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Lydia Pense & Cold Blood: The Endless Summer of Love

Jim Worsley By

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Fifty years ago, the Woodstock Festival blazed the music scene and put modern society on the map. Yes, it was the era of hippies, counterculture, peace, love, and dope. The west coast made its own lasting impression with the far-out, peaceful, yet happening, streets of San Francisco. The rich music scene was as potent as the LSD doled out at Haight-Ashbury. People were turning on to Bay Area artists such as the Jefferson Airplane, Carlos Santana, Grateful Dead, Elvin Bishop, Sly and the Family Stone, Steve Miller, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, as much as they were being turned on to hash pipes and hallucinogens. Cold Blood was more than just another successful band in that mix. Led by the powerful and soulful voice of Lydia Pense, Cold Blood brought the horns back to a time dominated by hard edged guitars. Their sonic mix of funk, rock, jazz, and R&B introduced a new sound that was the forerunner to Tower of Power and many other horn section led bands in the 1970's. Now called Lydia Pense & Cold Blood, they celebrate their fiftieth anniversary. Currently on tour, we caught up with the still energetic seventy-one years old Pense for a conversation about the summer of love, a unique encounter with Janis Joplin, her passion for singing, fond memories of her dad, her current band, and much more.

All About Jazz: I wasn't going to lead with this, but just to establish where I'm coming from at the outset, back in 1972 or 1973 I saw Cold Blood on the same bill with It's A Beautiful Day at the Long Beach Auditorium. "White Bird" was a big hit at the time and they put on a good show, but you guys blew the roof off the place! You were literally a tough act for them to follow. Having played thousands of shows in your career, is it possible to recall anything specific from that night, or perhaps, more likely from that tour?

Lydia Pense: Wow, you have a great memory. I remember some stuff, but pretty vague. I mean 1972, wow, that was a long time ago. I can tell you that we still play together. It's A Beautiful Day is still together. We did a show with them just a couple of weeks ago.

AAJ: That's very cool. The powerful version of the Willie Dixon classic "I Just Want to Make Love to You" is the Cold Blood tune that first grabbed me way back when. Would you agree that, till this day, it is a song that very well epitomizes and represents the essence of your potent sound and groove? I viewed it as groundbreaking.

LP: In a way, yes. That was on our very first album and it's a mainstay. We still do that song. The way that came together was very cool. Yeah, it kind of helped define our sound and our take on things.

AAJ: In reference to the term groundbreaking, I often read about Tower of Power, Average White Band, and other bands creating, or redefining, that horn heavy funk, soul, and R & B sound. I find myself shaking my head, as Cold Blood predates all of them, correct?

LP: Yes, we actually started before Tower was even signed. I've always liked having horns in the band. The more the better. Just having that big sound.

AAJ: How do you feel out there these days? Seventy-one years young and still kickin' it. Still the energy and drive, and diggin' the groove on stage?

LP: Well, you know, here's the thing, I just love doing it. All these years I've been singing, you know, I'll do it until I die. I thank God that I am still able to stand up and do it. I feel good, yeah. I just love it. I always have.

AAJ: This is your fiftieth anniversary tour. Indeed, going all the way back to the summer of love in 1969. So, first off, congratulations on that! So many of your contemporaries left us long ago. Do you feel lucky to still be doing what you love?

PE: Its amazing isn't it? (rhetorical). I'm thankful. It's in my blood. I'm thankful to be alive. I have a lot of respect for everybody that I played with along the way. I really appreciate that I'm still standing up straight (with a laugh).

AAJ: You are the only original member of Cold Blood still with the band. Tell us about Cold Blood today.

LP: Well, you know, it's interesting because this group has been together longer now than the original group from back in the day. Guitarist Steve Dunne has been with me a long, long, time. He does a lot for this band beyond playing. He takes care of a lot of stuff. He is the leader of the pack. Everybody else has been in the band for some time now, and I'm very thankful for that.

AAJ: Could you give us a quick rundown on Cold Blood's current line-up?

LP: Sure, in addition to Steve on guitar and vocals, we have Evan Palmerston (Elvin Bishop, Randy Crawford) on bass, T Moran (Starship) on drums, Steve Salinas on keyboards and vocals, Rich Armstrong (Boz Scaggs, Kenny Wayne Shepherd) on trumpet, percussion and vocals, Rob Zuckerman on saxophone and flute, Dana Moret on vocals, and Fred Ross on vocals.

AAJ: Born and raised in San Francisco, what was it like growing up there as a youngster? Before the hippie scene. Are you from a musical family?

LP: My dad worked in the tool & die business and my mom was a housewife. My older brother, Ralph, influenced me by playing a lot of R&B records. He was like five or six years older than me. There was always music in the house. I mean every day. My dad built these speakers and brought me home a microphone. That was my toy. I would come home from school and just started playing music and recording my voice along with the records. He showed me how to work the reel-to-reel recorder and, yeah, that was my toy, man. I would do my homework and then get back at it. It was funny, because my dad is the one that would turn the music up. He made the speakers, so he wanted to see how they sounded and see if there was any distortion or whatever.

AAJ: Oh man. You were lucky. Most parents back then, including mine, were more like, "Turn that stuff down!"

LP: Yeah, so we had it blasting. All kinds of music. Spanish music, Hawaiian, our music, whatever, we just had it going on all the time. At most there was a sliding door that separated the kitchen from the living room. Sometimes my mom would shut that, but never turned it down.

AAJ: Who were your influences back then? Who were you singing along with?

LP: Mostly black male artists. Although I loved Brenda Lee and Judy Garland. But a lot James Brown and Jackie Wilson and stuff like that. Later I was really into Tina Turner. I went and saw Ike and Tina several times.

AAJ: Well before Cold Blood, you were in the Dimensions and the Collage. What stands out in your mind about those groups or those days?

LP: Oh my, well The Dimensions goes back to junior high school. I sang a Brenda Lee song at a talent show. We had a stand-up acoustic bass, drums, and a guitar. We did a lot of school dances and other functions like that. High school stuff too. That was, like, in the 1963 to 1964 range. That was the first group I ever played with. Then the Collage came after that. The drummer knew the chick that worked at Bill Graham's box office and she got Graham to come out to hear us at a practice session. Bill pulled me aside and said, "Why don't you just go solo?" So, like he wanted me to ditch the guys. I didn't even understand what he meant. I mean, how was I going to sing without a band? So, anyways, we got a chance to play at the old Fillmore. That was a trip.

AAJ: Oh man. I bet.

LP: Yeah, he actually came to our rehearsal and booked us at the Fillmore and signed us. We weren't even going by Cold Blood yet at the time. Larry Field and I were both really into James Brown and went and saw him play a bunch of times. Brown always threw jewelry into the crowd. One time I caught one of his God-awful looking cufflinks. That band was the forerunner to Cold Blood.

AAJ: So, it was you and Larry Field that then more or less put together Cold Blood?

LP: Yeah, he had all the ideas. He was into the show band type thing. He bought these lights that spelled out Cold Blood while we were on stage and everybody wore suits (laughing).

AAJ: Outfits that looked the same. That was the "in" thing back then for a time.

LP: Yeah, late sixties, early seventies (still laughing). He did a lot of that kind of stuff.

AAJ: What did he play? Was he a guitarist?

LP:Yeah, he was a guitarist. But he wasn't that good (laughing out loud).

AAJ: (laughing}He was good at all the other stuff.

LP: Yeah, we had two drummers for a while. It was all for show.

AAJ: You're sixteen years old and you find yourself on stage singing with Sly & The Family Stone. How on earth did that come about?

LP: He heard me sing somewhere or the other, I can't really remember where. He wanted me to come further up into northern California to sing with him in, like, Santa Rosa or someplace like that. But it wasn't like I was old enough to drive, and he never called me back, so I figured oh well. I went up to Redwood City anyways, and Sly snuck me into the back of the club. I was under-age, so he was like, "Don't drink and don't come out on stage until I tell you to." We ended up doing "Kansas City" together.

AAJ: That had to be a kick. You're sixteen years old, and, all of a sudden, you are up on stage with one of the biggest musical artists of the time. That leads me to another question. You have seemingly always had such a dynamic stage presence. Did you get nervous at all, back when you were a teenager, or has that confidence and natural ability always been with you?

LP: Well, I guess I never thought of it that way. I just felt like when I sang it was something of my own. I just felt good at it. It just came natural to me to do that. I just love doing it, and I don't think about anything else. I think of it as, I own this time and I'm going to grab it.

AAJ: Later you were there for the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene. Can you even begin to put into words what kind of trip that was?

LP: I used to go down to Berkeley and just walk the streets. There were all these people, the streets were so crowded. Thousands of people walking everywhere. I thought it was great, but I never really got into that hippie kind of scene. It used to just crack me up. I was more the person standing in the background watching.

AAJ: You had quite a show going on to watch, didn't you?

LP: What really cracked me up were the Greyhound buses with sightseeing groups.

AAJ: People from Ohio out to look at what they perceived as a freak show.

LP: They were checking out the heavy scene of hippies and all that was going on. That was definitely a space in time that will never repeat itself.

AAJ: The summer of love and all of that is now a storied part of our history.

LP: Oh yeah, it was part of our culture. The whole hippie thing. A funny thing is, in the middle of all that, we played a gig at Winterland, and my dad showed up. He died in 1970, so it was early that year, or the year before. I couldn't believe it when I looked out and saw my dad standing right in the middle of all these fuckin' freakos. He stood out like a sore thumb. It was a trip, really cracked me up.

AAJ: That's a funny image. Sad that he died at such a young age though.

LP: Yeah, he was only sixty-five. My mom lived to be ninety-two, so I hope I have her genes.

AAJ: I hope so too. Kind of cool that he came to that show though, as it turns out not too long before he passed. A nice memory to have.

LP: Yes, it sure is. It really is.

AAJ: I'm sure you are long since tired of the Janis Joplin comparisons, so I have chosen not to go there. I don't really see the point anyways. I would love it, however, if you would favor us with the story of a less than happy Joplin the night you sang "Piece of My Heart" during your set at Winterland, prior to her taking the stage.

LP: "Piece of My Heart" was a cool tune that was out there that anyone could sing if they chose to. This was before Janis recorded it and put it out on her record.

AAJ: I'm guessing right before.

LP: Yeah, I never knew what was going on until later. I was up front singing. But apparently Janis was just screaming at our drummer. "You can't play that, she can't sing that!" Screaming and yelling over and over, as she was planning to come out and sing it during her set. But we had no way of knowing that. She hadn't put it out yet.

AAJ: That's too funny. Like you say, how could you have known if she hadn't released it yet?

LP: She was nice about it later, though. She came up to me and told me how much she liked my band. She had a bottle of Southern Comfort in her hand and invited me to a party. I didn't go because I had to get up early the next morning (laughing).

AAJ: (laughing now as well) You mostly play in and around the Bay Area. Do you stretch out much beyond that anymore, or are you happy keeping it simpler and closer to home?

LP: We go up to the Pacific Northwest. Recently, we were up in the Portland and Seattle area. We go up there a lot, at least once a year or so. We would like to get back East and to the Midwest. We know that we still have a lot of fans out there, and it would be great to get back out there.

AAJ: You have recorded a lot of music over the years, still am I right that it is the classic tunes from Cold Blood's first four albums from back in the day that audiences are clamoring for?

LP: Yeah, you might say that. "I'm a Good Woman," "I Wish I Knew How to Be Free," and the one you mentioned earlier ("I Just Want To Make Love To You") are the ones they are really familiar with and recognize more.

AAJ: It seems that you do find time for some other interesting projects, such as working with Robben Ford last year. What can you tell us about that experience?

LP: We went to New Zealand and did some gigs there. That was cool. We played with a big band. I mean, a real big band with violins and the whole thing, man. It was very cool. It was a trip doing that. Then, just recently, I played with Robben again. That was such a great experience. All the musicians I played with were very cool. All really so nice to be around. We are talking about going back out there again. I hope that we are able to do that.

AAJ: I must say that I am stoked to see that Lydia Pense & Cold Blood will venture a bit further south than the Bay Area in November for a performance in San Diego. Looking forward to coming out to that.

LP: Wow, that's so cool. It will be nice to see you there.

AAJ: Well, as we used to say, it's been groovy rappin' with you for the past hour, Lydia.

LP:(laughing) It's hard to believe that an hour has gone by. It's been a pleasure.

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