Sometimes I forget that some people don’t know the full impact that black women had on rock n roll. If you didn’t know it was epic. Without the talent and energy of many wonderful women the state of music today would be blander than Cliff Richard eating a cucumber sandwich.
With that in mind let’s celebrate these gals by taking an audio guide back in time to look at the history of black female guitarists.
Memphis Minnie (active late 20s, 30s, 40s)
Memphis Minnie, real name Elizabeth Douglas, was a guitar virtuoso. She could outplay every other guitarist during her time. Despite being one of very few black female blues instrumentalists at the time she gained a name for herself as a “guitar king”. As a black woman in the 20s the only other options for employment would have been manual labour or domestic work; a life as a musician was an escape for many black people looking to find a way out of the rigorous routine of hard labour. Today Minnie’s influence can be heard in blues. Her classics such as ‘When the Levee Breaks’ and ‘Chauffeur Blues’ are still played today and were a huge influence on English blues bands such as Led Zeppelin.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe: mainly during active 30s – 40s but toured until 70s
Sister Rosetta Tharpe is both an example of the brilliance of black female artists and also of how much we are disregarded by history. Tharpe was a genius in her time. She started out as a child prodigy playing guitar and singing gospel songs with her travelling, evangelist mother. By the the 30s she was combining the hypnotising nature of gospel with the energy of rock n roll to hip swingingly perfect effect. Her song ‘Strange Things Happening Every Day’ became the first gospel song to reach the R&B top ten in 1945. Tharpe also travelled around America performing with her lover at the time, Marie Knight; a bold move for two young black women at that time. Her guitar style was like no other. it was precise, yet wild. Reserved with just enough flair to show no average guitarist could just copy what she was doing. She influenced many musicians including Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and the countless others that saw her performing on a rainy Manchester train station in the 60s. Sadly Tharpe died in relative obscurity. The woman who once commanded a 25,000 strong crowd to watch her perform at her own wedding was honoured with a funeral of only a half full church. Slowly, the world is becoming more aware of Tharpe and the huge influence she had on popular music. Let’s keep her legacy alive; when ever some boring bloke starts droning on about how the Rolling Stones created rock n roll, kindly inform that a queer, black woman beat them to it.
Bea Booze: active during 40s
Bea Booze (her real name by the way) was a popular R&B singer and guitarist during the 40s. After signing to Decca Records her 1942 recording of ‘See See Rider Blues’, first recorded by Ma Rainey, reached number 1 in the R&B chart. She made a name for herself first in black creative hub that was Harlem and often went under the name Wee Bea Booze.
Etta Baker: active during 50s -2006
Etta Baker was a blues guitarist from North Carolina. Taught by her multi instrumentalist father she started playing at three years old and first recorded in 1956 after folk singer Paul Clayton visited Baker’s town and heard her play her signature tune ‘One Dime Blues’. Clayton came back the next day to record Baker’s songs. Her guitar style recall the pre blues style that would have been popular pre 1900, which evolved into a style known as Piedmont Blues. Her recordings from the 50s and 60s influenced artists like Bob Dylan and Taj Mahal though Baker never made money from her music till the mid 90s. Baker had nine children and worked at a local factory for 25 years. When asked how she found time for music when she had nine children Baker simply replied “I made them be quiet”.
Sylvia Vanderpool (Robinson) / played as part of duo Mickey & Sylvia: active during 50s
Sylvia was one half of the successful pop duo Mickey & Sylvia with Mickey Baker, her former guitar teacher. The duo performed during the late 50s and early 60s. The duo had a huge hit with their song ‘Love is Strange’ which featured Sylvia’s memorable pronunciation of baby. Mickey & Sylvia is only one part of her story though. After the duo broke up Sylvia founded the All Platinum Record Company in 1968 with her husband and became one of the few female record producers around at the time. While her record company was in financial despair Sylvia took in three young rappers to record at the studio. She named them The Sugarhill Gang and recorded their song ‘Rapper’s Delight’. Her record company Sugarhill Records launched the careers of countless early rappers and led to Sylvia becoming a leading figure in rap.
Lady Bo (lead guitarist in Bo Diddley’s band from 1957 – 1961, active till 2015)
Lady Bo, real name Peggy Jones, is the first in the succession of female lead guitarists that played a part in Bo Diddley’s band and sound. Lady Bo was the first female guitarist to be hired by a big band at the time and became a huge influence on the band’s style. She first met Bo Diddley at the Apollo Theatre when she was carrying her guitar. He was so surprised to see a woman with a guitar he invited her backstage. After arguing about the quality of her guitar Bo asked her to jam with them and the rest was history. She quickly learnt Bo’s distinctive open tuning and began to develop her own intuitive way of playing. She can be heard on early recordings of ‘Hey Bo Diddley’ and ‘Roadrunner’ to name a few. Jones’ style can best be heard in her own composition ‘Aztec’ where she plays all the guitar parts. Jones left the group in 1961 to start her own group and continued playing guitar up until her death in 2015.
Elizabeth Cotten (active 50s -80s)
Despite playing guitar since she was a child Cotten only recorded her first album at the age of 62; a prime example of how black female creativity can remain hidden to the outside world if it isn’t given a chance to flourish. Cotten taught herself how to play from an early age, restringing her brother’s banjo to suit her left-handed style. After being advised to give up her “worldly” guitar music by her church members it wasn’t till many years later that Cotten was able to build on her talent. While she was working for the famous Seeger folk family Ruth Crawford Seeger walked in on Cotten playing their guitar and was impressed by what she saw. Cotten became a vital part of the folk revival in the 60s and toured throughout America.
The Duchess (active 1962-1966)
After Lady Bo left many fans of Bo Diddley continued to ask “where’s the girl”. To settle matters Bo decided to bring in another female guitarist. In stepped The Duchess, real name Norma-Jean Wofford. Bo taught Wofford how to play rhythm guitar and insisted on telling other men that she was his sister to stop them coming on to her. They weren’t related and it is hard to decipher whether Diddley really did think of her as a part of his family or he didn’t want to share her attention with other men. Either way Wofford played alongside backing singers The Bo-ettes and was known for her rhythmic timing and glamorous stage outfits.
Barbara Lynn (active 60s – present)
Barbara Lynn was a rare sight in 1962. A tall black woman dressed to the nines, playing RnB on a left handed guitar. The only other black woman in a similar position to her at the time was Lady Bo. Lynn’s biggest hit ‘You’ll Lose a Good Thing’ topped the RnB charts in 1962 and made her into a star. Lynn learnt piano as a child but switched to guitar after seeing Elvis on TV. Lynn wrote all of her songs and played a lead instrument, which was unusual at the time. Lynn played in bands throughout high school and even before she hit it big she knew she was someone, saying: “They knew Barbara Lynn was coming. People were throwing money at me onstage, and guys were trying to grab my leg. I’m not trying to brag, but I really was the talk of that town.”
Beverly “Guitar” Watkins (active 60s, 80-present)
Despite being a mainstay of many blues backing bands and working with artists such as James Brown, B.B King and Ray Charles, Watkins only released her first album in 1999 at the age of 60. Watkins started playing in bands while she was still at high school and eventually became the lead guitarist in Piano Red & The Interns (also known as Dr Feelgood) at a time when it was hard for black women who didn’t do what society told them to do. In her late 70s now, Watkins still tours with her band and doesn’t look anywhere close to stopping now.