Janice Pendarvis
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

Divine Harmony: An Interview with Vocal Powerhouse Janice Pendarvis

Whether touring with Sting or appearing on Saturday Night Live with Debbie Harry, Eddie Murphy, Philip Glass, and Vanessa Williams, Janice Pendarvis is the secret sauce in any vocal blend.

When you and I spoke a few years ago, we talked about how Terumasa Hino recorded a song you wrote called “Stay in My Waking Heart”, which featured you on lead vocals. I’d love to discuss another song of yours he recorded on Daydream (1980), “Gently”. It’s one of the most gorgeous tracks I’ve heard. How did that song transform from words on a page to a full recording?

That’s another song that Pen and I wrote — and when I’m saying “Pen”, I mean Leon Pendarvis. That’s what we all call him. A lot of times when we wrote, he would have played some chords in a form, and then I would listen until I found the song … because there’s always a song in there. I’m pretty sure “Gently” was a song where I listened to the chords and just came up with that melody. It has a vocal but it’s really about the instrumental as well, which is something that I love.

The idea of people in a relationship that they love but can’t really have is something that intrigues me because I think a lot of people go through that experience on a lot of different levels, in different situations.

Songs are these really short forms of art. A song like that, there aren’t long verses to explain anything, so it’s almost like a haiku in some ways. You have to capture the feeling of what that is in a few words:

Gently go
Just leave your heart beside the door
For a gentle lady
When you’re gone
Your love will linger on.

That’s the chorus. The verse:

Stolen moments never end
Bittersweet, no matter when
We own this love,
But not each other

That’s it. [laughs] It took a little while but you keep crafting. It’s like you’ve got a block of wood and you just whittle it down until “Ah, that’s it!”

Lani Groves sings lead on “Gently” and also sings background with you, Luther Vandross, and Yvonne Lewis. Describe the process of achieving that blend.

It’s two girls on the top and then me and Luther on the bottom. I adored singing with Luther! We just got this really great unison blend … and any blend. I remember there was a session where Luther was like, “I want to do a session with me, you, and Cissy [Houston] because the three of us have something that’s similar in each of our voices. I want to hear what that blend sounds like.”

Blending with Luther was like blending with myself, so when you hear the bottom octave, because we’re singing in octaves on those choruses, it’s just really warm. It’s not dark. It’s not too bottom-y because we still have to blend to the girls on top. Yvonne’s voice has that sparkle. Lani has that warmth on the top.

We were able to get this incredible unison blend, which is harder than singing harmony. To me, it’s much harder to get a great unison blend, having it all be really locked and in tune and then just having the timbre of the voices flow together like a great chocolate bar or something. [laughs] It sounds so good that it feels like it tastes good. I always remember that session. That’s a really great memory. I so miss Luther.

There’s a section where we split into harmony as you’re coming out of the instrumental. That was my first attempt at sitting down and writing out some interesting background parts that weren’t your basic triads. I said to Pen, “Give me the chart. I need to see what you wrote because I want to make certain that what I write for us in those couple of bars really works with what it is that you wrote.” I went through all the notes and then I just started recording until I heard what I thought would work. It came out fabulously. That’s my favorite thing that I ever wrote down for singers. I remember when the session was over, Pen looked at me and he was like, “Damn! You put pressure on me for the horns and strings!” I was like, “Get outta here! I can’t put any pressure on you. You’re the genius!” He’s definitely the genius arranger.

On that same album, you sing lead on another song you wrote, “Sweeter and Sweeter”. It’s definitely funkier than “Gently”. How did you create the character of that song in terms of your delivery?

I don’t know if there was anything deliberate. One of the things that I have realized recently about myself, when I’m actually singing a song and I’m in it, I’m in it. There were things about that song that were hard for me because I was singing in a register that I realized later in life, You don’t need to be up there. Sing a little lower. Having written the words, I know what it means! [laughs] I know all the layers of emotion.

The song is about the joy of being in love with somebody where you’re at that point in the relationship where you’re thinking Oh my God, he’s just fabulous! What does it say? “He’s a master of perfection. A champion of love. Every time we kiss, he never misses being sweeter than I’m thinking of.” It’s like you’re at that moment. That’s early on … but it also could be later on too, depending on what happens in the relationship. It’s a lyric that I like because it’s celebratory.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard you sing that high before on a record.

Well, that’s young Janice Pendarvis who was taking lessons every week, relentlessly. A lot of times when you’re taking lessons, you’re singing in that register. You’re studying that classical technique and then you’re applying what you learn to what you do in contemporary, so I was accustomed to singing there. [laughs] It’s fun to listen to.

Here’s something else that I realized recently during the past year. My first two teachers were renowned in the classical world and I didn’t really know that. Roberta introduced me to Frederick “Wilkie” Wilkerson, who was her teacher and I studied with him. He’s listed in that database of Black classical singers that’s online. Roberta and Donny Hathaway are two of his students. When he died, I studied with Inez Matthews, who’s his “sister”. All the time that I studied with her, I knew that she’d had this classical career but it wasn’t until I was looking up some stuff to write about the people that I had studied with that I realized she was a groundbreaker in the world of Black classical music. I never knew that when I studied with her because she never talked about it. I would have loved to have known.

Okay, Janice. This is the Saturday Night Live section. You’ve appeared on Saturday Night Live in several capacities over the years, whether in sketches, accompanying musical acts on background, or singing as a soloist. Was Saturday Night Live the first experience you had singing on television?

It may have been. That’s going back so far, I’m not sure. I remember early on at one point doing a gig in France with a French singer and we did television around Europe. TV has always been a part of it, for me. I definitely did a lot of SNL back in the day.

Janice Pendarvis
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

In the early ’80s, how did the Saturday Night Live band reflect what was happening, musically, in NYC overall at that time?

Those were THE cats — capital T, capital H, capital E. The first-call cats. When you see that band in The Blues Brothers movie, that’s the SNL band, basically. They were brilliant. They were the best. I knew most of the people in the band.

I remember doing SNL with Philip Glass, singing “Lightning”. I’m the soloist. You come there the day of the show and start working on it earlier in the day. You sing the song multiple times. The SNL house band is there. I see the horn players. They’re standing there looking perturbed. When we were done, I said “What’s the matter?” They said, “We’re trying to figure out how do you know where to come in?” I started laughing. “How do I know where to come in? Y’all know I’m a bar-counting fool. That’s how I know where to come in.” I was counting bars just to make certain that I knew where I was because you do not get a chance to go back and re-do SNL. [laughs]

My cherished memory of you on SNL is when you sang background for Debbie Harry on “Love TKO” when she hosted the show in 1981. Let’s take that as an example of coming in to a live television situation. Did you contract the singers for that? How do you go about striking a rapport with the lead artist if you’ve never worked with them before?

I did contract that. It was me, the late great Zach Sanders, the late great Frank Floyd, and of course Yvonne Lewis. Debbie Harry is one of the sweetest people who ever walked the face of the earth, so trying to develop a rapport with her was just so easy. She came over and said, “You guys are so great!” She’s just lovely, so we had fun. “Love TKO” is the four of us and then there’s another song where it’s just Yvonne and I. We’re doing this little skit thing that we’d come up with that Debbie had asked us to do, but she made it fun.

From Debbie Harry, you went to Eddie Murphy as a member of Buckwheat’s “Dupweems”. At the time, Eddie had all these characters that foretold the comedy legend he’d become. First of all, how were you approached to be part of that sketch? What were your impressions of him as an actor and performer?

You know, I don’t remember anything specific about the call because at that point in my life, you get a call and you come in. “Okay, what do I need to do?” That was a full-week deal. The hair, the clothes, the costuming, what we were going to do, all of that got worked on during the week. You come in and they fit you for the clothes and they fit you for the wig.

My impression of Eddie was he’s brilliant! He was a consummate professional in terms of his approach to the work. That gig was fun because it was so silly. For one, we’re singing in Buckwheat’s patois. [laughs] When we get to one portion of it, we’re singing [sings “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”]: “Meech out and dutch dum-body’s and. Mait dis murl a better pace ip do tan.” It’s like, What? I will never forget that section of the skit all these years later. Somewhere I have that music. [laughs]

Eddie let us do our thing, which is also something that I really respect. I love to have input from an artist but sometimes there’s some people, because of their fear — here we go, full circle back to love versus fear — they are so afraid that they project their fear on you and then that can make it hard for you to give them what it is that they need.

The thing that I have always been abundantly clear of because I was around the business for so long before I was in it, is that as a background singer, no matter how fierce I am or think I am, my job is to never outshine whoever it is that I’m supporting. That’s why some people call us “support singers”. Our job is to do our damndest to make that person look good, so as “the Dupweems”, we were there to be with Eddie and be the Dupweems and do that whole schtick. It was awesome.

Janice Pendarvis
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

Then there’s the clip of you and Vanessa Williams and Tim Meadows in the Kwanzaa sketch, which was several years after Buckwheat. You’ve said in the past how your involvement with that sketch really came at the 11th hour.

Absolutely. I was outside with my son. He was a little guy and had a play date with his friend. The phone rings. “Hello?” “Hi, it’s Saturday Night Live. We’re wondering if you could come in today to do a sketch with Vanessa Williams.” I’m like, “Okay. What time do I need to be there? I’m with my son on a play date. I will come. Just give me enough time to find his friend’s mom so I can give him back and call the babysitter.” Did that, went upstairs, got everything, and the rest is history!

That’s how I met Vanessa. I had worked on an album of hers prior to this, so I understood her voice. When I worked on the album, I was just doubling things and singing harmonies to her, so I was clear about what to do with her voice, which is awesome. I didn’t have to figure out the blend. I know this blend. I did this blend for a whole afternoon!

Vanessa is another gem. I absolutely adore her. When you have to work one-on-one with a star, there’s always that moment of Okay, what is this going to be like? because they run the gamut just like all the rest of us, but I was really impressed by her. She went out of her way to be gracious. At one point she said, “I’m gonna send somebody out and get us some earrings.” She’s really giving, really easy to work with.