Sunday, January 16, 2011

THE CONTESSAS: "I KEEP ON KEEPIN' ON" (1965)

The Contessas
(l to r) Alyce Wheaton, Suzy Horton,
Suzanne Weir and Sharon Johnson
(All photos in this entry courtesy of Suzanne Southam Kennard.)


Click above to hear "I Keep On Keepin' On."

While The Contessas might seem different than other groups who recorded at Motown, make no mistake, these ladies had soul!

Their lone LP consisted of songs written, arranged and produced by the legendary Jimmy Webb, many of which would later became bona fide classics. "I Keep On Keepin' On" is an absolute foot stomper of a tune. Suzanne Weir's soaring soprano lead, ably backed by Sharon Johnson, Suzy Horton and Alyce Wheaton, takes the classic girl group sound and infuses the track with their own unique style.

The song was released as the B-side to their original recording of Webb's evergreen "This is Where I Came In" and certainly is worthy of very high praise.

The Contessas began their musical journey in the early 1960s, when Jimmy Webb became the pianist for his college choir. According to lead singer Suzanne Weir (now Suzanne Southam Kennard), Sharon, Suzy and Alyce met in their University choir, and were recruited by Jimmy Webb to record a number of his songs. Suzanne joined the choir later and, with her four-octave range, became the lead singer.

In Webb's memoir, "Tunesmith" he recalled the day he brought the foursome into Motown's LA office to record:
"The Contessas were my pet project, all white and all blonde, the cream of the crop...all dressed in identical little blue gingham dresses, and when I walked into Motown with them, Vicki (front desk girl) started laughing harder than ever. She put her head down on her desk and cried. The Executive Suite became a free range for the girls. They came, saw and conquered...the Contessas gyrated around the control room, four angelic look-alikes."
Included on the resulting promo LP were songs that would become massive hits for other artists, such as the legendary "By the Time I Get To Phoenix." "This is Where I Came In" was later recorded by Thelma Houston. Webb got the ladies performing gigs on The Lloyd Thaxton Show and the brilliant Shivaree, where the girls began to build a fanbase.

Clockwise: Sharon, Suzy, Alyce, Suzanne
After recording the LP, The Contessas began to go their separate ways, heading towards "dance careers and families," according to Webb. Their record is still fondly remembered, and has been taken to the hearts of a new generation of Jimmy Webb fans. Their soulful sound and endearing image lives on.

So, where are The Contessas today? I have been so fortunate to correspond with Suzanne Southam Kennard, who kindly gave of her time to update me on her former groupmates' whereabouts. As so often happens after college, they lost touch, but Suzanne and Suzy have found each other again in the past year.

Suzanne Southam Kennard is now the proud grandmother of 34 (you read that right!) and continues to use her creative talents as a photographer. Much of her work can be seen on her website (see the links section below.) She passed her considerable musical talent onto her son, singer and actor Darin Southam, whose warm, rich voice is enchanting fans today. (A link to his site is also listed below, and I highly recommend you hear this young man's brilliant voice!)

Suzy Horton Ronstadt pursued a dancing career, and is now living in the Southwest. She and Suzanne are back in contact after many years, and I hope to have a chat with her sometime in the future.

Sharon Johnson's whereabouts are not known, as Suzanne and Suzy have been unable to locate her. Sharon, if you're out there, your fans would love to hear from you!

Alyce Wheaton is, tragically, no longer with us, having taken her own life, sometime around 2001. I know I speak for all the fans of The Contessas when I offer my heartfelt condolences to all of Alyce's friends and family for the loss of this beautiful and talented woman, with the gorgeous voice and breathtaking smile.

Due to the wonder that is the Internet, and CD re-issues, people are still able to enjoy the work of The Contessas, and I encourage you to seek out more...these ladies are absolutely enchanting!


(A note: Around the same time, on the opposite coast, there was another group using the name "The Contessas" recording on Witch Records. Some of their songs are floating around on the net as well, but they are a different group entirely. They were more of an R&B/Doo Wop outfit.)





LINKS
The Contessas performing on "Shivaree" (YouTube)
Suzanne Kennard's Official Website
Suzanne Kennard's Official Blog
Darin Southam's Official Website

1 comment:

  1. Johnny- the article turned out great. I sent it to Suzy, so she will probably be sending you a message. We are honored you spotlighted our group!

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