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Here’s Why Women Rock

Collaboration By: Brittany Adams & Tricia Callahan

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Rosetta Nubin was practically born with a guitar in her hands. By the age of four she was singing and playing guitar, and by age six she was a regular performer in a traveling evangelical troupe. After traipsing around the American south for a few years, Nubin and her mother settled in Chicago, where they still performed in church concerts and the occasional church convention. Then a brief marriage in 1934 to a preacher named Thomas Thorpe lent her her stage name, albeit with a slight vowel modification.

By 1938, now with her new stage name (Sister Rosetta Tharpe), she was a single twenty-three year old, living in New York City and signed to Decca Records. The four songs she recorded for Decca, “Rock Me,” “That’s All,” “The Man and I” and “The Lonesome Road,” all became instant hits, establishing her as one of America’s first commercially successful gospel singers.

Despite being a gospel singer, however, Tharpe was decidedly secular in her performances. Instead of limiting herself to performing with acoustic guitars in a church setting, she shredded on an electric guitar at Carnegie Hall. Her style, blending rhythm and blues with traditional folk and gospel, was a clear precursor to the rock and roll of the 1950s. The first few chords of her single “That’s All,” recorded in 1938, are all you need to hear to know exactly where Elvis got his bluesy electric guitar riffs.

In 1944 she joined with Sammy Price, Decca’s resident blues pianist, to record “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” which is widely regarded as the first rock and roll record. Over the course of her career, her deviation from tradition had tested the loyalty of her church-going fanbase. Playing gospel music with a jazz band in a secular setting was enough to ruffle a few feathers, and her more conservative fans were scandalized to see a woman playing a guitar. The religious community’s backlash from her unique record with Price was severe however, and led Tharpe back to creating more Christian-based music, but that did not diminish the effect she had.

Both Little Richard and Johnny Cash openly named Sister Rosetta Tharpe as one of their favorite musicians; moreover, she has clearly influenced the likes of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner. Without Tharpe paving the way, it could have been years before someone else got up in front of a crowd to play a rhythmic, folksy tune on the electric guitar.

Lesley Gore

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Lesley Gore was a junior in high school when her pop hit “It’s My Party” blasted the airwaves. The track, produced by Quincy Jones, became a #1 Billboard hit and sold over a million copies. Hailing from New Jersey, 16-year-old Gore went on to have a string of hits. Those included “Judy’s Turn to Cry” (which played as part 2 to “It’s My Party”) and the pro-feminist “You Don’t Own Me.” In 1966, while continuing to work with Jones, Gore released two fairly successful tracks, “Maybe I Know” and “Sunshine and Rainbows.”

Staying out of the spotlight during the 70’s while obtaining a college degree, Gore reemerged in 1980 while working with Bob Crewe on the track “California Nights.” She would also appear as a member of Catwoman’s gang on the TV series Batman.

Gore acted and co-wrote songs with her brother Michael Gore in 1980’s Fame. Her co-written track “Out Here on My Own” received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. The film has since found its way to the Broadway stage and has become a staple of American musical theater.

Gore’s personal life became public when she came out as a lesbian while hosting a PBS Television Series, “In the Life.” Gore stood behind the show completely, saying, “[she] met a lot of people in the Midwest, and [she] saw what a difference a show like ‘In the Life’ can make to their lives in some of these small towns where, you know, there [were] probably two gay people in the whole damn town.”

After coming out, Gore became known not only for her beautiful voice but for her activism, both for LGBT rights and feminism. She freely lent songs to the women’s rights movement and participated in a recent video for Lady Parts Justice that encourages women to vote during midterm elections.

After losing her battle with lung cancer Gore passed away on February 16, 2015 at the age of 68. Her partner Lois Sasson only had glowing things to say, namely that “she was a wonderful human being—caring, giving, a great feminist, great woman, great human being, great humanitarian.”

The Shirelles

Did you ever listen to Spice Girls? Do you still listen to Spice Girls? Of course you do. Well, you have The Shirelles to thank for Spiceworld‘s existence on your playlist and in your hearts.

In 1957, Shirley Owens, Doris Coley, Addie “Mickie” Harris and Beverly Lee entered their high school’s talent show and happened to catch the attention of Florence Greenberg, the owner of Tiara Records. Newly dubbed The Shirelles, the girls formally recorded “I Met Him on a Sunday,” a song they had previously written specifically for the talent show. The record’s local success attracted the attention of Decca Records, who licensed it and thus enabled it to chart at #50 on Billboard.

Following their initial success, they hit a lull in 1959 after Tiara Records and The Shirelles’ contract were sold to Decca. Their singles with Decca did so poorly that the label, assuming they were merely a one-hit wonder, dismissed them. Greenberg, however, was unwilling to give up on the girls, and so signed them to a new label and recruited songwriter Luther Dixon (a former collaborator of Nat King Cole and Pat Boone) to write and produce.

The Shirelles’ first single with Dixon, “Tonight’s the Night,” peaked at #39 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and #14 on the R&B chart. Later that year, the girls went on to have even bigger, history-making success with their hit cover of Carole King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” The cover hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961, ranking The Shirelles among Elvis Presley and Bobby Lewis and making them the first girl group to achieve such a feat. The girls were even lauded as an unprecedented crossover success prior to Motown’s heyday with white audiences.

The girls’ accomplishment spawned a slew of imitators and established girl groups as a new, viable music genre. Their soft harmonies and schoolgirl innocence defined the sound of girl groups for years to come, influencing generations of female pop singers. Rolling Stone even ranked them #76 on their list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time and counted two of their songs (“Tonight’s the Night” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”) among the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, in acknowledgment of the permanent impact the ladies had on the music industry.

Janis Joplin

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Joplin’s death from a heroin overdose was over forty years ago, and we can still hear the heart-wrenching vocals of her performance at Woodstock and her sincere pleas to the auidence that “music is for grooving… not for putting yourself through bad changes.” Joplin’s rollercoaster of a career and life led to her incredible mark on the history of rock-n-roll, and inevitably, her early demise.

While attending high school in Port Arthur, Texas, Joplin was teased relentlessly for her artistic tendencies: painting and reading. She also did not share in the then-common views against people of color, which ostrosized her even more from the in-crowd. Joplin found solace in a small group of outcasts that introduced her to the Blues. Joplin later credited this experience with her decision to become a singer.

After attending the University of Texas and leaving before completing her studies, Joplin traveled to San Francisco. Joplin began recording there but left in the Spring of ’65 in an attempt to stay clean and prepare her wedding with her long distance beau, Peter de Blac. All the while she adopted a beehive hair-do, performed solo and studied as an Anthropology major at Lamar University. By the Fall of ’65, Blac had called off the marriage.

Joplin then entered the most povital part of her career when she joined Big Brother and The Holding Company in 1966. All of the band members lived communely in a house in Lagunitas, California. They often partied with The Grateful Dead who lived less than 2 miles away. Joplin developed a deep friendship with founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan.

Following mounting success, the band was being billed as Janis Joplin and Big Brother and The Holding Company which the band of course resented. Regardless, they found huge success with their release Cheap Thrills which housed hits like, “Piece of My Heart” and “Summertime.”

By 1969 Joplin was shooting $200 worth of heroin, which adjusted for inflation is $2,500. Joplin visited Brazil with a good friend to try to kick the habit, but started doing drugs again once she was back in the states.

Even if Joplin never found the same amount of success as a solo musician with bands Kozmic Blues Band and subsequently Full Tilt Boogie Band, according to the Billboard Charts she certaintly found her way into the hearts of music lovers all over the world.

In death Joplin alotted $2,500 to a wake party (which in today’s dollars is $15,571.08). In the words of Joplin, “you don’t have to take anyone’s shit to like music.”

Salt-N-Pepa

Prior to instructing random passerby to “push it” in car insurance commercials, Salt-N-Pepa spent the better part of the 80s and 90s proving that you don’t need a dick to rap.

Originally calling themselves Super Nature (the Salt-N-Pepa moniker came later), Cheryl “Salt” James, Sandra “Pepa” Denton and Latoya Hanson released their first single in 1985 as a response to Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show.” In his track, Fresh professes to be “the original human beat box, the entertainer” and he raps about a time he saw a beautiful girl on the D-train, saying “I saw a pretty girl so I sat beside her/then she went roar like she was Tony the Tiger.”  Salt-N-Pepa’s response track, aptly titled “The Showstopper,” strove to turn Fresh’s cocky, objectifying hit on its head.  Not only did they call out Fresh directly, with “but Douglas and Richie won’t like it (So?)/Come on then, let’s stop the show,” but they dissed Fresh’s smooth train pick-up, rapping that “the boy was rude, I didn’t approve/he tried to make a move, I said ‘Stop it, dude!’”

Salt-N-Pepa’s first single, wherein they poked fun at and subverted a famous male-driven rap, set the precedent for the rest of their career. In 1986, after cementing Salt-N-Pepa as their name and replacing Hanson with Deidra Roper, the group released their first full album, Hot, Cool & Vicious. While “The Showstopper” had been a modest hit, the release of Hot, Cool & Vicious provided the trio with their first big hit when Cameron Paul, a producer and DJ in San Fransisco, remixed “Push It.” The remixed track’s popularity helped push the album sales over 1.4 million, making Salt-N-Pepa the first female rappers (in a group or solo) to reach gold or platinum status.

In subsequent years, the group released four more albums, all of which achieved gold or platinum status in the US. Their 1990 album, Blacks’ Magic, includes one of the group’s most infamous songs: “Let’s Talk About Sex.” In a time when women were still wearing broad-shouldered suit jackets to emulate men and people thought sex ed might lead to school-sponsored orgies, Salt-N-Pepa released their song because “those who think it’s dirty have a choice/pick up the needle, press pause, or turn the radio off.” Later, Salt-N-Pepa recorded “Let’s Talk About AIDS,” an even more controversial yet prescient version of the track.

Another significant hit for the group was “None of Your Business” off of their 1993 album, Very Necessary. Not only did the album sell over seven million copies, cementing Salt-N-Pepa as one of the best-selling female rap acts, but the song itself earned them a Grammy for Best Rap Performance of a Duo or Group in 1995 (they were the first women to win, along with Queen Latifah that same year). The track was just as bold and feisty as their previous work, proclaiming that “if I wanna take a guy home with me tonight/it’s none of your business” and asking, “now who do you think you are/puttin’ your cheap two cents in?”

Salt-N-Pepa spent their career kicking ass and they led the way in a boy’s game, so they obviously didn’t need anyone’s cheap two cents.

Courtney Love

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Courtney Love, who celebrated her 50th birthday this past July, may be known more for her marriage to the late Kurt Cobain, lead vocalist of Nirvana. Often overlooked is the contribution Love made to the prolific music period we now regard as grunge.

Hole was formed in 1989 by Love and lead guitarist Eric Eriandson. Through the heartbreak of Cobain’s very public suicide, Hole found mainstream success with their 1994 release which, concidentally, was titled Live Through This. The album went platnium. It was no real surprise, with songs like “Doll Parts” that growled with the vigor of a frustrated female generation: “I wanna be the girl with the most cake/I love him so much it just turns to hate.”

Glitter, bare feet, a propensity to call people out on their shit (Twitter wars anyone?) and a sincere personal transparency have made Love a tabloid dream. Yet Love continues to find success, whether through post-punk 2014 singles “You Know My Name” and ”Wedding Day,” or the return to the silver screen on smash hit TV show Empire. If Love’s history is any indication, it is fair to say Love is on a train and she’ll never stop.

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