Paying tribute to the founding mothers of rock'n'roll
Step back Chuck Berry, Elvis and the rest, these mothers of invention were first, mixing blues, gospel, R&B and ferocious attitude to create rock’n’roll as we know it
‘Papa likes his bourbon, mama likes her gin/Papa likes his outside women, mama likes her outside men…’
Ma Rainey, Barrel House Blues, 1923
As James Brown sang: ‘This is a man’s world, but it wouldn’t be nothing without a woman…’
Those wise words hold true for the male-dominated world of rock’n’roll. But when the familiar musical history gets trotted out, names such as Bessie Smith, Cleo Gibson, Ida Cox, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Memphis Minnie, the Harlem Playgirls, Sippie Wallace, Big Mama Thornton, Ruth Brown and Wanda Jackson are usually absent from the conversation, or at best relegated to passing mentions.
But long before Chuck Berry, Elvis and Rock Around The Clock made ‘rock’n’roll’ a household word, there was a strong, steady, matriarchal line of blues, gospel, jump and R&B singers who contributed just as much to its stylistic core as the guys.
The first ever blues record was by a woman. Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues (1920) was a hit, selling 75,000 copies in its first month alone, and starting a brief but vital period when female blues singers were prized more than their male counterparts (Smith’s record was produced by Ralph Peer, who also discovered the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers).
Columbia Records, one of the early major labels, paid stars such as Smith, Ma Rainey and Victoria Spivey a flat rate of $100 to $130 per song, while the men usually got $20 to $30 (there were no artist royalties then). On stage the girls were singing the blues to big audiences from Los Angeles to St. Louis to New York, booked on what was called the TOBA (Theatre Owners Booking Association), a black vaudeville circuit that covered 67 American cities. For post-WWI black listeners who had migrated to metropolitan areas such as Chicago and St. Louis, these singers, most of whom came from the rural south, were living symbols of that move and its possibilities.
One woman who played that circuit stands out as almost a prototype for what we now think of as a rock star. The great bluesman Big Bill Broonzy once said of Memphis Minnie that she “can pick and sing as good as any man I’ve ever heard; she can make a guitar cry, moan, talk and whistle the blues”. Broonzy would know. He’d been bested by Minnie in two picking contests in Chicago, one in 1933, the other in 1949. The latter was judged by no less than Muddy Waters.