December 24, 2022
I was barely alive when “You Light Up My Life” graced the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for 10 weeks from October 15, 1977 to December 24, 1977. But the song was such an incredible cultural and musical phenomenon that you’d literally hear it ten times a day on the radio, in television shows, etc. for the next 10 years.
Here is the song that everyone knows, by then 21-year-old Debby Boone.
Boone told anyone who would listen that the song was about God. That story stuck for over four decades. But God was just Boone’s interpretation of the song, as she came from a very conservative Christian family. Pat Boone is her dad.
Origins of the song (SPOILER ALERT)
“You Light Up My Life” was a 1977 movie written, directed and produced by Joseph Brooks.
You can actually watch the whole movie on YouTube. Stop reading now if you want to watch the movie first.
I first saw it sometime in the early-1980s on HBO or Cinemax. Brooks was mostly known as a New York and Los Angeles-based jingle writer for commercials. The movie starred Didi Conn (born Edith Bernstein), who is best known for her roles as Frenchy in the Grease movies. Conn played Laurie Robinson, a struggling actress, singer and comedienne waiting for her big break.
Laurie, who was engaged to Ken Rothenberg, had a one-night stand with Chris Nolan just days before her wedding. She broke off all communications with Chris after their one night, until she discovered that he’s the director of a film which she auditioned for several days later.
Laurie auditioned by singing (lip-syncing) the song “You Light Up My Life,” which was written by Brooks and performed by Soviet Union immigrant and opera singer Kvitka “Kasey” Cisyk in real-life.
Here is the movie scene.
Chris told Laurie that he wanted her to audition for the lead role in a forthcoming movie. Laurie declared her love for Chris, and called off the marriage with Ken just days before the wedding. Granted Laurie and Ken had an awkward relationship; and Ken was a bit aloof, considering the two were about to get married. But he was devastated nonetheless.
Chris then selected a different woman for the lead role and apparent girlfriend, leaving Laurie with no fiancé, no lead role, and no boyfriend.
The film made $8.5 million in rental fees, but only after Columbia Pictures paid Brooks $10,000 to change the “downbeat ending” which apparently never aired. The new ending had Laurie’s song reach #1 on the charts sometime in the future.
The song “You Light Up My Life” from the movie won the 1978 Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Original Song, the 1978 Golden Globe for Best Original Song, and the 1978 Grammy Award for Song of the Year. Brooks accepted all three awards as the songwriter.
Boone won the 1978 Grammy for Best New Artist of the Year, which some refer to the “one-hit wonder award.” She never won an award for her performance of “You Light Up My Life.” The movie soundtrack credited “original cast” for performing the song. That’s where things get weird.
When life and fiction intersect
Brooks had worked with Kasey Cisyk previously on advertising jingles. Cisyk recorded “You Light Up My Life” and several other songs for the movie; but Brooks never paid her, according to Cisyk’s own account. She played a small role in the movie, with the promise of residuals. Brooks allegedly made sexual advances at Cisyk when she asked to be paid, but was rebuffed. The two never spoke to or saw one another again thereafter.
Notice how the movie version (Cisyk) of “You Light Up My Life” sounds almost identical to the Boone version. Brooks wanted the Billboard Hot 100 Boone version to sound exactly like the movie version. He picked Boone to perform the mainstream song because she and Cisyk sounded very similar. The movie version was released as a single the same year as Boone’s version, but only hit #80 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Cisyk sued Brooks. The case settled quickly in exchange for a small payout, according to most reports. Both Cisyk and a woman named Sarah were the inspirations for Laurie and the hit song in the movie.
A man named Scott Sanders told his story of love and loss on the NPR podcast Snap Judgment in 2014. He met a woman named Sarah in 1973 in Greece. Both were from New York so it was a chance meeting. They fell in love and moved back to New York together. Sarah was 26; Scott was 21.
Sanders admitted that the love was “disproportionate.” He loved her more than she loved him, and he knew it. They were together for two years, until Sarah received a phone call from…Joseph Brooks, in 1975. Sarah instantly dropped Sanders to be with the rich, influential Brooks. Sanders was completely heartbroken. And it didn’t help that “You Light up My Life” came out and was played ad nauseam starting in 1977, right when he thought he was getting over Sarah.
Sanders learned that the song was about Brooks and Sarah’s relationship. Sarah (and Kasey) was the true inspiration and meaning behind both the song and movie. Brooks was in love with her. The song tormented Sanders, as it remind him of Sarah, and was played all the time, everywhere for years. He ultimately found love with another woman. But even at 62 (during the NPR interview), Sanders said he still looked for digital traces of Sarah online. He neither saw nor heard anything about her since the late 1970s.
Joseph Brooks suicide, Kasey Cisyk cancer
Sarah and Brooks did not last very long. They reportedly broke up around the same time the film was released. Brooks was arrested and charged with sexual assault of 11 women in June 2009, at age 71. He apparently had a very long history of drugging and raping women. Brooks lured women into his New York apartment via Craigslist ads and promised them auditions for acting roles. One of the women was American Idol contestant Loretta Spruell.
Brooks posted a $500,000 bond and was released from jail. He committed suicide while awaiting trial in May 2011. Meanwhile his son, Nicholas Brooks (not Sarah’s kid), was charged with the murder of his ex-girlfriend Sylvie Cachay earlier that year. Nicholas was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison in 2013. Like father, like son apparently.
Kasey Cisyk died from breast cancer on March 29, 1998. She had a successful career singing commercial jingles, most notably “Have you driven a Ford lately?” and the McDonald’s ad campaign “You deserve a break today.”
Cisyk was never truly recognized as the original “You Light Up My Life” voice, or for all her other work in the movie.
Iconic, romantic ode nonetheless
Debby Boone went onto a successful country and Christian music career. She hit number-1 on the Billboard Hot County Charts on May 3, 1980 with “Are You on the Road to Lovin’ Me Again.”
The song stayed on top for only one week. Boone won two more Grammy Awards as a Christian singer in 1980 (Best Inspirational Performance) and 1983 (Best Gospel Performance).
“You Light Up My Life” is a prime example of the old saying “how times have changed.” The song held the record for weeks at number-1 until Olivia Newton-John matched it with “Physical” in 1982. Boyz II Men broke the record in 1992 when “End of the Road” spent 13 weeks atop the charts.
“You Light Up My Life” is a romantic ode that captures the beauty of love between man and woman. There have been at least 60 cover versions of the song. Kenny Rogers, LeAnn Rimes, and Whitney Houston are the most famous singers to cover it. There’s no shame in Boone saying it was about God. But she didn’t write the song. A weirdo who was in love in the 1970s wrote it. If Woody Allen is still allowed to roam free and be respected for his work, then by that same logic, it’s okay to acknowledge this masterpiece and the meaning thereof by Brooks.
The song succeeded under the guise of “Christian music,” when it was actually written as a romantic love song, and frequent wedding song throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Nowadays God is public enemy #1. The song would have never been a hit had it come out in the year 2000 or later. “You Light Up My Life” the movie was also one of those 1970s “women’s lib/feminism” films after no-fault divorces became legal, and cheating on your husband (or fiancé in this case) became an act of strength, freedom and pride among a lot of women.
Every man spending the holidays with a beautiful, loving wife or girlfriend is super lucky. We all have stories of love, loss, and heartbreak; unless you are one of those extremely rare couples who married out of high school or college, and are still happily together. In this day and age, based on the statistics and due to social media, cheating, infidelity and/or divorce are practically expected in 21st century relationships. But the fairytale is still there for those who really want it, despite all the dystopian directions society is headed. A beautiful woman negates all that. Cherish every moment.
Merry Christmas from Brian and family!
Wow. This was educational and interesting to read. I was born in 1984, so the first time I heard You Light Up My Life was from a Simpsons episode. And yes, I thought it was about God. Poor Kasey Cisyk. Never heard of her until now.
And I must say I’m happy, but also disappointed that you’ve had a girlfriend for nine months. 🙁 Love you and your work. Merry Christmas!