Women's History and Oldies Music

The history of female oldies singers and their place in rock n' roll

Tina Turner in the '60s
Tina Turner in the '60s.

Female oldies singers don't have as long a history as you might imagine -- hard to believe, but country music didn't have its first real female star until 1952, when Kitty Wells' "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" -- an answer song to Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life" -- hit the charts in a big way, giving a voice to both the "fallen" woman and the forsaken wife. Rock and roll never had such problems, arising as it did from a source where women had already been encouraged to sing for three decades. It was the music business, however, that was largely a boy's club and a man's game, so women, as elsewhere in that age of American society, were forced to express themselves and make their way financially however best they could.

The Sassy (Rhythm and) Blues Mama

The early Fifties produced several singers following in the venerable "Blues Mama" persona, a character that allowed the female in question to be sassy and critical of men -- to a point. Distaff pop singers, unfortunately, were often still exploited for their looks, used badly by industry men, and forced to end or curtail their careers in order to accommodate marriage or pregnancy.

  • "Miss Rhythm" was an important voice for women with songs like "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean." She also put the Atlantic label on the map, and later became a tireless advocate for her neglected musician peers.
  • LaVern Baker When White pop artists made carbon copies of Black R&B hits in the Fifties, LaVern Baker was the first to speak up... and the raw sexuality of "Little Miss Sharecropper" was a real breakthrough.
  • Etta James Beyonce knows firsthand the sassy, outspoken Etta's penchant for laying it on the line. The sultry and scandalous diva behind "At Last" and "Tell Mama" was the main influence on rock's first real female stars like Janis Joplin.

Girl Groups

There hadn't been many female rock stars by 1960; many of the big names of the day (Connie Francis, Brenda Lee) were essentially singing pop with a few rock-like nods to teen society thrown in. The men were doing, as usual, most of the rocking, innovating, and money-making. But the female vocal group began to become institutionalized around this time, and if they were doomed to be controlled by a patriarchal business, they could, once in a while, make demands of the men in their lives. If only through the songs. It was no coincidence that much of their output was written by husband-and-wife teams, working in the famed Brill Building in New York.

  • The Girl Group FAQ Groups with nothing but females in them have been around for decades, of course, and they exist to this day... but never did they have such artistic and cultural importance as during the early Sixties.
  • They may have been the quintessential girl group, but the Supremes never had an easy existence, especially when the realities of the business split up one of soul's happier partnerships.
  • They only had one big hit: the epochal teen symphony "Be My Baby." But the fascinatingly alluring Ronnie Bennett (Spector) inspired men such as Billy Joel, Joey Ramone, and John Lennon to go out of their way to make sure her voice was heard.
  • Martha and the Vandellas The Supremes got all the attention, for whatever reason you like, but Martha and the Vandellas were the girl group with soul, the trio almost too rough for the Motown machine.
  • The Shirelles The pioneers of the girl-group genre dared to ask the musical question "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" the first big girl-group hit -- and one that hinted at the sexual liberation to come.

The Birth of the Diva

As the Sixties progressed, women started to carve out individual identities, both vocally and in a marketing sense. Sometimes they were elegant, sometimes earthy, sometimes impassioned, and sometimes all three -- but they were all unique, and therefore able to bargain with the male-dominated industry to a certain extent. If you wanted them, you had to please them. And as pop music matured, the lyrics they sang allowed them to explore the male-female dynamic more deeply.

  • The epitome of sophistication, Dionne Warwick made Burt Bacharach a household word, and he returned the favor with hits like "Don't Make Me Over," "Walk On By," and "Do You Know The Way To San Jose."
  • The British Invasion's greatest female export and blue-eyed soul's greatest diva, Dusty Springfield was also a troubled, controversial, and ultimately unique figure in pop, an artist who refused to stay comfortable in either prefabricated musical styles or social strictures.
  • Gladys Knight Few could arguably best Gladys Knight at detailing the intricacies of modern relationships, yet even the assembly-line geniuses over at Hitsville U.S.A. had trouble recognizing her true potential.
  • The Queen of Soul was rock's first great interpretive female voice, one of its first musician-singer-songwriters, and the woman who "stole" Otis' "Respect" and made it a national anthem of liberation.

Sisters Doin' It for Themselves

During the Sixties and early Seventies, several females in different areas of the industry stood against the norms of society in order to be true to themselves. As a result, the traditional images of females in rock, pop, and R&B began morphing into hitherto unforseen shapes -- and as the Seventies arrived along with the Women's Liberation Movement, those new roles proved useful indeed.

  • Brill Building Rock and roll's most famous offices, and equally famed are the songwriters who inhabited them, including Carole King, Ellie Greenwich, and Cynthia Weil.
  • Various Artists: Break-a-way: The Songs of Jackie DeShannon CD Review She's often held up as a paradigm, a prime example of one creative woman standing up for herself in a male-dominated industry at a very sexist time. But not many know that Jackie DeShannon wrote tons of songs for other artists. This Ace collection gathers up the best of them.
  • Tina Turner Rock's most famous survivor, Tina Turner often falls in danger of being trapped by that description -- she may have overcome every obstacle women experience in the music business, but along the way, she helped turn rock classics into her own inimitable biography.