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.”
What was it like for you touring at that age?
It was a period of discovery for all of us. “More Bounce to the Ounce” had just hit. Basically, my father raised all of those guys. They came through King Records and James Brown. So when that was mentioned, everybody surrounded me like a little sister. I can hold my own musically, so I wasn’t walking in the door with a push-up bra and clear heels on!
Were audiences surprised that you were so young, or did you look sophisticated for your age?
The thing is, if you go out on a Parliament-Funkadelic tour, you never know what the hell you’re gonna see next. I could’ve been a little person. I don’t think anybody knew or cared. But my voice has always been an adult one. When I was singing in clubs back then, I was sounding like Chaka. I was extraordinarily small to begin with, and I was 14. They had to know, even though I had a double Remy Martin and a cigarette. I had the whole Billie Holiday thing, sitting in a chair, drinking a double scotch and singing “God Bless the Child”!
Was it your participation in the Parliament-Funkadelic tour that led to you becoming a demo singer for Motown’s publishing company, Jobete Music?
That came a couple of years later. I was 16 and about to graduate from high school. I got a gig to travel with a band from Cincinnati to Japan for three months. It was the first time out of the country for us. Coming back, I remember making the connection at LAX. I said to myself, “If I go back to Cincinnati, I may never make it back out of there.” So I stayed in L.A. I hate to say it, and I wouldn’t advise anyone else to do it, but I wandered around the airport, and by some grace of God, these two angels—guys that worked for customs—basically let me stay at their house in Inglewood near the airport for two months. I just needed them to let me stay there with my luggage until I got some stuff going. These two guys were like, “Here’s this young girl. We don’t know what she wants.” I had the gift of gab. I was myopic about it. I had no fear. I could only see getting my ass in the music business.
I could have been raped, trafficked, or killed! All of those things were going on there. Thank God it was who it was. But I also have a strong spiritual background, and I had a lot of people praying for me, so nothing like that ever went down. I would catch the bus to Hollywood everyday, and just walk down Sunset Boulevard. I’d walk in the front door and say, “I can sing. Who do I talk to?” I didn’t know you were supposed to have a tape or a picture. I remember starting from La Brea and Sunset, and eventually I got to Sunset and Argyle—where the Motown building was. I went in [and] met some people. They just happened to be the nephews of Berry Gordy, and they took me to their aunt Ana, who made me sing “Summertime” in the lobby, on the spot. She gave me a job as a demo singer.
I did a couple of tunes for Chaka long before I met her. That’s how I made it out of Motown to get to Total Experience Records. I met Bobby Watson from Rufus on a day that I was just about to call my mom and accept defeat. I was ready to go back home to Cincinnati. I had been out there for a year, and things had gotten kind of rough. I didn’t really have any place to go. I wasn’t willing to sleep on the streets. My experience sleeping on the streets was one night with a girlfriend of mine, in the ladies’ lounge of the Ambassador Hotel—with French provincial furniture!
My friend and I were arguing over who got the biggest piece of a Snickers bar. I said, “That’s it! This is ridiculous. I need to go home and regroup, at least.” But Bobby was at a hot dog stand that day with Ivan Neville. I had been so close to going to a phone booth, but I was a lifelong Rufus fan and my eyes were big. My friend, who was from New Orleans and knew Ivan, said to Bobby, “She sounds just like Chaka!” I sang a couple of Chaka songs, and Bobby let me stay at his house while I sang some demos for him. That’s how I ended up extending my stay.
How did you ultimately end up at Total Experience Records?
I was working with Bobby, and still sort of working with Motown. But I knew that they weren’t going to sign me. They were giving us stupid options—like if I write a song, I could either take $35 but have to give them all the publishing, or I could have my publishing and take nothing. I knew I wasn’t gonna go any further there. They weren’t signing me as a writer, nor as an artist. So, I just wandered up the street one day and saw a bunch of black people standing outside of a building, and they happened to be The Gap Band. I struck up a conversation, and I went back to that building every day. I’d sit in the lobby and talk to the receptionist. I got on their nerves enough until somebody let me sing!
I sang for the receptionist. At the time, I was playing seven instruments. I went in the back and played and sang for The Gap Band, and they took me to Lonnie Simmons. He said, “I’ma tell you what,” in the Texas style. “I’ll give you six hours in the studio. Since you’re so good, I’ma see. I’ll even send some of these Gap Band guys over to help you. You do a song and see what you can do in six hours.” So, I showed up at the studio, but nobody showed up except for second engineer Mark Shigman, who is now P!nk’s drummer. Back then, he was, like, the teaboy. I asked him, “Do you play anything?” He said he played drums and a little guitar. I asked if he had a guitar, and he said yes. So I told him to go get it.
Meanwhile, I started programming drums and putting down some basic pads with the Rhodes. I put some strings on with the DX-7 and an old, beat up Moog. Mark put his guitar on there. By the end of that session, I had five songs completely finished with lead and background vocals. They were songs I had been working on in my head. I didn’t have a piano to work them out with. Lonnie was so amazed that he let me go back into the studio. I had made a couple of friends by then, so he let me bring a couple of them in to play horns. One of them was Rick Camp, who’s now J-Lo’s engineer.
Lonnie signed me as a songwriter, because he didn’t want to let me get too far down the street. He saw how fast I was moving. I went into the studio with Oliver Scott, who wrote “Yearnin'” for The Gap Band. We were sitting there drinking beer, and there was a Bible sitting on the console. I opened it up to a scripture that read, “If my people that are called by my name should humble themselves, and turn from their wicked ways, then they shall see heaven.” We thought, “That’s it: wicked ways!” We wrote the song “Change Your Wicked Ways.” I put down the vocals, and apparently they were so good, Lonnie says, “I’m signing you as an artist!”
The timing was fantastic, because he was right in the middle of negotiating one of Total Experience’s first distribution deals, with RCA Records. I was put in the package with Yarbrough & Peoples and The Gap Band. Lonnie sent me on the road with Charlie Wilson on a promotional tour. I did a music video for “Change Your Wicked Ways”—with basically no budget! R&B record companies weren’t paying for big expenses like that.
Lonnie told me that I could do a video, but he only gave me so much of a budget. We had the storyboard. I just happened to be running buddies with Todd Bridges and Stoney Jackson. I told Stoney to bring his motorcycle and Todd to bring his Mercedes. “We’ll need that!” I had danced on Soul Train when I first got to L.A., so there were some dancers from there in the video. At that time, all you had to do was say, “I’m shooting a video in Hollywood,” and people would show up. It was so deliciously ’80s.
In addition to Oliver Scott, you worked with a variety of producers on the Pennye LP, including Jonah Ellis, Jimmy Hamilton and Maurice Hayes, and Yarbrough & Peoples. Was the recording of the entire album similar to that first experience in the studio?
I was Lonnie’s first female solo artist. We were all like puppets. He was the ruler of all the land, so he had to have his hand in it. I was just 18, and I was intimidated by authority in older people. I tried to put my foot down as much as I could—being the staunch musician that I was and still am. But it was kind of a natural process, with Lonnie basically saying, “I’m gonna put you with the same people that I put with The Gap Band and see what happens.”
He linked me with Jonah Ellis—God rest his soul. I didn’t particularly feel it was a good fit, but a lot of people like “Uh Oh, I Made a Mistake” and “Dangerous.” I didn’t feel like they were quite up to par for that time, because I think New Jack Swing was trying to edge its way in a little bit through The Gap Band.
“Dangerous” was very successful in dance clubs and on urban radio in many regions. Listening to the new CD reissue of Pennye, it’s interesting how different the single remix is from the album version.
You mean that stuttering effect? All that was just coming out, and people were going crazy. I would’ve used it in a more musical way, as opposed to Lonnie—who just happened to own a piece of equipment and was just playing it. The Gap Band had that “Beep a Freak” song with the beeper going through the whole song. With “Dangerous,” I think that Jonah was just too far into the old style of music to really understand how to properly put those jumbled-up, chaotic synthesizers into the song. I like them more now, but I had to take it away from being about me, and think of it as being about the listener. I had my own ideas, but I really didn’t have a lot of control. With songs like Jonah’s, it shows you what I know, because years later with Snap!, “The Power” would’ve never come out had it been up to me!
I was spending a whole lot of time trying to get out of doing those songs. My vocal on “Uh Oh” wasn’t finished. I cringe sometimes when I hear it, because there were so many flats and sharps. They were real. We didn’t have the tuners we have now. I was a perfectionist on vocals, and my friends are all consummate musicians. I didn’t want them to hear me singing those notes.
You had one ballad on the album entitled “Never Let You Go,” produced by Yarbrough & Peoples. What do you remember about recording that one?
That was special. Lois Peoples and I were the only two females on the label. We were surrounded by a whole bunch of crazy guys, but they protected us. It was great to be able to work with them. I remember Lois being able to produce the vocal, which was a milestone—because they never let the girls do anything.
Why did you leave Total Experience after only one album, from which you had significant success?
I think we all peeled off, plus no one was getting paid. There was a lot of shady stuff going on. There would be cars bought supposedly for us with our money. Then we’d look and see that our name wasn’t on the registration. We had records out, but we were still pulling our money together to get pizza. I was one of the first people to leave. Everybody else was scared, because Lonnie had everybody thinking this whole gangster thing, like we would be killed. I just took the attitude, “You’re just gonna have to kill me!”
I still had a deal with him, but I had to work. I was working as a secretary for Klymaxx’s attorney. He called me in his office one day and fired me as a secretary. I’m like, “What did I do wrong?” He said, “No you didn’t do anything wrong, other than you’re an average secretary. But I need you to replace the lead singer for Klymaxx, since she’s pregnant.” So, I went around the corner to Solar and started singing with Klymaxx! I toured with them for a year.
Then, didn’t you end up joining the S.O.S. Band?
Yes, that was God’s timing. Klymaxx split up, and right at that time, the attorney I mentioned was partners with Clarence Avant, the president of Tabu Records. I think that’s how that connection was made. I was known in L.A. for doing a ton of sessions. People would just call me because I could come in without them needing a ton of girls. I could do all the vocal parts within a couple of hours and sound just like whoever.
Why did you leave the group after such a short time?
Those guys were wild, too. They were a little wilder than The Gap Band. I was a young girl seeing a whole bunch of things I really had no business seeing. But I was learning a whole lot about life and the business—and the insanity of the business! Next thing you know, I was moving out of Atlanta back home and quitting the music biz. I had met the Most Eligible Bachelor in Cincinnati, and we were going to get married. We lived the dream there for a year, then things went awry. I ended up going back to L.A., and within five months I met Chaka.
How did that happen?
Nothing happens in my life by chance. God has some kind of script up there that he’s printed out for me. I can’t even explain how everything melds together. I met Chaka because of my sister, the late Sharon Redd. Word got out that I was back in L.A., and Chaka was looking for a couple of singers. Sharon told her friends managing Chaka at the time, “My sister sounds just like Chaka.” She sent me over to her house, and the rest is history.
It’s all I ever wanted to do. I never even imagined having my own album. I had an opportunity to meet Chaka when I was recording the Pennye album, but I didn’t get to. I got to go to a rehearsal and see her lead it, which was awe-inspiring. But I was patient. I knew that in God’s time I’d meet her. Bobby Watson was playing bass for her at the time, and he said there might be a spot for me to sing back-up. So, I actually went into Lonnie’s office and asked him if he could hold up my album, so that I could go sing with Chaka. He was like, “Are you crazy? Do you know how long it takes for record companies to put records out? Most people are coming in here going, ‘When’s my record coming out?’ Sit your ass down here. We’re gonna put your record out worldwide.”
Shortly after you began singing with Chaka, you got involved in a project that turned out to be very big: singing “The Power,” “Oops Up,” and “Mary Had a Little Boy” with Snap! How did that happen?
Chaka and I had moved to London to get out of drugs. We didn’t want to go to any kind of rehab, so we moved there to self-detox ourselves. We had this apartment, and we just didn’t leave out of it except to go get food. Strangely enough, two German producers called Chaka and wanted her to do this project. She said to me, “I don’t do rap. You could use the money, so you go over there and do it.” I thought it was going to be some b.s. I was a jazz singer at heart. I went over there and sang the worst thing I’ve ever sung on anything, and thought I would never hear it again.
They just stuck me in the studio with a mic, a pack of cigarettes, a big ashtray, and told me to sing some stuff. It wasn’t like I sat down and wrote all of it on paper. It was really silly. Songs like “Oops Up,” they had The Gap Band sample on there. I come from The Gap Band, so that was easy enough. I said to them, “How do you say ‘oops’ in German?” They said, “opola.” What more do you need?
How about “Mary Had a Little Boy”?
I sang something stupid, that “Little Miss Muffet” thing on “Oops Up,” just as a joke. I said to them, “Run that back.” They’re looking at me with straight faces. “No, we love this, we will keep this.” I’m like, “Oh, my God. My mother’s gonna hear me say, “What’s in the bowl, bitch?” She’s a pastor of an Apostolic church—fantastic! So then, they put this other track up. I’m like, “If you guys like nursery rhymes, let’s just do this one.” That’s literally how that stuff came about. I think if I had sat down and thought about it as the snooty musician that I am, it would’ve been something totally different.
There was a lot of controversy surrounding Snap! once “The Power” came out—between the Chill Rob G version, the Jocelyn Brown sample, and the lady who appeared in the video lip-syncing your vocal part.
I was trying to follow in the footsteps of Chaka. The producers said, “If anything happens with this, would you like to be a part of it?” I said, “Hell, no, just make sure my check’s in the mail if it sells.” But I couldn’t have killed my career—it just kept going.
Once Snap! became very successful, were you prepared for such a commitment?
The impact that it had kind of shocked everybody. Ironically, I was still singing with Chaka, as well as working with Mick Jagger and Soul II Soul. Chaka and I had an argument in Heidelberg. She fired me, and I had nowhere to go. The only people I knew in Germany were the Snap! producers, and they just happened to be looking for me. That day, they told me, “Jump in the cab!” I went to Frankfurt and my life changed.
After the success of Snap!, you finally recorded your second solo album, Penny Ford, released in 1993 by Columbia Records. How was that different than the first album almost 10 years earlier?
It was on a much bigger scale, with a much bigger company. At the time of recording, it was referred to as a “DWI,” meaning Donnie Ienner wants it. He was the president of the company and was personally calling all the shots on the project. Randy Jackson executive-produced the entire album. It was all going well until a certain well-known singer came in and started using all of the resources of the company—picking and choosing what she wanted from everybody’s projects—and squashing the rest of our albums in the process. I started getting reject songs, and remember shedding tears in a production meeting.
One cool thing that came of that album was your finally recording a song with your sister, the late Sharon Redd. She had been in the Harlettes and had a successful solo career. How did you pull that together?
We didn’t know each other until the mid-’80s, even though we had the same father. Sharon didn’t know about me as much as I knew about her. I was found by our older brother, the late Gene Redd, Jr., when I was on a promotional tour for the Pennye album. At that time, I was still that hidden child. My dad was an older producer; my mom was a young girl looking for a record deal. They were never married. That’s how I got here. When I had been in Japan during the early ’80s, and even while I was recording with Total Experience, I would write letters and send pictures to my dad in New York. When he died, Gene cleaned out his locker at his clubhouse and found these letters and pictures. It was upon his heart, and he found me. I was doing a radio interview in Indianapolis with Charlie Wilson when I got a phone call. That’s when I met my family.
Looking back at Sharon’s career and personal legacy, what thoughts come to mind?
I cannot imagine how one person could have affected so many people’s lives on a personal basis. So many have a story of how Sharon helped them, one way or another. I’m like, “Where did she get all this time to help all these people?” You would’ve thought that was her career. Just crazy situations! People have told me, “I was five minutes from death, and Sharon brought me in, bathed me, and fed me.” She was an incredible person—to everyone.
Tell me what you’re up to in music these days.
I’ve been touring with Snap! the past five years. It’s incredible how much impact “The Power” has had and continues to have in war-torn countries—from Dubai to Turkey to Hungary to Siberia. I’m going to Australia and Tasmania later this month. It just does not stop. We don’t have to advertise. People just call in and book us year-round. I work pretty much every week out of the year. I also work with several DJs in this area, as well as in Finland and Sweden. If I had more time, I could expand. I’m looking for some opportunities in America, but I don’t really know what the flavor of dance music there is. There’s been a resurgence of the ’90s over here in Europe.
Any closing thoughts on the reissue of Pennye?
When I listen to the album now, I feel like a lot of the music today has come full circle from the sounds on that album. I’m really excited to have that work of mine become a part of this whole digital community. It’s great that it’s accessible now, and not just in a pile of plastic in the trunk of some dude’s car.
Pennye can be ordered directly from Cherry Red Records.