A look back at the late Stax singer's life of soul, being named by Otis Redding, covered by Alicia Keys and sampled on 36 Chambers
Taken from the May 2012 issue of Dazed:
“I was born in 1947. I lived a very rural life. I loved it, being in the fields, playing in the bayou – you know, country living. I preferred wearing jeans to dresses – I was a tomboy. I guess that was because I only had brothers around me. Our neighborhood was very musical; there were a lot of gospel and R&B groups. We did a lot of singing in my family. My mother’s influence on my music was very important. She taught my brother how to play guitar, and she taught me harmony. She left an indelible impression. I loved listening to the radio and watching American Bandstand. My favourite group was Martha and the Vandellas. I loved how she danced when she sang.
My brother Johnny was in music and he encouraged me a lot. He formed our group, The Drapels. It was thanks to him that I got a record deal. We had gone to audition at the Stax studios and as usual Johnny was criticising me; he told me I was not singing the right tune, and I said I was. As a matter of fact I told Jim Stewart that I had written the song. He liked it, and that’s how it got started. I never dreamt that I would actually get a record contract. I still can’t believe it. I was planning on becoming an English teacher.
One of The Drapels went to Washington to embark upon a new career. That was the beginning of the end for the group. I preferred being in a band to being a solo act because I did not have to be so daring, I could do what the others were doing. I liked being in the shadows because I could hide behind Johnny. He criticised me a lot because he was a perfectionist and I was his little sister. But when I went solo there was a void. I missed him.
Otis Redding gave me the name Wendy Rene. As a matter of fact he said I should be named Wendy Reen, but I preferred Rene. It felt strange at first to be called Wendy when everyone else knew me as Mary. Deanie Parker, the publicist at Stax, suggested the name Wendy Storm, but I thought that was corny. I thought Wendy Rene was cute. People told me I sounded like Carla Thomas and I was somewhat offended. She has a nice voice but I didn’t want to sound like somebody else. I wanted to be Wendy Rene – an original. I think I achieved that. When I first heard my voice on a record I wondered, ‘How did I go so high!’
I was supposed to be travelling with Otis and the Bar-Kays when their plane crashed. I didn’t go because I was with my baby, I had a little boy and I wanted to stay with him. When I think back to that event, it sends chills up and down my spine, because the plane crashed into the lake and they drowned and I couldn’t swim then… I can’t swim now! If it wasn’t for my son Andre I would have been in that plane. He’s my lucky charm.
Otis was so great. I liked the way he sang, the way he would put the song together. My favourite song of his was “Mr Pitiful”. He made you go there. My own writing didn’t come from personal experiences. My dad didn’t allow me to have personal experiences, so I had to imagine. That was the only thing I could do, sit out on the back steps with my paper and notepad and write songs. I imagined that I felt them. I wasn’t a melancholic girl, but I was a loner. I watched a lot of television. Mostly love stories. I’m a hopeless romantic, which may be why I got married very young. It was a big catastrophe – I was too young. Young and foolish.
I wrote my most famous song, "After Laughter", after reading a magazine story about this girl who was happy at first and then her happiness turned to tears. It took me about 30 minutes. When I hear my songs these days I mentally go back into the recording studio. I see it all happening again. It was great, Jim Stewart would listen to everything – he could hear a pin drop. I didn’t feel under any pressure to succeed because he constantly told me that I was good. He made me feel special. I wasn’t starstruck by people like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes, because my oldest brother had gone to school with Isaac and Otis was so down to earth. They made me feel comfortable.
I enjoyed being a performer. The best thing was getting to wear those shiny clothes. I loved my shiny purple-and-black pant suit. I remember playing at the Harlem Apollo in the 60s – it was very exciting and it gave me a chance to show what I could do. Jim Stewart sent me up there. I was always nervous of being onstage, but I got over it. New York was so impressive – I was so impressed I bought a monkey! Of course, my mother and my father had a fit when I came home. They said one monkey was enough. I called my monkey Chico and took him with me to Stax one day. He just disorganised the place. They told me not to bring him back. He kept jumping on people’s backs and scratching their hair, apart from Isaac Hayes cause he didn’t have any hair. My daddy didn’t like it. Buying Chico was my little act of rebellion.
“One day one of my sons said, ‘Mommy, I heard you on the radio on a Wu-Tang Clan song.’ It made them think I was the coolest mom ever!” – Wendy Rene
I got as big as I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be a pop star although sometimes I regret retiring so early. I wanted to be a full-time mother. That’s what I wanted then and that’s what I want now. I have five sons and one daughter who is very, very bossy. One of my sons is into music – I taught him harmony. It feels good to have passed that down to him, it makes me feel happy. My sons take good care of me these days because I had a stroke recently. But I’m overcoming it.
One day one of my sons said, "Mommy, I heard you on the radio on a Wu-Tang Clan song." I thought he was kidding, and I listened to it and there it was, they had sampled "After Laughter". I liked it. I thought it was interesting. That hip hop, it’s nice. It’s what my sons like. It made them think I was the coolest mom ever! Alicia Keys also covered it; she did a great version. I would like to meet them one day.
I went to Stax about two weeks ago. I had a coming-out party for my album, and I got a chance to see Mr Stewart and of course many of the artists and musicians. It brought back good memories. We were a family. They will always be my family.”
FOOTNOTES ON WENDY RENE
1. Born Mary Frierson in Memphis, Tennessee. Her father was of mixed race and her mother was a musician who was nearly 20 years his junior. They had three sons and Mary was their only daughter.
2. American Bandstand was a TV music show that aired in various versions from 1952 to 1989.
3. Although most famous for “Dancing in the Street”, Motown act Martha and the Vandellas scored over 26 hits during their nine-year chart run from 1963 to 1972.
4. The pioneering soul label was created in 1957 as Satellite Records but became Stax Records in 1961, taking the names of its founders, white brother and sister Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton (STewart/AXton = Stax). Its most popular artists were Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and Booker T. & the M.G.’s.
5. Singer Carla Thomas, the daughter of Stax-signer singer/ comedian Rufus Thomas, was known as the Queen of Memphis Soul. Her most famous single was “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)”.
6. Redding wrote and recorded “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” just before going on tour with the Bar-Kays in the winter of 1967. On December 10, three years to the day since the death of his idol Sam Cooke, Redding’s plane crashed into Lake Monona, Wisconsin. He was just 26 years old.
7. RZA sampled the melancholic “After Laughter” to create WuTang’s “Tearz”, a 1993 song about his brother’s murder. Alicia Keys’ “Where Do We Go From Here” also reinterpreted the song. The royalties enabled Frierson to buy her current home.