SAN DIEGO — As the '60s turned the corner into the '70s, there emerged a number of female vocalists who qualified as "white soul chicks," to use one of the less-delicate tags of the day.
They came from diverse backgrounds, geographies and musical influences, but these singers were bound by three characteristics: Each was white. Each had a voice with the texture of crushed glass. And each employed some degree of "black" inflection in her singing. Janis Joplin, Bonnie Bramlett, Chi Coltrane, Gayle McCormick (of the band Smith), Lydia Pense--there was no shortage of women sandblasters.
Arguably, the singer with the best all-around chops was Pense, who fronted the grease-funk band Cold Blood from the late '60s until its demise in the mid-'70s. Pense and a new version of Cold Blood will perform today through Wednesday at the Del Mar Fair's Infield Stage.
You probably won't find any mention of Cold Blood in the usual rock 'n' roll reference books. As far as pop chroniclers are concerned, the band never existed. However, cognoscenti of early-'70s music (especially of the white-funk variety) remember the band as the equal of another, more touted, still active Bay Area horn band, Tower of Power. The two bands were label-mates on Bill Graham's San Francisco Records.
Like a number of second- and third-wave San Francisco acts (Stoneground, Sons of Champlin), Cold Blood was ubiquitous on the Fillmore-era concert circuit, but never connected with enough record-buyers to leave an indelible mark. That's a shame, because the group's best work was top-notch, jazz-twisted funk that deserved wider recognition.
At least in musical circles, Pense was a highly regarded vocalist, and her slinky live performances of such Cold Blood tunes as "Funky on My Back" and the show-stopping "I'm a Good Woman" rarely failed to enthrall an audience (including a very responsive one at the Sports Arena in 1971).
If Cold Blood's eventual dissolution didn't exactly leave a major void in pop music, it could be stated that its re-emergence likewise will not trigger a stampede of record execs to the band's rehearsal space. But, after a prolonged absence from the spotlight, Pense, now 43, is determined to regain a solid footing in the music biz.
In a phone interview last week from her home in the East Bay section of San Francisco, Pense discussed her early entry into, and temporary exit from The Biz. As to the former, Pense perhaps was less predestined than preconditioned for her eventual career.
"I was born and raised in San Francisco, and I had an older brother who was into black music," she said. "When I was a kid, I'd wake up every morning with the stuff blasting away. You know, the early records by Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner, Etta James, Aretha Franklin. So I grew up listening to soul, and when I started singing in bands--at the age of 13--it was only natural to sing in that style. I'm still partial to the sound of a big soul band, with a horn section and everything."
After several years of struggling to push Cold Blood to the top of the heap (the band's excellent second album was titled, appropriately, "Sisyphus"), Pense went into retreat.
"The original band just kind of dispersed after 1975," explained Pense, whose marriage in 1974 preceded by a year the release of the group's self-titled farewell album. "I just stopped singing for a while, and moved to Garberville (in Humboldt County) with my husband. I'd been singing professionally for 14 years, and it seemed like a good time for a break."
Pense's hiatus from performing lasted four years. "Beginning in 1979, I started playing around with various bands," she said. "Nothing too serious. Then, in 1981, I gave birth to my daughter, and that took a lot of my time and energy. But my daughter's 10 now, so it's a lot easier for me to pursue a career again."
Pense moved back to the Bay Area in 1988 and assembled a new Cold Blood by recruiting some of San Francisco's better-known players (most of them members of the group Pacific Brass and Electric). Last year, however, the band and Pense went their separate ways, and the parting was not exactly amicable.
Some of the band members groused about what they considered callous mistreatment at the hands of Pense's manager, Adele Morgan. Guitarist Jeff Tamalire was quoted in a San Francisco Chronicle article asserting that Morgan fired the band's bassist via a message on his answering machine, and thereafter assembled a new backup group without first notifying the existing band.
Pense removed herself as much as possible from the squabbling and set about working with the new musicians. The lineup she is bringing to the fair includes trumpet, sax, guitar, bass and drummer Donny Baldwin, who once played in Elvin Bishop's band and the best-selling act Starship in late 1989.
Another member of the new Cold Blood is keyboardist Jimmy Page (no, not \o7 that\f7 one), who has penned some of the band's newer music.
"Jimmy's material has a more--I guess you could say contemporary sound," said Pense. "Not exactly hip-hop, but, you know, a newer funk feel than the stuff the old Cold Blood played."
Pense hastened to add that the band's current repertoire includes a number of early Cold Blood favorites. "I still enjoy doing some of those older tunes," she said. "And people who remember the band still like hearing them."
Pense intends to work hard and hope for a new beginning as a recording artist.
"My voice is in good shape--I feel stronger than ever," she said. "I'm trying hard to keep the band together, and so far we've been keeping pretty busy, playing a lot of gigs. Meanwhile, I'm looking for more new tunes, with the goal of getting a record deal. Whatever happens, I'm enjoying singing again."