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Before we get started, a quick word of introduction.
CHIRP was formed, in part, to focus on independent musicians and artists that are underrepresented on the bigger, more commercial stations. All too often, in my opinion, that group includes female artists. Or rather, female artists that are more than just a pretty face and an auto-tuner. As a classically trained percussionist and a drummer, the subject of women in rock is one that is near and dear to my heart. I co-hosted the Women on Women Radio Program for years, I have spoken on panels devoted to women in rock, and heck, I even wrote my Master’s thesis on female musicians.
This post then, marks the first in a series of mini-bios highlighting female musicians who are particularly noteworthy or groundbreaking, female-led bands that have injustly slipped through the cracks into obscurity, and/or just my personal favorite ladies in the industry. I’d like to start off this feature with a look at one of the first all-female rock and roll bands: Goldie & the Gingerbreads.
Born in the era of girl groups, American band Goldie & the Gingerbreads stood out for one very important reason: they played their own instruments. In fact, the Gingerbreads were the first all-female rock band signed to a major label (Atlantic subsidiary Atco), and the first to have any sort of chart success. While other girl groups and female artists had already gained popularity within rock and roll and made an impact on the charts, these women were primarily, if not exclusively, singers. Furthermore, their backing bands were nearly always 100% male. With Goldie Zelkowitz on vocals, Carol MacDonald on guitar, Margo Lewis on organ, and Ginger Bianco on drums, the Gingerbreads were nothing short of groundbreaking. At the same time, however, they were something of a novelty in the male-dominated music industry. MacDonald readily acknowledges this fact: “‘We didn’t think anything of it,’ she says. ‘We got more jobs because they were exploiting the hell out of us. All Girl Band! They’d do the whole thing, tits and ass. And we didn’t care. We were happy because we knew we could play, and we were knocking the socks off most of the male bands. And the guys couldn’t believe it. They’d start laughing, and then they’d walk out crying’” (Garr 59). In fact, the Gingerbreads toured with some of the biggest male rock acts of the time: the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, and the Hollies, to name but a few. They even had a hit in England with the song “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat,” which was later a hit in the U.S. for Herman’s Hermits.
Their success, however, was limited, and their enjoyment of fame tempered by Atlantic’s manipulation of their public image. Before MacDonald joined the Gingerbreads, she recorded solo for Atlantic under the name Carol Shaw. “‘They wanted me to be Lesley Gore,’ she says. ‘My first record, “Jimmy Boy,” was that type of thing. So they give me this image, and I’m not happy. I’m not playing guitar, number one, and I’m not doing my own music” (Garr 58). Her annoyance only increased when, a few years later, the Gingerbreads were asked to record “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat.” “‘I hated the song,’ says MacDonald. ‘We’re doing stuff like “Harlem Shuffle,” and then they give us this “Every time I see you… dee da dee de dee.” Eeeow! I said, “Goldie! What are we doing?” She said, “We gotta do what they say!” It’s like we had to do everything they said or we were not going to be successful’” (Garr 60).
Still, the band engaged in their own small rebellions against the prevalent negative stereotypes of female musicians. Goldie recalls, “‘We’d walk into a club with all our instruments and you could see the owner going “Oh my God, these broads? They know how to play? They really know how to play?” We’d set up and have a sound check and play totally out of tune, and I would sing the wrong lyrics. And the guy’d be chewing on his cigar going “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!” And by the time we went on and counted off the song, we were cookin’. You could see the cigar drop and the guy had a heart attack… We had fun with this’” (Garr 59).
Ultimately, however, Goldie and the Gingerbreads folded due to misappropriation of finances by their management, the pressures of relentless touring, and the disappointment of never breaking big in the States. Goldie went on to become Genya Ravan and front Ten Wheel Drive (who reportedly turned down a spot at Woodstock), and later produced the Dead Boys’ debut record. Carol MacDonald and Ginger Bianco went on to form the influential jazz/funk band Isis, which later also included Margo Lewis and original Gingerbreads’ pianist Carol O’Grady. While the Gingerbreads may not have found the widespread acceptance or acclaim they craved, by the mere fact of their existence they nonetheless fought the rigidly institutionalized sexism that limited women in the music industry at the time, and paved the way for future all-girl bands to be taken seriously.
Garr, Gillian G. She’s A Rebel: The History of Women in Rock and Roll (expanded second edition). New York: Seal, 2002.
Genya Ravan’s homepage
This article also appeared on the WOW Music Blog
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