Dick’s Picks: How about this gritty slice of 1973 vintage sister-funk from the little known Claudia Lennear….
Although the 1973 long player ‘Phew!’ would be her sole album release Lennear has quite the musical pedigree, beginning her career as a backing singer/dancer with Ike & Tina Turners ‘Ikettes’ before also lending her not inconsiderable voice to music from Delaney & Bonnie, Humble Pie and Leon Russell amongst others.
It was while working as one of Russell’s ‘Shelter People’ (a loose conglomerate of musicians that played on numerous Russell productions) she began to move in more lofty circles and can be found singing back-up on George Harrison’s ‘Concert For Bangla Desh’ – was it here that she caught the ear (and eye) of a certain Mick Jagger who is said to have written ‘Brown Sugar’ in her honour?
Lennear’s talents as a muse did not end there as Bowie’s ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ is also said to be about her – but let’s not get bogged down in ‘who did what with who’ as that undermines Lennear’s own musical talents – she was much more than just a pretty trophy for the boys!
What’s the album like?
Although the entire LP is reportedly produced by Ian Samwell, who had previous form working with America and the Small Faces, the second side was given over to New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, resulting in a long player that is, to use a well-worn footballing cliché, ‘a game of two halves’ – side one is the slightly rockier sounding and over on side two sweaty funk ‘n’ soul is the order of the day – NICE!
Kicking off the album is a cover of Ron Davies’s ‘It Ain’t Easy’ (as made famous by Bowie on Ziggy Stardust – dang and I said I wasn’t gonna’ mention him), Lennear goes for a more uptempo groove and offers up a fine vocal-shredding performance…
On ‘Sister Angela’ Lennear weighs in with a bit of fine social commentary with her celebration of Black Panther activist Angela Davis (Davis was something of a cause célèbre in the early ’70s inspiring John & Yoko’s ‘Angela’ as well as the Stones ‘Sweet Black Angel’), it’s an impassioned plea and features some fine guitar courtesy of a certain Ry Cooder.
However, flip over to side two and that’s where the fun really begins, the entire side features a star-studded cast that includes; Allen Toussaint, on piano, the legendary N’awlins arranger-composer Harold Battiste, Jr. on saxophone along with other luminaries including Jim Keltner on drums and Spooner Oldham on electric piano. Check the opener ‘Goin Down’, a Toussiant penned funk groover (later covered by the Pointer Sisters) awash with wah-wah guitar and horns aplenty…
Lennear displays more musical chops with a chilling interpretation of ‘From A Whisper To A Scream’, all haunting flutes and brass before letting it rip with the funk-tastic reading of Lee Dorsey’s “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky From Now On”…
What happened next?
In terms of music, not a lot. Lennear never recorded another album (although one has been mooted for some time) but this is no predictable descent into a drug hell misery, instead she re-trained and became a successful language teacher – hooray! Recent years have seen her name resurface as part of the documentary that lifted the lid on the lot of the backing singer, ‘Twenty Feet From Stardom’, and more recently after the death of David Bowie, but, if you’re going to leave behind just one small (and perfectly formed) musical document then ‘Phew!’ is a damn fine example to set.