Keeping Great Company: An Interview with Claudia Lennear

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.”

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.

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