MELISSA ETHERIDGE: THE MOUTH THAT ROARED

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Melissa is beloved for the great music she makes, but she achieved eternal sheroism with her album “Yes I Am,” a public coming-out and celebration of her lesbianism. An ebullient spirit who can sing, play killer guitar, and write hit songs by the droves, Melissa Etheridge hails from Kansas; and at thirty-six, she embraced shared motherhood of her child with her partner of ten years, film maker Julie Cypher. Melissa’s personal shero is Janis Joplin, and she hopes to portray the Texas rock legend on film one day. Etheridge, who has enjoyed the changing tide for women in the music industry, delights in the success of musicians she respects: Edie Brickell, Tracy Chapman, Toni Childs, Natalie Merchant, Michelle Shocked, and the Indigo Girls, all who sell records by the millions. Even a few years ago, Etheridge remembers that rock radio jocks claimed they could only play one woman a day or risk losing their male listeners. “All of a sudden the whole lid was blown off…people were coming to our concerts, and they were requesting our songs on the radio, and radio changed. That’s the way America works. The public ultimately says, ‘This what we want.’ The world was ready for strong women’s inspired music.” And Melissa Etheridge was at the forefront of the revolution!

 

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

BONNIE RAITT: BORN TO SING THE BLUES

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Born in 1949 in Burbank to a show biz family, Bonnie Raitt plays the slide guitar like she was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her first exposure to the music scene was classical piano (her mother’s forte), her father’s Broadway show tunes, and the Beach Boy harmonies she grew up with. A Christmas gift changed Bonnie’s life—at age eight, she received a guitar and worked diligently at getting good at playing it. The first time she heard Joan Baez, Bonnie went the way of folk and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be a part of the folkie coffeehouse scene. Unfortunately for her, folk music was on its last legs. Instead she hooked up with Dick Waterman, a beau who just happened to manage the careers of Bonnie’s musical icons: Son House, Fred McDowell, Sippie Wallace, and Muddy Waters. By the age of twenty, she was playing with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells—opening for the Rolling Stones with two blue greats.

Bonnie’s road to fame, however, was very long and winding. It had to come on her terms. Always more interested in artistic integrity than commercial success, she had exacting standards and tastes. She demanded authenticity in playing the blues she loved and reinterpreting those riffs through the influences of country and rock. She didn’t play the game and, a musician’s musician, she rarely got radio air play. Thus she made her living traveling the country, performing in small clubs. Bonnie was also very outspoken on political causes. Raised as a Quaker, she has always been involved in political causes, doing many benefit concerts; in 1979, she cofounded Musicians United for Safe Energy.

The stress of the road, and of being a novelty in the music industry—a female blues guitarist—eventually took its toll, and Bonnie drowned her sorrows for a time in drugs and booze. In the mid-eighties, when her record label dumped her, she bottomed out, became clean and sober, and made the climb back up. In 1989, her smash album “Nick of Time” won her a Grammy and garnered sales in excess of four million.

Since then, she hasn’t stopped making her great earthy blend of blues, folk, pop, and R&B, or working on behalf of the causes that are meaningful to her. Bonnie Raitt
is a consummate musician who loves to perform live, loves to pay homage to the blues greats, and continues to speak her mind. In an interview in Rolling Stone, she laid it on the line about the current looks-dominated music industry: “In the 70s, all these earthy women were getting record deals—you didn’t have to be some gorgeous babe. There’s been some backsliding since.”

 

“Any guy who has a problem with feminists is signaling a shortage in his pants. If I had to be a woman before men and women were more equal, I would’ve shot somebody and been in jail.”

— Bonnie Raitt

 

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

HELEN REDDY: “I AM STRONG. I AM INVINCIBLE.”

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Along with Led Zeppelin, art rockers Yes and Fairport Convention, one of the artists Alison Steele played on her nationally popular radio show was Helen Reddy.
Both of these women struggled for years to make it. Reddy’s songs were embraced as anthems for a nation of women collectively committed to shattering the glass ceiling. For the time, Helen Reddy’s achievement was stunning. She wrote a hard-core feminist song and took it to the top of the charts; “I Am Woman” was the number one hit on the charts in 1972. In clear ringing tones, Helen declared a message that empowered and encouraged women around the world, “I am woman, hear me roar. I am too strong to ignore…if I have to, I can do anything. I am strong. I am invincible!”

Sing it, Sister

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

ALISON STEELE: SONG OF THE NIGHTBIRD

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Alison broke important ground for women in radio when she took wing on the airwaves in the 1960s as the first female disc jockey at a major radio station. “I listened to her faithfully,” says author Joan Steinau Lester. “She was absolutely fantastic. At the time, I only knew I liked her and the show. It was only years later that I realized she’d broken ground for women in a male-dominated industry.”

Progressive rock radio was becoming the hottest sound across the nation, and WNEW was one of the top stations in the nation. Alison was well on her way to a very Mary Tyler Moore-type career in TV, starting by leading a morning exercise program and climbing her way up the ladder to “weather girl.” When AM and FM radio stations split apart instead of simulcasting, competitive radio stations were forced to hire another staff to man the FM stations, putting many in a bind for salaries. Alison recalls that the standard rate for AM jocks at the time was $150,000 a year, while the FM scale was a mere $125 a week. Management at WNEW figured they could hire an all-woman FM crew and stay within the standard FM pay scale.

Alison and her companion women disc jockeys, mostly actresses and models, made their debut on July 4, 1966. Alison was nearly the only one with any previous experience in any realm of broadcasting. By September 1967, the all-woman stable of jocks was out of a job for a reason that Alison herself puts most succinctly, “America, New York, was not ready for lady DJs!” Thanks to creativity and experience in the world of entertainment, Alison wasn’t let go—the only woman to have survived. She had been experimenting within her on-air time, trying angles that kept the listeners’ interest high— theater reviews, celebrity interviews, and lots of high energy personality. When management found in a pre- purge survey that 90 percent of listeners knew her name and enjoyed her show, they made the smart decision to keep her on board.

Along with drastic personnel changes, the station management also made a format change to progressive rock. Alison was out of familiar terrain with rock music, as was the remaining all-male staff and the all-male management. When Alison asked for guidance, she was given the precise and, as it turned out, appropriate advice to simply “do her thing.” They gave her the graveyard shift, too—midnight to 6:00 A.M. The ever- intrepid Alison figured her nighttime listeners were a special breed of insomniacs, lonely people, and assorted other nocturnal types. “I felt that night was a very special time.” She knew from personal experience that emotions intensify at night—loneliness, depression, and illness. Alison’s sensitivity to people paid in spades; she reached out and connected to her listeners by creating this special persona, The Nightbird, and the listeners responded overwhelmingly. “I felt that if I could make this bond visible between people who are feeling things at night, then I’d have something going.” She put all of her creativity into her alter ego with high drama, fantasy, and many completely unique elements the likes of which nighttime radio had never heard. Listeners were hooked after her jazzy intro with the sound of softly fluttering wings and the poetic intro Alison had written ending with “as the Nightbird lifts her wings and soars above the earth into another level of comprehension, where we exist only to feel. Come fly with me, Alison Steele, The Nightbird at WNEW-FM until dawn.”

The phones at the station rang off the hook that first night. Station management told her that she had a “little hit” and then her male boss told her he would tell her how to do it. Instead of being congratulated for originality and the instant popularity of her new show, Alison was treated like a loose cannon, and they tried really hard to mold her and her show into something less unique and more like the shows all the other DJs, men at this point, were doing. Alison stuck to her guns and refused to change the Nightbird, only to be buried even further into the night hours, beginning at 2:00 A.M.! Alison’s stories include the station’s refusal to buy a step stool so she could reach the records on the top shelf. The response to the most popular DJ at the station was a threat to hire “a taller person.”

Alison went on to win Billboard’s “FM Personality of the Year” in 1978, the first woman to receive this honor. Although she was enormously popular, she was regarded with resentment by many of her fellow jocks. In fact, the station made very little effort to clue Alison in to just how important she was to the station. WNEW was
the top station in the country in the hot new category of progressive rock. They were also beloved in their own backyard of New York and began doing public appearances, including one at a concert in Madison Square Garden. This was really the eye-opener. Alison loves to tell this story, “I was the last person be introduced. So they were all on stage when they introduced Alison Steele, ‘The Nightbird,’” The six male DJs who had been introduced before her had to stand there and eat crow while the entire crowd stood and cheered and screamed and clapped for their favorite DJ, Alison, The Nightbird.

Sheroes don’t always get to reap the rewards of their actions during their lifetimes. For Alison, this standing ovation from 20,000 fans who adored her courage and creativity was music to her ears. For proof of Alison Steele’s popularity, look no further than the 70’s TV show, “B.J. and the Bear,” which boasted a female trucker character named Angie who worked as a radio DJ at night with the air name of “The Nightingale.”

“It was my moment of glory, I worked hard for it. I took a lot of s*** over it. And I enjoyed every minute of it.”

— Alison Steele

 

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

JONI MITCHELL: THE LADY OF THE CANYON

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Nearly every significant contemporary musician, male or female, cites Joni Mitchell as a major influence. Born in Alberta to a Royal Canadian officer and a school teacher in 1943, Roberta Joan Anderson contracted polio at nine and spent much time inside her own head during her lonely convalescence. She remained introspective throughout
her life and developed a love of the arts that informs her sensibility still. Like other fifties teens, Joni danced to Elvis, Chuck Berry, and the Kingston Trio, buying a guitar to sing at Wednesday dance parties. She lost her taste for art school when the classes appeared to be assembly-line training for commercial artists. Instead she started singing in Toronto cafes where she met and married fellow singer Chuck Mitchell, a liaison that lasted for two years. Upon the breakup of their marriage, she rebounded to New York where she tried her hand at professional songwriting. She was soon successful; her material was selected by Tom Rush, Judy Collins, and Buffy Saint-Marie.

Like sister-shero Carole King in her opus Tapestry, the songwriter recorded some tracks of her own with great success. Joni Mitchell’s late sixties album Ladies of the Canyon was a moody sensation, followed immediately by Blue, Court and Spark and a subsequent catalog of impressive diversity and size. She branched out from her folk origins into jazz, blues, and electronic music, composing, singing, and recording, among other eclectic works, a vocal tribute to Charles Mingus. Joni Mitchell became a musician’s and critic’s darling (though some dismissed her more avant-garde work as self-indulgent noise) and a favorite with progressive radio listeners.

Cool and ethereally beautiful, Joni’s personal life drew much attention from the press, embarrassing her and her lovers with exposes tracking her numerous liaisons, including those with rockers Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, and horn player Tom Scott. This was echoed recently in extensive coverage of her reunion with the daughter she gave up for adoption in infancy.

Joni Mitchell, who thinks of herself as a poet of the prairies, has left an indelible mark on twentieth-century music herstory. Her smart, ironic, saturnine music is played by the serious listeners and musicians of each generation that comes along. For her part, Joni prefers simplicity, clarity, truth. “For a while it was assumed that I was writing women’s music. Then men began to notice that they saw themselves in the songs, too. A good piece of art should be androgynous.”

 

“A man in the promotion department criticized my music for its lack of masculinity. They said I didn’t have any balls. Since when do women have balls anyway? Why do I have to be like that?”

— Joni Mitchell

 

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

DINAH WASHINGTON: LEGENDARY VOICE

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Rolling Stone journalist Gerry Hershey makes the claim, “If there is a paramount body for evidence to support the feminist poster ‘Sisterhood is powerful,’ it is Dinah Washington’s 1958 LP tribute to the Empress, The Bessie Smith Songbook.” Dinah Washington is one of the all-time great vocalists who immediately took ownership of any song she sang. In addition to a great set of pipes, she had a good head for business, running a restaurant in Detroit and a booking agency, Queen Attractions, where she signed talent like Muhammad Ali and Sammy Davis, Jr. Able to juggle many different gambits, Washington also dominated the stage of the Flame Show Bar and Detroit’s Twenty Grand Club, where future superstars Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and Aretha Franklin sat enthralled, watching a master at work. Motown was just gearing up when Dinah Washington died accidentally of an unfortunate combination of pills and alcohol. A legend in her own time, she is rumored to have married as many as nine times before her untimely demise at age thirty-nine. Dinah Washington, one of the most gifted singers to have ever held a microphone, lived large, predated the excess of rock stars with peroxide wigs, and a home filled with gorgeous cut crystal chandeliers, and toilet-seat covers made from mink!

 

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

ARETHA FRANKLIN: EARNING OUR RESPECT

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A preacher’s daughter, Aretha Franklin started her musical career early, appearing with her famous dad, Revered Clarence LaVaugh Franklin, at Detroit’s New Baptist Church. She is a talented musician who eschewed piano lessons so she could experiment with her own style of playing. By the age of eight, in 1950, Aretha electrified her father’s congregation with her first gospel solo; by fourteen, she’d cut her first gospel record, “Songs of Faith.” Encouraged by her father and his circle of friends and acquaintances, which included Dinah Washington, Reverend James Cleveland, Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, Sam Cooke, and Art Tatum, the budding gospel great had her eyes on the glittery prize of pop stardom. She decided to move to New York to pursue her dream in 1960.

The following year she had an album, Aretha, on Columbia, which positioned her as a jazz artist, covering classics like “God Bless the Child,” “Ol’ Man River,” and “Over the Rainbow.” Franklin went on to record ten albums with Columbia, while record execs waffled about how to package her. Jerry Wexler of Atlantic records was a fan of Aretha and signed her immediately when her contract with Columbia ran out. Wexler rightly saw Aretha as an R&B singer. She agreed. Her debut album on Atlantic, I Never Loved a Man, contained the hit “Respect,” which catapulted Franklin to number one on both the pop and the R&B charts. “Respect” became an anthem in 1967 for both feminists and black activists.

“Respect” was just the beginning of a chain of hits for the singer: “Baby, I Love You,” “Natural Woman,” and “Chain of Fools” came hot on the heels of the international smash hit, and soon Aretha was dubbed the “Queen of Soul” and reigned over the music world with the power and authority of her god-given gift.

Aretha was inspired to sing, rather than be a church pianist, when she heard Clara Ward. “From then on I knew what I wanted to do—sing! I liked all of Miss Ward’s records.” She also idolized Dinah Washington and recorded a tribute album in 1964 after Washington’s tragic death at the peak of her prime. Much like Washington did for Bessie Smith, Aretha did an amazing and moving set of covers to honor the brilliance and glory of the Detroit diva entitled “Unforgettable.” And it is—as is her 1985 duet with Annie Lennox, summing up the sherodom of legends of women: “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves.” Amen, Sisters!

 

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.