OK, maybe not introducing you to, but rather reintroducing you to – the amazing Claudia Lennear. The Oscar winning documentary ’20 Feet from Stardom’ certainly introduced Lennear to a public who largely were unaware of her, or who may have had a memory of her association (relationship with) Jagger and also Bowie in the early 70s. What makes her story so interesting though, is that unlike other renowned back-up singers who continually tried to make it (like Darlene Love, Merry Claytown and Táta Vega), Lennear essentially dropped out of the music scene completely in the mid 70s, and followed a different path in life, and ’20 Feet’ has basically brought out back from obscurity.
As some will know, she was the inspiration behind the Stones’ Brown Sugar’. As others may know, she was part of George Harrison’s band for the Concert For Bangladesh. She was also the inspiration Bowie’s ‘Lady Grinning Soul’. In the film, Jagger still calls her “very hot” and a “beautiful girl”. And she was, no doubt, smoking hot. Speaking of which, after watching ’20 Feet’ it reminds you of just how cool Ike Turner really was. Who is it that kids think is cool nowadays, Kanye West ? is that his name ? The guy who is famous for marrying a celebrity famous for being a celebrity ? How banal. These talentless turds are a good example of what’s wrong with the entertainment industry today. He couldn’t hold a candle to Ike Turner who really was, Mr Cool. And the Ikettes simply oozed sex appeal. Anyway, I have digressed.
So yes, Lennear. I first saw her several years ago whilst watching Eastwood’s 1974 film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot in which she has a brief role, yet in the late 60s/early 70s, she worked with many acts including Ike and Tina Turner, Humble Pie and Joe Cocker. She was part of a trio of backup singers for Delaney and Bonnie, that also included Rita Coolidge. She was also one of Leon Russell’s Shelter People. She sang back-up vocals on Joe Cocker’s 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and live album, on Leon Russell and the Shelter People, released in 1971 and on George Harrison’s The Concert for Bangladesh. As I mentioned, she had a part in the 1974 film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, playing a secretary, and she smouldered in the August 1974 issue of Playboy magazine in a pictorial entitled “Brown Sugar”. She cut one solitary album, 1973’s “Phew” and it is well worth tracking down. It’s an album that was lost to obscurity – yet thanks to ’20 Feet’ interest was sufficient enough to see ‘Phew’ reissued on CD for the first time. So many great tunes on this album, including ‘It Ain’t Easy’, ’Sing With The Children’, and ‘Casey Jones’. Side one features her with members of Jim Dickinson’s Dixie Flyers and Ry Cooder, side two finds her singing songs written and arranged by the great Allen Toussaint, with such legends as Jim Keltner and Spooner Oldham along for the ride. The CD reissue features a non-LP bonus track, notes by Pat Thomas featuring quotes from Claudia herself and photos from her private archive. Yet the album was not a success. After struggling financially to make ends meets, pay her band etc. she left the music industry in the mid 70s to become a teacher of French and Spanish. How cool is that. What does your teacher do? She used to sing with Jagger and George Harrison. She’s the one Jagger wrote ‘Brown Sugar’ about. Man, which Dad’s wouldn’t have looked forward to parent teacher day! Lennear appeared at the Lockn’ Festival in Arrington, VA. on September 11, 2015, and performed with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Rita Coolidge, Leon Russell and other alumni from the 1970 Joe Cocker Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour in a memorial concert for Joe Cocker. She also came out in the press last year stating that David Bowie promised to write some new original songs for her. She stated that she got a call from Bowie, and that he wanted to write on her next project. With Bowie now gone, I hope that we still get to see new material from her regardless.
Here’s an old handbill from LA circa 1973. What an amazing time period. Claudia Lennear on a double bill with Iggy Stooge. And check out the other nights. Joe Walsh, Elvin Bishop, JoJo Gunne (‘Run Run Run’ still sounds great to my ears in 2016), Hot Tuna (check out their 2011 album ‘Steady As She Goes’ and the tune ‘Angel of Darkness’. Great tunes). Not to mention ELO and also Wishbone Ash. Marty, set the DeLorean to 1973! It goes without saying, that if you haven’t seen ’20 Feet From Stardom’ you need to. And head to Itunes sand pick up Claudia Lennear’s 1973 album ‘Phew’.