The club was hoppin’ – the Casablanca in Flint on Industrial Ave. was “the place” to find and experience new singing talent in the ‘70s, especially on open mic night. A singer had just left the stage to raucous applause and waiting in the wings backstage, a teenage girl was about to give her first performance. This would be her third attempt; each previous time she had turned back at the last minute, unsure she could do it. The room was packed. What would they think? Would she be good enough?
She was introduced and taking that first step onto the stage, she knew there was no turning back this time. There she stood, looking out into a sea of faces staring back at her. When the music started, she shut her eyes. She had to – it was the only way. Her song choice that night was “Dr. Feelgood” by Aretha Franklin, and she belted it out with as much soul as she could muster. Her voice was powerful and she hit all the right notes. She opened her eyes to thunderous applause and a stage covered in money! That teenager grew up to live her life on stage, singing all over the state of Michigan both solo and with recording artists such as The Williams Brothers, The Canton Spirituals, Willie Clayton, The Delfonics and others. Her career led to collaborations with Carvin Winans and a backup stint with Michael McDonald. The singer is Gwen Pennyman-Hemphill and she is Flint’s First Lady of Jazz.
“I’m asked to sing wherever I go. I always promise just one song, but it always turns into three or four.”
“I was so scared that first night,” Pennyman-Hemphill remembers. “I had flutters in my stomach, just rolling. The only way I could do it was to shut my eyes. When I was done, I was so shocked at what I just did that I forgot to pick up the money the crowd had thrown onto the stage,” she laughed. “Some friends gathered it all up for me.” Pennyman-Hemphill still has a flutter in her stomach every now and then but after a lifetime of performing, singing on stage has gotten to be old hat. “I used to be so shy. I never knew what to say on stage,” she smiles. “Now, I like to tell a story or two before the song to get the audience into it. I feel like singing and performing is something I was born to do.”
For Pennyman-Hemphill growing up, music was unavoidable – it was quite literally in her blood. Her mother, Lucille Briggs, sang with the gospel group The Mighty Bank Sisters with other family members (as she got older, Gwen would be asked to stand in for an aunt here and there) and her cousin, Richard Wayne Penniman, is none other than the late, great Little Richard. Song lived in her family but it also lived in her heart as a child. “I remember when I first fell in love with music,” she says. “I’m not sure how old I was when I heard ‘Gotta Find Me an Angel’ by Aretha Franklin. It was so beautiful. I asked my mother what it was and from then on, all I wanted to do was listen to that song.” It’s the song that got it all started but one she has never performed. “Maybe someday,” she says with a sigh.
Pennyman-Hemphill never had any “formal” vocal training but growing up with her family, she got everything she needed. “We had big, family dinner rehearsals at the house for The Mighty Bank Sisters,” she remembers. “The whole family was involved.” While attending Beecher High School, she was always in a new musical group, singing different songs with different partners such as Ronnie Moss, who now tours with The Spinners. “One of the teachers there, Mr. Moss, put together the Beecher Black Arts Festival every year and I would always perform with my classmates,” she explains. “Someday, I would like to get the festival started again.” After graduating in 1974, Pennyman-Hemphill took a job with General Motors working at Fisher Body. That was where she met songwriter, manager and future husband, Lenny Hemphill. “He was working there for about six months before I started,” she says. “He was a songwriter and we bonded around the music. When Lenny finally told me how he felt about me, I told him I wasn’t sure I was ready. He told me that he could wait for me – that’s love.” The two have been together ever since.
As for inspiration, Pennyman-Hemphill names Aretha Franklin as one of her greatest influences, as well as Chaka Khan, Tina Turner, Billie Holiday, Etta James and many others. On stage, she sings selections from R&B, theater, gospel and of course, jazz. “There was a time when I only sang gospel songs,” she laughs, “but soon enough, R&B and jazz crept back in.” In Mid-Michigan, she is recognized in every venue she visits having been a regular at Signature Chop House, Mott Community College, Raspberries Rhythm Bar & Grill, The Golden Leaf Club, 501 Bar & Grill, Rita’s in Saginaw, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit and even as far away as Charley’s Good Ground Café in Ohio. Everywhere she goes, she is asked to perform – so often that she carries a CD with her performance music on it at all times. “I’m asked to sing wherever I go,” she smiles. “I always promise just one song but it always turns into three or four.”
In addition to her vocal talent, Pennyman-Hemphill is an accomplished actress. As a regular at the New McCree Theatre, she played major roles in “The Gospelettes,” “Fame,” “Rock the Boat: The Fleming Williams Story” and as “Auntie Em” in the hit musical, “The Wiz.” At The Whiting, she played the role of “Momma” in the gospel comedy, “Saints and Sinners.” Recently, she was honored with a two-day celebration at the New McCree Theatre as “A Phenomenal Woman of Song.”
For all of her life, Pennyman-Hemphill has found success in nearly every way possible. So, what’s next? “Well, I am trying my hand at songwriting and I have four songs ready to record,” she says. “I was set to begin working with Bernard Terry and a week later, he was lost to us. Recently, though, a protégé of his made contact with me and she is interested in continuing the project. So, with hope, I will be back in the studio once again.”
“I’ll continue to sing as long as I can. It’s something I was called to do.”
Music is life for this accomplished singer and she will never stop singing – just like her mother. “She always wanted to sing and when she was older, I was the only one available to sit down and sing with her,” she says with a sad smile. Her mother is gone now, but her spirit lives on whenever Pennyman-Hemphill takes the stage and hits that first note. In the future, she can easily envision herself singing at Carnegie Hall with a full orchestra and it would be an absolute dream. What song would she sing? “Oh, I would sing ‘At Last’ by Etta James,” she says, matter-of-factly. “It’s become my signature song.”
If there is a festival, celebration of song, or special occasion in town, you can bet that Gwen Pennyman-Hemphill will be there waiting in the wings, this time without the flutters. “I’ll continue to sing as long as I can,” she states. “It’s something I was called to do.”
Skyline Club (28th Floor) Southfield – 5-8pm
Sloan Museum of Discovery, Flint – 7pm
Rita’s Cafe, Saginaw – 12:00 midnight
Genesys Banquet Center, Grand Blanc – 10am