Interview by Uriah Young
QFTD: Tell us about yourself. Who is Rhenda Fearrington?
Rhenda: (laughing) How much time do you have?
QFTD: (smiling) As much time as we need to document your story, Rhenda.
Rhenda: Okay. Well, I can say that I’m a person who is constantly evolving. I am also a person who has the capacity to love and give through the gift of song. Here’s the thing though…I prefer to be called a singer as opposed to a vocalist.
QFTD: What’s the difference?
Rhenda: I think that a singer tells a story. A vocalist, in my humble opinion, sounds like someone who competes in an Olympic sport. In essence, I consider myself a storyteller and have written many things over the years. Whether it was for the music field or for the literary field, I have exercised my ability to express myself a number of ways. I am a supporter of all literary culture, giving professional reviews for books, in addition to music. When I’m not singing, I’m a book merchant for Barnes and Noble. In a nutshell, I am a cheerleader for everything within the cultural arts realm of Philadelphia!
QFTD: I understand you are a proud mom.
Rhenda: Yes, I am. I have two sons. I am also a mom to many young jazz artists in the area. Fittingly, they call me “Jazz Mom” for showing them support in the industry.
QFTD: When did singing capture your heart?
Rhenda: Wow. I’m not exactly sure when, because there are so many memories! Let’s see…where do I begin? Back in the day, my family came up from the South and moved to New York City, and by then, everyone knew that my mother was all about jazz, while my grandmother was all about gospel. I remember being four-years-old with my mother at a Harlem Chorus Club and she said, “Baby, get up on that stool, and sing us some Ella!” Whenever her fellow chorus girls came over the house, they would sit in the kitchen drinking their Cutty Sark on the rocks, smoking cigarettes, and snapping their fingers to my scatting. I didn’t know what it was, but I listened to Ella Fitzgerald enough to mimic her, note for note.
QFTD: Any teen memories?
Rhenda: When I was a teenager, I would sing a cappella to my niece and nephews, as they sat under our Steinway and Sons baby grand piano. My niece still tells me it’s one of her greatest childhood memories.
QFTD: Who had a significant influence on your singing career?
Rhenda: First, and always…my sister, Marilyn. She was a gifted classical pianist, singer, and songwriter. She insisted I listen to the songwriters of those times: Laura Nyro, Brenda Russell, and Gwen Guthrie were artists my sister exposed me to because she recognized my potential as a singer. She felt my young voice back then had a certain, powerful dynamic that had to be heard. My sister was trying to find the right vehicle for me to unleash my talent.
QFTD: What other artists helped mold your singing style?
Rhenda: Of course, Nancy Wilson because she’s a phenomenal storyteller! The inflection in her voice is off the charts! I have to say Ella for her scatting and playfulness in song. Aretha Franklin and Mahalia Jackson for their soul and purity. There are so many to list. Let me see…I have to emphasize Roberta Flack’s precision and timing.
QFTD: That is awesome. Very cool. How about some love for the guys though?
Rhenda: Oh, I’ve respected and admired many male singers. There’s Bill Withers, Al Jarreau, and the quintessential storyteller, Stevie Wonder. His music just gets inside of you! Whether these all-time mentors of mine were male or female, I can say unmistakably––their styles were distinctive, and they were all innovators. Their music is timeless!
QFTD: What was it like auditioning for Roberta Flack?
Rhenda: When I auditioned to be a singer in Roberta’s band, I actually went to her apartment in the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the Dakota Building. In the lobby, they verified my visit and then granted me permission to go upstairs. Entering her apartment, I was amazed at the fact that there were three pianos in one room. As I met Roberta, she was so welcoming; it was such a pleasant experience meeting her for the first time. Soon, she sat down at a piano, began playing, and started singing. Then, I just harmonized with her as she sang. While it was happening, I felt like I had stepped outside my body; I was so young, but my sister had prepared me for that very moment.
QFTD: What happened when you stopped singing?
Rhenda: She handed over a plane ticket to Japan and said, “Now, how long will it take for you to get a passport?”
QFTD: Wow! You must have knocked her socks off with that voice of yours. Were you nervous as you sang, even just a little?
Rhenda: Believe it or not, I actually wasn’t nervous.
QFTD: Tell us a memorable experience you had singing with Roberta Flack and one with the group, Mtume.
Rhenda: When I was with Mtume, I was singing back-up on Soul Train when Don Cornelius flirted with me. That was funny because my grandma almost hopped a flight to come kick his butt! When I was with Roberta, we performed in the Philippines for Imelda Marcos in the 80’s. That was unique because we performed on a stage that had very affluent people in the audience, while there were soldiers lined up against the wall holding machine guns. The after party was fabulous. We were invited back to the palace where we were lavishly wined and dined. One other memory that stands out is when Roberta actually sang “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” at my wedding. It was so beautiful that I cried.
QFTD: She sang at your wedding? Now that’s impressive. Any sensational memories when it comes to your solo career?
Rhenda: At the Somer’s Point Jazz Festival in Sandi Point, NJ, I received a standing ovation after singing “Inspired Insanity” by Phoebe Snow. That was special because Barry Miles, a pianist in Roberta’s band, was in the audience. The Friday you saw me at the Art Museum, a man sang “Happy Birthday” to me in his native tongue of Swedish. I will never forget the way he looked in my eyes when he sang to me. He really meant it. That was humbling.
QFTD: I listened to your album, This Moment’s Sweetness, during my 50-minute commute home from work. It was so pleasing to my ears; let me tell you. What songs would you say are fan favorites?
Rhenda: Hmmm…I have been told the song “The Very Thought of You” is a favorite. The title track “The Moment’s Sweetness” seems to have garnered a favorable response, too. On my album, I also sang Roberta’s “Killing Me Softly”, and although the world has heard it a million times over, people still love it. The song is one that I can still get lost in whenever I sing it. I had someone say to me that they love my rendition of it, and I was very flattered. I remember when Roberta would sing it on tour, and I would sit and watch her from the side in amazement.
QFTD: You are very diverse with your musical style. How are you able to connect with jazz, soul, and R & B, while staying authentic with your sound?
Rhenda: Because I chose the album’s songs according to the story I wanted to tell, I am emotionally connected to every lyric and note. It was important I pick the songs that are a part of me. Authenticity comes from a singer buying the song’s story; the singer has to buy the story before selling it to an audience. I’d also have to say that due to my diverse musical upbringing, I am able to hear and project a variety of sounds.
QFTD: What artists have you been listening to lately?
Rhenda: I enjoy so much music, from so many Philadelphia musicians, I find myself always listening to numerous artists and discovering something new each time. Specifically, I have been listening to Laura Nyro. She is a brilliant songwriter, and her music speaks to a woman’s heart. I also listen to a lot of Pat Methany’s music. His jazz guitar brings to life lyrics in my mind because I hear words I’d like to pen to his songs.
QFTD: I want to end the interview with one of my favorite quotes about music; I heard it from a wonderful music teacher, Lynn Losch, who I taught with years ago. She said, “Music can take you places where words alone cannot.” What does this quote mean to you?
Rhenda: Wow. (pause) That is an interesting quote…what that makes me think of is how vibrational music can actually be. It can just get into your soul sometimes, you know?
Rhenda: The best example I can use to explain that quote is the day Michael Jackson died––something inconceivable happened in my life. As I was traveling on the Betsy Ross Bridge a few years ago, my car broke down. On top of that, my phone battery was slowly dying; it was a rough situation. So, anyway, with the craziness of all that was going on, my phone indicated that I had a voice message; it was from my son. Now, my son is a diagnosed schizophrenic, and he had been on antipsychotic medications for some time at that point. He was unresponsive at home, and he would not even use the cell phone his father had gotten him. It was like he was in a haze. To make a long story short, when he heard that Michael Jackson had died, he called me to tell me…that was the most lucid I had heard my son speak in the longest time. I could not believe it. It was amazing. I still have the message saved.
QFTD: Michael’s impact through music helped ignite something in your son’s mind. Incredible.
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