Wendy Rene: The Girl Who Walked Away
She was sampled by Wu Tang Clan on their groundbreaking 1993 album, Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers). She’s been covered by Alicia Keys. But, to most of the world, Wendy Rene is best known as the girl who decided not to get on an airplane.
The plane in question took off on December 10, 1967, carrying soul music legend Otis Redding and a group of musicians to a gig in Wisconsin. Rene, Redding’s protégé, was supposed to perform her farewell show that night, but she changed her mind and they left without her. A couple of hours later, the plane went down, killing all but one on board.
Lost in the tragedy is the unusual fact that a budding star and gifted songwriter was to play her farewell show, by choice, at the age of 20. As if taking a cue from the hit tune “Walk Away Renee” by Left Banke – released that same year – Wendy Rene up and quit the music biz, voluntarily relegating herself to obscurity while the small catalog of recordings she made for Stax Records gathered dust in a vault (other than the odd track on a collection, bootlegs, or old vinyl singles owned by record collectors).
Now here’s the happy part of this story, for which you may begin rejoicing… in 2012, Wendy Rene’s music became commercially available again!
Legal disclaimer: I am not responsible for injuries you incur while dancing around and doing handsprings in celebration.
Courtesy of Seattle-based specialty label Light In the Attic Records, music fans can now access Rene’s entire recorded output, slight though it is, by picking up or downloading “After Laughter Comes Tears: Complete Stax and Volt Singles and Rarities 1964-65.” Despite plunging CD sales worldwide, the past few years have seen the floodgates of ‘60s R&B recordings swing open, giving many forgotten or mysterious artists like Wendy Rene a chance to find a new audience. Good job, lawyers!
A couple of things set Rene apart from her contemporaries, and by contemporaries I mean teenage black girls plucked out of high schools all across America in the early 1960s by record execs eager to cash in on the girl-group craze: One, Wendy Rene wrote her own songs, banging away on a rickety old organ in her Tennessee home.
And two, no one sounds anything like Wendy Rene. And I gotta tell ya, she’s an acquired taste. I heard of the legend before I heard the music, and my first reaction upon having the latter experience was, “Hmmm. That’s an interesting vocal style ya got there, young lady.” She doesn’t radiate the silky, sexy vibe they favored over at Motown, nor does she offer the gospel boom of Justine Washington or the vocal gymnastics of Aretha Franklin. Rather, she often sings in mournful tones over a funereal dirge, punctuating her words with plaintive, sometimes shrill wails that explode from nowhere. Here’s a good example with “After Laughter (Comes Tears),” a track that may not grab you the first time but, if you give it a couple spins, will get under your skin. By the way, no footage exists of the mysterious Ms. Rene, so enjoy the filler images. Oh yeah, this video was put up before the CD came out, and the audio is taken from a vinyl single. You gotta prolem widdat? Complain to YouTube. Ingrates!
Here’s what’s so enlightening about that performance: In retrospect, you realize that a lot of legendary soul singers were more technique-driven and carefully orchestrated than they sound. I can picture Aretha Franklin and her producers sitting down and saying, “Ok, here’s where you go ‘yeah-ah-yeah-yeah-heh!’ Then let the G sharp resolve for 3 beats before you go ‘uh-huh.’ Got it?”
Rene, on the other hand, seems to have thought (with the tape already rolling), “Know what? I’m jus’ gonna scream here ‘cause I kinda feel a bit screamy right now.”
It’s remarkable that she wrote of lot of her material when she was 14 or 15, without formal training. The result is a bizarre mix of childlike naiveté and world-weary lament. She’ll wistfully and convincingly ruminate on the one true love she lost all those years ago, an experience she couldn’t possibly have understood at that age, and then punctuate her point by telling the listener that her “itty bitty heart” is broken. Use of the term “child-woman” has never been more apt.
According to the liner notes that accompany the CD, Rene only showed her music to the executive at Stax because she was pissed off at her older brother, John. It was John’s act, the Drapels, who were auditioning for Stax, when Wendy hit a sour note and was humiliated by him in front of everyone. After the audition, the three other members of the Drapels took the bus home, but Wendy (whose real name was Mary Frierson), stayed behind and told the exec, “You know, I got some songs too…”
Stax actually recorded a few singles for the Drapels under their subsidiary label, Volt, which are mostly forgettable but included on the collection anyway. Otherwise, the bulk of the 22 songs in the catalog are Wendy Rene originals, with a bit of songwriting support from members of Booker T and the MGs here and there. The CD does not include musician credits, but my ears hear Booker T Jones himself on the organ. When I was 16, all my songs were some combination of D, A, and E, because those were the only chords I knew. Meanwhile, Wendy Rene was jamming with Otis Redding and Booker T. Jones. Ain’t that something?
Here’s another track from her slim oeuvre, “He Hasn’t Failed Me Yet,” which never appeared as a single or on a collection until now. Co-written with her brother, this song sounds like it was recorded sometime later than “After Laughter (Comes Tears),” as her voice is more controlled, yet still raw, soulful, and unaffected. Check out the beautiful flourish at the end of the opening lyric:
After the death of Otis Redding, Wendy Rene never recorded another note. In a sense, she died that day too, since she has thereafter gone by her married name of Mary Cross. Judging from the interview that appears in the CD booklet, she doesn’t regret walking away from music one bit, though I can’t help but imagine an alternate universe where she (and so many other great soul artists of the 1960s) took more control of their careers and continued to produce amazing music instead of vanishing into obscurity.
At least, thanks to digital technology, more people can hear her now than when she was a recording artist in 1964. Like I said, her voice is an acquired taste, but it gets under your skin after you hear it a few times.
Prediction: In about a week, you’re going feel an itch that can only be scratched by the mysterious Ms. Rene.