VAN MET KENNI
AS TOLD BY KENDRA SPOTSWOOD TO MICK PATRICK
Until recently, the perennial northern soul favourite, 'You're Gonna Make Me Love You', and its Barbara Lewis-flavoured coupling, 'Baby You're Mine', released by the Okeh label in 1967, were thought to have comprised the complete recorded output of a mysterious vocalist apparently named SANDI SHELDON. Here, an exclusive interview with the lady herself, conducted during a recent visit to London, sets the record straight.
"My real name is KENDRA SPOTSWOOD and I'm from Englewood, New Jersey. That neighbourhood was a hotbed of talent in the early 1960s. Lots of stars lived there. The Isley Brothers, Ed Townsend, Clyde McPhatter and Chuck Jackson all resided nearby. Not to mention Paul Simon and Lesley Gore, plus quite a few big DJs, producers and writers. It was quite a community, due to the close proximity to New York and Broadway. I had no involvement in the record business at all, but I loved the big vocal groups of the day, like the Drifters, the Moonglows, the Flamingos and, especially, Shep & the Limelites.
"And then VAN McCOY moved into the house right next door to mine. This was when he was working at Scepter/Wand. We hit it off right away. I was 18-years-old and Van was 21. I'd never really sung before, but one day I was sat at his piano while he was writing a song and he asked me if I would sing it for him. The song was called 'He's My Guy'. That day marked the beginning of my singing career.
"The first recording I ever did was in 1963, singing back-ups with Van on 'Lonely Summer' by a group named the Four Buddies. I made my own first record, 'Can't He Take a Hint', right after that, also for Philips Records. It was quite a big hit . . . in Hawaii! The name on the label was KENNI WOODS. My next single was "Back With My Baby". The girls singing behind me on the records were Dee Dee Warwick, Cissy Houston and Doris Troy. How about that?! Of course, they were all written and produced by Van. He was an extremely creative person and very prolific. We worked together constantly, in the studio, at his home and at his office at 1650 Broadway, making records and demos, or just hanging out.
"In 1964, believe it or not, I joined the SHIRELLES. I didn't record with the group because I was still under contract to Philips but I performed live with them for a year or two. The girls were in litigation over royalties with Scepter Records at the time and, for some reason, Beverly wasn't able to work live with the others. So I took her place on the road with Shirley, Doris and Micki. We played all over the country at all the famous venues. It was a very exciting time for me, but travelling everywhere by car could be exhausting. Nobody flew in those days, except for the really big names. Touring could also be frightening at times, especially down south. I remember us being run out of town by the Ku Klux Klan more than once. But being a Shirelle was a wonderful experience. I got to work with all of the big stars.
"Van and I sounded so alike that sometimes it wasn't easy to tell who was singing what. Believe it or not, the FANTASTIC VANTASTICS were just he and I. We both sang lead on that one. The Phil Spector sound was the hot sound of the day. Spector used the Ronettes to showcase it, but his sound was bigger than any of his groups. Everyone wanted to copy him - and everyone did! The same thing happened when Berry Gordy broke the Motown sound with the Four Tops. It was hot, and everyone jumped on it. I knew the Ronettes and the Crystals. It was rare that you didn't run into the top acts of the day. You either saw them in the studios or doing shows with them - the Apollo, the Brooklyn Fox, the Paramount - or simply in a coffee shop late at night after a session. We'd all see each other somewhere on Broadway.
"As I remember, 'Gee What A Boy' was recorded at Bell Sound. Pat Jacques was our engineer. It was our favourite demo studio, and Pat was very much in tune with Van's songs and our style of singing. He knew what engineering techniques worked best and how to get what Van was after. When we heard the final take, Van said, "Fantastic!" I countered, "No - VANtastic!" We both looked at each other and immediately said together, "The Fantastic Vantastics!" That's how the group got its name. Abner Spector might have been credited as producer on the label, but it was Van who did all the work, of course. There are so many negotiations and business arrangements that go on in the music biz (as in other industries) - that was one of them.
"Van and I recorded together using all sorts of different names. 'You Don't Know Baby' by the PACETTES and 'Touch My Heart' by the VONETTES, they were both us. Actually, we called the group Vanettes, but the company messed up and put the wrong name on the label. 'Two Of A Kind' by JACK & JILL - Van was Jack and I was Jill. There could even be some others that I've forgotten. I used my real name on 'Jive Guy', that was for Tuff Records in 1965.
"But the record that everyone asks me about is 'You're Gonna Make Me Love You'. Van and I made the name Sandi Sheldon up between us. I had absolutely no idea anyone even knew that song. Then I discovered that the record had been enjoying an underground following over here in England for thirty years and people had been trying to find me. I haven't been in hiding or anything, but I moved to Atlanta, Georgia some years ago. Well, now they've found me and I'm really excited to be back."
(With special thanks to Kendra Spotswood, Dave Miller and Simon White)
by The Spectropop Team