They Are The Songbirds - Women In Song
Starting with the early opera stars, such as Maria Callas and Agnes Baltsa, to the artists who grace the pages of "Women Who Rock" magazine, females have been involved in musical ventures which have helped them to establish who they are as people and grow and to give icons to countless young women who dream of being onstage.
The first mainstream music created by women was in the music halls in England, the American equivalent being vaudeville. Born in 1870, Marie Lloyd became the “queen of music halls”, singing to audiences the favourites of the day, “Oh! Mr. Porter” and “The Boy In The Gallery”. On the other side of the ocean, vaudeville was hitting the big time. Women like Ada Reeve (1874-1966) sang, danced and toured the US while the Shirley Temple of the time, Loretta Crabtree started to star in the first sound films.
By the 1920’s, the vaudeville scene was forgotten, and women as groups and solo artists started to happen. The Appalachian sound of the Carter Family of southern Virginia was achieved by blending the voices of Maybelle Addington and Sarah Dougherty with the males in the group. They were the first commercially successful country style music group, laying the cobblestones for those who would come after.
While country got its roots in the south, jazz began in the north. Mamie Smith (1883-1946) of Cincinnati, moved to Harlem and with her hit “Crazy Blues”. She was the beginning for many young women who also wanted to be on stage as she created a market for them. Record producers wanted to match the success she had enjoyed and so they took in as many new starlets as possible. These women, like Sippie Wallace started their careers on the wave Mamie created and rose to stardom, continuing their music in the Detroit scene. Later, they influenced stars like Ella Fitzgerald who went on to become the winner of 13 grammies and selling 40 million albums and recording over 200 albums and Billie Holiday. Billie, like Ella recorded many, many songs, but never received royalties for any of them as a result of false management. Eventually white women like Peggy Lee, who recorded jazz, swing and blue, opened the style to all women.
By the forties, the dancing and singing came back into popularity with musicals like “Oklahoma” (1943) and “Annie Get Your Gun” (1946). These featured lead roles for women and resulted in many talented women getting their spotlight such as Doris Day who starred in 39 feature films during her career. It also helped to set the stage for the new movement that was coming up.
In the late fifties and early sixties, during the time of Elvis and the birth of a new music, women singers began to rise. Doo-wop music was at its height, giving many openings for trios and quartets to break into the business. However, these groups were usually placed with the least management and the lowest priority of their record label, hence the many one-hit wonders of the era. Such groups that DID indeed make lasting impression were the Shirrelles, the Chiffons and the Chantels. In the case of the Chiffons, the band members were only in their early teens, lead singer Judy Craig was fourteen years old when they formed. Their managers chose the songs these girls sang to appeal to the male audience. Songs such as "Keep the Boy Happy" and "When the Boy's Happy (The Girl's Happy Too) released on the album, "Boys! Boys! Boys!” obviously are geared towards a certain audience. These groups followed in the same path as the “Phil Spector” bands, being moulded into an image that was desirable for the record buying public.
While “bubble-gum” records were being made for the public in the fifties, singers like Patsy Cline were poised to take control for the female sound in the first years of the 60’s. Patsy’s “I Fall To Pieces” was the number one song by a female vocalist in 1962 and she was voted “Top Female Artist” in both 1961 and ’62. Patsy brought country back from underneath the mountain the doo-wop and girl groups empires created.
Finally, the sixties hit and they hit hard. A tidal wave of young women was ready to make their move and they entered the music world within a few short years of each other. Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross with her Supremes went a step beyond the one-hit wonder stage of the Chiffons and Chantels, bringing motown and soul to the mix of already diverse music scenes available to the world. While they still catered to the male population, they paved the road for women who wanted to be stars and wanted it badly enough to break free and develop their own style. Janis Joplin outgrew her backing band, Big Brother and the Holding Company to sing solo before her untimely death, a result of the loneliness and depression that being at the top brings. Linda Ronstadt started her entrance to show business bringing the southern Californian sound to airwaves in 1969 with her “Hand Sewn, Home Grown” album. Joni Mitchell became the singer-songwriter who collaborated with CSN&Y and wrote anthems of the era like “Woodstock” and “Big Yellow Taxi” but also wrote more personal songs like “Help Me” and “Both Sides, Now” showing that it was indeed okay to bare one’s soul and tell it how it is without being “weak”. And Carole King, who had be writing songs for the early pop singers, finally came out in the spotlight as a performer with “Writer” in 1970 and 1971’s “Tapestry”. It was these women who opened the doors for the next era of stars.
In 1969, Christine McVie joined her husband’s band as keyboardist. Five years later, twenty-five year old hopeful, Stevie Nicks, would follow her in joining the most popular band of the seventies. Stevie, inspired by Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Grace Slick (of Jefferson Airplane) and Janis Joplin (as a teen, Stevie wore out her Janis’ “Pearl” album,) rocketed to fame in her own right, becoming one of the first “diva” artists in stark comparison to the earthy feel of her predecessors. The end of the seventies brought in artists like Tina Turner and Karen Carpenter.
Around the start of the eighties, punk came into being, with the Pretenders and their lead woman, Chrissie Hynde. While Chrissie was by no means first to be in a band with men, she was the real first woman to be within the band, as a bandleader who was being the boss. As a lead guitarist, she opened yet another door, for the women who were not content to be alone onstage as a singer-songwriter but who wanted to be in a band and be in charge. Along with Chrissie, other women like Bonnie Raitt, developed their guitar skills and unique vocals. Other big names of the eighties were Abba, Natalie Merchant, and Madonna.
Female musicians today have yet to prove their impact on music, only time can separate the fads from the ones who will have the same image as singers of the past. There has been a new influx in musicians as the pop country genre moved into all radio waves with the help of the Dixie Chick’s cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” and Shania Twain’s most recent album, “Up!” Artists like Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan (founder of the Lilith Fair) and Tori Amos are establishing themselves as individuals to respect and once we have gained the perspective of a decade or so, it will be possible to tell which of these artists have gone above and beyond the standards and who have staying power. Those who will be around to inspire young girls to “rock a little” for many years to come as they were inspired by the figures of the past.
This essay got a 50/50 in my gym class, go me!
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