Pat Blythe: Women of Rock – Part 1

PBlythe

The impetus, for what has now become a series, was my discovery of an old vinyl record by Maggie Bell. I came across it going through one of my many purge cycles. Suicide Sal, released in 1975, was my introduction to the blues….I just didn’t know it then. I wasn’t in the habit of labeling types of music in my younger years, I just knew what I liked. Greg Simpson, who happened to be managing the now defunct Records on Wheels in London, Ontario, recommended the album, thinking I might like it. I loved it and still do. Thank you Greg!

Rock and Roll Girls

 

…and so Maggie led to Janis….after much prodding, led to my attendance at the Maple Blues Awards

Suicide Sal album cover

….which led to Grace….which led to some of my other favourite female rock artists. How did blues lead to rock? My investigations took me down many different paths and I began to realize none of the women I was researching could be completely pigeonholed into a single genre, that everything and everyone was connected, and so, in a very roundabout way, I have now segued into a four- or five-part series, Women of Rock. This discourse will also include a slight detour into a general conversation regarding women in the music business. Soooo much to talk about….

Women of Blues will be following so you will be hearing much more about Maggie and her fellow blues sisters later. Admittedly though, I’m still a rock ‘n roll baby at heart.

Sharks, Back Scratching and Balls — It’s a Man’s World

Back Scratching MonkeysThe music business, especially that of rock ‘n roll, can be brutal and heartless. It is a world that feeds on youth, looks, vanity and naivety. Rife with lies, false promises and backroom deals and lots and lots of itchy backs.

It’s been described as a shark tank by more than one performer. Queen had it right. “Is that fin on your back part of the deal……shark.”

Shark from Finding Nemo

Queen – Death on Two Legs (dedicated to….)

It’s also sexy, exhilarating, heady, thrilling, compelling, even glamorous — all those wonderful things that continue to attract and suck many down the proverbial rabbit hole.

SexDrugsRock

— everyone wanted to be part of it. Fame and adulation are powerful aphrodisiacs. Music was the key…

Evil key

But draw back the curtains…

Curtains

…and most initiates will quickly find it to be a lonely, soul-sucking, highly demanding industry. But for women, particularly in the early years, there was a whole other shade of black. It was a misogynistic, denigrating, demeaning business. For those who “made it”, chutzpah, perseverance, ability and especially balls, were not only applicable to the men, but an absolute must for the women. If you were passionate about music, about singing, about singing rock, this was the only route to take. The music business then, and now, is a man’s world.

Welcome to the hard rock boys club…

Smoking Penis

The Women of Rock are iconic. They could tear your heart out or pierce your soul with a single note, make the hairs all over your body stand at attention, or just as effortlessly, gently heal and caress as their voices washed over you. They had the aforementioned balls and raw talent that, once released, exploded on stage. Distinctive, powerhouse voices, they could let it rip, growl and purr with the best of them, hitting notes even the finest falsetto couldn’t dream of reaching.

Ian Gillan at his falsetto best…  

Deep Purple – Child in Time

I salute the many women who made a stand and challenged the norm in what was (and still is) this harsh and unforgiving, hard-scrabble world of rock. These women, and many others, who made it through to the other side (and the few who didn’t) have a left a legacy of bravado, audacity, guts, open doors and an extraordinary catalogue of music which, even today, I believe is unmatched.

They played significant roles, leading the way, gaining respect and admiration for their skills as musicians and vocalists. Their contributions are immeasurable. Everyone will have their personal favourites. Throughout this series I will share some of their stories. Everyone will have their own personal favourites. These are some of mine.

Janis and Grace

Grace and Janis 1

 

Janis 

Janis singing

Books have been written, stories told and songs composed, recorded and dedicated to this legend of rock and blues. Even several attempts at filming a biopic have been made.

A bonafide Texan with a heart as big as her voice, Janis was also the classic bully target at school. During an interview with Dick Cavett Janis excitedly told Cavett she was heading home to Port Arthur for her 10th annual highschool reunion.

Dick Cavett: “Do you think you’ll have a lot to say to your old high school classmates?”

Janis (grinning): “I’m going to laugh a lot man.”.

Cavett: “Were you not surrounded by a lot of friends in high school?”

Janis: (with a big smile) “They laughed me out of class, out of town and out of the state man…so I’m going home” and then giggled.

The audience instantly understood and applauded.

Janis Joplin – interview with Dick Cavett

She was unique in a world of sameness and that doesn’t ride well in Texas. For the rest of us, the uniqueness that was Janis was the gift she bestowed on us, and the world, and it would never be the same after she hit the stage.

Janis was the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company from 1966 to 1968, before going solo. Her back-up bands included The Kozmic Blues Band (1968 to 1969) and The Full Tilt Boogie Band (1970 until her death). Janis and Big Brother and Holding Company performed at two of the biggest pop festivals of the time — the Monterey Pop Festival (their breakthrough appearance) and Woodstock. Her stage presence was referred to as “electric”.  Even performing stoned and drunk, barely able to dance around the stage, the audience at Woodstock loved her and demanded an encore. Called Pearl by her closest friends, Janis was also known as “The Queen of Psychedelic Soul”.

Janis w_Big Brother

Janis in happier days with Big Brother and the Holding Company

Janis_Full Tilt Boogie Band

Janis and the Full Tilt Boogie Band

Janis and the joy of performing

Janis in the zone. The pure joy of performing.

In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Janis told writer David Dalton, after her first stint in San Francisco, “I don’t have many friends, and I don’t like the ones I had.” A sad commentary on what was to be a short, turbulent, lonely, drug and booze-filled life. Eighteen years after her death, in an article for the May 1988 issue of Vogue magazine, Richard Goldstein wrote, “Joplin was the most staggering leading woman in rock… she slinks like tar, scowls like war… clutching the knees of a final stanza, begging it not to leave… Janis Joplin can sing the chic off any listener.” This was Janis.

Janis died October 4, 1970, 16 days after the death of Jimi Hendrix, both at the incredibly young age of 27, rocking the music world to its core.

Janis 1970

I remember taking the local newspaper into my bedroom, spreading it out on my bed and reading about her death. My ears had been gradually introduced to the world of music outside of Harry Belafonte, Barbra Streisand, Glenn Miller, George Gershwin, the Longines Symphonette Collections, etc. I didn’t realize at the time who she was but I instinctively knew she was SOMEBODY important.

When I listen to Janis’s voice today, her intensity, her passion, her anguish, and yes, even her tenderness, reach deep inside me….and she had such a beautiful smile. A voice that was silenced all too soon, and for some mysterious reason, I miss her.

Janis Laughing

Her giggle is infectious at the end of this song. Singing a cappella, in one take, only Janis could perform this in a way that was both fun, and sadly, true. A commentary on the times.

Janis Joplin – Mercedes Benz (recorded in a single take)

The voice, the power, the pain…

Big Brother and the Holding Company – Piece of My Heart

Originally written by Buffy Sainte-Marie about her addiction to codeine. Cod’ine has been recorded by numerous artists, including Eric Clapton, Donovan, The Charlatans, Quicksilver Messenger ServiceGram Parsons, Courtney Love and numerous other artists. This is Janis’s alternate version.

Janis Joplin – Cod’ine (recorded in 1965)

American blues artist Big Mama Thornton was an acknowledged influence on Janis. Ball and Chain, a blues song originally written and recorded by Big Mama for Bay-Tone Records was never released it. Arloohie Records finally released Ball and Chain in 1968.  It has become one of Thornton’s best-known songs, largely due to performances and recordings by Janis Joplin.

Janis Joplin – Ball ‘n’ Chain (Amazing performance at Monterey)

Grace

 Grace Slick_1976

Slick was one of the first female rock stars, alongside her close contemporary Janis Joplin, and therefore an important figure in the development of rock music in the late 1960s. Her distinctive vocal style and striking stage presence exerted influence on other female performers including Stevie Nicks and Patti Smith.” — Wikipedia

A singer, songwriter, model and now artist, Grace was born in Chicago and grew up in the San Francisco area during 1960’s — an exhilarating time of change, drugs, protests and music.  As a young child, Grace had been fascinated by storybook characters such as Robin Hood, Snow White and Alice in Wonderland. Alice’s story would later become woven into a song that, to this day, raises powerful memories, grabs us and jerks us back to those bygone times.

Grace Slick and The Great Society…

Grace Slick The_Great_Society_1965

Influenced by the Beatles and inspired by watching Jefferson Airplane at a local nightclub, Grace formed her own band in 1965. Calling themselves The Great Society, the name poked fun at President Lyndon B. Johnson’s term describing programs for social reform. The band members consisted of Jerry Slick on drums (Grace’s husband at the time), Darby Slick on guitar, David Minor on guitar and vocals, Peter van Gelder on saxophone, and Bard Dupont on bass. Quickly becoming part of the San Francisco music scene, Grace befriended members of The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

Grace, Jerry and Bill Graham

Grace, Jerry and Bill Graham

The Great Society’s one and only single, Someone to Love, was released in February, 1966 on Autumn Records. “While signed to Autumn Records, the band worked with the label’s staff producer, Sylvester Stewart (better known as Sly Stone)… Purportedly, Stewart would eventually walk out as the band’s producer after it took The Great Society over fifty takes to record a version of the song “Free Advice” that was suitable for release.”

The Great Society – Unreleased version- Somebody To Love

When The Great Society disbanded in 1966, Grace became one of the lead singers of Jefferson Airplane after vocalist Signe Anderson left the group.

Jefferson Airplane had already recorded and released one album in 1966. With Grace now on board, the group’s second album, Surrealistic Pillow, was released in 1967.

The Great Society album

Surrealistic Pillow revisited two songs Grace had previously done with The Great Society — White Rabbit (written by Grace) and Somebody To Love (written by Darby Slick and originally called Someone To Love). The Great Society’s recording of White Rabbit is radically different from the version released on Surrealistic Pillow and features an oboe solo by Grace.

Grace Slick and The Great Society – White Rabbit (Writer’s note: The vocals start at four minutes and 25 seconds into the song)

In 1974 Jefferson Starship grew out of the ashes of Jefferson Airplane. Grace also began recording a number of solo albums including Dreams, released in 1980.  Dreams is the most personal of Grace’s recordings partially chronicling her attendance at the 12-step AA meetings. She was nominated for a Grammy in 1981 as Best Rock Female Vocalist for Dreams.

Jefferson Starship became Starship and Grace was the only former Jefferson Airplane member left in the band. Starship went on to record three huge hits during the 1980’s but Grace departed the group in 1988. In 1989, she joined with her former Jefferson Airplane bandmates, released a reunion album and toured successfully.

Starship

Starship

Grace was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 as a member of Jefferson Airplane.

Grace Slick on aging and the music business…

Slick’s longevity in the music business earned her a rather unusual distinction —  “the oldest female vocalist on a Billboard Hot 100 chart-topping single. “We Built This City” reached #1 on November 16, 1985, shortly after her 46th birthday. Her record stood for 12 years but was ultimately broken by Cher, who was 53 in 1999 when “Believe” hit #1.”

In a 2012 Vanity Fair interview, Grace had this to say, “you can do any number of things in the music business aside from trying to look like you’re 25. To me it’s embarrassing…I was in my 40s and I remember thinking, God, this is just awful… Here, we’re going to sing this song, “We Built This City on Rock & Roll.” Oh you’re shitting me, that’s the worst song ever. I could do it, I could get up and imitate myself, but that doesn’t feel right.”

Grace then and now

Grace Slick then and now

Grace stopped performing live years ago. She firmly believes that audiences don’t really want to see aging rockers poncing about on stage, particularly women, clearly indicating rock ‘n roll is for the young in body.

As a teenager Grace became known for her sarcastic sense of humor, something that has never mellowed with age.

Grace on being who you are….

In the same Vanity Fair interview, Grace responded to a question about what she was currently working on, …It’s an old lady, me, looking out of a window. It’s a situation of aging and death. Old people don’t look good unless you really fuck with yourself and go to a plastic surgeon and do all that kind of stuff, and then you look like a freak. But nobody looks good when they get old. Yeah, you’re getting older, but what the hell can you do about it? Nothing. So you may as well ignore it as best you can and just be who you are, be who you were, be who you continue to be.”

Grace Slick painting

Grace Slick painting

Grace is a gifted and popular artist, working in mixed media, not wanting to be tied to any specific style. She has been painting for 16 years and her best selling prints and originals are, not surprisingly, the paintings of the Alice In Wonderland characters (especially the White Rabbit) and portraits of her colleagues in the music industry. She’s still performing….just not on stage.

A Small Gallery of Grace’s Paintings

Janis by Grace Slick

Janis by Grace Slick

 Grace Slick Alice painting

Alice

Grace Slick White Rabbit

White Rabbit

Grace Slick Trust painting

Trust

Ahhh Woodstock. Unforgettable. Permanently engraved in our psyche, whether we were there or not. From the songs, to the sights, to peace and love in the mud…and Grace, the “Acid Queen”, in spectacular form singing the anthem of the acid rock era inspired by Maurice Ravel’s Bolero and the story of Alice in Wonderland.

Ravel_Bolero Album Cover

Jefferson Airplane (Grace Slick) – White Rabbit, Woodstock, 1969

We all did, and still do….

Jefferson Airplane (Grace Slick) – Don’t You Want Somebody to Love

Voodoo DollThe song some people  love to hate, even Grace herself. Every city’s anthem, and every musician’s voodoo doll. I’ve heard nothing but disparaging remarks from countless individuals in the music biz, many of which are unprintable, but I’ll borrow a few of Bob’s WTF’s.

 

Whether we admit it or not, we all know the lyrics, even sing along with it, having heard it a million times. In 2011 a Rolling Stone Magazine online poll voted We Built This City as the worst song of the 1980s. It was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group in 1986. Ha! That’ll teach’ya.

Performed live it’s powerful, emotive and persuasive, creating an instant connection with, and among, the audience members. …and yes, you’re hearing it one more time….so suck it up….

Starship – We Built This City

Janis and Grace, friends in an era that was just beginning to crack open the doors for women. Janis and Grace, forever synonymous with the hedonistic, free-wheeling 1960’s. The two rock queens who paved the way, opening opportunities in the rock music business for future female singers. We will be forever grateful. Thank you!

Grace and Janis

 

Grace and Janis

Sources include Wikipedia, my own personal archives, my mind, the ubiquitous YouTube, various bios, the internet, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Finding Nemo.

Next week…Pat, Joan and Chrissie.

Cheers!

=PB=

Pat’s column appears every Wednesday.

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com

dbawis-buttonIn “real” life Pat Blythe has spent the past 32 years as a consultant and design specialist in the telecommunications industry. After an extended absence Pat is now heading back to the GTA clubs, immersing herself in the local music scene, tasting what’s on offer, talking to people and writing once again — sharing her passions and her deep love of music. Together for 34 years, Pat also worked alongside her late husband Christopher Blythe, The PictureTaker©, who shot much  of the local talent (think Goddo, Frank Soda Little Red-headed dancing girland the Imps, Plateau, Buzzsaw, Hellfield….) as well as national and international acts,  Currently making her way through 40 years of Chris’s archives, Pat is currently compiling a photographic history of the local GTA music scene from 1975 to 1985. It continues to be a work in progress. Oh…..and she LOVES to dance….

2 Responses to “Pat Blythe: Women of Rock – Part 1”

  1. greg simpson Says:

    Thanks for the name check, Pat…glad I steered you the right way…now, forty years almost later, get into Sharon Jones.

  2. Jim Chisholm in Cambell River Says:

    Grace released an album in 1974 called Manhole. It’s definitely worth sharing. And thanks Pat for sharing some highlights from the past. Was We Built This City really that bad. Okay it was.

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