Amongst the vast groups of tutors in the Learning Assistance Center (LAC) there is one that knows several languages and is “20 Feet from Stardom.” It was a regular Monday afternoon with what seemed like a crazy commotion, yet it was organized chaos with tutors assisting students.
Claudia Lennear sat amongst the tutoring students. What many students do not realize is that she has led a “rock star” life. Her name is known amongst the 60s and 70s soul and rock music fanatics, mainly in the music industry. She was a background vocalist for many bands starting with Ike and Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and several other well known bands.
She seemed to have dropped off the face of the Earth for many who followed her career, but she has emerged again into the music world. Lennear had a big influence in the music industry. It is alleged that Mick Jagger from the Rolling Stones wrote “Brown Sugar” for her, and David Bowie wrote “Lady Grinning Soul” for her.
“Why should I sit around be obsessed if whether they wrote a song about me or not. Why didn’t they write a song for me to sing, that would have helped,” Lennear said while laughing and smiling. “I can’t say I don’t care. I think it’s really really nice.”
Gil Friesen, producer, had a production company approach Lennear last year to be in a documentary about background vocalists, their influence, and what they have been up to.
As she sat in the chair with a desk filled with papers and tutors in the background teaching students, she said in awe, “I never met Crow, but she brought up my name to the producer and director. It’s fantastic.”
The director Morgan Neville, had the idea to put a thread through all the background vocalists in the 70s and 80s and see what their lives were like, and how they influenced the music industry. The background vocalists in the documentary will include Love, Lisa Fischer and Táta Vega.
“Somewhere along the line we all touched bases, but we never met,” Lennear said and added that she has only recently met them at a premiere of the film a month ago.
The story is unraveled through Bruce Springsteen, Bowie, Jagger, Stevie Wonder, and Sheryl Crow in the documentary “20 Feet from Stardom.” They tell the story of these highly unknown background vocalists in the albums of many of bands like the Rolling Stones, Bowie, and Wonder. However, Darlene Love, one of the background vocalists was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a couple years ago.
“The film is interesting because it doesn’t just tell my story, it tells four to five other people’s stories,” Lennear said.
The documentary won at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013. It immediately got bought by the Weinstein Company and will start showing in Los Angeles on June 14 and other locations nationwide.
The crew of “20 Feet From Stardom” came to Mt. SAC last year to interview Lennear and filmed her auditioning for the women’s ensemble conducted by instructor Melissa McIntosh Landis.
When the auditions occurred she was auditioning with another girl, who was singing the alto while she sang the soprano part of the song.
“I was nervous to do it,” Lennear said. “It ended up working out.”
Lennear has been coming to Mt. SAC for the past year and a half. She intends to get her teaching credentials, although she has already been teaching foreign languages for several years, and is going to school to learn the fine art of singing.
“Like night and day it’s totally different [singing] with rock ‘n’ roll you just stand there, you just feel it and sing,” she said as she was dancing in the chair. “Here at Mt. SAC you’re singing more of a fine art, you have to breath and sing the notes with no amplification. I had to learn to project.”
Lennear’s interest in music got started with her mother. They would sing along to songs they listened to on the radio.
“I got the bug from my mom, she taught me a lot of gospel music,” she said. “She taught me how to harmonize, I learned an awful lot about music from her.”
Lennear grew up in Rhode Island and during her senior year moved to California. Her final year of high school she started to go to rock ‘n’ roll concerts in Los Angeles. She eventually started meeting people that were involved in the industry in some way.
“I met Shirley Matthews,” Lennear said. “She said you know Ike Turner is looking for a new singer, let me call him and I’ll set up a meeting.”
Lennear lit up, and said she thought that was stardom. Ike hired her on the spot, and she had to fly to Houston, Texas to rehearse for the show that same night.
“I only had an hour or so to rehearse, they quickly showed me what to do,” she said. “I bumped into some people on stage unintentionally.”
She laughed thinking about the whole ordeal. The routines and dances were different for each song, which she had to learn within a short period.
“I have to admit I found myself mouthing the words, cause I didn’t know where to go my first time,” she said while laughing. “I knew the words so I could mouth the words. I’m sure i was a complete klutz. I’m sure somebody in the audience would have said oh she is way off.”
She added while laughing that she acted “demure like nothing was wrong” and played it off “cool.”
During her musical career her parents were supportive of her and would attend her shows.
“My parents were music lovers,” Lennear said. ” They just never pursued it as a career.”
As her music career soared, she continued to meet many musicians and subsequently made a full length album in 1973 called “Phew!” which featured Allen Toussaint.
In the late 70s to early 80s Lennear started to phase out of the music scene and had a drive to pursue education.
“Way back in the day, when it was the hippie movement, it was a lot of free love, free music, free drugs and free this and free that,” she said.
“A lot of that stuff would come to you. You would have to make a choice whether you want this or you don’t.”
The ambiance around her changed and she started to witness a lot of friends over indulge and overdose.
“Thats when I decided to change, to follow my first part of the idea to pursue my languages either go to the U.N. or teach,” she said. “But the music never left my heart.”
It was time for a new chapter in the young artist’s life.
“I’m not saying I didn’t participate either, I’m not miss goodie good shoes,” she said. “I did my fair share, after a while that got old and I had to move on. Either get a hit record or something like that, but those opportunities weren’t coming. You have to pay the bills so I decided to pursue education.”
Like most background vocalists in the 70s full compensation was rare. Lennear said that Ike had this “laundry list” or fines which listed a variety of criteria that needed to be met during a performance. If any of the background vocalists did not meet a specific one, their pay would be substantially lowered.
“it was hard to get your full pay if Ike saw something that he didn’t like that you were doing,” she said. ” Maybe you weren’t singing loud enough or dancing hard enough; he started to signal at you which meant that $50 to $60 were coming out of your check. He was looking for ways to not pay you.”
Lennear changed her career into business management for several years. She worked at Albertson’s and was managing the grocery store for several years.
“I was thinking of education when I was there, I was going to be a trainer of managers,” she said. “Then I decided to come back to the classroom. I came to Mt. SAC to get my business certificate.”
After her store went under, she began to go on a different career path at Mt. SAC.
“Retail just wasn’t my ultimate cup of tea,” she said.
She is active in school life while being part of Alpha Gamma Sigma (AGS), she is also a tutor in the LAC office. Lennear speaks multiple languages fluently such as Spanish and French. She also has a reading knowledge of German and Italian. Nevertheless she continues to expand her linguistic abilities by learning Greek and Latin; two dead languages.
With her extensive knowledge in linguistics it allows her to tutor a variety of students.
She looks to inspire students that come in for tutoring.
“Claudia is an extraordinary individual who is attentive to the needs of the students she helps in the course of her duties,” said LAC support specialist Marlene Espina. “She is methodical in explaining concepts that challenge students.”
Lennear leaves a lasting impression to her co-workers and boss’. Her co-workers were surprised how humble she was. She is not one to talk about herself and her success.
“She never mentioned anything about her fame or those people she knew, so I ‘googled’ her because I was curious, and I came across her music,” said co-worker Tayyaba Mosavi. “She has an amazing voice!”
Lennear’s work ethic, friendly attitude and humility is what awes her co-worker.
“She’s an individual who knows the ‘top-dogs’ of the music industry, yet she prefers to remain aloof from the media attention and, instead, serves her community,” Mosavi said. “I really like that about her. I think that greatness is multifaceted, and it can come in the form of community service, which is what Claudia has in addition to her musicianship.”
Lennear finds teaching rewarding.
“These students teach me an awful lot. They may think they’re coming for help and they are, but once we have a back and forth I walk away just as enrich because everybody has a different point of view,” she said. “The ultimate reward is that my explanation was good enough to trigger something that they got the idea.”
Asides from teaching Lennear wants to be in the LA Philharmonic Master Chorale in the near future.
She smiled and with her eyes brightly lit said she wants to be a part of an ensemble or choir because the energy from it she “absolutely loves.”
Trailer of “20 Feet from Stardom”
Print edition: Mick Jagger and Morgan Neville’s names are misspelled.