Penny Wells has a lofty goal for her debut album Shine. The 33-year-old, jazz and R&B vocalist wants to sell 10,000 copies fast. Her friend Kem, the neo-soul crooner, sold as many in a year (a record that is nearly gold now), and she’s confident that she can hit that number in six months.
A recent show at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge indicated that her objective might be within reach. People stood outside in the rain for as long as an hour to see her. Wells guaranteed their wait wasn’t in vain; for two sets, she wooed the audience. Each song could have stopped the show. She crooned the classic “At Last” with such passion that it was conceivable she’d fall to pieces. Wells had the audience in her palm; they adsorbed every lyric and note.
Like vocalist Nancy Wilson, Wells makes it seem as though you’re the only person in the club. Her voice falls over you like a warm blanket.
Moreover, the woman epitomizes the self-made artist and comes from rich musical stock — her uncle was legendary pianist Sir Roland Hanna; her aunt is vocalist Naima Shamborguer.
Wells began professionally as Penny Hanna and changed her surname when she married. A native Detroiter and Mumford High grad, Wells was a violinist first, and had performed with the Detroit Symphony Civic Orchestra. She also had a knack for writing. In elementary school, she won the Dudley Randall prize for poetry. Though her parents weren’t musicians, their household was filled with music; all four Hanna children played an instrument.
At 13, Wells began singing. She pursued it seriously after misconstruing an innocuous remark as an insult. In 1984, renowned songwriter Sylvia Moy (who’d written for Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, among many others) participated in a summer outreach program for youth interested in the mass media. Moy recorded select students at her studio. Wells was one of them.
“I was one of those who wanted to sing, but I was a violinist at the time,” Wells recalls. “She knew that. She gave a few teens an opportunity to record in her studio. So it was like five of us, and these girls could really sing, and I was just starting to sing a little bit. I wasn’t real polished. After doing the recording I was so pleased with myself, and she told me that I needed to stick with the violin.”
The budding singer was crushed.
“Before she told me that she was telling all the other girls how great they were,” she continues. “I said I’m going to show you that I can sing. I haven’t talked to her since. So she doesn’t know how she affected me to this day.”
Moy apparently thought it important that Wells stick with her instrument, as few black women become violinists. Wells understands the songwriter’s comment now. When she tossed her violin aside to sing her father was disappointed.
“My father was the one responsible for me playing the violin and the piano,” Wells says. “He loaded us into the car and took us down to Wayne State for the youth music program. That was his commitment to us. So when I gave up the violin it was hard for him. I could tell that he was disappointed.”
For five years, Wells rehearsed nonstop and sang at family functions, weddings and church. At 18, she signed on with a talent agency, which put her in a band called Jmassk that performed on grueling hotel circuits. The singer was elated to be earning a living with her voice, but the agency worked her like a field slave.
The demanding schedule ruined her voice: She developed nodules on her vocal cords and could barely talk let alone sing.
“It was a lot of singing, and a lot of smoky environments. Plus the band didn’t care if I could hear myself. So I was screaming all the time. I was a machine. Keep on singing! Keep on going! I wanted to impress, so I did whatever it took to get my voice out there and in the end I wore it out.”
At 20, Wells was sidelined for a couple years with no marketable skills. Worse, she discovered she was pregnant.
She moved in with her mother and applied for welfare.
“I was on welfare for a good solid two years. It was the best thing that happened to me. It made me really self-reliant. At the time I was ashamed because I came from a middle-class family [she grew up in Detroit’s Sherwood Forest neighborhood], and all my friends’ parents were doctors and professionals.”
After giving birth to her son Kyle, she enrolled at Detroit Business Institute. Her situation improved when she landed a decent paying data entry job at Wayne State University. She then enrolled at WSU, majoring in speech pathology. Frances Brockington, the director of vocal music there, helped to rehabilitate Wells’ voice.
“I started taking voice lessons, and I started singing again,” says Wells. “I talked to a friend who was performing on the hotel circuit and I told her that I wanted to sing again. So she started me substituting in a group called Notorious. I started to work again regularly.”
In 1998, she quit working to pursue music full time. She started as a background singer for vocalist Orthea Barnes, and for Kem. She did brief stints with Monteke Affair, Straight Ahead and smooth jazz guitarist Johnny Lawrence. She appeared on guitarist Ed Stones’ Magic Rhythm album, and saxophonist Randy Scott’s Future and Words Unspoken recordings. Wells sings with the group Hot Ice.
An amicable split from her fiancé — Kyle’s father — inspired her 2000 debut single, “Free to Walk Away,” which she wrote in five minutes the day of the separation. (She has since married Greg Wells, and the couple has two children together.)
“We were planning to get married. I put a payment down on my dress. I discovered that I didn’t love him enough to marry him. This was about a month before the wedding date,” Wells remembers. “So one day, while I was washing dishes, and he was sitting there, I said ‘I can’t do this. I can’t put you through this.’ The song was about me, and how really grateful I was of him.”
“Free to Walk Away” got her recognized. In 2000, she won a WGPR-FM (107.5) competition designed to promote unsigned artists. After winning the contest, the song became so popular that WGPR played it for three years.
“It’s a rarity to find a talent like Penny’s,” says Rosetta Hines, WGPR’s program director. “She is so young and has such a seasoned sound. It’s a rarity also to find an artist who can write meaningful lyrics. We have her new album now, and I can’t wait to hear what she has in store for us.”
Wells began working on Shine, first with saxophonist Randy Scott and later with longtime friend, pianist Al McKenzie, the current musical director of Otis Williams and the Temptations.
Wells wrote the album, thus establishing herself as a songwriter. Her intentions are obvious and rooted in sincerity: she wants to convey something meaningful with her songs. Yes, she can do an impressive rendition of “My Funny Valentine,” but that’s not what she’s about.
“As a performer it’s all about the legacy that you leave behind,” explains Wells. “I have been singing at all these clubs every week, but there’s no record of me ever being here. No one would remember that I was at Baker’s last night. So I said that I needed to have something recorded. That was the inspiration. When I leave this world this is what I have contributed.”
This attitude and approach is why Shine — which is out this week on Amac records — would, in a just world, gain recognition beyond Michigan. This album could easily be mistaken for an R&B workout, but it’s loaded with the ingredients of a great vocal jazz album. It’s soothing, honest and inspirational; turning dreams into realities is a main theme. The title cut is goosebump-inducing, and “Don’t Give Up” is a potent anthem about personal tenacity. Other standouts include “Stay” and “My Love Will Be Yours.” Overall, it’s the kind of record that’s worth sharing, worth repeated listens.
“I look at my children and how they look at me living my dream,” she continues, “and that’s what I want to give to them. I want them to know that whatever they want to do is possible. …”
Next on her docket is tracking down Sylvia Moy to thank her.
Penny Wells appears on Saturday, May 22, at the Northwest Activities Center (18100 Meyers Road, Detroit) as part of the Rhythm and Jazz Concert series. Call 313-578-7500 for info. She will perform at Jazz N Jams records (22156 Telegraph Road, Southfield) from 2 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, May 23. Call 248-353-5299.Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]