Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll
Maureen Mahon
Duke University Press
October 2020

Excerpt of Chapter Five from Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll by Maureen Mahon reprinted with permission by Duke University Press (footnotes omitted). © 2020 Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Stellar Gypsy

Mick Jagger has never confirmed whom he had in mind when composing “Brown Sugar,” but conventional wisdom has held that Claudia Lennear was the inspiration for the song. She and Jagger met when she was performing as an Ikette during the Ike and Tina Turner Revue’s 1969 tour of England. The two began an affair that lasted for a few years. Along with her good looks and Negotiating “Brown Sugar” her professional connections to high-profile rock musicians such as George Harrison, Joe Cocker, and Leon Russell, Lennear’s assumed connection to “Brown Sugar” and her relationship with Jagger received comment in press coverage about her career, competing with discussions of her musical sound and creative vision. The Warner Brothers press release for her album, for example, has seven boldface subheads, one of which is “Brown Sugar.” Beyond this, the mythologized sexual enticements of black women that the song “Brown Sugar” extols are embedded in coverage that almost without fail refers to her sex appeal. Substantial professional connections and rock vocal chops allowed Lennear to achieve some success in her career, but as an attractive black woman in the early seventies rock scene, she was confined to a limited professional and cultural space.

Lennear was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and moved to Pomona, California, when she was in her teens.187 She loved languages and studied Spanish, French, and German in the hope of becoming an interpreter at the United Nations. The plan was derailed as she focused more energy on music and started singing lead in a local R&B cover group called the Superbs. In 1967, Ike and Tina Turner hired her to join their backing vocal group; she was twenty-one years old. Lennear was an Ikette from 1967 to 1969. “It was my first experience with the Army,” she quipped about her time with the legendarily demanding outfit. Less than two weeks after departing the Ikettes, she met Joe Cocker and Leon Russell and was brought into their fold, joining the 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and picking up the nickname Stellar Gypsy For two months of mostly one-nighters, Lennear traveled as a member of this rock version of a soul revue, relishing “the musical and choreographic freedom that the tight steps and written-out singing parts had denied her with the Ikettes.” The difference is emblematic of the contrasting aesthetic systems that governed rhythm and blues and rock at the end of the 1960s. Lennear, who had grown up with the former, found herself embracing the latter. Members of the rock scene, in turn, embraced Lennear in part for her ability to bring elements of the rhythm and blues sound—that desired audible blackness—to the rock field. Dave Mason, Delaney & Bonnie, Freddie King, Al Kooper, Humble Pie, Boz Scaggs, Leon Russell, Jos. Feliciano, Taj Mahal, Stephen Stills, and Nigel Olsson invited her to sing background on their recordings.193 Lennear had a higher profile than most background vocalists, a consequence of her appearances in two rock concert films: Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1971), the documentary of Cocker’s 1970 tour, and The Concert for Bangladesh (1972), a film of the August 1971 concert featuring ex-Beatle George Harrison, Indian sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, and a host of rock luminaries performing to raise awareness about the refugee crisis in the newly established South Asian nation.

By 1972, Lennear had secured a recording contract with Warner Brothers and was preparing her first solo album. Lennear had worked with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue during the time that the Turners started to add rock covers to their repertoire; this, coupled with her connections to key figures in the rock scene, gave her both rock and R&B credibility. The label teamed Lennear with two producers: British songwriter Ian Samwell, who had produced the hit “A Horse with No Name” for the band America, represented rock; while Allen Toussaint, the famed New Orleans–based writer and producer, represented R&B. The goal was to make the most of her strong ties to the two interconnected music genres, but there was a challenge built into the project. By the early 1970s, rock and R&B were marketed as two separate musical fields. Lennear, with one foot in rock and one foot in R&B, occupied a space betwixt and between the genres. She struggled to override the genre, race, and gender rules that dominated the industry, but vocal chops, a seasoned production team, and the kind of It Girl status that garnered a photo spread in the July 1974 issue of Playboy and coverage in Rolling Stone were not enough to bridge the gap (see figure 5.3). In fact, the format of her 1973 release Phew!, with an A-side of rock and a B-side of R&B, reproduced it.


Guitar-Fender-Pink by rahu (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

The rock side offers a blast of electrified blues and boogie, and Lennear delivers her vocals with confident cool. She covers two Ron Davies tunes: “Sing with the Children” and “It Ain’t Easy,” which her sometime boyfriend David Bowie had included on Ziggy Stardust the year before. She sings blues man Furry Lewis’s song “Casey Jones” with a pronounced southern accent and performs two original numbers, “Not at All,” which she cowrote with Ian Samwell, and “Sister Angela,” her own composition. “Not at All” gained attention because some commentators heard in it a message to Mick Jagger: “Did you think I’d go around singing the blues because you’re on the wanted list and I’m here all alone?” she sings. The song’s title is her answer to the question. Here and across the side, the energy level is high with guitar-centered arrangements providing the backdrop for her gritty vocals. Lennear rocks with a heavy measure of swagger, and she makes interesting vocal choices along the way, pushing her voice into a more straining tone, allowing it to break, laying back, hesitating, improvising, and providing her own background fills. “I wanted the raunchy, rock and roll thing,” she told Rolling Stone reporter Ben Fong-Torres in an interview soon after the album’s release. “Sister Angela,” Lennear’s song for the black revolutionary activist and intellectual Angela Davis, offers an African American woman’s public commentary on Davis’s role in the radical politics of the day and a critique of her imprisonment on suspicion of supplying the gun used to shoot a judge and police officer. “Alabama angel deserves freedom’s turn and she’ll give them hell until they learn,” Lennear declares against a mid-tempo musical setting that placed percussion alongside drums and an organ solo. In the only song she wrote on her own, Lennear tackled the politics of black liberation and black women’s activism. Clearly, she took seriously the notion that one could address “important” subjects in rock.

img-1112This photo of Claudia Lennear accompanied a one-page Rolling Stone profile that ran in April 1973, when she was promoting her debut album Phew! ©Neal Preston [courtesy of Duke University Press]

In contrast, the second side of her album emphasizes the romance and party lyrics that dominated pop music. Produced and written by Allen Toussaint, it is the “black” side as black music was conceptualized at the time, and features soul showcase instrumentation—a horn section, organ and piano, a wacka-wacka rhythm guitar, background vocals riding over the syncopated funk rhythms—and lyrics about dancing and love. The five tracks aligned with the rhythm and blues/soul/funk templates that African American artists were expected to fill during the early 1970s, even though a number of white rock bands were also deploying these sounds. Lennear’s vocals reverberate against a brash, big band sound, but she holds her own as she tries to live up to the declaration of one of her song titles: “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky.” In spite of the attention to the two different album sides in the press, Lennear’s vocal approach is consistent across all of the tracks. On Phew! she reaches down into a gravelly tone for some low notes and shoots up to reach occasional high head notes, although most of her singing is in the alto range. She lets us hear the breath in her voice as she builds a song, boosting the energy and increasing the sense of excitement. Lennear sings some clear and pretty notes, but most of her vocals have the textured grit associated with rock and soul singing.

Phew! was at once daring and conservative, as if the producers and the label did not quite have the courage of the convictions that led them to put a black woman in a rock setting in the first place. They ended up tempering that interesting move with the more familiar trappings of R&B so that she would make sonic and social sense. The decision to embrace what was perceived as Lennear’s musical duality shaped the writing and production of Phew! and was the centerpiece of the album’s marketing campaign. The one-page Warner Brothers press release for the album included the following text under a section headed “Totally Schizophrenic”:

Although [Lennear] calls it a “totally schizophrenic album,” it essentially breaks down into two distinct experimental directions. Side One is reelin’ and a rockin’ clearly showing the influences of both the Rolling Stones and the Turners. . . . The flip side was written and arranged entirely by Allen Toussaint. It is the album’s “black” half and it fairly reeks of wah-wah pedal and a heavy dose of good, old funk.

The press release and the album itself accept the logic that “black” and “white” music are separate entities whose integration has to be explained. Lennear similarly acknowledged and accounted for the unexpected racial mix of her musical sound. “At the beginning I was pretty much into rhythm and blues because that was what I was around the most,” Lennear told an interviewer in 1974. “But now if you look at my record collection, it’s just one big extreme, just like me. I listen to everything. And my music isn’t just rhythm and blues. It’s rock, too.” Lennear’s characterization of her genre-crossing musical taste as “one big extreme” is an indication of how entrenched assumptions about musical segregation were, even in the face of sonic and social evidence of musical integration. Traversing music’s racialized boundaries was perceived as unusual when enacted by a black artist, but it was the norm for Duane Allman, Eric Burdon, Joe Cocker, Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, Janis Joplin, and a host of other white artists who built their sound on cross-racial musicality. Try to imagine Mick Jagger or any of his white rock compatriots characterizing their tastes as “extreme” rather than “broad” and “open-minded.”

In his review of Phew!, Rolling Stone writer Stephen Holden emphasized the album’s duality: “The daring conception behind Phew was that it be a truly ‘two-sided’ album, directed toward different but overlapping audiences, one rock, the other R&B.” Enthusiastic about the experiment, Holden wrote about the album in glowing terms: “Phew is a tour de force from start to finish, a truly auspicious debut. Lennear’s vocal flexibility and energy are staggering. Her recorded personality, though not intimate, is irrepressibly sexy, her professionalism almost frighteningly intact.” But Phew! did not catch on with the record-buying public, and the record slipped between the two overlapping contingents, never gaining a significant audience. A year after its release, rock journalist Katherine Orloff, who interviewed Lennear for her 1974 book Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman, outlined what she saw as the album’s limitations:

The problems with the first album were mainly production problems, too much chaotic noise, and not enough direction. It also tried to be all things to all people, one side having a rock orientation, the other rhythm and blues. As a result, Claudia is deprived of a strong musical identity. Confusion naturally exists due to the fact that black women are ordinarily thought of as soul singers, but Claudia has a rock audience.

As Orloff observes, the major issue was the ways race, gender, and genre locked African American women into a limited musical space. By 1974, the black soul/white rock split had become naturalized; a black woman’s engagement with rock had to be explained and justified—and even given a pop-psychology diagnosis as schizophrenic! It also had to be tempered by some demonstrated connection to what was understood as appropriate black musical practice. No one seemed to fathom a way to fuse rock and soul (Sly and the Family Stone might have been a good model) or to suggest that Lennear could just be a rocker and aim for that audience. Why did she have to have a “black sound”? Why not acknowledge that rock itself was a “black sound”? Lennear was disappointed with Phew!, and she expressed her dissatisfaction in public. “I wasn’t happy with my first album at all,” she said in 1974. “I just knew that I wasn’t being guided properly and what I felt about it wasn’t being taken into consideration. I was having a hard time being heard.” Assessing the album nearly forty years after its release, she observed: “It was too far outside the box for its time. . . . In those days, everything fit a certain square. Warner Bros. had all the right elements in place and the album should have taken off but for whatever reason it did not.”Lennear is a formidable rock singer, and it is never possible to determine unequivocally the reason a recording does not take off commercially. However, given the white male–dominated context of rock at the time, Lennear’s black female vocal presence as lead singer—she was stepping out of the acceptable background role into the authoritative center of attention—might have been disconcerting or unwelcome to some rock listeners invested in the primacy of white men in rock. Similarly, the strong presence of a rock sound—especially the foregrounded, sometimes distorted guitars—might have alienated soul and rhythm and blues fans. There does not seem to have been enough of an audience that was up to the apparent challenge of listening to the entire album, the rock side and the R&B side, in an integrated way, against the segregation that was shaping the recording industry in the 1970s.

The challenges of race and gender that were part of her album’s production and promotion also surfaced in Lennear’s concert performances. Reviews of Lennear’s live shows from this period indicate that she emphasized her sex appeal to spice up the proceedings, changing clothes on stage behind a screen and removing some of them before the eyes of the audience. “Claudia Lennear strong in visual appeal wails up a storm as she delivers blues and rock in a most active set,” Variety reported. “Miss Lennear puts on a show including sexy dancing and a strip number.” A Billboard review of a performance soon after her album’s release highlighted what the reviewer deemed inadequate attention to musical quality:

Claudia Lennear is an artist, at this point, better seen than heard. Wearing a transparent green spangled top with few spangles, the black bombshell energetically gyrated her way through tunes from her Warner Bros. album, aptly titled, “Phew!” A bit more discipline and attention to her singing (her vocals for the most part were drowned out by her band) are needed before this situation can be reversed for this obviously talented lady.

Lennear’s efforts to establish herself as a solo artist also raised the question of whether background singers could hold the center stage. A reviewer commenting on Claudia Lennear’s performance as opening act for Blue Showing results for Öyster Cult minced no words in diagnosing the problem, calling her “a powerful vocalist who simply lacks the presence and individuality that marks a solid solo performer.” Lennear herself discussed the challenge of making the transition from being a member of Cocker’s background group to being the headliner: “It’s a whole different feeling being in the spotlight instead of hidden in a chorus of nine people. I like it, but I’m just beginning to discover who the real Claudia Lennear is, myself.”

As the reviews of her solo performances indicate, Lennear created a sexy persona that met the expectations that audience members who connected her to the song “Brown Sugar” were presumed to have. Highlighting her “black bombshell” qualities by wearing and stripping off revealing outfits, Lennear embodied the sexuality that is at the heart of both rock and roll and stereotypes of black womanhood. Performing Brown Sugar—not the Rolling Stones’ song, but the ideas that inform it—was a way for Lennear to capture audience and media attention. Her appearance in the August 1974 issue of Playboy was part of this process. In fact, the editors of the magazine approached her after seeing her live act and deciding “that we just had to get some pictures of her into the magazine. With her clothes off naturally.” The article is titled “Brown Sugar,” naturally; it includes references to her relationship with Mick Jagger and calls her “a rock singer of unbounded spirit and as much pedigree as one could ask for.” The five pages she commanded include the requisite nudes (Playboy’s standard was for models to be unclothed from the waist up) and an article that lists the high points of her career, reports her misgivings about Phew!, outlines her plan for her next album “to convey more of her complex inner self,” and notes her foray into acting in the 1974 film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, where she appeared in a scene with Clint Eastwood. The piece concludes with the observation, “Claudia Lennear isn’t at all sure who she is. . . . But if her identity is in question—or in flux—she’s not going to worry about it.” The perception that Lennear lacked self-knowledge developed from the statements she made to the press, but also from the mixed character of the music on her album and the disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock.

By the time of her 1974 appearance in Playboy, Lennear’s time in the limelight was just about over. The second album she had started to work on never materialized, and she returned to doing background vocals, a more reliable and less onerous way for her to provide a stable income to support her young daughter than the pursuit of a solo singing career. At the height of the classic rock era, Lennear took advantage of her position as a talented and beautiful black woman vocalist in the rock scene. She seized opportunities, but her career stalled at the intersection of race, gender, and genre. In the early 1980s, when background session work started to dry up, Lennear returned to her first love—languages— and got the training to teach them. When she was interviewed for Twenty Feet from Stardom, the 2013 documentary on background vocalists, Lennear was teaching Spanish full-time at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California. Lennear’s reinvention differed from that of Marsha Hunt. The Stellar Gypsy did not rely on her prior rock connections and identity to make her way. “I felt that I had just run my course,” she said in a 2013 interview. She moved on from the opportunities and limitations that the association with “Brown Sugar” offered and entered an entirely different milieu, one that did not demand a constant reckoning with the mythologies of black women’s bodies and voices.

Brown Sugar, Negotiated

In a 1973 reflection on the challenges of establishing a successful recording career, Marsha Hunt observed, “Women in pop are in much the same situation as blacks have been. You’ve got to slip in through the side door and once you’re in, then do your damage. But you’re kidding yourself if you think you’re going to walk in through the front door on your own terms because the world’s been going too long on somebody else’s terms.” Hunt had been intent on finding a way into rock’s mainstream, but in spite of her best efforts, the entrance through even the side door provided only limited opportunities, and the career she dreamed of did not take off. Still, Hunt can claim a set of experiences as a scene-maker, model, performer, and paramour that define her as a rock and roll figure, even though her identity as an African American woman mitigates against that categorization. In fact, her race, gender, and national identity give her rock and roll experience its particular and fascinating shape. Devon Wilson and Claudia Lennear also slipped in through the rock scene’s side entrances. Wilson did not live long enough to manage her image in the way that Hunt has done, but the fact that she is still mentioned alongside the names of Hendrix and Jagger is a measure of her impact. Lennear gave up on her efforts to forge a career as a solo artist and ceded her space in the counterculture, but she left behind recordings as a background vocalist and solo artist that encapsulate her experience of the challenges and expressive possibilities of the rock milieu.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Devon Wilson, Marsha Hunt, and Claudia Lennear crafted their lives through a compulsory dialogue with “Brown Sugar,” a song and a stereotype that black women did not create, but that shadows black women in rock and roll. All three women participated, in public and private ways, with the highest echelons of rock, their brown-skinned beauty conferring both access and notoriety as they negotiated the myth and mystique of Brown Sugar. The stories I have told in this chapter show how three flesh-and-blood African American women engaged this two-dimensional image—capitulating to it, challenging it, and rewriting it—while fashioning their unconventional lives. Their experiences and their stories, shaped by the dynamics of race, gender, and genre that operated in the late 1960s and early 1970s rock scene, are an inextricable if underreported part of the history of African American women and the history of rock and roll.

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Maureen Mahon is Associate Professor of Music at New York University and author of Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race, also published by Duke University Press.

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You might also enjoy Christian John Wikane’s 2013 interview with Claudia Lennear.