Against Strong Odds: An Overview of Women in Music (1920-2016)

by | Mar 10, 2016 | Arts & Culture, Creative Nonfiction, Music

With the first installment of this six-part series having covered the period from 1920-1949, these second 10 songs encompass the 1950s through the middle 1960s. The music world was changing fast, as were the viewpoints of women looking to make a musical impression. Some of these songs foreshadowed the arrival of the women’s liberation movement, demonstrating that women had as powerful a musical voice as men. These are groundbreaking recordings, made by women who weren’t afraid of pushing the envelope.

#11. It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels – Kitty Wells (Decca, 1952)
Though performers like Maybelle and Sara Carter and Patsy Montana played major roles in making country music popular, female country artists were receiving virtually no airplay when the ‘50s began. Wells was among the victims, having been dropped by RCA in 1950 after her first two singles failed to chart. Signed to Decca in 1952, she proceeded to score a #1 country hit with her first release for the label. The answer song to Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life” depiction of a woman who abandoned her role as domestic provider in favor of the night life, the J.D. Miller-penned “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” found Wells disputing that notion by declaring, “It’s a shame that all the blame is on us women” and “Too many times married men think they’re still single.” With women’s liberation still more than a decade away, Wells’ proclamation was audacious, particularly in the conservative, male-dominated world of country music.
#12. Hound Dog – Big Mama Thornton (Peacock, 1953)
Called “Big Mama” for both her physical size and full-bodied voice, blues singer and songwriter Willie Mae Thornton’s main claims to fame are her rendition of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Hound Dog,” notably covered by Elvis Presley, and her original song “Ball and Chain,” made famous by Janis Joplin. Released in March 1953, “Hound Dog” features spare guitar, bass and drums backing that places the emphasis squarely on the singer’s resounding vocals. Presley didn’t record the song until June 6, 1956, the day after he delivered a hip-swiveling version on The Milton Berle Show. Emblematic of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, the song’s biggest financial rewards went to Presley while Thornton received a grand total of $500 for her lone hit. Thornton would later play an influential role in the career of Joplin, who modeled her vocals after Big Mama’s rough and authoritative delivery.
#13. Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean – Ruth Brown (Atlantic, 1953)
When Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson were establishing their newly incorporated Atlantic label as a rhythm & blues imprint, they received a mighty boost from Brown. Known in the ‘50s as “Miss Rhythm,” the Portsmouth, Va., native signed with Atlantic in 1948, giving the fledgling label its third-ever R&B chart hit a year later with the torchy “So Long.” This began a dominant run of 24 consecutive R&B hits for Brown that included four chart-toppers. Her second #1 hit, “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” finds Brown bemoaning domestic despair with a laundry list of complaints about her man. Highlighted by Brown’s vocal range, which extends from her piercing intonation of the word “Mama” to a lower octave used elsewhere, and the distinctive sound of Mickey Baker’s guitar, it’s a prime reason why Atlantic is sometimes referred to as “the house that Ruth built.”
#14. Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye – Ella Fitzgerald (Verve, 1956)
If you want to learn the Great American Songbook, there’s no better artist to turn to than Fitzgerald. The jazz icon thoroughly immersed herself in that catalog when she signed with Verve Records in 1956, embarking on a series of eight “Songbook” albums that alternately focused on the compositions of Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer. The series began with the double-album Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook that contains “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” Fitzgerald’s vocals enchantingly convey the lyrics about being happy when in the presence of one’s lover and miserable when they are apart, helping make the song a jazz standard in the process. Though the mammoth, 16-CD Complete Songbooks box set is sadly out of print, the individual albums are all readily available. Dig in.
#15. Fujiyama Mama – Wanda Jackson (Capitol, 1957)
Initially a country artist, Jackson blazed a trail for female rockers in an era when rock ‘n’ roll was primarily a boy’s club. The Oklahoman was invited into the club in 1955 by the man who would soon be its leader, Elvis Presley. Briefly Presley’s girlfriend, Jackson was told by her beau that rock ‘n’ roll was going to be the next big thing and that she should give it a try. Hesitant at first, Jackson cut numerous examples of raw rock ‘n’ roll after signing with Capitol Records. Her wildest recording, “Fujiyama Mama,” opens with Jackson wailing “I been to Nagasaki. Hiroshima too. The things I did to them, baby, I can do to you!” The hellacious nature of this and other Jackson performances sharply contrasted most female singers of the day, making Jackson a true pioneer. At age 78, she’s still touring and recording.
#16. Maybe – The Chantels (End, 1958)
Formed by five high school students at St. Anthony of Padua School in The Bronx, The Chantels were discovered in 1957 by Valentines’ lead singer Richard Barrett, who helped them secure a recording deal with George Goldner’s End Records. After attaining slight success with their first single, “He’s Gone” b/w ‘The Plea” (#71 on Billboard’s Hot 100), the group broke through with “Maybe” (#15 pop, #2 R&B), a shimmering masterpiece that set the stage for the girl-group era that was just around the corner. Written by lead singer Arlene Smith (who had composed both sides of the first single), the song was recorded in a doo-wop style highlighted by Barrett’s piano intro and the 14-year-old Smith’s ethereal lead vocals. The group left End in 1959, with Smith pursuing a solo career while the reconfigured Chantels scored a final hit two years later with “Look in My Eyes” on Carlton Records.
#17. Crazy – Patsy Cline (Decca, 1961)
Blessed with a voice that throbbed with emotion and personality, Cline had an otherworldly way with a song that transcended genre boundaries. This was demonstrated in 1957 when her first country hit, “Walkin’ After Midnight,” made the higher reaches of the pop charts, making Cline the first female country singer to enjoy such crossover success. Cline would repeat this feat on three straight occasions with “I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy” and She’s Got You.” Her 1961 Cline’s rendition of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” became a classic despite her reluctance to record it. Unable to hit the high notes due to broken ribs she had suffered in a car accident, Cline sat out the initial recording session. She returned two weeks later, recording her vocals in one take while standing on crutches. Today, “Crazy” remains the gold standard by which country and pop ballad singers are often measured.
#18. Universal Soldier – Buffy Sainte-Marie (Vanguard, 1964)
Having graduated in the top 10 of her class while earning degrees in teaching and Oriental philosophy at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Sainte-Marie had entered college with the intention of becoming a teacher. Those plans changed thanks to “Universal Soldier,” a song the Canadian wrote in the basement of the Purple Onion coffeehouse in Toronto. Inspired by Sainte-Marie witnessing wounded soldiers returning from Vietnam at a time when the U.S. government was denying involvement, the protest song places the blame for war not solely on the solider, the career military officer or the politician, but on all people (especially since they elect the politicians). Included on her It’s My Way! debut album in 1964, the song became an anthem of the anti-war movement despite being banned on most U.S. radio stations. It then became a hit for British folksinger Donovan a year later. A half-century later, it’s sentiments still ring true.
#19. You Don’t Own Me – Lesley Gore (Mercury, 1964)
Often perceived as a musical lightweight due to her being linked to the girl-group era, Gore was actually an independent-minded woman whose Quincy Jones-produced hits reveal a subtle power in how they address personal relationships. That power can be heard on her early feminist anthem, “You Don’t Own Me.” Sweet and to the point, the song finds the 17-year-old singer making her feelings abundantly clear as she tells her man, “You don’t own me/I’m not just one of your many toys … I’m young and I love to be young/I’m free and I love to be free/To live my life the way I want/to say and do whatever I please.” The exhilaration in the singing is bolstered by an arrangement that has the verses in a minor key and the chorus in a major one. Progressive for its time, the still-relevant song was compellingly performed by Gore’s in her T.A.M.I. Show segment.
#20. Stop! In the Name of Love – The Supremes (Motown, 1965)
Once considered the epitome of failure, The Supremes were jokingly called the “no-hit Supremes” around the Motown offices when none of their first seven singles made it beyond Billboard’s top 75. But the trio of Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson persevered, turning the tide in August 1964 when “Where Did Our Love Go” became the first of the group’s five straight #1 singles. The success of those five chart-toppers – which also includes “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Back in My Arms Again” – is particularly remarkable considering they came at the height of Beatlemania. Unlike many of her contemporaries, lead singer Ross embraced her femininity by singing in a thin soprano. The group otherwise portrayed a more glamorous image than previous black performers. The Supremes would rack up a dozen #1 hits, more than any other Motown artist.

About The Author

Jim McGuinness

Jim McGuinness has written about music for The Record in North Jersey as well as the Kingsport Times News in Northeast Tennessee, where he won awards for his “Music Guy” column. He is a proud alumnus of WRNU, the student-run radio station at Rutgers-Newark, and has also done other work as a disc jockey. He lives in the mountains of Southwest Virginia with his wife, Anne, and their throng of dogs, just a stone’s throw down the road from the Carter Family Fold (an old-time music venue run by descendants of the original Carter Family).