Rocking the Distaff: More Female Artists Worthy of a Rock Hall Nomination

Ever heard of the female side of a family tree referred to as “the distaff?”

“The distaff and the spindle were used to spin flax or wool fibers before the invention of the spinning wheel in 1533. The flax was wound around a short staff known as the distaff, which was fastened at the woman’s waist by her girdle or tucked under her arm. The flax would be fed from the distaff through the woman’s fingers to the spindle, which twisted it into yarn or thread. When women visited each other, they often carried their distaff and spindle with them to occupy them as they chatted. Sometimes the distaff was called the “rock” from the German rocken,which described the spinning apparatus. When women gathered together to spin, it was often referred to as ‘rocking.’” 

– The Free Dictionary

All of this is a long way of saying: “Women. Rocking since the 16th century.”

Carly Simon 

Photo: Heidi Wild, courtesy Flatiron Books

Carly Simon’s name doesn’t come up much in discussions of the Rock Hall. I actually predicted her a couple of years ago as a wild card, and although it’s likely a long shot, there are compelling reasons that she could be a surprise candidate, and the more I researched her, the more I became an advocate. 

If the Hall genuinely does set itself the goal of including more women, her name will doubtless resonate with the Boomer contingent on the NomCom and the voting body. Intelligent, independent and yes, sexy, she was an archetype of 70s feminism, and her keen self-awareness and unapologetic outlook predated Madonna by a good 10 years plus.  

The Hall likes to put in singer/songwriters, the bulk of which have been men, but Simon matches them with her mature, intelligent songs (it’s hard to believe “That’s The Way I Always Heard It Should Be” was written by someone in their mid-20s), delivered in a rich, unmistakable alto capable of delivering delicate ballads, rock and show tunes. 

Her compositions go well beyond “You’re So Vain”; besides the aforementioned “That’s the Way…” there was “Anticipation,” “Coming Around Again,” “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain,” and “Attitude Dancing.” And of course, “Let the River Run,” for which she became the first artist to receive an Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe for a single composition, an honor shared only by Springsteen. She’s in the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Grammy Hall of Fame, with 15 nominations and two wins. 

And yes, she had hits: Five platinum albums, including a multi-platinum greatest hits collection, and three gold albums, all but three making Billboard’s Top 200, 12 in the top 40 and five in the top 10. In addition, she put 24 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 with 13 Top 40 hits and 28 in the A/C Top 40. 

She’s been covered by artists ranging from Fred Astaire to Mandy Moore to Foo Fighters to Radiohead to Morrissey to Anita Baker and Bobby Brown with Whitney. She’s also been sampled by Trey Songz, QOTSA and Janet Jackson for “Son of a Gun (Bet You Think this Song is About You”). 

She’s been cited as an influence by Taylor Swift (with whom she’s performed), Tori Amos, Carly Ray Jepsen and Natalie Maines, and you have to think by artists like Brandi Carlile and Sara Bereilles. Given her well-known reluctance to perform, a tribute by even a few of these women would make for a retweet-worthy induction ceremony highlight. 

Her career in popular music now in its sixth decade, Simon is an opera composer, a published author about to publish the second volume of her memoirs, and a member and advocate of the LGBTQ community. She’s also the only person I know of to put the word “gavotte” into a hit song. 

Cyndi Lauper 

She slid sideways into our lives in 1983 with that zingy synth glissando and what Rolling Stone called a “wild, wonderful skyrocket of a voice.” Almost 36 years later, Cyndi Lauper is a cultural icon: a singer, musician, songwriter, actor, and LGBTQ and women’s advocate. 

Her debut solo album, “She’s so Unusual,” was on the Billboard Top 200 for 77 weeks (peaking at No. 4), and was in the Top 40 for 65 of them. It went six times platinum in the United States alone, and has sold more than 16 million copies worldwide. It’s the first album by a female artist to produce four straight top 5 hits. 

The album garnered six Grammy nominations, winning Best Album Package with Lauper winning Best New Artist (one of the few times the Grammys got it right). It received 10 MTV Award nominations, winning in 1984 for the first Best Female Video for “Girls.” The following year, the clip for “She Bop” was nominated –you have to admit that it is pretty unusual to feature your mom in a video about female masturbation that references a gay porn magazine. It’s currently No. 487 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, No. 75 on its list for the 80s and No. 41 on its “Women Who Rock” list. 

An album like that’s a tough act to follow.  Her 10 subsequent studio albums haven’t always sold in huge numbers or won critical acclaim, although her second, “True Colors” produced two more Top 5 hits and a classic song in the title track. But Lauper’s never worked to a formula, always treading new ground stylistically and in the concerns addressed in her lyrics: spousal abuse, LGBTQ rights, racism, consumerism. 

Her 2003 “At Last” album wedded her amazing voice to American pop standards and her version of the title track comes tantalizingly close to Etta James’ and is superior to Christina Aguilera’s more lionized one. “Memphis Blues” was the most successful blues album of 2010, hitting the top spot on Billboard’s blues album chart, where it stayed for some time, and breaking into the pop Top 30. Her most recent, 2016’s “Detour,” produced by Tony Brown and executive produced by Seymour Stein, takes in iconic songs by country legends and features duets with Vince Gill and Willie Nelson.  

She’s appeared on Broadway in “The Threepenny Opera, “ and in Berlin as part of Roger Waters’ 1990 production of “The Wall.” She’s worked with artists including Hugh Masekela, Tony Bennett, Mary Chapin Carpenter and more. Artists appearing on her albums include Charlie Musselwhite, Eric Clapton, and Bootsy Collins. Along the way, numerous artists have covered her songs—“Time After Time” by more than 100 artists alone, and she was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2015. Last year, she received Billboard’s Icon Award at its Women in Music ceremony. In 2011 she was included in the Rock Hall’s “Women Who Rock” exhibit.  The year before, in one of the universe’s perfect moments, she was honored with a Barbie doll in her likeness. 

She’s made a mark as an actor, earning an Emmy for a recurring role on Mad About You” and a nomination for voiceover work on Henry & Me. Her score for the 2012 musical adaptation of Kinky Boots made her the first woman to win a Tony for the category on her own and also earned her an Olivier nomination. The Tony made her three-fourths of an EGOT, with a Grammy, Emmy and Tony—one of only four women with this combination. 

From the beginning, Lauper has had an uncompromising vision for every aspect of her work, from the music and lyrics to the themes of her albums to representation of women in her videos. Artists like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Gwen Stefani owe Lauper a debt. It’s hard to think of someone more deserving of inclusion in the Rock Hall. 


“One of the finest fucking rock bands of their time.” –David Bowie 

They made four albums, with a cover of Cream’s “Badge” on their first one and hit the top 40 with two singles. They toured with the likes of Deep Purple, the Kinks, Jethro Tull and Humble Pie and recorded with Richard Perry and Todd Rundgren as producers. They were the session band for Streisand’s “Stoney End” album. They won praise from Rolling Stone as well as David Bowie, who went on to say of them, “They were extraordinary. The wrote everything, they played like motherfuckers, they were just colossal and wonderful…”

But they could never get to that elusive top rung of the ladder, and 40 years on from their heyday, as Bowie noted sadly, “Nobody’s ever mentioned them.”  They were Fanny, the first all-female band to release an album on a major label. (Goldie and the Gingerbreads were signed to Atlantic by Ahmet Urtegun in 1965 but their release was a single). 

Formed in Sacramento in the late 60s as the Svelts with June Millington and Addie Lee on guitar, June’s sister Jean on bass, Nickey Barclay on keys and Brie Berry on drums. The daughters of a Filapina mother and a U.S. navy commander father, the Millingtons came to California in the early 60s. Music became their way of fitting into an often-hostile culture in the States. 

Sexism was always a fact of life; Berry left the band after her new husband demanded she quit, a turn of events that labels had long used as an excuse for not female acts before and after them. When her replacement, Alice de Buhr, and Lee formed a new band called Wild Honey, the Millingtons came along and the group moved to L.A. But “yeah, pretty good for chicks” got old, and the band was on fumes when they played an open mic night at the Troubadour that initially gave them all of a five-minute slot until their reception by the crowd changed minds. In that crowd was the secretary of producer Richard Perry (Nilsson, Streisand, Carly Simon), who was looking for a female band to produce. Upon hearing them, he convinced Warner Bros. to sign them. 

There was one problem to resolve before releasing their first album: the name, as another “Wild Honey” already existed. Stories that “Fanny” was suggested by George Harrison are false; according to June Millington, it was pulled from a list of 60 options and chosen because a woman’s name and the double entendre appealed to them. 

In their initial run, Fanny released four albums. The second, “Charity Ball,” yielded their first top 40 hit with the title track, and the third, “Fanny Hill,” with covers of “Hey Bulldog” and “Ain’t That Peculiar,” got a favorable review from Rolling Stone. But by the fourth album, “Mother’s Pride,” the constant sexism and pressure from the label to conform to an image got to June. She left the band, which recorded a last album without her, “Rock and Roll Survivors,” which produced their second Top 40 single in “Butter Boy,” before splitting in 1975. 

All of the band members stayed in music after the breakup, and in 2002 Rhino released the retrospective “First Time in a Long Time.” Individual reissues followed, and the Millingtons and Brie Berry (now Brie Howard-Darling) record and occasionally perform as Fanny Walked the Earth. Bands like the Go-Go’s and the Runaways have acknowledged Fanny as pioneers, and while a Rock Hall nom seems unlikely, they definitely deserve some recognition.