Among the myriad of extraordinary voices from stages past and present, there are in my mind three voices from popular music history that must be recognized as ‘game changers’ for generations of female vocalists. Time is due these icons, to recount their stories of struggle with gender inequality and personal demons to define their musical generation, not just as women, but as forces of nature. At a time in our musical journey when female artists dominate our airwaves with stamina and grace, paying homage to these three in particular is long overdue.
Beginning with present day, who can argue the power and impact that Stevie Nicks has had on several generations of music lovers? During the mid-seventies when the rock genre was saturated with post psychedelic era male voices, Stevie quickly became more than just a breath of fresh air. Her distinctive tone and carefully crafted persona would make Nicks one of the most notable collaborators for decades, including today. More importantly, Stevie Nicks is widely considered to be one the greatest songwriters of all time. Deeply rooted in symbolism, songs like ‘Landslide’ and ‘Rhiannon’ carry the distinctively ‘Stevie Nicks’ stamp that has made her a rock icon; male or female. Her personal relationship conflicts and struggles with substance abuse are well documented. Through all that though, she is today still one of the most sought out singer-songwriters by other musicians from varying genres. Along with her successes with Fleetwood Mac and Lindsey Buckingham before and after, Nicks has worked with star performers Don Henley, Tom Petty, and Dave Stewart to name a few.
Incredibly though with all her body of work post and prior to Fleetwood Mac days, Stevie has never been honoured with a personal Grammy award. When you consider the lyrical genius and artistry of her voice, and songs with her own lyrics like, ‘Edge of Seventeen’, ‘Stand Back’, and ‘Talk to Me’ just to name a very few, one can only wonder at this omission. Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ album is generally regarded as one of Nicks’ crowning achievements, but Stevie has gone on to record multiple successful solo albums and duets with pop’s most famous names. Dubbed the ‘Queen of Rock and Roll’, Stevie Nicks remains to be a major influence on musicians both male and female who follow in her footsteps. Along with Grace Slick from ‘Jefferson Airplane’ fame, Stevie Nicks has often cited our next icon as a huge influence on her own career.
Janis Lyn Joplin emerged out of Port Arthur, Texas as an awkward and troubled teenager, to become one of the tumultuous and frenzied ‘sixties’ most defining voices. Who can deny the impact Joplin’s bluesy rasp has had on Rock music history? From her breakthrough appearance on stage at the Monterey Festival in the summer of 1967, Janis gave clear notice there would only be one true Queen of the psychedelic era. Had she been able to successfully fight the demons of drug and alcohol abuse, there’s no telling what heights she would have scaled as a vocal phenomenon. When Joplin took to the mic, she commanded an audience’s attention through the sheer force of her instrument.
Without her renditions on songs like ‘Ball & Chain’, ‘Summertime’, ‘Piece of My Heart’, and ‘Cry Baby’, in my opinion Big Brother and the Holding Company would have been just another ‘sixties’ rock band. Stevie Nicks in fact summed up Joplin perfectly stating, “Janis put herself out there completely, and her voice was not only strong and soulful, it was painfully and beautifully real”, adding also that, “she brought her own dangerous, sexy rock & roll edge to every single song.” I believe Janis Joplin’s beauty transcended the physical the moment she began to sing. How we’ve been robbed of a richer legacy from this marvel of vocal talent.
Joplin’s own influences are found in the jazz and blues singers from earlier eras, so much so that she was possessed to erect a stone tablet on the unmarked grave of the great Bessy Smith. Admittedly, my knowledge of Smith’s influence as an artist is limited, but her impact as a pioneer for female vocalists, is undeniable. However, there is one other woman from the same era who I believe deserves accolades beyond any other. As a black female working with some of the greatest names in jazz, both black and white, this magnificent talent needs to be revered and remembered.
When she arrived on the American jazz music scene in the late nineteen twenties, Billie Holiday offered a sultriness and bluesy improvisation skill never before heard. ‘Lady Day’, as she became known, trail blazed a path for female singers in America, no matter their race, for generations. Born Eleanora Fagan in 1915, she later adopted the surname of her estranged father, who was a travelling jazz banjo player. It would be Billie Holiday’s vocal styling that would pioneer a new jazz age in the thirties and forties. It was almost as if she deliberately lagged behind the beat of the music when she sang. In a 1958 interview the legendary crooner Frank Sinatra noted, “With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.”
Strangely though, this supremely talented woman, when travelling with an all-white orchestra wasn’t even allowed to ride in the same elevator with them, much less stay in the same hotel. Ironically, Holiday’s biggest break came when she reluctantly agreed to sing a stirring poem detailing lynching of blacks in America. ‘Strange Fruit’ remains one of the most haunting numbers ever recorded. Fearing retaliation of some kind when she first sang it, Billie’s soulful tones blister with an empathy that can only be described as naked honesty and emotion. When the song later became part of her performance repertoire, many have told of the stirring silence that befell a room whenever she began to sing those disturbing lyrics. ‘Strange Fruit’ was of the biggest risk taking efforts in an era of social unrest, so it took a special person like Billie to command an audience’s attention.
If you haven’t availed yourself the opportunity to learn about Holiday’s career, consider her song writing prowess as proof of her genius. ‘Lady Sings the Blues’, and ‘God Bless the Child’, which was inspired by an argument over money with her mother, are testaments to her greatness. When she sang her own ‘Fine and Mellow’ during a rare TV appearance, it was as if she were bearing her soul right on camera. The interchange between herself and lifelong friend and soulmate, saxophone player Lester ‘The Prez’ Young, is nothing short of electric, especially when you consider their mutual history. I urge you to spend some valuable time with ‘Lady Day’, and learn the story of a remarkable human being. She was certainly no shrinking violet, but for better or worse, Billie Holiday mostly lived her life on her own terms. The same is also true for Joplin and Nicks. May the memory of ‘Lady Day’s’ inspiration, and that of Janis and Stevie who followed, live on forever.