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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Moe Tucker

1960s: Simply Psychedelic

As the idealistic days of the 1950s morphed into the turbulent ’60s, some seriously rockin’ drummer chicks emerged.

Perhaps no drummer embodies the spirit of the decade more than The Velvet Underground’s Maureen “Moe” Tucker. Remembered by many for its experimentations, improvisations, and collaborations with Andy Warhol, The Velvet Underground would go on to be considered one of the most influential rock groups of all time. For her part, Tucker brought a unique style of drumming to the mix. She was known to play standing up, with a bass drum turned on its side and tom toms, often using mallets instead of drum sticks. She rarely used cymbals. Simple but exotic it has been said of Tucker’s style.

Tucker’s contemporaries included drummers Ginger Bianco and Helen Wiggin, of the all-girl groups Goldie & The Gingerbreads and The Shaggs, respectively. Bianco and her bandmates came together in the early ’60s and were one of the first all-female rock bands signed to a major record label. At the time, there were very few all-female bands. According to Gillian G. Gaar’s book She’s A Rebel, The Gingerbreads found success touring and charting singles in Europe, but never made a name for themselves at home in the U.S. After some band mismanagement, they broke up in 1968.

Around that time, Helen Wiggin’s father had decided she and her sisters should form a musical group. Most deemed the group’s one album unlistenable, but as time went on others decided it was groundbreaking and avant-garde. A Rolling Stone review famously described them as sounding like “lobotomized Von Trapp Family Singers.” Frank Zappa and Kurt Cobain, however, sang their praises. Helen Wiggin certainly wouldn’t be the last woman criticized for her simplistic drumming style.

None of these three bands lasted very long, nor yielded much commercial success in their day, but they were paving the way for future female rockers to make even more musical headway.

1970s: Rocker Chic

Likely influenced both by the surging feminist movement and the burgeoning presence of women in rock, the ’70s were a better time for female artists.

As the decade began, Karen Carpenter was transitioning from being a teenage jazz drummer to part of a hit-making singing duo. There’s no denying she made beautiful music as a songbird, but unfortunately it meant her getting forced out from behind her beloved drums. She was a natural when she began performing with her brother Richard as part of a jazz trio. Even once she started singing, Carpenter still considered herself a drummer who sang. Her true passion shows in a 1976 TV special when she gleefully runs all over stage performing an extended drum solo on various percussion instruments.

Meanwhile, across the pond, Palmolive experienced a totally different music scene. Palmolive (aka Paloma McLardy) had moved to London from her native Spain just in time for the punk-rock revolution. She dated The Clash’s Joe Strummer, who introduced her to Sid Vicious. Palmolive played in a band with Vicious for a spell before hooking up with Ari Up to form the all-female punk band The Slits. Palmolive earned a reputation of being a wild woman on stage. Her stint with The Slits ended after just a couple of years due to intra-band tensions. And after only six months with another female punk band, The Raincoats, she reportedly got sick of the music business. But she had definitely made her mark. As Hall Of Fame inductee Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders says in the “Women Who Rock” exhibit, “That was the beauty of the punk thing: [Sexual] discrimination didn’t exist in that scene.”

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5. Sandy West with The Runaways, 1978

Also making waves for women during this period was Sandy West. Just 16 years old when she started the hard rocking band The Runaways with teen guitarist Joan Jett in 1975, West had been playing drums since she was nine. She gained inspiration mimicking the sounds of Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. “I always felt like the guys I was playing with thought they were s__t hot, so I had to prove myself to them. I played harder and louder than anyone and then they thought I was s__t hot,” West said. In spite of recording under a major record label and touring the world, The Runaways had trouble finding mainstream success. After disagreeing over which musical style to pursue, the group broke up in 1979. Sadly, West died of lung cancer in 2006 at age 47.

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1980s: The Girls Of Synth City

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Gina Schock

By the time the ’80s arrived, things were really starting to come together for women in music. Riding the punk wave in late 1970s Los Angeles, The Go-Go’s secured the drumming services of steady-handed Gina Schock. They evolved into more of an upbeat pop group and within a few years became the first all-female band in history to top the charts. Their first album went triple platinum and they earned a Best New Artist Grammy nomination. Finally a group of women writing and playing their own songs had found mainstream success, with Schock’s drumming playing no small part in it. “Gina Schock is one of the toughest drummers in rock history,” declared Rolling Stone. The Go-Go’s went on to produce a number of chart-making singles before they split in 1985. After the band broke up, Schock continued to have a career in music as a writer and producer.

Whenever someone starts talking about The Go-Go’s, the conversation almost inevitably turns to The Bangles. Mostly what the two bands have in common is they are both all-girl groups who found mainstream success on the pop charts in the ’80s. Gaar notes in She’s A Rebel that while The Go-Go’s origins were more of the punk variety, The Bangles were more rooted in the sounds of rock’s golden age. “The chemistry was there instantaneously. It just clicked,” drummer Debbi Peterson recalls of the band’s formation.

Although The Bangles’ first full-length album, in 1984, was not a commercial success, the band garnered enough attention that Prince ghostwrote the song “Manic Monday” for their album Different Light in 1986. That album went multiplatinum and scored them two Top 5 hits. Their next album, in 1988, also went multiplatinum and brought another pair of Top 5 hits, but clashes over outsider input on the album contributed to the band splitting up a short time later. These days, the original trio (Debbi, sister Vicki, and Susannah Hoffs) are back making music together.

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2. Sheila E

Prince also helped bring attention to another lady drummer of the 1980s: Sheila E. What else can you call Sheila Escovedo besides a renaissance woman? She was born into drumming, as the daughter of Latin Jazz legend Pete Escovedo. The story is she made her concert debut at age five when her father called her up on stage to play a drum solo in front of 3,000 people. She knew at that moment she was a percussionist. After spending a number of years playing with some of the biggest names in the business — Herbie Hancock, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross — she met Prince while performing at one of her father’s concerts.

Sheila E. began performing with Prince and he in turn helped her record her first solo album, 1983’s The Glamorous Life. The Top 10 single of the same name even got nominated for a Grammy. Sheila E. herself went on to do, well, pretty much everything under the sun. She’s a producer, a composer, and was the first female bandleader on TV on Magic Johnson’s variety show. When she’s not making music, she’s creating lines of drums geared toward kids or working on her music-and-children focused charity. She’s also featured in the “Women Who Rock” exhibit.

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Terri Lyne Carrington in Montreal, 1999

But Sheila E. isn’t the only drum phenom born into drumming. At age seven, Terri Lyne Carrington’s musician father put a pair of sticks in her hand and that was it. She was a drummer. “I never thought about it any other way. This was always what I was going to do,” she told DRUM! in 2007. Because her father was a musician, she also got to hang out and learn from legends like Max Roach, Papa Jo Jones, and Roy Haynes.

Carrington’s debut album in 1989 featured Wayne Shorter, John Scofield, and Carlos Santana, and it earned her a Grammy nomination. From there, her career took her in many interesting directions. She toured the world playing jazz and groove music, was the house drummer for The Arsenio Hall Show, and she became a professor at Berklee College Of Music. In 2011, Carrington released The Mosaic Project, an album showcasing some of the finest female vocalists and instrumentalists in the world. It too received a Grammy nomination.

1990s: Billboard Breakouts

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Cindy Blackman

As the ’90s rolled in, female musicians were soaring down the path their predecessors had been pounding out for so many years. More than ever, they took their creativity and careers into their own hands.

Virtuoso Cindy Blackman, inspired and mentored by Tony Williams and Art Blakey, had spent much of the ’80s playing jazz. The groove-driving Blackman recorded, composed, and even led her own band. But in 1993, she hooked up with Lenny Kravitz and decided to do the rock thing. I dare anyone to try to sit still while listening to Blackman tear it up on live youtube videos of “Are You Gonna Go My Way.”

Blackman had good company as a rocker chick in the ’90s. A slew of alt-rocker drummer gals were showing the world what they had, often with a group of likeminded female musicians. Dawn Richardson helmed the drums for the mostly female rock group 4 Non Blondes. The band released its first album in 1992 and hit the big time with the song “What’s Up?” The song made it into the Billboard Top 20, but more importantly it was a massive radio hit. As anyone listening to pop radio in the 1990s knows, these two women were the beatmakers behind two of the most played tunes of the decade. Now that’s progress.

Demonstrating even more headway being made in the early ’90s, former Beastie Boys drummer Kate Schellenbach got together with the hip-hop-tinged alt-rocker girls Luscious Jackson, who say they draw inspiration from none other than The Slits. Not only did Luscious Jackson create a Top 40 hit in the song “Naked Eye,” their tour of the ’90s included stops at Saturday Night Live, Lollapalooza, and Lilith Fair. The story behind Lilith Fair is that songstress Sarah McLachlan was sick of being told by the music industry that listeners only wanted women in small doses, so she pulled together a tour of all female performers. It was a smashing success.

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Dee Plakas

Women rockers were taking whatever approach struck their fancy in the ’90s. Alt-rockers L7 demonstrated their support of women by cofounding Rock For Choice, a series of concerts to benefit the pro-choice movement. Musically, hard-grooving drummer Dee Plakas and her bandmates rocked their way through the late-night TV shows and big-name festivals like Lollapalooza. Rolling Stone named their 1992 album Bricks Are Heavy one of the “essential recordings of the 1990s.”

One of the most talked about female-centric bands of the decade were grunge rockers Hole. Frontwoman Courtney Love thrived on portraying female aggression, which perfectly suited Patty Schemel’s intense drumming style. In 1994, Hole released Live Through This to critical acclaim. “Definitely part of it was being as aggressive as possible. Being a girl, I thought I had to do that, to compensate or something,” Schemel said last year in an interview with The Onion’s A.V. Club. “Then again, maybe that made me who I am, you know? I wouldn’t have had the same life if I’d had a million [female drummer] role models growing up; I may not have played like I do.” Schemel is now a role model herself as she mentors aspiring musicians at a rock camp for girls.

The ’90s movement most actively promoting a feminist agenda with its music was the riot grrrls. Pacific Northwest band Sleater-Kinney came in at the tail end of the movement playing its signature punk-inspired alt-rock. Sleater-Kinney founders Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein brought power-drummer Janet Weiss on after being blown away the first time they played with her. “Janet made up a drum part, fierce and solid, we could practically bang our heads against it. Then we were three,” Tucker said. The band enjoyed critical praise and popularity, in spite of choosing to remain with an indie label. Renowned music critic Greil Marcus once called them America’s best rock band.

21st Century Rise

It remains to be seen whether the day will come when female musicians will become known simply as musicians, but at the very least the new millennium seems to have brought women more diverse career opportunities.

Pals Stefanie Eulinberg and Samantha Maloney have rocked out with some of the most Y-chromosome acts around in Kid Rock and Mötley Crüe, respectively. “People are saying that I hit as hard as Tommy [Lee], if not even harder,” Maloney said in the duo’s 2000 DRUM! interview. Maloney has also had stints with Hole, Peaches, and Eagles Of Death Metal.

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Torry Castellano

Basher Torry Castellano went the all-girl route with The Donnas. Influenced as young teens by punk and rock (including L7), The Donnas signed with Atlantic Records in 2001, and after their song “Take it Off” hit it big, they made the rounds on MTV and all the late-night shows. In 2006, the band parted ways with Atlantic and started putting out albums on their own label.

Meanwhile, drummer Hannah Blilie has been providing the propulsive beats for the boundary-pushing band Gossip since 2003. In its early days, the band opened for Sleater-Kinney. They gained major popularity for many years as an indie band, but more recently went the major-label route, working with guru producer Rick Rubin.

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Exploring a different kind of independent route is Canadian Emmanuelle Caplette. Since she started playing in a drum corps at age nine, her adventures have taken her through a jazz/pop drumming degree, touring with the theatrical tour Cavalia, and lending her highly finessed chops to a variety of French-language pop singers.

Speaking of pop stars, a trio of phenomenally skilled drummers — Kim Thompson, Nikki Glaspie, and Marcie Chapa — have been delivering the funky beats for one of the biggest names in music, Beyoncé, as part of her all-female touring band Suga Mama.

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Meg White

And then there’s Meg White of The White Stripes. She represents the lo-fi, garage-rock/punk/blues route, and has highlighted how profound the simple and steady approach can be as The White Stripes found great commercial and critical success, including winning numerous Grammy Awards.

Who are the future female movers and shakers of the drumming world going to be? At just 21 years old, Hannah Ford is already making a name for herself in the jazz and rock worlds, recording, touring, running clinics, and helming her own band. And Veronica Bellino just scored a job recording with Jeff Beck after he found a video of her drumming on YouTube. Maybe the Internet will have a democratizing effect and make it easier for other talented young drummers to get themselves out there. One thing is certain: Seeing what women drummers have accomplished so far makes the possibilities of the years to come all the more exciting. Rock on.