If you've seen a movie, watched a television show or flown on Delta Air Lines in the past couple of decades, you've probably listened to music written and/or produced by Tena Clark, a dynamic firebrand, GRAMMY Award winner, and successful entrepreneur. Tena has written and/or produced music for Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole, Leann Rimes, Dionne Warwick, Patti LaBelle, Chaka Khan, NASA, and numerous companies, movie studios, a plethora of other artists, and the listening pleasure of our current and last two Presidents of The United States. She wrote the theme song, "I Believed," for the 2011 Women of Courage awards presented by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Tena's passion, drive, creativity, chutzpah and refusal to buy in to popular notions of what women can -- and "cannot" -- do helped shape her life from Mississippi farm girl to CEO and founder of DMI Music & Media Solutions.
I recently chatted with Tena to learn about her extraordinary story.
Q: Your parents initially wouldn't let you pursue your dream of playing the drums. How did you overcome that and what factors drove you so hard?
I've always been a salmon swimming upstream. I was a "save the marriage baby" that didn't save the marriage. So that really makes you want to strive for greatness when you've failed at the very beginning!
I wanted to play the drums from the time I could even, I think, speak. My mother said I used to tap and beat on the crib all the time.
But my parents wouldn't let me play the drums. You know, girls were not supposed to play the drums. They said I had to pick something else, like the clarinet, and I'm thinking, "My God, you've got to be kidding me!" and I was 11 or 12 then. So I played it for a while, and I hated it. And then they said, you don't have to play the clarinet, but you can't play the drums. So I played the saxophone for a while and then the trumpet. But I still wasn't satisfied. Finally I went to the band director and I just begged him. He said, "I am so tired of you begging me to play the drums that if you can march up and down this field -- the whole 100 yards each way and back -- while playing 'The Pink Panther,' then I will go talk to your parents, and I will make a strong case for you." So, I marched down that field strapped to a drum that was bigger than me and played the damned 'Pink Panther.' That's how I started playing the drums.
Q: You had the opportunity to study under several talented people in the music business, such as the drummer Hal Blaine, lyricist Hal David and even Stevie Wonder. As a girl growing up in the south, pursuing a non-traditional career path, how did you get ahead?
I am a firm believer in always playing up. I would always tell my daughter, "Don't waste your time playing tennis with somebody at your level. And sure don't waste your time playing with somebody under you. Play with somebody that's a lot better than you." So I go after what I want.
My dad was in Vegas all the time. He was a big gambler and he would take me with him, but he would put me with a babysitter or something because I couldn't go in the casinos. [On one trip] I begged him because this drummer [Hal Blaine] was playing for Nancy Sinatra. My dad let me go to the show and then sit outside the stage door, which I did. I met Hal Blaine! He asked my dad if he could take me for breakfast because he couldn't believe that this little girl from Mississippi would be talking to him about how I wanted to be just like him. He started being my pen pal and then telling me what to study and what to listen to. We stayed friends for many, many, many years and he was a great mentor to me.
Q: How did you meet Stevie Wonder?
I was on the road all the time playing after college. I got a job at Studio in the Country in Bogalusa, La., which was a very famous studio in the early seventies. And it's where Kansas (the band) recorded and a lot of other big artists from Los Angeles. Stevie Wonder was there recording Secret Life of Plants and I was there working as a second engineer. He came to a club to hear me play one night. Then somebody from his posse called me and invited me to come out to Los Angeles and hang out and learn. My mother was so excited and she said, "You go!" I went to my dad and told him I was moving to Los Angeles. He didn't have a clue who Stevie Wonder was. He said, "I will disown you." And I went, hmm, let me think about this. Going to Los Angeles with Stevie Wonder or my dad disowning me. See ya!
It just changed my life. I was at his studio with him every morning, at like, 3:00 a.m. But what it had taught me, being with him, is that I really needed to focus on my writing and producing -- I didn't even know what producing was then. So I went back really driven to get to Nashville because I thought I could really learn some discipline in writing.
Q: But you didn't go directly to Nashville, did you? In fact, you started your first company.
I went to back to Jackson, Miss. and I was working as an engineer and a studio drummer there. I kind of needed some quick cash and someone said to me, "You know every band and every club owner between Texas and North Carolina. You should start a booking agency. It's all cash, make some quick money and then go to Nashville." I was like, great!
I can pretty much sell fire to the devil. So I got these two guys that were out of work musicians to help. We were in a boiler room under a club and had three phones on one desk and I started this company, at the time called Sunburst Productions. We became one of the largest booking agencies in the South. Five years later I'm in a high rise -- that's kind of an oxymoron in Jackson, Miss. -- but I was at the top of this building. I had nine agents. My dad was happy because I was rolling in the dough and I was living somewhat of a normal life. I wasn't on the road playing and I got all the trappings of success -- I was in my twenties and I had a house on a golf course, a BMW... and I was miserable.
I felt like I had golden handcuffs on. I started this to be able to get to Nashville, you know, and now I'm here. Yeah, I'm making great money, but it's not me. So I sold everything and moved to Nashville.
In the next post, you'll hear more from Tena about her career progression once she moved back to Nashville, branding with music through DMI Music & Media Solutions, and how she gives back today.
This post first appeared on Forbes.com.
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