Ruth Brown. Etta James. Billie Holiday. Ella Fitzgerald. Sarah Vaughan. Bessie Smith. Ma Rainey. Sippie Wallace. Bonnie Raitt. Grace Slick. Chrissie Hynde. Stevie Nicks. Deborah Harry. Janis Joplin. Joni Mitchell. Madonna. Joan Jett. Patti Smith. Adele. Amy Winehouse. Rihanna. Gwen Stefani. Dolly Parton. Loretta Lynn. Wanda Jackson. Beyonce. Norah Jones.
Just a few female pioneers in music who have changed the face of the Industry. No denying their influence on Music around the world. All of the above named female artists blazed their trail fearlessly through all kinds of obstacles and turmoil. Is it more difficult for women in Rock?
NPR broadcast a great show a few weeks ago about female fronted bands emerging in 2013. Hearing about these new Rockers makes one reflect on the women that came before them. Who paved the way for this new breed of female artists to find their place in Music History?
The House That Ruth Built
Ruth Brown was born in 1928 and attended a school in Virginia which was legally segregated. At 17 years of age, Brown ran away from home with trumpeter Jimmy Brown, who she later married. She went from singing in choirs to singing in bars and clubs. Brown’s talent soon lead her to gigging with Duke Ellington, which caught the attention of Atlantic Records. She never made it to the label to audition because of a serious car accident which left her in the hospital for 9 months. She signed with Atlantic from her hospital bed.
Brown soon had a number one hit On Atlantic, Teardrop from My Eyes staying on top of the Billboard Charts for 11 week. She was soon given the name “Miss Rhythm.” She followed up this hit with I’ll Wait for You (1951), I Know (1951), 5-10-15 Hours (1953), (Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean (1953), Oh What a Dream (1954), Mambo Baby (1954), and Don’t Deceive Me (1960), some of which were credited to Ruth Brown and the Rhythm Makers. In all, between 1949 and 1955, she stayed on the R&B chart for a total 149 weeks, with Sixteen Top 10 records including five number ones.
Brown played many segregated dances in the Southern States, where she toured extensively and was extremely popular. Brown herself claimed that a writer had once summed up her popularity by saying: “In the South Ruth Brown is better known than Coca Cola.”
Brown’s series of hit songs in the 1950’s lead Atlantic Records to be referred to as “The House that Ruth Built.”
Following a resurgence that began in the mid-1970s and peaked in the 1980s, Brown used her influence to press for musicians’ rights regarding royalties and contracts, which led to the founding of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. Her performances in the Broadway musical Black and Blue earned Brown a Tony Award, and the original cast recording won a Grammy Award.
“I didn’t want to learn to read no note. I knew I could sing it. I woke up one morning and I could sing.” – Ruth Brown
Incredible achievements…especially during a time of segregation. A black woman in the South – in the 1950’s – helped to build a record label. Wrap your mind around that for a moment. Think you have it tough today?
Queen of Rock, Stevie Nicks
A reigning Queen of Rock, Stevie Nicks is still going strong at 64 years of age. Growing up in Arizona, the granddaughter of a country music singer, Nicks was already singing duets and writing music when she was 4 years old. She learned to play her Goya guitar and spent her adolescent years listening to Janis Joplin and living in her own little musical world. She met her future life and romantic partner, Lindsey Buckingham, when she was a senior in high school. The two formed Buckingham Nicks, also the title of their first record after signing a deal with Polydor records. However, the record failed to be a commercial success, so the pair were dropped from the label in 1973. Struggling to make ends met Nicks, waited tables and cleaned houses for years while Buckingham was recovering from a battle with mononucleosis. After moving to Aspen, Colorado, Buckingham landed a gig with The Everly Brothers touring and Nicks stayed behind. It was during that time that she wrote Rhiannon; which led to her illustrious rise to super stardom.
Nicks and Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac in 1974, and in 1975 the band achieved success with the album Fleetwood Mac. Rhiannon was named one of the greatest songs of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. However, it was Nick’s incredible stage presence and power that made her stand out from the rest of the band. Her performances of Rhiannon became like an exorcism onstage and she slowly commanded the attention of millions of fans worldwide. Her signature style of flowing skirts and platform boots started with the help of designer Margi Kent, and was emulated by young women around the world.
Nicks marched to her own beat, outspoken, stubborn, driven and lost in a sea of drugs and depression. When she first started using cocaine during the early years of Buckingham Nicks, she wasn’t aware of the danger. “We were told that it was recreational and that it was not dangerous,” she recalled to Chris Issac in 2009.
Nicks voice became strained from touring with the band and her relationship with Buckingham was falling apart. The songs Rhiannon and Landslide had made Nicks an overnight sensation, but the strain of recording and touring were taking a hefty toll on her health.
The band continued to record together, however, and their next album, Rumours (1977), became a record-setting hit. It spent more than 31 weeks on the Billboard 200; went platinum in both the United States and the UK; and earned the group a Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1978. Nicks’ song Dreams, inspired by the group’s dissolving relationships, was the band’s first #1 single. During this time, Nicks had a brief affair with band member Mick Fleetwood, and began an up-and-down relationship with Eagles drummer, Don Henley.
The band continued to have success touring and recording, including the 1979 release Tusk and Fleetwood Mac Live in 1980.
Stevie was a prolific writer, and was drawn to a solo career which exploded with her first effort Bella Donna, which went straight to #1 on the Billboard charts. That success fueled Stevie to release The Wild Heart, her second solo album in 1983. Around this time Stevie’s best friend Sara succumbed to leukemia which plunged Nicks deeper into an alcohol and drug addiction.
Nick’s 1985 release Rock a Little went platinum in 1985, but didn’t match the success of her previous recordings. In 1986 she entered the a 28 days program at The Betty Ford Clinic, which helped to end her chemical dependence. The following year she saw a psychiatrist who recommended Klonapin, and Nick’s fell victim to a heavy addiction during the 1980’s and 90’s. Nicks continued to tour, in spite of weight gain, addiction, and physical exhaustion. She recorded a solo album, The Other Side of the Mirror in 1989; and Behind The Mask with Fleetwood Mac in 1990.
Stevie detoxed again in 1993, and reunited with Fleetwood Mac in 1997 releasing The Dance. The subsequent tour earned the band $36 million dollars; mind-blowing at the time. In 1998, Nicks’ boxed set Enchanted was released, and that same year Fleetwood Mac was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Stevie continued to release solo recordings, including Trouble in Shangri-La, a collaborative effort with Sheryl Crow co-producing and singing on several tracks including, It’s Only Love. Crow had been a fan of Nick’s for years and sited her a heavy influence on Crow’s songwriting. Nicks supported the album with a successful tour, which was cut short due to a bout with bronchitis and the 911 attacks.
Fleetwood Mac began recoding a new album in 2001, and in 2003 released Say You Will. A successful world tour ensued, but Nicks was unhappy citing artistic differences with Buckingham and the absence of Christine McVie.
A documentary of the making of the album Destiny Rules was released on DVD in 2004, and chronicles the sometimes turbulent relationships between band members, particularly Buckingham and Nicks during that time in the studio.
Crystal Visions was released in 2007. The compilation includes her hit singles, a dance remix, and one new track, a live version of Led Zeppelin’s Rock and Roll.
In 2010, after completing The Unleashed Tour with Fleetwood Mac, Stevie began work on her first solo album in a decade; In Your Dreams received overwhelmingly positive reviews, rivaling that of Stevie’s 1981 debut. Rolling Stone commented “It’s not just her first album in 10 years, it’s her finest collection of songs since the Eighties”, which mirrored the reception from most other critics and music industry members. The album debuted at #6 on Billboard giving Nicks her fifth top ten album on that chart,with 52,000 copies sold in the first week. The album charted in twelve countries and reached #12 on the world albums chart. Nicks received critical acclaim from Rolling Stone for In Your Dreams: “The gypsy queen is in royal form on In Your Dreams — it’s not just her first album in 10 years, it’s her finest collection of songs since the Eighties.”
In 2012, Nicks announced a reunion tour with Fleetwood Mac. Fleetwood Mac Live 2013 arena tour includes stops in Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, Chicago and a special appearance at the historic Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.
Here is a jaw dropping fact: the ONLY Fleetwood Mac #1 hit Dreams was written by Stevie Nicks. This remarkable female rocker changed the face of music today and shows no sign of slowing down. Her talent, fearlessness, and sheer will opened the doors for the talented women who continue to emerge in today’s female-fronted rock bands.
I have to add Chvrches to that list as a personal favorite. The electro pop band from Glasgow is incredibly innovative and bold. Twenty five year old Lauren Mayberry is one to watch. She already has a law degree and masters in journalism along with being the youngest member of the band. The keyboard heavy pop band pares Mayberry’s melodic lines against sharp synth lines and militaristic beats. Check them out if you haven’t already and keep an eye on this emerging fresh talent.
So…who will be the next Stevie Nicks? Love to know who YOU are watching.