Title: Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll
Author: Maureen Mahon
Publisher: Duke University Press
Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, Kindle
Release date: October 9, 2020
Maureen Mahon’s Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll is a chronological collection of case studies of African American women’s contributions to rock from 1953–1984, and, simultaneously, a feminist critique of the forces that have prevented African American women from enjoying more success in the rock world. Mahon, an associate professor at New York University, demonstrates that African American women and their music were foundational to the rock genre, and that their contributions have continued to be a driving force in the development of rock over time. These women, however, have found success to be elusive, due to barriers of genre expectations, gender expectations, racial expectations, and record industry marketing.
In the introduction, Mahon lays out the many topics that feed into her main argument. There is “a long tradition of prioritizing racial identity over musical sound” (p. 1) in popular music, which affects musicians’ genre categorization, marketing, performance venues, and career trajectory. The work of African American women has shaped rock music, but in rock histories, these women are un- or under-credited for their contributions. To foreground her subjects, Mahon moves the analytical focus from instrumentalists to vocalists, and, in turn, conceives of the “voice” in an expansive way, including vocal quality, creative voice, and critical or analytical voice. African American women in rock were sexually objectified and often simultaneously seeking sexual empowerment; Mahon discusses how these women navigated this problem.
The case studies begin with Big Mama Thornton. Thornton’s song “Hound Dog,” written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, was infamously appropriated by Elvis Presley, who, unlike Thornton, reaped massive financial and career success from the song. In addition, Janis Joplin covered Thornton’s own composition “Ball and Chain.” Joplin (unlike Presley) acknowledged her debt to Thornton and assisted her in her career. Mahon argues that Thornton’s use of a guitar, bass, and drums backing ensemble on “Hound Dog,” along with her forceful vocal delivery, makes both the song and her aesthetic different from other rhythm-and-blues recordings of the era. Thornton’s unconventional onstage presentation, in which she often appeared in men’s clothing, contributed to the genderqueer aspects of the nascent rock genre, influencing both Presley and Joplin’s performance style.
The second case study discusses LaVern Baker. Baker was “one of the first rock and roll stars” (p. 74) and the 1950’s “Rock and Roll Queen” (p. 53); however, her contribution is absent or has been minimized in recent histories of rock. Mahon ascribes this to several things: Baker’s songs, including her own arrangements, were covered by white singers, which detracted from Baker’s chart success and the attending publicity; Baker’s elegant appearance and performance of novelty songs does not fit with the current-day conception of a female rocker; and Baker disappeared from the American music scene while living in the Philippines from 1970–1989. Mahon describes Baker’s sound, which featured propulsive rhythmic energy and a dynamic vocal attack, and her high-profile participation in the 1950s rock and roll scene.
The Shirelles (chapter 3), active in the late 1950s into the 1960s, were the first African American all-female group to gain a significant white audience. They had a number one pop hit with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” and a string of other crossover hits. Although the Shirelles worked with the Scepter recording label, their influence can be heard in the subsequent girl group phenomenon that is associated with Motown. The Shirelles are also acknowledged as a major influence on British Invasion bands, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
The fourth chapter aims to “take seriously the musical and cultural labor” (p. 107) of African American women backup vocalists, who have made key contributions to the sound of rock, providing “sonic authenticity” through their style of vocal production. Mahon’s wide-ranging study includes overviews of the work of the Blossoms, led by Darlene Love, and the Sweet Inspirations, led by Cissy Houston, as well as in-depth discussion of the careers of Merry Clayton (who appeared on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”) and the Blackberries, who became members of the band Humble Pie. Mahon notes that white, often British, rock stars embraced the “authentic” sound of African American women, incorporating elements of African American vocal style into their own singing and using African American women extensively as backup singers. Mahon argues that backup work, far from being boring and restrictive, is an inventive practice that requires deep knowledge, especially regarding harmony, and since backup singers could work with many different leading acts, it afforded the women under discussion the possibility of a lucrative career singing a broad and varied repertoire.
Mahon uses the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” in Chapter 5 to examine the sexualized image of African American women that was particularly prevalent in 1960s and 1970s rock culture, then turns to detailed portraits of three women who are often considered candidates for the woman portrayed in “Brown Sugar”—Devon Wilson, Marsha Hunt, and Claudia Lennear—to explore their activities in rock music and their influence on the genre. Mahon’s goal is not to discover which woman is portrayed in “Brown Sugar,” but rather to discuss the ways these three women “confronted and negotiated the dominant ideas associated with black women” (p. 151) suggesting ways in which they each “managed…racialized, sexualized, and nationalized” (p. 143) stereotypes as they navigated their careers in popular music.
Chapter 6 looks at Labelle, the 1970s trio whose sound “fomented a musical revolution…bringing black feminist practice to popular music” (p. 184). Working with British manager Vicki Wickham, Labelle reinvented itself from a 1960s girl group (Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles) to a politically conscious and sex-positive rock-meets-soul band with a glamorous, Afro-futuristic aesthetic. While Labelle’s crossing of racial, gender, and genre boundaries did not sit well with some rock critics and record industry executives, the group won a diverse and devoted following, especially in the LGBTQ+ community.
In the seventh study, Mahon examines the work of Betty Davis, a rock musician, songwriter, and fashion designer who released a series of albums in the early-to-mid 1970s, then disappeared from the scene. Mahon argues that the difference in Davis’s musical style from conventional expectations of African American women, in particular as regards vocal production, affected her career success, in both her critical reception and record label marketing. Her sound, which is clearly in the realm of rock music, confounded those who would automatically call her a funk musician, and her frank embrace of sexual agency disturbed potential audiences, both Black and white.
In her last case, Mahon turns to Tina Turner, whose reinvention in the 1980s led her to massive success in the rock world; Mahon examines the strategies that Turner used to “circumvent…racial and gender expectations” and align herself with a classic rock aesthetic (p. 244). Keys to Turner’s success were her deep knowledge of the hard rock repertoire, honed through years of making covers with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, and her connections with high-profile white rockers and industry professionals.
This book is an important intervention into rock history, making a case not only for including these African American women in the rock canon, but also for a flexible, expansive stance on genre, in light of the racial and gender criteria that have often defined rock music more than its sonic qualities or contemporary reception. The highly readable style of Mahon’s prose makes this book suitable for a wide range of audiences, and the transcribed excerpts from Mahon’s interviews with her subjects are fascinating and occasionally humorous. A valuable addition to this book would have been a companion website; I found myself searching for video and audio footage of the songs and performances that Mahon mentions throughout.
In her Epilogue, Mahon examines how the path forged by the women she discusses in Black Diamond Queens resonates in the careers of twenty-first century African American women rockers, especially Brittany Howard. The women in Mahon’s book, who pushed (and push) against the boundaries of race, gender, and genre, deserve to be counted among the most important and groundbreaking figures in rock music.
Reviewed by Laura K. T. Stokes
Brown University, Providence, R.I.
Editor’s Note: Maureen Mahon is also the author of Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race (2004), and served as a moderator for Indiana University Archives of African American Music and Culture’s 2009 conference, Reclaiming the Right to Rock: Black Experiences in Rock Music. Footage of interviews from that conference, as well as sessions and performances, are available via the collection finding aid.