Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays – Ladies’ Night

Greetings pop pickers! Welcome to tonight’s Fabulously Flamboyant Friday and another of our fortnightly frolics in the fragrantly floral front gardens of musical magnificence.

This week, as we mark International Lesbian Visibility Week, we shall take steps to correct a clear and long-standing gender imbalance within this series: quite simply, too many geezers. We have, it is fair to say, been ignoring the fairer sex and have thus far paid scant heed to the fabulously flamboyant ladies of rock and roll – and indeed, many other genres as well. So, for tonight’s missive, we shall climb into our dungarees, pull on our sensible shoes and get down into the groove.

And so, without further ado, bring on the grrrls. Not ‘arf!

If we are going to take a look at the women who put the L&B into LGBTQ rock & roll, we simply have to start with Sister Rosetta Tharpe – the godmother of rock ‘n’ roll and quite possibly the most consistently under-appreciated performer in rock music history.

Broadly speaking, rock ‘n’ roll was born out of a combination of blues, rockabilly, country & western and gospel music – and, of course, one of the key ingredients of the genre was the development of a robustly reliable, mass produced and readily available electric guitar; and it was these latter two ingredients – gospel music and the development of this newflangled ‘lectric gee-tar – that allowed Sister Rosetta Tharpe to become such a pivotal figure in the development of rock music.

Put simply, Sister Rosetta Tharpe combined the singing skills of someone like Aretha Franklin with the rock ‘n’ roll guitar skills of Chuck Berry or Scotty Moore, and she used her immense talent to electrify the gospel music scene of the southern United States and become a true pioneer of rock music. Her importance to and her influence upon the development of rock ‘n’ roll simply cannot be overstated. This grrrl kicked arse; this grrrl rocked!

Born Rosetta Nubin on March 20, 1915, the child of Arkansas cotton-pickers, Tharpe displayed prodigious talent, began performing in public at the age of four, and by the age of six was performing on stage as an already accomplished guitarist. Somewhere around 1920, she moved to Chicago, was immersed in the jazz, blues, gospel and country music of the day, perfected her art and honed her considerable performance skills.

Tharpe’s career hit an upward trajectory in 1938 when she signed with Decca Records and quickly became one of the label’s biggest stars. By 1951 her fame was such that her third wedding was held in a sports stadium and attracted a paying audience of over 20,000 fans.

By this time she had developed her unique guitar style in to one that is probably best described as raucous. Not only was she a very gifted player, but she had developed a raw, over-driven, distorted and abrasive tone that was far ahead of its time and was certainly much more aggressive than other high-profile guitarists of that period. Her attacking approach was hugely influential on the guitarists of the day and she has been cited as a major influence by musicians such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan, Issac Hayes and many, many more. Her impact upon the development of plank-spanking was so significant, Rolling Stone magazine recently named her as the 6th most influential guitarist of all time.

Sadly, from from the late ’50s onward, just as rock ‘n’ roll was becoming so immensely popular, Tharpe’s career stalled, possibly because the public were moving away from the rocking gospel music she loved so much. Despite a few revivals, her career never really took off again and she died in 1973, aged just 58, in poverty and largely unlauded. Happily, some of the recognition her influential career so richly deserves finally began to arrive in 2018, when Tharpe was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Their dedication named her as the first guitar heroine of rock & roll and described her guitar skills as “roaring mastery”. Quite right, too.

Our next star of this evening’s festivities certainly qualifies as one of the musical successors to Sister Tharpe – at least on the vocal front. Quite possibly the hardest rockin’ woman of the lot and certainly one of the most successful and widely known female rock performers of her era: ol’ leather lungs, herself – Janis Joplin.

Never one to simply burn the candle at both ends (when you can just as easily burn it in the middle as well), Joplin rose to prominence via a powerful and iconic appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival, where she fronted the psychedelic San Francisco rock band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. Some of their Monterey performance made it into the film of the festival, and her popularity was assured. She quit the band after a couple of albums and went solo, subsequently appearing at the legendary Woodstock festival in 1969.

Unfortunately, to say Joplin was living life in the fast lane is something of an understatement. Alcohol, amphetamines and heroin featured prominently in her frequently deployed hedonistic arsenal of self-indulgence, and sadly (but perhaps inevitably) this type of foot-to-the-floor lifestyle quickly took its toll. The long and lucrative career she might once have been expected to enjoy simply never materialised, as Joplin died of a heroin overdose in 1970 at the age of just 27. She joined Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison in the infamous 27 Club.

A hugely talented performer, she released just three albums in her short career, two with Big Brother and the Holding Company and her one solo album. Her final recording was the fittingly poignant “Mercedes Benz”. Inevitably, numerous posthumous recordings have been released over the years (of, it must be said, very variable quality) and she remains, to this day, one of the biggest selling female artists in the United States.

Here she is – at the absolute top of her game – in an energetic live performance with Jones the Voice.

And now for someone a little more contemporary and certainly a lot less raucous – the American singer/songwriter, Paula Cole.

Cole was born in 1968 in Rockport, Massachusetts, with a musical education provided by the very prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. I first encountered her when I went to see Peter Gabriel’s Secret World Tour back in 1994. Sinéad O’Connor was handling the female vocals on the tour as she and Gabriel were an item back then. Unfortunately, their relationship hit the rocks and O’Connor jumped ship, leaving Gabriel without a female vocalist for a major world tour with gigs coming thick and fast.

Paula Cole, then almost entirely unknown, was recommended and promptly joined the band (at very short notice) for the European leg of Gabriel’s world tour. After just a few days she found herself in front of the cameras, featuring prominently on the big-budget live album and in-concert video of the tour. The project was a great success, earned Peter Gabriel a Grammy Award and remains one of the finest in-concert videos I’ve ever seen – and is one that I am very happy to <a href=”https://youtu.be/6z-fevPXOTs”>commend to the house</a>.

Considering Cole had almost no time to get to grips with the live material and was still very much in the novice performer category, being chucked in the deep end did her no harm at all, as she delivered a thoroughly splendid and highly professional performance for posterity.

Her performances on stage and in the Secret World video won her many plaudits and proved to be just what the doctor ordered in terms of career development. The long tour turned her into a battle-hardened professional and gave her career a massive boost in the U.S. As a result, Paula Cole went on to enjoy a very successful multi-platinum and multi-award winning career over the next three decades.

From Rockport, Massachusetts, we shall now jump to Athens, Georgia, to consider the career of the wonderful singer, songwriter and musician, Kate Pierson.

Pierson was actually born in New Jersey, studied at Boston University, earned a degree in journalism and seemed destined for a press career. However, this being the ’70s, she decided to take some time out to bum around Europe with no particular purpose or destination in mind. Somehow (one can only assume she was paying for the sins of a former life) she ended up in North Tyneside working as a barmaid in a scruffy Wallsend boozer. Unsurprisingly, six months of living and working in the north east of England was quite enough to send her scurrying back to the States to go and live on a farm – probably to recuperate. As a result, she found herself in Athens, Georgia, which was a fortunate move for Kate, as it was in Athens in 1976 that she met her future bandmates and became a founder member of the fabulously flamboyant B-52s.

Kate, being a bit of a talented lass, originally provided vocals, keyboards and bass guitar for the band, but as time progressed she focused more and more on her vocal abilities. The B-52s would of course go on to have a long and distinguished multi-platinum career and Pierson would also rack up a string of successful collaborations with many other bands and artists, including the Ramones, Iggy Pop and R.E.M. The band are still active, but recently wrapped up their farewell world tour and are now winding down with a very successful Las Vegas residency.

Moving swiftly from one beehive hairdo to another, it’s now time for a UK representative of the LGBTQ community and, as it happens, a personal favourite of mine. Widely regarded as one of the greatest female singers in history, a British musical icon, known for her incredible vocal range and her very emotive delivery. She delivered an impressive string of hit singles throughout the ’60s, became synonymous with the UK’s “blue-eyed soul” movement, and to this day remains an icon of “the swinging sixties”. She is also regarded as something of a trailblazer for British women in music. There can be only one… Dusty Springfield.

A London girl, Dusty (aka Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien) joined her first professional group, The Lana Sisters, in her late teens. A couple of years later she teamed up with her brother, Dion O’Brien, (who was using the stage name Tom Springfield) in a folk-pop trio called The Springfields. The trio enjoyed moderate success on both sides of the Atlantic, but in 1963, Dusty went solo and landed her first international hit with “I Only Want to Be with You”. Her career took off and she subsequently enjoyed a string of internationally successful albums and hit singles throughout the 1960s.

From my perspective, her finest moment came in 1969 with the release of her (quite frankly, sublime) 5th studio album, Dusty in Memphis. Now recognised as a stone cold classic, it sold poorly on release, despite featuring an international top-10 hit to help promote it. It has been acclaimed by many as her finest work and one of the greatest albums of the 1960s. In 2020 the album was selected by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Archive for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.

Dusty became far less active in the ’70s and her profile diminished accordingly. However, she did have a pretty decent career revival from the mid-80s onward, due in no small part to her duet with Neil Tennant on the Pet Shop Boys‘ hit single, What Have I Done to Deserve This?

This late career revival was pretty successful throughout the late 80s and early 90s, but was unfortunately halted by ill health. Sadly, Dusty Springfield died on 2 March, 1999, aged just 59. She was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just two weeks after her death.

And I think I’ll give special mention here to a few more of the great performers who, over the years, have become very firm favourites of mine: First and foremost, Joan Armatrading (and no, she wasn’t dating Valerie Singleton) whose career we have examined in a previous missive; also, Joan Jett, K.D. Lang, Samantha Fox (I said favourites, not necessarily musical favourites), Melissa Etheridge, Tracy Chapman and the truly wonderful Mary Gauthier, whose sophomore album, Drag Queens in Limousines, remains one of my desert island discs, almost a quarter of a century after its first release.

And as I’ve been a-mostly ramblin’ an’ a-shamblin’ my decrepit way down memory lane tonight, we’ll wrap things up for this evening with a look at a thoroughly contemporary artist – Katie Pruitt.

Katie is an American singer-songwriter based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her debut album, Expectations, was released in 2020 and her second album, Mantras, was released in 2024. Her career was kickstarted in 2017 when she was awarded the Buddy Holly Prize from the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Her debut album has a wonderfully mature 70s west coast vibe, one that I find particularly appealing, but at the same time her compositions can be touchingly immature.

Her second album demonstrated fine progress, but unfortunately, just as her career was building up a decent head of steam, along came “The Unknown Virus Of Unspecified Origin”, which proceeded to shut down the live music business, which in turn seemed to stall her career and squander most of the hard-earned ground gained during her previous years of diligent work on the road. Nevertheless, there is real talent there, so hopefully Ms. Pruitt can come again and have another crack at the international success I believe she so thoroughly deserves.

Anyway, that’s yer lot for this week’s Fabulously Flamboyant Friday. May all your pillows be tasty, your gardens inclined and your puddles well jumped.

Goodnight, and may your frog go with you – Not ‘arf!

Featured Image: See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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