“I do feel like R&B artists are fighting harder,” CeCe Peniston says of the current hip-hop-dominated music climate. “You have to work so much harder. Instagram is always upping different things, and you have to stay on top of that. I know there are artists who are, ‘Oh, I hate social media!’ But it’s your job, and you have to be in tune with everything going on.”
A performer with at least a five-octave range, Peniston once performed at Aretha Franklin’s birthday — at the Queen of Soul’s request — and at both of Bill Clinton’s inaugurations, so no one can accuse her of failing to work hard or keep up. And San Francisco will get her close up on Saturday, Feb. 2, when she headlines the annual Hard French Winter Ball.
Once an every-Saturday-afternoon-during-the-warmer-months on the patio at El Rio, that soul collective now throws two parties a year — Hard French Hearts Los Homos on Pride Sunday, and the Winter Ball — plus the occasional one-off. Peniston knows that this is a fancy-dress affair, one of the broadest possible cross-sections of San Francisco party people, and that oh yes, there will be queens.
“I know it’s gonna be the girls, and it’s gonna be a great crowd, and they want to hear some dance music,” she tells SF Weekly from her home in Arizona. “I love it over-the-top. That’s one thing I love about the girls: They’re like, ‘Oh no, honey, please don’t be basic! Because if you are, we’re going to turn the party out on you. Please come ready to go.’ And that’s what I love.
“The LGBT community has been so good to me ever since like 1991,” Peniston adds. “They’ve given me so much love and support, so I can go over-the-top. I love it. I can play Barbie!”
Undoubtedly a household name on the basis of her early-’90s smash “Finally” — which may hold a world record for number of remixes — Peniston is a tireless artist who seems to instinctively follow Joan Rivers’ dictum for staying in the limelight: Never take a vacation. She scored five No. 1 hits on the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart, she was the most junior member of the gospel supergroup Sisters of Glory, and she’s acted in films and in stage productions such as The Wiz. She also worked on the soundtrack for The Family Business, the eight-part crime drama now airing on BET.
Reality TV isn’t always respectful toward women of color, but Peniston’s natural ebullience swept her along through a season of Celebrity Wife Swap — and not only would she consider working in the medium again, she has a call with a producer scheduled for immediately after we hang up. She’s also entering the world of cannabis with a CBD, something she’s taken a bit of flak for (although not as much as a pic she posted on New Year’s Day that shows her flashing a little behind — if rather regally).
Peniston’s biggest worry about the Winter Ball is making sure her set is nothing anyone has seen already.
“Audiences get bored,” she says. “If I change my wig everyday but [I’m still] doing the same show? Please, I know how people are — and they want the new. And I have a new single out called ‘Are You Ready?’ with Four80East out of Toronto. We’re getting a pretty nice response.”
While touring with the Sisters of Glory — among them Phoebe Snow, Lois Walden, Albertina Walker, and 2018 Winter Ball special guest Thelma Houston — Peniston performed at Woodstock ’94 and at the Vatican alongside Andrea Bocelli, all within a four-month period. At least a generation younger than the rest of her cohort, she says it was a blessing and an honor to share the stage with them. Receiving a rosary from Pope John Paul II in a room with only 10 other people was a special moment, but waking up a bunch of bleary-eyed festival-goers in Upstate New York after having lost her cosmetics on a golf cart en route to the stage was certainly stranger.
“Do you know that someone returned my box with all my makeup? Because a girl needs her lashes, honey! Where’s my damn box at?” Peniston recalls. “And we were in the gospel section at Woodstock, starting everybody off, and they were just throwing people around, like [sings] ‘Oh, Lo-o-o-ord!’ And you see somebody hurled over in the mud just trying to freaking not cry. And I’m crying laughing. I’m gonna laugh in the middle of this song because that person got tossed in the crowd — and they landed in the middle of a crowd that didn’t catch them.”
As for “Finally,” well, it wasn’t just some number Peniston was handed because a record executive thought she had the look. She wrote it. While she admits being so closely identified with one song is a double-edged sword — listen to her cover of Jocelyn Brown’s “Somebody Else’s Guy” if you don’t already know it, and “Keep on Walkin’, ” of course — it’s spurred her to develop greater breadth in her live shows.
“I can do an all-R&B show, I can do an all-EDM show, and I can do an all-dance show,” she says. “Not many people are blessed with that. So when I say that I don’t want to be known just for ‘Finally,’ I don’t say that lightly. I’m grateful. As long as it’s bringing that money in, honey, let’s go! You want me to put a catsuit on? Let’s go!”
Hard French Winter Ball, featuring CeCe Peniston, Saturday, Feb. 2, 9 p.m.-2 a.m., at Gray Area/Grand Theater, 2665 Mission St. $22-$27, hardfrench.com