By Akbar Cojoe
She is the legendary singer/songwriter, Brenda Bennett, and she is new to Atlanta. You may know her from the Tombstone Blues Band or as the “cigarette-smoking, tough girl” from the original Pussycat Dolls formed in the early 80s – Prince’s Vanity 6.
There is no doubt, you’ve partied to her sultry vocals on their track “Nasty Girl” or maybe even mimicked her moves in the cult classic motion picture “Purple Rain,” as she so cooly swayed and crooned her way through “Sex Shooter.” She was the voice behind Prince and gave the Minneapolis sound and pop culture a vocal swag that only she could deliver. Her deep lower register vocal influence can be heard in artists like T-Boz (of the legendary girl trio – TLC) and on Jody Watley’s major hit, “Still a Thrill.” And that’s just a couple of examples.
Prince once told Bennett, “You could be in a choir of 100 people and I’d still be able to pick out your voice.”
Brenda Bennett can be heard on lead vocals on “Some Kind Of Lover,” “A Million Miles (I Love You),” and “Blue Limousine” on the 1984 Apollonia 6 album. She can also be heard on background vocals of the song “17 Days” that Prince withdrew from their album. The song became a B-Side of his single “When Doves Cry.” Brenda Bennett was also the first to record the massive hit “Manic Monday,” which was later recorded by The Bangles.
No question, she’s been there and done that. Now she’s in Atlanta, recording pieces to her upcoming CD – A Capella.
My friend, Brenda, and I sat down in Future Soundz Studios in Marietta for a rare interview where she tells it all to our Examiner readers.
What is your full birth name?
Brenda Elizabeth Claire Siobhan.
In what city were you born?
Near Fingal’s Cave; an island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.
Do you have siblings? If so, how many?
Yes, two brothers. Brian, I lost 10 years ago, and it is to him that my latest CD is dedicated. He passed away suddenly from a fall down a flight of stairs. He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and never regained consciousness. He was a fabulous guitar player and he and I were starting to write together again a few months before he died. Then, there is Bruce who is still with me. He’s an awesome bass player and is playing with me on the “A Capella” project; very cool dude.
What is your ethnicity?
I only know so much from my father’s side. His grandfather was German and French. Apparently, he was a pirate.
Were your parents musicians?
Yes… that’s where I got my first exposure to music. My mom played accordion and piano and my dad played guitar. Although my dad didn’t like it, both he and my mom sang. They were both country musicians.
At what age did you discover you were a music lover?
With so many people in my family being musically inclined, music has been a part of my life always. I think I would have to say a particular time. It was a Friday night sometime in the fall of 1963. There used to be a show on Friday nights, The Jack Parr Show. He had a musical guest from time to time and on one particular Friday night, he showed some footage he brought back of a show at the London Palladium Theater in England of a group called The Beatles. I fell in love with them and their music and haven’t looked back since.
At what age did you discover you were blessed with a great singing voice?
I do thank the Lord for the blessing he has bestowed on me to sing and enjoy it. I have been singing since I was a young child. I can never look at myself as being a great singer though. I do like the sound of my voice and feel I have a distinct sound to it.
How many instruments do you play, if any?
Most times, I consider myself a rhythm hacker on guitar. I do play good solid rhythm. I play percussion instruments. A bit of piano and a bit of bass guitar.
What is the name of the very first band you ever joined?
Ken Lyon and The Tombstone Blues Band, it was around 1973. I had just come back from a six-month, back-packing tour of Europe with some friends. On my return, a close friend, Sybilla Hyde, asked if I would be interested in singing as a backup vocalist with a band she had been working with. They’d just landed a recording contract and was signed by Charles Koppelman with the then CBS Records and needed another singer. Anyway, she wanted to know if I would be interested. It was something I always wanted to do. Being that I landed in America with no place to live, no job and only one thin dime in my pocket I figured…’What have I got to lose?’ That is when my own career in music began.
What is the name of the first song you’ve ever written?
I started writing songs at around 12 years old, as I was trying to learn to play guitar. I can’t recall any specific ones that turned out as being memorable, so I’ll have to go with the song that was on the first Tombstone’s album entitled “Hold Me Closer.” I still have people asking me about that one to this day. I guess it stuck in a lot of people’s minds.
How old were you when you wrote it?
I was 19.
Who were some of the artists that inspired you as a musician/songwriter?
The Beatles and Joni Mitchell, as I was starting out… James Taylor… Bonnie Raitt… and yet, I continue to be inspired by people such as Lucinda Williams, Pattie Griffin, Shawn Colvin, Keith Urban, Monty Powell. Just recently, Townes Van Zandt. Oh, yes… and Vivaldi.
Through music videos, your persona comes off as being “overly confident and “take charge.” Is that an accurate representation? If not, which three adjectives best describe Brenda Bennett?
Overlyconfident? Take charge? Yes, I would say confident… not sure about the take charge part. As a mom, and a single one at that, you do have to learn to take charge. However, the Brenda Bennett persona most people saw was a tough nut, tomboy image I was portraying. It was a personality I could relate to having grown up a tomboy. That doesn’t mean I am butch or overly masculine or anything of the sort. It means I grew up with very few girls around with whom I could be friends. The women in my family were very strong, no-nonsense kind of women who learned a lot about life from the school of hard knocks and the struggle to survive.
Do you have any close celebrity friends?
There was a time when I did, but I have spent the last 20 years pretty secluded. I’ve been away from the world of celebrities having and raising my son, so I’m afraid I lost touch. My life has been on a different path those 20 years.
How long did you know Prince before he asked you to be a part of Vanity 6?
About a year.
Where you the first member to join?
No. Actually, I was the last. Vanity and Susan were already in place when I was offered to join them.
Were you and Prince good friends?
My relationship with Prince… first and foremost, was a working professional one. Personally, we cared very much for each other, and yes, we were as good of friends as could be under the circumstances.
Would you consider working for Prince your toughest gig ever?
At the risk of sounding contradictory, I would have to say that on one hand, he was the toughest. But, on the other hand… he was the best. Prince has a way of extracting from you; sometimes painfully and sometimes without you even knowing it. Creatively, he pulls out your best parts; parts you never even knew you had or could do. He wasn’t always nice about it… but then… it wasn’t about being nice. It was about concentrating and extending yourself. It was about learning how to reach out and grow in a direction you may never have even tried to on your own. He has been called “genius” by many people… and for many reasons as well. He is a genius. Musically, I have never worked with anyone like him and I don’t believe I ever will again. I am grateful, proud, and blessed to have had the opportunity to work with him.
Many suspect that Prince has dated everyone in Vanity 6. Did you ever date Prince?
I may have, if I hadn’t been happily married at the time.
As far as a friendship is concerned, to whom were you closer during the era of Vanity 6… Vanity or Susan?
Susan. Both Vanity and Apolloina were the main lead focal points to the group and as such, they were much busier with other things, than Susan and I. Susan and I are still friends and still very close. I love her very much. HA! So, I suppose there’s one celebrity I am still in touch with.
Who was a better friend… Vanity or Apollonia?
They were equally the same for me. They are both very beautiful, funny, warm, and savvy women.
Was there ever a conflict between Vanity 6 and Rick James’ Mary Jane Girls?
Not directly. It wasn’t anything created from our neck of the woods. I never knew anything about a conflict, until I saw something in the press. I didn’t really pay any attention to it at the time. In fact, I don’t even remember what the so-called ‘conflict’ was supposed to be all about.
Do you listen to today’s radio?
I do like listening to the radio and I switch between stations. I like to hear what’s out there but have a hard time with all the commercials.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
I tend to like good songs. Things I listen to in rock are: Nickelback, AC/DC, and Queen.
What is the name of your forthcoming CD?
A Capella. Look for it online in July 2011. Just search for Brenda Bennett.
What is the difference between your new CD, A Capella, and your past work?
This is the first time I have ever done a recording project where the material was all mine. A Capella is a CD that I produced and had a hand in everything from soup to nuts. I have written and recorded a number of things with other people but this project….this one is all me. It was a little daunting to say the least, when I first started, but I had a clear vision of what I wanted to try and get out of it and I kept that vision right up until it was finished. The material is different to what some of you out there are used to hearing from me. This is the real Brenda Bennett standing up. I’m sure when some people listen to it, there will be some to say, Hey! That could be better here or something else would have been better there. At the end of the day, I can say that I am proud of the CD. I believe in the strength of the material, and I will stand by it.
What is the name of your favorite song from the A Capella CD and why is it your favorite?
‘Sidewalk Messiah.’ It’s the oldest one on the disc; the first one I wrote when I started writing again. Apart from that, I love the story and I love the groove. It’s all about the groove!
What is your favorite restaurant in Atlanta?
I’d have to say, Twist at Phipps and Taki. There are a few.
And your favorite Atlanta hangout?
Probably, somewhere looking at houses in Vinings.
If you have a question or comment for Akbar Cojoe email: firstname.lastname@example.org