Keeping Great Company: An Interview with Claudia Lennear

Claudia Lennear vanished from music. Morgan Neville found her. 20 Feet from Stardom connects the dots.

Claudia Lennear kept good company in the pages of Rolling Stone. "A tour de force from start to finish" the magazine declared in its review of Phew! (1973), Lennear's debut for Warner Bros. The album was praised alongside efforts by the Beach Boys (Holland) and the Mahavishnu Orchestra (Bird of Fire). It even garnered more plaudits than the latest from Marvin Gaye (Trouble Man) and Neil Young (Journey Through the Past). After six years of singing backgrounds for Stephen Stills, Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, and Ike & Tina Turner, Lennear was primed for solo success ... or so it seemed.

20 Feet from Stardom explores what happened after Phew!. Or more accurately, what didn't happen. The challenge of establishing and maintaining a solo career through the trajectory of background singing is what unites Claudia Lennear with Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, and numerous other singers that director Morgan Neville profiles in 20 Feet from Stardom. Though the artists share certain experiences in common, their stories each trace an individual arch. Because of Neville's film, many of those stories are being told for the very first time. Claudia Lennear is ready for you to listen.

Four decades have passed since The Concert for Bangladesh (1971), the historic concert at Madison Square Garden where Claudia Lennear stood onstage with rock icons like George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan. She now commands attention from a very different vantage point. It's not inside a concert hall or an amphitheater. It's in front of a classroom. She teaches Spanish, French, English, and remedial math at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California. The school is about 15 minutes from her current home in Claremont.

"Somehow, there's always a little birdie that lets my students know that I sing," she says. "I always give it four weeks into the semester: here comes the first person who Googles me. They think they're being taught my somebody famous. I have to remind them, 'Look it's not like that,'" she laughs. "I'm just Claudia, your teacher.'" In fact, her facility with different languages long preceded her musical aspirations. "I wanted to be an interpreter at the United Nations," she continues. "That was my first career choice and that's why I became interested in languages."

However, music surrounded Lennear at a very early age. Her household in Providence, Rhode Island hosted the sounds of everything from Rodgers & Hammerstein scores to Bobby "Blue" Bland and Little Richard records. "I was probably seven or eight at the time the movie South Pacific (1958) was really popular," she recalls. "My mother taught me how to harmonize to 'Bali Hai'. I didn't really come up in the black church. I grew up Catholic but we always kept our roots. My mother and grandmother taught me the standards like 'The Lord's Prayer' and 'His Eye Is on the Sparrow'. Those types of songs." As a teenager, Lennear gravitated towards Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles and Gladys Knight & the Pips. Before long, she added the guttural soul of Carla Thomas and Ike & Tina Turner to her palette.

Music began to have a greater presence in Lennear's life when she moved to Pomona, California. "It was in the middle of my senior year of high school," she says. "I was totally distraught. I had to leave all of my friends and come to a brand new place. I had to start over again. I had to make new friendships but it turned out fine." Lennear finished high school and enrolled in college. She also started singing with a band called the Superbs. The group released a single "One Bad Habit" on the Dore label and did local gigs around Los Angeles.

Lennear soon discovered that she lived near one of her musical idols, Ike & Tina Turner. "I started networking," she says. "Somewhere between promoting the Superbs is when I contacted Sherlie Matthews. She was a prominent background singer for many Motown artists and others at the time. I think we met at a Temptations concert in LA. She said, 'I can get you an audition for Ike & Tina Turner'. I thought she was kidding but I did take her up on it. She introduced me to Ike Turner and set up an audition. I passed the audition with Ike so I left the Superbs behind."

Claudia Lennear became an Ikette at a very critical time in Ike & Tina Turner's career. The act had already established themselves in the early '60s with hits like "A Fool in Love" and "It's Gonna Work Out Fine" and had conquered the UK in 1966 with the Top 5 success of "River Deep-Mountain High" produced by Phil Spector. When Lennear filled the slot vacated by Vermettya Royster, Ike & Tina Turner were signing a new label contract with Blue Thumb, which yielded the blues-centric Outta Season (1968) and The Hunter (1969). Within two years of Lennear's arrival, the group moved to Liberty Records and began incorporating covers of the Beatles ("Come Together"), the Rolling Stones ("Honky Tonk Woman"), and Sly & the Family Stone ("I Want to Take You Higher") into their repertoire. The latter reached the Top 40 and even surpassed Sly & the Family Stone's original version on the Hot 100. The group's next major hit? "Proud Mary".

However, before Ike & Tina Turner ever recorded their Grammy-winning rendition of John Fogerty's song, they honed it onstage in their live set. In fact, when the group appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in January 1970 to promote "Bold Soul Sister", they also staged one of their earliest televised performances of the Creedence Clearwater Revival classic.

Whether catching the Revue on Ed Sullivan, The Hollywood Palace, or Playboy After Dark, audiences could easily spot Lennear with her long, cascading hair and stylish bangs. "That was Ike's vision -- to have these girls with the flying hair, the dance movements, supporting Tina while she sang," she says. "I guess we were providing the eye candy. That was all Ike Turner's idea. I think he perfected that. I'll give credit where it's due."

Lennear's first professional gig immersed her in a whirlwind of non-stop rehearsal, performing, and touring. She continues, "Every night with Ike & Tina was a high point. The culture of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue was when you're onstage, you perform not 100 percent but at least 200 percent. You had to do that to keep up with Tina. She's such a ball of energy. Believe me, it was like boot training. It was really preparing me for the future."

Ikettes were known to have a high turnover rate but Lennear stayed longer than most. By 1970, she'd reached a plateau and knew she needed a change. One particular incident hastened her departure. She recalls, "On our way to the stage, Tina and I had a little spat. It wasn't a knock-out, drag-down kind of fist-fight. Tina's just not like that, nor am I. It was just a very brief verbal altercation. At that point, I was kind of at the end of my rope anyway. We did the show and then I turned in my resignation."

In hindsight, Lennear recognizes just how much her time with Ike & Tina Turner schooled her on the performance side of the business. Long before she left Ike and launched her blockbuster solo comeback, Tina Turner was an inspirational force for Lennear. "I really loved Tina dearly," she continues. "She was like a sister. She was a family member. She was the most incredible person to learn from. She wasn't really a 'teacher' but just being in her presence ... to this day, she's still an amazing woman. I kiss the ground she walks on."

During Lennear's stint as an Ikette, the Ike & Tina Turner Revue opened for the Rolling Stones on a number of occasions. Lennear quickly struck a connection with the group's frontman and inspired the lyrics to "Brown Sugar". Through her friendship with Jagger, Lennear was introduced to rock's aristocracy. "Just by hanging out with Mick, I met Gram Parsons," she says. "Gram had left the Flying Burrito Brothers and was recording a solo album for A&M. That just happened to be where Joe Cocker and Leon Russell and their whole crew were rehearsing for Joe's tour. Gram introduced me to Joe and Leon." Nary a month had passed after leaving Ike & Tina Turner and Lennear suddenly found herself accepting an invitation to sing in "The Space Choir" on Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour.

Throughout Cocker's seven-week jaunt across the US in March and April 1970, director Pierre Adidge shot footage for a documentary that Roger Ebert later said "contains the best rock coverage since Woodstock" (27 April 1971). The itinerary included four shows at the Fillmore East Auditorium in New York, which were edited and released for the Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1970) double LP. Though not included on the album, Lennear's solo performance of the Beatles' "Let It Be" was featured in the film. "If I had the chance to do that over again, I would totally perform it in a different way," she says. "I would phrase it differently. I would perform it physically. I wouldn't just stand at the mic and sing it." The song had a personal resonance for Lennear. "The line 'Mother Mary comes to me' brought me back to the Catholic school I went to in Providence. Many nuns are called Sister but this order of nuns that taught me were transplanted from Montreal. They called themselves Mother."

Following the tour, Lennear continued working with Leon Russell and joined him for Leon Russell and the Shelter People (1971). "Leon is probably the most incredible musician on this planet," she enthuses. "He's not only just an incredible musician, he's the most creative arranger and bandleader that I've ever met. Leon has a way of taking something old and recreating it and making it so current and so plausible to music listeners in the here and now. For example, his re-arrangement of 'Girl From the North Country'. It's such a wonderful tribute, in my view, from Leon to Bob Dylan to upgrade that song the way he did. They're both beautiful tunes. I'm not discrediting Bob Dylan by any means. I think Leon's version was funky. When I say funky, I mean it had a groove."

That groove was in full effect when Russell's version of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" electrified the 40,000-strong crowd at The Concert for Bangladesh. Lennear and a cadre of other vocalists provided ample support for Russell and many of the other artists who were there to support George Harrison and Ravi Shankar's relief efforts to aid refugees from the former East Pakistan. In 20 Feet from Stardom, Lennear described the experience as "cosmic". Reflecting further, she explains the sentiment behind the memory:

"I think it was Pythagoras who came up with the idea that music was this intangible thing that somehow connects the universe through the cosmos. It just kind of made me think, This guy was onto something 2,500 years ago. In that particular band was Billy Preston, Leon Russell, Jim Keltner, and all of the wonderful singers in the choir. Everything just kind of came together. We never really rehearsed for that. All of us were about the same age and we came from similar influences. Maybe that's how it came together because Lord knows most people have to rehearse to get it right. We went through a couple of sound checks but that was it. To me it was cosmic."

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