Since the explosion of the rock era, there is no question that female songwriters have had a bigger seat at the pop music table. While many of their contributions have been behind the scene, women in the rock era had a huge hand in penning not just girl-group songs, but some of the biggest hits of the day. On Sunday evening, Berklee College of Music celebrates the achievements of some of these celebrated names and more, as it continues its Great American Songbook series with the program Great Women Songwriters — featuring the music of Aretha Franklin, Dorothy Fields, Bessie Smith, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Billie Holiday, Laura Nyro, Lillian Armstrong, Dianne Warren, Brenda Russell, a Dolly Parton medley, a blues medley, and more.
Sixties rock and roll might seem like a boys’ club on the surface, but a little digging reveals otherwise. Prior to her success as a solo artist in the ‘70s, Carole King wrote hits for the Monkees (‘Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “Porpoise Song”) and Byrds (“Goin’ Back,” “Wasn’t Born to Follow) as part of the duo Goffin/King. Along with partner Barry Mann, Cynthia Weill wrote “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” for the Animals and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” for the Righteous Brothers. Manfred Mann’s “Do-Wah-Diddy” and Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep – Mountain High” came from the pen of Ellie Greenwich and partner Jeff Barry (the latter also co-credited to Phil Spector). Meanwhile across town, Valerie Simpson and Nick Ashford were killing it for Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell (“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing), Laura Nyro was slinging hits for the 5th Dimension (“Wedding Bell Blues” “Stone Soul Picnic”), and let’s not forget that Joni Mitchell gave a boost to Tom Rush (“Circle Game”) and Crosby Stills Nash & Young (“Woodstock”) early in their careers.
Today the situation remains fairly similar. Lots of women are doing good work in the songwriting domain, but their contributions are not always as well known as their male counterparts. In today’s Billboard Top 10 alone, four songs have women listed among the principle writers (Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse,” Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love,” Pitbull’s “Timber” (feat. Ke$ha), and Lorde’s “Team”). While we are good at recognizing that female artists do quite well at the top of the charts, it is lesser known that woman are often the writing forces behind the hits as well. Pitbull’s “Timber” for example, bears a co-writing credit for Pebe Sebert, who aside from being the mother of Ke$ha (aka Kesha Sebert), has also written songs for singers ranging from Dolly Parton to Parton’s god-daughter, Miley Cyrus.
Berklee vocal professor Donna McElroy knows a thing or two about struggling behind the scenes to get a seat at the table. The longstanding performer was a part of Amy Grant’s touring ensemble in the midst of Grant’s unlikely climb out of the Contemporary Christian genre category-trap just as she was becoming viable pop commodity in the early ‘90s. Then after a brief crack at a solo career herself, McElroy finally settled into the teaching profession, where she has been mentoring young voices on Massachusetts Avenue since the mid-90s. She talked to us about Sunday’s event and the tough road for women in songwriting.
Q. So you had the first hand of working closely with singer-songwriter Amy Grant when she was rising as a pop star from a Christian background. Do you think that the cards are stacked against women who want to take creative roles beyond being pop stars in this business?
A. Yes, but it’s a given isn’t it that it’s a male dominated society. Women in this society are constantly eking out and chipping away at well-established attitude.
Q. What is your attitude towards a lot of the women who are dominating the pop charts now? Everyone from Lady Gaga and Katy Perry to Rihanna and Beyoncé—they seem to be doing pretty well in terms of dominating the pop charts.
A. Yes, they are doing pretty well dominating the pop charts. I’m not sure that I agree with the essence of their dominance which is very self-effacing and still giving unspoken and unwarranted power to men in the lyrical content as well as in the visual presentation.
Q. When we roll back the clock and look at what little boys and girls learn in this society about the history of music, we’re not hearing about women. We’re hearing about Mozart and Beethoven, who were great, but as you said we take it as a given that it’s a male dominated society. We know that the reason we are not learning about female composers is because the infrastructure wasn’t in place for females to study and compose and to put on a pedestal in the same manner.
A. Or viewed by competitors in any way with the contemporary male composers. Back in Beethoven’s day, women were not even allowed to compete with men. At least today in 2014 we have a little bit of even-footing—not necessarily in the minds of record companies, but in the internet you don’t have to be male or female. You just have to be an idea.
Q. On that note, where does Berklee’s Celebration of Women Songwriters begin?
A. We start right at the end of the 20th century. There was a woman who was married to Louis Armstrong and we’re starting the show with one of her pieces. Her name was Lilian Armstrong, formerly Hardin. She was also a band-leader and pianist. She was from Memphis. Memphis has been the home of a lot of great musicians in this country, and she was one of them. And then we jump ahead into Aretha Franklin and Carole King. We dabble a bit in Diane Warren’s territory. We spend a little time with Dolly Parton, who I think has a particularly interesting career in that she’s a songwriter, she’s a singer, she’s been in the industry 50 years singing and touring, she’s got a family background, she’s got Dollywood, she’s got publishing, she’s on the road right now, and she wrote “I Will Always Love You” which really doesn’t require her, if she didn’t want to, to ever lift a finger again. But she’s one of the hardest working women in the industry.
Q. You talked about “I Will Always Love You” and another one is “Jolene” which a lot of people are familiar with as another great Dolly Parton song. What do you think it is that makes girls say “I want to sing ‘I Will Always Love You’” rather than say “I want to write ‘I Will Always Love You?’”
A. Now that is a very interesting question. Look. I grew up listing to Aretha Franklin when I was six, seven, and eight. I didn’t listen to Aretha Franklin because she was a good writer; I listened to her because she was a fabulous sounding woman. I think that people know what sounds good. Kids know what sounds good. If there is not a balance in the household, and in the school system yes, but mainly in the household of informing the kids that “she not only sings pretty, but she wrote that song. And guess who else is a songwriter? This other chick you like over here is a songwriter too. So let’s sit down and think about what would you like to write about?” Getting the kids curiosity piqued and tweaked and driven from the source of emulation of their own idols. I don’t think that’s happening that much in the home anymore. And it’s quite fortunate for me when I see a kid who has grown up listening to a good song more than being preoccupied with the trappings and marketing of a Gaga. And Lady Gaga can write. She doesn’t have to do all that crazy stuff.
Q. But if Lady Gaga were just Stephanie Germanotta, and if she were just trying to engage the music business just as a regular person, then there would be somebody else waiting to take her place.
A. Well, if that were the case, she would never get in the door as just her natural self. But she is definite proof that ‘crazy sells.’ I’ve always told young people and my own peers that I am a student of the statement “you can get in the door, but once you get there, what are you have to say?” What’s going to keep you having access to that table? If you don’t have the goods to stay at that table, partaking of the rich meal being served, then you’re going to be kicked out.
Q. Let’s talk about Carole King. She’s been written about as much as anybody in pop music, and like Aretha Franklin and Joni Mitchell is someone who gets a seat at the table without everyone always talking about their gender. Obviously some of her most resonant songs are “Natural Woman” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” But do you think of Carole King as someone who wrote songs for women? Or do you think that she transcends that idea that there is women’s music?
A. No, I don’t think that she was writing for women. Her songs are universal to anyone. She’s just a great songwriter. She caught what needed to happen. She was hanging out with the people who were teaching the right stuff about how to write a great song. The hook. She got really trained in figuring out what the hook of the song should be and writing the song around it. And I think that her songs are universal because they put together a feeling, a thought, and a sentiment that can be universally embraced. Part of it is just her natural ability, but part of it is her ability to play the keyboard the way that she does. It’s the simplicity in her playing. She has a very limited focus and chord structure that makes her songs very simple. When a song is simple it has a lot more power than a song that is all over the place. More people are going to relate to it.
Q. What do you think about these festivals like Lilith Faire when you had all these great songwriters like Sarah McLaughlin and a lot of other really talented songwriters, especially coming out of New England, wanting to have these festivals of women artists that drew a largely female audience. Did you have a reaction to that sort of thing?
A. Not really. If there had been an effort by the women that were in the Lilith Faire generation to reach out to the Native American women songwriters, to the African-American songwriters, to the Latina women songwriters, then it would have meant a lot more to me. But in that era I was coming up myself as a songwriter and singer, and I felt very excluded from that Lilith Faire mentality in general. I didn’t feel like I had anything to offer to them and I didn’t feel like they had anything to offer to me.
Q. It seems like with Aretha Franklin, something like that had to happen. We look at a lot of the other artists at the time like Diana Ross & the Supremes, where you had a lot of men writing the songs. And then you had Dusty Springfield who was amazing, but did songs written by male songwriters. Aretha Franklin did songs by other people too, but she was like a five-tool baseball player. She had the singing, and the performing, and the piano playing and the songwriting, and she put it all together in a way that was amazing. It was either going to be Aretha Franklin or somebody like Valerie Simpson.
A. Well, it was Valerie Simpson simultaneously. Aretha was answering a radically different call for America. I think that America was really reaching for something to inspire them. When she said “think what you are trying to do to me,” people perked up and listened. You knew that she was giving orders. She knew not even to start with her. And I think that America was ready to hear that. And I think that the whole Motown soft-sell if you will, the sweet and sassy sounds of the Temptations and Diana Ross & the Supremes, the coolness of it, was also showing different sides and angles of the prism of black life in America. We were ready and needing to see those different aspects of black life in America at the time.
Q. When I think about “Respect” which is her biggest hit, it’s a completely different song when she sings it than when Otis Redding sings it. When he sings it, it sounds like a man coming home from a bar that doesn’t want to be given any guff. When she sings it, it sounds like a feminist anthem. Maybe just because she’s such a powerful woman. Do you think of her as a feminist artist?
A. It’s interesting. It might be my age or my background. I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. When I was listening to people sing, the whole word “feminist” hadn’t entered the lexicon yet. So I wasn’t listening or thinking about women’s rights. I was thinking about general respect. We were having enough trouble getting on a bus and going to work without getting arrested, so I wasn’t really thinking about feminist issues. And I don’t think that any of the women that we have included in this program, no matter how recent or far back we go, had in mind sitting down and writing a song that’s going to change the feminist movement. The fact that I wrote the song and that I am a woman and that everyone in America is embracing it, and that I am still around to be the songwriter, then that is feminist enough. It’s got to be feminist enough!
The Great American Songbook: Great Women Songwriters
Sunday, February 23, 7:30 p.m.
Berklee Performance Center (BPC)
136 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston
$8 in advance, $12 day of show
www.berkleebpc.com or call 617-747-2261
The venue is wheelchair accessible.
Featured performers include faculty vocalists Donna McElroy, Lisa Thorson, Chantel Hampton, Nichelle Mungo, and Andrea Capozzoli, and Berklee students Tickwanya Jones, Natalia Sulca, Callie Benjamin, Jen Hoyt, Gaby Carillo, Mark Joseph, and Robert Gould. The concert is produced by Rob Rose and directed by Ken Zambello with McElroy serving as vocal coordinator.