It’s no secret to anyone who knows anything about the history of popular American music that rock n roll is a direct descendant of the black musical tradition, rooted in gospel, the blues, and R&B. Even the most casual cultural observer could rattle off the names of artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ike Turner, and a host of other highly influential African American musicians considered early pioneers of the genre, not to mention cats like Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Rick James, Prince, and Lenny Kravitz later in the 20th century. Bands like Living Colour, King’s X, and Fishbone certainly come to mind when discussing acts situated on the edgier end of the black rock continuum, and newer artists like Marcus Machado and Gary Clark, Jr. appear to be at the forefront of a blues rock revival.
Yet, often missing from these conversations are the names of the black women who also gave rise to rock n roll. From blues women like Bessie Smith, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, and Etta James, to Tina Turner and Nona Hendryx, and genre-blending artists like Meshell Ndegeocello, Imani Coppola, and Alice Smith, black women have played a substantial role in shaping and expanding rock music. Infusing elements of soul, funk, R&B, and hip-hop into their recordings and live performances, black women rockers prove time and time again that they are a force to be reckoned with.
In honor of Women’s History Month, SoulTrain.com takes a look at some of the wild, wondrous women who birthed and nurtured rock n roll, and who continue to give it wings.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Widely hailed as the premiere black woman architect and “Godmother” of rock n roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is credited as being the first artist to bridge gospel with secular music. In fact, many male rock legends (including the aforementioned Chuck Berry and the so-called “King of Rock n Roll,” Elvis Presley) cite Tharpe as a major source of inspiration. Known for soul-stirring songs such as “Didn’t It Rain,” “Down By the Riverside,” and “Up Above My Head,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe is also famous for her unique electric guitar playing style, considered to be the foundation for what would become the definitive rock n roll sound. Tharpe remains one of the most important figures in American music, whose legacy is evident across a broad range of artists and genres throughout the world.
If Rhianna is the epitome of the modern pop music “bad girl,” funk diva Betty Davis is the prototype. Affectionately called a “nasty gal” long before Vanity 6 extolled the possibilities of being about that life, Davis’ raspy voice and raw sexuality positioned her in stark contrast to other acts of the 1970s, even as shifting social and political tides and the emergence of the disco era opened the door to greater sexual freedom and experimentation. During her brief marriage to jazz legend Miles Davis, Betty Davis is said to have significantly influenced her then-husband by introducing him to the music of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. As a songwriter, the lady Davis didn’t shy away from exploring the pleasures of the flesh, unapologetically and unabashedly spinning her tales of love, sex, and triumph over the course of 3 albums (Betty Davis, They Say I’m Different, and Nasty Gal). Tracks like “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up,” “Anti Love Song,” and “They Say I’m Different” stand out not only for their lyrical boldness, but also for the undeniable funk-flavored rock they bring to the table; however, that fierce spirit was met with more than a little controversy, with community groups and even the NAACP boycotting her shows and pressuring radio stations to ban her music. Davis disappeared from the scene altogether after her third album and hasn’t been heard from since. A new documentary entitled Nasty Gal: The Many Lives of Funk Queen Betty Davis (Native Voice Films), rumored for release this year, purports to reveal Davis’ story in her own words.
If ever there were an heiress apparent to Betty Davis, it would certainly be Joi Gilliam (check out her cover of Davis’ “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up” from her 1997 release, Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome). From her 1994 debut The Pendulum Vibe through her fourth album, 2006’s Tennessee Slim is the Bomb, this dynamic singer/songwriter and producer has issued a string of hits laced with funk, hip-hop, and more than a little bit of rock n roll. Her electrifying live performances are the stuff of legend, and both her musical approach and her fashion sense have captivated audiences and contributed to her critical acclaim. One of Joi’s first singles, “Freedom,” was re-vamped and re-arranged for inclusion on the soundtrack for Mario Van Peebles’ 1995 film, Panther, with the song appearing as both an all-star soul track featuring Vanessa Williams, Mary J. Blige, TLC, SWV, and a host of other ‘90s soul and R&B artists, and as a hip-hop version with Meshell Ndegeocello, Queen Latifah, Yo-Yo, MC Lyte, and Left Eye. Her songs “Ghetto Superstar,” “Lick,” and “Missing You” further propelled Joi into otherworldly superstardom, and her short stint as Dawn Robinson’s replacement in the neo-soul group Lucy Pearl was one in a long line of musical partnerships that crystallized this effervescent artist’s place in music. Joi most recently joined D’Angelo and the Vanguard as a vocalist, and boasts collaborations with Outkast, Goodie
Mobb, George Clinton, Fishbone, and dozens of other artists spanning multiple genres.
When the Alabama Shakes’ debut album, Boys and Girls, dropped in 2012, the Athens, AL-based band had already been together for nearly four years and had amassed an impressive local following and online fanbase. Their first commercial single, “Hold On,” eases through your speakers with a laid back, country-rock kind of vibe, and just as you’re getting comfortable with a nice little head bob lead singer Brittany Howard’s bombastic vocals rip the lid off the sucka. The Shakes shook up pop music with a quickness, rapidly ascending the charts and scoring multiple Grammy nominations. Sold-out live performances and RIAA gold certifications also followed, largely due to Howard’s earthy, soulful, blues woman vocal style. This woman sings—and plays—with gorgeous abandon, and yet is clearly contained and measured. Her tone and sound belie her 27 years, and their latest release, Sound & Color, has pushed Alabama Shakes even further into mainstream fame. Howard recently introduced her musical alter-ego, Thunderbitch, with a 10-song self-titled EP. With a heavier emphasis on rock, this loud, rowdy record is more than a variation on the Alabama Shakes’ theme; her recent performance on PBS’ Smithsonian Salutes Ray Charles: In Performance at the White House, during which she wowed with “Unchain My Heart” and later as part of the ensemble singing “Heaven Help Us All” and “What I’d Say,” proved Howard’s prowess as a rock n soul vocalist beyond compare.
There is no shortage of sistahs who kill it on the bass: Meshell Ndegeocello, Rhonda Smith,
Esperanza Spalding, Gail Ann Dorsey, and Vicki Randle are among the most well known black women to master the instrument. Add to that elite pantheon the mighty Nik West, hailed by rock n roll royalty from Prince to the Eurthymics’ Dave Stewart and Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler as one of the best to bring the thunder. With a style that seamlessly blends funk, rock, and soul, the singer/songwriter and bassist has become a sensation thanks to scorching live performances, solo recordings (Just in the Nik of Time and Say Somethin’), collaborations with Orianthi (West’s tune “My Relationship”) and Andy Allo (West played bass on Allo’s Prince-produced single, “People Pleaser”), and her covers of popular tunes (“Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, AC/DC’s “Back in Black”). With a look and vibe that merge Betty Davis, Parliament-Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins, and Tina Turner’s Acid Queen in The Who’s Tommy, Nik West is a fresh, funky voice whose musical sensibilities allow her to slip from jazz to soul to rock in the blink of an eye. Through her Queen of Strings competition, West encourages girls and women to rock out on guitar and bass as she continues to blaze trails as one of the most critically acclaimed musicians in the business.
Left-handed guitar player Malina Moye has been profiled on SoulTrain.com numerous times over the years, but no list of black women who rock would be complete without her! The WCE/Sony International recording artist, who was the only solo African American woman considered for inclusion in the Best Rock Performance category for the 58th Annual Grammy Awards (she ultimately was not nominated, however), released her latest EP, Rock and Roll Baby, in 2014. Moye is considered to be one of the top 10 female guitar players in the world, and for good reason. She’s performed alongside heavyweights such as Buddy Guy as part of the Jimi Hendrix Experience Tour, smashed Queen Elizabeth’s 60-year celebration with her spin on “God Save the Queen,” and recorded with funk bassist extraordinaire, Bootsy Collins. Moye’s undeniable energy onstage rivals any male musician one thousand-fold, and she brings a rad, righteous, and self-possessed sex appeal to her live performances.
Undoubtedly one of music’s unsung heroines, Cree Summer is the bohemian rock goddess whose affinity for Frank Zappa and poetic lyricism produced two stunning albums: 1993’s Womb Amnesia with her band Subject to Change, and her seminal 1999 solo release, Street Faërie. Womb’s harder-edged rock tracks like “I Me Me Mind” and “Beauty is Made” evoke Fishbone, Living Color, and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, with the A Different World star and voice actress lending her brazen vocals to songs tackling socio/political topics over loose grooves. Subject to Change was short-lived and, according to Summer, a staggering break-up. From the ashes she arose like the phoenix she is with Street Faërie, produced by Lenny Kravitz and featuring songs co-written by Van Hunt. Revealing a somewhat softer and more reflective side, the album became one of the most coveted releases of the late ‘90s, but commercially couldn’t compete with more pop and R&B radio-friendly records despite its tight production and Summer’s solid performance and songwriting. Tracks like “Still Heart,” “Angry Boy,” and “Curious White Boy” provided Summer and listeners ample opportunity to rock out, and every song on the album offered soulful introspection. Although Cree Summer has yet to deliver another album (she’s rumored to have new music in the works), in 2007 she dropped “Savior Self,” a heart wrenching ode to life, love, scars, and healing, as a video-only release directed by Mikki Willis and co-starring Zoë Kravitz.
Sandra St. Victor
Sandra St. Victor is rock personified. As the former front woman for the Family Stand and a massive musical force as a solo artist, SSV has churned out three albums (Mack Diva Saves the World, Gemini: Both Sides, and Oya’s Daughter) and an EP (Sandra St. Victor’s Sinner Child); written hits for the likes of Paula Abdul (“Vibeology”), Chaka Khan (“I’ll Never Be Another Fool”), and Prince (“Soul Sanctuary”); and rocked stages all over the globe. Her blistering vocals steeped in gospel and soul perfectly complement bold, shoot-from-the-hip lyrics and also leave plenty of room for the growls and roars she ushers forth when the spirit moves her. St. Victor’s passion for preserving and promoting exceptional music and artists inspired her to create the Daughters of Soul project, whose current line-up features Lalah Hathaway, Syleena Johnson, Lisa Simone, Sylvette “Phun” Stone, Kori Withers, and Indira Khan, all daughters of legendary soul artists and spectacular musicians in their own right. Her recent collaboration with rock guitar newcomer Marcus Machado, “Code Black,” serves as yet another reminder that this native Dallasite who calls the Netherlands home remains one of the baddest women to rock a mic.
Rhonda Nicole is the Managing Editor for SoulTrain.com, a member of The Recording Academy (The Grammys) and ASCAP, a soul singer/songwriter, music journalist, blogger, and curator of the BohemeRockstar Music Blog (IG @BohemeRockstar), splitting her time between the Bay Area and LA. Download her EP ‘Nuda Veritas’ on CDBaby and iTunes, keep up with her new music at soundcloud.com/rhonda-nicole, follow her on Facebook and on Twitter @wildhoneyrock, and dig her musical musings at rhondanicole.com.