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

My Playlist: Music Artists Who Do It All

Some of my favorite singer-songwriters from the 1960s through the 2000s

The singer-songwriter category is very broad, depending on how you define it, spanning different music genres, including folk, rock, country and pop. According to Wikipedia, singer-songwriters are artists who write, compose and perform their own music, oftentimes solo with just a guitar or piano. All Music adds that although early rock & roll artists like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly wrote and sang their own songs, the term singer-songwriter “refers to the legions of performers that followed Bob Dylan in the late 60s and early 70s.” You could make the same observation about blues pioneers like Lead Belly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Based on the above definition, artists who write and perform songs as part of a band are not singer-songwriters. Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger would be popular examples in this context. While I’ve seen Elton John being mentioned as a singer-songwriter, to me he’s not, at least not in the strict sense. While he has written the music to his songs and performed them, he has relied on Bernie Taupin for the lyrics. By comparison, the other big pop piano man of our time, Billy Joel, has written the music and lyrics for pretty much all of his songs, so he fits the category.

With the singer-songwriter definition being out of the way, let’s get to some of my favorite artists in that category. I’d like to tackle this chronologically, starting with the 60s and Bob Dylan. The Times They Are A-Changin’ is the title track from his third studio album, which appeared in January 1964. According to Songfacts, the tune “became an anthem for frustrated youth,” expressing anti-establishment sentiments and reflecting the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. Songfacts also quotes Dylan from the liner notes of his Biograph box set compilation album from November 1985: “I wanted to write a big song, some kind of theme song, with short, concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. This is definitely a song with a purpose. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and who I wanted to say it to.” Sadly, the song has taken on new relevance in present-day America, especially over the past couple of years.

Next up: Donovan and Sunshine Superman, one of my longtime favorite ’60s tunes. The song is the title track of Donovan’s third album released in August 1966 in the U.S. It did not come out in the U.K. due a contractual dispute between British label Pye Records and U.S. label Epic Records. This also impacted the release of Donovan’s fourth album Mellow Yellow, which like Sunshine Superman appeared in the U.S. only. After the labels had worked out their issue, Pye Records released a compilation from both records in the U.K. in June 1967 under the title of Sunshine Superman.

Jumping to the ’70s, here’s Fire And Rain by James Taylor. Apart from his cover of the Carole King tune You’ve Got A Friend, the opener of his second album Sweet Baby James from February 1970 is my favorite Taylor song. It became his first big hit in the U.S., peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Songfacts quotes Taylor from a 1972 interview with Rolling Stone, during which he explained how the song came about: “The first verse is about my reactions to the death of a friend [Susie Schnerr, “Suzanne”]. The second verse is about my arrival in this country [the U.S.] with a monkey on my back, and there Jesus is an expression of my desperation in trying to get through the time when my body was aching and the time was at hand when I had to do it. And the third verse of that song refers to my recuperation in Austin Riggs [from drug addiction] which lasted about five months.” Wow, certainly a lot of stuff packed in one song!

In November 1970, Cat Stevens (nowadays known as Yusuf/Cat Stevens) released Tea For The Tillerman, his fourth studio album. One of my favorite tunes from that record is Father And Son. According to Songfacts, while Stevens made up the story about a son wanting to join the Russian Revolution and his dad pleading with him to stay home to work on the farm, the lyrics were inspired by Stevens’ lonely childhood and differences of opinion between him and his father about his chosen path to become a professional musician.

I already mentioned Carole King, one of my favorite singer-songwriters of all time – in fact, make that one of my all-time favorite music artists! Sometimes one forgets that before becoming a recording artist and performer, King had a close to 10-year career writing songs for other artists, together her then-husband Gerry Goffin. More than two-dozen of these tunes entered the charts, and various became hits. Examples include Chains (The Cookies, later covered by The Beatles on their debut record), The Loco-Motion (Little Eva), One Fine Day (The Chiffons) and Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees). King composed the music for these tunes, while Goffin wrote the lyrics. Then, in February 1971, Carole King released her second solo album Tapestry. Instead of obvious choices like I Feel The Earth Move, It’s Too Late or You’ve Got A Friend, I’d like to highlight Way Over Yonder. Among others, this gem features James Taylor on acoustic guitar and Curtis Amy who plays the amazing tenor saxophone solo. To me, this is as close to perfection as music can get – emotional, beautiful and timeless!

Joni Mitchell is one of those artists I really should know much better than I currently do. In June 1971, her fourth album Blue appeared, which according to Wikipedia is widely regarded by music critics as one of the greatest records of all time. Here’s This Flight Tonight. If you don’t know Mitchell’s original, yet the melody and the lyrics somehow sound familiar, you’ve probably heard the cover by Scottish hard rock band Nazareth. I certainly have, since they scored a no. 1 hit with it in Germany in 1973. The song also charted in the U.K. (no. 11), U.S. (no. 177) and Canada (no. 27).

More frequent visitors of the blog won’t be surprised about my next choice: Neil Young. Wait a moment, some might think, based on what I wrote in my clever introduction, should he be in the list? After all, he has been affiliated with bands like Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and he continues to perform frequently with Crazy Horse. Well, in addition to these bands, Young has done plenty of solo work, plus Crazy Horse is his backing band. At the core, there’s no doubt to me that Young nicely fits the singer-songwriter definition. Here’s The Needle And The Damage Done, one of Young’s finest songs first recorded for Harvest, his fourth studio album from February 1972. The tune was inspired by the death of Young’s friend and former Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten from heroin addiction. With the U.S. battling a horrific opioid addiction crisis, eerily, the song’s lyrics remain as relevant today as they were more than 45 years ago.

While with the explosion of the singer-songwriter category in the late ’60s and 70s I could  go on featuring artists from that time period, I also would like to least touch on more recent decades. In the ’80s, Suzanne Vega emerged as one of the most popular artists in the category. At the time, I frequently listened to her second album Solitude Standing from April 1987 – yes, it’s the one with Tom’s Diner. While that song represents cinematic-type storytelling at its best and perfectly describes the New York morning rush, I’ve become a bit tired of the tune due to over-exposure. Interestingly though, it wasn’t much of a chart success at the time, unlike Luka, the track I’m featuring here, which became Vega’s biggest hit. The song’s upbeat melody is in marked contrast to the lyrics addressing the horrible subject of child abuse.

When it comes to ’90s singer-songwriters, one name that comes to mind is Alanis Morissette. In June 1995, the Canadian artist released her third studio album Jagged Little Pill, which became her first record that appeared worldwide and catapulted her to international stardom. The album became a chart topper in 13 countries, including Canada, the U.K. and the U.S., and is one of the highest-selling records of all time, exceeding more than 33 million copies worldwide. It won five Grammy Awards including Album of the Year. Here’s the record’s second single Hand In My Pocket, a nice rock tune Morissette co-wrote with Glen Ballard who also produced the album.

The last artist I’d like to highlight in this post is English singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. During her career, which was tragically cut short in July 2011 when she died from alcohol poisoning at the age of 27, Winehouse only released two albums. Her acclaimed second record Back To Black from October 2007 won Best Pop Vocal Album at the 2007 Grammy Awards. With close to 3.6 million units sold in the U.K. alone, Back To Black became the U.K.’s second best-selling album of the 21st century; worldwide sales exceeded 12 million. Here’s the opener Rehab, which also was released separately as the album’s lead single. The lyrics describe Winehouse’s refusal to attend rehab for alcoholism following her management team’s suggestion. The tune has a nice soul vibe and like many of her other songs has a retro feel.

Sources: Wikipedia, All Music, Songfacts, YouTube