Sisters are doing it for themselves

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


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


I see you in the morning when you go to school

There’s a weird thing that happens to celebrities when they become famous. They become known nationally or internationally at the moment when fame arrives, and the public has a hard time imagining what these people looked like, or that they even existed, before that point.

Of course, everyone has a childhood. Somewhere, in family photo albums, there is photographic proof of it.

Last year, I stumbled across an article on line that included several photos of rock stars when they were children. I was able to identify a few without looking, but others bore little resemblance to the famous people they would later become.

A few months ago, I assembled a blog with 25 photos of rock stars when they were young, and encouraged readers to see how many they could correctly identify. It got such a positive reaction that I’ve returned to the well for another batch. Here are 20 photos of rock stars in their youth. Jot down your best guesses as to who you think they are, and then scroll down to see how well you did. There’s also a few lines about their early lives and how they ended up becoming famous.





































1 Cat Stevens

Born Steven Demetre Georgiou in 1948 to a Swedish mother and Greek father, and now known as Yusuf Islam, this talented singer-songwriter was the youngest of three children. He was raised in the Soho theater district of London, although following his parents’ divorce, he lived in Sweden with his mother for most of his primary school years. His commercial peak came in 1970-1975 with the albums “Tea For the Tillerman,” “Teaser and the Firecat,” “Catch Bull at Four,” “Foreigner” and “Buddha and the Chocolate Box.”

2 Prince

Born Prince Rogers Nelson in 1958 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to a jazz-singer mother and songwriter father, Prince (along with his younger sister) showed a keen interest in music from an early age. He played sports in high school but his passion was music and dance. He learned piano and guitar and began writing songs in his teens, playing in bands and ultimately being signed to Warner, who released his first LP when he was 20. He became one of the most iconic artists in rock music before his death in 2016 at age 57.

3 Madonna

Born Madonna Louise Ciccone in 1958 to a French-Canadian mother and Italian father, Madonna was raised in Bay City, Michigan, with her five siblings, attending Catholic schools there. She became accomplished in ballet and dance and moved to New York at 20 to pursue a career in dance, but also began singing in bands. By 1983, she released her debut LP and by 1985, she was a major star, beginning a chameleon-like career as a pop culture icon.

4 Elton John

Reginald Kenneth Dwight, born in 1947 in Middlesex, England, was reborn as Elton John in 1967, combining the names of two members of his first band, Bluesology (Elton Dean and Long John Baldry). He learned classical piano at age six and was hooked on rock and roll from his mother’s record collection. He got gigs in pubs at age 16 and teamed up with lyricist Bernie Taupin at age 20, ultimately getting a record contract at 22. He mimicked his flamboyant idol, the late Little Richard, in his stage shows.

5 Johnny Cash

Cash’s parents couldn’t agree whether ok call their son John or Ray, so they settled on J.R. Cash when he was born in 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas. His family was poor, and Cash’s humble upbringing informed his empathy for the working class which pervaded many of the songs he wrote. He learned guitar at age 12 and had a high-tenor voice which switched to low-baritone when his voice changed. By age 24, Cash was on the country charts with “I Walk the Line” and became one of the biggest stars of his generation.

6 Iggy Pop

James Newell Osterberg Jr., born in 1947 in Muskegon, Michigan, was the only child of loving parents who bought him a drum set and encouraged his interest in music. At age 18, he joined The Psychedelic Stooges, who gave him the name Iggy from having played in another band called The Iguanas. Inspired by the confrontational stage antics of Jim Morrison, Iggy became a shock-rocker and befriended David Bowie. Although he was never a commercial success, Iggy has been praised by critics and his fervent fan base.

7 Paul McCartney

James Paul McCartney, born in 1942 in Liverpool, England, was surrounded by musical influences from a young age. His father Jim played trumpet and gave his son one, but Paul traded it in for a guitar. He learned piano by ear and sang in a church choir. As a lefty, he struggled to play guitar right-handed, instead restringing his guitar to play it left-handed. He began writing songs once he met John Lennon and joined him in forming The Beatles. He is perhaps the most successful musician of the past half-century.

8 Jimmy Page

James Patrick Page, born in 1944 in London, found a Spanish guitar at age 12 and taught himself how to play by listening to records. He dropped out of school at 15, playing in various bands and hanging around recording studios and clubs, networking with artists and producers alike. At only 20, he became a sought-after session guitarist, playing on many hit records by British artists. He later joined The Yardbirds and eventually formed Led Zeppelin, becoming an international guitar hero.

9 Sting

Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, born in 1951 in Northumberland, England, was the eldest of four children. He learned Spanish guitar in high school and, after stints as a bus conductor, tax officer and a teacher, began playing in jazz combos. Because of the black and yellow sweatshirt he often wore, his mates nicknamed him Sting. At age 26, he moved to London and formed The Police with drummer Stewart Copeland and, seven years later, began a successful solo career that is still keeping him busy.

10 David Gilmour

David Jon Gilmour, born in 1946 in Cambridge, England, taught himself to play guitar using a Pete Seeger songbook. At age 11, he met Syd Barrett and Roger Waters at a private boys school, and eventually spent a summer busking with Barrett in France and Spain. Gilmour worked in numerous bands before being asked in 1968 to join Pink Floyd because his friend Barrett was deteriorating due to drug abuse. He became the band’s guitarist and lead singer throughout their 1970s heyday and into the ’80s and ’90s.

11 Carlos Santana

Carlos Humberto Santana, born in 1947 in Jalisco, Mexico, was the oldest of two sons in a family that moved to Tijuana and then San Francisco in the late 1950s. He learned violin at age five and guitar at age eight, and was influenced by blues players like B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, and Gabor Szabo’s jazz guitar stylings. He formed his own band in 1966 and was a featured act at Woodstock in 1969. There are 25 Santana albums and seven Carlos solo LPs in his lengthy discography.

12 Phil Collins

Philip David Charles Collins was born in 1951 in London, the youngest of three children who all prospered in the arts. Phil was given his first drum kit at age five and relentlessly played along to music on TV, radio and records. He dabbled in acting on stage and in films throughout his teen years but returned to music in 1968. He earned a spot as drummer for Genesis in 1970 at age 19 and, upon the departure of frontman Peter Gabriel, became their lead singer. Concurrently, Collins enjoyed a hot solo career as well.

13 George Harrison

Born in 1943 in Liverpool, England, Harrison was the youngest of four children, with a mother who encouraged his love of making music. Even before acquiring his first guitar, he was obsessed with the instrument, listening constantly to everyone from Django Reinhardt to Carl Perkins. At the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys, he met Paul McCartney, and was eventually invited to join The Beatles as lead guitarist during their formative years. He blossomed as a songwriter and as a solo artist in the 1970s.

14 Paul Simon

Paul Frederic Simon was born in 1941 in Newark, New Jersey, and raised in Queens, New York. His father was a bass player and dance bandleader. He met Art Garfunkel in middle school, and the duo sang and performed in the style of the Everly Brothers, even scoring a minor hit while still in high school. He began writing songs, and eventually he and Garfunkel became international stars in the late ’60s. Simon went on to a hugely successful solo career and is regarded as one of the best songwriters in pop music.

15 Cher

Cherilyn Sarkisian, born in 1946 in El Centro, California, to parents of Armenian and German-Cherokee ancestry. As early as fifth grade, she showed a flair for theater arts. Inspired by flamboyant actresses, she took to wearing attention-getting outfits and set her sights on being a famous singer-dancer. She met Sonny Bono and Phil Spector at age 16 and sang vocals on numerous records. Stardom came as the duo Sonny & Cher, and then as a solo artist in career that has now lasted six decades.

16 Billy Joel

William Martin Joel, born in 1949 in the Bronx, New York, and raised in Oyster Bay, Long Island, was the oldest of two kids. His father Howard was a classical pianist and successful businessman. Joel took piano lessons only reluctantly, and took to boxing for several years. He ultimately resumed music, playing at piano bars and in various bands and as a session pianist. His original songs helped him get signed by Columbia, where he became one of the most successful recording/performing artists of the 1970s and 1980s.

17 Davy Jones

David Thomas Jones was born in 1945 in Manchester, England, the oldest of four children. His short stature made him a natural as a jockey, which he tried but he liked acting more, winning the part of Artful Dodger in “Oliver!” on the London stage. He was signed to a TV acting contract in Hollywood and soon found himself cast as one of The Monkees, hugely popular as a TV comedy and as a pop group. Jones continued acting occasionally and participating in Monkees reunion tours until his death in 2012 at age 66.

18 Kurt Cobain

Kurt Donald Cobain was born in 1967 in Aberdeen, Washington, to a waitress and auto mechanic. His aunt and uncle both played guitar and performed in bands, and encouraged Cobain, who sang and learned piano at a young age, trying to write songs before he had reached age seven. His parents’ divorce when he was nine made him turn inward, writing music and playing guitar incessantly. His band, Nirvana, was the cream of the Seattle grunge rock scene, but depression cut his life short at age 27 in 1994.

19 Steven Tyler

Steven Victor Tallarico, born in 1948 in Manhattan, had a father who played classical piano and was a high school music teacher. Steven liked singing and became vocalist for several bands, adopting the name Steven Tally, then Tyler later on. In 1969, one of his early songwriting attempts was “Dream On,” which became a signature hit of his band Aerosmith five years later. Tyler and Aerosmith endured peaks and valleys and have sold upwards of 70 million albums.

20 Robert Plant

Robert Anthony Plant, born in 1948 in Staffordshire, England, to a working-class family. From a young age, Plant idolized Elvis Presley and wanted nothing more than to be a rock and roll singer. He had a deep passion for blues music, learning to sing along to records by Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon and Skip James. He joined Band of Joy, and was discovered by Jimmy Page, who was looking for a singer for Led Zeppelin. With that band, and in a solo career since 1982, he is regarded as one of the best vocalists in rock history.