Claudia Lennear is Mick Jagger’s “Brown Sugar” and David Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul,” but have you heard of this soul singer?
Chances are, probably not…
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Claudia Lennear – Early Life
Claudia Lennear was born in Providence, Rhode Island but relocated with her family to Pomona, California in 1964. Throughout school, Lennear studied music theory, was part of the choir and took private piano lessons.
From a young age, Claudia Lennear was surrounded and immersed in music. During her childhood in Rhode Island, she remembers hearing a diverse array of sounds, ranging from Rodgers & Hammerstein to Bobby “Blue” Bland and Sam Cooke.
In an interview with Pop Matters, she remembers. “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 she approached her teenage years, Claudia Lennear began to be drawn to the likes of Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles and Gladys Knight & the Pips. Soon after, the throaty and husky soul of Carla Thomas and Ike & Tina Turner began to have a big influence on her musically.
Once in California, Claudia Lennear began singing with the Superbs, a sweet soul harmony group. In 1968, the group released the single “One Bad Habit” on Doré Records. It became a bit of a local hit and the group played lots of small shows across Los Angeles.
After realizing that she was living amongst the stars and in proximity of one of her biggest musical inspirations growing up, Ike & Tina Turner, she began networking. She recalls this period in time.
“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 Los Angeles. 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.”
Over the next three years as an Ikette, Claudia Lennear really began to hone her musical performance skills.
She remembers, “Every night with Ike & Tina was a high point. The culture of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue was when you’re on stage, 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.”
She remembers Ike having a strong vision from the beginning, “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.”
Like many Ikettes before her, by 1970 Claudia Lennear felt she wasn’t progressing any further and needed a change. Moments prior to performing at a show, she had a minor spat with Tina Turner, precipitating her to hand in her resignation after the gig.
Looking back, she acknowledges the impact Tina Turner had on her future. “She was like a sister, a family member, 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 her time as an Ikette, the Ike & Tina Turner Revue opened for the Rolling Stones on numerous occasions during their 1969 US tour. Because of this, Claudia Lennear began to quickly form a connection with the Rolling Stones frontman, Mick Jagger.
In the Oscar-winning documentary, 20 Feet to Stardom (2014), Jagger refers to Claudia Lennear as “the really hot one of the Ikettes.” Legend has it she was the inspiration behind Mick Jagger’s 1971 track “Brown Sugar.”
Here’s what Claudia Lennear had to say about it in an interview with the Express, “Around the time “Brown Sugar” became a hit for the Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger and I were always seen together in restaurants and nightclubs in Los Angeles. That’s why people thought the song was about me, and Mick later confirmed that it was.”
Their relationship didn’t last too long though, Claudia Lennear remembers it being an “on-off thing because of our different schedules. But we would talk all the time on the phone. He was a lot of fun to be with, although his public persona is quite different to the way he is in private. I found him a quiet guy who was very British, with good manners, so I was always smitten by his behavior.”
Her relationship with Mick Jagger set her on a path of meeting some of rock ‘n’ roll’s aristocracy. After befriending Gram Parsons, who had recently left The Flying Burrito Brothers and was recording a solo album for A&M, she was introduced to Joe Cocker and Leon Russell.
Only a month after giving up her role as an Ikette, next thing Claudia Lennear knew she was on tour with Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen singing in “The Space Choir.” The four shows at the Fillmore East Auditorium in New York were recorded and released onto the 1970 double EP, Mad Dogs and Englishmen.
Lennear recalls her solo performance of the Beatles’ “Let It Be.”
“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, would perform it physically. I wouldn’t just stand at the mic and sing it.”
The song was personal for Claudia 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.”
After the tour, Claudia Lennear remained with Leon Russell and worked with him on his 1971 solo album, Leon Russell and the Shelter People, singing as one of his “Shelter People.”
She refers to Leon as “probably the most incredible musician on this planet. 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.”
The year 1971 was also a big one for Claudia Lennear as she performed as a background vocalist at The Concert For Bangladesh for Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden. She describes performing at the first-ever benefit gig as being “cosmic.”
On top of this, she featured on Freddie King’s 1971 album Getting Ready and had sessions with Al Kooper, Humble Pie, Don Nix, and Jeanie Greene.
Lady Grinning Soul
In 1972, she befriended another well-known music legend, David Bowie. Apparently meeting at a dinner party, the pair hit it off when Bowie began telling her about his favorite R&B singers, Dee Dee Sharp, the Ronettes, and Erma Franklin, all of whom Claudia Lennear equally loved.
The pair enjoyed a typical relationship. Bowie even meeting Lennear’s mother Thelma on several occasions. At the time, she didn’t know that the song “Lady Grinning Soul” was about her, despite the resemblance in the lyrics to her life.
It wasn’t until 2014 that she received a call from Bowie as she was on her way to the Film Independent Spirit Awards ceremony, in which 20 Feet From Stardom was nominated for best documentary.
She remembers the moment. “Typical polite British guy that he was,” Lennear said — and he said, “You know you are my lady grinning soul.” It was the first time Bowie had actually acknowledged she was his inspiration behind the track.
It was around this time when Claudia Lennear felt the desire to record a solo album of her own accord. After a bidding war from various record labels, she settled on the producers Ian Samwell and Allen Toussaint. She remembers.
“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.”
In 1973, she released her first and only solo album Phew! The LP was split between the two producers. Ian Samwell produced the slightly rockier side one, whilst Allen Toussaint the more funk ‘n’ soul side two. The album features the track “Not At All,” which was rumored to be aimed at Mick Jagger and his dispensability. Although she plays the track down as a mere jest.
“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.”
The album also features a track Claudia Lennear wrote in tribute to Angela Davis, an American political activist involved in the Civil Rights Movement who was falsely charged and imprisoned for 16 months but later acquitted.
“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.”
The song, “Sister Angela,” demonstrated her songwriting capabilities, something which was often masked behind her strong and powerful vocals.
Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone reviewed the album in 1973. “Claudia Lennear’s vocal flexibility and energy are staggering. Her recorded personality, though not intimate, is irrepressibly sexy, her professionalism almost frighteningly intact… On side two, Lennear’s magnificent voice is treated as the leading instrument in a basically orchestral conception of sustained brilliance.”
Unfortunately the album never really took off. Claudia Lennear puts it down to it being “too far outside the box” and not being focused enough. Comparing it to “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” by Tony Orlando & Dawn and “The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia” by Vicki Lawrence which were topping the charts at the same time, the songs on Phew! were possibly too bold for there time.
Despite the commercial defeat of Phew!, Claudia Lennear continued singing on sessions and appeared on albums by Maxayn, Johnny Nash, José Feliciano, Gene Clark, and Taj Mahal before calling it quits in the 1980s.
Today, Claudia Lennear is using her trilingual language skills to teach and inspire the next generation to create a more a progressive future. But who knows what the future holds for Lennear.
“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.”