Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Motown Files: Black Russian

You've heard of the legends: Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, and The Jackson 5... but there are so many other acts that have been signed to Motown Records over the course of it's 50+ year history that deserve a listen. Over the next few weeks I'll be sharing some of the unknown, unusual, and under appreciated recording artists of Motown.

We begin today with the first Soviet band to ever be signed to an American label, Black Russian. Their eponymous Stateside debut was released in May 1980 to much fanfare, but record sales ultimately failed to live up to the success of the band's publicity campaign. Husband and wife Serge and Natasha Kapustin, along with Natasha's brother Vladimir Schneider, had been successful musicians in the USSR, but they came to the United States hoping to escape the strict control the state held over their musical arrangements and production. In the Soviet Union, Serge had once been told to remove a particular bass line from a song because it sounded too Western, and no more than one quarter of their songs were allowed to be performed in English. 
"The Kapustins were members of Sovremennik, a state-run pop orchestra, with Natasha on vocals and piano. Serge on guitar and percussion. Vladimir produced and played piano for the Singing Hearts, which was one of Russia's hottest groups in the mid-'70s. But, as Vladimir notes, they were pumping out more agitprop than pop. "We'd sing 37 songs about how good the Communist Party is, and at the end—if we were lucky—we were allowed to play a mellow song like Killing Me Softly or Ain't No Sunshine. But never rock." (People, October 16, 1980)
"Even though Western music was condemned in Russia, we knew what was happening in the world. We listened to the Voice of America broadcasts, the major European radio stations and got records from our Western friends or bought records on the black market. I can still remember the day Jimi Hendrix died because there were black armbands all over Moscow."-Natasha
They defected in May, 1976, landing in New York City with no money or connections, taking day jobs while hoping to make it big. By 1978, they had saved enough to move out to to Hollywood, where they met Guy Costa, the head of Motown's Studio Operations, who introduced them to Berry Gordy (Motown's founder) and they were signed.
"Actually from the U.S.S.R., Black Russian is a pop trio which makes crystal-line pop/r&b that comes across as a more r&b-oriented Abba. Natasha Kapustin has an excellent soaring voice. "Leave Me Now" really gives her room to show off her vocal strength. The production is exceptionally clean with Vladimir Shneider's keyboard and the synthesizers of Serge and Natasha Kapustin lending a cushy sheen. The album is evenly divided between uptempo dance cuts and moody ballads. Best cuts: "Mystified," "Leave Me Now," "Emptiness," "New York City," "Love's Enough." -Billboard, June 14, 1980  
While their album received plenty of attention and positive critical feedback, sales were dismal. I haven't been able to find much information about what became of Black Russian after that, but Natasha Kapustin seems to have gone on to find some success on her own. She reemerged around 1984, now divorced from Serge and going by her maiden name, Natasha Shneider. It's not clear whether she was actively distancing herself from her days as Black Russian's lead vocalist, but the name change and lack of mention of her earlier career seem to suggest this was the case. Frequently using the name "Natasha Detente" she appeared in a couple of movies and even a few episodes of Miami Vice and Hill Street Blues. By 1987, Natasha was married to musician Alain Johannes, and together they formed the rock band Eleven, going on to produce, collaborate and tour with artists such as Gwen Stefani, Chris Cornell, and Queens of the Stone Age. Natasha also composed, produced and performed the theme song to 2004's Catwoman. Sadly, Natasha passed away in 2008 after battling lung cancer. A benefit concert was held after her death to offset medical costs where Jack Black, Brody Dalle, PJ Harvey, and many others performed.


  1. vladimir passed away 2012 from heart attack

  2. Volodia and Natasha defected to Heaven--plenty of music there.

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