Keeping Great Company: An Interview with Claudia Lennear

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

Record Labels Began Courting Lennear for a Solo Deal

The year 1971 was a busy one for Claudia Lennear. In addition to The Concert for Bangladesh, she sang on Freddie King's Getting Ready (1971) album produced by Russell. Film composer Michael Small featured her lead vocals on "Bree's Abandon (Take It Higher)" for the Klute (1971) soundtrack. The piece played over a pivotal scene in Klute that was shot at the legendary Sanctuary discotheque on W. 43rd Street in New York. She also lent her voice to sessions for Al Kooper, Humble Pie, Don Nix, and Jeanie Greene.

Record labels began courting Lennear for a solo deal. The most obvious label home was Russell's Shelter Records that he ran with Denny Cordell. Lennear soon found herself in the middle of a bidding war. She recalls, "A lot of people were interested. Denny wanted me to record for Shelter. I had met Mo Ostin and Joe Smith who were the heads of Warner Bros. at that time. Somehow during my conversations with them, I felt the most comfortable in terms of them letting me do what I wanted to do, getting it together, and getting it recorded."

Lennear vetted producers and ultimately selected Ian Samwell and Allen Toussaint. "I just called both of them and they were both available," she says. "Ian had always told me if you ever want to do an album together let me know and I'll come and help out. Allen Toussaint was a number one choice of mine because he was a childhood hero. He produced people like the Meters and Ernie K-Doe. When he said he would come on, I was on cloud nine."

Phew! was divided equally between the two producers, who were each accorded one side of the album. While Toussaint handled production on his own songs like "From a Whisper to a Scream" and "Goin' Down" (later recorded by the Pointer Sisters as "Going Down Slowly"), Samwell produced songs by Furry Lewis and Ron Davies. He also conceived the searing "Not At All" with Lennear. The singer wrote the lyrics in jest after she was unable to join Mick Jagger in Australia for the filming of Ned Kelly (1970). "It was really a joke. There's no way anybody could, would, or should deny Mick Jagger. I really am sincere when I say how incredibly talented he is and how clever he is. He's always been kind to me. We were good friends. We have special places for each other in our minds."

Inspired by the caliber of Toussaint's compositions, Lennear wrote the completely self-penned "Sister Angela". The song paid tribute to Angela Davis who, at the time, had been acquitted of false charges after spending 16 months in prison. "She was very influential to me during that particular movement," says Lennear. "I just liked the space she was coming from. She wasn't arrogant, she was just truthful. I just really respected her." Produced by Samwell, the song proved that Lennear was not only a strong vocalist but a compelling songwriter.

Warner Bros. treated Phew! to a lavish gate-fold release and hired photographer Norman Seeff to capture the photogenic singer's natural vigor. "Norman is an incredible talent," Lennear exclaims. "He was such a nice guy. He was one of the first to use that particular lighting technique. Technically, I can't really explain how it worked but I know he pulled it off. He really was in such high demand after that. He really made his work stand out." (Seeff also enjoyed Lennear as a photo subject. In 1994, he included two full pages of Lennear outtakes for his career retrospective, Sessions.)

Years before he became a critic for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote for Rolling Stone. In his review of Phew!, he cited Lennear as "an extraordinary virtuoso singer" adding, "Lennear's vocal flexibility and energy are staggering. Her recorded personality, though not intimate, is irrepressibly sexy, her professionalism almost frighteningly intact" (1 March 1973). Warner Bros. certainly was positioned to capitalize on those kind of kudos but, instead, Phew! quietly faded from view.

Coinciding with the dominance of chart-topping AM fare like "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree" (Tony Orlando & Dawn) and "The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia" (Vicki Lawrence), the music on Phew! was a bit too bold and too funky for mainstream audiences. "It was too far outside the box for its time," adds Lennear. "In those days, everything fit a certain square. Warner Bros. had the right elements in place and the album should have taken off but for whatever reason it did not. On the other hand, I should take and I do take all responsibility. I just wasn't focused enough. If there are any regrets about that, I probably should have followed up with something else but I did not do that."

Lennear remains philosophical about the experience of her solo debut, balancing the frustration of its limited impact with the joy of working with renowned writers and producers. "I could not have asked for a better deal," she says. "It couldn't have been planned. How all of those people just happened to be interested at the same time was a gift. It was a gift that I'll forever be grateful for."

Though Phew! was a commercial disappointment, Lennear continued singing on sessions as the '70s progressed. She appeared on albums by Maxayn, Johnny Nash, José Feliciano, Gene Clark, and Taj Mahal before retiring from music in the '80s. "I stopped working on albums in the early '80s," she says. "I felt that I had just run my course. The phone wasn't ringing anymore. There was no angel who came by and said, 'Okay, here we go. I'm the manager. I'll take care of all of that.'" Rather than fight the changing tides of musical tastes, Lennear turned to something else that she knew -- education. "The only thing I could figure out was to get re-trained to be a teacher. I won't say it was the easiest road for me but it was a road to take. It was something that I kind of understood a little more than the music industry." By the late '80s, Claudia Lennear had traded record albums for textbooks.

Other than Lennear's closest intimates, very few industry figures knew of her whereabouts after she retired from music. As Morgan Neville began interviewing artists for 20 Feet from Stardom, the fact that he could locate Lennear at all was a considerable achievement. The singer was only too pleased to get a phone call from the director. She says, "Morgan explained that he was doing a documentary and that the subject matter was background singers. I was immediately taken because I felt, Well it's about time somebody tackled this subject! I didn't say that but that's what I thought. He asked if he could interview me and I said, 'Of course. I'd be happy to.' I jumped on board."

Traveling back 40 years in time wasn't the easiest journey for Lennear. "I had repressed a lot of things," she confides. "A lot of situations and a lot of events that happened back then I had put on the back burner. I asked Morgan if I could have some of the questions he might be interested in asking so I could kind of dust off the cobwebs and come up with something that would be truthful." Striking a rapport with Neville, the singer gleaned new insights about herself during the interview process. She continues, "I learned about how many regrets I have had all this time, that I didn't keep going with music. You have to make choices in life and I just learned to live with the choice I made. I don't regret having become a teacher. It's a very rewarding career. I learn from my students everyday. Teaching isn't a one-way street. It's definitely a two-lane highway." Neville even filmed scenes of Lennear "onstage" in the classroom.

While viewing 20 Feet from Stardom, Lennear recognized parts of herself in the stories of the other artists. "I'm just so honored and so humbled to be in their company," she says. "Morgan did a great job of weaving the stories together. We all have traveled the same road just at different times. I think the motivation of each one of those rock singers who employed singers such as myself, Merry, Lisa, and others was to give their music some kind of sweetening, to give it that kind of gospel flavor, or a 'blackness'.

"Merry and I used to do background sessions together back in the day. We sang on Taj Mahal's Mo' Roots (1974). We sang together on 'Slave Driver'. We haven't seen each other in a long time. Lisa Fischer is just phenomenal. She's just one of the best singers I've ever heard. I've always admired Darlene Love's music and her voice. She's another one of those heroes from back in the day. I didn't know until this film that she was the voice of the Crystals. I used to buy their records left and right!"

"I got really emotional because a lot of the things that she was saying about the Phil Spector days just brought it all home to me about me and the Ike Turner days. He would pick our brains for ideas. We'd come up with lines for a song and then he would take off. We never got paid for any of that but I think that was the culture at that point. For all of the wonderful and rich experiences I did get from Ike Turner, I sort of just dismissed it. It's over now. It's part of the past but it helped me connect with Darlene's situation."

Lennear's esteemed peers are heartened by the renewed interest in her career. "I miss seeing her," says Rita Coolidge, who sang with Lennear in Cocker's "Space Choir" and on a number of recording sessions. "Claudia had that wonderful quality of amazing talent and professionalism, which we all value; still above all was a light and a sense of joy that kept everyone smiling and laughing." Sherlie Matthews, who introduced Lennear to Ike Turner so many years ago and is a background legend in her own right, adds, "I am proud of Claudia's accomplishments in the music industry as I've followed her progress through the years. Her beauty is unique. With her dark lovely skin complexion and her slim curvaceous body, she was a 'knockout'. Equally, she could really sing. She was not just your everyday background singer, but a very talented soloist with the gift of harmonizing. Lastly, her bubbly personality and excellent stage presence made her a 'standout' in any venue."

Unlike the recent past, music is definitely part of Claudia Lennear's future. 20 Feet from Stardom has helped rekindle the singer's desire to record and perform. As RADiUS-TWC brings the documentary to different cities this summer, audiences across the US can glimpse Lennear's history while she maps out her next move. Phew! is even getting a long overdue re-issue later in September. "I read somewhere that it's never too late to be what you might have been," she says. "I'm putting together a team of people now. I'm writing. I've laid some tracks. I've been auditioning bands to see what might make a good fit for me. I'm kind of picking up where I left off." Decades later, Claudia Lennear is finally stepping 20 feet towards stardom.

* * *

20 Feet from Stardom is now playing in theaters and will continue to expand throughout the summer.

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