Women of Northwest Rock: The First 50 Years (1957-2007)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 3/06/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8935
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The realm of rock 'n' roll (despite its many liberating attributes) is also a notoriously sexist one -- a place where males have always vastly outnumbered females as active players and where an exclusionary "boys' club" environment has often allowed for everything from misogynistic lyrics about girlfriends, to unwarranted jokes about women musicians' skill levels, to the maltreatment of certain fans ("groupies"). However, any notion that all female rockers are merely a cute sideshow -- e.g. 1960s American bands like the Angels, Candy and the Kisses, the Cheese Cakes, the Dolls, the Kittens, the Pets, the Pin-Ups, the Playmates, the Poni-Tails, the Surf Bunnies, and the Yum Yums -- to the real deal, is woefully misguided. From day one brave women players have willingly waded into the fray -- and although few pioneering female rockers ever received an equivalent amount of media attention as their contemporary male counterparts, a review of their histories reveals the positive influence they've wielded. From the first few pioneering 1950s "rockabelles" to sweaty band van-loads of 1990s "riot grrrls," females have continuously contributed to the creation of the Pacific Northwest's vibrant music scene. Indeed, it comes as no surprise in modern times to find females leading groups -- not to mention, all-female bands playing everything from kick-ass hetero-metal to in-your-face lesbian rap music. And in addition to those musicians, numerous female DJs, band managers, photographers, poster designers, club owners, publicists, and record label executives, have brought an admirable breadth of talents to the region's evolving music industry over the past five decades.

R&B and Rockabilly Roots

The Northwest was home to several notable rhythm and blues artists in the 1950s -- including African American luminaries like Bea Smith (a popular Seattle nightclub blues singer), Ruby Bishop (a favorite boogie-woogie pianist/singer), and Merceedes Welcker (a rollicking pianist/singer who hosted one of Seattle's very first TV shows and cut sultry discs like "Please, Baby Be Mine").

The first local stirrings of genuine rock 'n' roll -- often called "hillbilly rock" or "rockabilly" music -- were possibly those caused by the singer, Sherree Scott. Backed by the Melody Rockers, Scott reportedly drove young crowds absolutely wild with her frantic physical shaking and boppin' tunes like "Fascinatin' Baby" and "Whole Lotta Shakin'" which were some of the region's very first rock records. Other pioneering rockabelles who cut singles were Peggi Griffith ("Rockin' The Blues"), Jackie Johnson ("Starlight, Starbright"), and Bonnie Guitar ("Love Is Over, Love Is Done").

It was in 1957 that Seattle's Bonnie Guitar first broke out with a national Top-10 pop radio hit, "Dark Moon," and although she would go on to score many additional hits over the following years, her greatest contribution locally was as a talent scout, mentor, and record producer (and guitarist) for many other Northwest talents.

Two Girls and a Guy

The Northwest was also home-base to a few doo-wop groups that included female members -- among the most notable being Tacoma's Four Pearls (whose Elsie Pierre penned their infamously bitter tune, "Jungle Bunny," after spotting some offensive graffiti), and Everett's Shades (whose Diane Norwood contributed nicely to their minor hit, "Dear Lori").

But the most successful local doo-wop group was Olympia's Fleetwoods. Initially founded in 1958 as Two Girls and A Guy -- by schoolmates Gretchen Christopher and Barbara Ellis (with their pal, Gary Troxel) -- the Fleetwoods were produced by Bonnie Guitar, and in 1959 they scored two international No. 1 hits with "Come Softly To Me" and "Mr. Blue." The following year Bonnie produced a couple near-hit singles for a sound-alike trio, Vancouver's Darwin and the Cupids (which featured Darwin Lamm backed by Janet Peters and Bobbi Brown).

Four Girls and a Dozen Bands

By 1959 many of the region's instrumental-oriented combos began to see a need for adding vocals to their acts -- and it didn't take long for them to discover that the presence of a female on stage added a lot to their sounds, stage show, and drawing power. Interestingly, the pool of potential singers at that time was still so small that when Renton's Amazing Aztecs advertised that they were holding auditions, only three girls showed up to try out: Gail Harris (a 13 year old who had sung on various Country/Western TV shows in Tacoma), Nancy Claire (a teen who had sung with the Versatones -- later, the Ventures -- on Country/Western TV shows in Tacoma), and Seattle's Lynn Vrooman (who'd mainly performed before military audiences on USO shows).

While each singer possessed talent, none struck the Aztecs' leader, saxophonist Neil Rush, as the perfect fit. Luckily, Vrooman had come to the audition accompanied by her pianist friend, Merrilee Gunst. Asked if she could sing, Gunst gave it a shot and Rush hired her. Meanwhile, Harris was hired by the region's top group, Tacoma's Wailers, and over the next three years she cut some fine garage-R&B discs with them before scoring a solo deal with a Hollywood-based label. Vrooman cut "Hopeless Love" for Seattle's Penguin Records in 1959 and toured the region opening for Fabian. Claire developed into the scene's most-in-demand vocalist, performing with nearly all of the region's best bands including the Frantics, Adventurers, Royals, Exotics, Casuals, Checkers, Viceroys, Dynamics, and the Jimmy Hanna Big Band before signing solo deals with Rona Records ("Danny") and World Pacific ("I'm Burnin' My Diary").

Angel of the Morning

Then when the Aztecs split up -- mainly, Merrilee admits, because the guys resented her obvious inexperience -- Rush first formed a new band (Merrilee and Her Men), and then eventually married her. In time the couple moved up to another band, the Statics, who enjoyed a huge regional hit in 1962, "Hey Mrs. Jones."

Later Merrilee joined a national tour with Portland's rock superstars, Paul Revere and the Raiders (who, incidentally, had featured a singer, Andrea Loper, back in 1960). While in Memphis, Rush recorded a new song, "Angel Of The Morning," which (as her first of four big-time hits) became a Top-10 smash after Seattle's KJR debuted it in 1968.

Girls, Girls, Girls

In 1965 Yakima's Josephine Sunday scored a recording contract with Hollywood's Tower label and performed on the American Bandstand TV show. Meanwhile scores of Northwest combos joined in the fun and some cool records were one result. In Seattle, Ronnie D. and the Valiants featured Pam Kelley on their "Cherry Darlin'" 45; the Duettes (with Bonnie and Ann Sloan) sang their teen-dream ode, "Donny," and Barbara McBride and the Nomads cut "The Only Reason"; Walla Walla's Frets featured Janie Hanlon on "Do You Wanna Dance"; Moses Lake's Fabulous Continentals cut "I'm Not Too Young" with Marsha Maye Covey; Tacoma's Cindy Kennedy cut "Skateboard" and Patty Q recorded "Help Me Baby"; Olympia's Stingrays featured Cheri Robin on "The Dance"; and Wenatchee's Linda Jo and the Nomads recorded "Stop Your Cryin'."

And plenty of other Northwest bands with girl singers never issued records, including Tacoma's Sonics (with "Miss" Marilyn Lodge), Solitudes (with Dani Gendreau), Regents (with Sandy Faye), Galaxies (with Andy Haverly), and Statesmen (with 'Fabulous' Juliette); Seattle's Neptunes (with Melody and Merilyn Landon), the Dynamics (with Randi Green), and the Pulsations (with Darlene Judy); Bremerton's Raymarks (with future country star Gail Davies); Aberdeen's Beachcombers (with Jocelle Russell and/or Shirley Owens); Olympia's Triumphs (with Janet Weaver); Tenino's Hangmen (with Sandy Smith); Sequim's Eccentrics (with Pam Clark and/or Nancy Warman); Winthrop's Danny and the Winthrops (with "Miss" Tessie Thomas); and Spokane's Runabouts (with Mickey Davis).

Girl Groups

Besides all of those lovely lead singers, the Northwest was also home to a number of girl groups like Centralia's Shades, and Seattle's Shampaynes and Marvelles (who cut "Call Me Back"), as well as the Versa-Telles (with Judi Kennedy, Sandy Miller, Mariy Anne Joslin, and Marlene Krook) and the Champagnes (Carolyn Berner, Alana Campbell, and Linda McGarah), who performed with the Viceroys. Then there were those certain bands who assembled girl-groups as backing singers including the Wailers's Marshans (Penny Anderson, Kay Rogers, and Marilyn Lodge) who cut "I Remember" for Etiquette Records -- while Lodge also (under the name of Mayalta Page) also cut "You're So Fine" and the Phil Specter-esque "Don't Worry About Me Baby (I Feel Just Fine)."

Meanwhile across town, the Regents added the Chandelles (Genie Allen and Sue Isekite), and up in Seattle, Olympia's Shalimars backed Little Bill on his 1961 single, "Louie Louie." In addition, Tacoma's Honeybrooks recorded "Less Of Me" and Seattle's African American teen trio, the Chanteurs, cut "No Doubt About It."

Folkies and 'Hippie Chicks'

The early 1960s also saw the American Folk Revival and among the most notable folkies in the Northwest were the Driftwood Singers (with Lynn Shepard), Alice Stuart (who gained her initial fame at the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1964), and Seattle-native, Signe Toly (who moved on to Haight Ashbury and became the first female singer with Jefferson Airplane). Among many musicians who also began playing electrified folk-rock was Bonnie Guitar's daughter, Paula Tutmarc, who at age fifteen (and under the stage-name of Alexys) scored a Top-10 West Coast hit in 1965 with "Freedom's Child."

That same year Bellingham's Unusuals (with their ballsy singer, Kathi MacDonald) cut "I'm Walkin' Babe," and while in San Francisco the following year, were signed to Mainstream Records -- the same label that had Big Brother and the Holding Co. (with Janis Joplin). After a brief stint back home with the Safety Patrol (who opened for Jefferson Airplane's Bellingham gig in May 1967), MacDonald was discovered by Ike and Tina Turner and hired on as a backup singer. After recording the Exile On Main Street LP with the Rolling Stones, and scoring a radio hit with Long John Baldry, MacDonald ended up joining Big Brother.

Meanwhile Tutmarc resurfaced -- now as Paula Johnson -- with a Maple Valley-based hippie band, Peece. Seattle had the Canterbury Tales (with Carol Suffran, Jeanine Lybeck, and their local radio hit "Rainy Day"), Spokane had Coolidge Subway (with Estee Pepers), and in Bellevue, the Daybreaks (with Ann Wilson) cut a pair of acid-tinged singles for Topaz Records. The last moments of the era saw the Olympia-based commune group, the Peace Bread and Land Band (with Marycarol Brown), issue their radical Liberation Music EP that included leftist paeans like "Angela Davis."

From Iron Maiden to Little Queen

The decade of the 1970s would see women musicians represented in all realms including heavy metal, soul and funk, country-rock and punk bands. Although the most successful band of the period was the hard rockin' Heart -- which featured sisters, Ann Wilson (vocals) and Nancy Wilson (guitar) -- that group was not the area's first metal band.

That would be the all-female band named Iron Maiden who had emerged in 1969. While Heart went from local dance-clubs to the international concert circuit based on early hits like 1977's "Barracuda" -- a righteous lyrical smackdown aimed back at a sexist music journalist -- and albums including Little Queen, other new sounds were also emerging.

From the Dirt Boys to the Girls

Among the most popular club acts in Seattle were soul and funk bands like Epicentre and Acapulco Gold -- which both featured the lovely Bernadette Bascom. Also active were a soulful former street-busking band, the Dynamic Logs (with Kathy Moore -- and Valeria Rosa, who'd sung with Jimmy Hanna and then in 1967 went to Hollywood and cut "Man" for Capitol Records), the hard rockin' Ronnie Lee Group (with guitarist Ronnie Lee, drummer Marele Peterson, and bassist Allyson Laukanen), and such '70s country-rock bands as the Skyboys (with bassist Linda Waterfall, and singer Gaye Winsor), and Rose and the Dirt Boys. As time went on, Rose resurfaced in a ambitious R&B revue called Annie Rose and the Thrillers, which was ably managed by Judy Werle and (at various times) included Pattie Vincent (sax), and backing vocals by Judy Schneps, Kelly Harlan, Denise Roselle, and Donna Beck.

When Seattle's punk rock scene first erupted at mid-decade, numerous young women played key roles in its rise. Among them were Stella Kramer who launched an early fanzine called, well, Stelazine, and early bands like the Girls (with Pam Lillig), the Meyce (with Jenny Skirvin), Sex Therapy (with Cha Cha Samoa), the Fags (with Barbie Ireland and Jane "Playtex" Brownson). Other figures on the scene were the Enemy's singer, Suzanne Grant, and Bellevue's Penelope Houston, who moved on to San Francisco where she led the Avengers -- a band often noted as one of America's finest '70s punk bands.

From the Neoboys to Wreckless

As punk spilled into the New Wave era, more women than ever got involved and the region's first all-girl punk band, Portland's Formica and the Bitches, soon morphed into the Neoboys, who worked the early scene along with Vancouver B.C.'s Dishrags. In Seattle numerous bands arose including the Jitters (with Donna Beck), Chinas Comidas (with Cynthia Genser), Mondo Bando (with Shelli Storey), and the Beakers (with bassist Frankie Sundsten, who later formed the all-female, Children of Kellogg). In 1979 Rally Go -- a band with four female musicians -- popped up, and that same year the Debbies emerged with Mary Harrell, and Sue Ann Harkey (who went on to co-found the noted "improv" band Audio LeTer with Tracey Rowland, Sharon Gannon, and ex-Rally Go member, Danielle Elliot). Other bands of the era with women members included Circle 7, Little Bears from Bangkok, Mad Dash, and the Pre-Fabs.

Meanwhile, the long-lived Fastbacks with Kim Warnick (bass) and Lulu Gargiulo (guitar) began building up a global fan-base with their punk/pop sound. In 1980 Student Nurse (with guitarist/ vocalist, Helene Rogers) emerged, and Yakima's Wreckless -- which featured three sisters, Laura Keane (vocals), Pamela Golden (Guitar), and Rebecca Hamilton (bass) -- arrived in Seattle, and once renamed the Visible Targets, the band became a top draw.

From the Dynette Set to Girl Trouble

Now bands of every imaginable sub-strain were popping up: '60s girl-group revivalists like the Dynette Set, with founder Leslee (Penta) Swanson and Shelly Stockstill, Riki Mafume, and Christy McWilson; '50s rockabilly revivalists like the Magnetics (with Freda Johnson [d. 1996]); bluesy dance masters Duffy Bishop and the Rhythm Dogs; surfer/biker-rock revivalists like the Chains of Hell Orchestra (with Judy Schneps and occasional backing by the Sympathy Cards: Nan Clifford and Cathy Sorbo); heavy metal head-bangers like DC Lacroix (with Sylvie Lacroix) and Lips (with guitarist Meredith Brooks, bassist Cyndi "Foxe" Larsen, and keyboardist Karen Breau); hard-core punks like Bam Bam and IMIJ, both featuring African American singers (Tina Bell and Shannon Funchess respectively), and the Refuzors (with Renee Refuzor); and '60s Northwest garage-rock revivalists, Girl Trouble (with drummer, Bon Von Wheelie).

On the more experimental end of the musical spectrum were artsy acts like the Entropics (with Amy Denio), 5 Sides Collide (with Char Easter, who later formed Common Language with Mary Lake), Danger Bunny (with Nancy Clarke), Capping Day (Laura Weller and Bonnie Hammond); industrial/techno/psychedelicists like Sky Cries Mary (with Anisa Romero), funk-rockers like Mass Hypnosis (with Ava Chakravarti), and bluesy proto-grungers like Boom Boom G.I. (with Laura Love).

Although their bands' musical output varied widely, all of these women shared a role in collectively proving what Seattle historian Clark Humphrey astutely observed: that far from merely being "singing magazine-cover icons" these creatively talented players instead established once-and-for-all the concept that "'women in music' doesn't just mean out-machoing the men."

Grunge Gals

There was, on the other hand, a new generation of rowdy "gloves-off" female musicians emerging who probably could "out-macho" their male peers if they so desired. This small contingent of talented artists was what one expert would have pegged as "transgressive women ... [who purposefully] tested the limits of what is culturally acceptable" (Raha). It was in the midst of the rise of Seattle's grunge sound that some tough all-female bands suddenly burst upon the scene -- including Dickless (with Kelly Canary, Kerry Green, Kana McCall, and Lisa Smith -- and their song "I'm A Man"), Barbie's Dream Car (with Lisa Orth), and 7 Year Bitch (with Selene Vigil, Stefanie Sargent, Elizabeth Davis, and Valerie Agnew -- and their song "Dead Men Don't Rape").

The most successful female-led local band of the Grunge Era -- Hole, with the famously "baby-doll"-dress-clad Courtney Love (guitar/vocals), Kristen Pfaff (bass), and Patti Schemel (drums) -- enjoyed numerous big-time radio and MTV hits, but personal and career pressures mounted along the way. Sadly, female rock 'n' roll musicians face all of the same occupational hazards that males do -- including drug addiction -- and in 1994 Pfaff died from a heroin overdose, just as 7 Year Bitch's guitarist, Stefanie Sergent, had back in 1992.

Riot Grrrls

Meanwhile in Olympia, a fresh sub-cultural uprising led by a generation of socio-politically attuned, media-savvy, feminist agitator/musicians came to be known as the "riot grrrl" movement which was led by a new breed of bands whose lyrics explored gender inequality, female empowerment, and other issues. Among the more prominent were: Bikini Kill (with Kathleen Hanna, Kathi Wilcox, and Tobi Vail, and their "Don't Need You"), Bratmobile (with Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman and their "Bitch Theme"), Heavens To Betsy (with Corin Tucker and their "Stay Away"), and Excuse 17 (with Carrie Brownstein and their "The Drop Dead Look").

Olympia's most successful Riot Grrrl-related band would prove to be Sleater-Kinney (with Tucker and Brownstein joining forces and adding drummer, Janet Weiss). Several of the group's records met with critical acclaim -- indeed, esteemed American critics Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus each showered accolades on Sleater-Kinney, praising them as one of the essential rock groups of the era, and in 2001 Time magazine named them the year's best American rock band.

Girl with 100 Heads to Visqueen

Along the way, music in the Northwest broadened with ensembles of every type forming -- including fun "alternative rock" groups that included females such as Girl With 100 Heads (with Peg Wood), the Walkabouts (with Carla Torgerson), Beat Happening (with Heather Lewis), the Gits (with Mia Zapata, who was tragically murdered in 1993), Kill Sibyl (with Tammy Watson), Maxi Badd (with Tess Lotta and Gretta Harley), Faith & Disease (with Dara Rosenwasser), Hammerbox (with Carrie Akre, who later formed Goodness), the Black Cat Orchestra (with cellist Lori Goldston, who would go on to record with Nirvana and the Presidents), Mavis Piggott (with Meghan Adkins and Nicole Thomas), the Murder City Devils (with Leslie Hardy), the Chauffeur (with Christine Rhinehart), Violent Green (with Jenny Olay), the Gossip (with Beth Ditto, Brace Paine, and Kathy Mendonca); and Visqueen (with Rachel Flotard and Kim Warnick).

In addition, there is that all-female AC/DC tribute band, Hell's Belles (co-founded by African American singer Om Johari along with Amy Stolzenbach); the all-female Japanese-style pop band the Buttersprites (with Elizabeth Jameson, Haruko Nishimura, Lunarre Omura, Julie Grant, and Jen Gay); some fine alt.country groups like Neko Case and Her Boyfriends and Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter; ethereal folkies Tiny Vipers (with Jesy Fortino); the African American hip-hop crew  Beyond Reality (with MC Kylea), and the white lesbian hip-hop duo Team Gina (with Gina Bling and Gina Genius); that pre-teen sister pop duo, Smoosh (with Asya and Chloe); and the bands led by rising star singers: Vicci Martinez and Brandi Carlile.

Alpha Females

Contrary to the sense provided by many old published histories, the modern music business has always had talented women musicians as contributors. But beyond that, it is also true that females have played other key roles including those of pioneering producer (Bonnie Guitar); audio engineer (Spokane's Irene Carter); radio DJ (KOL-FM's Maxanne Sartori); band photographer (Tacoma's Jini Dellaccio [1917-2014]); and label owner (Seafair-Bolo Records' Ellen Ogilvy, and Merrilyn Records' Merrilee Rush and Lynda Hughes).

In more recent times, many additional women have stepped up to help guide the development of the Northwest scene. Among the more consequential are the mega-successful band manager Susan Silver; entertainment attorney Stephanie Dorgan; record label execs Megan Jasper at Sub Pop Records, Candice Pedersen at K Records, Barbara Dollarhide at C/Z Records, and Lisa Orth at Big Flaming Ego; dance DJs MC Queen Lucky, Mia Calarese, DJ Sol, Eva Johnson, Naha, and Kerri "Cherry Canoe" Harrop; radio DJs (KZAM's Cyndi Bemel and KCMU's Veronika Kalmar, Faith Henschel, and Amanda Wilde, and KEXP's Hannah Levin); club owners Rhoda Mueller, Linda Derschang, Lori LeFavor, and Trish Timmers; photographers Alice Wheeler and Dara Rosenwasser; event promoters Karen Hansen, the Swedish Housewife, Kate Becker, Caroline Davenport -- and Julianne "J.A." Anderson, who runs the Alpha Female Booking and PR Agency.


Then there are some of the more notable local music journalists such as Maire Masco, Daina Darzin, Karrie Jacobs, Dawn Anderson, Ann Powers, Gillian G. Gaar -- and Mercer Island's Carla DeSantis, who in 1995 founded ROCKRGRL magazine, a publication (with the slogan  "no beauty tips or guilt trips") that for its 10-year run was dedicated to "inspiring and creating community for the growing number of women in rock" -- a community that presumably included its eventual 20,000-person subscription base.

So while the mainstream entertainment media has long framed the concept of rockin' females as being a peripheral anomaly that resists a tidy fit within the standard male-dominated narrative -- that is a simply an inaccurate historical view. Rather, as Seattle's Gillian G. Gaar has noted, "Far from being an unique trend, women-in-rock have instead been a perpetual trend" (Gaar).


Author's conversations with Merceedes Welcker (1998), Ellen Ogilvy (1983-2009), and Peggi Griffith (1997); author's interviews with: Bonnie Guitar (recorded 1985 and April 14, 1989), Ellen Ogilvy (August 9, 1983, etc.), Gretchen Christopher (1985, 2000, etc), Nancy Claire (1985, 1990), Merrilee Rush (1984, 1986) and Gail Harris, 1986 (portions included in KVI radio's The History of Northwest Rock 10-hour show first broadcast in March 1987), tapes in author's possession; author's interviews with Bonnie Guitar (November 16-17, 1995, videotaped by EMP at Notaras Lodge, Soap Lake), and Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson (April 14, 1998, videotaped by EMP in Seattle); Peter Blecha, "Nancy Claire: The Voice of the Northwest from the Ventures to the Royals," The Rocket, November 1985; Andrea Juno, Angry Women in Rock: Vol.1 (New York: Juno Books, 1996); Clark Humphrey, "Walking The Walk," Miscmedia.com website accessed on December 10, 2008 (http://www.miscmedia.com/2-1-99.html); Tricia Roman, "Call Me Madame DJ: Today's Thriving Female DJs Banish the Club Chick Stereotype," Seattle Weekly website, accessed December 18, 2008 (http://www.seattleweekly.com/1998-05-20/music/call-me-madame-dj/); Maria Raha, Cinderella's Big Score: Women of the Punk and Indie Underground (Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2005); Gillian G. Gaar, She's a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock and Roll (Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, [1993] revised edition, 2002), xviii; and author's archives.
Note: This essay was expanded slightly on December 10, 2015.

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