In these challenging times, David offers a playlist of inspiring tracks by soul music greats…checks out the amazing quintet of pioneers born between March 23-26…Stephanie Mills, Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Teddy Pendergrass
Whether or not you ‘believe’ in astrology (I’m tempted to quote the Supremes’ “No Matter What Sign You Are,” their 1969 hit), it is astounding just how many phenomenally talented singers were born in one particular week in March, under the astrological sign Aries. Not, of course, in the same year but check it out: STEPHANIE MILLS (March 22), CHAKA KHAN (March 23), ARETHA FRANKLIN (March 25), DIANA ROSS and TEDDY PENDERGRASS (March 26). What an amazing group and each very distinctive in their own way. The common thread I’d say (and I’m not by any means an astrological wiz!) – from having met and interviewed each of them at different times is their ability to bring emotion to their music, being somewhat ‘headstrong’ (!) and being leaders/pioneers:
… Of the five, I spent the most time around ARETHA FRANKLIN over the decades we knew each other from 1965 (when she replied to my ‘fan’ letter sent to her via her father – Reverend C.L. Franklin – at his Detroit church) to 2016 when we had our last phone conversation (and she was on her way to voting in the U.S. presidential election). Her incredible legacy and being an icon aside, I found Aretha particularly witty and as our friendship became more of personal (if anyone ever saw our email exchanges from a few years before she passed), hilarious! Lots of double-entendres and Aretha-brand-humour! I still miss her instantly-recognizable speaking voice on the phone…’Hey David, what’s the gossip?’!
…I first met STEPHANIE MILLS in 1975 when she was appearing in the groundbreaking Broadway musical, ‘The Wiz’ and she had signed with Motown Records. I had been ‘wowed’ by her performance in the show when she was just eighteen-years-old and already a ‘stage veteran’. We reconnected when she was in the recording studios with producers James Mtume & Reggie Lucas cutting tracks for what would be the first of her succession of best-selling albums for 20th Century Fox Records, starting with “What’cha Gonna Do With My Lovin’” in 1979. Over the years, we did many interviews for various publications, I updated her official MCA Records’ bio a few times and saw her in concert on numerous occasions and without exception, her performances were always emotionally moving. Check out some of the YouTube videos of Stephanie in action – riveting! We’ve had some great chats over the years and if I were giving ‘points’ for soulful consistency as a performer, Ms. Mills’ would get a 10!
…The spring of 1974, I was sharing a flat in London’s Bayswater area and with the group Rufus on the rise, I was scheduled to do a transatlantic phone interview for Britain’s popular “Blues & Soul” magazine with their lead singer, one CHAKA KHAN. It was Chaka’s first interview with a UK publication and she was polite, answering my questions without any additional ‘fluff’. Fast forward a year or so and we met face-to-face in Los Angeles at the office of the group’s then-manager Bob Ellis (at the time, Diana Ross’ husband). I was struck by her interest in spirituality and her openness in sharing about her life beyond the stage and the studio: my initial impression was that while ‘a dynamo on stage,’ Chaka was – and I quote from the subsequent article that appeared in December 1975, ‘alert and expressive and yet cool and charming. Through all the many decades since, I have spent hours and hours with Chaka, doing interviews, at different video and television recordings and probably a few dozen shows. We’ve talked Ancient Egypt, reincarnation, jazz, art-vs-commerce, Joni Mitchell and much more…I’ve written (a yet-to-be-published) poem about Chaka and truth be told, we’ve had a few awkward ‘moments’ during those years. Through it all, I can say that Chaka remains a one-of-a-kind unique artist and like many of her Aries’ contemporaries, she’s a fountain of fiery creativity!
…’Just call me Diana…’ I entitled the chapter on DIANA ROSS in my 1998 book, ‘The Soulful Divas’ as a counter to the popular impression of the legendary performer who ‘demanded’ to be called ‘Ms. Ross’ by all and sundry. That myth was shattered when she and I spoke in 1993 ahead of a two-hour in-person interview for a special “Billboard” tribute. She had asked that we speak on the phone just to get acquainted and, following protocol, I called her ‘Ms. Ross’ and her response was as described. She was cordial and in person, very clear, articulate and definitely (sharing a very ‘Aries’ trait!), ‘no-nonsense’. It was the longest ‘in person’ chat and was followed by a short conversation on the phone a few weeks later. I was left with the impression that charting her own course and – as a result, being a trailblazer in so many ways (as more than a recording artist and performer, as an actress and all-around entertainer) – was no ‘walk in the park’ and that being a successful African-American woman in the white-male-run entertainment industry took something special…and through all of it, as I noted in ‘The Soulful Divas,’ she remained a true Detroit soul sister: one of the most telling and humorous aspects of our lengthy interview session came at the very end when one of Diana’s assistants asked her what she wanted for lunch – no caviar and champagne, she asked for ‘smothered chicken with lots of gravy and waffles’ from one of L.A’s most famous soul food restaurants!
…And finally, TEDDY PENDERGRASS. My first encounter with the sexy Mr. P. was actually at an RCA Records’ party in 1977 when he had left Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes and was looking at options for his about-to-be-launched solo career – and RCA was one of the labels he was considering. We did a brief interview before Teddy opted to sign with Philadelphia International Records but far and away our most memorable chat session for ‘Blues & Soul’ was in the summer of 1978 when I was invited with then-still-a-fellow-music-journalist Nelson George to head down to Philadelphia to meet with Teddy in person to talk about his then-new album “Life Is A Song Worth Singing” and more. Without sharing the details (which will make for a wonderful segment of my memoirs, likely in podcast form!), let’s just say that Teddy’s mother stopped by his 27th floor midtown Philly penthouse unexpectedly and Teddy had to open the window lest Mrs. P. got a whiff of whatever ‘smoke’ was filling the room! Over the years (both prior to and after the accident that left Teddy wheelchair-bound), we had some very funny and enjoyable chats about being a sex symbol, my penchant for wearing white shoes in the ‘70s (“I thought you were a preacher!”) and of course, his career as one of soul music’s most successful solo male artists. I am honoured to say that my last memory of Teddy was working with him and award-winning music man, my friend Preston Glass in a Philadelphia recording studio in 2009 when we produced his version of “Oh Happy Day” for our ‘Songs 4 Worship Soul’ project, which turned out to be sadly, his final recording. Teddy was in the studio with his mom, his grandson and others and it was a joyous occasion.
Like the other Aries-born artists I’ve referenced in this edition of my Diary,’ Teddy displayed fortitude in the face of challenge and adversity as well as a wealth of creativity, expressed through music. Aretha, Teddy, Diana, Chaka and Stephanie…all ‘rams’ (the symbol associated with Aries) in their own distinct ways, pioneers each and every one….