In the late ’80s, Jim Steinman assembled Pandora’s Box, a female pop group that included New York-based musician and session singer Elaine Caswell and Bat Out of Hell collaborator Ellen Foley. The group released one concept album in 1989 called Original Sin, and dropped one single in the U.K., a little song called “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.”
Never heard of Pandora’s Box? Neither have most people. Named after one of Steinman’s favourite mythologies, the group consisted of Caswell, Foley, Gina Taylor, Deliria Wilde — and Steinman, who was credited as the keyboardist. But, even before Pandora’s Box was in existence, Steinman had been searching for a woman to record his new song. He found Caswell, who spoke with CBC Music over the phone from her home in New York to talk about being the original singer of one of Celine Dion’s biggest hits.
This is a story that’s a bit lost to history, but you recorded and released “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” seven years before Celine made it super famous.
It’s a pretty crazy story. [Laughs]
Do you remember the first time you heard the song?
Oh my god, yeah, very vividly! I’d been working in the studio with Eric Troyer and Rory Dodd who are two singers doing all the background vocals for Jim. One day Jim was looking for someone to do the song and they said, ‘Oh, you gotta check Elaine out.’ They took me over to his manager’s apartment. They were supposed to send a demo of it for me to hear and for me to meet Jim, he wanted to hear my voice with the song, and they sent the wrong version. They sent a guy’s version, so it was in the wrong key, so Jim was freaking out and he’s calling the studio and I said, ‘No, I’m cool, I’m cool. Just show me how it goes.’ So he played a few lines on the piano and I started singing the song and it just sat in my voice perfectly. It was just one of those things where I went, ‘Man, I could get into this one.’ He looked at me like, ‘Oh my.’ And then we went out to dinner (laughs).
It was the first time I ever dined with him, which was so much fun. He’s a gourmand and a wine connoisseur and he ordered all of this stuff and wines paired with just the right things. It was one of the biggest banquets and feasts I’ve ever attended, and I was like, ‘Well, I guess I’m gonna be singing this song, this is really awesome.’
Then we went into Avatar and worked on it quite a bit. He rolled out, like, 5,000 24-track machines, this was back when everybody was using tape [laughs], and he kept saying, ‘Oh, I wanna open more tracks’ and kept recording takes and takes and takes. I’d just gone through this horrible breakup and I’m just singing this song and really starting to have a hard time. I ran to the bathroom and I called my best friend and I’m like, “Suze, I can’t take it, he keeps making me sing these lines over and over and I don’t feel like I got anything left in me,’ and she said, ‘Goddamnit, slap on your red lipstick and get out there and sing. This is the moment you been waiting for!’ So I put on my lipstick and go back out and sing more, and then he liked to tell me later, ‘You know, I basically used almost the first take you did.’ I said, ‘Don’t even say that to me, it’s not funny; I think I basically did cough up blood.’ [Laughs] No, I didn’t.
That sounds so intense!
The next phone call I get from him is, ‘Hey, we’re gonna do the video, pack your bags and sit down, because I’m going to tell you who’s going to direct it.’ He tells me it’s Ken Russell, the iconic filmmaker who did Tommy, The Devils, Women in Love. I was like, ‘What? Steinman and Ken Russell together? That is like so incredibly, amazingly over the top.’ We go to London and do the shoot, which was completely over the top. I mean, I’m kissing snakes, I’m dead on a tombstone, this motorcycle’s crashing, there’s fire, I’m being molested by all my past lovers. It’s crazy Steinman. But I was told, ‘This song’s going to be a huge hit.’ That’s what everybody said, what Jim said. It was going to be his new ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart.’
But it wasn’t.
I leave and the record comes out in England. They were going to do what they did with ‘Total Eclipse,’ which was break it in England and then release it in the States, which is what they did with Bonnie Tyler. So I’m like, ‘Cool, they’ve got a plan,’ and I leave and the record comes out. Then something went awry with Virgin Records, I’m not sure of all the details, but something went wrong where he wasn’t happy with the way they were handling things, and then on the tail of that, they released another song, and the record ended up not being released in the United States.
So there’s this gazillion dollar video done by an iconic filmmaker and this bigger-than-life song that Jim wrote and me singing it and me in the video, which was completely an honour, and then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Hmmm, this isn’t going the way they told me.’ This is three or four years into working on this thing. Okay, fine, it’s a good thing I have a career as a session singer in New York as well, and I just kept doing that stuff while I was at it. The record never does become the big hit they promise it will be, and then a few years later, I get a call from Jim and he’s like, ‘You know, I’ve finally found somebody who can sing that song in your key’ and I’m like, ‘Good for you.’ You know, that would have been real sweet if that was the new ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart,’ but I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m dying to hear who it is’ and he says, ‘It’s Celine.’ I said, ‘Well, have a nice hit.'
The video is crazy. Like, I started watching it at work and was making notes, and suddenly you’re basically dead and there’s an orgy with men in assless chaps and it’s not even the three-minute mark. Did you know what you were getting into?
I had no idea. I was game. When I found out it was Ken Russell, I was all over it! It was totally cool, hanging with him during the shoot and drinking wine in the graveyard where we were shooting half of it. I didn’t know anything. They said, ‘Be at the studio at six in the morning for full body makeup.’ I’m like, ‘full body makeup? I’ve never done that.’ ‘Well, you’re going to do it tomorrow because you’re going to be under a sheet on a tombstone and we want every part of you all made up so it’s all even.’ Okay, getting up at the crack of ass and the car takes you there and it’s cold and you’re standing there with some stranger and you’re naked! It was kind of trippy. But I’m not a very shy person, so it was ok.
I get out there and I was like, ‘Holy cow.’ He brought in all these dancers from Cats in London and had them doing all this crazy stuff. They fit me for a leather, studded, custom-made outfit that was pretty over-the-top. I should have kept it, because it was really cool, but I remember I was so distraught after all the disappointment that I dumped it into a Salvation Army bin. I was so sad. It was such a bittersweet thing for me, like, I can’t look at this anymore.
Oh, that’s so hard. I can’t even imagine.
The hardest thing was when the song resurfaced on the radio with Celine singing it. It was the same exact track I sang on. They just took my vocal off and put her vocal on, and I think Jim told me it was Todd Rundgren who arranged and did the background vocals. I would hear the downbeat of the song (hums a bit) and I’d be in a taxi and I’d just start crying. I’d just have to get out. Or, I could be in the laundromat or the grocery store, it was a huge hit, it was everywhere.
Then I got called to come sing on a track on that record [Falling Into You], which was even harder for me, because she’d already recorded her vocal on ‘It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,’ and I meet her and she was very, very nice and said, ‘I’ve been listening to your vocals. I’ve been traveling through Europe and I’ve just been listening to it constantly, you did such an amazing job.’ She was kind of like, you know, ‘oh, I hope I can sing it as great as you’ and I said, ‘Really? I don’t think you’re going to have any problem.’ I think I actually said, ‘Have a nice hit.’ I tried to be funny, because how can you deny it?
What was the other track you sang on?
‘River Deep, Mountain High.’ I’d sung with Ronnie [Spector] and Darlene Love, all those people, before. But it was a trip and it kind of a bittersweet experience. It was once in a lifetime, a ton of fun, and very emotional. It’s [“It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”] a very emotional song. People either loved it or hated it.
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