The roar of an engine and the squeal of tires may be music to the ears of die-hard car lovers, but the rest of us need more of a soundtrack to our Graffiti Summer.
Cue the Sensations.
Formed for a June 2005 Central Valley Doo-Wop Society revue, the female singing quartet has been a popular part of Graffiti Summer ever since. Performing girl-group hits and other classic songs from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the women will be back at the corner of 11th and I streets, outside the Firkin & Fox pub, swaying and singing in sweet harmony as the North Modesto Kiwanis American Graffiti Festival parade rolls by June 6.
The Sensations are Penny White, her sister-in-law Debbie Farrell White, and sisters Shelly and Claudia Streeter.
Never miss a local story.
Veteran singers Penny and Shelly knew of each other long before they really knew each other. Being well-known area vocalists, each would sometimes find herself “subbing” at a gig if the other was unavailable, Penny said. Thinking back on those days, long before the Internet, she recalls a practice both singers would use to learn songs. “Shelly and I ... knew every DJ. We had them play songs over and over on the radio so we could write down the lyrics.”
When the two finally were booked at the same event, “it was magic,” Penny said, and they became fast friends. “Yes, we’re a little competitive,” she acknowledges. “We’re both divas.”
For that 2005 doo-wop revue, Penny and Shelly drafted Debbie as the third member, and then Shelly “strong-armed” her sister into the fourth spot, Penny recalls. “We found it’s always better to have four,” she said, “so whoever’s singing lead has a full three-part harmony behind her.”
“The thing I like,” Shelly said, “is that not one person has to sing lead. We all have our own style. It’s a really good blend.”
As for those individual styles, Penny said she’s the rocker, Shelly’s the country singer, Debbie brings the soul and Claudia is “the actress,” with a strong musical-theater background. “She’s also always the instigator of the dance moves,” Penny said.
Those dance moves – and a generally strong stage presence – paid off when the Sensations auditioned for and were accepted into the 2012 Valley’s Got Talent competition.
Going into the third annual contest, the women thought that being older would be a big strike against them, that there was no way to win against all the “young whippersnappers” they’d be up against. After all, the first two winners were Lindsay Pearce in 2010 and Francesca Bavaro in 2011. Each was just 19 when she won.
Long story short: The Sensations tied with the youthful rock group Stop Motion Poetry for first place. After the show, the women raced back to their dressing room and just screamed with joy. “Old broads rule!” Shelly recalls shouting.
Valley’s Got Talent opened the door to several more opportunities for the Sensations, Penny said, including a Gallo Center for the Arts benefit, a Boy Scouts of America fundraiser, a Chamber of Commerce gala and perhaps the group’s most thrilling – certainly the most nerve-racking – gig to date: The “One Night Only” show that Modesto native and “Glee” casting director Robert Ulrich staged at the Gallo Center in February.
The variety show – a mix of singing, dancing and comedy – included three “Glee” cast members and all past Valley’s Got Talent winners. Nervous about learning a lot of new songs and dance moves, the Sensations “worked for weeks solid – we literally practiced every night for two weeks,” Penny said.
Ulrich said he was happy that the singers, whom he calls friends, won VGT and agreed to participate in “One Night Only.”
“I LOVE the Sensations,” he said by email recently. “They are extraordinarily talented. They are such good musicians, and the blend of their voices is truly beautiful. They are also great performers – so loose and with such a spark. But I think their biggest asset is that they are so fun. They don’t take themselves too seriously – they are simply GREAT and they don’t have to try and be anything else.”