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Interview: Penny Ford – The Power of Experience

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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.

Penny 1

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.

Penny 2

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?

About Justin Kantor

Justin Kantor is a music journalist with a passion for in-depth artist interviews and reviews. Most of his interviews for Blogcritics can be heard on his Blog Talk Radio program, "Rhythmic Talk." Justin's work has been published in Wax Poetics, The All-Music Guide, and SoulMusic.com. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Music Business and Management program, he honed his writing chops as a teenager—publishing "The Hip Key" magazine from 1992-1996. The publication, which was created out of his childhood home in Virginia Beach, reached a circulation of 10,000 by the time he was 16. At Berklee, Justin continued to perfect his craft with a series of 'Underrated Soul' features for The Groove from 1997-2003. This led to a companion TV show on Manhattan Neighborhood Network in 2002, as well as writing for the national Dance Music Authority (DMA). A self-described "obscure pop, dance, and R&B junkie," Justin also has penned liner notes for reissue labels such as Edsel Records and FunkyTownGrooves. He's excited to be a part of the BlogCritics team and indulge his musical fancies even further. Connect with him at his Facebook page, or via krystolfan@gmail.com.