Lydia Pense: The 13th Floor Interview

Lydia Pense has been a part of the San Francisco music scene since the heady days of the Summer of Love more than 50 years ago.

One of three powerful female vocalists from that scene, the other two being Grace Slick and Janis Joplin, Pense fronted the rock and soul band Cold Blood.

Now she is in New Zealand for the first time, performing at Auckland’s Bruce Mason Centre tonight with guitarist Robben Ford and Rodger Fox’s Big Band before heading down to Wellington to take part in their jazz festival.

The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to Lydia Pense just before she departed San Francisco and headed south.

Click here to listen to the interview with Lydia Pense:

Or, read a transcription of the interview here:

MD: You’re still doing the Cold Blood thing in San Francisco, right?

LP: Yeah – we… all over the Bay Area, and Northern California and stuff. We’ve gone back east and stuff.  Still doing it.

MD: So. When you go out on your own, like you are coming to New Zealand, what do you usually come up with?

LP: Oh, what we come up with? Well, this time there’s two people. Me and Steve, the guitarist in the band, Steve Dunne, we’re coming over there and playing with of course, um, with a big band! Yeah. And I guess we’ll be doing some Cold Blood stuff. So that’s going to be interesting, yeah.

MD: With Rodger Fox, I believe it is.

LP: Yeah, Rodger Fox, right. So how is it over there? I wanna ask you a few questions.

MD: It’s great over here!

LP: Now, I’m gonna be comin’ over there, May 26th, so what is, is it – it’s going to be you guys’… Your fall- your winter, right? Autumn into the winter?

MD: That’s right, yes.

LP: Okay. And what’s the mean temperature out there?

MD: Well, of course it’s all done in centigrade here, but um… it depends on what part of the country you’re in. I live in Auckland. It never gets cold enough that it snows here, so… occasionally we get a frost. But it does get to be kinda rainy, and a bit dreary, but it’s been really nice. Like, today’s a nice kind of fall day, so, it’s hot enough.

LP: Okay, that’s good. I’m looking forward to going there. I mean, I’m just sick of the daft… you know. I can’t wait. I just don’t like the plane ride. I don’t think I’m ready for the 13-hour, whatever, plane ride.

MD: It is a long way.

LP: I’ve got a lot of stuff to take. I’ve got leg cramps, and so I gotta take a lot of tonic water.

MD: Right. So I was hoping I could talk to you a little bit about your past… and I have a lap full of Cold Blood albums here, that I got from my collection. And I noticed that one of them – The First Taste Of Sin, by Donny Hathaway, who happens to be really popular…Kiwis – New Zealanders – love Donny Hathaway. So I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about how that came to be, how he came to produce your album.

LP: Oh, well, gee. Oh well, at the time, me and the keyboard, the piano player at the time, Raul Matute, we were sitting around and we were getting ready to do another album, and we were listening to a lot of Donny Hathaway stuff at the time. And I was thinking, and I said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we got Donny Hathaway to produce our next album?” So we just kind of threw it out there, and luckily he came to the call-in, that… and that’s how we got to have him there. Yeah.

MD: And so, what kind of producer was he? Because he’s known as a singer, obviously, and a songwriter, but his production abilities are kind of unknown. So what did he contribute?

LP: Well, he contributed a lot. He was mostly quiet – a very quiet person. But. His ideas about things – he had a lot of knowledge about directing a band and stuff, he had a lot of input on the arrangement, a lot of the arrangements that we did. So. I mean, I was there every day in the studio, gawking. I really wanted to be there with him, you know, just being around, so. That was a great opportunity, and I truly miss the person, you know. I really miss him a lot. And he – God knows what he’d be doing now, you know?

MD: This is true. It’s very sad what happened to him. And, um… I know that, from listening to Cold Blood, they’re kind of a horn band. Did you guys look at yourself as along the same lines with Tower of Power, Chase, and The Ides of March and Blood, Sweat & Tears and those things?

LP: Well, actually – we… I played in horn bands for a long, long time at the very beginning. From the late 60’s, I mean, that’s what we had in the band all the time. More than, I think actually – I mean, we were playin’ a little bit before the Tower came out with them, but we all had the same idea about the type of music we made. But I was always used to playing with big bands, I mean, with horn bands and things. I just like the sound, and the feel of that whole thing. Like if you’re playing with a big oomph-y band, it’ll be truly incredible. It’ll be so much fun… oh man.

MD: Cause it’s interesting that all those horn bands kind of came about around the same time – the late 60’s, early 70’s. Do you have any idea why that would’ve happened?

LP: You know, I don’t know really why. I think the end of the… time was… we were getting to the end of just-a-guitar bands and things. I remember when we played at the Fillmore for the first time and we had our horns and things, people… you know, weren’t used to that, but they actually dug it a lot. And then, eventually Janis Joplin… well, she – she eventually got horns in her band, too. So, you know, that’s the one thing that a lot of bands were missing.

MD: The Kozmic Blues Band, yeah.  And you mentioned Janis… supposedly, from what I’ve read, she’s the one that kind of got you into the whole scene, and got you signed by Bill Graham. How did that work out? Were you guys friends?

Lydia in the 60s.

LP: Well, not really, no. That’s a different thing. Actually Bill Graham, I was playing with this band, called – oh, I forgot the name, The Collage, or something. And he came to the house of the drummer, and we had a four-piece band, me, a beastly player that played bass solos, and guitar and drums, and myself. And we were just a four-piece band. And the drummer at that time knew the girl that worked with Bill Graham in the box office. So she got Bill Graham to come, to see this house, to listen to us, to listen to the band. And was… geez, Louise. That was… I don’t even know what year was that, ’66, ’67? So that was before Janis even heard of us.

MD: But it’s interesting, the whole San Francisco scene seemed to produce quite a few strong female musicians: Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, yourself. Were you guys – did you talk about these things among yourselves? Did you kind of form a friendship?

LP: No. You know, I started singing since… like, I was in different bands since I was fifteen. So I was used to that. And the idea of girls, chick singers coming in, I guess eventually they just came in because you know, it became… I think it had to do a lot with the… great people, Grace and Janis being the head of bands and things, and I just think the idea got a little bit more … around. You didn’t feel too scared, or too out there, having a chick in the band, singing and stuff. Yeah. You just got on with it.

MD: And it’s been, like, more than fifty years since the Summer of Love and the whole San Francisco thing, and people have a certain idea about what that was like. You were right in the middle of it. Is it pretty accurate, what people think, in terms of what it was like in ’67, in ’68?

LP: I don’t know. What do they say?  Well, anything they thought was obviously true. But, uh… You know, I don’t know. The whole thing… it just came about because people were joining, and the idea of the whole thing. I don’t know, it just… it started like anything else starts. But the whole thing started with music, so there you go. That was at the beginning of that.

MD: Right. Why was there such a fertile music scene happening in San Francisco as opposed to anywhere else at that time?

LP: It was probably a lot of the smoke in the air. Real lot of that stuff going on. I mean, it was the birth of all that stuff, you know, anywhere… and the people on the streets. I remember I used to go to Berkeley, just to go shopping, and it would just be crowded. There was so many people on the streets… it was kinda neat for me at the time. Like, there were buses, you’d see buses coming down the street, they were Greyhound buses. Doing tours. People looking at the hippies.

People going, “Oh my god, look at that.” You know, taking tour buses and checking out the hippies on the street. And that was great. What a scene. It was a scene. And we were right in the middle of it, you know.

MD: You also had the Pointer Sisters singing on a couple of tracks with you guys as well. How did that happen?

LP: Yeah. Well, Dave Rubinson who was producing their albums too at the time, and then Dave Rubinson came over and produced one of our first albums and stuff, we just got together and you know… and had them come in and just work on the background. But, they were pretty good friendss and stuff, like they did some background with Tower of Power and stuff, so they got together, and sure enough, it was great. And they’re still on there. And it was great. I love working with great voices, and yeah. That was neat.

MD: And it seems like – I know the single, You Got Me Hummin’, got some kind of national airplay, but for the first part, Cold Blood seemed to be kind of a West Coast phenomenon. Was – do you think there was a reason why you guys never broke out wider than that?

LP: Yeah, I don’t know. Some say its management, some say it was material. I’m not really sure how that – why that came about. I think a lot of it had to do with management things like that… I’ll blame it on that, you know, but… you know, it’s kind of funny. After all these years, fifty-something years later and we’re still playing. I mean, that’s great. To me, that means more to me than anything right now. Cause I don’t know what I’d be doing… I wouldn’t be talking to you… I mean, fifty-something years. If you think about it, I mean, that’s a long-ass career, you know!

MD: It is indeed. Yeah. Yeah. Well, I appreciate you talking to me. I can’t wait to see you when you get down here. And I think you’re gonna enjoy the country, hopefully you’ll get to see a bit of it driving around. Cause it’s a beautiful place.

LP: Oh, I’d love to! And that’s one thing I’d love to do, is check out… I’ve heard a lot of good things about how beautiful it is there and everything, you know. I can’t wait!

Click here for tickets and information to see Lydia Pense perform tonight at the Bruce Mason Centre.

Lydia Pense performs at the Wellington Jazz Festival June 7th.