March is Women’s History Month, and to celebrate we’re diving deep into the history of the influential women who helped build the Minnesota music scene with a series on Local Current and an all-female edition of The Local Show on Sunday, March 15.
For the first hour-long installment on Local Current, I wanted to go back just about as far as I could go and feature some of the earliest recordings of Minnesota women that I could find, starting in 1937 with one of Judy Garland’s first singles “Dear Mr. Gable, You Made Me Love You” and following a loose chronology of important recordings through the 1970s.
Stream the audio and see the full playlist below, and stay tuned for a new Women’s History Month special at noon every Friday this month on the Local Current stream.
Judy Garland, “Dear Mr. Gable, You Made Me Love You” (1937) and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (1939)
Before she was a movie star known worldwide for her role as Dorothy in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, the Grand Rapids-born Frances Ethel Gumm traveled the vaudeville circuit singing with her sisters Mary Jane and Dorothy Virginia as the Gumm Sisters. Frances would adopt the stage name Judy Garland in 1934, inspired by the popular Hoagy Carmichael single “Judy.”
Garland was signed to MGM Studios the next year at the tender age of 13, and was already releasing singles on the Decca label by the time she turned 15 in 1937.
“Dear Mr. Gable, You Made Me Love You” is a spin on the early 20th century pop song “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It),” which Garland sang to Clark Gable at his birthday party in 1937. It was such a hit that MGM decided to include her rendition in their all-star film Broadway Musical of 1938, releasing a recording of it on Decca when the film was released in 1937. It appeared again as a B-Side to her most well-known song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Lois Best, “Lovin’ Sam” and “When Pa was Courting Ma” (1938)
Lois Best got her start in show business as the first “Champagne Lady” on the Lawrence Welk show—a roll that entailed sashaying around in ballgowns, singing the big hits of the day, and serving champagne to the dancers in the show’s audience.
Best ended up falling in love with and marrying the trumpet player from the show, North Dakota native Jules Herman, and the pair left the show in 1940 to move back to the Midwest and start a family. But they never left their musical passions behind—both Best and Herman became members of the Prom Ballroom’s house orchestra here in St. Paul, and it was a gig they held down for a whopping 35 years.
Both of these early Lois Best recordings are from her time on the Lawrence Welk Show, with Welk himself featured on “When Pa was Courting Ma.” Watch a video of that performance here.
The Andrews Sisters, “Rum and Coca Cola” (1945)
Prolific, talented, and wildly successful, the Andrews Sisters sold millions of records throughout the 1930s-1950s and still hold the title as the best-selling artists to ever emerge from Minnesota. Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the sisters LaVerne, Maxine, and Patty Andrews were only teenagers when they won their first talent show at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis and they hit the road to start touring shortly afterwards.
By World War II the sisters had become hit-making machines, with singles like “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön,” “Beer Barrel Polka,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” and “Rum and Coca Cola” climbing to the top of the charts.
Jeanne Arland Peterson, “For All We Know” (1940s)
Regarded as the Matriarch of Minnesota Jazz, Jeanne Arland Peterson got her start as a member of WCCO’s house band, where she sang and played piano live on air for 22 years. After leaving WCCO she became further entrenched in the local jazz community and was an omnipresent force at the Artists’ Quarter and other venues. She continued playing and recording music up until her death in 2013 at the age of 91.
In addition to leaving behind a rich musical legacy, Peterson also left behind an entire brood of talented children: singers Linda and Patty, bassist Billy (who’s played with the Steve Miller Band and Bob Dylan), keyboardist Ricky (known for backing Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks), and multi-talented Paul Peterson (the Time, the Family, fDeluxe).
Las Hermanas Rangel and Trio Gaona, “Crei” (1950) and the Kico Rangel Band, featuring the Rangel Sisters, “Abrete Sésamo” (1953)
Las Hermanas Rangel were a popular singing sister trio from the West Side of St. Paul, who got their started singing romantic Mexican ballads (known as boleros) in bars on the West Side throughout the 1940s. Later, they joined forces with their brothers in the Kico Rangel Band to perform the popular mambos and cha-chas of the day.
The tracks listed above are from the Minnesota Historical Society Press’s compilation Musica de la Raza: Mexican & Chicano Music in Minnesota, curated by Maya Lopez-Santamaria.
Jan and Patti North, “I’ll Never Be Sorry” and “Lonely Moonlight” (1957)
These singing sisters were some of the first, and ultimately most successful country singers to emerge from Minnesota. They got their start playing at the old Flame Bar on Nicollet Avenue (which is still standing, actually, but is now Great Tapes) and were members of the Rhythm Ranch Gals along with bandleader Ardis Wells.
Jan and Patti North ended up recording 13 different singles throughout the 1950s and ’60s, including the two listed above, and you can learn more about their history and hear more of their music on record collector John Kass’s website GoJohnnyGo.
Ardis Wells, “Baby Doll” (1960)
Known as “The Yodeling Sweetheart,” Ardis Wells was a force to be reckoned with. She led the Rhythm Ranch Gals, commanding the Gals to stand up on the bar of the Flame Bar and sing and dance among the liquor bottles. And as if that isn’t cool enough, she also was a professional wrestler in the 1950s and rode elephants in the circus. Bow down.
Wanda Davis, “Save Me” (1967)
Wanda Davis came up in the gospel community and started dipping her toes into the burgeoning funk and soul scene in the Twin Cities by sitting in with bands like the Soul Sensations, the Project Soul Band, and Maurice McKinnies and the Blazers. Davis ended up recording the obscure Aretha Franklin cut “Save Me” as part of a one-off recording session with Project Soul.
Although the 45 wasn’t as commercially successful as they hoped, it became an underground hit—these days, an original pressing of the single goes for $600 a pop. It was recently reissued as part of Secret Stash’s Twin Cities Funk and Soul compilation, and the label has started working with Davis to record new material, including last year’s release “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”
West Bank Trackers, “Shakey Flat Blues” (1974)
The West Bank Trackers included Judy Beach, Ann Dickenson, Dean Engelson, Bibi Fairchild, Stuart Lucks, Carol Peltier, Charlie Thomes and Bill Thompson. This track originally appeared on their 1974 album Live at the Cookhouse, but I came across it on the CD that accompanied Cyn Collin’s excellent 2006 book West Bank Boogie. Read more about the West Bank Trackers here.
Bill Hinkley and Judy Larson, “Keep it Clean” (1974)
When it comes to the Minnesota folk scene, few female artists are as influential and highly regarded as Judy Larson, who performed alongside Bill Hinkley on A Prairie Home Companion for decades.