You could say rock music – Rock & Roll – was created in the 1950s. And you wouldn’t be incorrect. You might be confronted with a lot of opinions equipped with varying timelines. But still, you’re not wrong. The average person when thinking about rock & roll would draw distinct inspiration from pioneers like Chuck Berry, Elvis and Ray Charles (yes, Ray Charles). And they also wouldn’t be wrong. Music from 50+ years ago, specifically rock music, has always been talked about from a male-driven perspective. The music industry was heavily dominated by men; for a woman to infiltrate it from any angle was an ordeal in and of itself.
Though it brings me an abundance of joy to celebrate up-and-coming female musicians, I would be remiss to not pay homage to but a handful of female pioneers who paved the way for not only musicians but executives, managers, stage hands, tech people, photographers and writers who came before them.
A name worth knowing is Ellen Willis. Willis’ rise to fame came after writing about a man. The man, Bob Dylan. Willis was the first person (male or female) to write a pop music column at The New Yorker and she was good. She was hired in 1968 during the height of the rock music print journalism era. In 2018 it’s difficult to grasp the power that a person would hold in the late 60s, early 70s writing for a print magazine. Willis was writing for, undoubtedly, the largest audience made up of music listeners and casual readers. Using her words, insight and music journalistic prowess, she wielded language in a way that was rare for a woman at that time. Ellen Willis was an extraordinary writer, journalist, thinker and woman who will go down in history as being one of the early greats to shatter that glass ceiling. But, she is only one of the seldom sung heroines of rock music.
“Rock is, among other things, a potent means of expressing the active emotions – anger, aggression, lust, the joy of physical exertion – that feed all freedom movements, and it is no accident that women musicians have been denied access to this powerful musical language. I think it’s crucially important for female performers to break that barrier and force rock to reflect their experience and aspirations.” (Ellen Willis, Women’s Music, 1974)
The following is a brief list of powerful women worth celebrating this Women’s History Month (and every month after).
01. The Feminine Complex (Nashville, Tennessee, USA)
Genres: Garage Rock, Psychedelic Rock
– If it weren’t for the internet, I would assume that I’d dreamt up The Feminine Complex as a teen in search of meaning. The Feminine Complex are obviously not a household name. They were formed in Nashville, Tennessee in 1968 as sophomores in high school. Everything you will read about this group leads you to believe that they were juvenile and clearly not ready for the music industry, as their band-ship disintegrated after the release of their debut record Livin’ Love, just in time for the school year to start. When you hear their sound, though, it is hard to believe that these young women weren’t just trolling the world as actual seasoned musicians.
The quintet, with a distinguishable garage rock sound, infused it with doop-wop, R&B and psych rock influence. It was a smattering of genres that melted together in perfection. Lyrically the subject matter was that of diary entries, well-disguised as emotion-evoking ballads and instrumentals. The Feminine Complex were the kind of music perfection that you didn’t find in a bunch of teens who are semi-serious about music. These women are an example of musicians who didn’t give a fuck; their interest was only in creating excellent music, and growing up in between sets.
Hear The Feminine Complex song “I’ve Been Working On You”.
– I know; who is Fanny? Was it bad PR, subsequent marketing by their label? Whatever the case, for whatever reason, here is a powerhouse of a rock/hard rock group that is consistently skipped over in music history. Fanny is another all-female group that found fame at a young age, but under the name Wild Honey and comprised a different sound. It’s presumed that they were encompassing a sound that was expected of a female rock band at the time. It wasn’t until after they had been signed to a label and changed their name that they started to play the harder rock music that brought them earned music status. For a group that landed a Billboard Top 40 song, and worked with notable names like Joe Cocker, Sade, and Jethro Tull, it would be assumed that they would have been bigger than they were. Long-haired, guitar ripping maniacs, Fanny – though somewhat short lived – should be a band that remains on every rock music fan’s radar.
Hear the Fanny song “Borrowed Time” here.
– What kind of shout-outs would these be without including the original Queen Bee, Grace Slick. The year was 1969 and somehow all of the greats across the land had gathered to play to a muddy mess of obsessive music lovers in a particularly boring part of New York; Woodstock. What is the importance of this date in respect to Grace Slick? Besides the fact that you also may have re-watched the iconic 60s festival on tape in the 90s or early aughts years later, also thinking to yourself “I want to grow up to be Grace Slick”, at this point Grace Slick was the distinct leader of Jefferson Airplane. She had been for a few years prior, and this performance solidified, to the rest of the world, how much of a force she was. Slick was not an original member of Jefferson Airplane. Like all of her music pursuits, she was the dominant energy that brought them their sought out success. Slick has uniformly exemplified what it should mean to be a woman in rock music. She balances femininity with authority and confidence in her talent. Grace Slick is a damn badass!
Hear the Jefferson Airplane single “White Rabbit” here.
– A one-of-a-kind, who helped pave the path of liberation is Janis Joplin. She has been coined on countless occasions as being one of the greatest American rock performers of all time. Not American female rock performers, rock performers. And, rightly so. Joplin has worked with many (backing) bands, but she had always followed her own path, becoming a star on her own terms. Joplin found ways of displaying a female perspective within rock music; her opinions were rampant. This included claiming her sexuality, on and off the stage. Though she played Woodstock, it was a couple years earlier at the Monterey Pop Festival, which she performed with then band Big Brother & the Holding Company, that she left the world stupefied. Her very distinct style combining psychedelic rock, blues, rock and even some folk rock, accompanied by a raspy snarl that seemed to know no bounds, inhibited, was something especially unique. Janis Joplin is something special.
Hear Janis Joplin’s song “Piece of My Heart” here.
– Billie Holiday may not be classified as a rock musician, but without her contributions to music by way of jazz, many female rock performers would not have gotten their start. Also, she rocks – in the other non-traditional sense of the word. The thought of not paying tribute to this exemplary woman would be nothing short of insane. To say that Holiday was one of the most influential jazz singers (and songwriters) in history would not even cover her mastery. Overcoming a tumultuous past and getting her start at 18 with zero training, Holiday changed the jazz scene forever. She made history in many ways, one of which being the first black woman to tour with an all-white, male band. This was at a time where she was literally risking her life in parts of America to perform. Her very distinct style of singing and attention to detail helped her to inadvertently create a new standard of jazz music. Holiday had an understanding of composition, timing, range that seemed impossible for someone who, as mentioned, had no training. Billie Holiday is a legend whose music, in part, transcended segregation, racism, sexism. When Billie Holiday sang, there was only music.
Hear Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” here.
*Be sure to also check out:
– Women of Rock: FREEDOM FRY’s Marie Seyrat Lists Her TOP 5 Female Artists You Need to Hear (Part 7)
– Women of Rock: 5 Female Groups You Need to Hear Right Now! (Part 6)
– Women of Rock: TETRARCH Guitarist Diamond Rowe Lists Her TOP 5 Female Groups You Need to Hear (Part 5)
– Women of Rock: 5 Female Groups You Need to Hear Right Now! (Part 4)
– Women of Rock: Hedvig Mollestad’s 5 Female Groups You Need to Hear Right Now! (Part 3)
– Women of Rock: 5 Female Groups You Need to Hear Right Now! (Part 2)
– Women of Rock: 5 Female Groups You Need to Hear Right Now! (Part 1)