WhatsUp Interview: Claudia Lennear, 2019 RI Music Hall of Fame Inductee

Heralded Singer Returning to RI for Induction Concert Sunday April 28

Claudia Lennear

Claudia Lennear is certainly the greatest backup singer ever to come out of Hope High School in Providence. No doubt, she’s the greatest backup singer to come out of the state Rhode Island. In fact, she’s one of the greatest backup singers to come out of anywhere.

Sunday April 28th, Providence, native Claudia Lennear will be in town for a special performance at the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame Induction show. She’s being inducted into the Hall honoring a career that began over 50 years ago when she was still a teenager.

Lennear grew up in Providence, but left Hope High School when her family moved to Los Angeles during her senior year. Soon after, she joined Ike and Tina Turner for a three-year stint as an “Ikette.” Her role as a backup singer and dancer earned her widespread notoriety and led to gigs with Leon Russell, Joe Cocker, Stephen Stills and George Harrison, who she performed with at the legendary “Concerts for Bangladesh.”

Lennear in the 1970’s

Lennear spent a lot of time with legendary rocker Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, who she had opened for as a member of the Ike and Tina Revue. She also was close with David Bowie and is known to be the inspiration for classic hits from both acts, the Stones “Brown Sugar,” and Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul.” Its fair to say that she experienced perhaps the greatest chapter in rock and roll history.

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In 1973, Lennear released a solo album, produced by New Orleans legend Allan Toussaint. The album is a hidden jewel among R&B/Soul fans, although it was not very well received commercially at the time of its release. By the 1980’s she semi-retired from music and became a language professor at Mt. San Antonio College. In 2013, there was renewed interest in her career as a backup singer when Lennear was featured in the Academy Award winning documentary “20 Feet From Stardom.”

I recently interviewed Lennear in advance of her induction. Here’s what she had to say.

How do you feel about being inducted into the RI Music Hall of Fame?

I am more excited about the RIMHOF event than any other. There is something about an achievement such as this that is like a fairy tale. You never think of it during your career, but when it happens to you, it is quite a surreal moment. I think it has to do with coming home to a place where my formative years were shaped. Rhode Island is such a lovely little place with a lot of history, multiculturalism, great ocean vistas, nice people who are curious and industrious, and enthusiastic music minds. There’s no place like home!

Was there anything specific about growing up in Providence that influenced you musically?

I would like to begin by clarifying that I did not only grow up in Rhode Island, but I was born in Providence at Lying-In Hospital and lived in several different neighborhoods on the East Side, the West Side, and finally in South Providence. In elementary school, I studied music theory, and in High School I was in the Chorale program. In addition, I took piano lessons privately. I attended kindergarten at Doyle Ave School, first and second grade at Kenyon St. School, I skipped the third grade, and attended fourth through tenth grades at St. Charles Borromeo before transferring to Hope High School where many lifelong friendships were developed.

There were many specific music influences I absorbed growing up in New England. There were several musical conduits that filled my household with popular music during my childhood and teen years. For example, there was WPRO-AM radio, Carl’s Diggins record shop, Wolfman Jack who broadcast from Chula Vista, California on FM, Dick Clark’s TV show American Bandstand from Philadelphia, and The Ed Sullivan Show to name a few.

What other memories of RI do you have?

I often reminisce about how fortunate I am to be a native of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. I have many fond memories of summer picnics with family at Goddard Park, Summer Camp at Tower Hill, PowWow participation in South County, Sunday drives along the Mohawk Trail, ice skating at Rhode Island Auditorium, weekend getaways to Montreal and visiting family members who lived in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard.

I know you got your first major gig with Ike Turner and the Ikettes. Could you share a little about how you broke into the business?

Before I joined the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, I recorded and performed “Live” gigs in the LA area with an R&B Doo Wop group called The Superbs. We worked together for a year or so promoting “One Bad Habit” a song which had become a local hit. Then, I auditioned for Ike Turner and he hired me for my singing and Tina approved my dancing. I was flown to Houston, Texas the next day to begin my Ikette tenure. It was with Ike and Tina that my singing, songwriting, and dancing skills developed.

I’ve really been enjoying “Phew.” Many young artists today seem to be searching for that sound. The arrangements are fantastic – vintage Memphis R&B/Soul. What do you recall about making the album?

Thank you for the compliment about the Warner Bros album! It was an amazing opportunity to play with Allen Toussaint who was an incredible songwriter and producer by all accounts. I owe the New Orleans R&B sound on one side of that album to him and the soul culture from which he emerged. Of course, there were other friends and admired musicians such as Chuck Rainey and Jim Keltner (who played on it). The influence on the other side of the record comes from the Memphis grown Jim Dickerson and some of the greats from Muscle Shoals like Spooner Oldham.

The album did not make the charts in the 70’s when it was recorded, but today it is considered among classics that many people enjoy. I especially liked the opportunity to publish and record “Sister Angela”, a song I had written about Angela Davis who was my heroine.

I know your friendships with Mick Jagger, Bowie and others were important in your career. Could you a share some personal recollections or two of either one of them?

My lifelong friendships with Jagger, Bowie, and Leon Russell have been the greatest musical blessing anyone could imagine. Not only are the three of them among the most talented and revered musicians/frontmen/songwriters in the history of popular music, but they are each a person who I coordinated well with on stage, in the recording studio, and, generally speaking, in most areas of life. I enjoyed a wonderful relationship with each one at an important time in their careers and that relativity remained connected as such to the very end of both the lives of Bowie and Russell.

Bowie and I were working on a project when he made his transition in January 2016, and Leon and I had just done a tribute concert to Joe Cocker at the Locken Festival in Virginia in 2015 and we were planning a concert in Pasadena, CA in June 2016. Leon fell ill and passed away in November. Perhaps some things aren’t meant to happen.

Complete details on the 2019 Induction Ceremony can be found here.