"Afterwards, though, they gave me a standing ovation, and I felt so good. England loves ballads, it is beautiful."
In Conversation With... Fern Kinney
Fern Kinney has spent years in the music business, starting as a backing singer, to session artist, to achieving a chart-topping single in the eighties. Fern Kinney talks about her troubled relationship with the music industry, recording, and keeping faith during troubled times…
The question I always launch with is can you tell me what records you grew up to listening to?
I grew up in gospel, actually. As a young person I used to sing for my mum and her friends, and I started singing with the church choir. I did a lot of background singing for the studio I was affiliated with for different artists; The Southernaires, Latimore, Dorothy Moore. I was one of the members of her group, The Poppies.
What was it like growing-up in Mississippi, during a time of Civil Rights Movements and murders?
It was very hard. My parents were really, really afraid as I was an outgoing person, and I did not go for being quiet and sitting still with the mistreatment of people; not necessarily people of the black race, but people, just people. I do not see colour, I am biracial. My dad was so afraid and I would sneak to participate in the marches they would have but I think even then, I had the good Lord with me. I have always known the Lord is with me somehow, and protected me. We grew up, my family and I, around some really good people. The Westbrooks were very, very good to us. When I was a small child, I was eight months old and poisoned, and Mr Westbrook’s wife rushed me to the hospital and saved my life, and she was Caucasian. You know, I have just never saw colour the way some people do. I don’t understand it. We as people are all important, but we didn’t make ourselves, we were created by God. I just don’t like negativity and the strong spirit of racism, that is still here, and I just feel that love overcomes that. Sometimes you just need to step away and let people be who they are, and racism is taught. A lady that I worked with showed me what I tried to overlook, as she was a prankster; and she told this white lady that had gone out for a blood transfusion and her black sister donated blood – she passed out. She said Please don’t say that, and did not want it to be true. She just highlighted the racism toward the black race. I look back at it now, and we have come a long way, but we have so much further to go. In my own group of people, growing up I was treated a certain way because of my skin colour and my hair, and as I said before, we did not make ourselves. My mother was Caucasian and Creole mixed. Therefore, I got stuck in the middle.
As an answer to The Carvettes, The Poppies formed. How did you become involved in singing with The Poppies?
Well, Dorothy Moore needed a replacement to travel with and I was one of the younger people in the group. She asked me and had to get my mother’s permission as I was a little under age, and my mom made her responsible for me. So, we travelled a lot and I think my first trip with her was to Washington DC to do a show with a legend, Billy Stewart, and then Joe Tex, Shirley Walker, William Bell. After that we did lots of college sororities, dances and parties that they would have across Mississippi state, and small clubs. We both recorded at the same studio and were best buds, too. That made it really good as she is such an awesome artist and person as well, is Dorothy Moore.
Was it gruelling working as a session player?
A massive reason why I am not recording now, and I won’t say too much, is that the background singers were paid something like a hundred-and-fifty dollars per song, whilst they were making millions. So much money was made off of us. Sometimes you would get through backgrounding for all these big names, like Johnny Taylor, and we would have to wait to get paid. Being an artist for the studio I was affiliated with, they would charge two-hundred-and-fifty dollars an hour to do lots of overdubbing and instruments, and then charge it to the artist. I thought that was so unfair, having to pay for your own hard work. I waited years for a royalty cheque. It was probably twenty years later I got a royalty cheque but I did get a certain amount of money when they leased me to Warner Bros. abroad, but here I was with Malaco Studios.
You sang backing vocals on a number of tracks, such as Dorothy Moore’s Misty Blue, and King Floyd’s Groove Me. Upon hearing Groove Me song for the first time, did you think, this is something you wanted to cover?
Someone from California heard me during a session, from some big name, and said I want something on her. They tend to rerecord material from their own artists. So, King Floyd did Groove Me, I did Groove Me, I don’t know who else did it, and I also did Let Me Entertain You. They approached me with the songs that were more commercial, more than what I knew. It was actually a project for me as I didn’t know if I was a disco singer or not. I just had to sink my teeth in. I said I would do the song if I could do it my way and they said Let’s have a shot at it and we did it. I didn’t particularly like it, per say, but it was OK with me. I was more into love songs and ballads, but my heart is with country. I did do a country and western album that consisted of six songs. My producer and I went to the House of David in Nashville, Tennessee, and I recorded My Countryside. That was the most powerful thing, out of all the songs, other that Together We Are Beautiful.
Any other favourites?
My other favourite songs were Tonight (Everything Will Be Alright), Angel on the Ground, and the only one I asked them to record was Pillow Talk, that was recorded by Sylvia. I always wanted to do gospel but they said You are not a strong enough singer to do gospel, and I said I am too, but they wanted me to do what they wanted me to do and that is what I did. I think I am country, it’s where my heart is, but I never got to do, not even one little bit. I did get to with Carson Whitsett, my producer at the time, with that project. It was amazing, I loved it, and recorded some great songs that I loved.
The disco sound you became known for was the executives decision, then?
Oh yes, it was. When I did it, they had a flavour for disco. We did the 12-inch and the long versions. Then, we eventually did Together We Are Beautiful, and originally it was B-side which someone flipped over and played instead of Dear Me. When I was told it went to number one, I looked and went No, you are kidding me, right? Then we had lots of rehearsals and had to record late at night because of the traffic; as we didn’t want to pick that up in the studios. They then sent me to New York to AGI, as they needed pictures, and so many weeks to get an album together. Then we went Gold and I had to fly over to the BBC to do Top of the Pops, and I went all over the place with that song. Even now, I have songs in the canyon that have not been released. Our first single was released when I was seventeen years old, a senior in high school on the Atlantic label, called Your Love is Not Reliable. It has been quite a journey. I remember playing a pottery place in England, and there were these little tables with these little lights, and I sang that night. They were so reserved and quiet, looking at me and listening to every word, and I thought to myself Oh my god, they don’t like me. Afterwards, though, they gave me a standing ovation, and I felt so good. England loves ballads, it is beautiful. In the USA my songs did not do that well, but it did abroad. It is so crazy to me, but that’s the way it is.
Did you feel the anti-disco movement slashed any hopes of continuing a career?
I kind of think so, I really do. I also felt I was just in over my head as my heart wasn’t totally there. I liked it, I worked with Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King, and Sister Sledge, The Stylistics, and I was there, but I felt I wasn’t quite there.
Across all the sessions you were a part of, were there any characters you enjoyed working with?
I want this to be echoed, for whoever will hear it, as there are two people that I find that were so amazing to me, and it warms my heart so much to even say their names: Junior Giscombe, and Peabo Bryson. They have the most beautiful souls, and are just down to earth, and so kind. They were not snooty, because you are from Mississippi, or not been on the road for a while; Junior was so encouraging, and would always encourage me as I went on after him. They are both very talented. I celebrate these two men. I celebrate the others, I was with: Denise Williams; an amazing woman, one of prayer; and Freida Payne; The Times; The Stylistics, all of them were really great. However, when I think about Giscombe and Bryson, I am over the moon with compassion. It had been thirty years since I had been on tour and I hadn’t rehearsed for the tour. I salute them. I love hearing their stories and experiences over the years, and still doing what they love to do; make music, real music.
You mentioned that you did visit England on that tour after a long time away. Fans still want to see you perform. Is this something you have considered doing again?
I was supposed to come and I don’t know what happened, but it ended up being cancelled. I feel very positive I will be coming back, I just don’t know when. I want to. I love you guys! Now I miss England, Brussels, Amsterdam, Holland, Africa, I miss my fans. Love is such a refreshing vibe.
Are there any artists now that you find yourself listening to?
I listen to Nina Simone, Oleta Adams – I love her, such soul and wonderful tone, diction, and such wonderful things with her voice! I listen to Junior and Peabo, Gladys Knight… different people, depending on what I am doing and where I am.
Since then, you have become a hair stylist, raised a wonderful family, and avid church-goer. What else have you been doing in recent years?
I am not liking being unable to record right now, as I would love to record country stuff, but now I sing a lot of gospel that I grew up singing in church with my mum and dad. I am on the prison worship team and I go to the jails and the prisons, and the weddings, funerals, all that type of thing. I am having fun taking care of the elderly. I take care of those with dementia and Alzheimer. I think the Almighty God was training me as I looked after my mum who was ill. I was a lonely child, no siblings, and I cared for her for twenty-one years, three-hundred-and-sixty-five days a year, seven days a week as she had a stroke. I bathed her, gave her breakfast when she had her second stroke that killed her. I spend three hours a day with my little lady that has Alzheimer’s. I’ll also just drop food on people’s doorsteps and ring the doorbell before I disappear, so no one can see who I am!
I do lots of study, I exercise, although I seem to have been eating a lot as I am not a size six anymore! Otherwise, I study and spend time trying to encourage people on social media and read a lot. That’s about all I do, just keeping the voice in shape with scales and harmonies.
With somebody that has spent many years in the business, what advice would you give to up-coming bands?
I would say to write everything down; keep notes, journals. I have kept one for twenty-nine years now. Make sure you have a relationship with your Creator who gives you the gift and give it back to Him. Use what He has given you, but do the work and practice. Continually practice. Always study, as you should always have some source you go to keep your strength, and your tunnel vision on the vision you have for yourself. Also keep healthy with a positive mind and work hard. Just work hard. It won’t fall in your lap, and even if it does, if it is not something you really want to do, like an ice-cream cone, it melts and it is gone. Stay with it. Sometimes you will be on the mountain top, other times in the valley, but both have purpose. Never wear two faces under one hat! I have seen the top and some people are just cruel and it hurt me. Just be you, and the best you you can be.
Whether you are in the mood to groove, or want to sit back and listen to the ballads, you can find them all by clicking here.