Petrella Bonner: ‘First Lady of Country Soul’ clings to Arkansas roots, Black legacy in country music
By George Jared – Country music and soul musician Petrella Bonner was ready to take the stage in early July at Vapors Live, a music theater/restaurant founded in 1959 in her native Hot Springs. The venue had hosted some of the most famous acts in music history – Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett, and Liberace to name a few.
Her father, Herbert, and later her brother, Harry even waited tables at Vapors. There was one irony, however. For many years Blacks were not allowed as guests in the venue. When she took the stage, she said something stood out to her.
“The crowd. Most of the people in the crowd were Black,” she said laughing.
Bonner, 75, who now resides in California, didn’t take a traditional route to music fame, but it’s a journey she hopes will culminate with an induction in the Country Music Hall of Fame. If that happens, she would be the first Black woman ever inducted. She hopes that her voluminous work which includes eight albums, a number of chart-topping singles, and philanthropic work.
Most musicians begin their professional careers early, but Bonner, whose married last name is Pollefeyt, did not. She would come to be known as “The First Lady of Country Soul,” but here professional career didn’t begin until she was in her mid-40s. Her story starts in Hot Springs.
She grew up in a house across the street from her elementary school. Her grandmother, Mamie Wilder and her other grandparents, Myrtle and William Bonner lived nearby. She spent many hours with her grandparents. School and attendance at Visitor’s Chapel AME Church dominated her childhood. She took voice and piano lessons, but her father, who owned a barbershop, wanted her to focus on a career in business.
“My dad thought a career in music would be frivolous,” she said.
Bonner’s neighborhood had a mix of white, Native American, and Black residents even though she grew up in the segregated South. As a child, she didn’t realize there was a willful separation of races. Her grandmother served as a maid for a white family, but a white woman who owned a plumbing company near their home often babysat Bonner when her mother ran errands, she said.
Blacks often had to sit in designated areas inside restaurants if they were allowed in at all. At movie theaters, Blacks could only sit in the balcony. Bonner graduated from a segregated high school. The Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s and a series of bombings at African-American churches opened her eyes to the harsh realities of how Blacks were being treated, she said.
Her brother Harry excelled at football but couldn’t get a scholarship to the University of Arkansas. He took a scholarship offer from the University of South Dakota. Her younger brother, Larry Bonner, did get to play football for Arkansas State University years later.
“It was the norm. I didn’t know any difference at the time,” she said.
Bonner majored in business when she started at Lincoln University. She eventually graduated from Philander Smith College in Little Rock in 1968. She worked as the first Black administrator for then Gov. Dale Bumpers before she moved to Detroit to work as the first African-American typist at Chrystler Defense.
While in Michigan, she found out her first husband was a heroin addict and she divorced him. Bonner met Bob Pollefeyt and they married. She decided to spend her time working and raising her two daughters. The family lived in states spanning the country.
Her music break came in 1988 when she became acquainted with Nashville record producer Jack Gale. Bonner liked to write songs in addition to singing. She said a family friend who happened to be a poet helped her learn the cadence of writing.
In 1993 she released her first album “Countryversial.” She was 46 years old. One of her songs, “I Found Somebody” spent 14 weeks on the Country Music Top 100 charts, according to The History Makers. The next year she was named the new female vocal artist of the year by Nashville Tracker magazine. She became the first African-American female artist to be featured on the front cover of Cashbox magazine.
During the next several years, she released more albums and started touring around the country. Her music is a strong blend of country with blues and soul overtones, she said. It’s a byproduct of the music she listened to growing up. Bonner attended several songwriting schools and became a prolific songwriter as well.
“Familiarity is what a songwriter does. When you live it, you can write it,” she said.
Does she have any advice for aspiring artists?
“It has to be your passion. It has to build from the inside out. Get ready for the grind. You’ve got to put the work in,” she said.
Philanthropic work has been another mainstay in Bonner’s life, she said. She founded the non-profit Dreams of the Heartland Foundation in 1996. She said that money from her music sales is funneled through the Foundation to support a number of charitable works, including scholarships for music majors or those in the choir at Philander Smith College. It has also supported efforts by Habitat for Humanity, Court Appointed Special Advocates and others.
She started an initiative to get minorities internships at museums, including the Country Music Hall of Fame. She recently performed a free concert at ASU to support "The Every Child is Ours initiative" started by her friend, Jan Pascale.
Charity work is fulfilling and Bonner thinks she has an obligation to give back to the community she said.
“My father told me that if as long as you don’t eat much, you don’t have to spend much,” she said.
Bonner doesn’t know if or when the Country Music Hall of Fame may call. As her career winds to a close, she hopes her fans have enjoyed the music she has been creating for more than three decades.
“I want people to know me. I want people to enjoy my music … I hope I made a difference,” she said.