Jeannie Kendall – Of missing persons
Royce Kendall (nee, Kykendall) was born in St. Louis but spent his youth in northeastern Arkansas, where he was raised on southern gospel quartets, brother acts, and bluegrass. He loved harmony. When he and his brother Floyce were young men, they performed together a la the Louvin Brothers — Floyce picked mandolin and sang most of the leads, while Royce added harmony and played acoustic guitar.
Eventually the siblings headed to California to try their luck in the music business. Calling themselves the Austin Brothers, they cut a handful of sides and made some television appearances, but major success eluded them.
By this time, Royce had met his wife, Melba, a beautician and fellow Arkansan; he married her in St. Louis before heading west. In 1954, Melba gave birth to the couple’s first and only child, Jeannie, who today just barely recalls watching her father and uncle harmonize on California television. “Oh, I was little bitty teeny then,” she says. “I just vaguely remember being allowed to stay up late sometimes to watch daddy on the TV.”
When the Austin Brothers split up (“Like a lot of brothers,” Jeannie offers, “they didn’t get along very well”), Royce, Melba and Jeannie returned to St. Louis. At first Royce held down a series of factory gigs, but he eventually decided to join Melba in her trade and enrolled in barber school. By the time Jeannie was in her teens, her parents owned their own business, a combination barbershop and beauty parlor.
Jeannie was always singing. Indeed, it sometimes seemed as if there had never been a time when Jeannie Kendall wasn’t impressing people with her voice. “When I was little,” she remembers, “my mom got a call from my kindergarten teacher. She said, ‘Did you know your daughter can sing?’ My mom says, ‘Yeah.’ And my teacher says, ‘No, I mean she can really sing. Like an opera singer or something.’ I think she was trying to encourage my mom to get me voice lessons. My mom told her, ‘No, not opera, but maybe the Grand Ole Opry.'”
Around the house, she sang with her father, who’d join in on high harmony when he’d catch her singing along with the radio or to the George Jones and Glen Campbell records he brought home. “Sometimes I think our whole career got started because he didn’t have a partner anymore. He didn’t have anyone to sing with,” she laughs. “We started out just singing some for our friends and neighbors. They’d come over the house and we’d sing for them in the living room. Daddy didn’t drag me out to clubs or anything.”
Nashville was another matter. “One time, all of us and a neighbor couple across the street went on a trip down to see the Opry,” she remembers. “Daddy and our friend went over to Ernest Tubb Record Shop. They were looking at records and talking about the music business — you know, just dreaming out loud — and Daddy turned and asked him, ‘Do you really, really, truly think we’re good enough?’ And our friend said, ‘Yes, I do.'”
It was what Royce needed to hear. He and Melba sold their business and most of their belongings and relocated with their daughter, only 16 at the time, to Music City. “It was probably a dumb thing to do,” Jeannie admits, “but we just didn’t have that factor in our heads that we couldn’t do it. You know?”
It wasn’t as if the Kendalls lacked prospects when they hit Nashville in 1970. While they were still in St. Louis, a disc jockey acquaintance had put Royce in touch with renowned steel guitarist and producer Pete Drake, who quickly began encouraging the Kendall clan to make the move. In fact, with Drake as their producer, the Kendalls had already charted a single by the time they arrived in Nashville. Released on Stop Records, their cover of John Denver’s “Leaving On A Jet Plane” (a #1 pop hit the previous year for Peter, Paul & Mary) crept as high as number #56 on the country chart. “We pretty much just went straight from the living room to the studio,” Jeannie says. It was a start.
But the duo’s subsequent singles for Stop (including a version of the Righteous Brothers classic “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”) didn’t fare as well. The family struggled by on Melba’s income as a beautician and whatever session work Drake threw Royce and Jeannie’s way. In 1970, for instance, Drake produced Ringo Starr’s solo debut, Beaucoups Of Blues, on which Jeannie provided backing vocals. “I really loved the Beatles,” Jeannie says. “They had a great sound — and great harmonies. So singing on Ringo’s album was really kind of scary. Here it was the first time I ever sung harmony on a record, and it’s for a Beatle! I was like, ‘Aaaah!'”
In 1972, Drake moved the Kendalls to Dot Records, where the group charted twice more, though just barely. Not firmly established yet in the Nashville music community, the Kendalls didn’t have access to much new material from Music City tunesmiths early in their career. But there was always a pop song on the radio that Jeannie liked to sing. Their Dot singles included versions of hits by the Grass Roots (“Two Divided By Love”) and Bread (“Everything I Own”).
These pop-inflected selections had the added benefit of helping to distinguish the Kendalls’ recordings from the more blatantly country material cut by the popular duet team of Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton. “You have to have a special sound, your sound,” Kendall stresses. “We were very aware that we could have a tendency to sound like Porter & Dolly. And we didn’t want to.”