In 1989, Penny Ford spent a few days in Germany recording vocals for Snap!, which set the trend of sampled tracks with a soulful female vocalist and a male rapper. We checked, and Penny has a songwriting credit on these songs. Turns out she's much more than a voice for hire: Penny can write, arrange, play and perform, all of which she did for Snap! at various times.Carl Wiser (Songfacts): When you do these tours, is it just Snap! or do you get on some kind of festival bill with other acts?
Among Penny's accomplishments: A few solo albums, singing backup for George Clinton, arranging a Natalie Cole album, performing with The S.O.S. Band, The Gap Band and Klymaxx, and spending years as Chaka Khan's right hand woman. In 2006, she moved to Germany and rejoined Snap!, who are still very popular across the world.
Among Penny's accomplishments: A few solo albums, singing backup for George Clinton, arranging a Natalie Cole album, performing with The S.O.S. Band, The Gap Band and Klymaxx, and spending years as Chaka Khan's right hand woman. In 2006, she moved to Germany and rejoined Snap!, who are still very popular across the world.
Penny Ford: Both. We've done a lot of dates, because we're doing a lot of arenas. We do the festivals straight through the summer, and sometimes we've done shows with everybody from Haddaway to Dr. Alban, to Corona and DMC of Run-DMC. And some of them are just us and some DJs. The DJ is really the king over here.
Songfacts: You go to Miami and the DJs are the biggest draw anywhere, which I imagine has to be part of what people are going to see.
Penny: That is exactly what happens over here. And some of the shows I feel a small movement underneath it, since that Kelly Rowland, David Guetta thing worked so well, with just a DJ and a singer. It definitely is cost effective. But I separate the musician that I am from the music business person that I am. I think they're two separate people, because it's two separate things. Because there's not a whole lot of music in the music business.
Songfacts: How did you end up hooking up with the guys that formed Snap!?
Penny: Well, in a nutshell, I was working with Chaka Khan, and Chaka and I decided on a whim to move to London. We had an apartment, and a German guy called her to do this project. And both of us being basically jazz singers for the most part, she just looked at me and said, "I don't do rap. You know how to do that stuff, you go do it." And the rest is history. I went to Germany to sing on some stuff I thought I'd never hear again. I sang for three days, collected a fee, and thought I would never hear of it again, and it's 21 years later now. I recorded it in 1989.
Songfacts: When you're talking about working with Chaka Khan – describe working with Chaka Khan.
Penny: (laughing) You must have an awful long tape there. I was her principle backing singer for over 15 years. Which meant that I was her right hand on the singing part. Like a musical director, I was sort of the vocal director. So you choreograph things, you arrange parts, you're in her head about the music. I was a severe, severe Chaka-holic, we like to call them, from childhood. So I was one of those people that knew every string line, every horn line, every bass line, every note she ever sang on anything. So you get to be the head singer when you come with those kinds of tools.
Songfacts: How did you hook up with Chaka Khan?
Penny: Well, I hooked up with Chaka Kahn oddly enough through my sister. Are you aware who my sister was?
Penny: My sister was Sharon Redd. She was a very successful artist in the '70s and '80s, and one of the original Harlettes, who were Bette Midler's background singers. So my sister worked with Bette Midler for years, and my sister was also a New York sessions singer, so she sang on a couple of things that were submitted for Chaka in the beginning of her career, and they became fast friends back then. And it just so happened through some people who were working with Chaka at the time who knew my sister, they found me. I was working with Klymaxx; I replaced the lead singer for the group Klymaxx after I left my first solo deal. And after I left Klymaxx I took over for the lead singer of the SOS Band. So I was out there running around doing stuff and someone knew that it was my heart's desire to sing with Chaka, and they introduced us one night, and that was many, many years ago. That was in 1987, and we've been very close friends ever since.
Songfacts: Okay, this is getting really interesting. Klymaxx was known, among other things, for playing their own instruments.
Songfacts: At the time, you never saw a group of black female singers playing their own instruments. I'm sure many times you're perceived as somebody that just sings. But what is it that you know how to do?
Penny: Well, with regard to Klymaxx and many, many of the other groups I've worked with, you have to be able to entertain. There are some brilliant, brilliant singers who can never do the live thing. It's a whole different level added onto the singing.
Sometimes it's a train wreck of fate and skill that gets a person these opportunities that I've had. I'm still awe-stricken by these opportunities and the people that I've had a chance to work with. I even have fans who remind me that I've done stuff that I'd forgotten. But there's fate. I was working on my first solo album at the same time Klymaxx was working on theirs, and me and the lead singer were working as secretaries while we weren't recording - we had to have a job. And we would switch our tapes every day - our cassettes and the studio work - and say, "Hey, girl, this is what we did last night." So when I left my record company and the lead singer of Klymaxx got married - she got pregnant and she couldn't do the road thing - she asked me to replace her while she was out, essentially on maternity leave, and that maternity leave basically ended up lasting 20 years for her. (laughing) And I would replace her through the years, because we were all friends. I know their stuff, they know my stuff, I know how to rock a stage; give me a mike, I'll rock the stage, so you get the work. And it counts that we're friends for well over 20 years, as well. SOS Band, I didn't know them, but when their lead singer decided to go solo, which is ultimately what happened with Klymaxx, too, I was between jobs, so to speak. They needed a lead singer, and I jumped right in there. That was another little skill I learned in my childhood: how to learn the music verbatim, so that if I did stand on stage with you, I could sing it exactly like your record, if you want me to. I could jazz it up if you want me to. It depends on what you order from the menu.
Songfacts: What instruments do you play, Penny?
(Penny's 1993 single "Daydreaming")
Penny: I play a little piano, I play minute flute, I did play actual bass until I discovered bass keys, so I stopped getting my calluses, my badges of honor on the tips of my fingers. And just enough of everything to be able to duplicate it electronically now. That was the thing about Klymaxx: there were no extraordinary players with Klymaxx, but everybody was a girl, and everybody played well enough to put it together with an 808 and make it a concept. Basically, Klymaxx was a concept. It wasn't a group of girl consummate musicians, it was entertainers.
Songfacts: Before Snap!, did you have any involvement in creating any songs?
Penny: Yes. That's a whole 'nother title. I'm a singer, and then I'm a songwriter. So I write for and with a lot of people, before and after Snap! I got to write with Joni Mitchell and Burt Bacharach and Bill Champlin from the group Chicago, and people that I'd always wanted to write with. But that's pretty much what I was in Hollywood. When I wasn't doing a solo album I was a sessions singer, a demo singer. I started out singing demos for Motown in their publishing studio. And through that, you gain alliances with other writers. I was like 16 years old, so nobody wanted to hear what I had to say, but somebody called my bluff and gave me about five hours of studio time one day, and no musicians. The engineer trainee, he played a little bit of guitar, so I told him to get his guitar and hook up those keyboards. And at the end of the five hours I had three completed songs recorded. So they kind of stand up and take notice when you do stuff like that.
I used to get all the work in L.A. because they didn't have to hire three girls. They could hire me and I'd come in and do the work of three girls in about two hours. I used to pride myself on that kind of stuff. But it was just a natural thing. People used to hire me just to watch in amazement while I work, while I stack and create and make it happen. Still kind of doing that today, but yeah, I write a lot. I've written since I was a little girl, but before Snap! I'd already done a solo album, wrote some stuff with the Gap Band and wrote a tune that was meant for Gladys Knight that ended up on Natalie Cole.
Songfacts: What was the tune Natalie Cole recorded?
Penny: It's a song called "Gonna Make You Mine." I arranged that and was very happy, because I had forgotten I'd done it, and last year I ran across that and loaded it on iTunes and discovered that she sang it exactly the same way I did. Which is an honor, because sometimes, especially artists of that caliber, they get demos and they turn it around and make it their own. But she sang it exactly the same way I did. And that's the same thing that Chaka did with the song called "Woman I Am" that I submitted – it was the title cut for one of her albums.
Songfacts: Is there a method you use for writing songs?
Penny: I particularly don't like songs that follow a process while they're being written. I can tell – I call them "songwriter songs." It's like you can tell that someone is scheduled to sit down and write this song at three o'clock on Wednesday afternoon, as opposed to it kind of magically happening. I work with a lot of magical people, so we just go in the studio, crack a bottle of wine, and somebody picks up something and starts playing. And I just start singing. But right now I'm writing some electronic stuff, which there's a whole different process, because I have to put myself in the frame of mind of someone who loves dance music. And that's kind of difficult for me, seeing that I'm pretty much a jazz artist.
Songfacts: Chaka Khan can write songs, correct?
Penny: She can, but she doesn't very much. Not as much as she should.
Songfacts: Can you speak on that a little?
Penny: Let me just put it to you like this: there's probably so much stuff that she's written that she didn't know that she wrote. You understand what I'm saying?
Penny: I've heard things that nobody could have created but her.
Songfacts: Oh, okay.
Penny: But because she can't be bothered with the whole sitting down and working out percentages and figuring all that out and dealing with that part of it - the non-creative part of it - she's probably been shut out of some things that she actually did create. I've known her for a long time and I hear stuff all the time, and I'm like, "she wrote that."
Songfacts: I'm sure Chaka's had a very interesting life and has a lot of material, and I'm kind of surprised that she hasn't taken some of these life experiences and turned them into songs.
Penny: She's different. She's not normal. Well, neither am I. (laughs) You listen to most of her songs, she sounds like she can kick your ass, and in some cases, she probably can. But her spirit is not that. Her spirit is very delicate and innocent and you know, masquerading as a motorcycle gang girl. Complicated.
Songfacts: So behind the scenes, she's not as confident as she appears?
Penny: Well, she knows who she is, she knows what she wants. It's just one of those tortured lives that's been manipulated so many different ways that you don't know how to be yourself. You don't know how to be at some point. I experienced it, I try to keep it down – I got myself a cat, and that's it. But if I need a hug, I hug my cat. Then I turn into a pop star on the weekends, and I just try to keep that thing going without losing it. But it's difficult to be her. I told her many times, "I used to want to be you when I was a little girl. I would have given anything. Now, I would never be you in a million years." But it's the same sort of tortured rock star existence. There's so many different components to that. But you know, she does well moving through life.
Songfacts: So let's go back to when you made these recordings for these German guys (Michael Münzing and Luca Anzilotti) and then left. What songs did you perform when you did these sessions?
Penny: When I went and recorded for Snap! the first time?
Penny: I recorded "The Power," "Ooops Up," "Mary Had a Little Boy" – most every song on the album. But it was more or less them picking me up by the scruff of my neck like a pit bull and throwing me in the booth with a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of champagne and turning the mike on. That's how it happened. (laughing) And I'd just create. I just sang the first thing that came off the top of my head, because I didn't understand that music, and I didn't think I'd ever have to hear it again.
Songfacts: Were you improvising lyrics?
Penny: I was just making them up as I go along. Seriously. And I mean, on "Ooops Up," they had the "Oops upside your head" sample, which was ironic, because I started out with the Gap Band, so I know a little something about that. But I'd just ask them through the booth, I was like, Hey, how do you say "oops" in German? And they said, "Opala." And so I said, "Everybody say oops up side your head, say oops upside your head, somebody say opala." And it's a big frickin' hit. Is that crazy or what?
Songfacts: Yes. So you're not just looking at a sheet of lyrics –
Penny: No, not all the time. Sometimes you just think that and you write that down just so you remember to say it 50 times. But not on that, no. I just turned the mike on, and they do what they call a special track.
I can write all I want, but nobody ever wants to hear the stuff that I put my heart and soul into. Just me and my close staunchly musical friends. Everybody else wants the bullshit. So basically I've grown to be of the opinion that if I hate it, it's a hit. The industry has conditioned me to be that way.
Songfacts: So does that mean you hate the Snap! songs that you recorded?
Penny: I wouldn't use the word "hate." Because I am eating a steak made from the very money that I made from the Snap! songs. I never hated it. I just didn't get it. And sometimes I still don’t. I mean, I can get with dance music now because I have to hear it every weekend. Some of it I like. You know, I like Haddaway, (singing) "What is love, baby don't hurt me," I like the song. But some of that stuff I really am into. It comes from a different timeframe for me. I'm not like a club head who's popping four or five pills and watching the lights go around in circles. There's a lot of people doing that kind of thing, but I just didn't understand it. I'm like a musical vegan. You know how vegans don’t want you to put any meat or meat product, meat handprints, nothing, on their plates? I always felt like I needed to throw away my record player if some of that music ever crossed it. I went through that phase where it was all Pat Metheny, Allan Holdsworth, Steely Dan, and if it wasn't some serious music, don't even hit me with it.
But I found out really quick when Snap! hit, that I'd better find something about it that I like. Better figure out something about it you can get with, because this is the hand you were dealt, and you gotta take it seriously. And then I had an epiphany with the help of Mick Jagger. I was apologizing to him for having done that song. We were dancing somewhere in London, and the record "The Power" came on. And he could see that I was so ashamed that that was me singing. I'm saying, "I didn't even know, I would have maybe written something better or something if I'd known it was gonna be this big." And he was like, "What the fuck are you on about? This is a big hit. You're standing here dancing to it with Mick Jagger. What the hell do you want, girl?" And I was like, "Yeah, you're right, Mick. I think you're right." So that was the moment that I did a turnaround on that stuff. But, I mean, come on, "Ooops Up," at the end of it, I used to do this thing where I would curse into the mike because as a musician, many times the producers will use the worst vocal. So I started doing this stupid thing when I was really young: if I sang something that I hated, I would cuss in the track, that way they would have to erase it. Now we have digital, so they can just erase the cuss and keep the crap. It's not like back in the day when they would have to tape this whole thing back together. But I did one of those notes at the end of "Ooops Up" and I wanted them to take the track back so I could re-do it. So I started singing that stupid Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey, along came a spider and sat down beside her and said, "What's in the bowl, bitch?" I'm cracking up, and I'm like, no, no, I'm just kidding. Take the track back. And they were like, "What? We love this! This is good!" So now, every single weekend thousands of people are singing that back to me. Is that fucking crazy?
Songfacts: (laughing) Yes.
Penny: And it was before Andrew Dice Clay. It was still stupid. It wasn't anything that I would ever put on a song or a record.
Songfacts: Now, "The Power" in particular became this monster. Tell me about recording that song and what happened with that.
Penny: Well, there was a rapper named Chill Rob G, and he had recorded it with them. And I guess he decided that he didn't want to make an alliance with them. He figured he'd take it back to America with him and have his boys hook it up or whatever, I don't know. Meanwhile, the Germans signed with Ariola Munich, who were a sub-company of Arista, which was parented by BMG, Bertelsmann, which is a German company. This was before BMG got to America and it was still RCA in America. So they had me come in, and they had a rapper they just pulled off of an Army base; some guy that was over here in the Army. He ended up being Turbo B, very famously so, the original rapper. So ours came out, it smashed the hell out of the Chill Rob G thing, and it was Number One in three countries before me and the rapper even met. So they hurried up and introduced us because "The Power" video, that's not me. That's a girl miming my voice. I suppose you want to know why that was?
Songfacts: Sure do.
Penny: (laughing) Well, they said they couldn't find me, because I was away at that time, I was doing work with Mick Jagger, I was still running around with Chaka doing some stuff. They said they couldn't sign me, so they just pulled some girl off the Army base and had her mime my voice. But we were with the same company as Milli Vanilli.
Songfacts: Oh, goodness.
Penny: Ariola Munich. And the fallout from Milli Vanilli had just started to happen, so they found me in a hurry, because they didn't want the same to happen to Snap! (laughs) They found me then, huh?
Songfacts: So the original Chill Rob G version was also produced by the German guys?
Penny: Yeah, it was the first take of it. They had recorded it and nobody knew it was going to be a hit, and it was long before it was released on any major level. It was a work in progress, and basically what they did was just took him off of it and put another rapper on it.
Songfacts: You're the singer on the Snap! version?
Penny: I'm the only actual singer on it. But the actual "I got the power," that's a Jocelyn Brown sample. And ironically, she didn't get paid anything on it, because she didn't write the song the sample came from. I talk to Joc all the time, that's my girl. We're a little family.
Songfacts: Yes, I'm finding that out. But there's this Chill Rob G version floating around out there. And there's a female singer on that.
Penny: Oh, I don't know who that is.
Songfacts: But it's definitely not you.
Penny: Maybe that's somebody Chill Rob G put on it after he went back to America.
Songfacts: So he must have taken that track and then worked on it a little bit. And then at the same time you're being brought in to put this vocal on. Do we even know which one got released first?
Penny: I think his got released first, but if you don't have any money to back it, you can't go up against BMG, the largest record company in the world. They'd just squash it. Just make it go away. You know how they do.
Songfacts: So they were putting all these samples together, and back then nobody was bothering to clear them. They were just throwing these things on there.
Penny: Yeah, so it was a mess when it became a hit. It was a mess for a while. And it took a while for all these lawyers to sort everything out, that's how marriages go.
Songfacts: But eventually all those people that had their records sampled ended up getting paid?
Penny: Yes. Some of them more than others. Even the guys in the Gap Band, they got paid for the "Oops Upside the Head" sample, and there wasn't enough of it to have to pay them, but they got paid anyway. And politely thanked me for it, too. They're still getting paid today, mind you.
Songfacts: So you do these recordings, and you go back to your life. Tell me about what happens next, how you then start finding out that this is blowing up.
Penny: (laughing) That is so funny. I was having the worst day of my life at that point. I was having a really, really bad day, and I was in London. Something was going on, maybe me and Chaka fell out or something. I was at this guy's house and I was just about to call my mother and accept defeat and have her send me a plane ticket to come back home. I was just about to say, "Okay, Mom, you're going to get your wish, your prayer. I'm coming back home, just send me a ticket." And I remember I was ironing a shirt, and the television said, "And the new number one record is 'The Power' by Snap!" and there's my voice. And my life changed that day. I think I got my mom on one phone and my lawyer on the other. At that point, they needed to figure out how to work that other girl that they had mime my voice on "The Power" video out and me in. So that's when that process started.
Songfacts: Yeah, because at that point you had just been paid for the session, so they probably could have just parted ways with you there and you would have just gotten your fee?
Penny: Well, not necessarily, because I wrote those songs, too. Remember, they just stuck me in there and I sang the first thing that came off the top of my head. Just because I didn't write it down on a piece of paper did not mean that I didn't write it. I don't care if it's "whoa whoa whoa baby baby baby," if it's there, and it came out of me, I wrote it.
Songfacts: Did Chill Rob G write the rap for "The Power?"
Penny: No. He wrote the rap that was on his record. Now, he could collect from the sales of his record. But Turbo B got paid for "I will attack and you don't want that," basically the version that ended up selling. So you get how it goes? Publishing, I believe, is designed to confuse all of us. Don't worry – not just the songwriter.
Songfacts: Well, it must have taken some kind of maneuvering for you to get this songwriter credit.
Penny: Oh, baby, it's still being maneuvered. Basically, what happens is you have people who are published by Sony, you have people who are published by Warner, you have people who are published by BMG or Jive, as I was, and then BMG buys Jive, and then BMG and Sony partner, so where are all these people and where is all the paperwork? So then you have to hire what they call a forensics guy. The have to do CSI: The Musical Version. Which costs money. And if you didn't get your money to begin with, how do you hire a forensics guy? So it's kind of a vicious circle, isn't it?
Songfacts: So it ended up working in your favor that they needed to track you down for the video.
Penny: They needed to track me down to represent the project so that it didn't come off like Milli Vanilli and looking like another one of those. Those acts like Black Box and many others that the Europeans tried to pass off on America as the actual thing, when really what it was some Americans over here doing work and then they were putting these other people on the videos.
Songfacts: And what happened after you get your mom on one phone and your lawyer on the other?
Penny: Well, they just started to work together. Then the lawyers get the Germans on the other end, and everybody starts to sort it out. And I came in - it wasn't easy - I had 14 years experience in the business, Turbo had none. And he was a nightmare for everybody, and especially me and basically he threatened my life and at some point I just said forget him. And I walked away. Which was the stupidest thing that I could have ever done, because I walked away from a lot of money, too. But it was chaotic. Because it was a massive responsibility, this song. It was such a big hit all over the world and it was touching people in such a positive way, and it could have been used for so much more good than evil. And he kind of screwed it up, that part of it. And I left and moved back to America, thought I was gonna have to start all over again. I started writing with some friends of mine, some substantial songs, and Randy Jackson, who is now Mr. American Idol, heard it and thought, This girl can do that and she can do this? So he gets me signed up to Columbia.
Songfacts: When you guys would promote the song, you would have to make appearances and perform, was it you and Turbo out doing this, or who else was with you?
Penny: Me and Turbo and two dancers.
Songfacts: Two dancers. But there's no German guys?
Penny: No, they don't really have any part of the performance.
Songfacts: At these appearances, where you'd have to go and perform "The Power" and "Ooops Up," somebody would go and they'd play a tape which had the track on it, because there's no musicians there. And then you and Turbo would go and actually sing your parts?
Penny: That's exactly what I do now. All the way from 10,000 to sometimes 150,000 people. I walk in with a rapper and a CD, do 30 minutes, and I'm out.
Songfacts: So all this drama with Turbo is because you have to go and be on the road with him performing?
Penny: Well, I will tell you this. We were asked to do "The Power" on something extra one night after we had done the show already. Everybody was loving us, America loved us, and it was going crazy. We were on Arista, so we had Clive Davis at our back, it was just going amazingly. And the promoter asked us if we could do "The Power" at this one place for a benefit. And I didn't see anything wrong with it. I wasn't so tired, and Turbo and the guys were still looking for girls that night, because that's what they'd do. And so we said Okay. We went into this club, it was very dimly lit. Turbo, mind you, is pretty much from the projects outside of Pittsburgh. He didn't come from affluence, let's just say that. At that time I was traveling with an assistant, I had a female assistant. And the club appears to be half women, half men. And when they turn the lights up, my assistant and I were the only women in there. It was a drag queen event. Turbo had never been in a room full of drag queens, and he lost it. It was an important AIDS benefit, and we got done doing "The Power," and he was scared, and he said, "I want to talk to the owner." And I said, "Don't talk to the owner, let's go to the hotel and call the owner," because I saw trouble a-brewin'. And the owner came up to thank us for doing the show, and Turbo said, "If you ever book me in a place like this ever again, I'll kill you." The owner, instead of saying, "Well, I'm sorry you were offended," puts his hands on his hips and tells Turbo, "This is a gay club seven nights a week." So up he went by his neck, and then I saw drag queens diving from everywhere to protect him, and I ran. (Laughing) I left. I went down the back stairwell like Cinderella at two minutes to twelve. Here's the rub: At the bottom of the stairwell were these doors that you go through to go out. I bust through the doors, there's the paparazzi, and everybody wanted to do an interview. This was a very important AIDS benefit, and Clive Davis is our record company president, mind you. Can you see the connection of really bad things happening? (laughing) So I had to stand down there and give interviews like nothing was going on upstairs. I couldn't tell all these gay people downstairs that there are gay people upstairs being attacked. It was just when they started to make hate crimes against gays a federal offense, and it was interesting.
And then we went on the road with Soul II Soul, and there were at least 250 people, gay people I would assume, picketing every show. They formed an organization called Zap Snap! And they marched outside of every show. And that was another reason why I decided to leave Snap! Because my sister was a serious, staunch gay advocate, and it was like a blow to my family to have me out there being represented with a gay basher. So that's what started Turbo's decline.
Then you have other people who don't care. But at that time it was a big deal. And it just squashed Snap! in America pretty much. Europeans didn't care so much.
Songfacts: With Milli Vanilli, the guys that were supposedly singing became the front of the group for media appearances. Did you have to go on talk shows and do all that promotion?
Penny: I had to explain why there was another girl on the video seemingly singing when I'm singing. People asked me about her all the time, and she doesn't even sing. She never sang a note in her life. She just got propelled into history by fate for my voice.
Songfacts: Then after you left, did they bring in other singers?
Penny: No, that's a whole 'nother long story. You got tape?
Songfacts: Yeah, I got some left.
Penny: (laughing) After I left, at some point – I can't remember the circumstances - but they called me back. And they paid me a whole lot of money to pick somebody and bring 'em back over here (Germany). Because by that time I had signed with Sony, which meant contractually I could no longer sing for them, because they were BMG. But I was not signed to Sony as a writer. So I could still write for them. So I'm not sure how it sorted out, but the girl that came after me, she was interviewing me in the same way that you are right now for a magazine, and she said she was also a songwriter. Her name is Thea Austin, and she asked me if I would listen to her song. And I don't make a point of listening to everybody's songs, I just can't listen to them all. But I listened to this song and I liked it and I wanted it for my album. So I needed to get rid of her so she didn't need that song anymore. So I asked her if she had a passport. She did, and she happens to come from the same small little ghetto outside of Pittsburgh that Turbo did. And three days later she was on a plane coming over here making another massive hit for Snap!, "Rhythm is a Dancer." And the third girl I brought over – because they got to the point where they would call me. They still do. If they need somebody that's going to make a hit record for them, they call me. And I pick who to bring over, who can handle it, who knows how to promote it. And at the same time I get to write on it, and I get writers. But now I'm not signed to a deal, so I can sing for them or anybody else I want.
Songfacts: That's really interesting. Was the song Thea Austin played you "Rhythm is a Dancer?"
Penny: No, she played me another song. She didn't play me "Rhythm is a Dancer." She played me a song she had written called – it was a good song, I can't remember. (hums to herself) "Do You Believe In The Power of Love." Or "The Power of Love." And I liked this song. And I was working on my album at the time, so I wanted that song. I was like, how can I get this song? I guess if I take her to Germany – but I didn't know that I was changing her life in that moment. We recorded it the same way.
Songfacts: And the guys from Snap! had "Rhythm is a Dancer."
Penny: Uh-huh. Yeah, that's their track. They stuck her in the studio the same way they stuck me in there, only I was behind the producer's chair instructing her what to say. There's so many stories out there, that's why I take such delight in letting people know what the real story is. I don't blame them, because it's frickin' confusing and crazy. But I happen to be privy to the real story.
Songfacts: Are there any other big misconceptions that you're always hearing?
Penny: No. Other than the fact that Jackie Harris sang. I mean, we go through things now because legally Turbo and Thea and any of the other people cannot do a show billed as Snap! I am the only person in the world legally sanctioned to do a Snap! show. Which kind of made them upset, because it cuts into their budget, I would imagine. But the Germans own the name. So there's nothing you can do. I had a name already before Snap! but I didn't let Snap! define me. It was another thing that I've done.
Songfacts: Who was the third girl that you brought in?
Penny: Her name is Paula Brown, and she called herself Summer. And she did "Welcome To Tomorrow" and several other of the Snap! songs that are mostly big in the Eastern European countries, in Russia and Poland and over in Pakistan. The last girl that I brought in was Niki Haris. And do you know who Niki is?
Songfacts: No, who's Niki?
Penny: You know Madonna, right?
Penny: The "Vogue" days, the two singers she had? Niki was the black one. So Niki worked with Madonna for a long time, so she came over and she did a remake of a song that I had already done with Snap! called "Do You See The Light," and the remake with her doing it made some noise over here and gave her an opportunity to go out and say she was Snap! for a while.
Songfacts: Because at this point you're not legally allowed, because of your record contract, to perform for Snap!
Penny: Right, to sing as Snap!
Songfacts: But you ended up still working with them behind the scenes, but nobody's going to know any of this because they can't.
Penny: They can know it, as long as I don't sing it. And I did sing some stuff, but not anything they could clock. See, I could write it, but I couldn't sing it. During the time I was with Sony. Because of course Sony doesn't want to make money for BMG, but then they ended up grouping together, so it didn't matter, did it?
Songfacts: There's so many things about this that are incredibly confusing.
Penny: Yes. I just bought on Amazon a live Barry White recording that I'm on. I did the last tour with him, both television and concert, right before he died. And I don’t know why they would even put anything out there with him sounding like that, but I bought it. And so I'm scratching my head, where's my performance fees for that? But that's how it goes.
But if you're a nice person and you try to do what's right, and you try to keep your karma clean, you'll get big hits regardless of who steals what out from under you. That's the way I look at it.
Songfacts: Well, I'm just really amazed that you were able to parlay this one vocal session into this massive extension to your career. Because I think in many cases it would have just been left at you sitting watching this happen and wondering why everything's going on without you. But you were able to make it happen.
Penny: Well, it's almost like that. I'm going to tell you something that might freak you out, I don't know. Many times it's like me sitting watching a miniseries. My life. And how some things come together. I don't make them happen. I don’t have to look for gigs. All I have to do is turn on my Yahoo! once a week and find out which plane to get on. And that's unfortunate, because there's so many people out there hustling. But I will tell you this: I do believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins, and for the remission of my sins. And I take Jesus Christ everywhere I go. And I believe that the God that I believe in has guided my life. So much of it is very divine. That's how it works for me.
Songfacts: I take it you came from a musical background?
Penny: My father produced most of the first James Brown stuff. My brother created Kool and the Gang. They're all dead. I'm the only person left in my family alive still doing this. They were older, and they lived it a different way than I did. I was raised in Cincinnati by my grandparents. And my dad and sister and brothers were in New York during the bathhouse, Studio 54 days. So a lot of those people are dead today. But I've been doing this for a long, long time, and I am so grateful to have been given the experiences, and I've really tried to do right by them. I just love the music. And that's the bottom line on it. And I have a white cat, who I love very much. (laughing) That should have been the interview. "Thank you very much. I have a white cat who I love very much."
February 3, 2011.
More Songwriter Interviews