2011-11-03 / News

Jamestowner who sang with Prince releases new solo album

BY KEN SHANE


Brenda Bennett began her music quest after seeing the Beatles perform on television on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964. Less than 20 years later she was going on tours with Prince. 
PHOTO COURTESY OF BRENDA BENNETT Brenda Bennett began her music quest after seeing the Beatles perform on television on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964. Less than 20 years later she was going on tours with Prince. PHOTO COURTESY OF BRENDA BENNETT Music has been a part of Brenda Bennett’s life for as long as she can remember. Both of her parents were musicians, and her childhood home in the North Kingstown area was filled with the sound of country music. Everyone in her family played an instrument.

For many musicians, it was the first appearance of the Beatles on television that inspired them to pick up an instrument. The same was true for Bennett. “We watched the show and I got chicken skin listening to it,” Bennett recalled. “I haven’t looked back since.”

Soon after that, Bennett picked up her father’s guitar and began to teach herself how to play. She got some Beatles’ songbooks and learned their songs, but restricted her playing to her bedroom.

By the time she was 19, Bennett was living on Green Lane in Jamestown and writing songs, but still not performing publicly. Her entry into the world of live performance began when she filled in for someone who couldn’t make a gig in Point Judith. “That was my first time on stage, doing something in public, something besides singing in a choir,” Bennett said.

A couple of years later, Bennett was asked to be a backup singer for Rhode Island’s legendary Ken Lyon & The Tombstone Blues Band. Having no other prospects at the time, Bennett took the job. The band toured nationally with artists like Queen, Aerosmith, Edgar Winter and Steppenwolf. They were signed to Columbia Records. Their first album was recorded in Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland studios in New York City.

Seemingly on the verge of big-time success, the band crumbled. “We went into the studio to do the second album and the band kind of fell apart,” Bennett said. “It was one thing or another. Drugs and alcohol. Bad management. Bad decisions. All of those kind of things were happening in the ’70s. There was an excess of everything.”

Bennett decided to take the opportunity to hone her own skills as a lead singer while continuing to write songs. She was in and out of a lot of bands. It was then that she met and married a lighting designer by the name of Roy Bennett. In 1980, he was hired to work on Prince’s national tour. “If Prince liked you, you were in,” Bennett said. “Roy is a great guy. Not many people dislike him. Prince immediately took to him and hired him.”

The couple was engaged at the time, and Roy asked Brenda to come to New York to meet Prince. Bennett vividly recalls learning of John Lennon’s death in an elevator on her way to the first show of Prince’s tour.

In July 1981, Prince was ready to go on tour again, this time to promote his new album “Controversy.” Roy asked Brenda to come along. “I can’t come and be on the tour bus without having earned my spot on the bus,” Bennett said. “I’m not the kind of woman who can go shopping every day.”

Ultimately, Bennett was convinced to come along. “I ended up with four jobs,” she laughed. “Two jobs for Prince, and two jobs for the lighting crew.” The two jobs she had for Prince were taking care of his wardrobe, and filming his show each night so that he could study the films to hone his act.

One night before a show, Prince was listening to a rough mix of a Stevie Nicks song called “Stand Back.” Nicks had asked Prince to help her with the song. Bennett, ever the singer, began to sing along with the cassette. “The music stopped and I turned around to look and Prince was staring at me in the mirror,” she said. “He said he didn’t realize that I could sing. I told him that I’d been singing for a long time, that I liked to sing.

“He said, ‘I think we can do something about that,’ and asked if I would be interested in getting involved in the organization,” Bennett said. “Vanity and Susan were already lined up and he needed one more person to fill [Vanity 6, a female vocal trio,] out. I was looking for a spot somewhere that was an original music situation.”

“Prince was really good for a lot of people that hadn’t done things that much on their own, seeing talent, recognizing talent, and utilizing talent,” Bennett said. “I thought it was going to be fun, and it was, and a lot of work. Working for Prince was not a picnic in a lot of ways. He was very strict. He was tough. It was good training for me in many ways.”

The only real dispute that Bennett had with Prince during her time with him was not about music, but about how she dressed. “The only clashes I had with him were about what I wore,” she said. “I didn’t want to wear the lingerie. He would want me to be a bit more revealing than I ever wanted to be. It has its place. We opened a lot of doors for the women who came after us.”

While Vanity and Apollonia were the sex symbols, and Susan was the innocent schoolgirl, Bennett was given the role of the tough girl in the group. “It’s a character that I could relate to,” she said. “I played the punk. I can be a tough nut. I grew up being a tomboy. I am a softie underneath.”

Despite the hard work and the confl icts, Bennett recalls her time with Prince fondly. “There are always going to be things that you don’t think about,” she said. “It was more than 20 years ago now that ‘Purple Rain’ was at its height and [Prince] had reached his pinnacle. It means something different to me than to other people. There were a lot of good times. I really learned a lot. I wouldn’t give up any of that time, but there were moments that it was not glamorous. There were some tough times. I wound up in the hospital four times with exhaustion.”

The Vanity 6 album that Bennett was involved in went gold. The “Apollonia 6” album went platinum, representing sales of one million copies.

Following her departure from the Prince organization, Bennett took some time off to raise her son here in Jamestown. When some old friends contacted her to do a benefit show four years ago, she found herself enjoying live performance again. Following a sold-out show in honor of her old bandmate Ken Lyon, Bennett found herself playing with Lyon again for a couple of years.

One of the band’s back-up singers had a recording studio and offered Bennett the opportunity to record her own material for the first time. The planning for the album that became “A Capella” began four years ago.

The “A Capella” album features 10 original Bennett songs. She produced the album, sang, and played guitar and percussion. Bennett skillfully blends country rock, rhythm and blues, folk, and pop influences into a completely pleasing stew. “If you can hear any kind of influence when you listen to it, that will be for you to say.” Bennett said.

Bennett is currently working on a video project related to the album, and hopes to resume live performance again soon. “At some point, that’s on the list,” she said.

“A Capella” can be purchased locally at Cathryn Jamieson Salon, and at the Village Hearth. Online sources included iTunes, Amazon and CD Baby.

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