Women Music Producers
Series Explores Reasons Why Female Producers Are a Rare Breed
Part 1: Women pioneers in the recording studio
Part 2: Breaking into the boy's club
April 28-29, 2003 -- In the recently released film Laurel Canyon, actress Frances McDormand plays a hard-living, hard-loving record producer who spins out hits from her studio in the Hollywood Hills. But no such woman actually exists in the record industry.
In an industry where many male record producers are household names -- from George Martin to Timbaland, from Phil Spector to Dr. Dre -- women have yet to smash this glass ceiling. In a two-part series, NPR’s Neda Ulaby examines the secret history of female rock 'n' roll record producers.
A talented record producer can often be the crucial link for an artist or band looking for a hit. The producer is hired to help develop the "sound" of the music -- the cadence, the key, the tempo, the vibe, the emotion. And except for a select handful of women, the producer behind the sound board is almost exclusively male.
Producer Trina Shoemaker was once the apprentice of record "super producer" Daniel Lanois, who helped to shape the sound of U2 and Peter Gabriel. She is also the only woman to win a Grammy for sound engineering. She tells Ulaby that some women are turned off by the grubby, technical side of producing. "This is a trade skill -- this has nothing to do with tight pants and hairdos and makeup," Shoemaker says.
"You have to give everything -- I don't care if you're a man or a woman, it's still this huge commitment of time to learn the trade," she says.
In the 1950s, a woman named Cordell Jackson blazed a trail for female engineers and producers by founding Moon Records in Memphis, Tenn. Jackson was one of a handful of women accepted as equals in the recording studio. "It's a lost history," says Gillian Gaar, a historian of women in rock. "I wonder how many women there were... putting out small records that we don't know about."
Following Jackson's lead, the list of women producers began to grow: Ellie Greenwich, Sylvia Moy, Linda Creed and Sylvia Robinson. Robinson would go on to run the Sugar Hill record label, which in 1979 introduced hip-hop to mainstream America with the hit "Rapper’s Delight."
"The nascent genre of women’s music created its own producers," Ulaby says. "Singer and guitarist June Millington fronted Fanny, a feminist band from the '70s, at pains to distinguish itself from girl groups." Millington herself went on to produce other artists, but was literally locked out of the studio when her own albums were being mixed.
Even women producers who should be household names have difficulty naming other female producers. "It's horrifying," says Vicki Wickham, who once managed blue-eyed soul star Dusty Springfield, alternative rock icon Morrissey, and has produced and managed many other acts over the past four decades. "It's so weird, because in the back of my mind I keep trying to think of the women who are out there -- but there just aren't."
Leslie Ann Jones is director of music recording and scoring at George Lucas' Skywalker Sound. She started her career with dreams of becoming a record producer, but now produces jazz and classical albums, because she feels those genres are more welcoming than rock 'n' roll. For her, the reason for the lack of women producers is simple: "There seems to be a lot of typecasting in our industry."
For her part, Trina Shoemaker plays with some of those gender expectations to get results. "I can rock out like a dude," she tells Ulaby. "I can turn a guitar up as well as any guy... If you want me to turn up the drums, I will turn them up so loud they will melt your face. I'll flirt when I need to get what I want on tape -- from men or women, it makes no difference."
Hear NPR reports by Neda Ulaby.
Bio and discography of Cordell Jackson
Memorabilia and more at CordellJackson.com
Moon Records discography
Profile of all-female rock group Fanny on LostDivas.co.uk
Profile of Linda Creed, author of "The Greatest Love of All," on SoulWalking.co.uk
Leslie Ann Jones profile on NASA.gov
Vicki Wickham interview and profile in the Guardian (U.K.) Web site