial, less elaborate shoot, with Belton transforming herself into a blond-tressed Daryl Hall and Brown looking buff as a gloriously mustachioed John Oates. As a singer-songwriter and bandleader who’s released 10 albums and performs in the all-star rock collective Skip the Needle, Brown didn’t have to stretch far to portray a pop star.
“I was roped into it,” Brown said. “I see her with all of these wigs and glitter and at first I thought, ‘Great, she’s making herself busy.’ I’m just minding my business when she said, ‘We’ve got to do this Hall and Oates thing,’ and she just dresses me up. I’m looking at the album photo and I’ve got to flex my muscles. She’s fully committed and it’s infectious. I had zero to do with it, except that I was in the house and I’ll play along.”
The immediate response to the Hall and Oates image led to several other duo sessions, including Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” and Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb’s “Guilty.” More often than not, Belton was art directing herself solo, drawing from their extensive collection of LPs. Tapping directly into the artists who imprinted on her grade-school mind, Belton channeled Chrissie Hynde, Joan Jett, Linda Ronstadt, Jennifer Beals in her Flashdance regalia, and a blue-jeaned triumvirate of Dolly Partons from the chart-topping, Grammy Award-winning hit “Here You Come Again.”
She may be done with the album covers, but Belton and Brown isn’t ready for syndication. Even during the pandemic, their show hasn’t been confined to the studio. When they’ve heard about friends feeling isolated and lonely, they show up in costume outside their house to offer a serenade on roller skates (while often delivering a meal for good measure).
Dressed up in one of her Dolly Parton outfits, Belton turned “Islands In the Stream” into their Roller Gram theme song. “Kofy would get out of the car and start dancing and I do this roller dance around her,” she said. “Neighbors would come out on the porch and chat. I had the costumes from the album covers, and then I found out I had more outfits and wigs. The closet is a hot mess.”
Given the opportunity by the Little Village Foundation label, Belton, who typically performs covers, stepped out of her musical comfort zone last year by recording an original song for the first time. A luscious ballad written with multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Vicki Randle (a bandmate of Brown’s in Skip the Needle), “Lullaby of New Orleans” was included on 20 x 20, a singer-songwriter anthology recorded by the artists at home during the depths of the pandemic. Brown also contributed to the Little Village project with vocal support from Belton and Randle, creating an unplugged version of “Love, Love, Love,” her benediction for families separated at the border from her 2020 album, Child of Providence.
While Belton enjoyed creating her own music, she’s more than thrilled to step back into sparkly heels for her fifth run in Always…Patsy Cline, which plays at the Woodminster Amphitheater in Oakland’s Joaquin Miller Park July 9-25. Featuring Belton belting out songs associated with Cline, backed by a six-piece band led by pedal steel ace David Phillips, director Ted Swindley’s epistolary play tells the story of the country music legend’s evolving relationship with super fan-turned-manager Louise Seger (played by Julia Etzel).
As the front woman for the Cline cover band The Patsychords, Belton is best known for pouring her soul into the vintage Nashville repertoire. The pandemic revealed her as a protean artist with a knack for impersonating a variety of fabulous figures.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.