A friend of mine suggested recently that I write a post on the propensity of current female pop stars to wear as little clothing as possible in concert and videos. I thought about it. I mean, if someone is kind enough to read this blog, I'd like to give that person what he or she (in this case, he) wants. But, to be perfectly honest, as far as I can tell, the pop stars of today are not that different from their predecessors in previous decades. Today's crop of exhibitionists just make more money being scantily-clad whilst showing off their (often) equally scanty talent. Even those with actual pipes, like Christina Aguilera or Lady Ga Ga, have made sex a main ingredient of their stage persona, a choice which no doubt is based on the undeniable fact that sex sells records. If it didn't, Susan Boyle's audience wouldn't be comprised mainly of middle-aged women, and the Fannys would be more than just an interesting footnote in music history. What are the Fannys, you ask? That's exactly my point. Let me clue you in.
Fanny Brice, born Fania Borach in New York City in 1908, was the talented daughter of Hungarian Jewish parents who ran a saloon and made quite a bit of money doing it. But Fanny, as she was known professionally, was not content to just be comfortable and well-off. She had a taste for show business in her DNA and dropped out of high school to pursue a career as a burlesque performer. Although hardly "pretty" by modern show business standards, she had a good singing voice and a knack for keeping an audience's attention with a well-honed mixture of comedy sketches and music. By 1910, she was a featured performer in the Ziegfield Follies and had already created her most well-known comedic character, Baby Snooks. She was also known for her signature song, My Man, which was famously re-recorded by Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl, the 1968 movie based on Brice's life.
Brice's life was only slightly less dramatic than the movie based on it. Brice was married three times. The first marriage, to NYC barber Frank White, occurred when she was in her teens. The second, to high profile gambler Nicky Amstein, took place after the couple had been living together for six years. Prior to that, Amstein had been imprisoned in Sing Sing for wiretapping. Brice visited him every week for fourteen months. When that marriage ended in divorce, following Amstein's release from a second term in prison, this time for three years on a Wall Street bond theft charge, Brice took up with songwriter Billy Rose, in whose "Crazy Quilt" review she appeared. Unfortunately, that marriage failed as well. Brice never remarried.
But she continued to perform, taking Baby Snooks with her as she made the shift from the stage to radio, most notably on Tallulah Bankhead's The Big Show, on which she shared the bill with Groucho Marx and Jane Powell. As radio shows gave way to television, Brice's star began to fade along with the shrinking radio audience. She appeared on television only once, in June, 1950, on CBS's Popsicle Parade of Stars. Asked why she chose not to pursue a TV career, Brice said that she felt the character of Baby Snooks didn't work as well when seen by the audience. In truth, Brice's combination of old school burlesque and Yiddish shtick had become passe. The comedienne died on May 29th, 1951 in Hollywood of a cerebral hemorrhage. The final episode of her Baby Snooks radio show was broadcast that same night, as a memorial to its creator, whose career had spanned over forty years.
Our second "Fanny" is not a person, but a band. A band, who, in their heyday, were famous not so much for their talent, which was formidable, but for the fact that they were four women playing their own instruments and writing most of their own songs. Not a common feat in the late 60s and early-to-mid 70s. Founded by guitarist June Millington and her sister, bassist Jean, both natives of Manila, Phillipines, with Americans Alice de Buhr on drums and Nicky Barclay on keyboard, Fanny was the first all-girl rock band to be signed to a major label, Reprise (a Warner imprint), in 1969. Like guitar god Jimi Hendrix before them, Fanny had to go to England to get their career jumpstarted, but once there, honed their musical skills opening for such acts as Humble Pie, Jethro Tull, and Slade. But even with tasty hits like "Charity Ball" and "Butter Boy", which made dents in The Billboard Hot 100 at #40 and #29, respectively, Fanny failed to find an audience in the United States.
Even after Patti Quatro, older sister of pre-punk wild child Suzie Quatro joined the band briefly in 1974 (replacing June, who left the band following the earlier departure of de Buhr) the writing on the wall was too clear to ignore. Fanny disbanded for good around 1975, their contribution to rock and roll, and to the role of women in that genre, largely unnoted, save for remarks such as the one made by long-time fan David Bowie in a 1999 interview in Rolling Stone. Calling Fanny "extraordinary", Bowie went on to say, ""One of the most important female bands in American rock has been buried without a trace. And that is Fanny. They were one of the finest... rock bands of their time, in about 1973. They were extraordinary... they're as important as anybody else who's ever been, ever; it just wasn't their time."
June Millington, called "the hottest female guitar player in the industry" by Guitar Player magazine, continues to work as a record producer and reunited with her sister and de Buhr for a concert at Berklee College of Music in 2007, where the band was given The ROCKRGRL Women of Valor Award for their contribution to the rock and roll industry.
So...back to that "sex sells" thing we were talking about at the start of this post. It's still true, of course. But, bottom line, ten years from now, the flavor of the month teenybopper pop star isn't going to look quite as fetching in Spandex and tall boots. But June Millington of Fanny will probably still be kicking ass on guitar.
To read an interview with Jean, go here.
If you're looking for a blog with meaningful content on the important issues of the day, you've come to the wrong place. This is the shallows, my friend. Nothing but shallowness as far as the eye can see. Let someone else make sense of things. I like it here.
- I love my grown children, miss all the dogs I ever had, and I cry at the drop of a hat, I believe in true love, destiny, fairness, and compassion. If I could be anywhere right now, it would be the ocean. My favorite city is New York, but I am always longing for London and craving more time in Copenhagen. I'm drawn to desolate places, deserted buildings, and unknown byways. I don't care how society perceives me as long as my gut tells me that what I'm doing is right. I am interested in paranormal things, spiritual things, historical things, and things that glow at night. I like to drink, I smoke when I write, I can't stand small talk, and despite my quick temper, I would rather kiss than fight. I'm selfish with my writing time, a spendthrift with my love. My heart has been broken so many times that it's held together with super glue and duct tape. The upside is that, next time, I won't be tempted to give away what I no longer have to give. But I will let you buy me a Pink Squirrel.
IN A WORLD FILLED WITH COMPLEX POLITICAL ISSUES, SOCIAL INEQUALITY, AND FINANCIAL UNCERTAINTY, I CONSIDER IT MY GIFT TO YOU, MY READER, TO OFFER THIS SHALLOW LITTLE HAVEN, WHERE NOTHING IS TOO SHALLOW, TOO INSIGNIFICANT, OR TOO RIDICULOUS TO JUSTIFY OUR ATTENTION. IN OTHER WORDS, IF IT'S NOT IMPORTANT....SO WHAT? NEITHER WAS MARILYN MONROE'S BRA SIZE. AND THAT STILL SELLS MAGAZINES, DOESN'T IT?