|Women in Rock: The First 25 Years
Women in Rock: The First 25 Years documents the history of women’s contributions to rock music from the late 1950s to the early 1980s. both common and rare recordings and video clips, the course will cover women performers from rockabilly and girl groups through soul, the British Invasion, psychedelia, the singer-songwriter movement, and punk/new wave. It will also discuss women’s behind-the-scenes roles in songwriting, production, and rock journalism, as well as how the changing roles of women in society were reflected in how they sang, wrote, and recorded.
Week by Week Outline
Week One: Women in Rock: The Early Years
I. Women in Rock: The Beginning
A. In the 1950s, rhythm and blues singers like Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker have some of the first rock’n’roll hits; Wanda Jackson and the Collins Kids are top rockabilly acts; and Brenda Lee becomes the first woman rock superstar.
B. As New York’s Brill Building becomes established as the top place for rock publishers, women like Carole King, Cynthia Weil, and Ellie Greenwich become some of pop-rock’s most successful songwriters.
C. Brill Building songwriters and publishers often supply material to all-women vocal groups, many of them African-American, giving birth to the melodic, harmony-driven “girl group” sound.
Other themes discussed: the dominance of men in the record industry as rock’n’roll began; the importance of teenage girls in providing much of the foundation for rock’n’roll’s early audience; the few “teen idol” performers who were women.
II. The Peak of the Girl Groups
A. Girl groups like the Shirelles, the Crystals, the Ronettes, the Chiffons, and the Cookies have numerous hits in the early 1960s, forming one of the major trends in rock of the period.
B. Top producers like Phil Spector, Shadow Morton, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and Luther Dixon often work with girl groups, creating innovations in rock’s increasingly sophisticated and orchestral musical arrangements.
C. The British Invasion of the mid-1960s helps signal the end of the girl groups as a major force in rock music, though a few new groups have hits in the first year or so after the Beatles become popular in the US, like the Shangri-Las and the Dixie Cups.
Other themes: Girl groups’ huge influence on the British Invasion sound, especially the Beatles; husband-wife Brill Building songwriting teams; post-girl group achievements of woman Brill Building songwriters.
Week Two: Women in Soul
I. Women in Soul: The Beginning
A. In the early 1960s, some of the most R&B-oriented girl groups become some of the first soul stars, especially for Motown Records, with the Marvelettes, Martha & the Vandellas, the Supremes, and Mary Wells.
B. Most of those Motown artists mature and go on to have major hits throughout the 1960s, joined by others like Gladys Knight and Brenda Holloway.
C. Other women soul singers emerge in a more sporadic fashion, elsewhere in the country, some of them more pop-oriented (Maxine Brown, Dionne Warwick), some of them earthier (Carla Thomas, Irma Thomas, Etta James).
Other themes: The crucial role women artists played in the success of Motown Records; women soul artists’ roots in gospel music; the migration of African-Americans from the south to the north creates great concentrations of soul talent in cities like Detroit, home of Motown.
II. Women in Soul: The Late 1960s and Early 1970s
A. Aretha Franklin is anointed the Queen of Soul after moving to Atlantic Records and adopting a tougher, more spiritual sound.
B. Other women soul singers with a forceful style emerge and increase in popularity, like Gladys Knight, Nina Simone, and the Staple Singers.
C. Women soul singers are among the most popular performers as soul turns to funk and disco.
Other themes: Women help spread soul’s popularity to Europe and around the world; women’s limited roles in soul as record executives and behind-the-scenes songwriters.
Week Three: Women in British Rock
I. Women in the British Invasion
A. Although all-male guitar bands dominate the British Invasion, a good number of women singers also make an impact both in their native UK and in the US. The top stars in the first wave of these are Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Petula Clark, and Marianne Faithfull.
B. A few other UK woman pop-rock singers emerge in the mid-1960s whose success is mostly limited to their own country (Sandie Shaw), or who don’t sell many records anywhere despite making some good ones (Kiki Dee, Samantha Jones).
Other themes: the huge influence of both girl groups and soul music on leading women British Invasion performers; producers/arrangers of British women singers during this time, such as Tony Hatch, Mike Leander, Ivor Raymonde, and Mickie Most.
II. Women in British Rock: The Late 1960s and Early 1970s
A. Two of the leading folk-rock singers are in Britain’s top folk-rock groups: Sandy Denny in Fairport Convention, and Jacqui McShee in Pentangle. Numerous others make less notable efforts in the style, like Vashti Bunyan, Judy Dyble, Shirley Collins, and Shelagh McDonald.
B. British women rock performers make sporadic dents in other styles, like Julie Driscoll with psychedelia, Sonja Kristina of Curved Air in progressive rock, Christine McVie in blues-rock and pop-rock with Fleetwood Mac, and Maggie Bell of Stone the Crows in blues-rock.
Other themes: the transition from traditional folk to folk-rock among some acts in the British scene; prominent UK women rock journalists like Penny Valentine, Maureen Cleave, and Caroline Coon.
Week Four: Women in Folk-Rock and Psychedelic Rock
I. Women in Folk-Rock
A. Women are major forces in some of the first artists to combine folk and rock in the mid-1960s, especially in acts mixing male and female vocals and harmonies, like We Five; the early Jefferson Airplane; the Mamas & the Papas; Linda Ronstadt & the Stone Poneys; and Richard & Mimi Farina.
B. Other artists make more tentative efforts at the transition from folk to folk-rock, like Ian & Sylvia; Buffy Sainte-Marie; and Joan Baez. So does Judy Collins at first, but she then makes an original contribution to folk-rock by combining it with classical orchestration.
Other themes: the transition from traditional folk to folk-rock in the US; attitudes toward sexual expression start to loosen and change in folk-rock songs by acts like the Mamas & the Papas and Blackburn & Snow.
II. Women in Psychedelic Rock
A. The two artists who make by far the biggest contributions of women performers to psychedelic rock both emerge from the San Francisco scene: Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin.
B. Although no other women performers can match the success and influence of Slick and Joplin as both musicians and celebrities, there are other women singers in bands of the psychedelic eras, especially in the Bay Area, like Lydia Pense of Cold Blood, Jan Errico of the Mojo Men, and Patti Santos of It’s a Beautiful Day. Others of note include Dorothy Moskowitz with the United States of America.
Other themes: women instrumentalists in otherwise all-male rock bands, such as drummer Maureen Tucker with the Velvet Underground; US-based women rock journalists like Ellen Willis, Ellen Sander, and Lillian Roxon.
Week Five: Women Singer-Songwriters
I. Women Singer-Songwriters in the Mid-to-Late 1960s
A. The first generation of women grouped into the singer-songwriter movement often emerge from folk and folk-rock, such as Janis Ian, Melanie, and Joni Mitchell. Judy Collins becomes a leading interpreter of emerging new singer-songwriter talent such as Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman.
B. By the late 1960s, singer-songwriters who are known mostly for writing songs interpreted by other artists start to achieve greater success and critical respect with their own recordings. Foremost among them are Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro.
Other themes: the emergence of feminism as a national movement, and its influence on singer-songwriters; artists who have hits with covers of songs by Mitchell (Judy Collins, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) and Nyro (Three Dog Night, the Fifth Dimension).
II. Women Singer-Songwriters in the 1970s
A. Artists from pop-rock roots, rather than folk ones, start to enter the singer-songwriter movement, like Carole King and Jackie DeShannon. Others move decisively from folk to a more pop approach (Carly Simon), or branch out from folk-rock to other styles like jazz (Joni Mitchell).
B. There continue to be artists who make their mark as interpreters of songs by singer-songwriters, rather than composers, like Linda Ronstadt. Women singer-songwriters are also found within some bands, such as Fleetwood Mac.
Other themes: the much lower number of women singer-songwriters to emerge from the UK than North America; the role of women in production as well as songwriting, especially in the work of Joni Mitchell and Carole King.
Week Six: Women in Punk and New Wave
I. Women in Punk and New Wave: The Beginning
A. Women are in the forefront of several of the biggest early punk/new wave groups in the US, including Patti Smith, Blondie, Talking Heads, and the B-52’s.
B. Though early British punk/new acts with women performers don’t make as much of an international impact, there are numerous notable ones, including X-Ray Spex, the Raincoats, the Adverts, and the Slits.
Other themes: roots of some leading women new wave singers in earlier literary/theatrical scenes; the difference between punk/new wave’s acceptance in the US and UK.
II. Women in Punk and New Wave at the End of the 1970s and Early 1980s
A. Underground punk acts with no chance of commercial success emerge in the late 1970s, such as San Francisco’s Avengers. There is a much higher percentage of all-women bands playing their own instruments in punk and new wave, such as the Go-Go’s, or of women playing instruments (like bass in Talking Heads) not previously often associated with female performers in rock.
B. Numerous original punk/new wave acts and other emerging artists expand from punk’s base to incorporate influences from reggae, rap, world music, and dance music.
Other themes: punk/new wave roots of ‘80s women rock bands like the Bangles; and long-lasting effect of punk and new wave on the proliferation of all-women or women-dominated rock bands in the alternative rock scene to this day.