"1973. It was a golden age of our lifetime...forty years ago was the pinnacle of creativity in the rock world...and if it lasts for infinity that would be a blessing...and an opportunity for everyone to share it long after we're gone..."
By way of Morgan Neville's brilliant documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, Claudia Lennear has been rescued, albeit reluctantly, from obscurity and afforded her rightful place as one of the greatest background singers in the most cherished, and oft-imitated era in modern popular music.
My search for Ms. Lennear commenced long before Neville's long overdue film - which depicts the dramatic plights of rock's most hallowed back-up singers - hit a theater near you. Back in 2005, I received an advance review copy of the re-mastered, enhanced DVD/CD of George Harrison's historic Concert For Bangladesh. With a vastly upgraded mix far superior to the muddy, archaic sound-recording that was standard fare in the early 1970s -especially for live albums - one particular voice behind the voices and guitars of the stars grabbed me - Claudia Lennear.
Her searing, soulful wails and harmonies alongside George, Leon Russell, Eric Clapton, Badfinger, and Billy Preston on that legendary hot August night in Madison Square Garden lifted the performances of these icons to heights untouchable. To my ears, Claudia's backing vocals rendered the studio versions of such classics as "My Sweet Lord," "Something," "That's The Way God Planned It" "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and "Here Comes the Sun" as somewhat inferior runners-up. Listen for yourself!
Midway through that fabled gig, the ex-Beatle introduced the marquee players, including a surprise appearance by the then reclusive Bob Dylan, to thundering applause. However as the concerts were hastily assembled under immense pressure to help save the homeless Bengali refugees of the Bangladesh Liberation War , George could not recall the individual names of the lesser known backup singers, hence he led the crowd in "giving them all a big hand..."
"The one thing I regret," reveals Claudia, "was that I was offered to do a solo song at the concerts. George asked me through Leon. I felt caught off guard...I felt that I'd do better to serve in the choir."
Nearly thirty-five years later, the modernized Bangladesh finally identified Claudia and her co-singers on-screen. Thus began my pursuit. I fast discovered that Claudia was everywhere in my record collection: Stephen Stills, Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, Dave Mason, Humble Pie, Gene Clark, Taj Mahal, Al Kooper, Delaney & Bonnie, Ike & Tina Turner to name drop just a few. Since 1970 Claudia's voice has been on the radio or streaming online - every day, every hour, every minute, every second, every continent -right now!
But for nearly a decade, every road to my finding Claudia - including a brief chat with her former Shelter People bandleader Leon Russell - led to a dead end. You can learn a little bit about her personal history in 20 Feet which sort of explains my fruitless travails. By the early 1980s Claudia had retired from singing to embark on a distinguished and rewarding career as an educator - and remain decidedly out of the spotlight.
My only victory was to discover a worn copy of her sole solo album Phew! -released in 1973 - for a rather costly sum on eBay. This rarest of rare records is a holy grail among the most zealous of vinyl geeks. Upon first listen, I was astonished: how did this remarkable album not make Claudia Lennear a household name? How did this stunning beauty who was a muse to Mick Jagger and David Bowie (again, refer to 20 Feet) vanish from the music scene? How did this record, on a major label, with the visually alluring cover photography of Norman Seeff, and with the crème de la crème of the baddest studio cats of their generation - go unnoticed?
How? No one knows, not even Claudia. But thanks to the smart folks at Real Gone Music, Phew! has been re-mastered, re-issued, and reborn for a new generation. "Ohhhhh I think it's wonderful, actually" Claudia opines with a down- to- earth hesitancy you would not expect from such a forceful, dynamic singer. "It brings back a lot of memories...memories of great musicians and a lot of things I have missed being surrounded by over the decades."
Claudia's all-star cast featured Alan Toussaint and Ian Samwell as producers, bassists Chuck Rainey and Tommy McClure, drummer Jim Keltner, pianist Spooner Oldham, and guitarist Ry Cooder, among others. Lennear turned these simpatico virtuosos loose in the studio and their performances are nothing less than incendiary. Aside from the fact they don't make records anymore; they don't make records like Phew! anymore - though artists such as Erykah Badu and Meshell Ndegeocello have come close.
"There was a lot of electricity in the air at those sessions," recalls Claudia. "It was over-the-top with talent...it was pure magic. Chuck Rainey was a hero of mine from all those Aretha Franklin albums on Atlantic; I could sing all his bass-lines! Jim Keltner was a great friend from our time together with Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs & Englishmen...everybody played fantastic." To keep the peace among the egotistical producers, Lennear diplomatically afforded Toussaint and Samwell a side each of the vinyl platter.
Among the stand-out cuts on Phew! is "Sister Angela" - Claudia's self-penned paean to the political activist, scholar, patriot, and author Angela Davis - who was in prison at the time of the recording. "Angela was a social 'heroine' for me... she was truthful...she was accurate. I identified with the social causes she stood for...her extraordinary intellect...just the fact that she was an African American woman at the forefront of the movement struck a chord with me...emotionally I 'climbed on to her bandwagon." Claudia is unsure if Angela Davis has ever heard the track. Unfortunately she missed a recent opportunity to attend a lecture by Davis at a university near her home in Claremont, California, wherein Claudia would have liked to have met her mentor. "To have her hear the song would be a real charge for me!"
The single from the album "Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky" would have fit snugly on Sly & The Family Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On. Lennear's raucous rendition of the late, great Ron Davies' seminal early 1970s standard "It Ain't Easy" puts the more popular versions waxed by Three Dog Night, David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, Long John Baldry, and Dave Edmunds to shame - with all due respect to those aforementioned recording artists.
Another dazzling Davies composition "Sing with the Children" features a fiery duel between Claudia and Ry Cooder's tortured electric bottleneck guitar. "Ron Davies would pitch songs to me all the time...we'd hang out and he'd play acoustic guitar, sometimes in my living room...and I chose those two that he wrote...he was such an excellent songwriter."
Lennear toured with a varied cast of musicians to promote the record, including a stop at Carnegie Hall to open for Ricky Nelson. Despite rave reviews Phew! never achieved the commercial success it deserved. "I felt it was time to move on...and do something else with my life."
Regardless, Lennear's enormous contributions pop music continues to inspire modern rockers. Her students keep the humble diva young too. "A few weeks into each semester they Google me without me having said anything... I don't know how they find out...it could be that they are seeking someone else and my name comes up...then one by one they come in after class and say 'I saw a singer on YouTube that has the same name you have..."
Claudia follows the current crop of chart topping singers such as Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, Usher, and Adam Levine whom she cites as her favorites. She has plans to make music again and looks forward to seeing Leon Russell for the first time in many years in October when he appears in her area. "I cried when I watched his Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame induction speech...I kept thinking, why did it take so long?"
Ms. Lennear's modesty regarding her accomplishments as an artist who has touched millions with her voice, even if they didn't know her name, is purely unassuming. "I've had a wonderfully checkered past..."
Note: Much appreciation to Pat Thomas, Christian John Wikane, and Randy Haecker for helping me in my quest to interview Claudia Lennear.