IT BEGAN AS a young girl’s poem on finding Mr. Right and turned into a song that catapulted her into instant fame. “Finally” was a Billboard #1 hit, went multi-platinum worldwide, and made CeCe Peniston a household name. Her other hit songs such as “We Got a Love Thang,” “Keep on Walkin’,” “I’m Not Over You,” “Searchin'” and “He Loves Me Too” remind us of a time in the early ’90s when House music was actually played on commercial radio.
Following the success of her first album, CeCe followed with two more: Thought Ya Knew and Movin’ On. Along with nonstop touring, CeCe has acted in theatrical productions such as The Wiz, Treat Her Like A Lady, and When A Woman’s Fed Up and has just wrapped up shooting her first independent film. She also began the CeCe Peniston Foundation eight years ago to help raise money for causes such as women and children in need, education and HIV.
What most people don’t know is that CeCe has not stopped touring in these past ten years, and fans all over the world still crave to hear her belt out her signature heartfelt songs of love and hope. Recently CeCe performed at the Boom Boom Room to celebrate DJ and producer Ron Carroll’s birthday. Despite a hectic schedule of studio recordings and meetings, CeCe graciously took the time to sit with me and tell us about what’s going on with one of the dance music world’s most popular divas…
Tell us about your beginnings. Were you a singer first? I heard you were a beauty queen.
I was born in Dayton, Ohio and raised in Phoenix, Arizona. I was a military brat. I actually started out doing plays and musicales in the 6th grade. I was taking piano lessons and would kinda sing around the house. Then I started doing contests around Arizona… like you know, little karaoke contests. And then I would do singing talent shows and it kinda progressed on from there to me doing pageants. Because I felt that when you’re in front of people doing interviews and being poised and on TV, it becomes a great vessel to help you… practice makes perfect. It’s something I wanted to do myself. At a young age (17), I already had that drive.
I kept doing them and ended up being Miss Black Arizona 1989 and 1990. And because I had done the pageants for a while I was like okay, I wanna just sing now. But I ended up doing the Miss Galaxy pageant and I think because I was so relaxed I ended up winning that one. From there I just started doing the singing.
Were you always a househead? How did you begin singing House music?
You know what’s so funny is I was always the one that came in and slowed it down. That’s what’s so ironic about me putting out “Finally,” because I was always the R&B person, the balladeer when I came in and did everything. Back then, there was a female rapper (Overweight Pooch) who was on A&M, and I was asked to do some background vocals. I came over, did the background vocals for her and the label heard it. They were like “We really like your flow, why don’t you get your own single together?” Well at the time, I was writing poetry. So I took one of the poems, “Finally”. I was thinking about dating in college, and how I hadn’t found that Mr. Right. We went to the studio, finished it up, sent it off to the label and they loved it. And that’s how everything got started. I came up with the melody and the lyrics to “Finally” and then RK and Felipe (the guys I was working with at the time) put the music to it. And then they did another remix which is the one that’s famous now which is the Eric Kupper/David Morales mix that I do in my shows.
So it was that song that brought you to House music?
I think it was more that other people thought it was my strength. I feel like I have a lot in me still that people haven’t heard… there’s a whole other side. There’s an R&B side, a jazz side that people haven’t heard and think that they’d be really surprised. But I haven’t had a chance to showcase that because people want to hear the House songs.
How did you meet Steve “Silk” Hurley?
It was actually a label thing. Steve had sent some songs to the label and I heard them and I had picked out “We Got a Love Thang” because I just loved it. And then later on I was listening to the CD again and I was like, “What’s this song right here?” It was “Keep On Walkin'”. It was me and Manny Lehman (my A&R at the time of Delicious Vinyl), we all kinda chose together. From that point forward, it was this great working relationship. And I feel like Steve is really great at bringing out that attitude in me. He gave me a lot in terms of pronouncing words to make them sound like they need to sound, but that’s not actually what you’re saying. So it puts that vibe on it. So I learned a lot from him vocally as far as in the studio.
Were you always the one writing your songs at this point?
I was more into poetry which was the basis for songwriting, writing down your feelings. I collaborated on a couple of songs on my 2nd album. For example a song called “Maybe It’s The Way” was a ballad about my father.
Eventually you went back to theater?
I did a couple of gospel plays (When a Woman’s Fed Up) and also The Wiz. I’m more into singing, though. I like theater but I think maybe there hasn’t been that role that just hits you, like “Yeah, I felt that! That was me without even trying.” I haven’t got that role yet and I think that’s what it is.
Now I recently got into doing movies. I did an independent film called Don’t Touch if You Ain’t Prayed. It’s in some of the Blockbuster stores. If you mess up in movies, you can redo it. When you’re onstage there’s this pressure. And they had called me because they want to make a sequel to it. It was like an 8 to 10 day shoot. The character was a woman in church who was saving herself for the right man. They wanted it to be like “40-year-old Virgin.” There was some comedy but it had a spiritual message behind it. That was a nice part and I was the lead in that.
Can you tell me about the Cece Peniston Youth Foundation?
I started that because I felt like God gave me so many blessings and I wanted a way to give back to the community, for people who are good but needed that little extra help. I really believe in education, so I like giving scholarships to kids.
Everytime I do a benefit, I choose a different topic. The first time it was for this mother, because I had seen it on the news… She was killed in a driveby shooting and she had like seven kids. I wanted to do something for them. Me and my friend Heather put together the Cece Peniston Youth Foundation. And so we had a big benefit for the kids… We had dinner, we had Secret Santa, we had sponsorship for food from Sam’s Club, we put presents in the middle of the floor. These benefits are not every year, but I’m getting that itch that I want to do another one this year. I think I’ll do one for cancer research this time because my father’s a cancer survivor and so I want to do a benefit for that.
Wherever I feel like there’s a need and it’s something I truly believe in, I’ll do it. I don’t like to just do benefits just to raise money at random. Let’s do something right and something that’s meaningful so that when people come out and they hear the story, it means something.
I’m also changing the name to the LOTS Foundation. That means “Lifting Others To Succeed”.
Does doing gospel plays stem from you being a religious person?
I feel like God is within you wherever you go. Whenever I can when I’m at home, I go to church.
What work are you currently doing now?
I’m doing some stuff in the studio with George Jackson, Tre, and Ron Carroll, doing some tracks too. I’m working on another album. I should be done within the next three or four months. I’d like to work with Steve again.
Is this going to be another House album?
I want it to be where there’s a little House, a little R&B, a little ballad, but for some odd crazy reason they all fit together.
There’s a possible TV show that’s coming up they want me to host. I do have a card coming out in Hallmark Cards. It’s going to be a card that you open up and I’m singing “Finally” in the inside. Hallmark is doing a new line of cards where they have different artists that they’re featuring.
Did you take a break for a while?
I’ve always been doing stuff, I’ve just been kinda quiet as far as different cities… I haven’t been back two or three times to the same city. Or I could be at different venues. But I’ve always been traveling.
Do you ever get sick of singing the same songs over and over again?
You know it just depends on the day. I really love what I do, so for me when the crowd is getting charged and they’re ready it just gets me charged. Green Dolphin was off the chain!
Who are some of your favorite DJs and producers?
All of them bring such a great element but I still love David Morales, Steve Hurley, Junior Vasquez, E-Smoove, Theaster Gates, and so many more!
Any horror stories?
I kinda keep to myself, I don’t like a whole lot of drama. I usually don’t have a lot of problems because I outline in my contract and I say hey, this is what I want. So we usually don’t have a lot of problems when we’re on the road. We call ahead and make sure. I feel like you should have what you ask, if you deserve it, you know. I feel I’ve worked hard enough to have certain things.
The only horror story I’ve had is with accounting. I had a bad accountant and he was really foul. He didn’t take care of my finances like he should have so I went through a period where I was doing a lot of cleanup in my life because of his mistakes. Embezzling. But that’s okay because I came through that and it’s a beautiful thing. I feel like I’m a better person now. My character’s so much better now because I’ve gone through that struggle which made me stronger. I know no one will ever do that again to me. And I take care of my own business. I go over all my business first and then let my accountant go over it, so now we’ve got two people!
Being in a male dominated business, I find that some of them cross the line with women. Do you ever feel harassed by them?
You know what, sometimes it’s like that, but you can always use it to your favor, as long as you don’t go overboard. Because you know you need people, and they may be attracted to you but you have to just put it in its proper place, is what I’m saying. You just laugh it off. As long as it’s not out of line, I don’t really trip about it.
Are you married?
Yes, I’ve been married for two years. I don’t have any children yet. Well I have three kids: two pitbulls and a chihuahua. [laughs]
Any advice to up and comers?
When I first got in this business, I was actually heavier. I was comfortable with who I was. But that was an issue for the record company. But see in this day and age where I’m at, it wouldn’t be a problem for the record company. I’m going to make sure that it’s not. But for somebody who’s getting into the business – realize that you’re a commodity, and if the record company’s investing in you, make sure you that you invest in yourself. Look is important because people see the physical first.
I do 45 minutes of vocal practice everyday. And I do that because I feel like I have to keep practicing. I get little karaoke CDs and sing along with them in the car. People probably think I’m crazy! I sing the songs and if it’s a song with a different vibe from what I normally do I try to conquer it.
Make sure you’ve got your education in place. Realize that there’s going to be ups and downs in this business. Nothing is guaranteed. You’ve got to really really want it. Because it’s not going to be easy and there are going to be some days where you’re going to want to throw up both hands and just say forget it. But it’s when you get to that point that really you want it the most. So just keep going and work past it.