Recently, the minds behind the “Induct Dennis Wilson” and “E-Rockracy” Twitter accounts joined forces to present a new podcast called “Hall Watchers” – a fresh, well-reasoned take on the Rock Hall that goes outside the box and says what needs to be said. If you haven’t checked it out yet — do it now!
The second episode spotlighted women who should be included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Pat Benatar, The Go-Go’s, Sade, MC Lyte, Salt ‘n Pepa, Grace Jones, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Sinead O’Connor, Carol Kaye, Mary Wells, Annie Lennox (Eurythmics), Cher, Tina Turner, and, to join Stevie Nicks in the Clyde McPhatter Club as a performer, Carole King.
It’s an excellent list that in a few places goes off the beaten path. I know I was educated – I had no idea about MC Lyte’s accomplishments. I felt so inspired after listening that I thought I’d venture to add some names of my own, a bit at a time. I’ll alway stan for the non-performer, so I’ll start with three women who made it in a male-dominated world in the DJ booth, behind the camera lens, and in the boardroom, as well as one who went from performing to producing and brought a sound to the mainstream that would come to dominate the culture. I’m under no illusions about the likelihood of nominations, but they’re all worthy starting points for a conversation about the contributions of women behind the scenes in the music industry.
Female DJ’s were a rarity in 1970 when Sam Kopper hired Maxanne Sartori, known on-air as just Maxanne, from her slot at KLOL Seattle, for the afternoon slot at Boston powerhouse WBCN. Max liked to rock, and she championed some of Boston’s local talent that went on to become icons and for some, Hall of Famers. She was an early fan of the J. Geils Band and Billy Squier, and the story of her breaking the Cars from their demo tape is near legendary. Arguably the biggest band she helped get to that next level was Aerosmith, a band she had to fight station brass to include.
Max didn’t just support bands with the power of airplay; she contributed to their material and turned her shrewd eye towards their image and presentation as well. She wrote songs (and shared a romantic involvement) with Billy Squier. When another band she liked met with label resistance for lack of a defined image, she knew just what needed to be done. Among other things, she advised them that their charismatic co-lead singer was just standing there and needed an instrument in his hands. Benjamin Orr picked up the bass, and the change went a long way towards transforming Cap ‘n Swing from a jazz-pop fusion outfit into the spare, forward-looking Cars.
After leaving BCN in the late 70s, she went into promotion for a couple of major labels before going independent. While the station, sadly, is no more, she was inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame earlier this year, and you can grab a pair of headphones and listen to a snippet of one of her air checks at the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame’s “Cities and Sounds” exhibit.
You’ve seen her work. She’s shot more than 100 album covers as well as covers for Rolling Stone, Nat Geo, Newsweek and Life. Her work is in the collections of the Smithsonian, MOMA and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She’s won numerous awards for both her rock and art photography and published 13 books showcasing her work, one of which, “New Kids,” made the New York Times Best Seller List.
In 1969 she won a Clio for a radio spot she produced, and in 1971 she became a director for Joshua White’s Joshua TV, one of the first companies to do big-screen projection for large concert venues. In 1972, she directed ABC’s “In Concert,” network TV’s first rock show. She co-managed Grand Funk Railroad after directing a documentary for them. In the mid 70s she founded LGI, the first entertainment photo agency, which she sold in 1997 to Corbis.
In the 80s, she expanded into performance, recording “Dancing for Mental Health” under the name Will Powers with artists including Todd Rundgren, Sting and Nile Rodgers. The single “Kissing with Confidence” went to No. 3 in the UK, and the videos she produced were later used by the U.S. Department of Labor, the National Marriage Council in the UK, Harvard, and schools across the U.S. as social marketing and teaching aids.
An icon in the industry, she started as a secretary for Buddha Records in 1974, and over the next six years, steadily climbed though the corporate ranks, learning the ropes at ABC and Ariola. In 1981 she was named Director of Black music promotion, and VP/GM of black music operations. In 1994, she became the first African-American woman to head a major label as chairman and CEO of the legendary Elektra Records.
The Elektra appointment, surprisingly, was where she says she first encountered “issues of racial and gender bias.” She says that many questioned her ability, expecting that she’d reshape it into an urban label.
The most public and obnoxious example came from Motley Crue, who blamed her for the failure of their seventh album, “Generation Swine” and expressed it by calling her sexist and racist expletives from the stage. Given the consensus on the quality of the band at that time, it’s clear that Rhone’s response – to drop them from the label — was the right one. Under Rhone, Elektras’s roster and staff were among the most diverse in the business.
In 2004, she was named president of Motown and in 2014, president of Epic. She’s served on the RRHOF Nom Com, was a keynote speaker at the MIDEM conference, has won numerous awards, honors and citations and has been named to Entertainment Weekly’s Most Influential People list six times.
She started her career as a singer at age 16, recording as “Little Sylvia.” As half of the duo Mickey & Sylvia, she scored a #1 R&B / #11 pop single with “Love is Strange” in 1957, featuring her keening, seductive refrain (“Baby, my sweet baby”) that featured in Dirty Dancing 30 years later. Mickey Baker taught her to play guitar, which in turn opened the world of songwriting.
She later married Joe Robinson, and with him, founded All Platinum records. Joe handled the books while Sylvia recruited talent, wrote the songs, and produced the records. Hits included the Moments’ “Love on a Two-Way Street,” (1970, co-written by Robinson) and Shirley and Company’s “Shame, Shame, Shame.” The mother of three also had her own hit with the sexy “Pillow Talk,” a tune Al Green rejected for being too risqué.
In 1979, All Platinum was struggling, and Sylvia was looking for a sound to save her label when she caught a club DJ talking over a backing track. She found the Sugar Hill Gang, played them off of Chic’s “Good Times,” and on Sugar Hill Records label released the record that brought hip hop to the mainstream. “Rapper’s Delight” is on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, VH1’s 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs, NPR’s list of the 100 important American musical works of the 20th century, and is enshrined in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.
Of the 10 hip hop tracks in the Registry, two are on Sugar Hill. The first one is “The Message,” a track she produced for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the first hip hop track of social commentary.
Robinson passed away in 2011, and unfortunately isn’t remembered fondly by all. Multiple ugly lawsuits over unpaid royalties mar her legacy (there’s not a lot online about them, but I couldn’t find an instance in which one stuck). But as Henry “Hen Dogg” Williams, a later member of Sugar Hill Gang, said of her: “She had a great ear. She knew a hit record when she heard it. If she didn’t have that idea, who knows where hip hop would be today.”