Madonna’s Pre-Pop Past


There’s little need to introduce Madonna as she’s been pop’s reigning princess for the past 35 years. However, there’s not as much knowledge about her disco, rock’n’roll and, dare we say it, punk-influenced background before she hit it big with “Everybody” in 1982. Once she moved from Michigan to New York City in 1977, she began as a dancer at the Ailey American Dance Theater on a scholarship – which didn’t last long. Madonna met Dan Gilroy, a musician, at a party and they hit it off. Soon after, she learned guitar and began writing songs with Gilroy’s help. But Madonna received an opportunity to move to France as a dancer and background singer for the disco celebrity, Patrick Hernandez who had the hit “Born To Be Alive”.

(There is a bit of debate as to where Madonna is in this video but it could be she’s the featured dancer with the short brown hair.)


Madonna and Hernandez dated for a brief time until she decided to move back to NYC to be with Gilroy. Together, Gilroy and Madonna wrote songs for about a year while she learned a variety of instruments, shacked up in an abandoned synagogue in Queens that Gilroy lived in. The band The Breakfast Club came together with Madonna on drums, Dan Gilroy on vocals and his brother Ed on guitars, and Angie, a former dancer turned bassist. Madonna eventually convinced Dan to let her sing vocals, which ultimately determined the end of the band – but the beginning of the rest of Madonna’s life.

The Breakfast Club sounds quite raw and punk-ish with some Joan Jett / Josie Cotton 1950s rock’n’roller influences. (Dan Gilroy recently found his way back into headlines when he announced he was releasing bedroom tapes Madonna made for him back when they were dating.)

Madonna left Queens and moved back to Manhattan to form Emmy and the Emmys from ’78-’81 with drummer and ex-boyfriend, Steve Bray, from Michigan who had recently moved to the city.

You can see Emmy and the Emmys performing in the movie In Artificial Light by Curt Royston from the early 80s, just before Madonna went solo. To see commentary on the movie, watch this clip. After rehearsing rock’n’roll with her band, Bray and Madonna would stay behind in the studio to work on funkier songs that reflected the feel of the Manhattan streets – her heart was not with rock music any longer. That’s when the duo wrote and recorded demos to submit to record companies, including this great version of “Burning Up”:

During this time Madonna recorded background vocals for the German singer Otto Von Wernherr to gain a bit of extra money. This might have been one of her biggest mistakes in her career (but how could she have known then?) in that from 1986 to 2008, Von Wernherr continuously cashed in three songs she sang background vocals on. He reworked the songs and amped up Madonna’s vocals so he could advertise the tracks as Madonna originals.

You can listen to the other two tracks here and here. They are terribly intriguing  songs that might be hard to listen through (even as someone who can ingest the most cheesy of songs, these are even too much for me)! So it’s no surprise Madonna wanted no association to Von Wernherr’s music even though he was using her face on his record sleeves. She took him to court but he ultimately won the legal battle, enabling him to continue to use images of Madonna in order to squeeze every last cent he could muster from her less than impressive background vocal studio session.


For further reading go here and here.

– Andi Harriman