Block of energy makes her way in world of music

March 10, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

When Mary Lou Magee wraps her tonsils around a song, the earth moves a little. Birds plop out of trees, wondering why they can't belt like her. When she stands in front of the Untouchables and does "Proud Mary" or "Piece of My Heart," you think of Tina Turner or Janis Joplin on a particularly feisty day.

But she's pure Mary Lou, subtle as a punch in the nose, a blond, 250-pound block of energy who's sitting here at the Windsor Inn with a plate of food in front of her -- graciously supplied by Pete the host -- which looks like a shrine to the seafood industry.

"For us?" she says demurely. "Oh, we couldn't."

She's lost a hundred pounds, she says, heading straight for the low-cal shrimp. A girl has to sustain herself. Mary Lou and the Untouchables mostly sustain themselves with club dates -- places such as the Windsor Inn, Club Rumblefish in Glen Burnie, the American Legion Post in Arbutus, Loafers in Catonsville -- and the Baltimore Arena as the opening act for comic Dana Carvey, or the Fells Point Festival, where they've wowed everybody in the huge throng the past few years.

But now, after four years together, they're putting their music into a CD, on which they're putting the finishing touches -- "final tracks, engineering stuff, changing the drums, building up the horns," says Mary Lou -- this week. If things go well, the CD should be available in April.

At the moment, things are going nicely indeed. Mary Lou, 30, got married last summer. And now, dipping again into this glorious plate of seafood, she's aware of how far she's come without even leaving the Windsor Inn. She was a cook here for nine years, after graduating from Randallstown High School. She learned to play drums. One night when she was getting off from kitchen work, and a local band was finishing up, somebody at the club yelled, "Let my girl get up there and play drums."

The next thing she knew she was on stage and Dmitri Callas of Dmitri and the Flashbacks was telling her, "I hear you sing. Somebody in the kitchen told me." Dmitri said his voice was a little sore that night. He had come down from New York, where he had opened for Frankie Valli. Mary Lou did "Be My Baby," the old Ronettes number.

"Dmitri just threw me into the fire," says Mary Lou. "I was sweating. I thought, 'How embarrassing.' Then I did 'Old Time Rock & Roll.' Dmitri said, 'I want you out front.' There I was, out front, singing. Then he went back to New York, and I went back to the kitchen."

But she saw she could do it, and she liked the rush of being in front of a crowd. She had gotten a taste of it at Randallstown High. School plays: "Once Upon A Mattress," "Hello, Dolly." Some community theater.

But The Voice, the big voice, the voice that seems electrically charged, was still waiting to happen.

"It was there, I just didn't know it," she says. "You know, people take voice lessons. I just had girls chorus in high school. What did I know? I was a quiet kid. We were raised in church, me and four brothers.

"By high school, I started having fun, getting into a little trouble. Nothing too bad. Typing love letters instead of the typing lesson in class. I'd smoke in the bathroom. You know, trying to fit in with everybody."

Then she discovered she liked the night life. She didn't want to feel strapped in. "My parents," she says, "loved me so much, and they'd say, 'What's happening to that girl?' It wasn't drugs or anything like that. It was just learning to live, wanting to be around people."

She loved soulful, driving music. "I want to make people have a good time. We go out there and kick ass, but it comes from the heart." She loved stuff from the '50s and '60s, loved the hard-edged stuff James Brown did. She met Brown at Wolf Trap, in Virginia.

"A friend of mine wrote to him when he was in jail," Mary Lou says. "She told him I sang like him. He said he'd like to meet me. So later we went to Wolf Trap and waited to see him. I started doing, 'I Feel Good' and 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag' outside his dressing room. The security guards cracked up. James Brown came out and said, 'You must be Mary Lou. You're a trip.' It's hard to do somebody in front of them. He gave me a kiss and was on his way."

She's on her own way now. The band's got a growing reputation, not only in Maryland but in the places it has played in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina.

"When I'm up there singing," Mary Lou says, "it's the ultimate natural high. It's a chill up my spine. I'm a tomboy at heart, and I'm singing tough music. Raspy songs, and then Patsy Cline songs. Gutsy songs.

"Everybody says the lead singer has to wear tight pants and look like a gorgeous bimbo. You know, 'As long as she looks good, who cares how she sounds?' Well, that's just not it. I'm never gonna be just boobs on a stick. But I can sing, honey."

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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