2016 has seen the passing of way too many great artists. Abi Bliss looks at some of the brilliant musical broads sadly no longer with us.
Sharon Jones – I’m Still Here
Sharon Jones’s music followed in the high-energy, brass-powered funk and soul footsteps of classic James Brown and Aretha Franklin. And true to that tradition, she had a life story made for belting out loud and proud.
Born in segregated Georgia then moving as a child to a New York that saw its share of 60s unrest, Jones was raised on gospel and funk but wound up working as a prison guard and an armoured car guard while struggling to break into an industry that told her she was “too fat, too short, black and old”. Having finally released her first album with her band, the Dap-Kings in 2002, she was enjoying steadily growing recognition – even opening for Prince in 2011 – at least, until “the big C crashed down on me, trying to take it all away.”
As gutsy as ever, Jones continued recording and performing between treatments for the pancreatic cancer that finally claimed her in November at the age of 60. Released on the soundtrack of the 2015 documentary Miss Sharon Jones!, I’m Still Here stands as both the most danceable of obituaries and defiant testament to her enduring energy.
The Cake – Baby That’s Me
A 60s girl group so impeccable that you may wonder if you dreamed them, The Cake were a trio of New York teenagers: Eleanor Barooshian – who died aged 66 in August – Jeanette Jacobs and Barbara Morillo.
Although never finding more than cult success, in their brief heyday from 1966-68 they dropped acid with Jimi Hendrix, sang backing vocals for Dr John and wore the BEST clothes, as seen on this clip of their TV debut in 1967, in which Barooshian is the one in the middle:
Unusually for a girl group of the time, they wrote some of their own material, with songs such as Rainbow Wood offering baroque three-part harmonies that captured the Summer of Love’s taste for all things wyrd and medieval.
Unfortunately that side of them isn’t so well represented by Spotify, so you’ll have to make do with more classic Wall of Sound stylings of Baby, That’s Me, their version of a Jack Nitzsche and Jackie DeShannon-penned number.
Poison Girls – Crisis
Born as Frances Sokolov in 1935, Vi Subversa was already in her mid-40s with two children (who were each in their own bands) before answering music’s call as singer and guitarist of the Poison Girls. But once she did, she proved herself more punk rock than any number of pairs of flaming bondage trousers.
Poverty and domestic dysfunction (Crisis), the medicalisation of ‘difficult’ women (Under the Doctor), the threat of neo-Nazis (Bully Boys): Subversa’s gravelly roar and urgent, scratchy guitar stuck two fingers up at Thatcher’s Britain in all its grimy, thuggish, sexist and racist glory.
Gong – Witch’s Song / I Am Your Pussy
Just two years older but from an earlier musical generation, Gong’s Gilli Smyth had more in common with Vi Subversa’s righteous anger than might first appear. As a member of abiding space-rockers Gong with her partner Daevid Allen (who made his own departure for the astral plane in 2015; Gong continue), Smyth was partly responsible for some of the most polarisingly hippy-prog music ever committed to vinyl.
But for all the whimsy, woo and flying teapots, Smyth’s lyrics – often delivered in a spell-casting chant – frequently concerned themselves with righting the misogyny of centuries, reclaiming labels such as ‘witch’ and ‘prostitute’ and celebrating women’s power and sexuality.
“After John Lennon told The Liverbirds that girls couldn’t play guitar, they set out to prove him wrong.”
Pauline Oliveros – Cows, Cows, Cows!
Pauline Oliveros didn’t exactly compose for the short attention spans and ad breaks of the streaming age, making her the hardest woman to pick a playlist-friendly track for here. A pioneer of experimental electronic music and founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 1960s, Oliveros later developed the concept of Deep Listening, often using the accordion she had played since childhood to perform long, meditative pieces that invite listeners to open their ears and minds as fully as possible to the sounds around.
Take a cuppa-length breather from your life and immerse yourself in her demanding but subtly energising soundscapes.
The Liverbirds – Diddley Daddy
A quartet of Liverpool lasses, The Liverbirds never really lived up to their billing by canny promoters as the ‘female Beatles’ but their more famous Merseybeat counterparts did have a hand in their career in the early 1960s thanks to John Lennon’s not-so-fab view of women. After he told the group that girls couldn’t play guitar, they set out to prove him wrong, with guitarist Valerie Gell, who died earlier this month, on lead string-slicing duties.
Gigs at Hamburg’s Star Club and a degree of fame in Germany followed, although the group split before ever making their own Revolver or Sgt Pepper. Here they pay tribute to the daddy of the R&B riff, Bo Diddley, with Gell showing off a few fine chops of her own.
Esma Redžepova – Dzelem, Dzelem
Despite the obvious talent of their teenage daughter, Esma Redžepova’s parents were reluctant to allow her a career in singing. As members of Macedonia’s long-marginalised Roma community, they feared she would get no further than sleazy, dead-end gigs in cafes and bars.
Thankfully, bandleader Stevo Teodosievski persuaded them otherwise, taking her under his wing (they later wed when Redžepova was in her 20s) and kickstarting a career of nearly 60 years that saw her revel in the accolade ‘Queen of the Gypsies’. She certainly looked regal and resplendent in her flowing gowns and many colourful turbans; offstage she was an equally imposing figure, supporting and campaigning for Roma welfare, education and women’s rights.
Composed by Žarko Jovanović in the wake of World War II, Dzelem, Dzelem is an anthem for the nomadic gypsy way of life that also mourns the deaths of so many Roma at the hands of the “black legion” of Nazis. Carried along by on the emotional tide of Redžepova’s voice, it needs little translation.3936 Views
Abi is Standard Issue’s sub-editor, which means she revels in pointing out typos. On other people’s websites, of course. *shuffles awkwardly* She threw up in the Houses of Parliament aged 10 and it’s all been downhill from there.