While most fifteen year olds might spend their summer holidays at summer camp or working a part-time job, Pennye Ford spent time touring with Ohio funk band Zapp, who were opening for Parliament-Funadelic. A year later, Pennye spent time touring Japan as lead singer of funk band Reach. For some people, Pennye spending time touring the world with a funk band might seem an unorthodox childhood. However, not everyone was born into a family steeped in music and had been playing music since they were five. Her mother was singer Carolyn Ford and her father Gene Redd Sr, an executive at King Records, whose roster included James Brown. Pennye’s sister was the late Sharon Redd, released three albums during the early eighties and is best known for the dance classic Beat the Streets, while Pennye’s brother Gene Redd Jr, managed and produced Kool and The Gang. So, given Pennye Ford’s musical pedigree, she was almost predestined to become a singer. Indeed, Pennye Ford was only nineteen when she released her debut album Pennye, which will be rereleased by BBR Records in September 2012. This was thought to be first step in a glittering career, with Pennye Ford perceived as the next great soul singer. Would Pennye Ford’s debut album Pennye prove to be the first step to greatness?
Having spent three months tourning Japan with Reach, Pennye decided it was time to head home. Waiting until Reach were changing flights in Japan, Pennye made the excuse that she had to head home to visit a cousin, she hopped on flight to Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, Pennye caught a break. She started working for Motown’s music publishing business. Her job entailed singing demos for the publishing company. Soon, Pennye’s vocal talents were in demand, with people booking her for session work. So it was no surprise when Pennye signed a recording contract, one with a label perfectly suited for a new artist, Total Experience Records.
By the early eighties, Total Experience were one of the hottest labels, with groups like The Gap Band on their roster. They were known for nurturing new talent. Rather than rush a new artist into recording their debut album. Pennye had come across the label purely by chance, and after meeting some of the staff, had taken to visiting the label each day. Then one day, a disgruntled receptionist said that you’re here so often that we’d better hear you sing. Little did the receptionist know that not only could Pennye sing, but could play seven instruments. Even Total Experience Records’ President Lonnie Simmons was skeptical.
Having convinced Lonnie to give her the use of a studio for the day, Pennye was set to record a demo with The Gap Band backing her. Despite The Gap Band failing to show, Pennye had a productive day. She wrote five songs from scratch, recorded them and played each instrument. The only help Pennye had was from an engineer. Now Pennye had won over Lonnie Simmons, he gave her a contract, but as a songwriter. That would soon change. Pennye cowrote a song with Oliver Scott and sang the demo. Once Total Experience President heard the demo, Pennye Ford had her recording contract. Now she could begin work on her debut album, which would become Pennye.
For Pennye Ford’s debut album Pennye, nine songs were chosen. Of these nine tracks, Penny wrote Serious Love and cowrote two with Oliver Scott, Change Your Wicked Ways and Ready For Love. Pennye also cowrote Spend My Time With You with Jimmy Maurice Hayes and Rick Adams of Prime Time, another Total Experience group. Johah Ellis a Total Experience staff-writer, who wrote Don’t Stop the Music for Yarbrough and Peoples, penned and produced three tracks, while Cavin Yarbrough and Ailsa Peoples, now signed to Total Experience cowrote Never Let You Go. These nine tracks, which comprised Pennye, were recorded at two studios in Los Angeles.
Recording took place at Total Experience Recording Studios and Hollywood Sound Labs Recording Studios in Los Angeles. Accompanying Pennye Ford were many of Total Experience’s staffers and artists. Pennye played piano, keyboards and drums, while Johan Ellis and Maurice Hayes both played bass and lead guitar, with Johan also playing drums. Ailsa Peoples played keyboards, Jimmy Hamilton percussion and Cavin Yarbrough sang backing vocals. Paulinho DaCosta was drafted in to play percussion, with Julia and Maxine Waters adding backing vocals. Mostly though, Total Experience kept things in-house. Once Pennye was completed, the album was scheduled for release in October 1984.
Sadly, tragedy was about to enter Pennye’s life. On hearing Pennye was about to be released, Pennye phoned her father, now a detective with the NYPD at his precinct, only to discover he’d been tragically murdered. Now the release of her debut album must have paled into significance. However, Pennye now decided to dedicate Pennye to her late father.
On the release of Pennye Ford’s debut album Pennye in October 1984, it reached number thirty-nine in the US R&B Charts. Change Your Wicked Ways was released as a single in October 1984, reaching number twenty-five in the US R&B Charts, number forty-nine in the US Dance Charts and number seventy-six in the UK. Six months later, Dangerous was released as a single in April 1985. It reached number forty-two in the US R&B Charts, number twenty-five in the US Dance Charts and number forty-three in the UK. The final single Uh Oh, I Made A Mistake, released in July 1985 failed to chart. Then after the low of losing her father, and the high of Pennye’s success, joy and tragedy would enter Pennye’s life again.
After the release of Pennye, Pennye hit the road promoting her album with Charlie Wilson of The Gap Band. Then when doing a radio phone-in, Pennye discovered she’d a brother and sister she never knew about. Gene Redd Jr, phoned the radio station asking to speak privately with Pennye. He’d been cleaning out his father’s locker when he discovered letters and photos from Pennye. Tragically, a month after getting in touch with Pennye, Gene Redd Jr, died. On the night of a concert to celebrate Gene’s life, Pennye met the sister she never knew she had, Sharon Redd, who by 1984, had released three albums. The last few months of Pennye’s life had been a serious of highs and lows, and in between them, she’d managed to release and promote an album, Pennye, which I’ll now tell you about.
Opening Pennye is Feel the Music, penned and produced by Jonah Ellis. This is an eighties electronic dance track, complete with drum machines, synths and percussion. Unlike many eighties electronic dance tracks, this has aged well. Mind you, with Pennye feisty vocal, that’s no surprise. She grabs the song, and makes it her own. Meanwhile stabs and washes of synths, crispy drums and percussion create a catchy backdrop, while Pennye’s vocal grows in power. By the end of the track, she’s unleashed a powerful, lung-bursting vocal tour de force, that’s a fiiting way to open any album, never mind a debut album.
There’s a real change in sound on Uh Oh, I Made A Mistake, which is a much more soulful sounding ballad. It’s a style that really suits Pennye’s vocal style, as she’s singing within herself. The arrangement, like Pennye’s vocal builds and builds, on this real slow burner of a track. From just small acorns, with keyboards and drums punctuating the arrangement, the rhythm section, keyboards and strings combine. They create an uptempo, joyous backdrop for Pennye’s vocal, which has a real sixties Motown influence. Flourishes of keyboards, chiming guitars and elegant strings combine as the drama and power of arrangement and vocal build. Later, when Pennye delivers a half-spoken vocal, there’s touch of Diana Ross, before searing rocky guitars drive the track along. Although this is quite unlike the opening track, this is the side of Pennye I’d like to hear more of and what makes it a highlight of Pennye.
Change Your Wicked Ways is one of two tracks Pennye cowrote with Oliver Scott. It’s another uptempo track, where dance and R&B are fused. Pennye’s band tease you for a few bars before getting down to business. When they do, drums crack, guitars riff and keyboards accompany Pennye’s tender vocal. Straight away, there’s a slight early Madonna sound, before Pennye’s vocal grows in power and sassiness. Meanwhile, her band create a backdrop that’s typical of the early to mid eighties. Having said that, it’s stood the test of time and features a quite irresistible dance-floor friendly groove. Key to that is Pennye’s vocal. She makes the song swing, while her band fuse rocky guitars, eighties synths and drums with R&B. The result is a hook-laden, irresistible sounding track, that was the perfect choice for the lead single.
Serious Love is the only track Pennye wrote herself. It features a bold dramatic arrangement, where crispy drums, driving keyboards and percussion are combined before Pennye’s vocal enters. She delivers a deliberate, confident vocal as banks of marauding synths and keyboards, augmented by drum machines and percussion produce a quick, dramatic arrangement. Bursts of gentle backing vocalists provide a contrast to Pennye’s power and confidence, as she proves she’s also a talented songwriter as well as singer.
Don’t You Know That I Love You is another example of the innovative, cutting-edge music coming out of Total Experience Records. While this track was recorded between 1983 and 1984, it’s something that you’d expect to hear later that decade. If an artist like Madonna had recorded it, it would’ve been hailed as masterstroke. It’s a combination of electronic music, funk, soul and dramatic, gospel-tinged harmonies. Pennye’s vocal is a fusion of funk and soul, allowing her to unleash her vocal range. She’s accompanied by gospel-tinged harmonies, while eighties synths and drums provide a mid-tempo backdrop that accentuates the drama and soulfulness in Pennye’s voice.
Ready For Love was the second Oliver Scott and Pennye Ford composition. This allows Pennye to return to her more soulful side, albeit on a mid-tempo track. Stabs of keyboards and synths combine with crispy drums as Pennye scats her way through the introduction before delivering a joyous vocal. Tight, soaring harmonies accompany her, while rolls of drums, keyboards and synths combine. As the song progresses, Pennye recovers her earlier sassiness, as she feeds off her backing vocalists. In doing so, she creates one of the catchiest, most uplifting tracks on Pennye.
Drums crack, while a sprinkling of percussion and stabs of synths combine as Dangerous reveals its secrets. Pennye whispers her vocal, before allowing the synths to takeover. When her vocal returns, it’s powerful and confident, soaring high as backing vocalists accompany her. Meanwhile, the percussive and synth heavy arrangement seems created with the dance-floor in mind. When Pennye’s feisty vocal is added, the dance-floor loved the track, with the single reaching number twenty-four in the US Dance Charts.
Never Let You Go was written by Cavin Yarbrough and Ailsa Peoples and produced by Cavin who were at the height of their career. It features a tender, heartfelt vocal from Pennye, set against synths, percussion and the rhythm section. With backing vocalists adding harmonies, it’s quite simply the most beautiful song on Pennye. There’s a real needy, vulnerable sound to Pennye’s vocal, as she delivers the song with a real maturity. Later, a searing guitar solo adds to the drama and power of the track. By the end of the track, you’re smitten by this gorgeous track, that’s a real hidden gem and the highlight of Pennye.
Closing Pennye is Spend My Time With You another slice of funky music. From the get-go, you’re struck by the track’s catchy sound. The beats are crisp, with synths and percussion accompanying Pennye’s tender vocal. Flourishes of guitars, washes of synths and crunchy beats provide the backdrop, before Pennye and her backing vocalists indulge in some glorious vocal interplay. Her backing vocalists are the perfect foil for her heartfelt, tender lead vocal and play a huge part in the track’s success. When this is combined with some quality lyrics and Jimmy Hamilton and Maurice Hamilton’s production, the result is an irresistible sounding track. So good, you wonder why a track as hooky as this wasn’t released as a single?
Although Pennye Ford’s debut album Pennye wasn’t the huge success that had been hoped for, with everything that was going on in her life I’m sure the relative success of album paled into insignificance. After all, she’d lost her father in tragic circumstances, discovered a family she never knew existed and then lost one of them in equally tragic circumstances within months of Pennye’s release. Having said that, Pennye is a debut album that showcases Pennye Ford’s considerable skills. Not only does she come across as a talented vocalist, but an equally talented musician and songwriter. Having released such a promising debut album Pennye, you’d imagine that Pennye Ford would go on to release a string of albums. Sadly, that wasn’t to be. Once she started work on her followup album, she discovered that neither man nor woman can live on bread alone. Pennye wasn’t being paid much byTotal Experience, who felt a hungry artist was a creative artist. So, Pennye left Total Experience and wouldn’t release another solo album for nine years, until she released Pennye Ford in 1993. In the interim period, Pennye worked in the music industry, but not as a solo artist. For me, this meant an up and coming singer-songwriter with bags of potential was lost to music. Maybe if Pennye had chosen to sign for a different label, her career would’ve taken a very different route. Sadly, Pennye, which will be rereleased by BBR Records in September 2012, is a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been and for the hugely talented Pennye Ford. Standout Tracks: I Feel the Music, Uh Oh, I Made A Mistake, Change Your Wicked Way and Don’t You Know That I Love You.