Etta James performing in 1970

When I think of women in rock, I think of raw passion, uninhibited sexuality, and relentless confidence.  I visualize bold and sassy women with larger-than-life personalities and strangely attractive bravados.  Women commanding the stage by screaming or serenading crowds that demand one encore after another.  These fearless females embody courage, rebellion, and above all, attitude.

Few people can give attitude quite like Etta James.When you watch performance footage of this incredible goddess of gospel, soul, R&B, and rock nroll, you cant help but be inspired to get up and do something daring something that requires guts. Her presence on stage was nothing short of extraordinary.  She fully personified the grit, power, and passion of lust, sex, and rebellion.  She defined rock, even before it became its own genre.  

Etta was born to 14-year-old Dorothy Hawkins in Los Angeles, California, on January 25th, 1938.  Although she never knew her father, her mother encouraged her to sing, telling her that even if a song has been done a thousand times, you can still bring something of your own to it.”  I’d like to think I did that,” Etta stated later on which she most certainly did. When she sang, she became the subject of her lyrics and her audiences lived vicariously through her.

Etta made a name for herself as a gospel prodigy by the age of 5, gaining notoriety singing in her church choir and on the radio. By the time she was 12, she moved to San Francisco with her mother and formed a music group with two friends. Soon the trio auditioned for Johnny Otis, a popular bandleader, and the rest, as they say, is history. She quickly became a regular fixture in the band, recording the then controversial Roll With Henryin 1954, which was dubbed The Wallflowerdue to its sexual nature. It reached #1 on the charts. This is when Etta James became the Etta James we know today.

She launched her solo career that same year. Soon after, in 1960, she signed with Chicagos Chess Records, now considered a legendary institution. Under new management, Etta put out many of her most popular and enduring hits, taking her career to new heights. Some of these chart toppers included the heart-breaking ballad “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “At Last” and “Trust in Me.  As well as songs like “Something’s Got a Hold On Me,” “In The Basement,” and “I’d Rather Go Blind.”

Etta James and Christina Aguilera in 2006

But her success also fueled her spiraling drug addiction, which affected her personal as well as professional life. Still, she pressed on and put out hit after hit, even scoring a Grammy Award nomination in 1974, for her eponymous rhythm and blues album. She stayed with the label until her contract ended in 1977 and went on to sign with Warner Brothers Records. She then put out several more critically acclaimed albums, such as Deep In The Night and Seven Year Itch. In 1993, Etta James was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. Two years later, she won her first Grammy for Mystery Ladyin the best vocal performance category. She then signed a new recording contract with a different label, continuing her career.

In 2003, Etta released Let’s Roll, which won the Grammy for best contemporary blues album the following year. Her sons, Donto and Sametto James, served as producers on the recording, along with guitarist Josh Sklair. The same group worked on her next project Blues to the Bone, which brought James her third Grammy Award in 2005this time for best traditional blues album. In 2006, James released All the Way, which featured cover versions of songs by Prince, Marvin Gaye, and James Brown.  She participated in a tribute album for the famed jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald, called We All Love Ella around the same time.

Ettas health began to deteriorate as she entered her 70s. In 2010, she was hospitalized for a blood infection, among other issues. It was later revealed that the legendary singer was receiving treatment for leukemia and was also suffering from dementia. Nevertheless, her last studio album, The Dreamer, was released in 2011.  A year later, on January 20th, 2012 Etta James, one of the most charismatic women in rock history, passed away at her Riverside home.

The life and career of this woman were both turbulent and incredible, and very influential for singers across many generations. Adele, for instance, fell in love with Ettas voice when she was only 13.  Theres no denying that Christina Aguileras career was significantly impacted by James, as was Beyonces, who portrayed the songstress in the 2008 musical biopic, Cadillac Records. When someone is as good at something, as Etta James was at rocking the house, the legacy of that person endures. She was a mesmerizing performer, because when Etta sang she lived every word that came out of her mouth.

And so did Janis Joplin, although she was a very different type of singer. The interesting thing about this young and troubled artist is that she was able to sing songs about things she couldnt have possibly experienced. She was only 27 years young at the time of her death. Janis was not a beautiful young starlet with everything going for her. She was more of a drifter and an old soul that struggled to find others who could relate to her. Perhaps thats why she gravitated towards the bluesy side of rock. Although many consider Janis Joplin the female pioneer of the genre, an honor I personally think belongs to Etta James, she was most certainly one of the first women to shape it.

The groundbreaking performer was born in Port Arthur, Texas, on January 19th, 1943. She was an older sister to numerous siblings, and seemed to be fairly popular in school. But the onset of adolescence changed things. After gaining some weight and developing problematic skin, she was often teased and made fun of, which plummeted her self-esteem and caused her to rebel. Although she couldnt wait to get out of her tiny town characterized by oil tanks, multiple refineries, as well as a bleak future in some related industry, she loved the church where she got to sing gospel music while growing up. Janis also adored musicians like Lead Belly, and blues vocalists Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Odetta.

Janis Joplin in 1968

By her senior year in high school, Joplin earned a reputation for being an outspoken tough girl who liked to smoke, drink, get a little rowdy, and act outrageous whenever she had the opportunity. After graduation, she enrolled in Lamar State College of Technology but didnt do well, preferring to engage in wild partying instead of studying. She then enlisted in Port Arthur College, where she also didnt last, moving to Los Angeles in 1961. After failing to stand on her own two feet, she soon returned home, only to try again one year later.

In 1962, Joplin enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin, and started to perform folk songs on campus and at local bars. She gathered a loyal following of fans who loved the unique quality of her voice and out-of-this-world soulfulness. Restless and hungry for her big break, she fled to San Francisco in 1963, but much like her first attempt to start her life anew, this too proved to be a waste of time. She then tried her luck in New York but encountered the same problems. At this time, her drug and alcohol use started to become a more serious issue. Paying no attention to her forming addictions, she returned to San Francisco, where she stayed till 1965, only to move home shortly thereafter.

Although her love of music was evident early on, her career didnt officially start until 1966, when she was recruited by Travis Rivers and joined Big Brother and the Holding Company. Only two years later, the band put out their impressively successful album, Cheap Thrills, featuring songs like “Piece of My Heart” and “Summertime”. Soon after the album release, Janis’ intense drug use and newly found attention led to friction within the band and prompted the singer to branch out on her own.

By 1969, she released I Got Dem OlKozmic Blues Again Mama!, featuring songs Just a Little Bit Harder” and “To Love Somebody“.  The album received mixed reviews from critics, who also personally attacked Janis. In an interview with The Village Voice, she stated, “It was really important, you know, whether people were going to accept me or not.” They would, but she wouldnt get to live long enough to see it, or to experience the success of her second effort, Pearl, which was posthumously released in 1971 to much critical acclaim. On October 4, 1970, one of the most passionate and esteemed singers of the blues and rock nroll, passed away of an accidental heroin overdose.

Janis Joplin with Tina Turner in 1969

Janis Joplin was able to match and exceed many of her male contemporaries in shaping a genre that would dominate the music industry for the next 3 decades. Her soulful voice, natural charisma, and uninhibited sexuality on stage cemented Janis as a rock legend, but so did her hard partying ways and love of pushing boundaries, which led to her early demise. Still, her contributions to the genre will live on forever, as will her name; she was inducted into the Rock nRoll Hall of Fame in 1995. She paved the way for many musicians, including Ann Wilson and Ana Popovic, as well as many others. But few women could sing the blues the way Janis Joplin did.

Joan Jett, for instance, is a very different type of musician that did a fantastic job at taking rock and bridging it with punk and pop, making her a pioneer in her own right. The extraordinary guitar player, vocalist, songwriter, and producer is a Jack-of-all-trades. Her tomboyish demeanor and tough girl attitude is among one of the most memorable and mimicked personalities by young starlets in music looking to break into the industry. And theres a reason for it, Joan Jett did it better than many of the biggest female rock stars at the time.

Joan Jett was born Joan Larkin on September 22, 1958, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  She moved to Los Angeles with her family when she was 12 years old and received her first guitar when she was just 14.  One year later she entered the music business when she formed the influential punk-rock band, The Runaways. The group featured Jett on vocals and guitar, Sandy West on drums, Jackie Fox on bass guitar, Lita Ford on guitar, and the super sexy Cherie Currie on lead vocals.

Joan Jett in the late 1970s

At a time when disco ruled the airways, these badass chicks were tirelessly working to bring punk-style into the mainstream, releasing their first, self-titled album in 1976. Although it featured the now legendary Cherry Bomb, the record failed to produce much buzz, in part because of bands gender, but mainly because of the nature of their songs’ lyrics. And then there were their fashion choices. Red jumpsuits and lacy lingerie may be common fashion attire for many of todays young musicians, but at the time, they were considered to be highly inappropriate, but such is the nature of rock ‘n’ roll.

One year later the band released its second album, Queens of Noise, which featured songs “Born to Be Bad” and “Neon Angels. While it earned the girls a lot of fans in Japan, three gold records to be exact, they failed to produce a lot of hype in the US. And by mid 1977, Fox and Currie left the band. This made Joan Jett the groups lead singer, which was completely fine since Joan could always hold her own in almost every setting. After all, she was already the principle songwriter, so it was a natural transition for the young rocker.

However, The Runaways record label, Mercury, dropped the band from its roster only 2 years later. And by 1979, only 4 years after forming, the band was no more. In an interview with Esquire magazine, Joan stated, “When The Runaways broke up, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. A breakup is like losing a very good friend. It’s like a death.” Not one to fall back when the odds are stacked against her, Joan decided to embark on a solo career. But first she temporarily relocated to England and hung around two former members of the now iconic Sex Pistols. There she worked to expand her understanding of music, as the United Kingdom was leading the way in establishing punk rock as a reputable genre in the industry.

When she moved back to LA, she got involved in music production, first working with Germs, a thriving punk band, on their debut album. She also appeared in a film about her former band, Were All Crazy Now. Sometime around then, Joan met producer Kenny Laguna and songwriter Ritchie Cordell. The men were impressed with Joans tenacity and opted to work with her on her first solo album. Although she put in a lot of effort and had help, 23 different companies declined to distribute the record. Undeterred, she enlisted Laguna as her partner and formed Blackheart Records in 1980, becoming the first woman to own and have direct control over a record company.

Soon, Boardwalk Records picked up her solo album and re-released it as Bad Reputation, but alas, it didnt do well either. Unphased, Joan and the Blackhearts put out I Love Rock nRoll. The title track became one of her biggest hits ever, as well as one of the most beloved songs in rock history, climbing to the top of the charts in 1982. Her version of Tommy Jamess “Crimson and Clover” and Gary Glitter’s “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)became major hits as well. Riding the wave of her success, Jett went on to release Album in 1983, followed by Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth in 1984, and a few others after that without much buzz.

The Runaways (from left, Jackie Fox, Joan Jett, Sandy West, Cherie Currie and Lita Ford) in 1976

She decided to give acting another shot and appeared in Light of Day with Michael J. Fox in 1987. But this too didn’t do well with critics or at the box office. However, the cover of a Bruce Springsteen song Joan recorded for the film became a rather successful hit. After a string of failed attempts across multiple industries, Joan Jett once again climbed to the top of the charts with her hits, “I Hate Myself for Loving You” and “Little Liar” from her 1988 album, Up Your Alley. But two unremarkable albums later her luck turned around when she released 1994s Pure and Simple that put her back on the map.

As Jett put out album after album, including 1999s Fetish, she continued to work as a producer for other bands such as Bikini Kill, L7, and other groups mostly composed of chicks. Today, Girl in a Coma and the Dollyrots are signed to Blackheart Records. It wasnt until 2004s Naked that she released another album of her own, which was followed by Sinner in 2006, and marked a stylistic change in direction for the established rocker. Her most recent album, Unvarnished was released in 2013, on which she got to work with Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame.

She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, along with legends Lou Reed, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Green Day. She told Rolling Stone magazine that joining the hall is “a culmination of all you’ve dreamed about doing as a musician.” And by the amount of attention shes been getting for almost half a century, Joan Jett is not going to fall of the music grid any time soon. Her story is an incredible example of what motivation, dedication, and a bit of tenacity can inspire a woman to do when she hears the word, no.

Each of these remarkable performers helped advance rock music as a reputable genre, as well as a lifestyle that can make you or break you. Going head-to-head with some of the most prominent male rock musicians at their respective times, these women did a whole lot more than hold their own, they defined themselves and the music they put out. When women rock, they want to have the assertiveness and sass of Etta James, aggressive vulnerability of Janis Joplin, and the drive and tenacity of Joan Jett. Because when women rock, they have a lot more to prove than any of the men in the industry.

Article by Liz Belilovskaya for The Untitled Magazine

Liz Belilovskaya

I write, draw, and sing badly. I'm also an insomniac. Occasionally I get to go somewhere very cool, and that makes me happy because life is short and everyone should get to travel.

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