When Joyce “Baby Jean” Kennedy found out last month that her band would be inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, her reaction was incredulity tempered by a hint of cynicism.
“At first we just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I thought, are they sure or are they just trying to get us to play for free?”
Kennedy unleashes a raucous laugh, something she’s prone to do every few minutes during a 45-minute conversation.
As the wildly stylish frontwoman for Mother’s Finest, the Atlanta-based, multiracial funk band that soared in the 1970s on a combination of sinewy rock and fiery live performances, Kennedy is, actually, tickled to the point of near-speechlessness about the honor.
“It’s just downright awesome,” she said. “It’s been seeping in over the last few weeks and I’m going, ‘Oh, [expletive], I didn’t see this coming!”
Along with her husband and onstage vocal partner, Glenn “Doc” Murdock, the band’s bassist, Jerry “Wyzard” Seay and guitarist Gary “Moses Mo” Moore can claim original member status in the band.
Joining Mother’s Finest at Saturday’s induction ceremony, where they will also perform a handful of songs including their signature “Baby Love” and, from 2003’s “Meta-Funk ’n-Physical” album, the song “Funk-a-Wild,” are guitarist John Hayes, a member since 1993, and Kennedy and Murdock’s son, Dion Murdock, who played on some Mother’s Finest records and returned to the group three years ago.
In their early days as openers, Mother’s Finest was revered for two things: a live show known to make headliners quake and a diverse lineup that was, at the time, an anomaly.
But despite their reputation and a level of success that still keeps them touring, the band never exploded on radio.
“What held us back more than anything was making the record, taking what we did onstage and getting people to embrace it on record,” Kennedy said. “The bureaucracy was harder on us than on the people who wanted to invest in the band. We had some good managers, but I don’t think they could see past the interracial element.”
When the integrated lineup of Sly and the Family Stone is mentioned, Kennedy points out that the San Francisco soulsters were primarily an R&B group, while Mother’s Finest reveled in its jagged edges, which was a harder sell to radio. Besides, she said, Sly’s West Coast roots offered “a somewhat different mentality” than the South in the ’70s.
But the band remained steadfast and today, Kennedy, who lives with Murdock in Stone Mountain, is reflective and grateful.
“The music business is a machine and sometimes if you don’t fit the machine, it makes your life hell,” she said. “But your spirit and fortitude, you have to rely on that. That’s why I’m excited about the induction because it says regardless of what happened during the journey, we weren’t overlooked. What we did had a focus, an effect.
“Destiny plays such a huge part in any artist’s career. Sometimes you’re not supposed to open the door. Sometimes you just have to create a path and let other people know it’s possible.”
Mother’s Finest’s journey is stuffed with enough memories to overload a hard drive, from the earliest days of using a milk truck to shuttle its equipment between gigs — Kennedy and baby Dion sitting in the back — to opening for Aerosmith to the night the band was presented with the key to the city.
She credits the early grass- roots success of Mother’s Finest to legendary Atlanta-based promoter Alex Cooley.
“If it wasn’t for him, the love affair with Atlanta never would have happened,” she said.
To show its appreciation, the band chose Cooley to induct it Saturday.
While Mother’s Finest is often touring — check out a YouTube clip of the group performing in Switzerland in May if you need proof of its continued live prowess— it is already lining up U.S. dates for January and Europe next spring.
And for those hankering for some fine tunes to kick on record, Mother’s Finest is readying a smartphone app where its recordings will be available and will also soon have them available on a new website (www.mothersfinest.com).
But first, Kennedy has a speech to refine.
“The journey ain’t over til it’s over,” she said. “My gifts have been abundant. Every day has had its share of adventure. Some of those things you should hold onto and others, you have to let go.”
2011 Georgia Music Hall of Fame Inductees
Performer: Toni Braxton, R&B singer-songwriter and actress who has won six Grammy Awards for hits including “Another Sad Love Song,” “Breathe Again” and “Unbreak My Heart.” Her WEtv reality show, “Braxton Family Values” was recently renewed for a second season.
Group: Mother’s Finest, a multiracial funk-rock band credited for its incendiary live performances as well as breaking down racial barriers for other artists. Songs include “Fire,” “Baby Love” and “Love Changes.”
Nonperformer: Kenny Leon, theater director recognized for the Tony-nominated productions “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Gem of the Ocean” and “Radio Golf.” He was nominated for a best director Tony Award in 2010 for “Fences.”
Pioneer: Paul Cochran, longtime concert promoter responsible for staging multi-act shows in the 1960s featuring artists such as Roy Orbison, Johnny Burnette and Dick & Dee Dee sharing a bill. Originator of Old Man Productions.
Chairman’s Award: Jan Smith, producer, consultant, singer-songwriter, vocal coach. Known for her work with Usher, Rob Thomas and Justin Bieber.
Posthumous: Judy Argo (jazz and cabaret singer); Hall Johnson (composer-arranger of more than 50 Negro spirituals); Sonny Terry (blues musician)