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Female Drummers Part 1

Gemma Hill

I’m Gemma Hill and I’m a female drummer on a mission to party with you. Get your streamers and party hats ready because we are going to celebrate the increasing role that female drummers are playing in contemporary music with six months of interviews and articles on major players and topics.

Since studying for the degree on drums at ACM, I’ve toured extensively with all girl band ‘Robots In Disguise’ (for more see www.myspace.com/gemmahilldrums). This, as well as teaching, has given me a massive insight into the world of female musicians and I thought it was about time someone wrote about them.

To kick the series off here is a brief history of the ladies who have pioneered playing drums in mainstream music, changing opinions for the better. Read on if you thought it was all about Karen Carpenter, Meg White and Caroline Corr…

It’s taken a long time for women to be accepted as musicians in bands. Singing, playing the piano or a string instrument doesn’t seem out of the ordinary but anything else attracts a bit more attention. At the start of the Twentieth Century even this wasn’t the norm though, with female music performance seen as prostitution. Because of this very few reputable women played in public for money, but this showed signs of changing with Vaudeville performances around the 1920’s.

During the 1920’s all girl orchestras became fashionable in the USA with weekly radio broadcasts and top billings in New York theatres. The ‘International Sweethearts Of Rhythm’ was the first integrated all female band, formed in 1935, which toured on a national circuit of the USA for a decade and was called ‘America’s Number One All-Girl Orchestra’ in 1944 by Downbeat Magazine. Pauline Braddy played drums for the Sweethearts and was taught by jazz greats Papa Jo Jones and Sid Catlett.

Crissy later formed ‘The Beat Chicks’ who supported The Beatles on their first tour of Spain, playing to crowds of 50,000 and travelling with the Fab Four on their private jet

The Second World War brought a lot of changes for female musicians – there were openings in bands as men were enlisted and in general, women were taking jobs on the home front that had only been done by men before.  In 1940’s Britain the ‘Ivy Benson All-Girl Band’ was formed, which became a major way for women to get into British jazz and studio work, employing almost 250 women in it’s forty year history. The band was popular with troops and the public and became the BBC’s resident dance band in 1943.

Top British player Crissy Lee joined Ivy Benson’s band as a teenager in 1961, playing on European tours, to the Forces and resort holiday seasons until 1966 and returned to the band in the Seventies. Crissy later formed ‘The Beat Chicks’ who supported The Beatles on their first tour of Spain, playing to crowds of 50,000 and travelling with the Fab Four on their private jet. Since then Crissy has had a varied and successful career including her Crissy Lee Jazz Orchestra and playing for the Frank Skinner Show’s Skinnerettes.

Female rock musicians started emerging in high profile bands in the Sixties. Ann Lantree played drums for the otherwise male band ‘The Honeycombs’, who had a UK number one hit with ‘Have I the Right?’ in August 1964.  Ginger Bianco was the drummer for ‘Goldie and the Gingerbreads’, who were one of the first female rock bands to get a major record deal when they signed to Decca in the UK and Atlantic in the USA in 1964.The band had a UK top ten single and were the opening act for The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and the Hollies. Bianco went on to form jazz fusion band ‘Isis’ who toured the USA with Kiss, The Beach Boys and Aerosmith.

‘The Velvet Underground’ drummer, Moe Tucker, created a distinctive sound by turning the bass drum on it’s side, rarely using cymbals and playing with soft mallets while standing. The band was managed by Andy Warhol from 1965, got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and were listed at number 19 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of ‘100 greatest artists of all time’ in 2004.

The Seventies brought a new style of female musician to the forefront – women who were unashamedly rocking focal points in mixed and girl bands. American glam/punk rock girl band ‘The Runaways’ formed in 1975 with Sandy West providing a solid sound on drums. The band had international success and was a wide influence on female musicians, with guitarists Lita Ford and Joan Jett later having solo careers. Hollywood has noted the band’s place in music history with a biographical film set for release in 2010, with Joan Jett as executive producer.

The arrival of MTV in 1981 confused and changed the bold-attitude the Seventies had allowed female musicians, with videos of the first half of the decade demanding sexy, chart friendly women who towed the line, which fared well for ‘The Bangles’.

Other girl bands with attitude in the Seventies included rockers ‘Fanny’ and post-punk band ‘The Raincoats’. Kurt Cobain was such a fan of the latter that he wrote about meeting singer/guitarist Ana da Silver in Nirvana’s ‘Incesticide’ liner album notes and invited the band to tour the UK with them. Drummer ‘Palmolive’ (real name Paloma Romero) moved from Spain to London in the Seventies and landed in the centre of the punk scene, living with Joe Strummer of ‘The Clash’ and playing in a band with Sid Vicious before he joined ‘The Sex Pistols’. Palmolive went on to play drums for ‘The Slits’ and then ‘The Raincoats’ in 1979.

The arrival of MTV in 1981 confused and changed the bold-attitude the Seventies had allowed female musicians, with videos of the first half of the decade demanding sexy, chart friendly women who towed the line, which fared well for ‘The Bangles’.  New wave girl band the ‘Go Go’s’ had 5 top 40 hits in the USA at this time and drummer Gina Schock has since become a writer and producer, writing the title track for Miley Cyrus’ album ‘Breakout’ in 2008.

Percussionist Sheila E shot to fame in the Eighties when she was the opening act for Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ tour, later playing drums for Prince and becoming his Musical Director. From the age of seventeen Sheila began touring and recording with artists such as Herbie Hancock, Diana Ross, Billy Cobham, Stevie Wonder and Lionel Ritchie amongst many others. She released four solo albums, had a Billboard Number One, Grammy nominations, an MTV Award and now runs her own music production company as well as being a leading session player and humanitarian.

Californian girl band ‘The Donnas’ formed in the Nineties, heavily influenced by ‘The Runaways’. Drummer Torry Castellano said in an interview for ‘Drum Magazine’, “I hope that when we play it sparks something in girls – and guys – to say “That’s something I could do too”. Because playing the drums is fun and not a lot of girls do play…Hopefully someday it won’t be such a crazy thing to be a girl drummer, hopefully someday it will be normal”.

Cindy Blackman became an iconic part of Lenny Kravitz’s band when she joined in 1993 and played with the solo artist for eleven years. Cindy was taught by Alan Dawson and studied at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. She has released several solo albums and is a major session player in the jazz world.

Trends have changed in the Noughties though – the music industry and media have recently opened their arms to female drummers with major solo artists and primetime TV shows using women at every opportunity.

Another major female jazz drummer is Terri Lyne Carrington, who was jamming with musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson and Joe Williams from the age of eight. Terri got a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music at the age of eleven and also studied with Alan Dawson. She is an established producer, songwriter, arranger and player.

The Nineties was a decade of female vocal groups and it seemed to go out of fashion for girls to play instruments in mainstream music, although Caroline Corr enjoyed huge popularity with ‘The Corrs’ and ‘4 Non Blondes’ had hits with Dawn Richardson on drums. Trends have changed in the Noughties though – the music industry and media have recently opened their arms to female drummers with major solo artists and primetime TV shows using women at every opportunity. Kelly Osbourne hired US Ludwig endorsee Alicia Warrington (also played for Tracy Chapman and Hannah Montana) on her tour in the early part of the decade. Beyonce’s ten piece all-female band, formed in 2006, includes two drummers, Kim Thompson and Nikki Glaspie, and percussionist Marcella Chapa.  Prince continues to appreciate female drummers with his player Cora Coleman-Dunham appearing at this year’s Drummer Live in London.

In the UK, girl band ‘The Faders’ formed in 2004 and signed to Polydor with drummer Cherisse Osei now playing for pop sensation ‘Mika’. Tama endorsee Sarah Jones plays for ‘New Young Pony Club’ and ‘Bat For Lashes’.  Argentinian born Laura Fares plays for Sam Sparro and Hannah Blilie plays in ‘Gossip’, fronted by Beth Ditto.

There are many other top female drummers worth mentioning, including Hilary Jones, Evelyn Glennie and Marilyn Mazur to name a few. Drumming seems to be more popular with girls at all playing levels than ever before - hopefully there are a number of great female players out there just waiting to be discovered to provide role models for future drummers of both sexes.

Next month – Zildjian endorsee Laura Fares talks about life on the road with Sam Sparro, her esperience playing for Ricky Martin and what people really think of a female drummer...


 

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