Soul singer to discuss star-crossed life during interview

Claudia Lennear is a living piece of music history.

Ms. Lennear—who got her big break as one of the Ikettes with the Ike & Tina Turner Revue and went on to perform back-up vocals with some of the most notable music acts of the 1970s—will make an appearance at Rhino Records on Saturday, July 26 at 1 p.m.

The soul singer will be interviewed by DJ Ike Rhythm on the Rhino Records stage, with their conversation and perhaps a song or two broadcast live on the Pomona College radio station KSPC.

Ms. Lennear, a local who lives with “her front door in Pomona and backdoor in Claremont,” is not exactly new to the Claremont Colleges. She earned a degree in French literature from Pitzer College.

A number of years ago, Ms. Lennear traded the music industry for teaching, namely French and Spanish and, after a stint at San Dimas High School, is currently teaching at Mt. San Antonio College.

The singer still keeps in touch with some of her more famous friends, including Turner and David Bowie, and enjoys flexing her still-strong pipes from time to time. 

“I still sing in all the college choirs,” she said. “It’s a different kind of music, not blues, rock or jazz, but more classically-oriented. It’s still singing nonetheless, which is what I think I was really put on earth for.”

Ms. Lennear pondered being a translator at the UN for a while, but she early on had an instinct that music was the life for her.

“There’s no point in getting chafed elbows, trying to figure out the philosophy of life,” she said, miming the pose of Rodin’s famous sculpture The Thinker. “You just know.”

Ms. Lennear has attracted some fresh notice over the past year after being featured in the 2013 film “20 Feet from Stardom,” which won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. The movie traces the trajectories of some of the most sought-after back-up singers, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Táta Vega and Lisa Fischer, among others.  Ms. Lennear’s appearance in the movie has triggered a resurgence of interest in a woman with a powerhouse voice and zero degrees of separation from music legends, so much so that her 1973 solo album “Phew!” has been recently re-released.

Ms. Lennear was a bit of a knockout, and is said to have provided the inspiration for The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” and David Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul.” She met Mick Jagger and Keith Richard when the Ike & Tina Turner Revue opened for the Stones. They formed a friendship that began to open some dazzling doors.

After three years with Ike & Tina, connections like Ms. Lennear’s friendship with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards began to open some dazzling doors.

Among other gigs, she took the stage to provide back-up vocals for Joe Cocker’s 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and accompanying live recording, was one of Leon Russell’s Shelter People and, along with Rita Collidge, was part of a trio of backup singers for Delaney and Bonnie.

She was also performed at George Harrison and Ravi Shankar’s The Concert for Bangladesh, two benefit gigs performed at Madison Square Garden in New York City that also featured luminaries like Ringo Starr, Bob Dillon, Billy Preston, Leon Russel, Eric Clapton and the band Badfinger.

Ms. Lennear then moved on to session work, with her vocals supporting musicians like Rita Coolidge, Graham Nash and Steven Stills. You can, in fact, hear her voice on Stills’ hit “Love the One You’re With.”

“There was so much energy flowing, with the music industry making the transformation from folk to rock to everything that fit into the mix,” she said.

It all started just before Ms. Lennear’s senior year of high school. After her stepfather retired from the military, she was dragged westward from Providence, Rhode Island, “kicking and screaming.” Her family settled in Pomona and, while attending Garey High School, started heading out for music gigs.

Ms. Lennear had grown up singing along to soul records, songs by Ray Charles, Gladys Knight and the Pips and Patti Labelle and the Bluebells.

“I learned early on that I had some semblance of a voice and could sing on key and I went from there,” she said.

Before long, she ventured into the music scene herself. Ms. Lennear was fronting a soul group called the Superbs when she was approached by Ike Turner to audition for his review. She was beyond starstruck.

“I would have crawled on my knees from Rhode Island to California to meet Ike and Tina—no ifs, ands or buts,” Ms. Lennear said.

She passed muster with Ike and won over Tina and in 1967 became an Ikette. It was the start of a whirlwind ride to success. Since then, the world has become aware of the music-duo’s tumultuous marriage, in which Ms. Turner was badly abused. During her three years as an Ikette, however, Ms. Lennear didn’t see that side of things. What she saw was remarkable drive and consummate professionalism.

“Tina’s energy, even when off the stage, is still overwhelming,” Ms. Lennear said. “What a fireball. She had the greatest since of humor and this haughty laugh like no one I know. She could fit right in today with Pharrel’s ‘Happy.’ She was a great role model.”

During her time as the longest standing Ikette, she also learned much from Mr. Turner.

“He was a terrific business person, very disciplined, and he was a visionary,” she said. “If not fore Ike Turner, the entire revue wouldn’t have existed.”

It doesn’t take long for Ms. Linnear’s students to find out that she is not your average teacher. She gives her students three weeks, she said, before students—in the midst of research for some project—manage to find out about her musical past.

“They say, ‘You know, Claudia, we saw this woman who has your name, with long hair, very thin, and dancing. At that point, I have to tell them the truth,” she said.

—Sarah Torribio


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