Guess who’s among the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s nominees this year? Joan Jett and Heart! It’s about time, too. Too few awesome female artists have been inducted.
The Hall is also drawing attention for its recently established “Women Who Rock” exhibit. While I do appreciate the Hall’s attempt to recognize artists that it previously ignored, I can’t help but feel the attempt is somewhat misguided. After all, the female artists it spotlights haven’t actually been inducted. When the exhibit ends in February 2012, the non-inducted artists (who compose the majority of the exhibit) will presumably vanish from the Hall once more. Forgetting pioneers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe again would be simply criminal. (Something that annoys me: how could they leave out Fanny? They paved the way for most of the artists in that exhibit, but they didn’t even get mentioned on its website.)
Of course, the exhibit is not without its benefits. Carla DeSantis Black makes the point that, despite the exhibit’s problems, seeing successful female musicians can inspire girls to play music. Also, the usage of the term “Women Who Rock” annoys some feminists less than the label “Women In Rock.” The latter term grates on readers’ nerves due to its association with “Women In Rock” issues created by music magazines, especially Rolling Stone, that merely acknowledge the presence of women in music and then proceed to ignore their contributions in subsequent issues. Additionally, Gayle Wald argues that the “Women Who Rock” label is an improvement because “[it] envisions rock as a dynamic practice, not an ossified tradition…[and] represents women in terms of cultural agency, not their static presence—their doing, not their being”. However, both Carla DeSantis Black and I wonder why we still need a separate exhibit for female musicians. How come in the 21st century, we still can’t properly integrate excellent female artists with male ones? Why can’t the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame put female pioneers next to and among their male counterparts, so they look like they belong in the standard rock canon and not like their gender makes them less important?
The Hall has a chance to start fixing this if Joan Jett and Heart get inducted. You can (and should) vote for the nominees online; I voted for The Cure, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Heart, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Guns ‘N Roses. So far, Heart and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts are in the top five, with 8.96% and 8.03% of the votes respectively. Let’s cross our fingers, everybody. I’ll be really annoyed if two of my favorite artists are ignored again.
What do you think about these recent developments in the Hall? Share your thoughts in the comments!
While she’s probably best known for singing the original version of “Hound Dog,” Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton played harmonica and drums and sang in many rhythm and blues bands throughout her career, starting in the 1940s (Gaar 1). She was completely self taught; in her own words, “My singing comes with experience. I never had no one to teach me nothing. I taught myself to sing and to blow the harmonica and even to play drums, by watching other people” (Gaar 2). Her legacy inspired Janis Joplin, who covered Thornton’s song “Ball and Chain.” She must have inspired other legends too; the part at the 4:10 mark of “Ball and Chain” reminds me of Robert Plant’s singing at the 6:10 mark in Led Zeppelin’s “You Shook Me.”
Big Mama Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog” hit number 1 on the 1953 R&B charts, but Elvis Presley’s cover definitely overtook it in popularity. It’s tragic that Thornton never achieved the fame or money she deserved for her hard work; royalties from “Hound Dog” went to songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, not her (O’Neil 1). “Ball and Chain,” which Thornton composed herself, was copyrighted to her record company, so no royalties from that song went to her either (O’Dair 16). She died in 1984 of heart and liver failure, most likely due to extensive alcohol abuse that reduced her from a hefty 350 pounds to a tiny 95 pounds (Gaar 1). For whatever reason, she has yet to be inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame, an egregious oversight. The Blues Foundation Hall of Fame recognized her achievements as far back as 1984, though. The Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, based in New York, is named after her.
After listening to Big Mama’s version of this song, Elvis’ doesn’t sound quite as awesome, does it?
There’s some really beautiful guitar in this one.
Watch Big Mama play harmonica.
Sources used for this article:
Gaar, Gillian. She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll. 2nd ed.New York: Seal Press, 2002. Print.
O’Dair, Barbara, ed. Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1997. Print.
O’Neil, Jim. “Big Mama Thornton.” The Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. Web. 27 September 2011.
^ (Find this source here.)
“That was the cliche, you know, like, “She’s pretty good for a chick.” But anyone who says that [about Joan Jett] is an idiot. Joan Jett just straight up rocks and always has.”
–Scott Ian of Anthrax in VH1’s 100 Greatest Hard Rock Songs
“I am the bitch with the hot guitar/I am the air, the sun and the stars”
Two summers ago, I was fortunate enough to see Joan Jett play live—for free, no less! She graced the stage with an air of confidence and good cheer, proceeding to rock our collective socks off. As I lost my footwear during her awesome performance, she gave me, and every other young person in the audience, a precious gift.
Teenagers constantly get messages, both from the media and from adults in our lives, about quality of life as we get older. “These are the best years of your life!” “You think life sucks now? Try having bills to pay, ungrateful kids like you to support, and a growing waistline!” “Ah, to be young again. These days I can’t jog without breaking a hip.” Joan Jett makes getting older not look so scary. If she can still look that good and rock that hard in her early fifties, aging can’t be too horrible, at least not for everybody. That realization was a wonderful thing for me to have.
Never mind that she’s an amazing musician, or that she fought hard in a sexist industry to be recognized and heard. Forget that she’s inspired bajillions of girls to pick up instruments. Dash the notion that she may be one of the most important figures in rock ‘n’ roll, and disregard the fact that many have called her the “Queen of Rock,” “Godmother of Punk,” and the “Original Riot Grrl”. Joan Jett showed me that it gets better, and I’m grateful for that. The other stuff is just icing on the cake.
“All this new stuff they call rock ’n’ roll, why, I’ve been playing that for years now… Ninety percent of rock-and-roll artists came out of the church, their foundation is the church.”
—Sister Rosetta Tharpe in an interview with Daily Mirror in 1957
Writers such as Gayle Wald and Lucy O’Brien assert that the role of African-American women in the creation of rock ‘n’ roll has been largely overlooked (Weisbard 57 and O’Brien 83). While the influence blues and R&B has had on the genre is generally acknowledged, the impact of gospel music, created in Pentecostal churches largely controlled by black women, often fails to be recognized. Anthony Heilbut wrote in 1971, “All rock’s most resilient features, the beat, the drama, the group vibrations derive from gospel” (qtd. in Weisbard 56).
Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s pioneering work is too often ignored. Gayle Wald lists just a few of her impressive achievements: “[She was the] first gospel musician to sign a recording contract (in 1938, with Decca Records, with whom she would record through the ’50s); first gospel performer to play the whites-only Cotton Club and Harlem’s Apollo Theater; first gospel singer to do a significant European tour; for a time the gospel solo performer with the most Top 10 records on the Billboard ‘race’ (later, rhythm and blues) charts” (Weisbard 61). To watch her play is absolutely thrilling. A YouTube video of “Up Above My Head” shows her singing with religious fervor and boundless energy, then diving into a guitar solo with gusto. I would definitely go to her church. After seeing her in action, it becomes difficult to grasp why she isn’t acknowledged in most rock histories. She’s simply amazing, performing with an energy that is most definitely rock ‘n’ roll, moving about the stage like she owns it.
An ancestor of the “windmill,” a strumming technique thought to have started with either Pete Townshend or Keith Richards, is demonstrated in Tharpe’s performance of “Down by the Riverside” when she “slams a chord and waves her arm back and forth in a move that’s simultaneously testifying and directing the chord’s repeatedly bent notes like a choir-director’s baton (Ross 4).” Tharpe pioneered electric guitar technique on mostly Gibson guitars, including both hollow-body and solid-body Les Pauls and SGs.
Rosetta Tharpe’s “dynamic guitar playing” gained her the odd compliment that she could play “like a man,” and people of both genders desired to emulate her style (Weisbard 58). However, saying that Tharpe played “like a man” is misleading, considering that she was often better than the men she played with; Inez Andrews, who sang with Tharpe many times over the course of her career, reports, “The fellows would look at her, and I don’t know whether there was envy or what, but sometimes she would play rings around them. She was the only lady I know that would pick a guitar and the men would stand back” (Ross 3).
Unfortunately, this rock ‘n’ roll pioneer was ravaged by diabetes in her later years, losing her leg to the disease in the early 1970s. This didn’t stop her from performing in a chair, often jumping up and down on one leg while playing (Ross 3). The disease claimed her with a stroke in 1973, just as she was about to go into the studio to cut another record. She was a rather young 58. Her legacy lives on in the artists she influenced: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Etta James, Johnny Cash, even Elvis Presley (“Suffragettes” 1).
“Whenever a rock or gospel or rhythm and blues musician turns the amps up, we’re living in the presence of Rosetta, who made a habit of playing as loud as she could, based on the Pentecostal belief that the Lord smiled on those who made a joyful noise.”
–Gayle Wald in Shout, Sister, Shout!
O’Brien, Lucy. She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Rock, Pop and Soul. New York: Penguin Books, 1995. Print.
Ross, Michael. “Forgotten Heroes: Sister Rosetta Tharpe.” Premier Guitar Magazine. Web. 17 August 2011.
“Suffragettes to Juke Joints: The Foremothers/Roots of Rock.” Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Web. 17 August 2011.
Weisbard, Eric, ed. This is Pop: In Search of the Elusive at Experience Music Project. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004. Print.
“One of the most important female bands in American rock has been buried without a trace. And that is Fanny. They were one of the finest fucking rock bands of their time, in about 1973. They were extraordinary: They wrote everything, they played like motherfuckers, they were just colossal and wonderful, and nobody’s ever mentioned them. They’re as important as anybody else who’s ever been, ever; it just wasn’t their time. Revivify Fanny. And I will feel that my work is done.”
—David Bowie in a December 1999 issue of Rolling Stone
Fanny rocks. What’s that? You’ve never heard of Fanny? Oh man, you’ve been missing out.
Fanny was the first all-female band to get a record deal, and with good reason. With Jean Millington’s funky, perpetually audible bass lines and pure rock ‘n’ roll voice; her sister June’s amazing skills on the guitar, comping in the background during songs’ verses and then exploding into the spotlight with amazing solos; Nickey Barclay’s skills on the keyboard, rocking harder than any other keyboardist I’ve seen; Alice de Buhr’s powerful drumming, belying her shy face half-hidden behind her long hair; and the vocal harmonies all the band members contributed to, these women rocked cohesively as a group. Every single one of them was absolutely essential to the group’s sound; no one of them could be easily replaced, which is something not all bands can say. No drummers hiding behind their kits or bassists thudding away in the corner for Fanny. All of the members shared the spotlight.
The band toured all over the United States after releasing their first album in 1970. Despite the fact that they never truly broken into the mainstream—even though they were the first all-female band to have a top 40 hit, with “Charity Ball” at number 40 and “Butter Boy” at number 2—the impact they had on their audiences was unquestionable. Lynne Shapiro wrote in a 1974 Ms. article on the band, “If Fanny had been around when I was 16, I might be a feminist rock ‘n’ roll musician today” (Gaar 125).
Reading about the struggles the band went through can be appalling. Guitarist June Millington recalls, “The pressure not to play rock music was unbelievable. And of course in those days without any role models, we couldn’t say, ‘Well, look at so-and-so, they made it!’” (Gaar 122).
She continues on, “All I can say is, it really fed our spirits. We really wanted to have an all-girl band. It was like we were obsessed. I can’t tell you why. I think we always knew that we were supposed to do something. We didn’t know what it was, but there was something beckoning us. I really believe it was our destiny. We were meant to do it” (Gaar 123).
Only twenty-seven Fanny songs are available on YouTube. (I scoured the site for their albums.) I can’t believe this amazing band has been relegated to obscurity; even if you ignore the fact that they were trailblazers of the most determined sort, their music alone makes them deserve recognition among the best. They should be played on the radio along with the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, placed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the highest of honors. I would like to correct Mr. David Bowie, who I quoted at the beginning of this article: Fanny is not one of the most important female bands of all time; they are one of the most important bands of all time, period. Their achievements are not only important to women, and their hard work is not only impressive for female musicians. It is impressive for any musician, period. “Making it” in the music business—finding band members who are both friendly and solid musicians, creating good music, rehearsing said music, playing gigs, promoting yourself, trying to get signed to a record label—is hard enough without adding “dealing with horrible, ridiculous sexism on a daily basis.”
Here is a list of Fanny’s albums, with the songs on them that are available on YouTube and the places on the Internet where they can be purchased. Happy listening!
not available on Amazon
Charity Ball (1971)
available in vinyl on Amazon
Fanny Hill (1972)
available in vinyl and CD on Amazon
Mother’s Pride (1973)
available in vinyl on Amazon
Rock & Roll Survivors (1974)
available in vinyl and CD on Amazon
First Time in a Long Time: The Reprise Recordings (2002)
This anthology contains songs from all of Fanny’s albums, plus a number of unreleased tracks. It has 90 songs and is available on Amazon and iTunes.
Go to FannyRocks.com to learn more about the band’s history and discography.
Gaar, Gillian. She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll. 2nd ed. New York: Seal Press, 2002. Print.