Dec 2004: The all-girl bands of rock!

This time we'll be talking about the first all-girl bands!

In 1963, societal expectations placed considerable pressures on women, centered on marriage, having children and otherwise supporting a male breadwinner. Against this backdrop, a group of four young women in New York City bucked the trend by starting a rock band called Goldie and the Gingerbreads. The group would make music history by becoming the first all-woman rock band to be signed by a major record company. In 1963, rock and roll was often called "black music," closely associated with its roots in urban rhythm and blues, as personified by pioneers such as Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Big Mama Thorton. The music itself was adopted by white culture and became synonymous with the rebellion of youth, repelling concerned parents. Young white kids in America and Britain were forming rock groups by the hundreds, all trying to emulate the "black sound." But in the music industry in those days, managers managed, controlling every aspect of their artist-property, from image to touring to repertoire. While there were successful women song-writers such as Carole King and Ellie Greenwich, they were very much exceptions to the rule. In fact, the music industry's primary market was young women. In 1963, an estimated seventy-five percent of the rock and roll record-buying public was teenage girls. This fact contributed greatly to one of the decade's greatest pop trends, the advent of the "girl-group", female singing combos backed by male session players who lit up the pop charts. By far the most successful of these would be Diana Ross and the Supremes, who scored an incredible twelve number one songs over a five year period, before Diana went off to have six more number one hits as a solo artist. But girl-groups, as glorious as they were, didn't play musical instruments on their own records and barely if ever wrote or selected their own material. Girl-bands that played their own instruments certainly existed in the '60s, but were - with a handful of notable exceptions - completely ignored by the music industry, or at best treated as novelty acts. There were undoubtedly hundreds of talented women musicians across the US who never had a audience. Those who formed bands, worked hard and persevered, were generally limited to playing gigs at parties, and in private clubs, bars and military base clubs. They labored in obscurity, playing the same venues often for weeks at a time with as many as five shows a night. But male-bands labored under a reasonable hope of landing a big recording deal one day, while the all-female bands just faded away. Until Goldie.

"Goldie" of Goldie and the Gingerbreads was a young woman originally named Genya Zelkowitz, born in Poland during World War II surviving while her two brothers weren't so lucky. The family immigrated to the US in 1947 and Genya's mother began calling her "Goldie" when the family settled in New York because she felt the name Genya was "too un-American." Escaping a traditional arranged marriage which had been set up by her parents, Goldie took off for California while in her late teens. She found some modeling work there, but returned home to New York and the support of her family and friends. One night she and some girlfriends caught a doo-wop singing group called the Escorts at a NYC club called the Lollipop Lounge. Partially inebriated and encouraged by her friends, she took the stage to sing a number with the group. Richard Perry, who sang bass for the Escorts, was impressed by her "vocal power," and made it a point to get Goldie's phone number after the show. The next day he called her up to ask if she wanted to cut a record with the Escorts. Goldie had never really pictured herself as a singer, but she agreed to give it a try. At the recording session, Goldie caught the bug, launching a pioneering career in music that would span five decades. The Escorts soon after became known as Goldie & The Escorts. Goldie ended up recording and releasing six singles with the group. But the Escorts, sometimes covering Sondheim didn't really play the type of music that Goldie wanted to sing, namely "rock and roll." One night following an Escorts' gig in Greenwich Village, Goldie and Richard Perry went to a nearby club to catch a band which featured a friend of Perry's. The band's drummer happened to be a talented young woman, quite a rare thing in 1963. Goldie and the drummer Ginger Bianco were introduced and right away the idea of starting the first all-girl rock and roll band began to take shape. Next to join was a gifted keyboard player named Margo Crocitto, who came highly recommended, and just like that they were a trio. Goldie thought up the name Goldie and the Gingerbreads, and within a few weeks, they landed their very first gig - at New York City's Peppermint Lounge, a notorious live rock and roll venue where Joey Dee & The Starliters and The Ronettes got their starts. The club was also known as the home of rock first huge dance craze, "The Twist", and would in later days be better known as Studio 54. Goldie and the Gingerbreads found no trouble getting gigs. They performed mostly covers by acts such as the Supremes, but soon began writing and performing some original tunes as well. As a trio, they recorded a one-off single in 1964 for Scepter Records' Spokane imprint, with Goldie co-writing the A-side, a rocker called "Skinny Vinnie."

Goldie and the girls soon added a guitarist Carol MacDonald who played in the downtown jazz club Page Three on weekends, often sharing a bill with the ukelele-wielding Tiny Tim. Carol, a guitarist since age 10, turned it down at first, but the idea of playing guitar in the first all-girl rock and roll band was something she just couldn't get out of her mind. A few weeks later she went to see Goldie and the Gingerbreads perform at a club called the Wagon Wheel on 45th Street. Carol was amazed at the band's great sound, saying later, "I just stood there with my mouth hanging open." During a break she asked to sit in and would say later, "I fit in like I had been there forever." Goldie and the Gingerbreads were now a quartet. And things started moving quite quickly soon thereafter. In June of 1964, the Rolling Stones arrived in New York City for their first American Tour and Goldie and the Gingerbreads were the band hired for their welcoming party. The social elite of NYC were all invited and they adored Goldie and the Gingerbreads. Author Tom Wolfe was there that night, and wrote about them in a piece entitled The Girl of the Year. Another notable presence there that night was Ahmet Ertegun, the Chairman of Atlantic Records. And he was very impressed. The following week he personally signed Goldie and the Gingerbreads to a recording contract, joining major artists like LaVern Baker, Ivory Joe Hunter, Ray Charles and Clyde McPhatter, John Coltrane, and Charlie Mingus, becoming the first all-female band to be signed by a major label. It was a credit to their talent and to the vision of the late Ahmet Ertegun, who personally inked the deal.

Word of the band was spreading, and British rock act the Animals, together with their manager Mike Jeffries, walked in one night to catch a show. They were floored by the band's performance. The Animals' lead singer Eric Burdon would later say, "There was so much feeling in Goldie's voice that I was stunned to find such a 'black' sound could be produced by a group of white girls!" Mike Jeffries extended an offer to manage them and soon thereafter Goldie and the Gingerbreads were whisked away to England, where they recorded "Can't You Hear My Heart Beat?," a top ten UK single for Goldie and the Gingerbreads in 1965, produced by Animals' keyboardist Alan Price. But the song would prove pivotal in the band's career, igniting a feud between Mike Jeffries and his partner, a highly successful producer named Mickie Most who felt the song had been "stolen from his desk" by Jeffries, and insisted it be given to his up and coming "teeny-bopper" band, Herman's Hermits, for release in the US. "Can't You Hear My Heart Beat?" would peak at number 2 on the US Billboard Singles Chart for Herman's Hermits on March 27, 1965. As with many of their hits, the actual backing musicians weren't the Hermits, but session men like Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, later of Led Zeppelin. Herman's Hermits would go on to have nine more hits, but for Goldie and the Gingerbreads, the loss of the US release was a slap in the face. Goldie and the girls would cut two follow-up singles, fueling two years of touring throughout England and Germany, opening for many of the top British rock bands, including The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Hollies and The Yardbirds. They developed a huge following in England, and performed live numerous times on British TV, including several appearances on the popular "Ready Steady Go!" They also headlined their own shows in London at popular venues such as the Crazy Elephant and the Flamingo. though Goldie and the Gingerbreads recorded and released a series of singles, they were never given the financing to record an entire album. Three of their singles saw release in the US, on Atlantic Records' Atco imprint. Atlantic still owns the US release rights to all of the recordings of Goldie & The Gingerbreads, yet they still have never seen fit to release the band's singles on a compilation CD.

When Goldie and the Gingerbreads returned to the US in late 1966, the music scene had changed considerably. Suzi Ghezzi, a great guitar player from upstate New York, joined the band as a second guitarist but by November of 1967, Goldie and the rest of the band decided things had gone about as far as they could, and the band folded. During the '70s Goldie took back her original name, and went on to front the band Genya Ravan and the Ten Wheel Drive. She also released a series of solo albums, later became the first established female record producer of note whose stable of artists included The Village People. The remaining Gingerbreads would later form the nucleus of ISIS, an all-woman rock band that would release three great albums for Buddah Records and United Artists in the '70s.

The second all-girl band of note would have to have been the Pandoras (not to be confused with the LA band from the 80s), a group of gals led by singer Kathy Kinsella who gigged heavily between 1964-1968, playing college campuses all over New England, as well as one night a week at the Rathskellar in Kenmore Square. Over a four year period they were consistently the highest paid "local" band in New England, and one of the most heavily booked, opening for big name acts including Neil Diamond, the Byrds, the Lovin' Spoonful, the Kingsmen, and Gary Lewis and The Playboys in the Boston Garden. Though they also had a boss run as a live act including six weeks at the Sahara Hotel in Lake Tahoe and the Peppermint Lounge in NYC, and were "cute" enough to appear written up in all the papers and fashion mags, a substantial recording contract again proved elusive. The Pandoras only recorded two singles for the Liberty Records label, both of which saw release in 1967, " I Could Write a Book About My Baby" b/w "New Day" and "Don't Bother" b/w "Games" . Though Janis Joplin and Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane were household name rockstars, there still hadn't been an all-girl band to get a full record deal. Some of the other all-girl acts who languished in obscurity were the Luv'd Ones, a Chicago-based act started by Char Vinnedge, a singer, songwriter and guitarist with the coolest fuzz guitar sound. They recorded a number of tunes for Dunwich Records, but only two singles were released in 1966 and they never hit the charts. The material Dunwich had shelved was later released on a CD by Sundazed records and turned out to be the first ever example of all-girl psych-rock. Char was obsessed with Jimi Hendrix and went on to record an LP as a three piece with Billy Cox, Hendrix's bassist during his Band of Gypsys era following Jimi's death. Though the material was written by and featured Char on vocals and guitar, the album was dubbed Billy Cox's Nitro Function and remains out of print. Another quirky story is that of the Shaggs, a trio of sisters from rural New Hampshire who in 1969 were pushed by their father, Austin Wiggin, to record an album, believing they would make it big in the music business. Though not well off financially he somehow managed to buy them instruments, force his girls to practice and to write songs, and then finance a recording session that resulted in an album that was completely ignored, containing tracks that could be more easily deemed musical curiosities then cohesive songs. One thousand copies were supposedly pressed, however, only 100 copies were found after the man who was paid to press the album disappeared. But years later, when asked in a Playboy Magazine interview what he was listening to nowadays, Frank Zappa mentioned the Shaggs. The album gets picked up by local radio program directors and becomes a legendary musical relic that sees re-release to immense critical acclaim because although the record is essentially inept - it is at the same time sincere, naive and lovable. This is the story of these sisters, Dot, Helen and Betty Wiggin, aka The Shaggs and the album is called Philosophy of The World. The Shaggs performed for local audiences at weekly dances at the Fremont Town Hall, as well as occasional performances at a local nursing home, eventually being joined by another sister, Rachel, on bass. When Austin Wiggin died in 1975, the Shaggs called it quits for good. An original pressing of the Shaggs' LP is worth a truckload of money today, but has been re-released and a current CD version from RCA can be purchased online along with later material.

The first all-girl band to actually be given a traditional recording deal came in the 1970s, when Richard Perry (remember him?) discovered two half-Filipino sisters June and Jean Millington playing shows in Sacramento in a band called Wild Honey. Joined by Alice de Buhr, a drummer since the second grade, who had fled her home in Iowa at the age of seventeen, the band was given the name Fanny and introduced to pro keyboard player Nicoel "Nickey" Barclay. Reprise Records made them the first all-girl musical band to record an album. Fanny opened shows for the likes of Jethro Tull, Chicago, Chuck Berry, and Van Morrison, but was a headliner in their own right, and gave some breaks to newer bands such as the all-female band ISIS. Continuing through to 1974 and four albums, Fanny lost singer June Millington, moving to a farm she had purchased in upstate New York. The remaining members of Fanny decided to carry on with Patti Quatro (the big sister of Suzi), to take over on lead guitar and vocals. But after several lineup changes, they finally hung it up in April 1976, not long after "Butter Boy" had peaked at #29 on the Billboard charts, their highest ranking single. Another all-female band to cut an album was LA-based Birtha. Though they'd started gigging in 1967, four years before Fanny, their record deal came only after Fanny's, as ABC/Dunhill signed them seeking to also get into the all-girl game, but after so-so sales, their deal petered out. Then, in 1976, an experienced writer and producer named Kim Fowley (with credits such as the #1 hit "Alley Oop" behind him) decided to manufacture an all-girl act, taking advantage of the popularity of the 'glitter and glam' trend in rock . His subjects were a crew of rebellious rocker chicks in their mid-teens, namely Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Cherie Currie, Sandy West and Jackie Fox. Under Fowley's direction, the act came together as The Runaways and they were signed by Mercury Records. Their three albums charted quite low, and radio play was nowhere to be found. Many thought it was because the reportedly sixteen-year old singer Cherie Currie sang in panties and garters, and the act was too bawdy and outrageous to go anywhere. In less sexually repressed countries, however, the band fared far better. The Runaways were a smash in Japan, selling out large halls to screaming mobs a la the Beatles. The band crashed and burned by 1979, after several personnel changes and allegations of abuse by Fowley, but Joan Jett would go on to have a rich musical career with her band The Blackhearts, and Lita Ford would become a heavy metal rock goddess, teaming with Ozzy Osborne in 1988 on the #8 hit "Close My Eyes Forever". It wasn't until 1982 when an all-girl act would finally achieve a #1 album, when The Go-Gos released Beauty and the Beat. Belinda Carlisle, Charlotte Caffey, Jane Wiedlin, Gina Schock and Linda Valentine comprised this punchy pop combo whose hit single "Our Lips Are Sealed" reached #20, and the follow up "We Got The Beat" reached as high as #2 on the singles charts, ironically beaten out only by Joan Jett's classic version of "I Love Rock n'Roll!"