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Rock's First Lady 

click to enlarge FIONN REILLY
  • Fionn Reilly
Genya Ravan’s doting warmth and brackish, Lower East Side brogue suggest the archetypal Jewish-American grandmother. After being shepherded into her Saugerties kitchen with hugs and a bighearted “How ya doin’, hon?” you half expect a bowl of chicken soup to appear. Instead, it’s a welcome cup of tea and a few wisecracks about the merciless upstate weather. But despite her eye-rolling, laugh-at-life demeanor, there’s a certain world-weariness in those same soft eyes; a clear, unmistakable gaze that tells you that this is a woman who has seen it all, done it all, and, quite frankly, feels no reason to hide any of it. And if you happen to be a fan or have read Lollipop Lounge (Billboard Books), her tell-all 2004 autobiography, you already have just a sense of how much she has done. For Ravan’s is a life filled with many highs, many lows, and—as a documented rock ’n’ roll pioneer—many firsts. One might even say the singer, who turns 68 this month, has actually lived many lives.

“Yeah, I kinda feel like a cat sometimes—you know, nine lives,” she says. “But a lot of that is because I got started in music when I was really young.”

Ravan was born Genyusha Zelkowitz in the village of Lodz, Poland, in 1940, and her earliest memories are not pleasant ones. “We lost everyone,” the Holocaust survivor recalls. “I had two brothers; they both died. I never met my grandparents. My mother was in her 30s when her side of the family was taken away; my father was in his early 40s when he saw all nine of his brothers killed. It was just my parents, my sister Helen, and me. After our camp was taken over by the Russians, we were shuffled from one Russian camp to another until we managed to escape.”

Against all odds, the family held on, eventually arriving by ship in New York in 1947. Assimilating into Lower Manhattan’s European-Jewish diaspora, they eventually took an apartment on Rivington Street, where her father opened a candy store. In an effort to “Americanize” her daughter’s first name, Ravan’s mother began to call her Goldie. Little Goldie appeased her mother by dancing in neighborhood stage musicals with the other kids, but she never felt like she fit in. Thanks to the radio, however, she soon discovered something that did move her: music, specifically rhythm and blues. “I loved The Hearts with Baby Washington and Louise Harris, Etta James, ‘Shake a Hand’ by Faye Adams. That’s really how I learned the language, by singing along to those records,” says Ravan. “I’ve always been drawn to music I could feel—gospel, blues, stuff that’s very spiritual and filled with pain. Obviously my family was pretty messed up by what we’d gone through in Europe, so maybe that’s why.”

But her becoming a professional singer wasn’t exactly planned. In fact Ravan’s career in music started on a dare, in the long-gone nightclub that later gave her biography its name. “In 1962, some friends and I were out dancing and watching a twist band called The Escorts at the Lollipop Lounge in Brooklyn,” she remembers. “We were drinking and getting crazy, and a friend dared me to ask the band to let me sing. Naturally, I accepted, and ended up singing a couple songs with them. It was the first time I’d ever heard myself really sing.” A couple of days later, The Escorts’ leader, Richard Perry, who would go on to work with Barbara Streisand, Carly Simon, Ringo Starr, and others, called and asked if she’d like to join the band. Rechristened The Escorts with Goldie, the group toured the Midwest and cut three well-received singles for Coral Records. But after several months of grueling residencies at New York clubs, Ravan began to grow restless.

Between sets at one such gig, she met Long Island drummer Ginger Panabianco. In the early 1960s, female instrumentalists were few and far between in the pop field. Ravan had an idea. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, a girl drummer. I’d love to work with a girl drummer. Maybe we could have an all-girl band’,” she says. And soon they did: Goldie and the Gingerbreads, commonly regarded today as the first true all-female rock ’n’ roll group. (The quartet’s most successful lineup also featured keyboardist Margo Lewis and guitarist Carol McDonald.) After signing first to Scepter Records and then to Atco/Atlantic, the band toured Europe with Chubby Checker and by 1964 had made it to England, where it racked up smash hits like “Can’t You Hear My Heart Beat” (later remade for the US market by Herman’s Hermits), appeared on TV pop shows, and toured with the Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Hollies, the Yardbirds, the Animals, and others. “We were pushed as a novelty act since we were all girls, yet a lot of the time we actually ended up making more money than the guy bands because of that,” says Ravan. “But we could all play really well, we had a reputation as ‘musician’s musicians.’ [Organist] Ian McLagan of the Small Faces used to stand offstage to see how Margo played. The records were very pop, but, live, we weren’t doing fast-food rock ’n’ roll at all.” Yet in spite of the sweet times in swinging London, Goldie and the Gingerbreads’ heady days nevertheless came to a close in 1967 when intraband rivalries erupted. But Ravan’s next groundbreaking outfit was just across the pond.

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  • Rock legend Genya Ravan discusses her long and winding career in the music business.

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