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Kvitka’s Biography

Early life and musical training

Kvitaslawa Cisyk was born in Queens, New York, on April 4, 1953 to her Ukrainian born father Wolodymyr Cisyk and mother Iwanna Cisyk. Her parents had emigrated to New York along with Kvitkas’ sister Maria in the late 1940s so as to escape the Soviet occupation of their beloved homeland. The Cisyk family brought to New York not only many artistic and intellectual talents but a deep and rich reverence for the Ukrainian Culture and of the Carpathian Mountains they so painfully had to leave behind. Kvitka grew up as an American, her sensibilities resonating with their heritage as she participated fully in all that her parents were and brought with them. Only the Ukrainian language was spoken in her home in Manhattan. Kvitka was always grateful for having been steeped in the heritage she was so proud of. Her parents understood that they had born a sensitive and talented child. Kvitka always thanked them for “teaching me good Ukrainian and (as they put it) not bad English.” Kvitka walked the path of two cultures as she would later name one of her recordings “Two Colors” in honor of this dual culture way of living. Two Colors also represents the dichotomy between life’s necessarily brave here-and-now and burden of longing and sadness of the past.

She learned English in the New York City public school system and maintained her Ukrainian heritage with her friends, family and Plast, the Ukrainian scout organization. But music surrounded her wherever she was. Her father Wolodymyr was a virtuoso violinist and educator having performed as concertmaster in several famous European orchestras. He imparted a deep love and learning on both of his daughters. Kvitkas’ sister Maria was taught classical piano, was highly educated and spent her entire life studying, performing and teaching music. Her specialty was the interpretation of Scriabin on whom she prepared her doctoral thesis at Yale University. Maria always exhibited great sensitivity, fire and restraint in the works of all the composers she performed. She accompanied Wolodymyr and Kvitka as they played the violin classics and later on Kvitkas’ operatic performances and Ukrainian recordings.

Kvitka began learning the violin from her father at age five and worked diligently at it through to her acceptance to the State University of New York at Binghamton on a violin scholarship. A year later she won a voice scholarship at the Mannes College of Music. She told the trade magazine Ford Times in a February 1990 interview that when her father died when she was 17, she was devastated. “I had his bowing arm, his technique,” she said. “I wanted to sing, but I was filled with turmoil and guilt. Shouldn’t I keep playing the violin for my father?”

She participated in the school’s opera workshop, where she studied and performed under Sebastian Engelberg, and graduated from Mannes in 1974. During her college years she met many musicians who appreciated both her warm and loving temperament and her finely honed talents. These fine musicians would eventually surface as players on many of the recordings she would make. As a teenager, her affiliations led her to be the “IT” girl in a renowned pop band, sing demos for records and TV shows and participate in a great variety of musical performances.

A Blossoming Career

Kvitka’s emotional vocal abilities and pure musicality led her to auditions for TV and Radio commercials. She was convinced to be represented briefly by an unscrupulous agent who found her jobs singing commercials but did his best to keep the payments for himself. Was this a painful iteration of things to come? It seemed that her good nature and obvious talents would always make her a target for the “takers” in business. Kvitka began working at first in recording studios to try and help pay for voice lessons, sheet music and operatic auditions. She learned quickly how well suited she was to function and succeed in the exclusive world of studio singing and she thoroughly enjoyed the varied musical demands made on her. She sometimes recorded a commercial rock song for Ford in the morning, a ballad for Coke at lunchtime, an anthem for the US Army in the afternoon and a 60 second opera for AT&T at night. Then she might go on to sing for one of the many musical stars she was asked to help in their recording projects. She was as tireless as she was thorough. She was as lovable as she was brave. All who knew her wanted to be near her, musically and personally. All who heard her wanted her to sing for them. She tried. But she never tried as hard or worked so tirelessly or invested so much as she did in her two records of love songs to, for and about Ukraine. The response that nearly all listeners have is twofold: that she truly put all of her heart into these records and that Ukrainians are a deep, strong and powerfully loving people. Kvitka was proud to be Ukrainian.

Kvitka was known as Kacey in The USA. She was employed by some of the most talented people in the music industry. She was also employed by some of the most cunning, who knew that if they could get to have her represent their music, it would be a sure hit.

“You Light Up My Life”

An early experience with an admirer of Kacey, the jingle writer turned film producer, Joseph Brooks remains a painful memory for all who have heard this story. Joseph Brooks wrote a screenplay about a young girl in love who wanted to make it in the record business. Brooks failed for quite a while to find a backer for the movie he envisioned. Eventually he convinced someone to give him startup money and he began planning production. The film was to include the music of a young woman aspiring to a this career. He then wrote the songs for the soundtrack. Having worked successfully with Kacey on many of his commercials, he decided that she would be the perfect voice for the main character in his movie and hired her to sings some “demos” for him. He booked A&R studios (coincidentally where I worked. I did not hear the details of this story until afterwards) to record with the famed British engineer Malcolm Addey (who had also engineered for the Beatles and many others.) It was supposed to be merely a piano and vocal with which he chose to represent his songs. Kvitka stood next to the piano in studio A-1 and sight-read the six songs they recorded that day, including “You Light Up My Life,” directed by Brooks, wisely leaving interpretation to Kacey. The fact that Kacey’s voice was also loud and clear in the piano microphones was not immediately seen as an issue as it would prove to be down the road. She sang the most iconic version of each song from start to finish.

Brooks quickly understood that he had captured gold. He decided to use Kacey’s voice for the film. Her reading of his songs could not have been better, so Brooks decided to overdub an entire orchestra onto the demos for the appropriate aural size and scope to use in his Hollywood film. He withheld payment to Kacey for the recording session, even though she was supposed to be protected from such unscrupulousness by being a union member. He tried to evade payment by false promises and by asking her to be an incidental actor in his film, implying huge rewards yet to come. For the filming of the studio scenes in which she would appear, Kacey flew to Los Angeles. The innocent young singer was mesmerized by the Hollywood glamour, rich lifestyles, and movie-making fantasy. She would be filmed portraying a backup studio singer; a reality now well known to her. After finishing shooting her scenes, Brooks asked to have a meeting with her to discuss her future in connection with the songs she sang, her unforgettable participation, and payment for her services. He maintained a hidden agenda. Kacey met with Brooks at his very fancy Hollywood hotel. Brooks promised all sorts of inflated and fantastic things he would do for her and her career including her participation in his next “hit” film. She asked if she was to be paid for the work she had already done. He made improper advances on Kacey. Being rebuffed by her was deflating and he became angry and threatening. After being rebuffed, he did not speak to her directly ever again and continued to evade payment to her for the wonderful work she did on his music and for acting in his film.

After the film was released to great acclaim she would try unsuccessfully to get paid for her services. When You Light up my Life became a hit, Brooks was approached by Mike Curb Of California hit-record production and the ’50s pop singer Pat Boone to give the song to Debby Boone, Pat’s daughter. She had high ambitions in the music business. Boone was just 21 when she went into the studio to record what would be her careers’ biggest selling record. She had little artistic input on recording her version of You Light Up My Life. Brooks was adamant about how he wanted it delivered. “I had no freedom whatsoever,” she recalled in an interview. “Joe told me exactly how to sing it and imitate every inflection from the original recording.” The song became a big seller, and when journalists queried the wholesome singer about who the “you” might be in the song, Boone replied (incorrectly) that she was “singing about the Lord.” Besides wanting Boone to copy Kacey’s iconic hit reading of his songs, Brooks needed to cover up Kacey’s vocal leakage in the microphones in the piano recorded at the original demo session on which was overdubbed the orchestral track used in the film. Brooks didn’t want to pay to re-record the piano and orchestra again. The only way then to not hear Kacey’s vocals in the piano microphones was to have Boone mimic Kacey’s vocal performance identically!

Even though Brooks received a Grammy for “You Light Up My Life” and an Oscar for Cisyk’s performance, her singing was credited to “Original Cast”, not to Cisyk herself, and only reached No. 80 on the Billboard Hot 100. Brooks also released an instrumental version of the song from the soundtrack as a single, but his version failed to chart. Debby Boone’s success resulted in Grammy nominations for Best Pop Vocal Performance Female and Record of the Year and won her the 1977 Grammy for Best New Artist and the 1977 American Music Award for Favorite Pop Single. The song earned Brooks the 1977 Song of the Year Grammy (tied with “Love Theme from “A Star Is Born” (Evergreen)”) as well as the Best Original Song awards at the 1977 Golden Globe and Academy Awards.

Eventually Kacey retained a lawyer and sued Brooks for the fees she earned for her work on the record and the film but accepted an award of a small sum just to relieve herself of the torment of a prolonged legal battle with Brooks. If you were to view the film “You Light Up My Life” today, you will see a big blank space in the credits where Brooks had removed all mention of her.

Many years later, Brooks committed suicide after having been arrested on charges of taking advantage of young women.
Kacey meanwhile did her best to bear the pain of this prolonged episode. She was always in demand for her singing and loved by all who knew her and grew to be the most sought after session singer of all time. Her long list of commercials includes spots for Coca-Cola, American Airlines, MacDonalds, Sears, JC Penney. In 1982 she began working for Ford Motor Company and eventually became the only voice representing Ford products. In 1990 she was regularly seen in regional Ford dealer television commercials in the western United States. She received many honors for her work and with Ford, for having recorded 20 billion consumer impressions. Kvitka also worked as a back-up singer for such artists as Barry Manilow, Michael Bolton, Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon and Quincy Jones. Kacey sang on the soundtrack and title songs for the “Circle of Two,” Working Girl”, Rocky III”, “The Wiz” and “The One and Only”, performing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson being a favorite of the producer Carl Reiner and Carson.

Recording the music of Ukraine

But her greatest love was Ukrainian song, and in May of 1980 she recorded her first album, “Kvitka,” which won top honors in the 1988 Ukrainian Music Awards. Her second album recorded in 1989, “Kvitka Two Colors,” was dedicated to “the spirit of the Ukrainian soul, whose wings can never be broken.” Today, songs from both albums can be heard often on radio in Ukraine. Both “Kvitka” and “Kvitka Two Colors,” were family projects. Kvitka’s husband, Ed Rakowicz, a recording engineer, produced them. Her sister, Maria Cisyk, a concert pianist and teacher, played piano for them. Her mother, Iwanna, made sure that Kvitka’s Ukrainian meaning and pronunciation was perfect. In 1983 Kvitka visited Ukraine with her mother, and when Ukraine declared independence in 1991, she planned to tour her parents’ homeland in a series of concerts. Her dream of performing in Ukraine was never fulfilled. In 1992, Kacey was diagnosed with breast cancer and with a dedication and vigor unimaginable, fought long and hard so that she could be there for her son Eddie. Kvitka died peacefully and at home surrounded by family in New York City on March 29th, 1998 five days before her 45th birthday.

In the last several years, in Ukraine, the building where her mother was born, a main street and a park were all named for Kvitka Cisyk. Every year there are memorial services both in the USA and Ukraine commemorating her death day and her birthday. At these ceremonies, speeches , photographs, videos and live performances of her songs are performed by devotees of her and the spirit that she embodied. In June 2013, Ukrainian Parliament named a “Kvitka Cisyk Day” as being a cultural icon and one of the most popular singing artists across Ukraine. A gala concert is scheduled to be performed by the Ukrainian National Symphony Orchestra in her honor. Concerts, festivals, documentaries, and award shows are held in her honor throughout the year. An album by her including two songs never before heard will be released soon. Kvitka is one of the worlds’ most widely listened to Ukrainian artists. Her love for Ukraine lives on through her performances. Kvitka Cisyk, best known to the Ukrainian-speaking world for her two albums of Ukrainian folk songs, “Kvitka: Songs of Ukraine” and “Kvitka Two Colors,” represents the truth of one whose “wings shall never be broken.”

Ed Rakowicz,
2013