An Array of Divas Rather than blather on about the subject of women and music, here is a poem by Rachel Loden, “Tumblin’ Dice,” about music’s infectious influence upon our consciousness. It appears in the collection Sweet Nothings. An Anthology of Rock and Roll In American Poetry, edited by Jim Elledge and published by Indiana University Press, 1994. I thought all your walled cities would fall to rock & roll, I thought no suffering was safe when Smokey sang. if Otis could not teach you tenderness – Aretha sweet love – then I was wrong. Do roses push up through the streets of Spanish Harlem, is “Oooo Baby Baby” still the melting point of ice? Will we always find some rooftop we can drift on to the roll of the tumbling dice, sweet darling the roll of tumbling dice. … Selections: Laura Nyro, “And When I Die,” “Stoned Soul Picnic” From Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro Laura Nyro has become, sadly, a more or less of overlooked figure, but in 1960s and early 1970s, she was one of the most recorded and influential singer- songwriters on the charts. Her own work on Verve and later Columbia sold well, but others (the Fifth Dimension and Barbara Streisand) made best-selling covers of her repertoire. Her work combines r&b, jazz and a sui generis point of view Jaynetts, “Sally Go Round the Roses” From The Best of the Girl Groups Volume 1 Amongst the many so-called girl groups of the 1960s, the Jaynetts is one of the most mysterious and a genuine one-hit wonder. This 1963 track rather languidly eases itself into your consciousness, and then never leaves. While some elements of the lyrics remain something of a mystery, the overall impact of the tune comes across like a kind of defiant declaration. Gillian Welch, “My Morphine” From Exposed Roots: The Best of Alt.Country I’m not completely sold on Gillian Welch, but she remains a fascinating case. She is the daughter of writers for television comedy shows who grew up in L.A., fell in love with old timey music and sounds like she might well be a featured vocalist on the Grand Ole Opry in 1935. Whether that image is a sham or genuine remains up to the listener, but this is one of her most effective performances. United States of America, “Hard Coming Love” From United States of America Another one-time group, led by principal composer Joe Byrd, the United States of America combined smart-aleck lyrics with rock rhythms and elements of avant garde practice. Not everything they did comes off, but the combination of electronics, electric bass and drums (yes, drums), electric violin and female lead vocalist Dorothy Moskowitz still holds up forty years after its initial release. Boswell Sisters, “Mood Indigo” From Jazz Vocal Groups: New York-Los Angeles-Hollywood-Chicago 1927-1944 One of the great swing vocal ensembles, I’ve only recently succumbed to the bourbon-like smoothness and complete satisfaction of their style. Hard not to smile and tap your feet to their finely honed synchronization of voices. Elaine Stritch, “The Ladies Who Lunch” From Elaine Stritch At Liberty: Recorded Live One of the musical theatre’s icons, Elaine Strich may not have a pretty voice and age may well have strained its limited capacities, but what she might lack in range she more than makes up in personality and sheer verve. Stephen Sondheim wrote this song from Company for her in 1970, and it has stunned me ever since, many years ago, I first heard her sing it, just sitting on a stool and putting a clear mark on how one might speak of the dark night of the soul. Judy Henske, “Road to Nowhere,” “Cocktail World” From Big Judy: How Far This Music Goes 1962-2004 A recent discovery for me, Judy Henske was a major performer in the folk revival whose range exceeded that subgenre. Even when putting across traditional material, she had a dramatic flair and an ebullient, almost theatrical personality. The first track is written by Carole King & Gerry Goffin and arranged by Jack Nietzsche; it was the first thing of hers that made me want to hear more. The second is a more recent self-penned track, composed along with her husband keyboardist Craig Doerge, and it can stand up to “The Ladies Who Lunch” as a statement about alcoholic excess. Karen Dalton, “Blues On The Ceiling” From Cotton Eyed Joe Another recent discovery for me, although the resurrected reputation of Karen Dalton has kind of gone from zero to one-hundred in some quarters in a relatively short period of time. Dylan wrote of her in his autobiography Chronicles, and the two commercial LPs she recorded were recently reissued; this is from a 2 CD set of rare live performances. Dalton sang with a kind of mix of an old time mountain resident crossed with Billie Holiday. Her life story is dismal: terrified of both studio and live settings, she rarely performed, and her personal life was devastated by heroin. She undoubtedly possesses a tremendously effective voice, but somehow, at least at this point in my listening, her tracks bear a strange similarity, as if it were one song she was singing, joined each time to a new set of lyrics. This tune is one by another almost forgotten performer who shunned the limelight, Fred Neil, best known for writing “Everybody’s Talkin’.” Dinah Washington, “Big Long Slidin’ Thing” From Risque Rhythm: Nasty 50s R&B One of the great and too much forgotten black vocalists, who could sing anything: jazz, r&b, country, pop, you name it. This is a silly double entendre number, but she has such authority and attitude you can’t help but laugh and admire her fortitude at the same time. Ann Cole, “Got My Mojo Workin’” From Sol’s Story: The Baton Label A truly unknown and forgotten singer, Ann Cole recorded in the 1950s for the New York-based Baton label and was the first person to perform this perennial blues classic. Muddy Waters learned it from her, but she puts quite a stamp on it, I think. Irma Thomas, “Ruler Of My Heart” From Time Is On My Side: The Best of Irma Thomas Volume 1 New Orleans diva Irma Thomas has had a near fifty year career, and this is one of her early hits, written and produced by Allen Toussaint, one of the most prolific and successful individuals on that scene. There’s a serenity but a strength to her rendition which takes you a bit by surprise; she’s not a belter, but she puts the emotion of the track across without question. Suggestions for further listening: Tracy Nelson For me, Tracy Nelson was the premiere white female blues singer of the 1960s that others equated with Janis Joplin. Call it a matter of taste, but her sense of dynamics and control of the upper register of her voice sways me in a way that Janis never did. Understandably, she did not have the same kind of career, and, furthermore, she’s still around although she remains a sometime performer. Look for her early sides as the lead vocalist of Mother Earth (on Mercury, Reprise and Columbia) as well as her solo country record album (also on Mercury). She more recently recorded for Rounder, including some trio sides with Marcia Ball and Irma Thomas. The Roches Sisters Maggie, Terre and Suzzy started performing and recording in the mid-70s and even spent some time early on as Paul Simon’s backup group. Their trio records combine exquisite harmonies with edgy or often flat out funny lyrics. “Hammond Song” on their 1979 collective debut on Warner Brothers is positively ethereal and spooky at the same time. Insect Trust The founders of the New York-based Insect Trust came largely from Memphis, and included the late and influential writer and New York Times critic Robert Palmer. They released only two albums in 1969 and 1970, but their quirky mix of blues, jazz and outside influences (they set poems from novelist Thomas Pynchon to music) remain quite wonderful. Their lead vocalist was the striking Nancy Jeffries, who went on to have an influential and celebrated career as a music industry executive. Abbey Lincoln One of jazz’s premiere vocalists but also a stunning actress (look for 1964’s Nothing But A Man), Abbey Lincoln was a middle of the road singer who became radicalized during her marriage to drummer Max Roach and found her own voice in later solo recordings. Her 1961 release Straight Ahead is a classic of the genre. Wanda Jackson One of the most volcanically expressive female rockers, Wanda Jackson became a star in the early 1960s, later hit the top of the country charts and then on the revival trail revisited and reignited the fire of her early career. Her early sides like “Fujiyama Mama” and “Let’s Have A Party” remain the equal of any male rocker of her day.