Covering the years 1966 through 1970, this third installment of “Against Strong Odds” features some of the most iconic songs ever recorded by women. With feminism and women’s liberation now becoming a force, female artists were taking more chances artistically despite being met with occasional resistance. Whether the world-at-large was ready for these songs was immaterial. Female artists were moving forward, leaving an indelible mark on pop culture in the process.
#21. Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind) – Loretta Lynn (Decca, 1966)
Mentored by Patsy Cline upon arriving in Nashville, Lynn’s musical style contrasts sharply with that of her late friend. While there is a sophisticated sadness to Cline recordings, Lynn’s music blends rustic storylines with a sassy dose of humor. There’s a homespun charm to Lynn’s best songs, which wear her upbringing in tiny Butcher Holler, Ky., as a badge of honor. The first of her 11 country chart-toppers, “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’” draws on her marriage to Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn, who would sometimes arrive home in an amorous mood after a night of drinking with the boys (the couple married when Loretta was just 15, remaining together for 48 years until Oliver’s death in 1996). Unafraid of tackling thorny issues in her lyrics, Lynn became a country legend despite having nine songs banned by country radio. At age 83, she just released her first album in 12 years, the excellent Full Circle.
#22. Four Women – Nina Simone (Philips, 1966)
Due to the jazz and social-commentary leanings in her music, Simone received little mainstream airplay during her lifetime. Unwavering in her commitment to artistic integrity and the Civil Rights Movement, the “High Priestess of Soul” seemed to shun the stardom that was within her grasp. An example of her eccentric approach to making music is the peculiar “Four Women,” a Simone composition that relates the experience of black womanhood through the use of four stereotypes about black woman. Cerebral and complex, the song condemns the stereotypes while simultaneously paying tribute to real women. Released at a time when militant young members of the newly formed Black Panther Party were clashing with older NAACP activists, the song became a lightning rod for controversy that resulted in it being banned from several major radio stations. Not that Simone cared. By following her own muse both musically and socially, Simone created a body of work that remains fascinating and relevant.
#23. Respect – Aretha Franklin (Atlantic, 1967)
While Nina Simone’s militant stance on social issues kept her off the radio, Franklin was taking over the mainstream airwaves with an unprecedented breakthrough. Having spent six years on Columbia Records in search of a musical direction, the Memphis native found her true voice on her first I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You album on Atlantic. Grittier than the music previously made by female pop stars, the album’s centerpiece is Franklin’s powerhouse rendition of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” Upping the ante of the original version’s plea by a desperate man who euphemistically wants the appreciation of his woman, Franklin’s recording resonated with the feminist movement by portraying a strong, confident woman who demands the respect of her man. The single shot to #1 on the pop charts, a significant accomplishment for an African American woman in the turbulent ‘60s.
#24. Somebody to Love – Jefferson Airplane (RCA Victor, 1967)
Key players in the counterculture movement that spawned psychedelic rock and the legendary San Francisco scene of the late ‘60’s, Jefferson Airplane probably wouldn’t have garnered much airplay without the soaring vocals of Grace Slick. Recruited from Bay Area band the Great Society to replace Signe Toly Anderson as the group’s co-lead singer with Marty Balin, Slick showed up with a pair of songs from her old band that would become her new band’s signature hits: “Somebody to Love,” written by her brother-in-law (and Great Society guitarist) Darby Slick, and “White Rabbit,” a song she had composed herself. The first of the two to be released as a single, “Somebody to Love” signaled the arrival of new type of woman in otherwise all-male bands. Combining a potent contralto voice with good looks and a commanding stage presence, Slick significantly enhanced the group’s live performances. The Airplane’s lone two hits, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” have become synonymous with the Summer of Love.
#25: Ode to Billie Joe – Bobbie Gentry (Capitol, 1967)
Omnipresent on the radio during the summer of 1967, “Ode to Billie Joe” captured America’s imagination via the casual nature of a Mississippi family’s dinnertime gossip about a local boy’s suicide. That boy, Billie Joe McAllister, had killed himself earlier that day by jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge. As the family passes biscuits during their disturbingly nonchalant chat, it is revealed that McAllister and his girlfriend threw something off the bridge a day earlier. What was it? Gentry never says, leaving “Ode to Billie Joe” as one of the great unsolved mysteries in pop-music history. Gentry herself is something of a mystery, having abruptly retired from public life at age 37 in 1981. For this reason, her legacy as a songwriter and record producer is mostly forgotten. But there’s no denying the impact of “Ode to Billie Joe,” which in its time had America blathering in the same manner as the characters in the song.
#26. I’d Rather Go Blind – Etta James (Cadet, 1968)
Having topped the R&B charts at age 17 with 1955’s “The Wallflower,” James was in the prime of her lengthy career when she ventured to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals to record her Tell Mama album. Matched with producer Rick Hall and FAME’s renowned house band, the disc produced two of James’ most successful singles in the title cut and a cover of Otis Redding’s “Security” along with a blues-and-soul classic in “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Outlined by her friend Ellington Jordan while he was in prison, the moving ballad was completed by James though she gave her portion of the writing credit to her partner at the time, Medallions singer Billy Foster. Considered one of James’ signature tunes along with “At Last,” the oft-covered song has been notably recorded by the likes of Rod Stewart, Chicken Shack (with future Fleetwood Mac member Christine McVie on lead vocals) and, for the movie, Cadillac Records, Beyoncé Knowles. But it belongs to James by virtue of her spellbinding performance at FAME.
#27. Stand by Your Man – Tammy Wynette (Epic, 1968)
One of country music’s best-loved songs, “Stand by Your Man” was born with its share of contradictions. Reportedly written by Wynette and producer Billy Sherrill in just 15 minutes, the song embraced family values at a time when women were rallying around the then-emerging women’s liberation movement. With lyrics stating that a woman should stay with her man despite his faults and shortcomings, the song was a lightning rod for controversy as feminists disparaged if for supposedly encouraging women to be meek in relationships with men. Wynette (a four-time divorcée) would defend the song in her later years, stating that it was not a call for women to place themselves second to men, but rather to focus on the positive aspects of the relationship if she is truly in love. This is supported by the last line in the song, which says, “after all, he’s just a man”.
#28. Son of a Preacher Man – Dusty Springfield (Atlantic, 1968)
Though it seems like an obvious move today, bringing England’s most soulful singer to Memphis to make an album was a masterstroke by the Atlantic production team of Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin. Backing her with some of the city’s best musicians and supplying her with superb material, the producers created the perfect setting for Springfield’s gorgeous voice. The result is a sophisticated pop and R&B hybrid that aches with loneliness and yearning. Oddly, the famously insecure Springfield was so intimidated by the environs that she wound up recording her vocals in New York. With lyrics about a young girl who learns about love be sneaking away with a preacher’s son every time his dad comes to town, the album’s hit single seductively captures the sensuous fire of the American South. This album, meanwhile, remains one of those “desert island discs” that never gets old.
#29: Both Sides, Now – Joni Mitchell (Reprise, 1969)
Revered as a singer, songwriter and guitarist, Mitchell emerged in the late ‘60’s as the first female “triple threat” of the rock ‘n’ roll era. At a time when women’s liberation was striking a chord with females throughout North America, the Canadian used her sparkling voice and deft way with a lyric to become one of the movement’s most prominent role models. In addition to her musical talents, Mitchell further stood out on the male-dominated rock scene by booking her own shows and handling her own finances. Wise beyond its author’s years (Mitchell was 23 when she wrote it), the poignant “Both Sides, Now” is oddly stimulating in how it evaluates new insights gained through life experiences. A Top 10 hit for Judy Collins in 1967, the song was recorded by Mitchell in both 1969 and 2000. Her voice having deepened on the second version, it found Mitchell embracing the change she had written about so long ago.
#30: Help Me Make It Through the Night – Sammi Smith (Mega, 1970)
With just three Top 10 country hits among her 43 singles, Smith would likely be forgotten if not for her iconic reading of this Kris Kristofferson gem. Merging Smith’s country-soul vocal inclination with countrypolitan strings, the song went to #1 on the country charts while peaking at #8 on the pop survey. Kristofferson’s original lyrics spoke about man’s yearning for sexual intimacy, making the song controversial when sung by a woman. In an era that also featured hit renditions of Kristofferson songs by Janis Joplin (“Me and Bobby McGee”), Ray Price (“For the Good Times”) and Johnny Cash (“Sunday Morning Coming Down”), Smith’s signature song might be the best of the bunch. In fact, a strong case can be made for it being one of the greatest country singles ever made.
Photo: Aretha Franklin (source: @ArethaFranklin on Twitter)