(This interview was originally published November 10, 2013 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)
When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.
This time that awesomeness is Moana Wolfgramm. She, along with seven of her brothers and sisters, was a member of the band The Jets. The wholesome sibling teenagers of Polynesian descent took the pop charts by storm in the mid-'80s with five Top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 and eventually over 3 million records sold. Hits like “Crush On You”, “You Got It All” and “Make It Real” made The Jets a staple on the radio and on MTV between 1986 and 1988. Moana was the youngest of the group and is credited with vocals, keyboards, percussions and overall just looking like a cutie. Find out about how the band formed, some of their biggest hits, their new reunion album and more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Moana Wolfgramm of The Jets... Q: Was music always a part of your family? How did a family originally from Tonga end up in Minnesota of all places?
Moana: Because of our Polynesian culture, music has always played a big role in our family. In fact, in the islands before they had a written language, stories and genealogies were kept through song and dance, so when it comes to music all Polynesians are very connected that way and teach their children island songs and dances.
Our parents immigrated to America in 1965 with the oldest Leroy who was only a few months old. Because of our Mormon faith, they moved to Salt Lake City, Utah. After having 10 children and struggling to find something that they could do to keep the family together, they were inspired after watching The Jacksons and Osmonds on a variety show to start a band of their own. Our mother was our lead singer and our father assigned Leroy the task of teaching the younger ones musical instruments. With no musical training, he learned by ear and taught the others their instruments. Eventually as we got older, Elizabeth and I joined the family show as dancers and singers.
We started off as a Polynesian review show and were contracted to perform at hotels in the Midwest called The Hawaiian Inn hotels. We performed for a chain of these hotels in Iowa, North Dakota and Minnesota until the chain went bankrupt and we were stranded in Minnesota. We made Minnesota our home for 15 years until we all moved out west in the mid-'90s.
Q: When and how did you become The Jets? How and why was the band name The Jets chosen? How did you end up landing a recording contract with MCA?
Moana: After being stranded in Minnesota, the managers of the last hotel felt sorry for our family and said if we could play Top 40 music, they would give us work. Our parents revamped the show and did away with the Polynesian review and concentrated on the family doing just pop music. We changed the name from The Polynesian Pearls to the name Quazar and performed as a Top 40 group all around the Twin Cities. We were all big Earth Wind and Fire fans, thus the name Quazar because we thought it sounded like something cool from the universe (cracks me up today – mind you we were in our tweens and teens at the time).
Prince was hot on the scene and record companies were looking into the music scene at other groups in the Minneapolis area. We convinced a retired Motown rep who lived in Minneapolis, Don Powell, to come out and see the group. After running out of excuses, he finally came out to see us and was convinced he could do something with the family. Don Powell was Stevie Wonder’s manager when Stevie was a kid and also managed David Bowie early in his career. Don felt our last name just wouldn’t cut it. Wolfgramm is our last name and because we don’t look German (even though our great-great-grandfathers were German merchants who came to Tonga to start businesses of their own), it just didn’t seem to stick as a stage name. While driving to see us at one of our shows, he heard the Elton John hit “Benny & The Jets” and that’s where the name derived from. The Jets was short, easy to say and remember and you could put it on a t-shirt or cap and it would stick so we were convinced and went with it.
Don helped us work on demos to shop to record companies, one demo of which was written by Boy George. Almost every record company passed except MCA Records and we were signed by Gerald Busby and Louil Silas, Jr. in 1984.
Q: The band’s first pop hit was “Crush On You”. What do you remember about creating that song? Was the song written especially for you or how did you end up choosing it? How was it chosen that Elizabeth would sing lead on this and so many of the songs?
Moana: That time was a very exciting time. I was only 10 years old, so my memory may be different from the others. After we were signed, our manager had the task of helping us listen through over 600 songs to find the 10 or so that would make it on the album. Young up-and-coming songwriters Jerry Knight and Aaron Zigman (wrote songs on the movie Breakin’) submitted “Crush On You” and, as soon as we heard it, we loved it! Elizabeth was our main lead vocalist along with our brother Leroy. She had such a big voice for such a young girl but she was extremely shy. They had me sing by her so she wouldn’t be nervous but I couldn’t sing for beans. I just had a sassy mouth and would make her feel at ease, plus we were best friends just a year apart in age. I’ve learned a lot from my sister and grew a lot as a singer from her, but her talent was all natural. It still amazes me when I hear her voice on those early hits that she was really that young, only 11 or 12 years old.
Q: What can you share with us about when your debut album and those first singles were released back then?
Moana: There was a lot of excitement in the air when we made the first album and it’s hard to explain but it seemed that things were just falling into place and doors were opening. We feel very blessed that we had that opportunity open in the midst of our family’s biggest hardships from being stranded in a new city and, that in a lot of ways, it was a miracle that we were even discovered.
The Jets released their self-titled debut album in 1985 which went on to be certified Platinum. In addition to Moana, the other Wolfgramms in the band included Elizabeth, Kathi, Rudy, Haini, Eugene, Eddie and LeRoy. “Crush On You” was the second single released and the first to register on the pop charts. It quickly rose up the charts eventually peaking at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1986. It also reached #4 on both the R&B and Dance charts. I think I had a little crush on Elizabeth and Moana myself after this one. Here is the music video for "Crush On You" by The Jets...
Q: The Jets had another big hit with “You Got It All”. What do you remember about creating that song which was written by Rupert Holmes?
Moana: How do you really sing about love when you’re 10 years old? That’s how we felt when we received “You Got It All”. For Elizabeth and I, the demo was kind of boring and we didn’t understand the lyrics. Our manager, Don, was key in hearing that hit and loved that we had the opportunity to work with songwriter Rupert Holmes. We knew him as the guy who sang that “Pina Colada” song. I think we all liked the melody but it was very mature for our young ears and we trusted Don on that choice. It is still one our very biggest hits today that our fans love to hear.
Q: Again, any other details you tell us about creating “You Got It All”? Did you have any feeling that this single was going to be something so special when you recorded it?
Moana: During the recording, Liz was having a hard time connecting with it so Don had her imagine she had a puppy and how she would feel and that’s kind of how she was able to connect with the song emotionally. Everyone around us told us this song was going to be big and they were right.
“You Got It All” was released in 1986, the fourth single from their debut album. As mentioned, it was actually written by Rupert Holmes who is best known for his hit single “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)”. In early 1987, this single like “Crush On You” made it to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The ballad also reached #2 on the R&B chart and #1 on the Adult/Contemporary for a week in March of 1987. Here is the music video for "You Got It All" by The Jets...
Q: What are your feelings about “Crush On You” and “You Got It All” now over 27 years later?
Moana: It amazes me how many people still love listening to them and that they bring very specific memories back for them. Sometimes we get tired of singing them over and over, but every now and then when I catch it playing in a department store, I still find it amazing that it is our song. We did remakes of these two songs [on the new album] and tried to give it a new flavor without hurting the classic. I hope everyone will like it.
Q: What changed for you personally and the band after those songs and that album’s incredible success? Were you prepared for attention and all of the other things that come with a pop stardom? What are some of your best memories and coolest things you were able to do at the height of popularity back then?
Moana: Well, we got busy quick and famous as well. It was hard to take in and besides our family being so big (17 kids), our extended family is big too (Dad’s from a family of 18 siblings and Mom’s from a family of 15 siblings) and it seemed like we were related to everyone suddenly. For our Polynesian people, we’re grateful to know that they were proud of us and what we represented. I don’t think anyone is ever ready for that kind of attention. Because we have such a big family, I don’t think we ever had time to really have an ego. We still had chores to do when we were home, we still roomed with each other on the road but the one thing that did change was the food. We loved room service and eating “good” food! The places we were able to travel to are probably the highlights for us. This immigrant family from a small island in the South Pacific was able to see the world because of music.
Q: Your videos received lots of exposure on MTV back then. What memories can you share with us about making the music videos for any of your big hit singles? What are your thoughts on the impact that MTV had on music in the '80s, especially in America? How do you think your videos impacted the success of the songs?
Moana: I think the videos were key for this group. To be able to show them what we looked like and how we performed gave people a clear idea of what they’d be getting in our live shows. MTV helped so many groups and it did the same for The Jets. Doing the videos and seeing how things are produced was very educational. I realize that it takes an army of people to pull off a three minute video. So many things we don’t think about that seem so effortless but the details are so important. MTV was awesome in the 80s, it really was a channel dedicated to music of all genres. Today, I don’t think it has the same magic. In fact, I don’t think it even plays music videos anymore.
Q: The band’s final big hit was “Make It Real”. What do you remember about creating that song?
Moana: “Make It Real” was given to us at the 11th hour. We needed a slow ballad and we were finishing up the last tracks for the Magic album. Our manager Don Powell, Linda Mallah and Rick Kelly wrote this song and it was simple yet very catchy. I remember Liz recorded it on the road after one of our shows, I think somewhere in Texas. We eventually did a version in Spanish which was a big hit for us, too.
Q: Any other details you tell us about creating “Make It Real”?
Moana: I think Liz really liked recording “Make It Real”. I was there when she did it and could feel her emotion. Like I said earlier, as shy as Liz was, singing came so natural and after her experience from the first record, the process was getting better for her. I loved singing but wasn’t ready for recording. People don’t realize how disciplined you have to be and what you go through mentally when you have to record with the intonation, emotion and timing in mind let alone making it sound original and bring something of your own to it as well.
The Jets released a holiday album, Christmas with The Jets, in 1986 and then followed up their Platinum debut album with Magic the following year in 1987. The first single off of Magic was “Cross My Broken Heart” which had also been included on the Beverly Hill Cop II soundtrack earlier that year. That single made it to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the album also included “Rocket 2 U” which would make it to #6 itself. The fifth and final Top 10 single from The Jets was “Make It Real“. The ballad spent three weeks at #1 on the Adult/Contemporary chart in June of 1988 and then peaked for two weeks at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 at the end of June into early July. Here is the music video for "Make It Real" by The Jets...
Q: What do you remember best about the decade of '80s music?
Moana: Personally, I think it was the last original era of music and fashion. After that, the 90s was a throwback to other eras in the '60s and '70s, but the '80s had its own sound and style. We crack up at what we wore that we thought was cool and find it amusing that today’s generation is going back to that era. I loved being an '80s kid and the music still was about real bands and instruments and real singers, but then again I admit I’m a little biased.
Q: Please tell us a little about where The Jets have gone since the '80s. And please tell us about the new album Reunited and what The Jets are up to right now.
Moana: Well, we did five albums under MCA Records and, when the '90s hit, we were released from the label. We went through some growing pains and struggled to figure out how to reinvent ourselves. We worked in Vegas and did random shows, attempted to put out a few records independently but they never panned out. Eventually, we all got married and started families of our own. Between the eight members in the group, we have about 40 kids. Crazy, huh? We all took a break from the business and worked regular jobs, a few of my brothers got into the catering business, working in the airlines and some were just stay-at-home moms. Taking a break from the business allowed us to be a family again. This business can be hard on a family and it almost tore our family apart. We’re grateful for our faith and happy to say we’ve survived the business and know that in the end, family is always first.
About three or four years ago, we reunited in Hawaii to do a show and loved being together on the stage again so much that we decided to do another record to celebrate our 25th anniversary. It’s finally done and we are excited to share it with our fans. We are proud that our younger siblings who are musicians wrote on the record and are excited to introduce our little sister, Natalia, as the newest member of the group. A lot of the music has personal meaning to us and the journey we’ve been on. We worked with great friends and talented producers Craig Poole and Junior Feinga on this project and hope there’s a little something for everyone. There are four remakes of our hits “Crush On You”, “You Got It All”, “Make It Real” and “Cross My Broken Heart” along with six new originals. We look forward to the release in the new year and performing again and want to thank our fans for their love and support throughout the years. It has meant everything.
I am so pleased that Moana was able to take some time to answer some questions so I could share them with you here. Special thanks to Kahlil Ashanti for helping to coordinate this fantastic opportunity. To find out more about and keep up with The Jets, please be sure to visit their official Facebook page and @JetsBand on Twitter. I want to take this occasion to again thank Moana Wolfgramm for her contributions to '80s pop culture through The Jets and, even more, for going back to the '80s with us here for a little while as well.