Sisters are doing it for themselves

Revived (and slightly revised) from a column originally posted here in May 2015

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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?

Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders

It’s curious, and more than a little maddening, to look back now and see what a boys club it was then, from the singer and drummer to 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 to supporting roles as mere background vocalists, even though sometimes it was the women who possessed the star power, the pipes, or the songwriting talent — or all three — that everyone loved.

Etta James

Thankfully, there were those willing and able 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.

Ronnie Spector (left) and The Ronettes

Most of the songs these female artists were singing during that period were about love and heartbreak, but it’s interesting to note that as early as 1964, one of the biggest hits of that period was Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” with lyrics that openly and proudly rebelled against male domination.

Lesley Gore

Not to be denied were the female artists singing more middle-of-the-road fare, Broadway show tunes and more traditional pop ballads. Barbra Streisand, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield and others played it pretty safe, but they dabbled in rock and roll and were every bit as successful on the charts as their male counterparts of that era.

Sonny and Cher

For a time, co-ed groups were in vogue, with Peter, Paul and Mary, Sonny and Cher, The Mamas and Papas, Ike & Tina Turner and The 5th Dimension 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 afterwards. Tina Turner, in particular, cast off her ex-husband’s shackles and became a deserving superstar, and Cher ended up setting records for longevity, with Top Ten hits in six different decades.

Tina Turner

But rock music, as played by rock and roll bands, was 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 Rolling 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.”  

Grace Slick

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.”

Janis Joplin

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 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…”

Cindy Birdsong, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross of The Supremes

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.

Joni Mitchell

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.

Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart

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.

Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac

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 would dare question the right of any woman to play any role or any instrument she can in any band that she wants.

Joan Jett

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 Gwen Stefani, from Christina Aguilera to Brandi Carlile, 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. Lady Gaga 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.

Tracy Chapman

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…”

Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox

Lastly, an anomaly:  You have read here numerous times about the 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 ubiquitous bass player in the history of recorded music.  That immediately identifiable bass line on “The Beat Goes On” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”?  That’s hers.

Carol Kaye, bassist with The Wrecking Crew

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If I could only find the words

In the early years of rock and roll, female singers, musicians and songwriters were the exception. Men dominated the picture, just like in most professions at the time.

By the Seventies, it was a new dawn, and women made big inroads into the charts as singers and songwriters, and as musicians as well. By the Eighties, they weren’t just acoustic, they were electric, fronting full rock bands. That progress has continued into the ’90s and beyond.

In honor of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and in honor of talented women everywhere, this edition of “Hack’s Back Pages Lyrics Quiz” centers around lyrics from songs written and/or performed by female artists of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Many of the 20 songs selected make reference to the ongoing battle for women’s rights.

Can you identify the song and/or the artist? Jot down your answers, and then scroll down to see the answers and find if your memory bank still serves you. Feel free to let me know how well you did in the comment section, or via email (bhhack55@gmail.com). Enjoy!

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1 “When my soul was in the lost and found, /You came along to claim it…”

2 “Lovers forever, face to face, /My city, your mountains, stay with me, stay…”

3 “We love our lovin’, but not like we love our freedom…”

4 “I’ve packed my bags, I’ve cleaned the floor, /Watch me walkin’, walkin’ out the door…”

5 “Still, I’m glad for what we had, and how I once loved you…”

6 “Well you’re the real tough cookie with the long history of breaking little hearts like the one in me…”

7 “But every night, all the men would come around, /And lay their money down…”

8 “My pretty countryside had been paved down the middle by a government that had no pride…”

9 “Prove that you love me and buy the next round, /Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town?…”

10 “But I rehearsed those words just late last night /When I was thinking about how right tonight might be…”

11 “Coast to coast, L.A. to Chicago, western male, /Across the north, and south to Key Largo, love for sale…”

12 “And don’t tell me what to do, /Don’t tell me what to say, /And please, when I go out with you, don’t put me on display…”

13 “I never did believe in miracles, /But I’ve a feeling it’s time to try…”

14 “Go on now, go, walk out the door, /Just turn around now ’cause you’re not welcome anymore…”

15 “When the truth is found to be lies, /And all the joy within you dies…”

16 “They just use your mind and they never give you credit, /It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it…”

17 “A friend who taught me right from wrong, and weak from strong, /That’s a lot to learn…”

18 “Go on, get out, get out of my life, and let me sleep at night…”

19 “And you won’t need no camel, no no, when I take you for a ride..”

20 “You keep playing where you shouldn’t be playing, /And you keep thinking that you’ll never get burned, hah!…”

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Answers:

1 “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” Aretha Franklin, 1967

Songwriter extraordinaire Carole King wrote this women’s anthem and eventually recorded her own version, but it was the late great Aretha, the Queen of Soul, who made the song a hit, reaching #8, her fourth of five Top Ten hits in 1967. She had been stuck doing torch songs and show tunes on Columbia, but once she switched to Atlantic, the R&B hits came fast and furiously.

2 “Leather and Lace,” Stevie Nicks, 1981

After six years with Fleetwood Mac, helping to transform the former British blues band into a pop music sensation, Nicks took the solo plunge in 1981 with her “Bella Donna” album. It sold many millions, thanks to “Edge of Seventeen,” “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and this charming duet with Don Henley that reached #6 on the charts. The twosome had an affair, but they weren’t “lovers forever, face to face”

3 “Help Me,” Joni Mitchell, 1974

Generally regarded as the finest female songwriter of her generation, and one of the finest songwriters, period, Mitchell has always been more interested in her artistry than fame and fortune. Consequently, many of her albums and singles charted modestly or poorly despite their high quality. This breezy single from the brilliant “Court and Spark” LP was her only Top Ten hit.

4 “Would I Lie to You?”, Eurythmics (Annie Lennox), 1985

Lennox and partner Dave Stewart formed the Eurythmics as a techno-pop duo but eventually evolved in a more rock/R&B direction. This hard-driving rock tune was a Top Five single for them in the U.S., one of three in 1985 from the album “Be Yourself Tonight.” Lennox sings about catching her man cheating and leaving him for good, which ties in nicely with her duet with Aretha Franklin, “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves.”

5 “It’s Too Late,” Carole King, 1971

After a brilliant career in the Sixties as a songwriting duo with her husband Gerry Goffin in New York, King divorced and moved to L.A. in 1970, where she teamed up with Toni Stern to write most of her iconic “Tapestry” album. “I Feel the Earth Move” and “So Far Away” were also hits, and her own version of “You’ve Got a Friend” got airplay, but this song about an amicable breakup topped the charts for five weeks in June-July 1971.

6 “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” Pat Benatar, 1981

Benatar wasn’t the first woman to front her own rock band, but she was one of the best early successes. She came out of Brooklyn to take the country by storm in 1980 with her second LP, “Crimes of Passion,” which included the Top Ten hit “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” According to the songwriter, Eddie Schwartz, the song title is meant to be metaphorical rather than literal.

7 “Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves,” Cher, 1971

A Sixties icon as part of Sonny and Cher, she weathered a fallow period before working with producer Snuffy Garrett to record her first solo #1 single “Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves,” with lyrics that covered adult topics like racism, teenage pregnancy and prostitution. Cher has gone on to become the only artist, male or female, to chart a #1 single in six consecutive decades.

8 “My City Was Gone,” The Pretenders (Chrissie Hynde), 1984

A product of Akron, Ohio, Hynde moved to London in the mid-’70s and embraced both punk and New Wave genres. She formed The Pretenders there and began a career as one of the most badass female rockers of all time, writing hard rock and melodic tunes alike. On their third LP, “Learning to Crawl,” you’ll find “My City Was Gone,” an autobiographical song she wrote upon her return visit to Akron after years away.

9 “Mercedes Benz,” Janis Joplin, 1971

Janis came to the forefront at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 when she was singing with Big Brother and the Holding Company. By 1970 she was touring with The Full-Tilt Boogie Band, and recording her third album, “Pearl,” which included Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” her only #1 hit. The a cappella throwaway, “Mercedes Benz,” a spoof on consumerism, would be the last track she ever recorded.

10 “Anticipation,” Carly Simon, 1971

For the longest time, I couldn’t hear this song without thinking of the Heinz ketchup TV commercials that used it. It was Carly’s second big hit, with lyrics she wrote about the excitement she felt as she waited for her date to arrive (who happened to be Cat Stevens that night!). The song reached #13 and was the second of ten Top 20 hits she charted throughout the 1970s, most of which she wrote or co-wrote.

11 “Smooth Operator,” Sade, 1984

Born in Nigeria and raised in England, Sade seemed to come out of nowhere in 1984-85 with her single, “Smooth Operator,” from the album “Diamond Life.” She wrote the lyrics about a fashionable ladies’ man who is actually a devious, jet-setting criminal. Every studio album she has ever released reached the Top Ten in the U.S. and also did well throughout Europe, the UK, Canada and Australia.

12 “You Don’t Own Me,” Lesley Gore, 1964

This early feminist anthem spent three weeks lodged at #2 on the US charts in early 1964, kept from the top spot by The Beatles’ US debut single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Gore had been only 16 when “It’s My Party” had been a chart-topper, and by the time she was 19, she chose to give her career a rest and attend college, a bold move in the finicky world of pop music. Gore died in 2015 at age 68.

13 “You Make Loving Fun,” Fleetwood Mac (Christine McVie), 1977

When Fleetwood Mac was making the multi-platinum “Rumours” LP, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham were breaking up, as were Mick Fleetwood and his wife Jenny. John and Christine McVie had just recently divorced, and Christine was already writing songs like “You Make Loving Fun” about her new boyfriend, the band’s lighting director. McVie’s songs have often been the band’s biggest singles, including “You Make Loving Fun” at #9.

14 “I Will Survive,” Gloria Gaynor, 1979

Although it was written by two men, “I Will Survive” came to represent the women’s movement during its battles for equality in the late ’70s and ’80s. It was actually released as the B-side of Gaynor’s single, but disc jockeys discovered it and played it relentlessly, turning it into a #1 song. Unfortunately, Gaynor’s success was short-lived, as the disco era was ending, but you can still hear the song in karaoke bars every night.

15 “Somebody to Love,” Jefferson Airplane (Grace Slick), 1967

The San Francisco Sound, as it came to be known, included, most famously, Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead. The Airplane had multiple vocalists but founder Marty Balin and especially Grace Slick were at the forefront. On songs like “Somebody to Love,” written by Slick’s brother-in-law, her powerful voice rings out above a solid rock tune about our universal need for love.

16 “9 to 5,” Dolly Parton, 1980

Parton had worked long and hard making a career for herself as a country singer, including one successful foray into the pop charts, “Here You Come Again” in 1977. In 1980, she was tapped to co-star in the working women comedy film “9 to 5,” and she wrote and sang the title song as well, which became a huge #1 hit on pop charts. Parton has established herself as a trailblazer for education and women’s rights in the years since.

17 “To Sir With Love,” Lulu, 1967

Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie, better known as Lulu, enjoyed a successful career as a singer and an actress in her native Great Britain, but in the U.S., her fame is mostly limited to her work on the Sidney Poitier film “To Sir With Love.” In addition to playing a part as a high school student, she sang the title tune, which rocketed to #1 and was the best-selling song of the year in the U.S. in 1967.

18 “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” The Supremes (Diana Ross), 1966

This Motown track by the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting/producing team is one of the best of The Supremes’ catalog, and rivals “Respect” as a song about women needing to rid themselves of the problematic men in their lives. As always, Diana Ross sang lead vocals, and within a year, she would have lead billing as well, which translated into a huge solo career a few years after that.

19 “Midnight at the Oasis,” Maria Muldaur, 1974

In the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early ’60s, Maria D’Amato was a regular, and sang with a jug band that included her eventual husband Geoff Muldaur. By 1972, she was on her own and recorded her first solo LP, which included “Midnight at the Oasis,” the track many fans have told her was responsible for their pregnancies because of the slyly suggestive lyrics about a love affair in the desert.

20 “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” Nancy Sinatra, 1966

Frank’s daughter surely had connections to score a record deal, but her biggest hit came from her friendship with country/pop singer Lee Hazlewood. He wanted to record his song himself, but Nancy convinced him it would be less harsh coming from a woman. “Boots” became her signature song, and took on a new life as a song about women fighting back against male oppression.

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