It’s March and that means it’s Women’s History Month. You know how I like to put a classic rock spin on everything so I want to celebrate Women’s History Month with a list of 31 feminist/girl power/empowering moments for women in classic rock history. Women have been part of rock and roll from the beginning and it’s only fair that we acknowledge this and celebrate the women who were and are part of rock history.
Representation is important. Back in the 60s, women were told they couldn’t be astronauts, that they couldn’t go to certain schools, and they didn’t have equality in the workplace or reproductive rights. When you’re surrounded by discouraging words and patriarchal laws, it really brings you down. Rock and roll doesn’t cure everything, but you have to admit, women felt encouraged and inspired seeing women achieving success.
As a woman who doesn’t identify as a feminist (I call myself an egalitarian), there are admittedly times that I take things for granted and assume that women have had it good for a while and oppression is over. I have to take a step back and think about it. I get reminded that things aren’t equal between the genders when I look at the news and see what conservatives are doing to America. I am reminded of it when I get dismissed as a classic rock fan for dressing too girly or being a 25 year old woman who loves music made by people ~50 years older than her. Luckily this doesn’t happen too much anymore. I think I’ve earned some clout in the 5 years I’ve written this blog.
Representation is why I made The Diversity of Classic Rock in the first place and it’s time that I get back to my roots.
Women are underrepresented in rock and roll. Let’s be real. Women don’t make up half of rock musicians. Women aren’t half of the people behind the scenes in rock: session musicians, songwriters, producers, record label executives and owners, etc. In classic rock stations, the DJs are mostly men and usually one type of woman, the kind that’s one of the guys.
Even to this day, female musicians are annoyed with questions about what it’s like to be a woman in music. Men don’t get asked what it’s like to be a man in music, so why are women dismissed like that? Body shaming is a problem. Sexual harassment still is a problem. The entertainment industry and Hollywood generally has a rape culture and people are afraid to talk about it because if you call out the big guys in the rape culture of the entertainment industry, you’re blacklisted – career over.
In this list, you’ll find important works by women and important things women did for rock and roll. I chose 31 because there’s 31 days in March. Let’s get started!
Before Rock and Roll – 20s-40s
1. Ma Rainey sings “Prove It On Me Blues” (1928)
Before the second wave of feminism and rock and roll, one of the first professional blues singers, Ma Rainey (born Gertrude Pridgett), known as Mother of the Blues, sang “Prove It On Me Blues”, a song that was likely about being a lesbian and hanging out with your girlfriends. Some believe that Ma Rainey was bisexual or lesbian. Of course because the early 20th century wasn’t very accepting of LGBT people many people stayed in the closet. Here are some lyrics from that song:
“I went out last night with a crowd of my friends
It must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.
Wear my clothes just like a fan
Talk to the gals just like any old man
Cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me”
Other songs like “Sissy Blues” and “Sweet Rough Man” had sexual themes to them and “Cell Bound Blues was about a woman who finds herself in jail after killing her husband, who abused her.
2. Sister Rosetta Tharpe releases “Strange Things Happening Every Day” – considered the first rock song (1944)
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was versatile and a rock pioneer. She got her start in gospel music, blues, and jazz, which influenced her approach to rock music. She was influential to Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Keith Richards.
She earned the honourifics “Original Soul Sister” and “Godmother of Rock and Roll”. She was well known for her singing and guitar playing. She also competed in guitar battles at the Apollo. She used heavy distortion on her guitar before Link Wray.
“Strange Things Happening Every Day”, released in 1944 was way ahead of its time and considered the first rock song. To me, it sounds more similar to music from the 50s than it does to music from the 40s.
The first rock star was a bisexual woman and her name is Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Rock’s infancy – 50s
3. Mary Ford gets chart hits (1950-1954)
Mary Ford was a country and rock guitarist, best known for recording with her husband, Les Paul, but she also recorded music with her sisters and as a solo artist. Her biggest hits with Les Paul were “How High The Moon”, “Vaya Con Dios”, and “Mockin’ Bird Hill”. She was an early adopter of multi-tracking in recording, which allows for separate recording of multiple sound sources recorded at different times, layered together to make a cohesive sound.
4. Cherry Wainer: The first African rock star (1958)
Not a lot of people know this, but the first African rock star was a woman. Cherry Wainer was known as the Female Liberace for her flamboyance and skills playing organ. She was born in South Africa and grew up playing piano as a child and she studied dance as well. She also played on the first South African rock record (and likely first African rock record), Flying High, in 1959. What made her famous was joining Lord Rockingham’s XI in England, best known for “Hoots Mon”, which reached #1 in 1958.
Women more visible, but not always writing their own songs – 60s
5. Carol Kaye begins her career as session bassist (1963)
Carol Kaye is one of the most prolific session musicians ever, playing on approximately 10,000 recordings in a 50 year long career. She got her start in playing jazz music, but switched to being a session musician because it paid way better. She was part of the famous collective group of session musicians called the Wrecking Crew. Session musicians don’t get the glamour and stardom they deserve, but they are important in creating that sound you hear on the record. As this article from WNET says, “you’ve heard her bass, but not her name”. She was often the only female musician in the studio, but she says in this interview with Please Kill Me that it wasn’t bad at all being the only woman in the room. For the most part she was treated well and on the rare occasion men acted up, she’d at them and put a stop to it immediately. She said that as musicians they all liked each other and
She is best known for playing bass on 60s hits like “Good Vibrations”, “Homeward Bound”, “I Got You Babe”, “These Boots Are Made For Walkin”, “Witchita Lineman”, “River Deep-Mountain High”, “I’m a Believer”, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”, and many more! You can find a Spotify playlist of some songs she played on below:
Don’t underestimate the importance of the bass because it’s the foundation of music and along with the drums, that’s what creates the framework for the music you listen to.
6. The Shangri-Las get famous (1964)
There were many girl groups in the 60s and while the Shangri-Las weren’t the first, they stood out because of their bad girl image. Other girl groups were prim and proper looking and acting, but not the Shangri-Las.
The two Weiss Sisters – Mary and Betty and the two Ganser Sisters – Marge and Mary Ann grew up in a rough neighbourhood in Queens. There’s a rumour that Mary carried a pistol on tour, getting the attention of the FBI for transporting a firearm across state lines. Mary said in her defence that she bought a pistol because someone tried to break into her hotel room.
Suzi Quatro cites The Shangri-Las as one of her biggest influences.
7. “You Don’t Own Me” by Lesley Gore (1964)
Lesley Gore’s best known song was the second wave feminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me”, which was written by John Madara and David White. Women could easily relate to the lyrics from the point of view of a woman who is tired of being bossed around, seen as an object, and controlled. At the time of recording the song, Lesley Gore was 17 and she felt that it was very powerful and defiant. A quote from the lyrics:
“I’m young, and I love to be young
I’m free, and I love to be free
To live my life the way I want
To say and do whatever I please”
8. Goldie & The Gingerbreads: First all girl rock band to get a major record deal (1964)
Goldie & The Gingerbreads were Genya Ravan’s band in the 60s. They broke the glass ceiling in rock by getting signed to Decca Records in 1963 and Atlantic in 1964. At this time, if you were an all girl rock group, you weren’t taken seriously, but Goldie and the Gingerbreads were given a chance.
Genya Ravan’s singing career started by accident in 1962. She was at a bar called the Lollipop Lounge and someone dared her to sing. She had never sung before. From there, she got famous. Goldie & The Gingerbreads got chart hits, met The Rolling Stones at the Mods & Rockers Ball in 1964 and toured with The Rolling Stones, Animals, Beatles, Yardbirds, Hollies, and Kinks.
Genya Ravan’s story is incredible, a rock and roll refugee and immigrant success story. She was born in Poland in 1945 and her family immigrated to the US in 1947, not knowing a word of English. Her parents and her sister were the only members of their family who survived the Holocaust. She had two brothers who died in the Holocaust. She took on the nickname Goldie because Genyusha was hard for Americans to pronounce, hence where Goldie and the Gingerbreads’ name came from.
Below is their biggest hit, their version of “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat”.
9. Sylvia Moy & Valerie Simpson join Motown as songwriters (1963 and 1966, respectively)
The musicians themselves get a lot of appreciation, but it’s important to acknowledge the hardworking women behind the scenes. In the music field, it wasn’t just musician that was a male dominated job, it was the behind the scenes stuff too. Her brother, Melvin, said, “She broke that glass ceiling for women in the music industry. In the ’60s, women weren’t encouraged to play instruments, let alone be producers.”
Two prominent women worked behind the scenes at Motown, Sylvia Moy and Valerie Simpson (of the Ashford/Simpson husband wife songwriting team), and they’re being talked about in this list because they made significant contributions to Motown hits.
Sylvia Moy performed jazz and classical music while she was in secondary school. One day, Marvin Gaye and Mickey Stevenson saw her performing in a club and introduced her to Berry Gordy. She was given a recording and songwriting contract, but she focused on the latter because she label was short on original songs for the musicians to sing.
Sylvia Moy helped Stevie Wonder achieve success by writing hits for him. After his initial success with “Fingertips”, his voice was changing and Berry Gordy was thinking of dropping him from the label, but Moy asked if she could write a hit for Stevie Wonder if he would reconsider. That hit was “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”. She couldn’t translate the lyrics to braille, so as he was recording it, she was singing into his headphones one line ahead.
From there, she wrote “My Cherie Amour”, “I Was Made to Love Her”, and “Never Had a Dream Come True” for Stevie Wonder; “Honey Chile” and “Love Bug Leave My Heart Alone” for Martha and the Vandellas; “This Old Heart of Mine (is Weak for You)” with Holland-Dozier-Holland for the Isley Brothers; and “It Takes Two” with Mickey Stevenson for Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston.
Valerie Simpson wrote songs with her husband, Nickolas Ashford. Before joining Motown, they wrote songs for the 5th Dimension, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles. They joined Motown’s songwriting team in 1966 and started working with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, writing hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “Your Precious Love”, “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”, and “You’re All I Need to Get By”. They also wrote songs for Diana Ross, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Syreeta Wright, the Marvelettes, and Martha & The Vandellas.
In the 70s, Ashford & Simpson recorded music of their own and got some success on the R&B charts.
10. Trans R&B singer Jackie Shane gets famous (1960s)
Jackie Shane was born and raised in the south, but moved to Canada in the 50s to get away from the racism and transphobia. She always performed wearing long hair, makeup, and jewellery, even when there were laws against crossdressing. Sometimes, she’d wear a suit, but look really feminine in it. At the time, music critics and writers described her as a drag queen or an androgynous man. When asked about her gender identity, she would dodge questions all together and just focus on making music. It wasn’t until 2017 that it was confirmed she identified as transgender. A real pioneer, as the only black trans R&B singer and one of the first transgender icons in Canadian history.
Here is a quote from an interview with Vice:
“I let nothing get in the way of hindering my life. Nothing. I never have. You can’t change your nature, and as long as you follow your rules, going in your direction, you won’t have a problem. It’s when you allow those who would eat away at your foundation and make it crumble around you, that’s when you lose. But as long as you can say to whoever, “This is my life, and I will live it the way that I choose, I’m not gonna tell you how you should live. I’m going to say to you, you do your thing, I do mine.” Even if we’re friends. What you do is your way, what I do is mine, and I don’t want you to interfere in how I do what I do. No matter what you think, it’s not your life. You do what you want to do with your life, and you leave mine alone.
This is how I have lived for as long as I can remember. I live with my convictions. I don’t cry and moan and kick and complain. I do what I feel I should do. Not what someone says I should do, but what Jackie knows is best for Jackie. And if you don’t know what is best for you, find out. Find out by pulling away from the crowd. As I’ve said to people, most people are carbon-copies. But until you have broke yourself from that flow of following the leader and put yourself in your own flow, you will never know who you are. You have no idea what you could become or who you could become until you stop playing follow the leader. You know, someone says, You dress like this, you eat like this, you do this—no no. Uproot yourself from that.”
11. Laura Nyro releases “Wedding Bell Blues” (1966)
In the 60s, you finally started seeing female musicians writing their own music and having more control over their sound and image. It was a transitional period in modern music history. It’s great to hear love songs sung by women and written from a woman’s point of view. There’s nothing like it.
Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues” is one of her best known songs, but her original version is not the one that people know best since The 5th Dimension covered it and achieved a lot of success with it. She wrote the song from the point of view of a woman waiting for her boyfriend to propose to her and she wonders if she’ll ever see her wedding day.
12. Aretha Franklin makes “Respect” hers (1967)
Most of the time, I prefer listening to original versions of songs sung by the songwriter themselves, but there are times when the cover is better and the musician covering it sang it like it was theirs and the song becomes theirs. One of the first examples of this I can think of is Aretha Franklin’s version of “Respect”, which was written and originally sang by Otis Redding. She added the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” chorus and the “sock it to me” refrain and we can’t imagine the song without it.
With Aretha’s voice the song takes on a whole new meaning and has feminist empowerment in it that you couldn’t hear in the original. It went from being a song about a desperate man who will give his woman whatever she wants to a song about a confident, strong woman demanding the respect she deserves. When we talk about “Respect” we talk about Aretha Franklin.
13. Grace Slick-penned “White Rabbit” is one of Jefferson Airplane’s biggest hits (1967)
Jefferson Airplane were an early example of a mixed gender band where a woman was the star of the show and seen as an important part of the band’s success. Before Fleetwood Mac, Blondie, and Heart, there was Jefferson Airplane. If asked to name a member, you’d probably think of Grace Slick first. The band’s biggest hits, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” had her on lead vocals. The latter is a song Grace Slick wrote.
14. Nina Simone releases “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” (1970)
Nina Simone dealt with a lot of prejudice on the way up to fame. She was born into a poor family in North Carolina and had dreams of being a concert pianist. She enrolled at Julliard and auditioned for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but got rejected even though her audition was well-received, she believed this was due to racial discrimination.
Not only was she an accomplished musician, she also got into Civil Rights activism and recorded songs that drew on her black heritage and talked about politics. Her 1964 song “Mississippi Goddam” was her first civil rights/social justice song and marked her turn to more political music. It was written in response to the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The song came to her “in a rush of fury, hatred, and determination”.
Nina Simone would perform and speak at civil rights meetings, including the Selma to Montgomery marches. Politically, she was closer to Malcolm X than Martin Luther King, because she was pro-revolution, supported black nationalism, and supported the rights of black Americans to arm themselves in defence.
Another famous protest song of hers was “Four Women”, released in 1966. The song tells the story of four black women, each of them representing a stereotype: Aunt Sarah who is strong and resilient (because she survived so much pain and oppression), Saffronia who is mixed and forced to live between two worlds, Sweet Thing who is being objectified and fetishised for having “good hair”, and Peaches who is tough and embittered because of the oppression of her ancestors. The song highlights the injustices and oppression that black women went through and still go through.
The most famous of her protest songs is the civil rights anthem, “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”, released in 1970. She wrote the song in memory of her friend, Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote the play A Raisin in the Sun. The song has been covered by Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Donny Hathaway, Bob and Marcia, and the Heptones. She even performed it on Sesame Street in 1972.
15. All girl group Fanny release their debut album (1970)
While Fanny were not one the first all-girl rock band, they were one of the first to achieve real commercial success and break free from the poppy girl group mould and write their own music, which is something all-girl groups didn’t do much before this for the most part. Most of the members of the group are lesbian or bisexual and they were pioneers in the genre of women’s music – a second wave feminist rock genre that was all about music by, for, and about women.
Sisters June and Jean Millington founded Fanny. They are half Filipina half American and spent their childhood in the Philippines before their family moved to the US in 1961. As biracials, they felt like they didn’t quite fit in in America or the Philippines, but they turned to music and found it helped them make friends. They formed a group called the Svelts in the mid-60s, which became Wild Honey, and renamed Fanny in 1969 because it symbolised the . In the early days they liked playing folk and Motown covers.
Fanny opened for groups like CCR, The Youngbloods, The Kinks, and Procol Harum. David Bowie, The Bangles, and The Runaways have praised Fanny’s music.
In 1970, they released their first album. I think it’s a great listen and I highly recommend it. It’s an album that I can listen to from start to finish without skipping a track.
16. Joni Mitchell releases “Ladies of the Canyon” (1970)
The title track on the album celebrates friendship. Joni Mitchell wrote the song about a few of her friends in Laurel Canyon: Estrella Berosini, Trina Robbins, and Annie Burden. It’s always great to hear songs about women lifting each other up and celebrating their friendship. It’s the positive energy we need.
There’s a lot of truth in the song too. Estrella really was raised in the circus, the daughter of a Czech highwire performer. Trina was an artist who liked wearing secondhand fur coats. And you can find Annie’s brownie recipe here!
Part 2 is now available to read. Find out more about the 70s!
Shoutout to my friends Patrick and Matt for supporting the blog.
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Grace Slick also wrote Somebody to Love. Such a talented artist!
I’m looking forward to part two of this article. The 70s were an incredible time for women in rock. I’m really curious about what you have to say about the Runaways.
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She only did the lead vocals on Somebody to Love. Darby Slick, Grace’s brother in law, actually wrote the song for his band The Great Society, which Grace Slick was in.
In part 2 I talk about Joan Jett. It was hard to pick because there were so many moments. I’ve written about The Runaways on other blog posts though.
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