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Drumming's Leading Ladies

karen carpenter

“I just wanted to play,” said Pauline Braddy, drummer for swing era band International Sweethearts Of Rhythm.

That was her simple explanation — in the book Jazzwomen — why she became a drummer back in the 1930s and ’40s, when female role models in the business were virtually nonexistent. Through the years, many a lady drummer has given a similarly simple response when questioned why she chose to play the stereotypically male instrument.

“Why not?” said Karen Carpenter in a 1976 TV special.

“Why not?” echoed The Donnas’ Torry Castellano in a 2007 DRUM! interview.

The sensational Cindy Blackman has even said drumming is as natural as breathing for her.

Girls can play drums too. We get it. In fact, we’ve gotten it for years. Haven’t we? Yet, 164 years after the seeds of the women’s suffrage movement were sown in Seneca Falls, New York, guys and gals still don’t seem to be viewed as equals in many arenas — including drumming.

Don’t believe me? Just check out your local message boards. The male chauvinist pig is alive and well and cracking wise about how drum kits don’t fit in kitchens. Then again, Internet message boards aren’t exactly the best place to base judgments on the sensibility of human beings, drummers or otherwise.

The issue runs deeper, though. Last year, when Rolling Stone asked readers to name the greatest drummers of all time, there was nary a woman in sight. Even the powers-that-be at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame And Museum realized they were treading on delicate territory when grouping females together in the recent “Women Who Rock” exhibit. The L.A. Times quoted Lauren Onkey, the museum’s vice president of education and public programs, as saying, “there is no one linear argument to be made about what or who women were or are — it changes all the time. It’s a big story to grapple with and it’s not just one story … I think if you emphasize their artistry, whatever form that took, and you put it in dialogue with the culture, within music and outside of it, you do okay.”

Well put.

So gender-blindness may not quite exist yet in 2012, but there is no doubt that great strides have been made. Back in Pauline Braddy’s day, she had to adhere to rules of conduct and an impractically girlie dress code. Today’s female drummers not only choose what they wear and how they act, they run their own record labels. Both consciously and unconsciously, each new generation of women drummers has built on the gains of the previous generation. But one thing remains the same: They just want to play.

1930s–’50s: Swing Sisters

In the swing-era days of Pauline Braddy and the International Sweethearts Of Rhythm, all-girl bands were a novelty. The Sweethearts started up in the late ’30s as a group of African-American and racially mixed girls from a school in Mississippi. After spending some time touring around on behalf of the school, according to Sally Placksin’s book Jazzwomen, they felt they weren’t being treated fairly. So they started touring on their own. By then, with so many men being shipped off to war, the women’s musical services were needed more than ever. Braddy noted, however, that the integrated Sweethearts were popular with African-Americans, but that the white audiences didn’t know anything about them.

One of the most popular white all-girl groups that gained fame during the ’30s and ’40s was Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Orchestra. During those two decades, they could be heard weekly on the Hour Of Charm radio show. Spitalny also made records and films that featured the orchestra. Helming the drums in Spitalny’s swinging orchestra was Mary McClanahan. McClanahan broke new ground for women drummers in November 1939 when she appeared in The Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company’s ad for Metronome Magazine. The spunky Ms. McClanahan stood over her Gretsch-Gladstone drum set banging away while dolled up in one of the orchestra’s signature long dresses.

Although female musicians were still an anomaly in the 1950s, Dottie Dodgion did her best to carve out a career for herself. Growing up, Dodgion’s professional drummer father would play records by his favorite musicians and tell her to “really listen.” She started as a singer in San Francisco and performed with such jazz greats as Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie. When she turned her focus to the drums, she says she was able to cross gender lines and get hired because she knew how to listen. The octogenarian continues to play weekly with her trio in Pebble Beach, California.

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