The moment I laid my eleven year old eyes on her I was transfixed. At first she was just a musical acquaintance. I met her songs through a friend of a friend of a friend’s songs. But the instant I heard the voice that matched the look I knew, instantly, this was a woman whose songs would matter the rest of my life.
My young mind was preoccupied with music. Upon discovering Prince it was like falling into an extravagant and gallant world. In his music, on his album covers, and in his videos, Prince had created a persona and a universe that was sexy, intellectual, fun, and thought-provoking. As a kid I probably learned a lot more from Prince than most of my teachers.
The further you dove into Prince’s world the more there was to discover. Albums by his proteges expanded the universe. The Time’s records were a place that I hung out with the sleek and the debonair. Within Sheila E’s albums I rubbed elbows with kings, jesters, and the likes of Michaelangelo. My ears and mind formed an especially strong kinship with Jill Jones – her powerhouse voice dripping with romance, rebellion, and unbridled free-spirit. For me, the electricity conjured by Prince’s proteges eventually eclipsed his own music.
Alongside Jill Jones, there was one other persona that especially captured my imagination. She rarely sang lead, but her voice was unmistakable. In photographs she stood slightly in the background – but the strength of her pipes and her persona made her unforgettable.
Her name was Brenda Bennett.
At eleven years old I purchased the Apollonia 6 album as a completist. I wanted everything Prince related, and an album by his girl-group was sure to be a good time. I already loved Apollonia and “Sex Shooter” from watching Purple Rain. As the needle hit the wax I knew I was in for a treat.
I was right. The Apollonia 6 album was chock-full of great hooks, campy lyrics, and wall-to-wall memorable songs. The more I listened to the album, the more I loved each cut. Apollonia fronted the group – but on her left was Susan – the nubile, innocent beauty queen with a teddy bear. Brenda Bennett stood to the right of Apollonia on the album cover.
Whereas Apollonia played the front-woman and Susan played the ebony Lolita, Brenda played the hard-luck, cigarette smoking tough girl. With her short-cropped 1980s perm and pink negligees, Brenda was the girl who beat your ass the second you looked at her the wrong way in the biker bar. On the album cover art, in the songs, and in the videos, Brenda Bennett was the embodiment of “don’t fuck with me”.
What made Apollonia 6 (and the original incarnation of the group, Vanity 6) intriguing were the songs themselves. Perhaps it was Prince who actually wrote the songs and performed all the instruments. Disregard that and you are entranced by the personality each of the girls brought to their respective leads. Susan was wispy and monotone – her songs predating the electro crazy by two decades. Apollonia (and Vanity) were coy, flirty, and effective front women. The glue that solidified the group was Brenda. When Brenda Bennett stepped up to the mic the raw and explosive power of her voice both underlined her character and freed her from it. A thousand bands in the 1980s had a woman playing the no-nonsense chick. What made Brenda stand apart is the fact that her voice was as strong as her look. In her vocals you could hear the vulnerability and the eight thousand emotions that run through anyone’s mind and heart – tough or not. Perhaps at the end of the night Brenda was kicking in a guy’s headlights – and maybe she wasn’t going home and crying about it. Still, you could hear the disappointment and depth in her emotive vocals. Perhaps “Blue Limousine”, “(I Love You) A Million Miles” and “Some Kinda Lover” aren’t the songs that the mass public will remember from the Prince camp. But for people in the know, those songs are milestones.
One particular moment sums up the power of Brenda Bennett. On the lush and cottony Vanity 6 album cover “3×2=6”, Vanity carries the song was a girlish and coy lead. During the bridge, Brenda’s voice enters the mix – majestic and powerful. The song climaxes with Vanity cooing the line “unless of course, in another life, U were a man.” As the word “man” is sung, Brenda Bennett kicks in with one of the most powerhouse notes in music, at any time, ever. The song closes out with Brenda’s harmony singlehandedly turning the song from a throw-away to a balls-out anthem. Throughout the entire Vanity 6 album it is Brenda’s harmonies that underscore the songs. While her one lead “Bite The Beat” may be her weakest performance, her sassy monologue on “If A Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up)” was memorized and recited by pop fans globally. A line like “I will take my underwear and stick it in your mouth and you’d love ‘em cause you got no taste” would be campy out of anyone’s mouth. Handled by Brenda Bennett, the song is a home-run.
Following the Apollonia 6 album, Brenda Bennett seemingly disappeared. The 80s closed out without Brenda. During the 1990s not one peep was made. I spent the first decade of the 2000s seeking out Brenda on the internet. All of my searches turned up empty handed. The more I searched the more I discovered that Brenda Bennett had her own cult of followers. A lot of things came and went in the 1980s – but something about Brenda really captured our imaginations.
Finally, a couple years ago I was turned on to a You Tube video by the Ken Lyon Tombstone Blues Band that featured an all-grown up Brenda singing back up vocals. There she was. The camisole was gone and replaced by more conservative garb. Surrounded by two other female singers (much like Apollonia/Vanity 6) Brenda provided the back-ups to a song called “Shaky Ground”. I watched the clip thirty times and then some. Prince-fans feverishly shared the clip with each other. She might look different, but the voice and the spunk were unmistakable. Brenda lived.
Discovering her maiden name, Brenda Mosher, I hoped to then be able to track her down online through the Ken Lyon connection. No luck. Although she’d resurfaced online, Brenda remained as much an enigma as ever.
As life would have it, I ended up becoming friends with Jill Jones – who used to sing with Brenda. During our long chats I asked for some insight into the Brenda behind the voice. Jill too was unsure of where Brenda was today.
So I spent my morning a few weeks ago habitually opening and answering emails. The mundane and routine task of negotiating through my inbox starts all my days. One particular email was accusatory.
“Why haven’t you reviewed Brenda Bennett’s album on Amazon yet Jeremy Gloff?!?!”
And that woke me from my morning daze. Faster than coffee ever has. Quicker than Red Bull ever would.
WHAT? A NEW ALBUM BY BRENDA BENNETT?
My hands were literally shaking as I typed Brenda’s name into Google. Within moments I was on a CDBaby page in front of an album called A CAPELLA. My adrenaline raced as I clicked the first sound file. Was this really the same Brenda? The millisecond that voice issued from my laptop I knew that, indeed, this was the same Brenda.
The sound clips instantaneously blew me away. Here was that voice doing what it was always made to do. Sing country-tingled blues songs about real living. Real emotions. In her lingerie Brenda once played the character of a hard-luck tough girl. In her new songs, Brenda stopped playing the character and sang about a tough and glorious life. All of the truths hinted at in Brenda’s vintage leads had finally come to fruition.
Strangely, one of the last times I’d been this excited about new music was when something similar happened listening to Jill Jones’ 2001 release TWO. Hearing these beloved 1980s voices in new, adult, and brutally honest musical contexts absolutely blows my mind.
Brenda Bennett’s A CAPELLA is every bit the masterpiece that the VANITY 6 and APOLLONIA 6 albums were. Oddly, Brenda’s transition from 1980s Minneapolis pop to timeless roots songwriting feels surprisingly natural. With her voice always as the centerpiece, it is only the instrumentation and the passing of years that separates the material.
A CAPELLA opens with the “Say Love” – a breezy Eagles-shaded country-rocker. Brenda carries the song sounding timeless and wise. The chorus kicks in with a sincere jubilation.
“Follow Me”, the album’s first single, is a standard blues-rocker. In the video, Brenda is adorned with (I believe) the same back-up singers at the Ken Lyon video. It is clear both in the video and the vocal performance that Brenda is having the time of her life.
Track three, “Child Of Light” is a 6/8 Celtic swirl. Majestic, gorgeous. When Brenda hits her upper register it’s heavenly.
“Burden Of Desire”, the fourth track on A CAPELLA, finds Brenda tapping into her sensual side. A bluesier, more grown up “Some Kind Of Lover” – this track finds Brenda growling and alluring as only she can.
“Cry Me A River” – a reverb-laden meditation on friendship and disappointment is simply an ethereal knockout. In this track Brenda’s pledge of allegiance to “easy your troubled mind” is heartfelt and true.
It is with track number six that A CAPELLA, and Brenda Bennett reach their artistic zenith. “Jemmima” opens with a simple acoustic guitar figure. Quickly joined by an eerie electric lead, the song whisks you off your feet. All of the tough luck, hard living, and emotionality once hinted at by Brenda’s 1980s persona comes to full bloom this track. At once knowing, sorrowful, hopeful, wise, hurt, and healing, the wisdom of this song singlehandedly elevates Brenda Bennett to a higher caliber – just when you didn’t think it was possible. Sounding musically like a ghost from an early 1970s Fleetwood Mac album, “Jemmima” is a career highlight and masterpiece.
Following the intensity of “Jemmima” is the quiet and subdued “I Wait For You”. On this cut Brenda sounds romantic and solidified.
Track eight, “Out Of My Mind” find Bennett address the death of her brother. Sounding like an ancient country-and-western tune, “Out Of My Mind” is spiritual and knowing. I can’t express how thankful I am Brenda shook off her dusty and rusty guitar to write these songs.
“Shattered Dreams” is an acoustic and voice number. At one point towards the middle Brenda sounds straight off of Joni Mitchell’s FOR THE ROSES, taking advantage of that surprising higher register.
The album closes with the grooving “Sidewalk Messiah”. Throughout the album Brenda peppers in references to her faith in God. Myself, not being religious, didn’t find this distracting. If anything, it only added to the truth and sincerity of the record. It’s a true testament to the importance of expression through music when all belief systems are transcended by song. Believe or not, the truths about life, love, and living in A CAPELLA are undeniable.
It’s been almost thirty years since we’ve heard from Brenda Bennett. Let’s hope it doesn’t take that long to hear from her again. So far 2011/2012 is shaping up to be quite wonderful. I recently met Apollonia at Jill Jones’ wedding, and a new album from Brenda just came into my life. Susan, can you hear us?
Although she might not be as well known as Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, or Janis Joplin, Brenda Bennett plays in the same league. Her voice, her words, and her legacy are one of a kind – whether she’s singing to a Prince-penned track, or singing A CAPELLA.