BY DAVID NOH | Can you imagine following in your mother’s footsteps as a singer when that mother happens to be Diana Ross? Well, her daughter, Rhonda, is doing just that and making quite a swell name for herself with a lovely voice that truly swings (there’s a hint of her Mom’s famed huskiness), some serious songwriting chops, a CD “Rhonda Ross Live,” and a recent triumphant appearance at the Cutting Room, with another scheduled for October 25 (rhondarosskendrick.com).
Although pursuing a showbiz career, Rhonda Ross Kendrick wisely has chosen her own path, apart from the pop domain over which Mom has reigned — ahem — supreme for five decades.
“Jazz is my first love,” she told me. “My mother was studying to become Billie Holiday in ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ when she was pregnant with me, so in the womb I was hearing my mother singing her stuff. My favorite part of her shows always was the jazz section she did, and then in college, I had a quartet and sang. Then I met my husband Rodney Kendrick, who’s such a jazz purist and that was my 20-year education with him.
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“He was Abbey Lincoln’s music director for years, and we met at the Blue Note. Abbey was one of my strongest influences in writing songs and I had seen her in Boston. I was so moved I didn’t dare go backstage and meet her with mascara dripping down my face, although my mother had said to go back and meet her. But then about six months later, I took a girlfriend to the Blue Note and thought, ‘That’s the same pianist,’ and I did go backstage and Abbey introduced me to him — and it was kind of love at first sight. That was 1994, we married in 1997, and we now have a gorgeous little boy full of energy and music, who, because we’ve exposed him to them, now speaks four languages at three-and-a-half years old!”
Diana, her daughter said, is “an amazing grandmother. Maybe people don’t realize what a hands-on mother she always was to begin with. We had the nannies and help but nobody trumped her as a parent. She’d play Atlantic City and take a helicopter back to be home for breakfast and wake us up. When asked to play Tahoe, she would purposely do it during summer vacation so we could rent a house and make it a family affair. Even now, she’s got European and South American tours coming up and is figuring which five kids want to go to the South of France or Brazil, and now that’s extended to the grandkids.
“Now that I’m a mother, I look at what she accomplished and realize it wasn’t easy. We went to good schools and were around people with a lot of privilege, and why we didn’t turn out crazy I don’t know. She always said, ‘Don’t take this for granted. You’re blessed and you have to be sane and give back and treat people with kindness and respect.’ Even now, when I was three minutes late for this interview, I was a nervous wreck. She taught us to always be punctual and never take people’s time for granted. I can’t believe these celebrities today who keep people waiting for three hours.
“When I first started at Brown University, I worked with the black theater there and was doing a play. We were laughing and someone said, ‘CP time!’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ ‘Colored people time!’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘You know how we’re always late.’ And I was like, ‘No, I’ve never heard of it.’ Because that was not my experience, at all.”
Reminded that her accounts of Mom are decidedly at odds with the bitchy “Miss Ross” myth that has surrounded the diva, Rhonda replied, “I don’t how the press chooses who they’re gonna go after. What can you do but live your life and be the best person you can be? I think Jackie Kennedy said if you bungle raising your kids, it doesn’t much matter what else you’re good at. They can say what they like about her ambition or whatever, but the truth of the matter is she did a great job with five kids who grew up sane and functional and love her and each other.”
To be sure, Rhonda’s was not a conventional family set-up — at 13, she discovered that her real father was not Diana’s first husband, Robert Ellis Silberstein, but her Motown boss and mentor, Berry Gordy.
“My mother was pregnant with me and knew that I was Berry’s,” Rhonda said. “That relationship had ended and Bob, whom I consider my father, wanted to raise me as his own. He loved me so much and it broke his heart that I wasn’t biologically his.
“As we hit puberty, my sisters Tracee and Chudney looked different than I did, taller and their skin and hair were different. I started asking questions and finally she sat me down and told me, so I didn’t overhear it or find some old diary. She explained, ‘Why we decided not to tell you. I don’t know if it was the right thing to do but then it seemed so and now it seems right that you know the truth.’
“Berry was a big part of our life, as a friend, so it wasn’t like a man I didn’t know or have access to. Maybe because it was by then the 1980s and so much was changing how families were structured that I was able to say I wanted to have relationships with both of these men. I wanted to know Berry and his seven other kids, mostly older than me, some of whom had kids, making me an aunt. There were lots of things I got from him, physically, and also writing songs since I was 13, which my mother never did, so that was an exciting connection to make. I’m very close to both my fathers, spoke to Bob twice today and will see Berry next week.”
Rhonda, of course, has seen “Motown: The Musical.”
“On opening night I was so moved and proud of my father who’d never done theater before and was working so hard on this,” she said. “Those folks are giving their all onstage and are so talented and that night he and my mother were there, Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight, Mary Wilson, and as the show ended they all went up onstage. Say what you will, whatever vilification of history, but the bottom line is they all came all these years later to support it, still with a love for each other, the music, and that time of their lives.
“Valisia LeKae who plays my Mom is unbelievable. My mother was floored, and I think she said to her that it was really a treat to watch herself in a live situation as she’d never had that opportunity. It was remarkable because there’s a lot of scenes with her specifically that I wasn’t around for, being born in 1971, but that Caesar’s Palace scene I was around for and remembered it as such a moment.”
I had to ask Rhonda what Mom’s closet is like, and she laughed, “That’s a question for my sister, Tracee, who’s more of a fashionista. My mother has her normal closet with the stuff she wears daily, first of all. But she has kept a lot and has storage units where she keeps a lot of it, not just stage and movie stuff but things she’s worn to awards shows.
“Mom is also generous and gives away stuff to keep the flow of energy moving, so she’ll pull out racks of stuff, saying, ‘I wanna give this away today.’ And Tracee will go through it and say, ‘Mom, you can’t! You wore this to give an award to Michael Jackson at the American Music Awards!’ And she’ll go, ‘Oh, that’s right!’
“She has loads of stuff from ‘Mahogany’ and before, where she had a hand in creating it. Like you say, it needs to have a museum, but, again, that would be my sister, because she’s the one with the eye, who knows all that stuff.”
At the New Dramatists’ lunch at the Marriott on May 21, there was more Motown talk when I met handsome Charl Brown, who plays Smokey Robinson with an uncanny physical and vocal resemblance. Beaming, as he remembered opening night, he said, “The first thing Smokey said to me was, ‘Good job!’ and he gave me a big hug, which was all the validation I needed. Plus to meet and know him has been such a privilege.
“I did a lot of research and luckily the Internet is available but unfortunately not a lot of video from those days, so I really had to imagine it. I read his autobiography, which helped, and the clips gave me the essence of the sound and performance quality. My favorite song of his is ‘You Really Got a Hold On Me,’ which grabbed me by the balls and was the song I sang for my audition. That to me captures his essence, but luckily, although there were a few other contenders for the role, they kept us separate, although I did have to re-audition after I did the first lab.
“The audience reaction makes us feel like we’re on the Motown bus, touring the country, the way they dance in the aisles. Fantastic energy! That Motown catalogue is so universal, and, as you say, so often used in films to pump up the emotion of white actors, what I call ‘the faceless Negro sound of a generation.’ Meeting Diana Ross was spectacular — to me the epitome of glamour — and to hear her say that I nailed it, because she knows Smokey so well, was fantastic!”
African-American actors really helped finally spark up a decidedly lackluster Broadway season. “A Trip to Bountiful” is a pure audience joy, thanks of course to the deservedly now-legendary Cicely Tyson, but also to Vanessa Williams, who proves once more that real talent backs up her extraordinary beauty. I loved how she uncompromisingly threw herself into the near-unrelieved bitchery of her character — and how the meaner she became, the funnier she was.
“Yes,” Williams said, “Very bitchy, but I wasn’t afraid of it and knew it would make quite a statement. I tried to embrace Bessie Mae and make the audience understand her. And, working with [director] Michael Wilson was like working with Horton Foote, for they had collaborated for so long. He knew the stories and Horton and what it all came from.
“But we were surprised by all the laughs we got. At the first preview, there was so much laughter when we got off we were saying, “I didn’t know this was a comedy. When did this turn into “Three’s Company?”’ And Cicely is fantastic — always different and she gets a new laugh every night. She’s a real comedienne and it’s fresh every night. After this? Nothing right now for me, but I am loving doing this!”