Women of Rock

Women of Rock

Melissa Etheridge
You can always count on me for a walk back in time in my blog and this topic will be no different. In order to trace the history of female Rock singers I will go back to some of the pioneers.  Let’s first start with some background on the Rock & Roll genre. What was once referred to as Rock & Roll was shortened to just Rock by the late 1960s and has continued to evolve. Some may want to separate it into two genres, but semantics can’t change the history of this diverse genre. The Rock & Roll period also includes Blues, R&B, Country and Rockabilly styles, among others. So whether these artists find themselves in the subgenre of Hard Rock, Acid Rock, Pop Rock, Folk Rock or one of the many dozens of other sub-classifications, a little reminder of the history is what I’m starting with today. These early influencers are where some of our more recent great artists received inspiration, motivation and in some cases the education to move their own careers forward. I can’t name them all today and I may have mentioned many of these women before, but here are some of the early artists that deserve to be mentioned once again.

Memphis Minnie

Memphis Minnie was born in 1897 in Algiers Louisiana as Lizzie Douglas. She ran away at age 13 and became a street performer on Beale Street in Memphis. In 1916 she toured with The Ringling Brothers Circus for four years. She and her second husband Joe McCoy were ‘discovered’ in 1929 and they moved to New York to record for Columbia Records. They recorded “Bumble Bee” (1930) and “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” (1941) which was covered by Jefferson Airplane in 1966. “When the Levee Breaks” was one of the first songs the duo wrote and recorded in 1929. This song was adapted by Led Zeppelin for their fourth album in 1971.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe blazed the way for hot guitar licks and big vocals for both male and female artists. This is the earliest clip I could find, a real gem from 1938 called “That’s All“. One need only listen to hear just how important this woman was to music. Here is another song, from 1941 “The Lonesome Road“, from 1950 “Silent Night” and in 1964 this stunning performance in Manchester, England “Didn’t it Rain“.

50s Female R&R Singers 

In the 1950’s when Rock & Roll was just getting some traction there were  voices like Wanda Jackson, who sang Country, Rock and Rockabilly. She sang “I Gotta Know” written by Thelma Blackmon which was released in July of 1956. Brenda Lee, released the song “Dynamite” at the age of 12 which earned her the appropriate nickname ‘Little Miss Dynamite’.  She would go on to have a remarkable career (which still isn’t over) and I believe she is the only woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll, Country Music, and The Rockabilly Hall of Fame as well. Some of her later hits would include “Sweet Nothin’s” (#4 in 1959), “I’m Sorry” (#1 in 1960) and of course “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (1958).

Tina Turner

Tina Turner delivered an explosive live performance in 1964 with the song “A Fool in Love“. The song was originally recorded in March of 1960 and written by Ike Turner and released as “Ike and Tina Turner”. The song represents a turning point for her career and a multi-genre cross over contribution to R&B, Rock and Soul music. She is one of many artists I’d like to dedicate a post to in the future.

Carole King

After starting to write songs at age 17 with husband Gerry Goffin, Carole King was an early contributor to Rock & Roll through her compositions. King’s music and Goffin’s lyrics were performed not only in Rock & Roll but R&B (Doo Wop) and other pop music styles. Later she produced one of the greatest Pop Rock albums ever, Tapestry (1971). I have referenced her over a dozen times including a dedicated a post called Carole King.


The band Heart is led by sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson. It’s a long story for another day, but these Seattle-based musicians moved to Vancouver B.C. in 1973 and returned to the U.S. about eight years later. They even promoted themselves with the slogan “music from Canada” and released their first album, Dreamboat Annie in 1975. “Magic Man” was a top 10 hit, followed by “Crazy on You” (1976), “Barracuda” (1977) and their first #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 was “These Dreams” in 1986. As the first females to front a Hard Rock band, they have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and sold over 35 million records. Nancy is regarded as one of the best guitar players and Ann as one of the best voices in Rock history.

Carly Simon

Carly Simon at times falls into the Pop Rock genre, though some of her material is more Folk than Rock. I’ve heard some of her covers of Jazz standards and she nails it on this sax-infused original song she co wrote with Michael McDonald, “You Belong to Me” (1978), originally recorded by the Doobie Brothers in 1977. After a brief start singing with her sister Lucy, she produced some incredible and memorable songs: “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” was her 1971 Grammy-winning debut single followed by “Anticipation“, “You’re So Vain“, “Nobody Does it Better” from The Spy Who Loved Me, “Mockingbird” (with James Taylor) and “Jesse” to end a ten year stretch of being one of the top artists of that time. In 1989 she won a Grammy, a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for “Let the River Run” from the score for the 1988 movie Working Girl which starred Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver. She has since produced dozens of songs and music for movies, some new albums and has written several books.

Rickie Lee Jones

Rickie Lee Jones had a very tumultuous early life, from moving here and there, being abandoned by her father and then leaving home as a young teen to find him in Kansas City, MO (that’s the one with all the pro sports teams in case #45 confused you). By age 19 she was playing in bars in LA, including the Troubadour where she met her future lover, Tom Waits. In 1979 she released her Grammy-winning debut album Rickie Lee Jones which hit #3 on Billboard. The lead song “Chuck E.’s In Love” hit #4 on the singles chart. Although she never matched that album’s popularity, she has had a successful and varied career recording music beyond the Rock genre including Jazz, Soul and R&B. Some of other great tunes;”Danny’s All Star Joint“,  “Woody & Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking” and her amazing cover of the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renée“.

Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie

Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie converged in the supergroup Fleetwood Mac. Nicks wrote the song “Dreams“, the bands only #1 hit on Billboard. She is one of the best songwriters in Rock, including her work outside of the band with hit songs such as “Leather and Lace“, “Edge of Seventeen” and “Stand Back“. Christine contributed to Fleetwood Mac beyond that amazing contralto voice as she penned “Over My Head” and “Say You Love Me“, both entering the top 20. She also reached #10 with her solo release single “Got a Hold on Me” in 1984.

Pat Benatar

Pat Benatar (Patricia Mae Andrzejewski), is often referred to as being “classically trained” due to her brief training as a coloratura. Though this training led to little beyond a solo in her High School play. After quitting one year into a university healthcare program, she married Dennis Benatar. In 1975 she sang a song by her inspiration, Liza Minnelli, at an amateur night and earned a call back from her future manager, Rick Newman. After years of hard work she released her debut album In the Heat of the Night in 1979, with the hit single “Heartbreaker“. She has gone on to win four Grammy Awards and produce 14 more top 40 singles such as “Hit Me with Your Best Shot“, “Love Is a Battlefield” and “We Belong“.

Patti Smith

Patti Smith is #47 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s 100 Greatest Artists. You know her for her writing collaboration with Bruce Springsteen and her now classic hit song “Because the Night” from 1978. Born in Chicago, her family moved around and at age 19 she landed in New York. Smith is an eclectic artist to say the least, producing 12 albums including her first titled Horses, in 1975 which is considered to be a seminal Punk Rock work and a major source of inspiration for Michael Stipe (R.E.M.) and others. She is an acclaimed photographer and writer, having written over a dozen books with her autobiographical Just Kids winning the National Book Prize. She was awarded the Polar Music Prize in 2011.

Janis Joplin

Janis Joplin grew up in Texas and left The University of Texas before completing her studies. She landed in San Francisco in 1963 and quickly became immersed in the local drug culture. Despite her serious early addictions to both drugs and alcohol, she managed to progress in her music career. We all know her powerful lead vocals on Big Brother and the Holding Company’s rendition of “Piece of My Heart“. Written by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns, it was released in 1968 after originally being done by Aretha’s older sister Erma Franklin in 1967. Joplin had one of the most powerful and dynamic voices, not only in Rock but compared to any other genre. She was just building a successful solo career when she died October 4, 1970 of what was ruled an accidental heroin overdose. The posthumous release of her album Pearl (1971) contained her only Billboard #1 hit, a cover of “Me and Bobby McGee” which is ranked at #148 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Florence Welch

Florence Welch burst on the music scene in 2009 with her band Florence and the Machine with their debut album, Lungs. It topped the UK charts for 28 weeks and landed the BRIT award for best album in 2010. The band followed with three more hit albums. While not nearly as popular in North America, you will find “Dog Days Are Over“, “Shake It Out” and “Spectrum (Say My Name)” to be familiar songs.

Kate Bush

Catherine Bush has paved the way for many female artists in both her native England and around the world. Her debut album in 1978 produced the #1 hit “Wuthering Heights“. Somewhat shockingly she was the first woman to have a self-written number one song in the UK. Her brand of rock is not for everyone; she explores the avant-garde and experimental side of the genre and while she has had some fleeting success in the US, she remains one of the most prominent artists in the UK. Her duet with Peter Gabriel on “Don’t Give Up” is a stellar performance. Some of her other more recognizable songs include “Running Up That Hill” and “King of the Mountain“.

Debbie Harry 

Deborah Ann Harry is another ground-breaking artist best known as the lead singer for Blondie. Their first album titled Blondie gained some critical acclaim but did not do well commercially with the exception of Australia where it hit #3. In 1978 Blondie had a hit single in the UK with a cover of  Randy and the Rainbows “Denis“, competing with Kate Bush on the charts. The third time’s a charm as it’s sometimes said, and the next album produced two singles co-written by Harry, “Heart of Glass” which was a worldwide smash #1 song and “One Way or Another” that had limited chart success but has gone on the be one of the bands signature songs. In 1980 they would strike again with “The Tide is High” and “Call Me“. “Rapture” in 1981 also hit #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and the Dance charts. Blondie followed this success with seven more top ten Dance songs.

Melissa Etheridge

Like many people I can sometimes put myself in the time and place where I first heard a song. One of the most vivid of those memories is “Bring Me Some Water” in 1988. It was a sunny day in May, I was listening to Q107 while driving into downtown Toronto. As I am inching along on the York Street off ramp this song exploded from my radio. Three things occured to me after I listened, one; I really, really like that song, two; that woman is going places and three; I’m buying that record tomorrow. She received her first of many Grammy nominations for that song. My wife and I were lucky enough to see her in Boston when she performed as part of a Berklee College music night at Tanglewood (with the Boston Pops) in 2014, she performed solo acoustic and was awesome. In 1993 she won the Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female for the song “Ain’t It Heavy” and in 2007 an Academy Award for Best Original Song with “I Need to Wake Up” from the documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. Other notable tunes are
Come to My Window“, “I’m the Only One” and one of my favorites “You Can Sleep While I Drive“.  Her performance of “Piece of My Heart” at the Janis Joplin Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction in 1995 shows off her stellar guitar and vocal talents.

Bonnie Raitt

Many of the artists I’ve mentioned, especially Bonnie Raitt can be categorized in several genre but is best known for her bluesy rock songs. She is on the list of the Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, she’s ranked as one of the greatest guitar players and has won 10 Grammy Awards. Four of those Grammys came in 1990; three from her 1989 album Nick of Time (Best Female Rock Vocal Performance, Album of the Year) with the title track that she wrote winning her Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. The fourth grammy was for Best Traditional Blues Recording from a duet with John Lee Hooker on his classic song “I’m in the Mood“. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and continues to write and record, adding to her 17 studio albums. Recognizable songs include; “Thing Called Love“, “Love Sneakin’ Up On You” (#1 in Canada) and “Something to Talk About” written with Canadian singer songwriter Shirley Eikhard, who before age 15 wrote “It Takes Time” which was a hit for Anne Murray in 1971 and of course the John Prine classic, “Angel from Montgomery“.
I have also blogged on Linda Ronstadt and Chrissie Hynde in New Wave and there are others I’ve touched on as well. Then there are some like Cher who’s versatile career included some rock songs but will find a better fit into a future post on Women in Music.
References: 123
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Edited by Richelle Dafoe

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