Holly Penfield

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday July 5, 2016
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Next weekend in San Francisco, Holly Penfield will celebrate ties.

Penfield, a fixture of London nightlife, saw her beloved father pass away last year, at the age of 98.

Now, Penfield �"who has sported lampshades, birdcages and all manner of headgear in her act ("I was doing Lady Gaga before she was even around") �" has gathered her dad's neckties and commissioned a designer friend to fashion them into a statement piece for her upcoming appearances at Feinstein's at the Nikko July 15 and 16.

And the statement they make: There are ties that bind.

"For almost six months," explained Penfield in a recent phone interview, "I've been back in Orinda, where I grew up, trying to settle things with my father's estate. He left me this beautiful house, where I was raised in the 1960s. I'm trying desperately to figure out how to hold on to the house. My friends say it's crazy financially, since my home is in London now. But it's not about the money. It's about keeping the house and all the memories I have around it."

Those memories center around a childhood in which Penfield, while ostracized as an oddball by many of her schoolmates, was celebrated by her parents, who unflaggingly supported dreams of musical stardom.

"From eight years old, I wanted to be a nightclub singer," recalls Penfield, who, uncharacteristically demure about her age, is somewhere in the neighborhood of 60. "I took ukulele lessons and then guitar when my hands were big enough. I wrote my first song at twelve, to earn a Campfire Girls badge."

Her father, Raymond Penfield, had been a choirboy at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine during his own childhood. While he eventually served in the army and pursued a business career to support his family, his devotion to music continued and, noting Holly's aptitude and focus, he arranged for her to take singing lessons with Judy Davis, the esteemed Bay Area vocal coach who had worked with Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, and Frank Sinatra among others.

"My parents would drive me to Oakland to study with Judy from the time I was 13. Despite what was going on in popular music at the time, she taught using the great American songbook and I learned all the jazz standards."

With Davis' assistance, 14-year-old Penfield booked a series of promotional events for Macy's, singing at stores statewide and cutting a giveaway 45-RPM record that still, to Penfield's shock and delight, shows up in the hands of autograph-seeking fans at her infrequent Bay Area performances.

In her late adolescence, Penfield felt increasingly out of sync with the other students at Campolindo High School.

"I was telling my counselor I would kill myself if I had to keep going to school," she recalls. "It wasn't right for me."

Holly Penfield performing at London’s Hippodrome.

Penfield's parents agreed to hire an at-home teacher and send Holly to a psychiatrist. And Judy Davis arranged a nightly gig for her star pupil.

"My parents were over the moon!" recalls Penfield, still appreciative of their accepting the fact that the gig was singing at the Roaring Twenties, a topless and bottomless club in North Beach. "I didn't have to take my clothes off, but the girls did all around me."

It was around the same time that Penfield began to listen to the contemporary music of the early 1970s. "When I first started paying attention to Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell, that was it," she recalls. "I wanted to write and perform my own music."

Penfield assembled a band and began playing a wide variety of venues in the Bay Area's booming rock scene, ultimately headlining at the Keystone Berkeley and Winterland, noted trolling grounds for record companies' A&R men.

"In the end," recalls Penfield, "I got a deal with Mike Chapman, who had become famous for producing Blondie and The Knack. Getting signed to his Dreamland records was quite a big deal. Chapman immensely believed in my talent. But he was a lousy businessman. A great producer, but he didn't really know how to run a label."


Full Grown

In 1980, having invested over $500,000 in cultivating her career, Dreamland released Penfield's Full Grown Child album, a studio-slick production that, in retrospect, sounds more like Pat Benatar or Kim Wilde than the bohemian singer-songwriters that Penfield most admired.

"So much of the business was about being in the right place at the right time," Penfield recalls. "I was at this middle level, where I hadn't become famous, but the record company had put a lot of money into me. I had a single that made it into the Top 100, but there were only so many women making it to the top then. I was up against Debbie Harry and Olivia Newton-John. I was really quite an arty little writer. For the moment, the Laura Nyro thing had passed. Later on, Tori Amos managed to build a big career with music that was along the lines of what I'd been doing."

Holly Penfield's album from her younger pop days.

"I recorded a second album that was pretty much disappeared by the record company," Penfield remembers. "All the way into my late thirties, I was a dedicated singer-songwriter. But I was a failed singer-songwriter."

While painful at the time, Penfield today values her so-close-yet-so-faraway shot at mass stardom.

"I don't regret any of it. I've had an extraordinary life and chances are, it wouldn't have happened without those early years."

While making the rounds in the rock scene, Penfield met �"and ultimately married�" Scottish producer and composer Ian Ritchie, perhaps best known for producing Radio K.A.O.S., Roger Waters' first album post-Pink Floyd. The couple eventually settled in London where, in her early forties, Penfield decided to revisit the standards she'd learned as a girl.

"I can't explain why my own songs never caught on, but I was way too far gone as an entertainer to stop. So I started playing little venues in London and eventually, I was doing five nights a week. Things really took off. I was constantly playing in Soho and I developed a really big gay following."

"In my forties and fifties, it was like I was freed. I could just let go of my former ambitions and perform. I wasn't taking myself so seriously any more."

"I have no British reserve, so for London cabaret, my act is quite dangerous. The rock chick in me is still alive. I'm completely fearless, I have no embarrassment level."

"Plus," Penfield deadpans. "I'm a pretty good singer."

The stylish Holly Penfield.

In the final years of his life, Penfield's widowed father spent lots of time with his daughter in London. Quite unexpectedly, he also became a YouTube sensation.

"My father loved to sing," says Penfield. "And he always encouraged me. So I wanted to encourage him. We made these little videos for the internet and suddenly we were getting a hundred thousand views."

In the most popular, nonagenarian Raymond croons Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love," his doting daughter one of the black clad chorines singing back up. (https://youtu.be/O2GTHFeN4LM)

During her recent time back in California sorting out her father's estate, Holly Penfield has taken a daily five-mile walk around her old Orinda neighborhood.

"I met an eleven-year-old boy on my walks," she says. "He sings in a choir and he's made it to the finals of [local talent show] Orinda Idol. I'm working with him, trying to help him with his performance."

"I never had children, so maybe this is a little way for me to help. But this kid isn't sure he wants to make singing his life's work. Not like I was."

Holly Penfield @ Feinstein's at the Nikko, $20-$40. ($20 food/drink min/) July 15, 8pm. 8pm. July 16, 7pm. Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St. (866) 663-1063. www.feinsteinsatthenikko.com