Ladies Shaking Up Music – Part 1

Celebrating female artists in blues, country, jazz, rock & roll, soul and pop

The idea behind this two-part post was inspired by fellow blogger Lisa, aka msjadeli, a talented poet who also likes great music. Throughout this month, she’s doing “Women Music March,” a series I’ve been enjoying. If you haven’t done so, I encourage you to check it out. While female artists aren’t a novelty in my blog, the closest I previously came to celebrate their music in a dedicated fashion were two posts on ladies singing the blues. You can find them here and here. Female talent certainly isn’t limited to the blues. This two-part post includes ten of the many female music artists I admire.

It’s also good timing to recognize female music artists in a dedicated way. March happens to be Women’s History Month, a celebration of contributions women have made and are making to society. Obviously, music is an important part of this, and some of the artists I feature were true trailblazers. Initially, I had planned to include all of my 10 selections in one post but quickly realized it made more sense to break things up. Here’s the first of two installments.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe who started playing the guitar as a four-year-old and began her recording career at age 23 in 1938 was a prominent gospel singer and an early pioneer of rock & roll. Playing the electric guitar, she was one of the first popular recording artists to use distortion. Her technique had a major influence on British guitarists like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Keith Richards. She also influenced many artists in the U.S., including Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, to name a few. After Elvis had seen her being backed by vocal quartet The Jordanaires, he decided to work with them as well. Tharpe has been called “the original soul sister” and “the godmother of rock & roll.” Unfortunately, her health declined prematurely and she passed away from a stroke in 1973 at the untimely age of 58. In May 2018, Tharpe was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence. Here’s Strange Things Happening Everyday, a traditional African American spiritual that became a hit for Tharpe in 1945. This recording is historic, as it’s considered to be one of the very first rock & roll songs. Tharpe’s remarkable guitar-playing, including her solos, distorted sound and bending of strings, is more pronounced on later tunes, but you can already hear some it here. This lady was a true early rock star and trailblazer!

Nina Simone

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tyron, N.C. in February 1933, Nina Simone was the sixth of eight children growing up in a poor family. She began playing the piano at the age of three or four. After finishing high school, she wanted to become a professional pianist, so she applied to Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. When they rejected her, she decided to take private lessons. In order to pay for them she started performing at a night club in Atlantic City, N.J. The club owner insisted that she also sing, which ended up launching her career as a jazz vocalist. In February 1959, Simone’s debut album Little Blue Girl appeared. It was the start of an active recording career that lasted for more than 30 years until 1993. Afterwards she lived in Southern France and died there in April 2003 at the age of 70. Here’s Ain’t Got No, I Got Life, a medley of the songs Ain’t Got No and I Got Life from the musical Hair, with lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, and music by Galt MacDermot. It appeared on Simone’s 1968 album ‘Nuff Said and became one of her biggest hits in Europe.

Aretha Franklin

“Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin, who was born in Memphis, Tenn. in March 1942, began singing as a child at a Baptist church in Detroit, Mich. where her father C.L. Franklin was a minister. The Reverend began managing his daughter when she was 12 years old. He also helped her obtain her first recording deal with J.V.B Records in 1956, which resulted in two gospel singles. After Franklin had turned 18, she told her father she wanted to pursue a secular music career and moved to New York. In 1960, she signed with Columbia Records, which in February 1961 released her debut studio album Aretha: With The Ray Bryant Combo. Thirty-seven additional studio recordings followed until October 2014. In 2017, she came out of semi-retirement for a planned short tour. I had a ticket to see her in Newark on March 25, 2018, her 76th birthday. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. A few months prior to the gig, it was announced Franklin’s doctor had put her on bed rest and that all remaining shows of the tour were canceled. In August 2018, Aretha Franklin died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 76. Here’s (Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone, a great soul tune co-written by Franklin and Ted White, her first husband and manager from 1961 until 1968. It was included on her 12th studio album Lady Soul released in January 1968.

Carole King

More frequent visitors of the blog know how much I admire Carole King. With the recent 50th anniversary of Tapestry, I’ve written extensively about her. Before releasing one of the greatest albums in pop history in 1971 at age 29, for more than 10 years, King wrote an impressive array of hits for many other artists, together with her lyricist and husband Gerry Goffin: Will You Still Love Me (The Shirelles), Take Good Care of My Baby (Bobby Vee), The Loco-Motion (Little Eva), One Fine Day (The Chiffons), I’m Into Somethin’ Good (Herman’s Hermits), Don’t Bring Me Down (The Animals), Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees) – the list of Goffin-King hits goes on and on. This songwriting duo helped shape ’60s music history. They were rightfully inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1987. King is also currently nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. While given her general modesty I imagine she doesn’t even care much about it, it’s just mind-boggling to me why this extraordinary artist wasn’t inducted decades ago! If you share my sentiments and like to do something about it, you can go to rockhall.com and participate in the fan vote. You can do so every day between now and April 30. King is currently trailing in sixth place. Only the first five will be included in the fan vote tally, so she definitely could need some support! To celebrate another true trailblazer in music, let’s get the ground shaking with I Feel the Earth Move from Tapestry!

Tina Turner

What can I say about Tina Turner? Where do I even begin? The Queen of Rock & Roll wasn’t only one of the most compelling live performers, as I had the privilege to witness myself on two occasions. She’s also one of the ultimate survivors. Her initial role as front woman of Ike & Tina Turner brought her great popularity but came at a terrible price. Physically and emotionally abusing your woman wasn’t cool, Ike, and will forever tarnish you. And look what happened after Tina walked out on you on July 1, 1976 with 36 cents and a Mobil credit card in her pocket. She launched a successful solo career, while you struggled. At the time Tina was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 as part of Ike & Tina Turner, you were in prison – ’nuff said! BTW, Turner is also among the 2021 nominees – this time as a solo artist. Currently in second place in the fan vote, she would certainly deserve a second induction. Here’s The Bitch Is Back from Turner’s first solo album Rough, released in September 1978 after her divorce from pathetic wife beater Ike Turner. It almost sounds like she was giving him the middle finger! Co-written by Bernie Taupin (lyrics) and Elton John (music), the tune first appeared on John’s eighth studio album Caribou from June 1974.

Stay tuned for Part II…

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Elton John/Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

While I became aware of Elton John more than 40 years ago and have listened to him on and off ever since (admittedly more off for the past three decades), I mostly know him based on specific songs. Except for John’s 1983 album Too Low for Zero, which I really dug at the time and still enjoy to this day, I haven’t explored his albums in greater detail. This occurred to me the other day when I put together a post on Elton John rockers.

I always had been more fond of John’s earlier songs, so perhaps not surprisingly, once I decided to further explore his albums, it made the most sense to me to start looking at his releases from the first half of the ’70s. From there, it didn’t take long to get to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and realize why it’s widely considered to be John’s best album.

By the time Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was released in October 1973, John had established himself as one of the most successful pop music artists of the ’70s. With predecessors Honky Château and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, he already had two internationally successful studio records under his belt that had generated hits like Rocket Man, perhaps my favorite Elton tune, Crocodile Rock and Daniel.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road gatefold

Appearing only nine months after Piano Player, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road came together during what arguably was the most productive period for John and his close partner in crime, lyricist Bernie Taupin. They had a total of 22 tracks, for which Taupin wrote the lyrics in just two and a half weeks while John composed most of the music in a whopping three days. Narrowing down the songs to 18 tracks still meant there were too many to fit on one LP. That’s why the album became a double LP, marking the first of John’s four such studio releases.

Inspired by The Rolling Stones’ Goats Head Soup, John wanted to record the album in Jamaica. Production there started in January 1973, but things became quickly hampered by technical challenges with the sound system and the studio piano, along with external distractions, including a professional box fight and political unrest. Work was speedily shifted to Studio d’enregistement Michel Magne at Château d’Hérouville located in the northwestern suburbs of Paris, France, where John had recorded his two previous above noted albums. The last-minute studio change apparently didn’t have a negative impact: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was recorded in just two weeks. Time for some music!

I’d like to kick things off with the magnificent opener Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding. The first part is an instrumental of music John felt he’d like to be played at his funeral – one wonders a bit in what state of mind he was! It’s followed by Love Lies Bleeding, which Songfacts describes as an angry song about a broken relationship. Had it not been fused together with Funeral, something producer Gus Dudgeon had come up with, I would have included Love Lies Bleeding in my previous post about great Elton John rockers. While due to the total length of over just 11 minutes the track initially wasn’t released as a single, it became a fan favorite and staple of John’s live set lists. It’s easy to understand why!

I could easily fill up the remaining post with just the hits the album generated: Saturday’s Night’s Alright for Fighting, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Bennie and the Jets and Candle in the Wind. The one I really cannot ignore is the title track, another contender for my all-time favorite Elton song. According to Songfacts, the yellow brick road is an image taken from the movie The Wizard of Oz, and it was rumored the ballad is about Judy Garland. But instead the song seems to be about Taupin. Songfacts: The lyrics are about giving up a life of opulence for one of simplicity in a rural setting. Elton has enjoyed a very extravagant lifestyle, while Taupin prefers to keep it low key.

Grey Seal initially was recorded for John’s eponymous sophomore studio album from April 1970, but the tune didn’t make the record. Songfacts notes Taupin has said that it’s one of the songs he wrote with lyrics he never really understood, but somehow work. As for Elton, the song is one of his favorites, as he loves the way the music matches up to the lyrics. In the tradition of “A Whiter Shade Of Pale,” the lyrics form a series of images that are open to translation. Elton called it “Procol Harum-ish absurd, like a Dali painting.” I love this tune and can easily see why it appealed so much to John.

Next up is Sweet Painted Lady, a deeper cut from the album. From Songfacts: Written in the style of the British composer Noël Coward, this song is about sailors back from the sea and the “sweet painted ladies” – prostitutes – waiting for them at harbor brothels.

Let’s do one more: Harmony, the album’s closer, and a track that had been considered as a single. But the timing was deemed too close to Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, the lead single to John’s follow-on album Caribou. Instead, Harmony became the B-side to the U.S. version of the Bennie and the Jets single. Songfacts notes the tune gained a fervent following, especially on the New York City radio station WOR, it won the “Battle of the Hits,” voted on by listeners, for 33 consecutive weeks.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road became Elton John’s best-selling studio album. In February 2014, it reached 8x Platinum certification in the U.S. In 2003, the album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It’s also included in Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In the most recent revision from September 2020, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road held up pretty well, coming in at no. 112, down from 91 in the corresponding lists for 2012 and 2003.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

My Playlist: Rockin’ Elton

Elton John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin primarily are known for great pop songs they wrote, especially during John’s most productive period during the first half of the ’70s. Your Song, Rocket Man, Daniel and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road are some that come to mind. Occasionally, they also came up with more rock-oriented tunes. I thought it would be fun to put together a playlist focused on the latter.

Rock and Roll Madonna

Rock and Roll Madonna was released as a non-album single in Britain in June 1970. It didn’t chart. Even though the beginning and the end sound like a live recording, the audience noise was added, a technique John would use again some four years later for Bennie and the Jets, one of his various chart toppers in the U.S. and Canada during the 70s. Rock and Roll Madonna featured Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover.

Crocodile Rock

Crocodile Rock first appeared in October 1972 as the lead single for John’s sixth studio album Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player from January 1973. The tune, which has a late ’50s and early ’60s flair, became John’s first no. 1 single in the U.S. In 1974, a lawsuit alleged John and Taupin had illegally copied the falsetto of Speedy Gonzalez, a song that been popularized by Pat Boone in 1962. The case was settled out of court.

Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting

Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting perhaps is my favorite rocker by Elton John. It appeared on the excellent Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, his seventh studio album from October 1973. It also was released separately in June that year as the lead single. The tune prominently features Scottish rock guitarist Davey Johnstone, a longtime collaborator who had become a full-time member of John’s band for his fifth studio album Honky Château released in May 1972.

The Bitch Is Back

Another nice rocker is The Bitch Is Back – sounds like it could be the title of Stones song. The tune was recorded for John’s eighth studio album Caribou from June 1974. It also became the record’s second single in August of the same year. Dusty Springfield sang backing vocals.

Pinball Wizard (Tommy soundtrack, March 1975)

Obviously, Pinball Wizard isn’t a John-Taupin song, but I just couldn’t leave it out. I almost like this excellent cover better than the original by The Who. When I heard John’s version for the first time, I thought this is how Pete Townshend should have written this rock gem instead of what feels like arbitrarily fading out the song at less than 3 minutes. John’s cover is part of the soundtrack for the 1975 film version of Tommy, in which he also starred, along with numerous other music artists like Eric Clapton, Tina Turner and the members of The Who.

(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket

Two months after the film version of Tommy had been released, John’s ninth studio album Captain Fantastic and the Dirt Brown Cowboy appeared in May 1975. It features (Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket, another great rock tune.

Grow Some Funk of Your Own

The ’70s were a very productive period for John, especially the first half, during which he released nine albums. Rock of the Westies was John’s second studio record in 1975, which appeared in October that year, only five months after Captain Fantastic and the Dirt Brown Cowboy. Here’s Grow Some Funk of Your Own, for which Davey Johnstone received a co-writing credit. The song was also released separately in January 1976 and became the album’s second single.

I’m Still Standing

I’d like to wrap up this playlist with the only track that’s not from the ’70s: I’m Still Standing, from Too Low for Zero, John’s 17th studio album that appeared in May 1983. Coming on the heels of four less successful records, especially compared to his releases during the first half of the ’70s, Too Low for Zero marked a comeback. It ended up being John’s best-selling album of the ’80s. I did like it at the time and still do. Here’s I’m Still Standing.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube