April 1, 2020
To say that women have been influential in rock music is a gross understatement. Over the last century, women have been a driving force in some of the genre’s most iconic moments. These artists have fought against the tide, carving out space in a traditionally male-dominated industry. In this two-part series, we are going to look back at some of rock music’s most legendary women, and how each one of them defined the genre in their own unique way.
When we think of rock n’ roll’s earliest pioneers, artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley often come to mind. While these men had a profound impact on the genre, they were influenced significantly by female blues singers such as Bessie Smith and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Named by NPR as ‘the first African-American superstar’, Smith’s emotional and vocal gravitas gave a voice to a maligned population in the 1920s and 1930s. In songs such as ‘Downhearted Blues’, Smith sings about women who persisted through heartbreak and mistreatment. Released in 1923, ‘Downhearted Blues’ sold 800,000 copies in the first six months of release. This was a landmark achievement for any artist at the time – let alone a black female singer. Smith’s spirit would live on in women such as Janis Joplin, who said that Smith ‘showed [her] the air and how to fill it.’
Smith undoubtedly inspired countless rock singers. However, one of her peers is widely credited as one of the first pioneers of rock n’ roll – Sister Rosetta Tharpe. A vocalist, songwriter, and master of the electric guitar, Tharpe combined spiritual lyrics, gospel vocals, and a fervent blues rhythm. Little Richard would cite Tharpe as his biggest musical inspiration, and Chuck Berry once even described his career as “one long Sister Rosetta Tharpe impersonation”.
Tharpe and Smith formed two parts of a holy trinity of female blues-rock. The third spot undoubtedly belonged to Big Mama Thornton. Known for her rapturous vocals and commanding stage presence, Thornton rode the surging wave of blues music in the late 1940s. One of her most recognized songs, ‘Hound Dog’ showcased Thornton’s signature growl and sensual lyrics such as ‘aw, you make me feel good. Now wag your tail.’ Thornton’s 1932 recording was received well, both critically and commercially. However, the song is best known as a cover by Elvis Presley, which achieved stratospheric success.
It would be decades until Bessie Smith and Sister Rosetta Tharpe were inducted into the prestigious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in 1989 and 2017 respectively). The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame also considers Big Mama Thornton’s version of ‘Hound Dog’ as one the ‘500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.’ Years before they were held in such esteem, these women influenced a new generation of female rock stars in the 1960s.
The 1960s is often remembered for its ‘free love’ ethos. However, it was also a time of insurrection both politically and culturally. Musicians were at the helm of the countercultural movement, which formed in part in resistance to the Vietnam War. If these musicians were fighters, then their battle was ‘three days of peace and love’ – otherwise known as Woodstock.
Taking place in 1969, Woodstock’s bill included some of the decade’s most celebrated musicians. Out of 32 acts, three were female solo artists, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, and Melanie. These women were joined by two female-fronted bands, Sweetwater and Jefferson Airplane. There wasn’t an equal ratio of women to men on Woodstock’s bill. However, in a decade that marked the birth of the women’s liberation movement, the festival helped these artists make an indelible mark on the history of popular music.
Woodstock was a landmark moment in the reign of ‘psychedelic rock’ in the 1960s. Musicians and fans alike were inspired to embrace a life of freewheeling hedonism, as a response to the rigid conservatism of the 1950s. In particular, women sought to define themselves as existing beyond the roles of housewives or mothers. These women had a leader in the form of Grace Slick, ‘Queen of Psych-Rock’ and the frontwoman of Jefferson Airplane. In later years, Slick told the Wall Street Journal that she ‘went from the planned, bland ’50s to the world of being in a rock band without looking back.”
While Slick was the creative force behind countless records, she will be most remembered for ‘White Rabbit’, a musical ode to psychedelia. Founding member of Jefferson Airplane, Marty Balin described the song as “timely for the era…[t]he myth, the idea, the acid.” Aside from the obvious references to LSD, the song directly prompted listeners to liberate both their minds and bodies. The lyrics ‘feed your head’ espouse the importance of education, albeit in a somewhat abstract fashion.
Grace Slick would write about the new role of women in the 1960s, saying ‘we all took every advantage of the new freedoms, and it was reflected in the music.’ In particular, she cites the music of Janis Joplin as formative for a new generation of women. Grace described Joplin as having “no trouble sliding from the apron-clad fifties into the no bra sixties.”
Joplin had sung previously in church and was inspired by her musical predecessors Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton. One of her best-known songs, ‘Ball and Chain’, was originally released by Thornton in 1968. Originally, she had intended to follow in the footsteps of Joan Baez as a folk musician. However, with her guttural howling vocals and freewheeling charisma, she was soon dubbed ‘the first queen of rock n’ roll.’
In her short life (she would gain a macabre legacy as part of the ‘27 Club’), Joplin recorded some of the decade’s best-known songs. This included songs as both as the frontwoman of Big Brother and the Holding Company and as a solo artist. Notable examples include ‘Piece of My Heart’, ‘Try (Just a Little Bit Harder) and ‘Me and Bobby McGee.’ The latter song was penned by Kris Kristofferson and served as a love letter to freedom and the open road. Joplin’s only number one hit, and released posthumously, ‘Me and Bobby McGhee’ was ranked 151st by Rolling Stone on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
After seeing Janis Joplin perform in concert, one fledgling singer said ‘when she left the stage I knew that a little bit of my destiny had changed.’ This new destiny included opening for both Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix in the late 1960s, as the lead singer of the band Fritz. It then culminated in joining one of rock music’s most celebrated bands in 1974. This band was called Fleetwood Mac, and their groundbreaking new singer was named Stevie Nicks.
Before joining Fleetwood Mac, Nicks enjoyed varying degrees of success both as a frontwoman and as part of a duo with her lover Lindsay Buckingham. The two even released an eponymous album in 1973 under Polydor but were soon dropped due to low sales.
The lineup of Fleetwood Mac seemed constantly in flux in the 1970s, and their addition to the band may have been considered temporary at the start. However, Nicks’ distinct vibrato, enchanting charisma, and songwriting talent helped catapult Fleetwood Mac to worldwide recognition. Following their disbandment in 1978, Nicks then launched a solo career. Her debut album Bella Donna, released in 1981, would go on to sell over 4 million copies in the US alone. This album spawned a number of chart hits, from the iconic ‘Edge of Seventeen’ to her duet with Tom Petty ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.’
Nicks is known for her ethereal stage presence, most notably her shawl-clad twirling. Her poetic lyrics also often allude to the spiritual, whether it be references to ‘crystal visions’ or gypsies ‘lighting up the night.’ With songs such as ‘Gypsy’, ‘Rhiannon’, and of course ‘Gold Dust Woman’, Nick’s music is permeated by a divine sense of womanhood. Her friend and collaborator Vanessa Carlton stated that Nicks ‘understands how much power there is in the feminine.’
There are numerous ways in which Nicks has been recognised as a trailblazer for women in rock music. She’s been cited as an inspiration for artists ranging from The Dixie Chicks and Sheryl Crow to Courtney Love. She was also the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, first as part of Fleetwood Mac and then as a solo artist.
In the next part of our series, we pay homage to legendary women in rock from the 1980s to the present day. Are you looking to follow in the footsteps of Janis, Stevie or Sister Rosetta Tharpe? Help define the next generation of musical talent, by recording your next album at Kore Studios. Contact our team today to book a session in our London studio.