1973 In Review (Female Artists)
The first show of this series on the music of 1973 was focused on Rock and Roll. The fact that there wasn’t a single female artist presented on that show is my fault. After all, I selected the artists to include. However, it is also a pretty telling fact that the discrimination against women, which has pervaded rock and roll since its inception, led to a landscape in which I could make a show like that with no female artists. I didn’t like the absence of women in that show, so I’ve decided to present a show focused entirely on women artists in 1973. This show provides plenty of examples that the music created by women is just as good as all of the male-dominated music of that period.
As usual, I have created a playlist for this show.
The playlist includes twenty songs from twenty albums that span genres from rock to soul to funk to folk to country. I’m not going to write about all of these artists, but I selected these twenty tracks as a representation of the high quality and variety of music made by women in 1973. Most important to mention, very few of these albums are very well-known. Even the most famous female artists of this year did not release albums that were recognized at the time as the best of the year, much less so now. However, I have just spent hours listening to a LOT of music from 1973 and I can’t find any compelling reason for this to be true. As usual, it is the sexism and discrimination against female artists that has been a hallmark of the music industry for one hundred years that led to the lack of focus on the music of these women. It is not due to a lack of talent or quality of the albums.
Although I am not going to discuss all these recordings, there are a few of these twenty albums on which I would like to shine the spotlight. I will start with a defense of my lack of inclusion of women rockers on that show via a simple question.
Can you quickly name three female Rock and Roll artists who found success after Janis Joplin’s death at the end of 1970?
I’m not talking about artists like Carole King, Linda Ronstadt, or Joni Mitchell. King certainly had an old school rock and roll soul, but her solo material was never meant to make you want to jump on the stage and scream at the world. Ronstadt had a voice that could rock when she wanted, but she was much too focused on the soft country/rock fusion coming out of California to be considered a rocker (if you think that The Eagles are Rock and Roll then I hope you are happy in your ignorant bliss). Joni Mitchell was Joni Mitchell, and that is a wonderful thing, but definitely not Rock and Roll. I am talking about real Rock and Roll. Maybe you could say Tina Turner. Janis Joplin and Tina Turner were very similar. They belted out their songs with fury and they worked in a style that was a blend of R&B and Rock and Roll that made you feel something deep down in your gut. Still, Turner and Joplin were contemporaries. If you have read past Faux Shows, you know how much I love the first all-female group Fanny. Fanny had started to knock at the door several years earlier, but no one was ready to open the door yet. Either way, I am pretty sure that they didn’t come immediately to mind when I asked you to name three female Rock and Roll artists from the early ‘70s. Maybe you could argue that early albums by Bonnie Raitt were Rock and Roll, but they are rock in the broadest sense. Raitt was a blues/pop crossover artist from the start, with a sound much more like Carole King than Joplin or Turner. If you really know your stuff, maybe you answered Chaka Khan, but her debut was in 1973, and I bet you didn’t think of her anyway. The bottom line is that women were not allowed in the Rock and Roll boy’s club in 1973. Patti Smith was still two years away from her poetic punk vision. The Runaways were still roaming the halls of their high schools. Chrissie Hynde and Debbie Harry were still imagining their future. The world of punk rock was still several years away from the first true female rock revolution by artists like The Slits and Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex). In 1973, women simply weren’t invited to the rock and roll party, especially in the United States.
So, what is the answer to the question? If we accept Tina Turner and Fanny as two of the three, then we need one more. I will argue that the third name on that list is Suzi Quatro, and it isn’t even up for discussion. More than Turner, Fanny, or any of the other female artists you can name, Quatro is the most important. She is…
…The First Female Punk Rocker
Suzi Quatro spent her teenage years in Detroit as part of an all-female group called The Pleasure Seekers before changing their name to Cradle in 1969. This group was made up of several members including Quatro, her sisters, and some friends, and were originally a group marketed for the fact that they were attractive young girls rather than for their musical ability. Exploited by anyone who could make money off them, they were forced to wear miniskirts and wigs and perform at venues that were more cabaret than rock club. However, whether anyone was paying attention or not, they were actually a garage rock band and part of the 1960s Detroit rock scene that spawned other artists such as Mitch Ryder, ? & The Mysterians, Iggy Pop, Bob Seger, and Alice Cooper. They are one of the first all-female groups to record a single, recording even earlier than Fanny. Their first single was released in 1966 and their second in 1968, on Mercury Records. Still, Detroit was a male-dominated scene. I love Iggy Pop, but I doubt he was banging on the door of his manager and demanding that Cradle be given equal pay and a headlining spot at one of his gigs at The Grande Ballroom club. There was no way that Suzi Quatro was going to get signed as a solo rock artist in Detroit, much less become a star.
Quatro moved to England in 1971, after being asked to come to record for a new label, Rak Records, started by producer Mikkie Most. Most was looking for the next Janis Joplin, but what he found instead was a modern rock artist who could play bass, sing like a rocker, and write her own material. It didn’t hurt that she was attractive, but unlike the first eight years of her life as a musician, it was her abilities that made her a star. She blasted out of the gate with her self-titled debut in 1973, but she had already started to get recognized in 1972 with her single “Rolling Stone” which hit #1 in Portugal and gave her the momentum needed for her new label to allow her to select the members of her new band and start playing across Europe. By 1973 she had already completed a successful gig as the opener for a tour featuring Thin Lizzy and Slade. This was a huge deal. This was something that only men had ever been allowed to do. She was performing Rock and Roll in front of thousands of people along with two of the biggest rock acts in England.
By 1973, T. Rex had made Glam Rock the dominate sound on the British charts. Quatro’s self-titled debut included her own material, but it was the glam hits written by songwriters Mike Chapman and Nikky Chinn that shot her to stardom. Selected specifically by Most to write for Quatro’s image and performing style, the duo were successful beyond belief. The first singles they recorded together, “48 Crash” and “Can the Can,” are now Glam Rock standards, and were both successful British and European hits. Although it only hit #56 in the U.S., “Can the Can” was a #1 hit in England and Australia as well as a hit across Europe. Her success in 1973 made Quatro the first female rock star.
Clad in leather, looking like a cross between Marlon Brando in The Wild One and Mary Tyler Moore, she hurled her bass through rock’s glass ceiling and paved the way for all of the female rockers to come. There is no Runaways or Joan Jett without Suzi Quatro. I can’t prove it is true, but I am sure that Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde were listening to Quatro’s early records. Fifty years after its initial release, Quatro’s debut is as good as rock gets in 1973. It is as good as Bowie’s Aladdin Sane and better than T. Rex’s Tanx. It is better than Fanny’s final attempt at major success. It is a truly great rock and roll record and you’ve probably never listened to it. It has never gotten airplay on classic rock radio, and Quatro is better known in the U.S. for her role as Leather Tuscadero on Happy Days and her late ‘70s hit “Stumblin’ In,” but it is one of the best rock debuts of the era. Suzi Quatro is the original Queen of Rock.
Queens of Funk: Two Debuts That Deserve To Be Heard
Some debuts hit the world with a cosmic boom that is still reverberating through the music world today. Other debuts, which is to say most debuts, enter the music world’s conscience slowly, if at all. In 1973, the music world was introduced to several great female artists, but none of them made an immediate impact. Fifty years later, we now know that everyone should have been paying attention to two of these women as soon as they first breathed into a microphone.
Chaka Khan is the official Queen of Funk. She is a multi-Grammy winning artist, an iconic vocalist, and a symbol of everything that women can achieve in a sexist music world that attempts to hold them back at every turn. She has sold over seventy million records and is still recording and performing after fifty years in the business. She entered the music scene as the lead vocalist for funk & soul act Rufus in 1973, but very few people paid attention. The self-titled debut by Rufus was a minor hit but did not sell in a way that indicates Khan would someday be a legend. However, the band’s incredible cover of Stevie Wonder’s song “Maybe Your Baby” got Stevie Wonder’s attention, and less than one year later the band released a song written by Wonder for Khan called “Tell Me Something Good.” That song is now on the Mount Rushmore of funk songs. Everyone gravitates to James Brown and P Funk as the leaders of Funk, but “Tell Me Something Good” is as good as any track of funk anyone ever laid down on wax. That song is credited as the start of Khan’s career, but if you go back to the 1973 debut by Rufus it is obvious that everyone should have been listening before “Tell Me Something Good” was released, and Khan should have been recognized as a star on the rise.
A main issue was that Khan was sharing vocal duties on the debut by Rufus, and the record is a mix of gospel infused rock, funky R&B, and soul ballads because the band had not yet found its sound as a purely funk/soul group. One has to listen to the entire album to find Khan sing “Keep It Coming,” “Maybe Your Baby,” “I Finally Found You,” “Feel Good,” “Satisfied,” “Whoever’s Thrilling You,” and the album’s closing medley “Love The One You’re With/Sit Yourself Down.” All of these songs are great examples of Khan’s amazing vocal range and her ability to control it across genres, but the song “I Finally Found You” is the most obvious example that Khan was one of the greatest vocalists to ever sing soul music. It is a standard soul ballad, but her delivery raises it up to the heights of the genre.
Khan was only nineteen at the time, making her abilities that much more breathtaking. She was already entering Aretha Franklin territory in her ability to deliver the most basic song as if it is the greatest song ever written. What is most telling looking back now is that the male vocal lead and main songwriter, Ron Stockert, left the band while recording their next album because he could see the writing on the wall – Chaka Khan, barely twenty years old, was a superstar who was about to push him out into obscurity on her way toward soul diva superstardom.
Betty Davis is the unofficial Queen of Funk. Unlike Chaka Khan, hardly anyone was paying attention to Betty Davis while she recorded. It wasn’t until over forty years later that people realized her genius, and now she is dead and gone and all that we can do is listen to her four sexually explosive, take no shit, in your face, gut-bucket funk albums. She recorded all of them in less than four years – her final album wasn’t even released until decades later – and she left the business as an ignored failure, thrown away by an industry too scared to allow a strong woman to express herself without barriers and an unknowing public unable to hear her music or see her perform.
Her 1973 debut explodes right out of the gate with the track “If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up” and then proceeds to lay down seven more ferocious funk tracks that destroy all other funk released in 1973 (which is saying something, as will be shown in an upcoming Faux Show about funk music in 1973). When I listen to Betty Davis albums, I don’t even know what album I’m listening to because they are truly just one long collection of funk tracks that are unique to Davis’ vision. The debut includes several of her most beloved songs, such as the aforementioned album opener, “Anti Love Song,” and “Game Is My Middle Name,” but all eight tracks are perfect examples of what Davis was all about.
This is funk for people who care about funk. This is funk for people who want to feel the funk. This is not weak-ass funk for wannabe posers who think funk just means a song sounds “funky.” Focusing on artists who released albums in 1973, Earth, Wind, and Fire made great funk and were often funky. Stevie Wonder helped invent funk during his years with Motown’s Funk Brothers in the ‘60s before perfecting the sound of soul music in the early ‘70s and was often very funky. Sly & The Family Stone invented an entirely new mix of rock and funk in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and were almost always funky. James Brown was the Godfather of Funk and truly invented the genre. Betty Davis was a woman who didn’t give a shit about any of those dudes. She lived in a higher realm of funk. A world of funk that saw the world as her playground to sing whatever she wanted to sing, perform however she wanted to perform, and ruthlessly exploit the desires of the men who had exploited her for her entire life, and she didn’t give a shit what they, you, me, or anyone else in the world thought about it. She had no choice but to write and record the funk that was burning a hole in her heart and needed to be let out else she would explode. All hail Betty Davis – the Funk Destroyer, the Funk Diva, the true Queen of Funk.
Queens of Soul: Three Very Different Albums
There were so many female icons recording in 1973 that I didn’t even include them all. Just to name a few that I left out of this show, there was music released by Cher, Carole King, Carly Simon, Loretta Lynn, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bonnie Raitt. Most importantly, though, is that 1973 was a great year for soul icons, both those in their prime and others who were just starting out. While rock and roll was still a wasteland for female artists, soul music became an oasis for women in the early ‘70s. Thanks to the success of ‘60s girl groups, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Tina Turner, and especially Aretha Franklin, female soul artists at least had a chance at success in 1973. This year was a breakthrough for female soul artists, with some of the most important getting their start. These women were just as successful as men in merging rock, funk, and soul into the new sound that pervaded the period. More importantly, they were singing songs that meant something. Instead of innocuous songs about boys and love, they were singing about dealing with sexist men, the struggles of the economy, and female empowerment. Even if their biggest hits weren’t controversial, their albums were filled with gritty songs about edgy topics that were non-existent on albums by women only a few years earlier. A cursory review of the history of women’s struggles in the early ‘70s points directly at the reasons this was possible, and these superstars were leading the charge with their music.
Labelle had already released three albums of ‘60s era girl group music as Patti LaBelle and The Blue Belles and two albums as Labelle before they recorded their now cult classic 1973 album Pressure Cookin’. Except for a few covers, all songs were composed by Nona Hendryx. The covers should not be ignored as they include the lead single “Open Up Your Heart” (a Stevie Wonder composition) and an upbeat funk cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” but the Hendryx songs are the heart of the album.
The title track is a perfectly crafted funk song that is set firmly in the socially and racially driven conflicts of the time. “Sunshine” is an overlooked funk classic about emotional empowerment. “Can I Speak To You” is a relationship song that works wonderfully as the first half of the story told by Gladys Knight in her 1973 classic “Midnight Train to Georgia.” “Goin’ On A Holiday” is a song about escaping the injustices of the times. The entire album serves as a female counterpart to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Pressure Cookin’ is an album that worked in 1973 and is still relevant in 2023. In addition, there is amazing session work present on every song. From latin-infused R&B to soul ballads to deep funk, every song is a solid piece of soul music. After listening to dozens of 1973 albums, this one is the most under-rated of them all. Less than one year later, they would record their breakthrough album, Nightbirds. Although that album continued the socially aware funk compositions of Hendryx, it is now best known for its hit single “Lady Marmalade” and its foreshadowing of the disco revolution about to take over popular music. Their 1975 album, Phoenix, moved away entirely from the sound they presented in 1973, but when Pressure Cookin’ was released it was one of the best examples of the music of its time.
Roberta Flack had already released four albums by 1973. Her 1969 debut included her breakthrough hit, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and her 1972 album of duets with Donny Hathaway showed that she could be a virtuosic soul singer. But the main difference between Flack and all her contemporaries was that she performed her songs from a foundation of jazz. She was not a composer. She was a jazz pianist and vocalist who approached her material like a jazz musician approaches standards. The strength of an artist like that is to select the appropriate material and arrange it to fit the required purpose.
There is no better example of this than her 1973 album Killing Me Softly, a collection of soul songs presented as soul music by a group of some of the best jazz musicians of the time. The session players on this album include Eric Gale (a highly sought-after jazz and R&B guitarist), Ron Carter (one of the greatest jazz bassists of all time), Grady Tate (one of the most respected drummers of the ‘60s jazz era), and some of the best jazz arrangers of the time (Kermit Moore, Eumir Deodato, Pee Wee Ellis, and Don Sebesky).
The resulting collection of songs is not always perfect, but the variety of styles is impressive and the best songs are fantastic. “Jesse” is a wonderful, lush torch song, “No Tears In The End” is a ‘60s-Motown inspired soul groove, “River” is a funk slow burn that drops in some great jazz flute accompaniment, and “Suzanne” is vocal jazz fusion at its best. The heart of the album, though, is the title track. “Killing Me Softly With His Song” is Flack’s signature song. It was a #1 hit and won the Grammy for Record of the Year. It is a song that continues to sound relevant today, and was the song that launched the solo career of Fugees’ vocalist Lauryn Hill. Killing Me Softly is a great album and is unlike almost any other album released in 1973. It has received mixed reviews since its initial release, but it does not deserve the negativity. If taken for what it is – a jazz influenced soul album – it is one of the standards of the genre and its best songs are still worth discovering.
Gladys Knight & The Pips were Motown superstars in the ‘60s. Their version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (the first recording of the song that is now identified with Marvin Gaye’s later version) was the best selling Motown hit at the time of its release. They released ten albums during the ten years before 1973, slowly building their sound into one that rivals Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder as the sound of soul in the early ‘70s. Their 1972 album Neither One Of Us was a huge success and showed their evolution into a band that was still relevant after ten years of material. It is amazing, in this context, that their 1973 album Imagination was about to define their importance for the rest of their career. While Labelle and Roberta Flack were creating music that fused soul, rock, and funk (Labelle) and soul and jazz (Flack), Gladys Knight & The Pips were much more entrenched in the straight-ahead sound of soul music prevalent at the time. But they weren’t simply emulating other artists – they were merging their own body of work with the new sound of soul. This was a sound that took the lush strings prevalent throughout the Motown sound of the ‘60s and the aggressive drive of Motown’s Funk Brothers and merged them with the iconic voice of Knight and the backing vocals of The Pips. Knight is called the Empress of Soul for a reason. Her smooth soul delivery influenced generations of soul singers to come.
On Imagination, songs like the title track and “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me” are career highlights for Knight. Other filler such as “Once In A Lifetime Thing” and “Where Peaceful Waters Flow” present a soul vocalist at the height of her abilities. The first track and big hit, however, pushes the record into Greatest Soul Album Of All Time territory. “Midnight Train To Georgia” is a timeless soul classic and her signature song. This one song is one of the greatest ever performed and still sounds timeless. 1973 was the year that Gladys Knight & The Pips pulled all of their years of hard work together into a sound that made them international superstars.
That’s it for the second show of this 1973 series. There are more to come with a focus on specific styles of music. In the meantime, as always, thanks for listening (and reading)!
Playlist Track List
- Suzi Quatro “Can the Can”
- Fanny “I’m Satisfied”
- Yoko Ono “Yang Yang”
- Betty Davis “Steppin’ In Her I. Miller Shoes”
- Rufus “Maybe Your Baby”
- Ike and Tina Turner “Heaven Help Us All”
- Ike and Tina Turner “River Deep – Mountain High”
- Gladys Knight & The Pips “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination”
- Aretha Franklin “Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky)”
- Labelle “Sunshine (Woke Me Up This Morning)”
- Betty Wright “I Am Woman”
- Roberta Flack “Killing Me Softly With His Song”
- Linda Ronstadt “Sail Away”
- Dusty Springfield “Tupelo Honey”
- Three Degrees “When Will I See You Again”
- Maureen McGovern “The Morning After”
- Bette Midler “I Shall Be Released”
- Judy Collins “Cook With Honey”
- Dolly Parton “Tennessee Mountain Home”
- Tanya Tucker “What’s Your Mama’s Name”