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The Music Diaries | Talented women make their mark in popular music

Published:Sunday | March 11, 2018 | 12:00 AMRoy Black
Carlene Davis performing at the International Women’s Day Concert at the National Indoor Sports Centre on Thursday night.
Marcia Griffiths
Whitney Houston
Millie Small

International women's day (March 8) rekindles memories of a host of female artistes who have left indelible marks on popular music.

From as early as 1935, Billy Holiday signalled her intention of establishing some sort of gender equality, as far as popular music was concerned, with the classic cuts What a Little Moonlight Can Do and Miss Brown to You.

In 1942, Eartha Kitt, a versatile and flamboyant singer, dancer, actress, and activist, arrived on the scene and mesmerised millions for over six decades with her sultry voice and sensuality on stage, on screen, and on her recordings. Her novelty Christmas classic of 1953, Santa Baby, remains a perennial favourite at Christmas time, while C'est si Bon and Somebody Bad Stole the Wedding Bell did well on the British charts.

A succeeding generation of female vocalists saw black singers - Lavern Baker, Della Reese, Sarah Vaughan, and Dinah Washington - turning out a ton of hits in the Rhythm and Blues, jazz, and popular standards styles to complement the works of Caucasian singers like Patti Page, Doris Day, Joe Stafford, and others.

The decades of the 1970s and 1980s came alive with dynamic divas Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, and Anita Baker, following Nancy Wilson, Dionne Warwick, Patti Labelle, Gladys Knight, Diana Ross, Natalie Cole, and Aretha Franklin, who was dubbed the Queen of soul music. Franklin somehow seemed to be a notch ahead of the pack as the soul music boom escalated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She was able to stage, with church fervor the most intimate female emotions and clearly demonstrated this in one of her very moving ballads - Sweet Bitter Love:

"Sweet sweet bitter love,

The taste still lingers

Going through my helpless fingers

You slipped away.

Sweet, sweet bitter love,

What joy you told me

What pain you didn't mean to, But you brought me."

In Jamaica, the emerging trend of female vocalists becoming an integral part of popular music was gradually taking shape by the early 1960s. Hortense Ellis, perhaps, led the way with recordings like I Shall Sing, Brown Girl in The Ring (for producer Ken Lack in 1960) and followed up with I'll come Softly, I'm Just a Girl, Why Do Birds Follow Spring, and Love Comes From The Most Unexpected Places.

Beginning her career on the Vere Johns talent shows, Ellis managed to appear in four finals and went on to be awarded the honour of being Jamaica's best female vocalist in 1964.

Millie Small, after being taken to England as a 15-year-old in 1964, created the earliest and most lasting impact as a Jamaican on the international music scene with her recording of My Boy Lollipop. The recording climbed to number two on the British charts and made the top 10 in several other countries.




Marcia Griffiths, who is probably Jamaica's best known and most durable female artiste, has earned the title 'Queen of Reggae', by virtue of the myriad hits she recorded since her debut Wall of Love in 1964. Feel Like Jumping was her first hit in 1968, and her crowning achievement was her No. 5 placing of Young Gifted and Black on the UK charts in 1970.

Phyllis Dillon, dubbed the Rocksteady Queen, remains, to my mind, the most melodious voice in Jamaican popular music. She made a spectacular entry with Don't Stay Away, which is, perhaps, Rocksteady's most haunting evocation of a young girl's first love:

"If you knew how much I

love you,

How much I need you,

You wouldn't stay away."

Her other enduring hits, all done for the Treasure Isle label, include Perfidia, The Love That a Woman Can Give a Man and One Life to Live, One Love to Give.

Cynthia Schloss, one of Jamaica's most celebrated songbirds, got into the music business fortuitously after being tricked by a friend into entering the Merritone Talent series. She impressed the judges and quickly rose to prominence with the hits Love Forever, Surround Me With Love, and You Look Like Love, which featured on both local and overseas charts.




Dawn Penn was like a one-hit wonder with No, No, No (You Don't Love Me) for Studio 1 in 1967. It didn't do much for her. But when she did a remake for producers Stevie and Clevie, things were never the same again. Penn's career literally took off.

Judy Mowatt, after recording some early pieces for Sonia Pottinger, formed the Gaylettes and struck with the double-sided hits Silent River and I Like Your World. She was later summoned to Studio 1, along with Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths, to do backing vocals on some cuts the Studio 1 boss had in the making. Herein lies the birth of the I-threes. Rita had previously made her entry at Studio 1 with The Soulettes.

Millicent Todd (Patsy) is well known for her duets with Derrick Morgan and Stranger Cole in the ska era; Doreen Schaffer for her duets with Jackie Opel; Pam Hall for, among others, her moving ballad Hard To Be a Woman; Lorna Bennett for her 1972 smash Breakfast in Bed; and Norma Frazer for The First Cut Is The Deepest.

Carlene Davis, now in the gospel field, created quite a stir with The First Word In Memory Is Me, Like Old Friends Do, and Stealing Love On The Side; while Nadine Sutherland is best remembered for her 1993 hit, Action, with Terror Fabulous. And lest we forget, J. C. Lodge's 1988 song Telephone Love topped the charts in Jamaica and the USA while Tanya Stephens, perhaps, captured her best works on the albums Gangsta Blues and Rebelution.