She’s the singer who famously left her native Boston in 1970 at the age of 16 to star in the Australian version of the musical Hair. With a career spanning almost 50 years, 22 albums and a string of accolades, her success is no illusion. And as Rosemary Desmond writes, it’s still music that moves her.
It’s become part of Australian showbiz legend that Marcia Hines was ‘discovered’ by promoter and producer Harry M. Miller and director Jim Sharman, who were casting African-American performers for the Australian stage version of the rock musical Hair in 1970.
Marcia first sang as a nine-year-old in her local church choir and always knew she wanted to be a singer. On Sundays, she would go ‘church-hopping’ to four different places of worship to hear their fine acoustics resonate with the sound of gospel choirs and church music.
But the thought of starring in a production known for its onstage nudity did not faze her. Rather, she was over the moon.
“I was excited, I knew I wanted to be a singer and I had landed an incredible job on the other side of the world,” she said. “So, with my mother’s blessing, I went.”
Harry M. Miller became her legal guardian until she turned 21.
What she didn’t know at the time was that she was pregnant, something that may have ended the careers of some singers before they really started.
But it was just another challenge Marcia took in her stride.
“You are bullet-proof at 16. It’s when you are older (that) you start thinking about the complexities that could happen,” Marcia said.
“The day I had (daughter) Deni, I was on stage and that night I went into hospital and gave birth.”
Nine days later, Marcia was back in the cast of Hair while a nanny cared for Deni for the hours her teenage mum was on stage.
Marcia’s own mother, Esme, was non-judgmental about the situation.
“My mother said: ‘You are in a strange business, so this could be the only child you have. And if you find it too hard to care for her, you make sure that you know I’m there for you’.
“When you’ve got that kind of support, you can do – and I did – basically, anything.”
The success of Hair was followed by another hit rock musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, in which Marcia played Mary Magdalene, the first African-American woman in the world to do so.
But she dismisses the notion that playing the role was ‘groundbreaking’ for her race.
“I just thought ‘Oh, what a great job’. I thought it was Harry M. Miller being clever.”
In 1975, Esme Hines joined her daughter in Australia where she lived until her death in 2003.
That was a dark time for Marcia, but she returned to the public eye as a judge on Australian Idol. She was the only judge to be asked to appear on all seven series of the TV talent show.
During a career spanning nearly five decades, she has sung in a wide variety of musical styles, including R&B, pop, dance, jazz, soul, gospel and funk.
As a 14-year-old living in Boston, Marcia had won a scholarship to the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music, but left after three months, deciding classical training was not for her.
In Australia, she was voted TV Week’s Queen of Pop for three consecutive years from 1976, a time that included her highest charting single, the up-tempo disco track You.
Although many people have most closely associated Marcia with pumping disco music, she refuses to be defined by any one musical genre.
“I wouldn’t say anything would be my genre because that would put a stop to me growing as a musician,” Marcia said.
“Given a chance, I still love singing ballads, I still love singing jazz and, of course, there’s gospel music and disco music. The great thing about disco is that
it is fun.”
Marcia describes 70s and 80s disco as “the perfect musical antidote” to the lack of recognition and respect shown to soldiers returning from an unpopular
war in Vietnam.
“This fun stuff starts happening with its bad clothes and bad hair-dos and so we got through it (the Vietnam War aftermath) that way – musically, I suppose.
“There aren’t many sad songs that would fill a disco floor, as opposed to the happy ones.”
At 64, Marcia Hines has a figure many women half her age would envy.
“I try to walk and exercise as much as I possibly can and when things are great, I’ll run a little bit – but not much. Just being active keeps you fit and I really like getting out and about and watching what I eat.
“I don’t drink – I never have. It’s never been in my family.”
Last year, Marcia was the face of a campaign by a major pharmacy chain to raise awareness of diabetes. In her case, it was a hereditary disease she only became aware she had after she collapsed in her kitchen and was rushed to hospital at the age of 33.
She is now using her public profile to make sure others don’t suffer the same fate. She wants them to act before they develop the disease.
“With Type 1 diabetes, I have no choice in the matter. Type 2 – you do have a choice in the matter. A few lifestyle changes and exercise can make you a non-diabetic,” Marcia said.
“I will always be an advocate for Diabetes Australia to raise awareness about Type 1 and Type 2."
“When you have a profile I think it’s important to use it in the most positive way you possibly can.”
In May this year Marcia, who became an Australian citizen in 1994 and was appointed a member of the Order of Australia in 2009, will embark on a nationwide
tour with Brian Cadd, Russell Morris, Leo Sayer and John Paul Young.
Longer term, she has no plans to retire, citing 70-year-old singer/songwriter Sir Elton John as an example of someone with longevity in a business usually associated with youth.
“I’m a huge fan and he (Elton John) is about to do a huge (farewell) tour over three years.”
One a more personal note, Marcia refuses to be drawn on if there is a ‘significant other’ in her life at present.
She has been married and divorced four times.
“One is taught not to dwell. You have to move on and that’s what you do in life to try and get by."
“Enough of me is out there and the most important thing I need to do now is to keep my personal life as personal and private as I can. But I’m good,” she said, laughing.
This article by Rosemary Desmond originally appeared in the March/April/May 2018 edition of 50 Something magazine.