When rock ‘n roll arrived in 1955, it was heralded by its proponents as nothing short of a musical revolution. Throw out all the old rules, they said, it’s a new morning, and the new guard is here to shake, rattle and roll things up. But this revolutionary “new guard” — guys like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many dozens of pretenders to the throne — was woefully lacking in one key area: They were all men.
Where were all the women?
It’s curious to look back now and see what a boys club it was then, from the singer to the drummer, the producer, the engineer, the label executive, even the record store owner and radio DJ. As in most industries at the time, women in the music business faced discrimination, harassment and outright exclusion by a male power structure. (“You sing great, sweet thing, now let us finish the record and I’ll see you in my dressing room later…”) It seems a shame to me that, except for a few rare trailblazers, women were typically limited exclusively to supporting roles as mere background vocalists, even though sometimes it was the women who had the star power, the pipes, or the songwriting talent that everyone loved.
Thankfully, there were those willing to put themselves out there to blaze the trails. Some came from the blues tradition (Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, Billie Holiday), or from the Nashville circuit (Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells, Tammy Wynette). But the women who fared the best on the pop charts at first were a different kind of maverick: the modern teenage torch singers (Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, Lesley Gore) and the so-called “girl groups” so prevalent in the early ’60s: The Chiffons, the Ronettes, the Marvelettes, the Crystals, all populated by talented (but largely anonymous) singers.
There were also the middle-of-the-road acts, singing Broadway and more traditional pop ballads — Barbra Streisand, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield — who were every bit as popular as their male counterparts.
For a time, co-ed groups were in vogue, with Sonny and Cher, The Mamas and Papas, Ike & Tina Turner, The Fifth Dimension and Peter, Paul and Mary leading the way. The women in these acts seemed to gain at least the appearance of equality with the men. A few, like Cass Elliot and Mary Travers, enjoyed modest solo careers; Turner cast off her ex-husband’s shackles and became a deserving superstar, and Cher ended up setting records for longevity, establishing herself as a major solo artist with Top Ten hits in five different decades.
But rock music, rock and roll bands, were men’s domain. Electric guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, sax, even vocals — these positions were exclusively filled by men: The Beatles, The Yardbirds, Creedence, Cream, The Stones, The Who… Things started changing during the psychedelic rock era, when an upstart named Grace Slick became the lead singer and focal point of the Jefferson Airplane and their two iconic hits, “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love.” Concurrently, whirlwind blues belter Janis Joplin took the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival by storm and showed emphatically how mesmerizing a woman could be fronting a hard rock band. Still, it wasn’t an easy road, as Pat Benatar recalled recently of her beginnings in 1979. “I was kind of a girly girl with this tough image, but I never thought about singing in a rock band. Women fronting bands just seemed so vulnerable.”
Throughout the ’60s, Motown and soul music showed more gender diversity than rock did, offering a smorgasbord of male and female solo artists and groups. Diana Ross and The Supremes reigned, well, supreme, and Mary Wells, Nancy Wilson, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and Martha Reeves held their own against The Temptations, the Four Tops, Smokey & the Miracles, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Perhaps the most important soul artist of all, Aretha Franklin, continues to top polls of the Greatest Singers Ever, and it is her signature song, “Respect,” that marks a sort of “coming out” for the women’s movement: “I get tired, I keep on tryin’, you’re running out of foolin’ and I ain’t lyin’, re-re-re-respect, when you come home, or you might walk in and find out I’m gone, I got to have a little respect…”
And then came the era of confessional singer-songwriters, both male and female, who wrote heartfelt lyrics and sang their own songs. Here, the women enjoyed an even keel; for every James Taylor and Jackson Browne, there was a Joni Mitchell and Carole King. It was in fact a treasure trove of female artists who, collectively and individually, made inroads into the power structure in the music business: Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Roberta Flack, Carly Simon, Judy Collins, Laura Nyro.
Many of these women broke barriers in another important way — they played an instrument. Until about 1970, women were singers. Period. Well, maybe they’d let her hit a tambourine. But the musically talented women refused to sit still and continued to push the envelope. Mitchell, King, Collins and Simon all accompanied themselves on piano and/or guitar. Raitt mastered the electric slide guitar and fronted her own blues band. Karen Carpenter, she of the pitch-perfect voice, happened to be a pretty great drummer, and she was bound and determined to keep playing drums on records and in concert even after reaching stardom with her impeccable vocals.
Electric guitar has always been the ultimate male instrument, but by 1975, pioneers like Raitt, Suzi Quatro, and Heart’s Ann & Nancy Wilson broke new ground. And playing bass for the Talking Heads was a talented woman named Tina Weymouth.
A symbolic milestone occurred in 1972, when an Australian singer called Helen Reddy had grown so tired of the shabby treatment she and other female artists had to endure that she was motivated to write some lyrics about it. She handed them off to songwriter Ray Burton, and the result was the multi-million-selling “I Am Woman,” a somewhat cheesy but game-changing song that Helen Reddy played on every TV variety show she could: “You can bend but never break me ’cause it only serves to make me more determined to achieve my final goal…” For better or worse, it gave many woman the confidence to defy the odds, to chase their dreams, to press harder for more favorable contracts, to go where only men had gone before.
By the second half of the ’70s, women were among the top acts in the world — the 1-2 punch of Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie in Fleetwood Mac, and the disco dominance of Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor and Natalie Cole. And by the 1980s, the floodgates opened, and there was no looking back. Women could get down and dirty and ROCK, dammit, and they were out to prove it: Patti Smith, Blondie’s Debbie Harry, the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, the Runaways’ Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, the Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox. Since then, no one has questioned the right of any woman to play any role or any instrument she can in any band that she wants.
For thirty years now, women have only gained in stature, success and opportunities, in virtually every genre. From Madonna to Janet Jackson, from Tracy Chapman to Meg White, from Alanis Morissette to Adele, from Taylor Swift to the Indigo Girls, from Christina Aguilera to K.T. Tunstall, the charts are brimming with female artists as never before. Under the pop radar are dozens of all-female bands knocking ’em dead in clubs everywhere. The Lady Gagas of the world and new sensations like Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard are ample proof that the ladies are now clearly as influential as the guys and have long since shunned the supporting role.
As Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin sang in an exuberant 1985 duet: “Now there was a time when they used to say that behind every great man, there had to be a great woman, but in these times of change, you know that’s no longer true, so we’re coming out of the kitchen, ’cause there’s something we forgot to say to you, Sisters are Doing it for Themselves, standing on their own two feet and ringing on their own bells…”
Lastly, an anomaly: You may have heard about a sturdy gang of Los Angeles session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew, the anonymous musicians whose substantial talents were employed in recording hundreds of Top Ten hits in the 1960s and 1970s for everyone from The Byrds and The Beach Boys to the Righteous Brothers and Simon and Garfunkel. Membership in the Wrecking Crew was all men…except for bassist Carol Kaye, easily the most recorded bass player in the history of recorded music. The bass line on “The Beat Goes On” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”? That’s hers.