Women in Classic Rock Part 1: The 60s

Women’s History Month may almost be over, but we can celebrate the accomplishments of women in various fields every day. Many think classic rock is a men’s game, but there have been many women who have shaped classic rock and have made it what it is today and without them it wouldn’t be the same. I wrote a paper two years ago about the contributions to songwriting women have made in the 60s, 70s, and 80s and how it increased. For example, in the 60s there were many girl groups and solo female musicians that mostly sang pop and soul/R&B music. Some of these that come to mind are The Ronettes, Shangri-Las, Marvelettes, Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Mary Wells, Tammi Terrell, Dusty Springfield, The Crystals, Nancy Sinatra, Helen Shapiro, and The Chiffons. Later on in the 60s came the rise of influence of female singer-songwriters like Laura Nyro, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, Vashti Bunyan, and Sandy Denny. There really weren’t women in rock until the late 60s, however one rock pioneer, Sister Rosetta Tharpe started recording in the 40s and 50s and was influential to greats like Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, and Elvis. She was highly influenced by gospel music. Here’s a video of her in the 60s:

I’ll be highlighting my 20 favourite women in classic rock/oldies moments (in no particular order) of the 60s with some videos and fun facts about the musicians.

1. (1969) Reminiscent of Ann Wilson and Janis Joplin, Candy Given’s vocals in Sail On make the song more amazing.This song was off their self-titled debut. Candy Givens and Tommy Bolin wrote this song. Zephyr had one member really make it big, Tommy Bolin went on to join Deep Purple Mark IV in 1975. The song sounds a bit jazzy/prog.

2. (1968) PP Arnold started off with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue before she went on her own, doing solo work and working with Immediate Records bands, The Nice (at one point, her backing band) and Small Faces. Here’s one of my personal favourite songs of hers: Angel of the Morning

3. (1969) This year was a big year for Marsha Hunt. She performed at the Isle of Wight Festival. She mostly was famous in England and was based there for her career. As well as being a musician, she is a writer and was a model in the 70s. She was the first black model to appear on the cover of Queen Magazine. Here’s a cover of Desdemona, written by Marc Bolan when he was in a band called John’s Children:

4. (1968) This song was big in the 60s and was revived in 1994 in the soundtrack of the Quentin Tarantino film, Pulp Fiction. This song reached the top 10 in both the US and her native UK.

5. (1964) Changing languages here, to French. This song translates to “All the boys and the girls.” Francoise Hardy, from Paris, was one of the best-known yé-yé singers. Yé-yé is a genre of French popular music in the 60s. It is a translation of “yeah yeah,” which sounds familiar if you listen to The Beatles “She loves you, yeah yeah yeah!” It’s a song about people being in couples and being happy, while the narrator is lonely and longs for a happy relationship. The song was translated to English, German, and Italian. It made it to the top 40 in Britain, peaking at #36.

6. (1969) Jane Birkin was English and was an actress as well as a singer. She worked a lot with her partner, Serge Gainsbourg, who was a major songwriter for French yé-yé singers. This song made it to number one in the UK single chart, however it was banned on radio for its sexual innuendo. Serge Gainsbourg was well known for writing songs with double-entendres.

7. (1969) The Velvet Underground had two female members, Nico, who was only on the 1967 album The Velvet Underground and Nico and Maureen Tucker, the drummer. She sang on the last track on the 1969 album The Velvet Underground. The song has an adorable and innocent sound. Lou Reed said he couldn’t sing it himself and it had to be Maureen Tucker on vocals this time. The Velvet Underground made very experimental music, even bordering on the beginnings of punk.

8. (1966) Grace Slick wasn’t the only female member of Jefferson Airplane. Before she joined the band, Signe Toly Anderson was a member of the band and was on their debut album. She left due to having a baby and Grace Slick replaced her. She last performed with Jefferson Airplane on 15 October 1966. She returned to her native Portland. Here’s a track from Jefferson Airplane Takes Off:

9. (1966) Before Grace Slick joined Jefferson Airplane, she was in The Great Society from 1965-1966. A couple of my favourite songs of theirs are “Grimly Forming” and “Sally Go Round The Roses,” a very psychedelic song. This recording wasn’t released until two years later. Grace Slick was in the band with her husband, Jerry Slick.

10. (1968) If you like music with a bit of a soul and jazz influence, Julie Driscoll is perfect for you. She was most famous for her work with Brian Auger and The Trinity in the late 60s, but she also performed on the same stage with legends like Eric Burdon (The Animals), Steve Winwood (Traffic, Spencer Davis Group), Long John Baldry, Rod Stewart, Jimi Hendrix, and Micky Dolenz (The Monkees). Here’s her singing a Bob Dylan cover on Top of The Pops:

11. (1968) Janis Joplin was a member of Big Brother and The Holding Company. She went from being an outcast in secondary school to being a superstar, a legend. She got famous performing at festivals such as Monterey Pop and later Woodstock. She unfortunately died when she was 27. Here’s one of my favourite songs of hers:

12. (1967) Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell were very close friends and recorded a lot of music together. They were best known for doing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” reaching #19 on the Billboard Charts, and #3 in the Soul/R&B charts in the US. Tammi Terrell died at the age of 24 of a brain tumour. Her death and many other personal issues that Marvin Gaye went through was part of the inspiration for his legendary 1971 album What’s Going On. You may know this song. The version by Marlena Shaw is a Northern Soul favourite.

13. (1968) Laura Nyro was a singer-songwriter. She had many influences from jazz to folk to soul and R&B. “Wedding Bell Blues” went number one when The Fifth Dimension covered it. I really love the album Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. Here’s a track from that album:

14. (1968) Stevie Nicks didn’t get famous until the mid 70s with Fleetwood Mac. Before Buckingham Nicks, she and her boyfriend at the time, Lindsey Buckingham were in a band called Fritz. Here’s a video of them covering a Steppenwolf song, “Born to Be Wild.”

15. (1968) This is a Northern Soul classic that also made it into the charts in the Netherlands (reaching to the top 40) in the 60s and my favourite Flirtations song. Some compare this song to “Stop! In The Name of Love” by The Supremes.

16. (1969) The Rolling Stones released Let It Bleed in 1969. This song was the opening track for that album, and what a great choice! Merry Clayton did the back up vocals on this song. Clayton also sang back up vocals on “Sweet Home Alabama.”

17. (1968) Before Christine McVie was in Fleetwood Mac, she was known as Christine Perfect and she was in Chicken Shack, a blues inspired rock band. She recorded two albums with them. She joined Fleetwood Mac in 1970 and married fellow band member, John McVie. Here’s a song Christine Perfect wrote for the band and sang vocals on:

18. (1969) Sandy Denny sang with British groups: The Strawbs, Fairport Convention, and Fotheringay. She was the only guest vocalist to appear on a Led Zeppelin album, singing “The Battle of Evermore,” one of my personal favourite Led Zeppelin songs.

19. (1968) Ann Wilson didn’t release an album with Heart until 1976, but 8 years earlier she was in grade 12 and she did her first recordings at a studio then. Here’s a song from that session. She and her sister Nancy wrote this song:

20. (1968) Rita Lee was in the Brazilian psychedelic rock group, Os Mutantes, which means The Mutants. The band were trio made up of Rita Lee, Arnaldo Baptista, and Sergio Dias. Here is the first track from their 1968 album, Os Mutantes.

However, there was some female involvement behind the scenes, such as women owning record labels and writing songs for other musicians. Don’t underestimate the importance of behind the scenes work. There would be no music without songwriters and composers. Before the days of the internet it was important to be signed to a record label to get some sort of exposure.

As far as record labels, Stax was founded by brother and sister Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. Scepter Records was founded in 1959 by Florence Greenberg. But pre dating both of these labels by a year was Moon Records, founded by Cordell Jackson. That label released rockabilly music.

On the songwriting side of things: There were many women involved in songwriting teams that wrote various chart hits during the 60s.

Motown’s songwriting teams were primarily male, but Sylvia Moy co-wrote a few hits for Stevie Wonder such as “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and “I Was Made To Love Her.” Janie Bradford cowrote “Money (That’s What I Want)” with Berry Gordy for the Motown label.

The Brill Building in New York is where a lot of pop songwriters worked, many were female.

Ellie Greenwich was half of the Greenwich-Barry songwriting team of the 60s. She co-wrote hits such as (not necessarily with Jeff Barry) “Baby I Love You,” “Be My Baby,” “Do Wah Diddy,” “Hanky-Panky,” “Leader of the Pack,” and “River Deep, Mountain High.”

Carole King wrote many songs, as well as singing her own music. She worked often with Gerry Goffin. She wrote “The Loco-Motion,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Don’t Bring Me Down” (The Animals), and “I’m Into Something Good.” Of course, she was also well known for “I Feel The Earth Move” which she sang.

Cynthia Weil wrote many songs together with Barry Mann. Some of these songs include “Kicks” by Paul Revere and The Raiders, “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” by The Animals, and “You Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” by The Righteous Brothers.

Carole Bayer Sager and Toni Wine wrote “A Groovy Kind of Love” for The Mindbenders.

In the 70s there were more women involved in rock music and you’ll see in the next post on The Diversity of Classic Rock.

Who are your favourite female musicians of the 60s? Feel free to have your say and leave a comment!