Local Current Blog

20 pioneering women in Minnesota music

Cynthia Johnson performs with Lipps, Inc. at Duffy's in Minneapolis in 1981 (Photo courtesy Lipps, Inc.)

Today is International Women’s Day, and the Current is in the midst of a 24-long celebration of influential women artists — find our full day of programming here. As we spend the day reflecting on the issues facing women around the world, it got me thinking about all the incredible, pioneering artists who have broken down barriers right here in the Minnesota music scene. Read on for a list of 20+ women who helped lay the groundwork for the vibrant community we have today, dating all the way back to the early 1930s and running up to 1990.

The Andrews Sisters

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.

 

Judy Garland

Before she was a movie star known worldwide for her role as Dorothy in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, Frances Ethel Gumm was singing with her sisters Mary Jane and Dorothy Virginia at their father’s theater in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, billed as the Gumm Sisters. Frances would adopt the stage name Judy Garland in 1934, inspired by the popular Hoagy Carmichael single “Judy.” She 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. She was cast into her best-known role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz the next year, in 1938, and was only 16 years old when she recorded the iconic song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

 

Lois Best

Lois Best got her start in show business as the first “Champagne Lady” on the Lawrence Welk show — a role 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.

 

Jeanne Arland Peterson

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, both renowned in the jazz scene; bassist Billy (who’s played with the Steve Miller Band and Bob Dylan); keyboardist Ricky (Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks); and multi-instrumentalist Paul Peterson (the Time, the Family, fDeluxe).

 

Las Hermanas Rangel

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. Several of their recordings are available on the Minnesota Historical Society Press’s essential compilation Musica de la Raza: Mexican & Chicano Music in Minnesota, curated by Maya Lopez-Santamaria.

 

Jan and Patti North

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, but is now the treatment and recovery center Micah House) 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, and you can learn more about their history and hear more of their music on record collector John Kass’s website GoJohnnyGo.

 

Ardis Wells

Known as “The Yodeling Sweetheart,” Ardis Wells (far right) was a force to be reckoned with. She led the popular country band 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 cut a single for Soma Records in 1960, “Baby Doll.” As if that isn’t cool enough, she was also a professional wrestler in the 1950s, and later rode elephants in the circus. Bow down.

 

The Continental Co-Ets

There’s been a lot of back-and-forth about who holds the title of the nation’s first all-women rock band — and if this MPR report from 2001 is accurate, that title just might belong to Fulda, Minnesota natives the Continental Co-Ets. The quintet started playing together in 1963 when they were freshmen in high school, and by the time they graduated they had recorded an excellent single together, the garage rockin’ “I Don’t Love You No More.”

 

Wanda Davis

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, and although the 45 wasn’t as commercially successful as they hoped, it became an underground hit and a collector’s dream — these days, an original pressing of the single goes for upwards of $600 a pop. The song was recently reissued as part of Secret Stash’s Twin Cities Funk and Soul compilation, and Wanda has returned home to Minnesota a few times since, including this past fall when she wowed the Fitzgerald Theater with a live rendition of “Save Me” at the Current’s Rise of the Minneapolis Sound concert.

 

Judy Larson

When it comes to the Minnesota folk scene, few female artists are as influential and highly regarded as Judy Larson, who performed with her husband Bill Hinkley in the West Bank band the Sorry Muthas and appeared countless times on A Prairie Home Companion . The duo earned a lifetime achievement award from the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association, and were inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in 1999.

 

Gwen Matthews

Gwen Matthews has been singing professionally in the Twin Cities since the age of 13, when she started doing session work for a jingle-writing agency while still attending Central High School in Minneapolis. Soon she made her way into the clubs, sitting in with popular R&B acts like Zulu and Maurice McKinnies and the Blazers at bars like the Cozy in the late 1960s, then crossed over into the rock scene in the early 1970s with stints in Crow, Colla, and Passage. In the late ’80s she moved into the jazz world, collaborating with Debbie Duncan in several groups, and she can still be seen occasionally performing with her group Synergy.

 

Sue Ann Carwell

An early contributor to the then-nascent Minneapolis Sound that was being developed by Prince, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Andre Cymone and their peers, Sue Ann Carwell started gigging around the R&B scene when she was a teenager in the late 1970s, spending time with Quiet Storm and Terry Lewis’s Flyte Tyme. Much like Prince, Sue Ann was raised by musical parents and released her debut album on Warner Bros. Records when she was only 19 years old (1981’s Sue Ann); she landed on the label’s radar after Cymone spotted her singing with Quiet Storm at the Elks Club in North Minneapolis, and shortly afterwards Prince offered to work with her on her first demos at Sound 80 Studios and mentor her as one of his very first protégés.

 

Cynthia Johnson

Best known internationally as the voice of the Lipps, Inc. hit “Funkytown,” Cynthia Johnson’s musical roots run deep in Minneapolis. She got her start singing in the Mount Olivet Celestial Choir, appearing on their 1971 album Sing, before taking up a seven-year role as the lead singer of the band Flyte Tyme. The lineup of Flyte Tyme evolved over the years, but Cynthia played a central role as a vocalist, saxophonist, and co-songwriter, working closely with bandleader and bassist Terry Lewis to develop the band’s sound and songs. When Steven Greenberg formed Lipps, Inc., she briefly performed in the live version of that band (including a 1981 gig at Duffy’s in South Minneapolis, pictured above), but left the group in 1983. Recently, she reunited with her Flyte Tyme bandmates for a historic one-off performance of “Funkytown” during the Super Bowl.

 

Tetes Noires

Six-piece band Tétes Noires got their start in the early ’80s, joining up for a performance art project at the Walker Art Center and then moving their show into clubs like the 7th St. Entry. By the mid’-80s they were headlining First Avenue and teaming up with the Violent Femmes to record their major label debut, Clay Foot Gods.

Read more about Tétes in my interview with founder Jennifer Holt and bandmate Angela Frucci, which coincided with the release of a remixed version of their debut album, The New American Dream, in late 2013.

“We were very feminist in our lyrics and how we dressed—I wore dresses and didn’t shave my legs,” Holt remembered. “And I think they really weren’t sure how to handle us. We were sometimes called Béte Noires instead of Tétes Noires, which is a French saying for the black beast, or something that’s scary.”

 

The Clams

Another important and influential band in the early Minneapolis rock scene was the Clams, whose bluesy rock ‘n’ roll riffs and fiery shows earned them frequent comparisons to the Rolling Stones. Led by the fiery frontwoman Cindy Lawson (far right), the Clams also included drummer Karen Gratz, guitarist Roxie Terry, and bassist Patsy Joe, and they could frequently be seen playing at the Uptown Bar, the Entry, and First Avenue during Minneapolis’s 1980s rock heyday. “I think everybody should have that experience, and feel that potential — like you can do anything,” Lawson reflected in a 2016 interview. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to play guitar, just plug it in and learn, start doing it, play with your friends and do things that are meaningful for you.”

 

Debbie Duncan

Jazz artist Debbie Duncan’s career began in the 1970s in her hometown of Detroit, where she worked as a back-up singer in the studio and contributed to recordings by artists like Mitch Ryder and Bob Seger. After a nine-year stint in Los Angeles, Debbie came to Minneapolis in the mid-1980s to take a six-week gig at Rupert’s Nightclub in Golden Valley and was quickly embraced by the Twin Cities community, where she has remained ever since. She was one of the earliest musicians to play regularly at the Dakota Jazz Club, and still draws an adoring crowd every time her name appears on the marquee — including this March 30 and 31, when she’ll celebrate her new album, Full Circle, at the Dakota.

 

Tina and the B-Sides

Bandleader Tina Schlieske first formed Tina and the B-Sides in 1984, and by the end of the decade they had become one of the hardest-gigging bands in the rock scene. Schlieske self-released the first three B-Sides records on her own Movement Records label before signing with Sire in the mid-’90s, at which time they were touring relentlessly and sharing stages with acts ranging from Lenny Kravitz and the Wallflowers to Etta James. After the band parted ways in 1999, Schlieske went on to release several solo albums, including the excellent 2014 covers EP Pinned Up, a tribute to Minnesota rock legends like the Replacements, Husker Du, and Bob Dylan. She still occasionally performs reunion shows with her B-Sides.

 

The Jets

Eight-piece Polynesian-American sibling band the Jets skyrocketed to the top of the Billboard charts in 1986 with their hit “Crush on You,” further stoking the recording industry’s belief that Minneapolis was one of the hottest musical cities on earth. With lead vocals by Elizabeth Wolfmann and supporting harmonies from her sister Moana, “Crush on You” had just the right mixture of electronic drum snaps and staccato synth hits to ride the wave of the cultural zeitgeist and embed itself in the collective consciousness. It was the first of eight top-10 singles for the group.

 

Vixen

Jan Keuhnemund formed Vixen in 1980 when she was still in high school, and the band became known as St. Paul’s first all-girl rock group. By 1984 she had migrated to Los Angeles with vocalist Janet Gardner, and in 1988 the band was signed to EMI and got to work recording their debut, Vixen, teaming up with songwriter Richard Marx to pen their best-known song, “Edge of a Broken Heart.” At the height of their popularity Vixen toured with major acts like the Scorpions, Ozzy Osbourne, KISS, and Deep Purple, and their hair metal influences led them to be described as “the female Bon Jovi.” They recorded a second album, 1990’s Rev it Up, but disbanded shortly after it was released due to creative differences. Sadly, Kuehnemund passed away in 2013 at the age of 51 from cancer. Her Vixen artifacts (including her leather bodysuit and flame-covered guitar) are now archived at the Minnesota Historical Society.

 

Babes in Toyland

No discussion about women in Minnesota music is complete without Babes in Toyland, who formed in the late 1980s in Uptown Minneapolis and roared into the ’90s with their breakout album, Spanking Machine, ushering in a new era for all-women rock bands in the Twin Cities. You’d be hard-pressed to find an act from the 1990s scene (or today’s, for that matter) who doesn’t credit Babes in Toyland for kicking down doors and making it possible for more women to play on more stages more ferociously. In fact, you could make an entirely new list of the artists who shared stages with Babes in the early ’90s and emerged immediately after them, from Smut to the Blue Up? to Zuzu’s Petals, Dutch Oven, Lily Liver, Lefty Lucy, and countless more.

 

Watch videos of all the artists in our YouTube playlist:

  • wendy k rasmussen

    Were Ta Mara & The Seen local?? They had the Mpls sound going…

  • Danielle Fehring

    Love to see Tina and the B Sides on this list!! Please add them into rotation on the air more!

  • Patty Peterson

    Andrea, Thank you so much for including Jeanne Arland Peterson in this article. As her kids, we KNOW she was a force, and Jeanne never lead with anything other than her love for the music. To hear her called Matriarch again is wonderful. Fun to read this. Patty

  • Arlo Hennings

    Not a complete list of all the women who played a role in Minnesota music history, but better than nothing! Missing is Promoter Sue McLean. She wasn’t a musician, but much of the music scene wouldn’t have worked without her.

  • Chris Hodapp

    The Jets families last name is Wolfgramm. Also, not including Sue McLean is a glaring omission.