In 1984, Cincinnati-born Penny Ford burst onto the R&B and Dance charts in America and Europe with “Change Your Wicked Ways” and “Dangerous.” The singer, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist was barely out of her teens when she became the first female solo artist signed to prominent R&B label Total Experience Records. Big Break Records’ expanded CD reissue of her Pennye LP shines a new light on the roots of a career that boasts collaborations with everyone from Chaka Khan to Klymaxx, and from Snap! to Zapp. She talks with Justin Kantor about the highs and the lows, the loves and the losses, then and now.
You demonstrated musical proficiency from a very young age. What do you remember about those beginnings?
The odd thing is that I was raised in Cincinnati by my grandparents to keep me away from a musical environment. They were trying for me to have a normal life. But the music started coming out of me when I was very young, so my grandmother slowly and reluctantly cultivated it. It was a real natural, esoteric kind of thing. It let me know that a lot of things run in the blood, because there was no one there to encourage me or teach me to do music. I’m glad I really got that part of my DNA.
Did you start with the piano?
My grandmother put me in piano lessons at the Catholic school that I went to with sister Miriam. I started taking lessons when I was five. I skipped two grades. So, before I showed musical prowess, I was a gifted kid. I just had this natural thing of picking up whatever it was: scholastic, musical, or creative. My grandma kept me busy. Plus, I was hyper! I was in dance lessons, music lessons, and on top of all that, I was the smallest kid. I had to do a lot of extra stuff to get attention. I did pageants, drama, marching band, cheerleading, and volleyball—whatever they could do to wear me out during the course of the day, they did it.
Your father was Gene Redd, musical director at the famed King Records. Did he play any role in your musical development?
King Records was in Cincinnati. That’s how he and my mom, Carolyn Ford, met. I knew from an extraordinarily young age that I needed to do music, or I would die. I remember, I was 10 years old and coming form the public swimming pool, and I was on the same street that L.A. Reid lived on at that time. As I was walking, I heard “Tell Me Something Good” by Rufus featuring Chaka Khan. It was at that moment that I knew what my destiny was. It totally changed my life. I ended up singing with Chaka eventually—not letting anything stop me until I got to that point.
Didn’t you also win a Talented Teen Pageant?
Yes, that all came along with it. In cities like Cincinnati, pageants are more about talent than beauty. I think I wowed them more by the fact that I was so hyper. The year I won, for my talent showcase I fit into a two-and-a-half-minute slot, reading a Maya Angelou piece, playing a song I wrote on the piano, and finishing out with “Summertime” a cappella. I was that kid! It was always too much, [and] overdone. I guess there’s something to be said for that. I can’t believe that I won.
Another quite notable experience you had as a teenager was touring with seminal electro-funk group Zapp as part of a Parliament-Funkadelic tour. How did you land that gig?
Well, Bootsy Collins is also from Cincinnati. So many of his band members were around the scene there. I was just this little 14-year-old girl, and people were wondering: How did she get in this club? I was just that determined. I would hang around with the bands. My grandmother let me go on the road with Zapp. Ironically, the two people that picked me up to take me to the buses were Roger Troutman and his brother, Larry—the one who later killed him. That was the first time I ever went on the road and got to experience what it was all about. My grandmother was a little loose with her parenting in that she knew that she had to let me go do this, or suffer the consequences of having a crazy, hyperactive child who was not living her dreams. I was that intense about it. She just backed up and was like, “I’m gonna pray for you and I’m here.”