Wendy Rene would record only a handful of songs before retiring, yet can be seen as one of the most thrilling figures of classic soul. Brief but magnificent, her career is marked by moments of brilliance and tragedy; personal musical affection, fleeting encounters with recording and industry legends and popular crazes. Rajiv Mahabir traces the roots of her southern soul and unearths the mystery of a musical legend, and her recent resurgence.
Rene was born Mary Frierson in Memphis, Tennessee, home of the legendary Stax Records. The name Wendy Rene was christened by Otis Redding, one of Stax’s biggest names, when she signed to them as a teenager in 1963. The company also launched the careers of Teen-Town alumni Carla Thomas and Isaac Hayes. In Memphis, the African American centered crux was key to the development of southern soul. Rene, along with Brother Johnny Frierson, had nurtured her craft amongst teeming musical talent during their upbringing as sanctified singers at the Church of God In Christ. The siblings’ gospel roots provided great musical bearings, especially evident in Rene’s unique swooning vocal cries. The Frierson’s North Memphis high school, Manassas, was also home to WDIA radio station – the first U.S. radio station programmed by African Americans. It sponsored a popular rotating musical group of high school students called the Teen Town Singers; notable members were Anita Louis, Isaac Hayes, and southern soul queen Carla Thomas. Renowned swing era bandleader Jimmie Lunceford also taught music in the school, while North Memphis alumni included a supreme host of jazz musicians such as Frank Strozier, George Coleman, and Hank Crawford.
In this period of crucial music development, Rene and Frierson were determined to gain a recording contract. Johnny recruited friends Marianne Brittenum and Wilbur Mondie, and the group formed the vocal quartet The Drapels. Traveling by city bus to 926 E. McLemore Avenue, the four auditioned for Stax co-founder Jim Stewart, and won a deal on the spot. However, from one were born two: after the Drapels audition, Rene showed Stewart her own songs and gained a second contract with the record company. ‘Mama said I could sing. I think all mothers tell their children they can sing, they can act. I believed her’.
With Stax’s Carla Thomas away, and songs by Booker T & the MG’s and Otis Redding falling low on the Top 100 charts, Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton were hoping for the next big thing. In between efforts by Bobby Marchan, and Deanie Parker, The Drapers released their first single, the elegiac ‘Wondering (When My Love Is Coming Home)’ on Stax subsidiary Volt Records in January, 1964. Their second release, ‘Young Man’, like their first, failed to amass listeners.
Watch this video of Wendy Rene:
Rene’s single, ‘After Laughter’ was released later that year. Though failing to chart, it was well received by listeners in the Mid-South. The piercing minor organ chords were ‘because of mama’, Rene says, who was the minister of her church and played piano, organ, and violin. Rene also notes that multi-instrumentalist and Grammy Award winner Booker T. Jones performed on the single. On the flip-side of the trademark light-blue Stax 154 record, is ‘She’s Moving Away’, a delicately complex do-wop ballad. Success was in sway, and with writer Steve Cropper, and bassist Larry Brown writing, Rene recorded her catchy second single, ‘Bar-B-Q’. Released the day after Lyndon B. Johnson won re-election, the organ-driven pop melody and deep syncopated sax caught the sixties dance crazes like the Monkey and the Jerk.
The response may have swept across the region but Rene’s singles failed to attract adequate attention. The Drapels dissolved soon after and with a growing family, Rene decided to retire in 1967. That year marked some hardships and loses. In 1967, Rene declined the opportunity to perform in one last concert with Otis Redding. Her decision was monumental. In 1968 Stax’s biggest star, along with Phalon Jones, Jimmy King, Ronnie Caldwell, and Carl Cunningham died when their plane crashed in Lake Manona. They were on their way to a gig in Madison, Wisconsin. Only trumpeter Ben Cauley survived.
The same year, Stax experienced a severance of the label’s distribution deal with Atlantic Records. Under new supervision, the label’s operations aimed to compete with main rival, Motown Records in Detroit. However during the mid-1970s, a number of factors, including a problematic distribution deal with CBS Records, caused the label to slide into liquidation, resulting in its forced closure in late 1975. Rene mourned the tragic events, and her short-lived career shrouded her in mystery.
Although close to achieving a bona fide hit record, Rene’s brief career and struggling industry relations missed chances of fame. Instead, after retirement, Rene found contentment in teaching her children harmony and even today continues to sing in church. Recently memories of her music days have resurfaced, and with great merit. Rene heard herself on Wu Tang Clan’s ‘Tearz’, from their seminal debut, ‘Enter the 36 Chambers’. In the song, her mournful soul fades seamlessly into RZA’s heartfelt rap about this brother’s murder. Whilst other artists and listeners quickly shun the idea of sampling as a type of musical theft, Rene expresses her support of it with a blithe warmness: ‘I like being sampled. What? My song? That old? What?’ The track helped Wu Tang Clan reach acclaim beyond the hip-hop market.
In 2007, Alicia Keys adapted the song in ‘Where Do We Go From Here’, which kindly paid for Rene’s current house. And most recently, in 2011, NastyNasty took Rene into dubstep territory with ‘Apologies’. ‘If I could sing like anyone,’ said Swedish singer-songwriter Lykke Li, ‘It would be her.’ Rene’s resurgence coincided with rumours of a comeback, and in early 2010, the Ponderosa Stomp announced that she would play their ninth annual festival. However, overcome with emotion from her brother’s passing earlier that year, Rene ultimately could not perform.
Watch this video of Wu Tang Clan – Tearz:
Rene’s pinnacle has been distressed and tinged by tragedy, a struggling music industry, and by personal resolve. Despite her enduring anonymity, Rene’s solo output with Stax reveals her unique place amongst the talented musical industry of the 1960’s. New generations of artists continue to draw on Rene’s achievements, and help to place emphasis on her legacy of soul, hip-hop, and diverse contemporary music. Rene was given a long overdue tribute last year by Light in the Attic Records, when they released her first ever anthology, ‘After Laughter Comes Tears: Complete Stax & Volt Singles + Rarities 1964-1965’. As her tributes grow, we reflect upon her sheer ability, her artistry, and her continued influence as a legend of southern soul.