BY STEVEN ROSEN
The documentary 20 Feet From Stardom raises the question of why so many strong-voiced, gospel-oriented female back-up singers of the 1960s and 1970s failed to have solo careers. One of those included was Claudia Lennear, who released only one solo album – 1973’s Phew! for Warner Bros., which Real Gone Music has just reissued. It’s never been out on CD before.
Lennear had sung with the Joe Cocker/Leon Russell Mad Dogs and Englishmen revue, at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh and on albums by Dave Mason and Gene Clark. A stunning beauty, she was close to Mick Jagger and David Bowie, who were inspired by her to write “Brown Sugar” and “Lady Grinning Soul.”
This album answers any question about its failure by its mediocrity. Nobody involved had any prescient vision of her as a lead singer. She’s fighting the arrangements for singing room.
The album’s first five cuts (the vinyl record’s first side) were produced by Ian Samwell, a Warner Bros. favorite at the time for producing America. His work is awful here – so flat and muddled that one wonders just how many recording tracks were at his disposal in the production room.
That’s despite having good session musicians – Ry Cooder on guitar and Jim Dickinson on guitar and piano among them. There’s no way a record buyer could listen to this and be interested in the singer. Only on the laid-back, acoustic version of bluesman Furry Lewis’ “Casey Jones” does Lennear get to show off her expressive voice, with a seductive drawl strikingly similar in places to Lucinda Williams. (There’s also a song she wrote, “Not at All,” about Jagger.)
The reissue’s liner notes don’t say why Allen Toussaint and not Samwell produced the last five songs. (The cagey credits officially list Samwell s producer but thank Toussaint for “musical supervision, brass arrangements” and more.) But it’s a completely different sound. Toussaint works with his own compositions and was signed to Warner.
And at first that’s a good thing. “Goin’ Down” is bright and forceful and Lennear can be heard, even with the large complement of brass players and other session musicians. Effective to a slightly lesser affect is “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky.”
But then it becomes clear that Toussaint, whose strength as a producer was first rollicking piano-and-horn-based New Orleans R&B and then simmering, tightly wound proto-funk (Lee Dorsey, the Meters), doesn’t really get Lennear.
Toussaint’s five songs run together as an awkward suite that increasingly leave her behind as she struggles with the relentless busyness of his arrangements. There’s little impact to “From a Whisper to a Scream” and the ballad “What’d I Do Wrong.” By the time this experiment closes with a second version of “Goin’ Down,” you can forgive Lennear for wondering what Toussaint had in mind. So will you.
The CD has an extra cut – Ted Templeman’s lame production of Lowell George’s “Two Trains.” Lennear’s voice is mucked up by back-up singers and strings, and the result is the kind of watered-down, AM-friendly rock that he was creating to better effect for the Doobie Brothers.
Lennear’s problem wasn’t unique. 20 Feet’s Merry Clayton was having the same problem at Ode. No one really knew what to do – or what kind of material and arrangements to use – to make a successful album for a soul singer whose orientation (at this career stage) was hip rock.
It wasn’t until a younger generation in the 1980s – primed by cooler, more stylized, dance-oriented New Wave – took to Tina Turner that things really changed. But Lennear gave up on music and became a teacher. She may now start performing again because of the movie’s success. If she chooses to resume recording, hopefully she’ll find producers/arrangers who know how to play to her strengths rather than ignore them.
DOWNLOAD: “Casey Jones.”