With a crate for a pulpit, a young girl named Doris Higginsen would stand tall in her Harlem back yard and imitate her father, a fire-breathing Pentecostal preacher.
"My daddy could sing and preach at the same time," says Doris, who has since changed her surname to Troy. "Women were hollering and screaming. Men were jumping up and down. We even had a little band in our church -- an organ player, a piano player, every now and then a saxophone player would come by.
"Man," says Troy, relishing the memory, "our church was cookin'."
Troy, best known for her 1963 hit song "Just One Look," stars in "Mama I Want to Sing," opening tonight at the Warner Theatre. Do she and her younger sister Vy Higginsen, who along with husband Ken Wydro wrote the musical, try to convey that same rousing emotion on stage? Troy lets out a big, husky laugh. "Try?" she says. "We do it!"
And who's to argue? Based largely on Troy's early life and her decision to break with her strict upbringing in order to sing popular music, "Mama" has become -- over the course of a thousand New York performances -- the longest running off-Broadway black musical in more than 50 years, even though the show was all but ignored by the critics when it opened. Its Warner run, through April 6, is the first stop on a national tour.
The success of "Mama" doesn't surprise Troy, who plays her own mother in the show. "Some religious music can be soft and have strings and nice horns and things," she explains. "But that's not our kind of gospel -- this is good-time music. You want to shout and clap and get your feet moving. That's why people really love it so. They just get caught up in it."
As a child, Troy was caught up in it, too. It wasn't until long after her father's death (she was only 9 at the time) that she was exposed to pop music and jazz on the street. She found the songs of Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Lena Horne particularly attractive, and knew that getting a job as an usher at the Apollo Theatre, right around the corner from her home, was a sure way to hear more.
Over her mother's objections, Troy eventually began singing at the Apollo. She later became a headliner at the theater, following the sudden success of "Just One Look."
"That's where the show's title song comes from," Troy explains. "I just had to tell my mother I wanted to sing. I don't know if she ever really came around to my way of thinking, but I know she's proud of me. I guess she just decided to put my fate in God's hands and everything worked out fine."
"Just One Look" opened a lot of doors for Troy. In addition to her successful version here, the song was turned into a big hit in Britain by the Hollies. By the time Troy went to England in 1965, the record had already established her as a favorite among some well-known musicians, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Troy looks back proudly on those days. "I remember when I first got off the plane. A reporter asked me who my favorite group was besides the Beatles. I told him the Rolling Stones . . . Two days later I got a call from the Stones and they invited me to go out on a tour . . . Our piano player at the time was Elton John. Then he was called Reginald Dwight and he had this little group called Bluesology and they backed me up."
In 1969 Troy moved to London, where she lived for 6 1/2 years. The Beatles had just launched their own label, Apple Records, and George Harrison had signed gospel singer Billy Preston to a contract.
"George said I could have one, too," Troy recalls. "So I got a deal as a writer, producer and artist and recorded with George and Ringo and lots of people . . . Billy and I were the first black people to be involved with the Beatles on that level."
In 1974, Troy returned to California and soon settled in Las Vegas. After working as a background vocalist for Lola Falana, she set out on her own and has performed around the country ever since, always saving a gospel tune for her last selection.
"I'd like to do television one of these days," she says, pondering the future. "But it's hard to say. I came to New York to do this show for two weeks and wound up staying two years. I've learned to let God take over things . . . He'll lead me in the right direction. I still believe when God has his way, there's no stopping Him.