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04 April 2014

The Voice: Brenda Bennett Talks 2 Beautiful Nights




 Brenda Bennett's signature tone stands alone in the cannon of the Minneapolis Sound.
The singer, best known to Prince fans for her powerhouse lower-register vocals and tough-as-nails image, made her mark on songs like "Blue Limousine," "A Million Miles (I Love You)" and "Bite the Beat." She can also be heard singing lead on the original demo for what later became the classic Prince B-side "17 Days" and on the "Manic Monday" demo, originally intended for the Apollonia 6 album, but later released by The Bangles in 1985 to great acclaim.
 Bennett was born in Scotland and comes from a musical family: both her parents and her brothers, Brian and Bruce, played instruments. She began her career as a back-up singer with Ken Lyon and the Tombstone Blues Band in 1973 and the band released one album, "Ken Lyon and Tombstone," on CBS Records in 1974. However, the band was dropped by their label before a completed second album was released and their attempts to secure another contract proved unsuccessful. The group disbanded in 1975, according to princevault.com.
 She was brought into Prince's camp by then-husband Roy Bennett, who began working as the star's lighting and stage designer during the Dirty Mind Tour in the early 1980s. She worked as the artist's wardrobe mistress for a time before being tapped to join the sexually-charged girl group Vanity 6, along with Susan Moonsie and Vanity. The act was rechristened Apollonia 6 when Vanity departed to pursue a solo career and the revamped trio was featured in the film "Purple Rain" before calling it quits in 1985.
 Bennett took a nearly 20-year hiatus from the music industry to focus on raising her son, Dylan. She returned with the solo album "A Capella" and posted several videos on YouTube to accompany the opus in 2011. She released the single "Guiltier" in 2013 and her newest song, "Private Party," will be released sometime this year.
  K Nicola Dyes conducted an e-mail interview with Bennett where the singer/songwriter discussed filming the unreleased "Mr. Christian" video project, the artist who inspired her to begin creating music again and one thing Prince always told her:


The most important thing I learned from my family was how to be independent and how to survive. I come from a background of very limited financial means. We had to learn to improvise and be creative with stretching the dollar in as many directions as we could.


Pursuing a musical career wasn't something I set out to do. I still feel to this day, that the Lord had his hand on my shoulder and said "Okay, now you're going to go in THIS direction." It was something I fantasized about, but really didn't think was within my reach.


Music was very much a part of my life growing up. A number of people in my family, including my parents and their friends, played an instrument. I can recall joining my parents many times when they got together with their friends on the weekend for good, down-home country jam sessions. There was always a variety of instruments: banjo, washtub bass, spoons, sweet potato and, as always, lots of guitars. My parents were country musicians, although my mom liked to listen to a variety of music. She was the one who exposed me to some light jazz, show tunes, classical and rock n' roll.


When I joined Ken Lyon and the Tombstone Blues Band, I had been hiking Europe on a backpacking trip for nearly six months. When I arrived back in the [United] States I had nothing, but one thin American dime in my pocket--just enough to call my mother collect and tell her I was back and on my way home. Sybilla Hyde, the other female vocalist in Tombstone, was a friend of mine who, as it turned out, was trying to track me down to offer me a position with the band as a back-up singer. The band had landed a recording contract with CBS Records and needed another female vocalist in the lineup. I'd never been in a band before, but had background experience of learning harmonies in the choir at school. I felt I was ready for anything after some eye-opening adventures in Europe. Of course, not having any money, a job or a place to live was a good incentive to give it a try.

Sybilla and Brenda on stage live with Tombstone in 1974.


I met Roy Bennett in the fall of 1974. Tombstone had been on tour opening for Mott the Hoople and Queen and I was home during a break before we did our next leg. Some local musician friends of mine had joined a band from the Baltimore/Washington D.C. area--the name of the band was Face Dancer--and they were in town doing a couple of gigs. I was free to go see them and that's where I met this tall, adorable, sexy young man named Roy.


Opening for Queen was an experience I'll never forget. The tour opened in Denver. The record company had sent us there a couple of days ahead of time for rehearsals and to get used to the thin mountain air. I had no idea what to expect having never heard of the group before, but after their first sound check and rehearsal, well, I nearly fell off the bleachers when I heard their vocals-- not to mention their superb musicianship. I became very close to them and still find myself shedding a tear from time to time over Freddie Mercury's demise.


Growing up, you're always getting advice from one direction or another: from your teachers at school; from church; from your parents. There were some excellent words of advice that came my way that I've never forgotten and have passed down to my son. The one thing that stands out in my mind is when I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with Keith Urban after a show he did at the Chevrolet Theatre (now the Oakdale Theatre) in Connecticut. I had been toying around with the notion of getting back into music now that my son was older and found I had more time to myself. Also, time had gone by since the untimely passing of my younger brother and later, my mother. I finally felt like I could "stick my toes into the water" again and test it out. Keith very simply said to me "If it's in your heart to do it, baby, then you gotta do it."

Roy landed his first lighting designer/stage designer gig working for Prince, a new, up-and-coming young Black artist. It was the beginning of the Dirty Mind Tour (and) they were at The Ritz (a famous rock club) in New York City and Roy asked me to join him there. There was something very special about this new artist and Roy wanted me to meet him. The day after my arrival, Roy and I were leaving the hotel to head over to The Ritz when we found out John Lennon had been shot the night before. I felt AWFUL, being The Beatles fan that I was, and I hoped my sorrow wouldn't show when I met Prince. When I laid eyes on Prince for the first time, I remember thinking there indeed was something about him that I felt drawn to. I couldn't put my finger on it. It was very elusive, but attracting all at the same time. Once I saw his show and heard his music, I had to agree with Roy that there was something very special about this man and his music. (I) felt he was going to be tremendously successful.



Recording Reflections:


If a Girl Answers Don't Hang Up: Don't know if the public is aware of it or not, but "If a Girl Answers" was one of the first rap songs by a girl group.


Bite the Beat: This was in the early days working on the first Vanity 6 album. One of the things that stands out to me was Jesse Johnson, from The Time, playing the high-end organ part on a toy organ pad hooked through the main board. Very humorous and fun times recording that song.


People always tell me how surprised they are when they hear the sound of my voice. They don't expect so much sound to come out of a little person. Plus, I have a very distinct sound to my voice and people seem to be taken aback by that as well.


The thing I love about my singing voice is the tone. I have a warm, full, spicy sound to my voice. I've never considered myself a technically great singer. I certainly could never compare to accomplished vocalists like Celine Dion or Mariah Carey, but their music is totally different (from) what I do.



Being in the spotlight: it's wonderful; it's fun; it's glamorous; it's all of the fantastic things you have ever read or heard. It also is very invasive. For someone like me who values her privacy, being in the spotlight can be very demanding. It's the price you pay for fame. There are a lot of expectations put on you when you're in the spotlight. People tend to have preconceived notions of who YOU are and what you're really like. Sometimes, when you can't live up to their fantasies, when they find you're really only human after all, disappointment sets in. Being in the spotlight is something you better be very sure (you want) if you're going to set your feet on that path.

Vanity 6 in Detroit at a party after a show on the 1999 Tour, with Prince and The Time, at Joe Louis Arena

Prince and I had planned on working on a solo record, a project away from what I was doing with Apollonia 6, but it never seemed to get off the ground. There was so much going on at that time: The Family (album) coming out; Prince working on more film projects; Apollonia resuming her acting career. With all the changes going on, I started looking in different directions to do a solo project on my own.


When we shot the long-form video for the Apollonia 6 album...Presumably, you are talking about the "Mr. Christian" video project. The project was a concept of doing an extended EP per se, only in a video format as opposed to an audio EP: take one of the songs from the album ("Happy Birthday, Mr. Christian"); write a story line around the subject of that song and incorporate other songs from the album into the story to create a mini movie. It was a great idea and the project was a lot of work, but fun. I'm just sorry that it didn't get completed and released. Someone out there got their hands on it and released it on YouTube in its unfinished version. It created a lot of cult interest and keeps appearing from time to time.

Apollonia 6


Prince always told me, "Brenda, you could be singing in a choir of 200 people and I'd still be able to pick out your voice."


Recording Reflections:


17 Days: Love, love, love the song. I have a recording of it when I did the song for the second Vanity 6 album. I wish that one had come to fruition.


Manic Monday was never my cup of tea: too "popish" for me. (I'm) glad The Bangles had a hit with it. I don't think Apollonia 6 would have.

Brenda's son, Dylan, at photo session for work he did designing armour at Rhode Island School of Design


The inspiration for my "A Capella" CD came from a variety of sources. I had put my music career aside when I found myself pregnant with my son. I didn't want to raise him on the road, so I put my guitar away and became a stay-at-home mom. However, once a singer/songwriter ALWAYS a singer/songwriter. I would still pick up my pen and notebook and jot down my ideas and lyrics. When my son got older, I found I had more time to myself-- for myself. I took my guitar out, started putting some of those ideas and lyrics into action and just worked at it a little bit at a time. When I was approached to join the rest of the old Tombstone band for a concert honoring Ken Lyon and his 40 years in the music business, I thought the Lord had his hand on my shoulders once again. Lori Lacaille was one of the people I worked with on that show. It was through her insistence that I stepped into her WolfBear Studios and started laying some tracks down on the songs I had written. My son, Dylan, is the main source of my inspiration in continuing to write. 

Recording session for the "A Capella" album


I would have to say the foremost musical influences in my life, that inspired me to sing and play, are The Beatles. I saw a film clip of them performing for Queen Elizabeth in London about four months before they came to America to do The Ed Sullivan Show. I got chicken skin when I heard their music and I haven't looked back since.


Contrary to what people may think, my "image" in Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6 was a part I played, a character I can identify with. Having grown up a tomboy, I was able to relate and meld into the part of the tough-nut, cigarette-smoking, punk persona I portrayed. But, deep down, I'm just a fuzzy bunny.


My experience filming "Purple Rain" is one that stays with me. I'm a movie nut and have aspirations to write, direct and act in a few films--I have fantastic story lines, too. My mom took me with her to see some of the big classics: "Ben-Hur;" "The Ten Commandments;" "Gone with the Wind." It was through her influence that I got hooked on the world of visual storytelling. I was lucky to be part of the "Purple Rain" film and experienced what it was like behind the scenes and how a film was put together. I thought, "Uh-oh, movie over music," she says with a smile.


Susan Moonsie is very dear to my heart and I feel very blessed to remain close friends with her. She is a beautiful woman, inside and out. Months will go by where we haven't spoken. Yet, when we do, it's still--after all this time--as if we spoke just yesterday. I miss her terribly and wish we saw each other more often.



My new song "Guiltier"...Actually, that's not my newest, but the new one hasn't quite come out yet. "Guiltier" is part of a project I am working on with Charlie Mason, a fine writer from New York. He contacted me through the videos I put on YouTube from the "A Capella" disc and asked me to work with him as a vocalist on some of his songs. I liked what I heard from the mp3 he sent me, but let it ride for quite some time. It wasn't the kind of music I was interested in doing at the time. I had come out with "A Capella," a project with my own songs and, as anyone who listened to the music from that disc would agree, "Guiltier" wasn't something that "matched." Charlie was patient, persistent and finally won me over. I met him in New York and we recorded "Guiltier" in [Greenwich] Village. I had a great time working on it and also on the newest (song) that will be released soon, "Private Party," both of which are on Ninth Wave Records.



I've taken taken a hiatus from music at the moment. I have some new songs in the can, but I haven't gotten around to recording them yet. I DO want to do another disc. Out of all that goes into music, I have to say being in the studio recording is my favorite. I enjoy the whole process of writing, creating new stories and performing them live with my favorite musicians, but I'm happiest when I'm in the studio "cooking." I have a couple of projects I'm working on, movie wise, and hope to see some results from those efforts.


One of the dream projects I have always had was to write and record with--and these two guys are from different ends of the spectrum--Paul McCartney and Keith Urban. Keith was the spark that lit the flame of my creativity again after all my years of hibernating. Out of the four Beatles, Paul is the one I always wanted to sit down and sing with. I think we'd sound great.


Recording Reflections:


Blue Limousine was a bluesy song I liked from the start. (I) loved working with Susannah Melvoin on the vocals to it. The blend and sound of our voices together (was) amazing.


A Million Miles (I Love You) and Some Kind of Lover: I found the inspiration for both of these through my love affair and marriage to Roy Bennett.


People would be surprised to know I swam naked in the pond at Max Yasgur's farm during the Woodstock Festival in 1969.


I try not to look back, always forward. However, when I take a peek, I'm amazed at the life I have been blessed to have and it's not over yet! You're never too old to reinvent yourself. There are some stories and times that will be covered in a biography I have started an outline for--stay tuned for THAT one.


In the future I want to continue with my music and art. See if I can't get a film project or two off the ground, continue with the outline of my biography and I'd like to work with my son. He's an amazing talent. I hope and expect that he will go far with his art.


Stay Beautiful, Kristi

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All photos courtesy of Brenda Bennett.


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