By Jim Harrington
Article Launched: 12/10/2007
The Bay Area music scene produced more than its share of legends in
the 1960s, from the Grateful Dead and Carlos Santana to the Jefferson
Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service.
Many expected that Lydia Pense -- a powerhouse R&B vocalist most
frequently compared to Janis Joplin -- was destined to join that
legion of honor. One of those with sky-high hopes for Pense was, by
several reports, Joplin herself.
"Lydia's the woman that Janis Joplin talked about when she talked
about influences around the Bay," said drummer Donny Baldwin, a
longtime fixture on the local music scene who is best known for
setting the beat in the 1990s for the Jerry Garcia Band. "She's just
got so much soul -- she's like a little fireball, and she's got a
voice like thunder."
Pense would never receive the type of national recognition that came
to the Dead, Joplin and other members of the Bay music scene. Yet she
has managed to stay in the business for more than 40 years, and
things are definitely looking up for her career.
"I'm really happy with the way things are now," said Pense, a
Sunnyvale resident who has also lived in San Leandro, Hayward, Castro
Valley, Redwood City and other parts of the Bay Area. "I just wish
they'd happened about 10 years ago."
The biggest event in Pense's life, musically speaking, is that she's
returned to her career as a recording artist. In 2005, the vocalist
reunited her famed Bay Area band Cold Blood and released
"Transfusion" -- which marked the group's first new studio album in
more than 30 years.
Cold Blood has also been increasingly busy on the concert circuit --
Pense estimates that the gigs have increased tenfold from just a few
years ago -- and it's seeing action from coast to coast, as well as
internationally. On the home front, Pense and Cold Blood will perform
a New Year's Eve show at the Crockett Community Center, and fans
should expect more local concerts to follow in 2008.
The 59-year-old vocalist says the current version of Cold Blood --
featuring Baldwin, guitarist Steve Dunne, bassist Evan Palmerston,
keyboardist Steve Salinas, saxophonist Rob Zuckerman and trumpeter
Rich Armstrong -- is a strong ensemble. She's also happy to report
that recent shows have attracted sizable, enthusiastic crowds.
"It blows my mind," Pense says. "After all these years, people still
show up to gigs. Thank God. I wouldn't want to do anything else."
Born in San Francisco, Pense knew at an early age she wanted to be a
professional singer. She had a gift -- a strong, agile voice
perfectly suited for handling the type of R&B and soul tunes that she
grew up listening to in the '50s and '60s -- and she began putting it
to use while still attending high school on the Peninsula.
After leading a number of different bands through the mid-'60s, Pense
came to the attention of legendary rock promoter Bill Graham,
reportedly thanks to a little bird by the name of Joplin whispering
in his ear. Graham was duly impressed with Pense and her backup band,
soon to be known as Cold Blood, and signed them to his Fillmore Records.
Graham, most assuredly, thought it was the first step in the making
of a new star on the national scene. A news release from the late
'60s issued by Graham, found online at the Virtual Museum of the City
of San Francisco (www.sfmuseum.org), trumpets the signing with great
fanfare: "One of rock music's most exciting on-stage acts is Cold
Blood, San Francisco's big R&B band," the press release reads. "With
blues belter Lydia Pense as the catalyst, Cold Blood grabs hold of an
audience and works with it."
The band would go on to deliver four highly regarded R&B-rock albums
-- 1968's "Cold Blood," 1969's "Sisyphus," 1972's "First Taste of
Sin" and 1973's "Thriller" (beating Michael Jackson to the punch on
that title by nine years) -- and would share the stage with a who's
who of Bay Area acts, including Santana and the Dead.
Rock-star riches and fame, however, would elude the band. That does
not diminish the impact Cold Blood had on the San Francisco music scene.
"Tower of Power, Sly and the Family Stone and Cold Blood gave San
Francisco it's definitive funky sound -- body-rocking soul," said
J.C. Smith, a local blues guitarist-vocalist who has performed on
several of the same bills with Pense.
Somewhat disillusioned with the music business, and the band's
direction, the Cold Blood members went their separate ways in the
late '70s. Pense would marry, have a daughter and relocate to
Humboldt County, where the family lived a very rustic existence.
"We had no electricity, no running water," Pense recalls. "We were
living out of ice chests."
She stayed in Humboldt through the '80s, but then moved back to the
Bay Area to give music another shot. In the early '90s, she got
together with some old and new friends and, together, they decided to
dust off the Cold Blood name. Many of these new players -- Pense
being the only original member-- were very excited about the chance
to work with the accomplished vocalist.
"She's got soul," Dunne said of Pense. "She's got that magical
ingredient that you can't buy, and you can practice all your life and
you can never learn it."
The familiar band name came with familiar results -- and Pense has
yet to achieve true celebrity status with this new group of players.
The vocalist says she's OK with the fact she never hit the commercial
heights reached by her peers from the local music scene of the '60s.
Then again, fame and fortune weren't the primary reasons she got into
the music business.
"I never thought of it that way," she said. "It was about keeping the
band together and, every time we play, doing the best job that we
could. My goal when I was real young was just to sing. It wasn't to
be a superstar."
With all the positive recent developments in her career -- as well as
solid plans to record another Cold Blood album in 2008 -- Pense
really has something to sing about these days. To the point, whether
or not it's a stated goal, Pense could yet wind up a superstar.
WHO: Lydia Pense
WHERE TO SEE HER: New Year's Eve concert featuring Lydia Pense and
Cold Blood, with Puro Bandido and Jimmy O'Malley at 8 p.m. Dec. 31 at
the Crockett Community Center, 850 Pomona St., Crockett. Tickets: $50
Call: 510-734-8320 or visit http://www.rootscellarmusic.com