I was checking for solo female singers of the 1960s. Over here in the UK we still love the topnotch ternion, Dusty (the greatest), Cilla (uncool now, impeccable Beatle cred then) & Sandie (hooray !). There are other contenders, Lulu, Pet, Marianne. Francoise Hardy was as cool as & still is. In the New World it is the soul sisters who carry the swing, Aretha, Dionne, Diana & plenty more. Beat groups & pretty boy teen idols were the current thing, women pop stars were scarce. Brenda Lee was of the generation before the Sixties swung, at the end of the decade poor Janis was just getting going & then she was gone. In between there was Nancy Sinatra, Cher & … ? I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect & you knew that. Here are 3 talented women who were making the scene in 1967.
Jackie DeShannon, as you can see, was blimmin’ gorgeous. A real swinging chick. Jackie has quite a story to tell. She was very young when she entered the business of show & her path crossed many interesting & talented people.Before her support gig on the first Beatles tour of the US in 1964 she had already been recording for 8 years under various tags with little success. In that British Invasion year another Liverpool link put her name in the frame when the Searchers hit big with a cover of her single “Needles & Pins”, a song written by Sonny Bono & Jack Nitzsche. The same combo turned Jackie’s own song, the pop-folk “When You Walk In The Room” into a folk rock prototype. In 1965 she picked up a Bacharach & David written hit with “What The World Needs Now Is Love”. By this time Jackie was only in Swinging London, only writing songs (& having a thing) with only Jimmy Page.
Here in 1967 Jackie is cool & classy, lip-synching to 2 often covered R&B classics, James Ray’s “If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody” & Tommy Edwards’ “It’s All In The Game”. Songs that she has co-written have been recorded by so many varied artists. She wrote many tunes with the talented Sharon Sheeley, the girlfriend of Eddie Cochran. “Put A Little Love In Your Heart” put her back in the Top 10. There’s one with Van Morrison & there is “Bette Davis’ Eyes”. If there was a Songwriters’ Hall of Fame then Jackie DeShannon would be in it. Oh, there is & she is !
In 1967 Bobbie Gentry’s debut LP knocked “Sgt Pepper’s…” from the top of the US LP charts. 23 year old Bobbie wrote 9 of the record’s 10 tracks & the distinctive “Ode To Billie Joe” became a world wide hit. “Ode…” is a finely detailed song, a dark tale of suicide & mysterious things thrown from bridges combined with a loping, swampy Mississippi rhythm. It’s sophisticated for a pop song & while Ms Gentry was no Flannery O’Connor, her Southern Gothic-lite narrative made her quite the big deal. Here she is performing “Niki Hoeky”, a song by the great country-soul maverick Jim Ford, on prime time TV. The choreography is a little Hmmm but Bobbie looks comfortable with it & midrifftastic.
Y’know, a barefoot Mississippi minstrel, T-shirt & jeans, an acoustic guitar, that young woman on the 1st LP cover, could have been just what the music world needed in 1967. In a couple of years Joni Mitchell & Carole King were superstar singer-songwriters…a new thing. By then Bobbie’s music had got a little more country, her hair a little higher. She moved to the middle of the road with an LP of duets with Glen Campbell. In 1970 she had a #1 hit in the UK with that sure-fire winner for a woman singer, a Bacharach & David original, “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”. Bobbie was an international star, she had her own show in Las Vegas but less commercial success. In 1972 the Tallahatchie Bridge, off of the song, collapsed, Gentry had released 4 LPs in the previous year but there would be no more after these. She was now picking her gigs & eventually walked away from the business. In popular culture everything comes round again, gets a rewind & a revival, Bobbie Gentry’s work could certainly stand it but she was not that bothered…that’s cool.
Over on the West Coast, if you were going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. For 3 days in June the Monterey Pop Festival showcased the new Californian musical aristocracy while introducing Otis Redding & Jimi Hendrix to the “love crowd”. New female stars like Grace Slick with Jefferson Airplane & Janis Joplin with Big Brother & the Holding Company were front of stage taking the spotlight from their fellow male band members. The festival marked only the second major performance by a 19 year old singer-songwriter who was strictly East Coast. Laura Nyro’s melting pot roots reflected those of her New York birthplace. Her musical influences were of a similarly wide range. She regarded her Monterey appearance to be a disaster. Whether any booing was real or imagined Laura was affected by the occasion. There is certainly a callow fragility about this rather amazing rendition of “Poverty Train” but there is a whole lot of other shaking going on. Jazz, blues, gospel, soul, folk were all there, it sounded like music for the future.
It became a thing to take Laura’s songs, smooth off the spiky edges & make hit records out of them. There were 4 hits, 3 in the Top 10, from the debut record, “More Than A New Discovery”. The following record provided 3 more. Laura Nyro was a songwriting prodigy, a new Jimmy Webb. The 5th Dimension, a classy harmony group, loved to make these songs a little more radio-friendly. “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, you know those…lovely. There was a record a year until 1971, 4 LPs of personal, passionate, adventurous compositions. “Eli & the 13th Confession” & “New York Tendaberry” need to be heard. It’s the sound made by a young intelligent woman who spent a long time listening to the best music of the 20th century then, with the fine sense of the free-spirited 1960s, was able to synthesize her own individual style.I found her music to be much more interesting than the folk singers who were coming up after Joni. Laura Nyro seemed to me like a young Nina Simone. That is high praise, here’s more from Todd Rundgren’s wonderful “Runt” LP.
After such an abundant spell her next record was a tribute to the girl-group sounds that she had grown up with in New York. “Gonna Take A Miracle” was made with Labelle. It’s more traditional than her other LPs but the songs are covered with love & respect & it really is a lovely thing. There was though still no major commercial breakthrough. Laura Nyro got married & took 5 years away from recording. The years when she had been so innovative & prolific were over. She unfortunately suffered an untimely death in 1997 when, at just 49, she contracted ovarian cancer.
These 3 very capable women provide just a snapshot into the American music scene in 1967. Jackie DeShannon, already established, had a long & successful songwriting career. The other 2, beginning their passage & experiencing initial acceptance, were both unable to find a position in the business where they felt comfortable. They both walked away at a time when there was still potential for creative development. Now I’m not the guy to expound a theory about sexual objectification, discrimination & stereotyping in a male dominated music industry. I am the guy who would have liked to have heard Bobbie Gentry go back to her Delta roots & to hear Laura Nyro’s music mature as she did…and I can be particular about what I listen to.