Claudia Lennear was telling me about walking the red carpet at the Academy Awards, exulting as her movie “20 Feet From Stardom” won Best Feature Documentary, holding an Oscar and attending after-parties where she met Oprah and Quincy Jones.
“Old friends came out of the woodwork,” Lennear said, referring not only to classmates from decades ago, but to David Bowie, who phoned to wish her well.
“David and I used to be very close,” Lennear confided.
Heady stuff. Now she's back to her normal life: living in a condominium in Pomona and teaching at nearby Mt. San Antonio College.
But how normal is that life? Nobody else I know is sharing in Oscars one day and teaching at a community college the next. Not surprisingly, Lennear's life has been anything but typical.
Back in the 1960s and '70s, Lennear sang with Ike and Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, George Harrison and Leon Russell, and dated Bowie and Mick Jagger. Lore has it that she was an inspiration for the Rolling Stones' “Brown Sugar.”
Yet you had to be in the business to know her name. She was a backup singer, adding harmonies and vocal punctuation from a spot on stage well behind the featured performer. Hence the title “20 Feet From Stardom,” a movie in which she and five other female backup singers were dragged into the spotlight to tell their stories of near-misses, disappointments and thrills.
Lennear gradually retired from music as hip-hop supplanted soul, moved to the San Gabriel Valley and turned to teaching, first at San Dimas High and then at Mt. SAC in Walnut, where she teaches short stories and tutors students in Spanish and French.
“They're good kids, they really are,” Lennear said. She added with a chuckle: “It usually takes them three weeks to find out I have a checkered past. They're always on the Internet.”
We were meeting at a favorite hangout in neighboring Claremont. Across the table from her, I felt like I was three feet from stardom.
Lennear looked as she does in the movie: a beatific smile, honeyed skin and a bowl haircut. When she smiles, which is often, her eyes scrunch and her high cheekbones rise. She'll be 67 in May but is still lovely.
She marvels at having met famous, talented people and joyfully recalls the youth movement and women's liberation.
“Wonderful memories, wonderful times,” Lennear said of that era. “People don't have that kind of fun anymore.”
She's sweet and modest. When she gets in touch, a third party having passed along my name and number, she first tells me she was in “20 Feet From Stardom” in case I didn't know and would find that of interest.
Well, I wasn't phoning to ask how the semester was going.
“I didn't want to assume anything,” Lennear said.
Her childhood was spent in Rhode Island, which gave her a New England accent she hasn't quite shaken. When her father, Leo, retired from the Navy, the family moved across the country, spending a month in Long Beach before settling in Pomona, where they had relatives.
This was 1964. A music fan, the underaged Claudia persuaded her mother, Thelma, to take her to Hollywood clubs to see Motown and girl group acts. Thelma loved music herself and didn't mind at all. Claudia made friends at the clubs and in 1967 moved to L.A. and pursued professional singing.
In 1968, a friend arranged an audition for her with Ike and Tina Turner, who were looking for a new Ikette, as the miniskirt-wearing female backup singers were named.
Ike liked her voice and Tina quickly taught her some dance moves. The next day, she was on a plane to Houston for her first performance.
As bandleader, Ike was a strict disciplinarian, fining people for mistakes. He would flash five fingers onstage to let them know $5 was coming out of their paycheck because they bumped into someone or missed a cue. Lennear learned professionalism.
Ike and Tina, she said, “were my first and best teachers.”
In her two years as an Ikette, she appeared on numerous recordings, including “Proud Mary.” When the band had a residency at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, she met Jagger, and in 1969 the band opened for the Stones on a national tour.
“Claudia Lennear, she was a hot, sexy singer in the Ikettes,” Jagger says in “20 Feet” as photos scroll by of them together. “She must have had a good time. She looked like she was having a good time.”
Lennear told me she'd been a Stones fan as a teenager. Hanging out with Jagger and the other Stones was almost impossible to believe.
“A really, really great guy,” she said of Jagger. “A great talent and a really wonderful person.”
Wait, are we talking about Mick Jagger or Albert Schweitzer?
After leaving the Ikettes — she admits she might have had a big head after befriending the Rolling Stones — Lennear sang on Joe Cocker's “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” album and tour, on Leon Russell's “Leon Russell and the Shelter People” and “Carny” albums, on Dave Mason's “Alone Together,” on Taj Mahal's “Slave Driver” and on Stephen Stills' “Manassas” album, including his hit “Love the One You're With.” And she recorded a solo album in 1973.
A particular thrill was backing up George Harrison and Ringo Starr during 1971's Concert for Bangladesh, the first all-star charity concert.
As “20 Feet” notes, she also posed for Playboy in 1974, a pictorial headlined “Brown Sugar.” I was a little embarrassed to ask her about it, and was secretly relieved I hadn't seen it, as that would be more information about a source than I'm used to having. But Lennear was happy to discuss it.
She spent 10 days in the Playboy Mansion in Chicago where she had her own room and chef and could order movies from Hugh Hefner's library. And she got to meet Shel Silverstein. “Modeling for Playboy was one of the best decisions I ever made,” Lennear said.
“It was a great time to be alive,” she said. “It was a great time then and it's a great time now.”
Did Jagger really write “Brown Sugar” about her? She doesn't know, but she's benefited from the connection.
“I say this about Mick Jagger: I may have given him inspiration, but he gave me notoriety and longevity,” she said with a chuckle.
Russell's “A Song for You” and “She Smiles Like a River” are other songs she's said to have inspired, as is Bowie's “Lady Grinning Soul,” from 1973. She didn't know if that was true either.
When Bowie spoke to her after the Oscars, “he actually said for the first time, ‘You are my Lady Grinning Soul,'” Lennear said. “Finally, the mystery is over.”
Bowie, by the way, used to come to see her in Pomona in the 1970s and '80s, she said.
Wait a second. You're telling me David Bowie has been to Pomona?
“He visited me at my mother's several times,” Lennear said. “He may be famous, but he's really a regular person.”
She never had substance abuse problems as she never liked the drugs she tried. That saved her from the fate of many contemporaries. She only fell victim to changing tastes in music.
“I sort of dropped off the map for two decades. I never understood rap. I had to have my granddaughter translate for me,” Lennear said.
She earned degrees from Pitzer College, one of the Claremont Colleges, in French literature and art history, attesting to her broad range of interests. She was learning French at age 8 and can also speak Spanish, Italian and German.
“My first career goal was to be an interpreter at the United Nations. But then I got into the music business,” she said.
After many years in Beverly Hills and the Hollywood hills, she returned to Pomona in 1998 to care for her ailing mother, who died in 2000. Lennear stuck around and pursued education.
Her role in “20 Feet” evidently came about when singer Sheryl Crow, who was interviewed on camera, recommended her.
“Somehow they found me on the Internet. I'll be forever grateful to Sheryl Crow, whom I've never met,” Lennear said. “And that they took her word for enough to find me here in Pomona.”
As many documentaries fall apart due to lack of money, Lennear didn't expect much from her interview. But “20 Feet” was not only finished, it was a smash at the Sundance Film Festival. Momentum built and awards piled up.
At the Oscars, Lennear said, film producer Harvey Weinstein gave the six singers — who also included Merry Clayton and Darlene Love — a pep talk, telling them this was their moment if they wanted a comeback and offering his help.
Lennear is co-writing a memoir, commissioning a website, assembling a band, planning to gig locally and laying the groundwork for an album. She'd like to pick up where she left off, “to try to ride the crest of this wave.”
In the movie, she said: “It's always been a regret of mine that I didn't hang in there, especially when I see the success some of my contemporaries have been having.”
In a 1971 interview with the Pomona Progress-Bulletin, at the height of her career, Lennear seemed accepting of her backup status, saying it beat the 8 to 5 office jobs she'd had.
“I've never had any hangup because I'm right in the front, dead center of the stage. The only hangup is waiting for ‘sho bop sho bop' to come in,” she told my colleague Imani Tate. “I shake a tambourine or something. Anything to not look like a fool.”
Four decades later, she still can sing. We walked over to the nearby Laemmle theater, where they let us in to take photos and a video in front of a “20 Feet” poster. I suggested she sing a little bit of something, and she burst into an a cappella version of “Lean on Me,” enjoyed only by me and a couple of employees at the candy counter.
In our interview, she seemed at peace, maybe because the movie's success has given her another chance.
“For someone who never became a star on her own, I had such a great run. I really can't complain,” Lennear said, noting that it was luck to begin with that she got to learn from Tina Turner.
Nice surprises keep happening.
She was watching Linda Ronstadt on Tavis Smiley's talk show in September when Ronstadt began talking about “20 Feet.” She singled out Lennear's voice and beauty for praise and said she had no idea why she became a star and Lennear didn't, other than “strange dumb luck or something that resonates with the public.”
“When Claudia Lennear used to walk into the Troubadour, the waters parted,” Ronstadt said of the West Hollywood club while striking a genuflecting pose.
“I can't sing half as well as Claudia Lennear. Hat's off to her,” Ronstadt said.
Lennear said she grabbed the remote and turned up the sound. “It wasn't just a sentence. It was a whole paragraph,” she marveled.
“When someone can speak that kindly about me,” she said with a happy sigh, “why would I have regrets?”
David Allen writes Friday, Sunday and Wednesday. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 909-483-9339, visit insidesocal.com/davidallen, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.