By Gillian G. Gaar
Your average “women in rock” article tends to list the same names: Janis Joplin. Bonnie Raitt. Patti Smith. Tina Turner. Madonna. But there are many other women who don’t get name-checked for their contributions to rock ’n’ roll. Here’s a look at 10 of them. For more fun, head to YouTube, where you can find clips of all of these featured artists.
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton
The song “Hound Dog” is most associated with Elvis Presley. But the first person to record it was actually Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. And it was a song was written specifically for her by songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, thus placing Thornton right at the crossroads when rhythm and blues was morphing into rock ’n’ roll.
Born Dec. 11, 1926, in Montgomery, Ala. this minister’s daughter grew up singing in church. In 1941, she joined Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Review. During the decade, she taught herself to play drums and harmonica, and she began writing songs. Her first single, “All Right Baby,” was released in 1951, credited to the Harlem Stars. In the late ’40s, she joined bandleader Johnny Otis’ group; after playing the Apollo Theater in 1952, she was given the nickname “Big Mama” Thornton due to her size.
She recorded “Hound Dog” Aug. 13, 1952, at Radio Recorders studio in Los Angeles. The song hit No. 1 on the R&B chart and sold nearly two million copies, but Thornton only received a flat fee of $500.
In the early ’60s, Thornton moved to the Bay Area, where she played in blues clubs. Janis Joplin saw Thornton numerous times and later recorded a song Thornton had written, “Ball and Chain.” Sadly, Thornton had signed away the song’s publishing and missed out on the royalties when Joplin’s version was released. Thornton worked with artists including Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins; toured Europe; and played the Monterey and Newport Jazz Festivals. But a lack of greater success led to heavy drinking, and when Thornton died on July 25, 1984, she weighed just 95 pounds. She received some recognition that same year, when she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
At a time when few women in music even played instruments, let alone stepped behind the recording console, Bonnie Buckingham, aka Bonnie Guitar, found success as both a performer and a producer.
Buckingham was born in Seattle in 1923. She took up guitar at age 13 and played in area clubs. She also began writing songs; her first single was “The Two-Timin’ Yodeler,” released in 1948 by her band, the K-6 Wranglers. In the mid-’50s, she moved to California, where she worked as a session guitarist, began releasing her own records under the name Bonnie Guitar and started learning the basics of record production.
In 1957, Guitar released the single “Dark Moon.” The song became a crossover hit, reaching No. 6 on the pop charts and the Top 20 on the country charts. Guitar had so wanted to record the song that she’d agreed to forgo royalties on “Dark Moon,” but she soon had another hit with “Mister Fire Eyes,” which again hit the Top 20 on the country charts.
Her career momentarily stalled by a management dispute, she returned to Seattle, co-founding Dolphin Records (later Dolton Records) with Bob Reisdorff. The label soon had its first hit with the Fleetwoods; she produced and played guitar on the hits “Come Softly To Me” and “Mr. Blue.” Guitar signed and recorded numerous other acts, but a falling out with Reisdorff resulted in her leaving the label.
Guitar later became head of A&R for RCA’s country department, although she continued producing and enjoyed her own country hits, including “I’m Living in Two Worlds” and “A Woman’s Love.” Back in Washington state by the end of the ’60s, she continued to record and perform. In 1989, she was inducted in the Northwest Area Music Association’s Hall of Fame.
Goldie & The Gingerbreads
There were plenty of “girl groups” in late ’50s/early ’60s, but Goldie & the Gingerbreads was a bona fide band and the first all-girl band signed to a major record label.
The Gingerbreads were formed when singer Genya “Goldie” Zelkowitz met drummer Ginger Panabianco (later Ginger Bianco) in 1962. Zelkowitz had never met a female drummer and thought an all-female rock band would be unique. Carol O’Grady was the group’s first keyboard player, later replaced by Margo Lewis. After using various fill-in guitarists, the band found a permanent guitarist in Carol MacDonald. The band’s first single was “Skinny Vinnie,” released in 1964.
After seeing the band at a party, Atlantic’s chairman Ahmet Ertegun signed the Gingerbreads to Atlantic subsidiary Atco. The group was sent overseas, where members recorded “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat,” which was a Top 30 hit in the U.K. (where the band’s records were released on Decca). Goldie & The Gingerbreads enjoyed their greatest success overseas, touring with The Rolling Stones and other bands. The band’s chance for U.S. success was ruined when Herman’s Hermits released “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat” right before the Gingerbreads’ version was scheduled to come out. Lack of financial compensation led to the group’s breakup.
But the Gingerbreads went on to play other groundbreaking roles. Zelkowitz became Genya Ravan, lead singer of Ten Wheel Drive and a producer who worked with the Dead Boys and Ronnie Spector. MacDonald and Bianco founded Isis, the all-female jazz band. Lewis also played with Isis; she later played with and managed Bo Diddley and now owns Talent Consultants International Ltd.
The Gingerbreads played a reunion show in 1997, and in 1998 were honored by New York organization Women in Music with a Touchstone Award. MacDonald died in 2007.
Although The Gingerbreads had signed with a major label, the group only released singles. Fanny was the first all-female rock band to release an album on a major label.
The band began as the Sacramento, Calif.,-based Svelts, a group formed by sisters June and Jean Millington (born in 1948 and 1950, respectively) in the early 1960s. Regular trips to L.A. helped the band land a deal with Reprise in 1969. After a reshuffle, the final lineup had June on guitar, Jean on bass, Nickey Barclay (born in 1951) on keyboards, and Alice de Buhr (born in 1950) on drums. The band also chose a new name: Fanny. “We felt it was like a female spirit watching over us,” June explained.
The band released four albums on the Reprise label. None of them charted, though the single “Charity Ball” reached No. 40. Fanny played a particularly rousing version of rock ’n’ roll; June attributes part of the band’s failure to break through to a larger audience to not having the right song at the right time. Burned out by constant touring, June and Alice de Buhr left Fanny after the fourth album was released, replaced by Patti Quatro (Suzi Quatro’s sister) and Brie Brandt. A final album, “Rock and Roll Survivors,” was released on Casablanca in 1975, producing the Top 30 hit “Butter Boy.” But the band broke up soon after.
June went on to produce albums for artists including Cris Williamson and Holly Near, and she also founded the Institute for the Musical Arts, which supports women and girls in the music industry. Jean has played sessions for David Bowie, Keith Moon and Tonio K.; the two sisters have also recorded together. Patti Quatro and Brie Brandt (now Brie Howard-Darling) have also done extensive session and touring work. In 2007, the Millingtons reunited with Alice de Buhr for a show at the Berklee College of Music, where the group received Rockrgrl magazine’s Women of Valor award.
Poison Ivy Rorschach
They say that behind every good man, there’s a good woman. So it was with The Cramps, with lead singer Lux Interior and his wife, Poison Ivy Rorschach, forming the core of the psychobilly band, with Rorschach eventually taking over as the band’s producer.
Kristy Marlana Wallace met Erick Lee Purkhiser in 1972 while attending Sacramento State College. Both shared a love of rock ’n’ roll, surf rock, garage rock and grade-B American pop culture. They decided to start a band and moved to Ohio, then New York City, where The Cramps quickly became part of the punk scene at CBGB’s. The Cramps’ lineup was in a state of constant flux over the course of the band’s career, with only Lux (Erick) and Poison Ivy (Kristy) remaining in the band from beginning to end.
After releasing two singles on the band’s own Vengeance label, The Cramps signed with IRS Records and released the group’s first album, “Songs the Lord Taught Us,” in 1980. The Cramps’ mix of rock ’n’ roll and trash culture earned the band a loyal cult following, although it never reached mainstream success.
From her basic playing on the band’s early records, Poison Ivy eventually developed into an exceptionally fierce guitarist (check out the guitar work on the band’s strongest album, “Stay Sick”). She also filled in on bass and co-wrote the band’s songs with Lux. “Stay Sick” (1990) marked the first time she was credited as sole producer, and she produced or co-produced (with Lux) all the band’s subsequent albums. The band’s career came to a halt when Lux died Feb. 4, 2009.
Danielle Dax created some of the most innovative music of the post-punk era. Although she hasn’t released a new record since 1995, she still has a strong cult following.
Born Danielle Gardner on Sept. 23, 1958, in Southend, England, Dax had not thought of becoming a musician until 1979, when she designed a record cover for a Reading, England,-based band called The Lemon Kittens. She was asked to join the band, and she and Karl Blake recorded The Kittens’ avant-garde debut album, “We Buy a Hammer for Daddy,” in 1980. After a second album, Dax went solo. For 1983’s “Pop-Eyes,” she wrote and performed all of the songs (including playing all of the instruments), produced the album and designed the cover art. While still in the experimental vein of The Lemon Kittens’ work, Dax’s solo songs were more developed, with a stronger melodic drive. Her subsequent releases regularly landed on the U.K. indie charts. She made use of sampling (using an instrumental riff from the song “Jukebox Boogie” as the underpinning of “Evil-Honky Stomp”), and mixed and matched musical styles, such as the twisted country and western stomper “Bad Miss M,” about then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
Dax then signed with Sire, which released “Dark Adapted Eye,” a compilation of her work in 1988. A new album, “Blast the Human Flower,” followed in 1990; it failed to chart, and Dax was dropped from the label. Her last new release was the 1995 EP “Timber Tongue”; that year also saw the release of the wryly-titled compilation “Comatose Non-Reaction: The Thwarted Pop Career of Danielle Dax.” Dax has made sporadic live appearances as a solo artist and with the Amal Gamal Ensemble, and she was a guest vocalist on the Unica Zurn album “Temporal Bands.”
In the ’80s and ’90s, Salt-N-Pepa smashed through the male-dominated realm of hip-hop and rap to become the first female rap act to win a Grammy.
Cheryl James and Sandra Denton lived and worked in Queens. The manager at the Sears store where they worked, Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor, had them record “The Show Stoppa,” an answer record to Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show,” and billed them as Super Nature. James then became “Salt,” Denton was “Pepa,” and Salt-N-Pepa signed to Next Plateau Records. Original DJ Latoya Hanson was replaced by Deidra “Spinderella” Roper.
Salt-N-Pepa’s first album was “Hot, Cool & Vicious” (1986). Then “Push It,” the B-side of the album’s single “Tramp,” became an unexpected crossover hit, hitting the Top 20 on the U.S. pop charts, and the Top 10 in the U.K., Australia and the Netherlands. “Hot, Cool & Vicious” and “Push It” became the first records by a female rap act to go gold and platinum.
Salt-N-Pepa released five albums, with James and Roper becoming increasingly involved with production. Each album went platinum, with singles generally charting higher on the pop charts in other countries than in the U.S. (although Salt-N-Pepa regularly received high placings on the U.S. R&B and rap charts). “None of Your Business,” from “Very Necessary” (1993) won a Grammy for Best Rap Performance; the video for another song on the album, “Whatta Man” (which featured En Vogue) won three MTV Video Music Awards.
The group split in 2002. James has appeared on other artists’ records; Denton pursued an acting career and released an autobiography; Roper worked in radio. Fans got to see Salt-N-Pepa reunite in 2007 on VH-1’s reality program “The Salt-N-Pepa Show.” The group has since performed live and plans to release an album.
The band most associated with the 1990s’ riot grrrl movement — a successor to the DIY punk movement of the late ’70s — Bikini Kill came together in Olympia, Wash., in 1990 when Kathleen Hanna met Tobi Vail and Kathi Wilcox. Hanna had written to Vail after reading Vail’s zine “Jigsaw”; all three women had played in various bands, and Vail and Wilcox asked Hanna to join them in a new band. Unable to find a female guitarist they liked, Bikini Kill’s members tapped Billy Karren for the position. Wilcox played bass, Vail played drums, and Hanna was the lead singer, though the band members frequently swapped instruments in performance. The name “Bikini Kill” came from the name used in a one-off performance in an Olympia club by Lois Maffero and Margaret Doherty.
The band put a feminist spin on their freewheeling punk; as their website puts it, “Bikini Kill believed that if all girls started bands, the world would change.” The band’s first release was a demo cassette sold at shows; a self-titled EP was released in 1992, with the debut album, “Pussy Whipped,” following in 1993. With the rise of grunge in the Pacific Northwest, riot grrrl bands coming from the same region attracted a lot of media and record company interest. But Bikini Kill wasn’t interested in moving to a major label. For a time, band members even stopped speaking to the media. Bikini Kill worked with Joan Jett, who produced the 1993 single “Rebel Girl”/“New Radio,” giving an idea of how the group would sound with more polished production.
The band released a second album, “Reject All American,” in 1996, and broke up in 1998. All of the band members have since played in a variety of bands, with Hanna’s group Le Tigre capturing the most attention.
Singer/songwriter Kirsty MacColl was always better known in her native England than in the U.S., with U2’s Bono hailing her as the “Noelle Coward of her generation.”
The daughter of folk singer Ewan MacColl, she first recorded with a punk band, the Drug Addix, under the name “Mandy Doubt.” Stiff Records liked her voice and signed her as a solo artist. Her first single, “They Don’t Know,” which she also wrote, was released in 1979. It became better known in the U.S. when Tracy Ullman recorded it in 1983, featuring MacColl on backing vocals. (Ullman went on to record three more of MacColl’s songs.)
MacColl had a keen lyrical wit. Her first U.K. Top 20 hit under her own name was “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis,” which she co-wrote. The song was released on Polydor and featured on her first solo album, “Desperate Character.” She had further hits with her covers of Billy Bragg’s “A New England” and The Kinks’ “Days,” and as a guest vocalist on The Pogues’ Christmas single “Fairytale in New York.”
From 1989 to 2000, MacColl released four albums, all but one of which reached the U.K. Top 40. “Electric Landlady,” released in 1991, was her biggest U.S. success, with the rap-influenced single “Walking Down Madison” reaching No. 4 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Track charts. MacColl frequently multi-tracked her own backing vocals; she also worked frequently as a backing singer on records for artists including the Rolling Stones, Robert Plant, and The Smiths, to mention a few.
MacColl died Dec. 18, 2000, while vacationing in Cozumel, Mexico; she was hit by a speedboat.
In a seven-year stretch, Sleater-Kinney rose from the indie realm to being heralded in 2001 as “the best band in America” by Time magazine. Especially interesting was that the group was simply described as “best band,” and not “best female band.”
Sleater-Kinney started out as a side project for Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, who were students at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. They traveled to Australia as part of a school project, recording with drummer Lora Macfarlane. Both Tucker and Brownstein played guitar; the group would never have a bassist. Sleater-Kinney’s self-titled album was released in 1995. Macfarlane came to the U.S. to record the band’s second album, “Call the Doctor” (1996) after which she was replaced by drummer Janet Weiss.
The band’s first album with Weiss, “Dig Me Out” (1997), captured critical attention. Though the band was approached by numerous major labels, Sleater-Kinney elected to remain independent.
“The people we talked to wanted us to be in charge of the music but they wanted to be in charge of everything else,” Tucker explained. “We want to be in charge of everything!”
Sleater-Kinney released four more albums and gained high-profile attention when the band opened for Pearl Jam in 2003.
But after Tucker become a mother, the band went “on hiatus” in 2006, following the release of its seventh album, 2005’s “The Woods.”
Tucker has since released solo albums. Brownstein created the comedy show “Portlandia” with “Saturday Night Live”’s Fred Armisen. Weiss has performed with various bands, including Wild Flag, which also features Brownstein.