The Ukrainian Voice of the American Music Industry

Olena Liashenko
April 4, 2024

Kvitoslawa Cisyk was born in Queens, New York, on April 4, 1953, to her Ukrainian-born father, Wolodymyr Cisyk, and mother, Iwanna Cisyk. Her parents had emigrated to New York along with Kvitkas’ sister Maria in the late 1940s so as to escape the Soviet occupation of their beloved homeland.

The Cisyk family brought to New York not only many artistic and intellectual talents but also a deep and rich reverence for the Ukrainian Culture and the Carpathian Mountains they so painfully had to leave behind. Kvitka grew up as an American, her sensibilities resonating with their heritage as she participated fully in all that her parents were and brought with them. Only the Ukrainian language was spoken in her home in Manhattan. Kvitka was always grateful for having been steeped in the heritage of which she was so proud. Her parents understood that they had born a sensitive and talented child. Kvitka always thanked them for “teaching me good Ukrainian and (as they put it) not bad English.”

Kvitka walked the path of two cultures as she would later name one of her recordings “Two Colors” in honor of this dual-culture way of living. Two Colors also represents the dichotomy between life’s necessarily brave here-and-now and the burden of longing and sadness of the past.

She learned English in the New York City public school system and maintained her Ukrainian heritage with her friends, family, and Plast, the Ukrainian scout organization. But music surrounded her wherever she was. Her father, Wolodymyr, was a virtuoso violinist and educator, having performed as a concertmaster in several famous European orchestras. He imparted a deep love and learning on both of his daughters. Kvitka began learning the violin from her father at age five and worked diligently at it through to her acceptance to the State University of New York at Binghamton on a violin scholarship. A year later, she won a voice scholarship at the Mannes College of Music.

Cisyk's original goal was a career as an opera singer, but her father's death left the family without a source of income. Needing to earn money immediately, Cisyk pursued a career as a session singer in popular music. She drew her professional name (Kacey) from her first and last initials.

Cisyk began singing in clubs, while submitting audition tapes to producers and advertising agencies. She had a successful career as a background singer in popular music, working as a backup singer for Carly Simon and Michael Franks and for artists produced by Quincy Jones.

Soundtrack and commercial jingle success

Cisyk's work in commercials brought her to the attention of Joe Brooks, who worked as a composer and arranger of jingles. Brooks, who wrote, directed and composed the score for the movie You Light Up My Life chose Cisyk to dub the singing voice of actress Didi Conn.

Cisyk's performance of the song appears on the original soundtrack album, and was released as a single, although she was not listed as the performing artist in the final credits of the film (for which she successfully sued the producers). Her single release of the song reached No. 80 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

The song was also recorded by singer Debby Boone, with Brooks producing and arranging. This recording of "You Light Up My Life", became a No. 1 single on the Billboard chart for ten consecutive weeks. People magazine ran a substantial article about "The real voice behind 'You Light Up My Life" inasmuch the similarity between her and Debby Boone's voice led many to assume the latter had sung the songs in the movie. In a 2013 biographical essay about Cisyk, her second husband, Ed Rakowicz wrote that Brooks "withheld payment" and "tried to evade payment by false promises and by asking her to be an incidental actor in his film, implying huge rewards yet to come." Later, (according to Rakowicz's biographical essay), Brooks made improper advances toward Cisyk, and after being rebuffed, didn't speak directly to her again, and continued to evade payments to her. Rakowicz writes, "[Kacey] retained a lawyer and sued Brooks for the fees she earned for her work on the record and the film but accepted an award of a small sum just to relieve herself of the torment of a prolonged legal battle with Brooks." Brooks then had Cisyk's singing credit removed from the endcredits of the film.

Later in 2009, Joseph Brooks became the subject of an investigation after being accused of a series of casting-couch rapes. He was indicted in May 2009 by the state Supreme Court for Manhattan (a trial-level court) on 91 counts of rape, sexual abuse, criminal sexual act, assault, and other charges. While awaiting trial, Brooks killed himself in May 2011.

Cisyk also recorded lead vocals for the soundtracks of the movies The One and Only and Circle of Two. She also contributed backing vocals to the Carly Simon songs used on the soundtrack for the movie Working Girl.

Cisyk achieved her widest success as a singer of musical jingles used in TV and radio commercials. From 1981 to 1998, her recording of the slogan "Have you driven a Ford lately?" was used in Ford commercials; in 1989, Ford executives estimated that Cisyk's recording of that phrase had been heard 20 billion times.

In addition to Ford, Cisyk sang for automakers General Motors and Toyota. She recorded spots for the three national television networks in the 1980s (ABC, NBC, and CBS), four major airlines (American, Delta, Eastern, and TWA), two national retailers (Sears and JC Penney), and the two most popular soft drinks: Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

She sometimes recorded a commercial rock song for Ford in the morning, a ballad for Coke at lunchtime, an anthem for the US Army in the afternoon and a 60 second opera for AT&T at night.

Then, she might go on to sing for one of the many musical stars she was asked to help in their recording projects. She was as tireless as she was thorough.

Listen to the Ukrainian album “Two Colors”

In 1980, Kvitka released her first album, "Kvitka," followed by "Kvitka Two Colors" in 1989, both dedicated to showcasing the beauty of Ukrainian folk songs. Her recordings garnered critical acclaim and became beloved classics in Ukraine.

Tragically, Kvitka's life was cut short when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. Despite her illness, she continued to fight fiercely, driven by her love for her family and her music. She passed away peacefully at home in New York City on March 29, 1998, just days before her 45th birthday.

Kvitka's legacy continues to thrive, with tributes and memorials held annually in both the United States and Ukraine. Her contributions to Ukrainian music are celebrated through concerts, festivals, and awards, ensuring that her spirit lives on for generations to come.

In December 2013, the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, at the annual Ukraine in Washington Gala, awarded the people of Ukraine who made a significant contribution to world music. Awards included the posthumous Star of Ukraine for Kvitka Cicyk.

In honor of Kvitka's enduring legacy, let us remember her as a beacon of Ukrainian culture and a symbol of resilience and passion. Happy Birthday, Kvitka Cisyk. Your music will forever light up our lives.

Unfortunately, history repeats. Just like almost 80 years ago, Ukrainians again became refugees in their own land or spread around the world, like the Cisyk family. Millions of people have become refugees due to the horrific and unprovoked war that Putin started in Ukraine.

What can you do? How can you help? Since 2014, the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation has regularly provided advocacy for Ukraine in the US Congress. Our numerous webinars educate people about why support and military assistance to Ukraine is in the interests of US national security. We are developing Recommendations on what kind of help is needed and what US actions will help Ukraine win. We also have humanitarian programs that alleviate the plight of Ukrainians who have become hostages of the war in their country. Food programs, art therapy, and the delivery of vital medical supplies to hospitals in Ukraine are some of the humanitarian efforts you can support with your donation. Join our humanitarian efforts - this way, you can help Ukrainians who have become innocent victims of Putin's aggression.

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