Creative Academic Essays
15 December 2016
How Rose McCoy, Carole King, Whitney Houston (and not Beyoncé), Made the Music Industry
Take a moment to think about the history of music leading up until today. Do you think of the celebrated female artists who made impacts on several different genres, or the various songs about raping them? Do you think about the benefit shows hosted for organizations like Planned Parenthood or the numerous women who are harassed at shows nearly everyday? Do you think of the females who are running the industry or the males who tell these workers that, “…you’ll end up marrying someone in a band and not working anyway” (jbridgeman 2016).
While discrimination in the industry has certainly shifted in the past years, there is still some prejudice opinions against women. CEO of major PR company Sarah Maynard states on Marie Claire:
It’s pretty commonplace for a woman to be doing publicity for a band, but there are other areas in music where it’s much less likely you’re going to be dealing with a woman…I know women who are doing phenomenally well as road crew, managers and agents, but do become frustrated when they’re not taken as seriously as their male counterparts. It’s definitely not ok when people are making assumptions about your ability to do a job you work extremely hard at based on your gender…It can be difficult to establish yourself in that environment as someone who is actually working and involved in the process. There are always going to be people who dismiss you as a super fan, or worse, and that’s certainly not a good feeling! (2016)
Despite all the negative views that these women may get, they remain confident and keep a productive outlook for the industry. The result of all the hardworking females behind the scene are very successful artists including Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Ellie Goulding (jbridgeman 2016). However, these acclaimed musicians would not have nearly accomplished as much without the inspiration from previous female artists. In a male dominating industry, female artists Rosie Marie MccCoy (1950’s), Carole King (1960’s), Whitney Houston (1970’s), came out on top and changed the face of music by introducing new rolls that contemporary popular artists would embody.
1960’s: Rose Marie McCoy
Rose Marie McCoy was a professional songwriter who consistently recorded throughout the 1950’s and 60’s. She has over 800 songs recorded and BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) lists her as the author of several songs written for white male artists including Elvis Presley and Les Paul. Although this may make it seem like she is a celebrated artist, McCoy is not commonly recognized among the history of the music industry. “African American woman pioneer in a white male — dominated field, McCoy is little known in the twenty first century” (Mahon 62). McCoy was not only female, but also African American, two characteristics that would define her as an inferior musician in the 1960’s. However, the success and revenue that came from her songwriting made it difficult to identify her as a victim in the intolerant business (Mahon 63).
McCoy was born in Onedia, Arkansas in 1922 where she took piano and guitar lesson and sang in church. She moved in New York during the World War II era to work as a welder in the Brooklyn navy yards. There, she wittily coined the name, “Rose the Welder,” (as opposed to the political icon “Rosie the Riveter”). McCoy’s career began when her good friend and fellow singer-songwriter Mamie Watts connected her with a recording company. Her songs did not make the charts at first, but did start to gain attention. McCoy’s first hit came in 1953 titled, “Gabbin’ Blues.” The song was written by Leory Kirkland for R&B artist Big Maybelle. McCoy filled in for the spoken part, one of the most remarked traits of the song. It was rare for two female artists to chart, but in 1953 “Gabbin’ Blues” hit high rankings in the R&B section and won 8 BMI awards (Mahon 64).
Straying away from the R&B genre, McCoy used blues to communicate the tales of African American women. Described as an “essence of poetry,” McCoy talked about, “life itself — its aces, pains, grievances, pleasures, and brief moments of glory” (Mahon 64). She did conform to society, however, by writing songs in a gender-neutral tone, which allowed her to record more music. McCoy’s successes included the smashing hit and BMI award-winning, “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” which was recorded by Ike and Tina Turner in 1961. Elvis also included two of her songs on his best-selling album and she later led the path to Carole King in the 1960’s who would shape the face of rock and roll music. (Mahon 64). Although being a women and African American in the mid-twentieth century put her at a disadvantage and she does not have the acknowledgment she deserves today, McCoy was a prosperous songwriter who wrote for renowned artists, and continued to chart when all odds were against her.
1970’s: Carole King
With the influence of Rose McCoy, Carole King became a legendary singer-songwriter who proved that not just women, but anyone can take on both rolls as a musician. It all began in the Brill Building, an office located in the heart of Manhattan, where McCoy found her place for her work. During The Great Depression, owners of the building rented out space to music publishing companies. Soul Singer Maxine Brown talked about how McCoy made her markings in a male managed space:
She knew how to hang in there with the big boys…Everyone was scrapping to get there, but it was always men. They were the producers, they were the promoters, they were the piano players. Women didn’t have a place, so she made a place for herself. (Barton 2009)
With the new wave of female singer-songwriters emerging, Carole King remade herself into this new role. In the 1960’s, King, Cynthia Weil, and Ellie Greenwich were the top three female songwriters. “Their compositions in the 60s defined the era — full of all the doo-wop and sweet kisses, heartache and innocence of teenage love affairs — and gave a voice to many young female music fans” (Barton 2009). While working at the Brill Building, she wrote many popular songs including, “Pleasant Valley Day” performed by The Monkees and “You’ve Got a Friend” by James Taylor. She talks about her working experience at the Brill Building in Simon Frith’s book, The Sociology of Rock:
You’d sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubbyhole composing a song exactly like yours. The pressure in the Brill Building was really terrific — because Donny would play one songwriter against another. He’d say: ‘We need a new smash hit’ — and we’d all go back and write a song and the next day we’d each audition for Bobby Vee’s producer. (1978)
King broke the barriers of music by testing out new roles and experimenting with simple sounds. Before King, rock artists rarely played around with acoustics and everyone stuck to what they knew, meaning singers only sang and performers only played their instruments. King realized that she could do both the singing and the songwriting, forging the title, “singer-songwriter.” This concept forever changed the image of rock and roll music, and artists like Sheryl Crow and Billy Joel would later take on the same position. King’s album, Tapestry, came out in 1971 and is known as one of the most popular records of all time (Tougas 12). Screenwriter Douglas McGrath wrote, “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” using songs King wrote to tell her story of how she “wrote the soundtrack to a generation” by becoming one of the most successful songwriters of all time. (BEAUTIFUL: The Carole King Musical On Broadway 2016). King molded rock and roll to what it is today by introducing the singer-songwriter title.
1970’s: Whitney Houston
Whitney Houston continued the movement of flourishing women artists and was the inspiration for many pop and R&B icons today. Houston’s career began when she sang The National Anthem at the Super Bowl XXV in January of 1981. During this time, America was in a state of fear because of the rise of the Persian Gulf War, but hearing Houston’s voice gave the nation faith. One reporter stated that Houston’s gospel-inspired voice was “as perfect as human can get” (Tougas 20). After being discovered at a night club in 1983, Houston was signed to Astria Label, where she would sell the most records in the label’s history. She released her first album in 1985, which became the highest selling for any artist’s debut. In 1987, she released her second album and was the first woman to chart Billboard at number one. Houston tragically died in 2012 holding the Guinness World’s Record title of, “most awarded female artist of all time,” with 411 awards including 2 Emmys, 6 grammys, and 16 Billboard music awards. (Tougas 20).
Whitney Houston has influenced many symbolic artists today such as Beyoncé, Niki Minaj, Alicia Keys, and Jennifer Hudson. Songwriter Narada Michael Walden, who helped produced Houston’s hits including, “How Will I Know,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” and “So Emotional,” refers to her as the, “Princess of Pop.” Walden explains that, “she had so much love for expressing her music and in all of the world she was #1” (Kaufman 2013). Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop editor Gail Mitchell calls Houston a “singer’s singer” because her voice was passionate and gave her listeners something they could relate to. Mitchell explains the impact that Houston has on today’s artists and music:
The last time I talked to Alicia Keys, she mentioned the influence Whitney still has on her in terms of her career and talent…You can count on one hand how many successful singers have done what Whitney did so effortlessly. She could traverse from fashion, she was a model on the cover of Seventeen, she did music videos that kicked in the door and she translated her pop & R&B stardom into movies. Beyoncé’s doing it with her music, her movies, her tour, her documentary … Queen Latifah parlayed rapping into movies and singing … they’ve definitely taken that lead. (Kaufman 2013)
In addition to music and the way these popular female artists approach it, Houston also made an impact on fashion. As a female of color, these are major successes in an intolerant society. Without Houston’s achievements, acclaimed black female artists like Beyoncé and Queen Latifah would not be where they are today.
Unfortunately, black women artists like McCoy do not get the attention and credit for changing the industry like other artists do. McCoy’s name does not come up when singers like Beyoncé talk about their inspiration and she does not have a musical written about her like King does. Nevertheless, these three women were pioneers and made a huge change to the music industry, by proving that they could do both the singing and songwriting and be successful in a business that is dominated by white males.
While you can argue that the industry is no longer racist or sexist because black female artists like Beyoncé are taking the charts, there is still more that can be done to make the business a more tolerant place, especially when with the possibility of it being effected in the future because of the election results. You can help by simply listening to and supporting more artists who are female and of color, especially singers like McCoy, so they can get the appreciation they deserve.
“BEAUTIFUL: The Carole King Musical.” Beautiful. 2016. http://beautifulonbroadway.com/about/.
Barton, Laura. “Simply Brill: The Women Who Shaped Rock’n’roll”. the Guardian.3 September 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/sep/04/women-music-pop-rock.
Frith, Simon. The Sociology of Rock. London: Constable, 1978.
jbridgeman.“Is Music Still A Male Dominated Industry? We Ask The Women Working In It”. Marie Claire. 2016 8 April. http://www.marieclaire.co.uk/uncategorised/is-music-still-a-male-dominated-industry-we-ask-the-women-working-in-it-38691
Kaufman, Gil. “Whitney Houston’s Influence Lives On In Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Jennifer Hudson”. MTV News. 11 February 2013. http://www.mtv.com/news/1701747/whitney-houston-influence/
Mahon, Maureen. “The Rock and Roll Blues: Gender, Race, and Genre in the Songwriting Career of Rose Marie McCoy.” Women & Music,(2015): ProQuest. pp. 62 – 64.
Tougas, Shelley. Girls Rock!: Amazing Tales of Women in Music. North Mankato, MN: Capstone, 2014. pp 12, 20.