Sweet Inspiration: Winona Ryder

winonaActress Winona Ryder burst onto the scene in the 1980s and quickly made a name for herself with quirky, alternative film roles. As her star continued to rise in the 90’s, she became nearly as well-known for her relationships with other celebrities—musicians, in particular— as for her acting skills. Some of her famous paramours wrote songs for her, while other musicians were inspired by their crushes on the actress. The trend of “songs about Winona” reached its fever pitch when Ryan Adams’ 2001 album Gold was rumored to be almost entirely about his passionate affair with the actress. He later explained that he had never dated Winona at all.

Matthew Sweet released the song “Winona” on his third album, Girlfriend, in 1991. He later confessed that he’d named it after Winona Ryder, although the two never dated.


After her high-profile relationship with fellow actor Johnny Depp, Winona dated Soul Asylum lead singer Dave Pimer. The band’s song “Just Like Anyone” is said to have been written about Winona, although the video features Claire Danes.


Old 97’s lead singer Rhett Miller claims to have written their song “Rollerskate Skinny” after his first date with Winona. The song’s title is a reference to The Catcher in the Rye, one of her favorite books.


Beck dated Winona briefly in 2000, then wrote several songs about her that appear on his Sea Change album. “Lost Cause” is just one of the many sad songs from this classic album.


Girls on Film: 20 Feet From Stardom

20feetAt the midpoint of 20 Feet From Stardom, the new documentary film about background singers, Mick Jagger’s eyes gleam with tears. He’s listening, on camera, to Merry Clayton’s isolated vocal track from “Gimme Shelter”, recorded in 1969. As Merry’s voice reaches its breaking point, he shakes his head in admiration and disbelief. Her performance helped make the track a heart-wrenching, harrowing classic, but Mick admits to not knowing her name until well after the recording session concluded. Background singers were interchangeable to many of the musicians who employed them to sing on their tracks, in those days. In a twist, the audience learns that Merry didn’t know who the Rolling Stones were, either! She got the call to come to the studio late at night. Heavily pregnant, with curlers in her hair, Merry got out of bed and went down to the studio, where she recorded three takes. As she told NPR, “I saw them hooting and hollering while I was singing, but I didn’t know what they were hooting and hollering about. And when I got back in the booth and listened, I said ‘Ooh, that’s really nice’…It was three times I did it, and then I was gone. The next thing I know, that’s history.” Merry suffered a miscarriage later that night. Rumor had it that the strenuous effort she put into the recording caused her to lose the baby, although doctors did not confirm it.

Merry is just one of many legendary background singers profiled in this excellent film. Viewers meet Darlene Love, leader of the Blossoms, who sang backup on countless classic songs, including those by the Beach Boys and Elvis Presley. Signed to a recording deal by Phil Spector, Darlene was cheated out of stardom by Spector’s practice of releasing her songs under other groups’ names (that’s her singing the #1 hit “He’s a Rebel”, credited to the Crystals). After leaving the recording industry in frustration, Darlene found herself cleaning houses to make ends meet, until she heard one of her songs on the radio and decided to get back in the game. We also meet Claudia Lennear, a former Ikette who was the inspiration for the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar”, and the uber-talented Lisa Fischer, who has worked with everyone from Sting to Stevie Wonder. She currently tours with the Rolling Stones, singing Merry Clayton’s part on “Gimme Shelter”.

Many background singers were preacher’s daughters who grew up singing in the church choir. That gospel fire soon became a huge selling point for background singers, brought in to add soul to recordings by artists who were anything but soulful. And, as Merry Clayton points out, learning to sing with others is a skill unto itself, one she had to learn when she was singing with Ray Charles’ backup singers, the Raelettes. The film illustrates this with footage of a flock of birds flying together, taking their cues from one another.

There is a catch-22 involved in being a background singer. Nearly all background vocalists have dreams of solo stardom, and become background singers in order to get their foot in the door and pay the bills. However, too many years spent singing backup have the opposite effect, grounding the vocalist in background limbo as their dreams of stardom slide away. While this has been the case for many of the artists profiled in this film, including Tata Vega and the Waters Family, the filmmakers clearly hope that things will be different for Judith Hill.

Judith, a young vocalist who was working with Michael Jackson at the time of his death, came to national attention with her performance of “Heal the World” at his memorial service. A former contestant on The Voice, Judith performs her soulful, self-penned songs to small crowds. Not wanting to be pigeon-holed as a background singer, she often sings backup in disguise to pay her bills while she pursues her solo career.

20 Feet From Stardom‘s title expresses the irony of the background singer: just as talented as the performers they back up, they are literally and figuratively just outside the spotlight. For too long, their stories have gone untold and their efforts unappreciated. With this entertaining and thoughtful documentary, they can become household names at last, as they always should have been.

Char Vinnedge & the Luv’d Ones

luvdOffstage, Char Vinnedge was bespectacled and unassuming. Onstage with her band, the Luv’d Ones, Char became someone else. Her fuzzed-out guitar sound was innovative and heavy, creating a noise that few could believe an all-girl band capable of generating—at least, not in 1966. Along with her sister, Chris, and their two friends, Mary Gallagher and Faith Orem, Char formed the Luv’d Ones in 1965. Completely obsessed with music, Char had already been part of one all-girl band, the Tremolons, although that one didn’t really count since she’d played all the instruments herself. With the Luv’d Ones, Char had finally surrounded herself with like-minded ladies who just wanted to play rock n’ roll in a time when girls just didn’t do that.

luvd2The Luv’d Ones were quickly signed to a deal with Dunwich Records, and the label sporadically released singles from the band over the next few years. None of them charted, but Char was always sure they would make it with the next single. She devoted all her time to promoting the band, writing songs, and even making flyers for their shows. Her guitar playing became very impressive, and their sound evolved from typical 60’s garage rock to something more complex. Char came to idolize Jimi Hendrix, and began to play with a fuzz pedal to emulate her hero. Despite their talent and Char’s drive to succeed, the Luv’d Ones called it quits in 1969.

luvd3Char formed another group, Syrup, which quickly dissolved. Then, in 1971, Jimi Hendrix Experience bass player Billy Cox asked Char to be the guitar player in his new band, Nitro Function. Thrilled to be acknowledged by one of her biggest influences, Char joined the group, which only lasted for one album. Char’s life quieted down for the next two decades. In 1997, Sundazed Records signed the Luv’d Ones in order to reissue their singles and unreleased demos. Just after the deal was inked, Char died of a heart attack. The Luv’d Ones have since gathered new fans through the reissues of their music. Arguably the most talented of the all-girl bands of the 60’s, the Luv’d Ones are a lost treasure.

Cover Girls: “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat”

goldieThe first all-girl band signed to a major label, Goldie and the Gingerbreads formed in NYC in 1962. Singer Genya “Goldie” Zelkowitz met drummer Ginger Panabianco after seeing her perform with a band in a club. Surprised that there was such a thing as a female drummer, Goldie suggested that they start their own band, and they soon recruited Margo Lewis and Carol MacDonald on organ and guitar. The novelty of girls playing instruments ensured that the girls found work playing at parties, but their skill soon landed them a tour of the UK with the Kinks, the Animals, the Yardbirds, the Hollies, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. When they recorded a song called “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat” in 1964, their exposure in the UK propelled the song into the top 40.

Although they toured in the US, the band had not yet found their audience there. With the success of “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat” in England, they planned to release the single in the states. Before they could issue the single, a new British group called Herman’s Hermits recorded their own version and rushed it into release before the Gingerbreads’ version could hit the airwaves. It reached #2 on the US charts and killed any chance of the Gingerbreads having a hit with the song. Goldie and the Gingerbreads soldiered on, recording and releasing many fine songs, before disbanding in 1968. Genya “Goldie” Zelkowitz changed her name to Genya Ravan, and in the 1970s became an active member of the punk rock scene in NYC. She produced the first Dead Boys album, Young Loud and Snotty, as well as many other records. She currently hosts a radio show on Little Steven’s Underground Garage channel on Sirius.

10 Valuable Life Lessons from Girl Group Songs

supremesGirl groups of the early 1960s famously sighed and cried over boys, but they also gave great advice to their young fans. Over handclaps and finger snaps, the ladies counseled listeners about love, self-confidence, and attitude. The fact that the words of wisdom were catchy only helped them stick in the minds of their audience, where they have endured for decades. Let’s take a look at the ten best pieces of advice you can glean from the coolest girls around.

1. Be patient. (“You Can’t Hurry Love” by the Supremes) Sometimes love takes time, so just follow mama’s advice: “You just have to wait! She said love don’t come easy, it’s a game of give and take”.

2. When you do find love, you can tell whether or not it’s real by the way he kisses. (“The Shoop Shoop Song” by Betty Everett) Don’t you dare think that it’s in his eyes, his face, his embrace, or even the way he acts. “You’re not listening to all I say! If you wanna know if he loves you so, it’s in his kiss!”

3. You should also make sure he’s not just a charmer. (“Sweet Talkin’ Guy” by the Chiffons) This one is pretty clear: “He’ll send you flowers, then paint the town with another girl.” That’s the one you want to stay away from.

4. If it’s for real, just tell him! (“Tell Him” by the Exciters) Brenda has been there, ladies: “I know something about love: you’ve gotta want it bad! If that guy’s got into your blood, go out and get him!” There’s nothing to be said for sitting around wishin’ and hopin’ (just ask Dusty Springfield).

5. If he rejects you, it’s his loss. (“Too Many Fish in the Sea” by the Marvelettes) “My mother once told me something and every word is true: don’t waste your time on a fella who doesn’t love you.” Besides, as the Marvelettes advise, there are so many guys out there you may as well move on.  “If a fish ain’t on your line, bait your hook and keep on trying. Don’t let it get you down, there’s other boys around!”

6. Although, finding a good man can be difficult. (“Needle in a Haystack” by the Velvelettes) Play hard to get, don’t believe anything that a man says, ever, and most of all “Take my advice: Girls, you better get yourself on the right track, cause finding a good man is like finding a needle in a haystack!”

7. The best thing you can do is take care of yourself. (“Girl, You Better Go For Yourself” by the Essex) “I have always been the kind who was alone and shy, so I asked my friends why did love pass me by? And they said girl you better go for yourself,” Anita Humes muses in this unusual song. Go and do what? “I wanna party all night, I wanna feel alright, I wanna laugh and shout, I wanna work it on out.” Well, okay then. Go on, girl.

8. Be cool, stay in school. (“Don’t Drop Out” by Dolly Parton) Before she was a country music legend, Dolly sang girl group-style pop songs like this one. “Don’t drop out my life, baby don’t be a fool. You’re old enough to know you’re too young to face the world so cruel!”, she counsels. “You’re not prepared to do anything, so if you wanna buy me that diamond ring, don’t drop out!”

9. Don’t talk about anyone else’s boyfriend. Unless you want a fight. (“Don’t Say Nothing Bad About my Baby” by the Cookies) Well, this one should be a no-brainer. “He’s true to me, so girl you better shut your mouth!” Indeed.

10. Just listen to your mother. (“Mama Said” by the Shirelles) As the songs above demonstrate, mama gives good advice. Why wouldn’t you just listen to her?

Sweet Inspiration: Judy Collins

judy2One of the biggest folk stars of the era, Judy Collins was known for her pure voice and penetrating blue eyes. As an early fan of Joni Mitchell, Judy recorded and made hits of “Chelsea Morning” and “Both Sides Now” before Joni had even recorded her own versions. Along with her boyfriend, Stephen Stills, Judy was part of a literate group of pop stars who brought poetry to rock n’ roll. Stephen had admired Judy from afar for years before they began their relationship in 1967; that year he was riding high on the success of his band with Neil Young, Buffalo Springfield. They hit the top of the charts with their counter culture classic, “For What It’s Worth”.

judystephenTwo years later, in 1969, things were not going so well for Stephen Stills. Buffalo Springfield had splintered, leaving him without a band, and he could feel that his relationship with Judy was doomed, as well. He crafted a series of songs about their relationship that he later merged together into a suite; he tossed in a reference to Judy’s most famous feature and titled it “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”. “Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now”, he wrote in one section of the song, before intoning “This does not mean I don’t love you/I do, that’s forever” just a few lines later. His strong ambivalence about the end of the relationship turned the song into a masterpiece. The only problem was, he had no band to sing the harmonies, and so he couldn’t record it.

Stephen believed in the high quality of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, and began looking for potential bandmates. David Crosby, who had left the Byrds, soon agreed to join. Crosby and Stills, deciding that they needed a third harmony voice, continued to recruit other band members with limited success. One night, as Cass Elliot’s house, they performed one of their new songs for the small group of guests. Among them was a former member of the Hollies, Graham Nash. After listening to the song a few times, Graham chimed in with a high harmony part. No discussion was needed, and Crosby, Stills & Nash was formed. They recorded “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” for their first album, and performed the song at Woodstock, where it became an instant classic.

Judy Collins continued her successful singing career, and in 2011 she released a bestselling autobiography. She titled her book Sweet Judy Blue Eyes.

Emmylou Harris’ Cosmic American Dream

emmylou3How does an artist who formerly disdained country music end up releasing a country album? It was a question Emmylou Harris had to ask herself in 1975, when she issued Pieces of the Sky. She freely admitted that, as a young adult, she’d found country music to be “kind of corny”; when cult hero Gram Parsons asked the then-struggling Emmylou to be his duet partner in 1972, she’d agreed only because it was a paying gig. As a divorced mother, she needed the money for her young daughter’s support. Instead, she found herself falling in love with the purity of the music, as Gram Parsons shared his formidable knowledge of country music past and present. Gram dreamed of popularizing what he called “Cosmic American Music”, a blend of country, rock, and soul that would seamlessly entwine the various genres of music birthed in America. After releasing two solo albums, he died of a drug overdose at age 26. Emmylou was devastated, left to process her complicated feelings for Gram and his life’s work. She decided to carry on with his vision, and with the release of her debut in 1975 she displayed Cosmic American Music at its very best.

Pieces of the Sky combined covers of pop songs by the Beatles and the Everly Brothers with those of country songs by Merle Haggard and the Louvin Brothers. It included the work of unheralded contemporary songwriters like Rodney Crowell, and an original song by Emmylou. The music hearkened back to traditional country, treating each song as an equal in arrangement and worth. To Emmylou’s surprise, she scored a hit on the country charts with the top 5 “If I Could Only Win Your Love”. The heart of the album was Emmylou’s “Boulder to Birmingham”, a song she wrote for Gram Parsons after his death. Her voice, which her friend Linda Ronstadt likened to “cracked crystal”, clearly conveyed her pain at the loss of someone so dear.

emmylou2Emmylou’s next album, Elite Hotel, continued the template set up by Pieces of the Sky. There was another Beatles cover, a Buck Owens song, and songs by new writers. The album also contained Emmylou’s versions of three Gram Parsons songs. She’d decided to use her new platform to share his music with the audience that had largely ignored him in the past, carefully choosing the songs she considered his best. Elite Hotel topped the country charts, and even crossed over to pop audiences. For the coming decades, Emmylou stood out as a country artist that appealed to everyone, even those who didn’t normally listen to country music. The irony was not lost on her.

emmylou4Luxury Liner, Emmylou’s third country album, was another country #1. It also just missed the top 20 on the pop charts. Again featuring several Gram Parsons songs, the album was another blend of country and rock. She duetted with Dolly Parton, and Nicolette Larson— a country star and a pop star. Emmylou’s backing musicians, The Hot Band (who got their name when Emmylou was told WB records would record her if she could just “get a hot band”) were on fire, turning in classic performances. The Hot Band’s fiddle and mandolin player was a then-unknown Ricky Skaggs, who would soon become a bluegrass legend. One of the record’s many highlights was a cover of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell”.

Feeling that her Cosmic American quest had been successful, Emmylou recorded newer songs for her fourth album, Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town. She continued to champion the work of unsung writers like Townes Van Zandt and Jesse Winchester, while blurring the line between country and pop. “Two More Bottles of Wine” was a number one song on the country charts, and its driving sound ensured its play on pop radio.

emmylouEmmylou would go on to record several bluegrass records before returning to her tried-and-true Cosmic American roots. A consistently strong artist, Emmylou has been universally hailed as a brilliant interpreter of songs. Her look and sound made country cool, and helped to birth the “alt. country” movement, inspiring the likes of Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams, and Wilco. Her tireless devotion to Gram Parsons helped bring his work to the attention of music fans, and her championing of unknown songwriters brought success to many of the artists she covered. With her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008, Gram Parson’s dream of respect from the country music elite in Nashville was brought to bear. Emmylou’s heart and soul have made her one of the queens of country music.