Picture this scenario: Two women decide to form a band, recruit some guys, and get signed to a major label.
Not exactly headline news, is it? It was in the late 1960's, when pianist-singer Toni Brown and singer-guitarist Terry Garthwaite put together Joy of Cooking. Back then, female musicians were relegated to the back burner, but here was a duo with a bold new recipe: The women wrote the tunes, played the main instruments, and sang lead vocals. Naming their group after a cookbook gave it an unmistakably female identity.
Although Fanny was the first female-led band to sign a multi-album major label deal, Joy of Cooking (who signed with Capitol Records shortly thereafter) was the second. And they were the first major label group where women led a mixed-gender band. They paved the way for Heart and Fleetwood Mac, and eventually bands like Concrete Blonde and Hole, says Ariel Swartley, Rolling Stone magazine's first female rock writer.
"The band culture then was so male. So to have two women leading a band? I think women will tell you even now it can be hard to establish authority as a bandleader," Swartley says. "Back then a voice was a woman's instrument. We didn't accept (women) wielding an electric guitar."
That lack of acceptance may have been what kept the band from mass popularity. It sure wasn't the music. At the dawn of the 1970's, Joy of Cooking released three albums filled with the kind of folk-tinged country rock that was topping the charts when it was sung by men, at least. The band's self-titled debut concentrated mostly on ballads and showcased lead singer Garthwaite's soulful wailing. With the second album, Closer to the Ground, the band moved into a more folk-oriented territory. But with its third album, Castles, Joy of Cooking produced an all-out classic, filled with shoulda-been-hits like "Let Love Carry You Along" and "Don't the Moon Look Fat and Lonesome." After Brown departed, a fourth album was recorded but never given a general release.
The band was popular enough to warrant coverage in Time magazine; if they were largely forgotten after their 1973 breakup, it's because Capitol let their moderately-selling albums go out of print. Their only charting single was a cover of bluesman Furry Lewis' "Brownsville" (performed as a medley with the traditional "Mockingbird), which got to #66 in 1971. But the song's bouncy rhythm and intertwining lead vocals probably sounded eccentric to more pop-oriented listeners and got the band pegged as a curio.
They were anything but. The recent reissues of those three albums by Evangeline Records (www.evangeline.co.uk) reveal a treasure trove of catchy roots-oriented tunes. Because the band eschewed trendy effects and gimmicky production, their albums have aged well. Play Joy of Cooking alongside Sheryl Crow, Vanessa Carlton or Indigo Girls and they sound visionary.
Most of the band's oeuvre was penned by Brown, an intelligent, versatile songwriter. "Let Love Carry You Along" works both as a feel-good tune and an admonishment of flower power hypocrisy. The snappy, sassy "Don't the Moon Look Fat and Lonesome" invents the riff the Violent Femmes later used for "Blister in the Sun." "Red Wine at Noon" tells of a desperate housewife's alcoholism.
These days, Brown works as a photographer, while Garthwaite still works in the music business writing spiritually-oriented music. Both live near Berkeley, California, where the band was formed and their proximity made it easier for them to assemble in 2005 a two-CD package, Back to Your Heart, which features early recordings and live demos. Perfect Sound Forever tracked down Brown and Garthwaite to ask them about their unique history and the release of the first "new" music by their band in over three decades.
Toni Brown: I started playing piano when I was six. Then I had a ukulele when I was probably seven or eight. Then my stepfather bought me a guitar I must have been about 12 or 13. I also took very formal classical piano lessons for nine years. I started writing when I was very little. I started writing songs because I listened to the radio in those days. And I think my first songs was probably written on the ukulele. They were country songs. In the early days Hank Williams was my idol. And Jimmy Rogers Kitty Wells. Then in the early 1950's, there was certainly Elvis Presley and all the R&B I listened to nothing but R&B.
Terry Garthwaite: For me the seed was seeing The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show." I had it in my head that I wanted to get into a band because I'd been playing in folk clubs and wanted to play with different musicians. And I went to England for a year. When I came back I met Toni through a mutual friend. She played piano, I played guitar, it clicked. And I think we just decided let's play some more together, let's get some other musicians. I brought in my brother (David Garthwaite) who had been playing the bass, and Tony knew Ron (Wilson), who was the conga drummer. And that was the core for at least six months. And then we decided OK, we need to get a trap drummer to really make a happening sound.
TB: Joy of Cooking happened because both Terry and I were playing clubs in Berkeley. She was doing folk music and I was doing more country-oriented folk music pure ethnic folk music. I had a band called The Crabgrassers. We did what we called old time music, from 1850-1950. And we were playing a lot of times in the same places, but in different rooms. It was kind of strange. I knew who Terry was I don't know if she knew who I was then. And there were two clubs in Berkeley. And we both played each of those clubs. I was working at the local university and so was she. Our paths crossed, but we really didn't know each other. I went to Europe for a while and came back with the thought that I really wanted to do music. I just didn't want to work where I worked anymore.
TB: It was sometime in that fall (of 1967) that a mutual friend of ours had us both over and we traded songs. And I thought (Terry) was amazing and she thought my songs were amazing and so we decided to get together and jam. And it was sort of in the time when people were crossing over between folk and rock. So we were folk musicians and we hadn't really plugged our instruments in and I had been playing guitar mostly. And then I started playing piano. I had played piano in other settings.
TG: We must have put out the word we were looking for a drummer and we auditioned a bunch of them. We actually had a couple of other ones before we found Fritz (Kasten). But the sound pretty much revolved around what happened between Toni and I the piano and guitar and the songs. And then bringing in the conga drums made such an impression on the whole rhythmic structure. Everybody's playing went into the pot my brother's bass playing, it's so joyous.
TB: I had come to Berkeley because of the literature. I was a literature major and creative writing major at Bennington College and I had heard about North Beach, I had read all the Beats. I was enamored of that world, I felt like I really wanted to see it. And when I came there in 1960, what I found was music. So then I started hanging out with them and discovered people who were also singing country music, but they were from the Great Valley of California and I had grown up outside Boston and here we were singing those same songs and I just really felt home.
TG: Both of us were listening a lot to blues. Again, because Toni came from the Boston area and I was from the Bay area. There were lots of blues players who came through doing concerts and playing in local clubs. We had great clubs where people like Muddy Waters and The Staple Singers played. I was influenced by Mavis Staples and Pops Staples' guitar playing was influential on my own playing. I don't know when it first came through my household, but I remember early on listening to some Blind Willie Johnson stuff that just knocked me out. Toni probably had some Furry Lewis stuff. There were lots of Folkways recordings, and I think on one of those recordings was "Brownsville" (the band's first single). We snagged it, added some different words, put our own spin on it.
TB: I wrote a book of poetry for my thesis at Bennington. So songwriting was just sort of a natural vehicle for the poems. The lyrics were always really important to me when I wrote a song. I was certainly influenced by Bob Dylan, because he was doing that. Before he plugged in he was a poet. And I was a poet musician, there was no question the lyrics were just as important to me as the music and the melody was. So it came out of the poetry.
Joy of Cooking became the "house band" at the Berkeley club Mandrake's, performing Wednesday evenings. It was there they acquired a rabid local following and attracted the attention of record company executives. Rock critic Ed Ward recalls the scene.
Ed Ward: When I went to see them, people got up and danced. That may not seem like such a huge thing, but I was coming off of life around Rolling Stone, where you'd go to the Fillmore and people would sit on the floor in comatose lumps, smoking dope and looking at a band. The musicians could have been on television, almost, for all the interaction there was. And then I discovered that there was a club scene in Berkeley, that a lot of the music there was funkier, and that people got up and shook their butts. The Joy was the band that got people up the most. Plus, the audience was different: Fillmore audiences tended to be guys, with the girls dragged along as an afterthought. The Joy attracted a more varied crowd, maybe a tad bit older, who seemed a bit smarter.
TG: There were a lot of label representatives that came to the club Mandrake's where we played in Berkeley to check us out. So somebody from Capitol came and said, sign these guys,' and his name I can't remember. The first album is probably my favorite. It was the most exciting. We'd been playing for a couple of years and this was an opportunity finally to put down the things that we had honed. The whole experience was thrilling for us. One thing that stood out in my mind was overdubbing the parts for (the closing track) "Children's House." There was a chorus in the background, which was I think three of us, we overdubbed it like five times and they didn't play the whole thing back for us until the end. We were just awed by the big sound of it. We'd been in studios just recording stuff live, not adding stuff to it. This was the first opportunity we had to overdub anything. Back in those days it was quite amazing. Also, on that album we hardly overdubbed anything. We did overdub that and we overdubbed the guitar solo and clarinet on "Only Time Will Tell Me."
TB: "Down My Dream" on the first album was definitely influenced by (jazz). I always loved the way Terry sang that because she sounded, so, she's such a great singer, she could do anything. She sounded like Dionne Warwick singing that. And yet the lyrics of that song are pretty sophisticated. They're not like your ordinary jazz or pop tune, so that was the kind of stuff that I really liked the sort of juxtaposition of things and a combination of things that you wouldn't expect.
TG: The album sold somewhere around 50,000 copies. At that time, it was enough for Capitol to be excited and want to do more recording. Even though by today's numbers that would be a paltry sum.
TB: It was a rarity to have women actually play electric instruments. It wasn't a rarity in the folk world to have female folk singers, my gosh, they were right up there on the top of the heap. But to plug your instrument in and have drums and all of that was new. And I think the media certainly took it and ran with it. Unfortunately in those days you could think that this was something special and this was gonna break all kinds of barriers, but if you look at music today, it's still as macho as ever.
TG: I feel it was the media that picked up the feeling that (women leading a band) was unusual. I grew up in Berkeley and Toni was from the Cambridge-Boston area where lots of women had been playing folk music. It was just a natural progression for us to move into playing electric instruments. So for us it was no big deal, for our audiences it was no surprise especially in the Bay Area maybe once you moved outside of there. The only time I can remember somebody indicating to me it was weird was not that I was playing but "Gee, how come there are so many women in your audience?"
TB: Castles was the last Joy of Cooking record that I was on. I left the band in 1972. Capitol offered us six figures if we would go out on the road for, I don't know, it probably would have turned out to be four or five months out of the year. I had met my husband-to-be and I just said no, I could not do that road thing anymore. Subsequently Terry and the rest of the band found another keyboard player and a couple of background singers and they did an album for Capitol ("Same Old Song and Dance") which Capitol released but in a very, very limited quantity. They released it in Canada because they owed us an album, so they picked up the option. Then I left the band and so they had to honor that. But it didn't get any play, for whatever reason Terry has her theories on that and I don't know what the politics were at the time because I was no longer involved.
TG: There was a vinyl shortage at the time and there were contractual problems, so the album never came out except on airplanes. You know how they'll release an album to an airplane? At least they used to; I don't know if they do it anymore. So that's the only play it got thousands of feet up in the air.
Although Same Old Song and Dance is next to impossible to find, a few tracks leaked out on subsequent compilations. In 1990, Capitol Records released a cassette tape called The Best of Joy of Cooking as part of a "Retro Rock" series. It featured Joy of Cooking's rendition of Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Walking Blues." An out-of-print 1992 compilation CD called American Originals featured more rarely heard tracks from the fourth LP, including "Such Days Are Made for Walkin'," "Ain't Nobody Got the Blues Like Me," and "You Gotta Reap Just What You Sow." The story doesn't end there, though. Around the time Castles was recorded, Brown and Garthwaite took a cross country trip to Nashville, Tennessee where they recorded a country-flavored LP called, not surprisingly, Cross Country. The Wayne Moss-produced album doesn't feature any other Joy member, but instead showcases excellent instrumentation by such country pros as Vassar Clements and Charlie McCoy. It's every bit as good as the three Joy of Cooking albums, and Capitol Records must have thought so too, since they include two songs ("As I Watch the Wind" and "Midnight Blues") on the aforementioned American Masters CD. Though long out of print and never issued on CD, Cross Country is worth tracking down.
TB: Artie Mogul at Capitol really loved us. He was the A&R guy there. He offered us a duo album if we would go to Nashville. And I'd always wanted to do that. I had a bunch of songs that I knew needed to be done in a Nashville context. And so they let us go because that meant that they had one more album from Terry and I. That came out after Castles. We had some of the best players that were around in those days. It was really a blast. "Midnight Blues" was the first song that I ever sang for Terry way back in 1967. And there it was finally in a Nashville studio.
The story still isn't over. After releasing one solo LP each, Brown and Garthwaite reunited in 1977 for another duo LP, this time under the abridged moniker The Joy. Although it's more jazz-oriented and is burdened with a slick late 1970's sound (courtesy of producer Michael Stewart), this out-of-print LP is also worth investigating if you can track down the vinyl (on Fantasy Records). Garthwaite turns in one of her best vocals on Ian Jack's funky "On the Natch," while Brown checks in with what might be her most exquisite melody, the aching "You Don't Owe Me Spring."
TB: I had wanted to take jazz piano lessons when I was younger, but never did. I got off into the country and sort of eclectic country folk or whatever you want to call it. And I never really got to study with anybody. But my ear was always going there. It was going to ninths and 13ths and all kinds of chords, and the chromatic harmonies. And I didn't know how they worked. So I took this class and everything sort of came together. So that's when I started putting stuff together.
The new CD, Back to Your Heart, came about after Brown and Garthwaite realized they were sitting on lots of high-quality unreleased material.
TB: Terry and I decided a year ago to sit down and go through a lot of material that we had sitting around, mostly on old seven-and-a-quarter inch tapes and cassettes. We wanted to see if there was a CD in there of stuff that we could put out that had never been released. So we culled through a lot of stuff. And then we have a fan who lives in Michigan and he's taken our tapes and remixed a lot of the material for free, which is just wonderful because we didn't know exactly what to do with this stuff. We have one live show which we both agreed was listenable. A lot of the live stuff is really horrible because the sound is usually terrible. But this one came out pretty well. We also have a bunch of stuff from when Terry and I first started playing together in her house in Berkeley. We did a version of (Joan Baez's) "Love is a Four-Letter Word," and Terry put a whole bunch of different harmonies to it. We just kind of had fun with it and then we went into the studio and did it. So we started off with that and then kind of went from 1968 all the way through to this live thing which was 1972 stuff that was never released. When we started listening to some of the music we thought "Oh my gosh, why didn't we put that on one of our albums?" Because there's some really nice music there.