Before the Pleasure Seekers launched Suzi Quatro’s career and the Runaways inspired generations of punk and metal musicians, Goldie and the Gingerbreads became the first all-woman rock band to sign to a major label.
The New York band’s 1963 deal with Decca came at a time when women in popular music were predominantly vocalists accompanied by male musicians or, such as in the case of legendary session bassist Carol Kaye, relegated to behind-the-scenes roles. Today, the Gingerbreads’ legacy extends beyond an answer to an obscure trivia question in part because it propelled guitarist Carol MacDonald to a lengthy run as a creative force and LGBT voice in mainstream rock.
Goldie and the Gingerbreads was formed in 1962 by band namesakes Genya “Goldie” Ravan (vocals) and Ginger Bianco (drums). Organist Margo Lewis swiftly replaced original member Carol O’Grady, and after a year-long search for a guitarist, the lineup became complete when MacDonald joined the fold. While there’s little information available about MacDonald’s pre-Gingerbreads career, it’s unlikely her bandmates’ lengthy search ended for a novice performer. In fact, her skill with a Fender Stratocaster solidified the group’s formidable take on the then-popular Mersey beat sound.
The band’s groundbreaking career lasted five years and produced a handful of 45s, including a 1965 cover of Herman’s Hermits’ hit “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat” that cracked the Top 25 in the United Kingdom. Other standout tracks include organ-driven garage stomper “The Skip” and “Sailor Boy,” a doe-eyed love song with girl group style vocal harmonies. The band performed these songs in the states and overseas, sharing stages with rock ‘n’ roll peers such as the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and Chubby Checker.
After the Gingerbreads parted ways, MacDonald (vocals, guitar) and Bianco (drums) formed the all-woman horn-rock ensemble Isis in 1972. Lewis joined as organist and keyboardist a few years later. The critically-acclaimed band mirrored the sound of the times, adding their own spin to funk, jazz fusion, and blues-rock.
Isis became only the fifth all-woman band with major label backing after signing with Buddah Records in 1973. This lack of all-woman bands acknowledged by the mainstream, just a few years after the counterculture’s spirit of protest radicalized facets of popular culture, casts the music business of the early 70s as severely behind the times.
During her years with Isis, MacDonald became openly gay, broaching the topic as a songwriter with the tender-hearted “She Loves Me” and fiery freedom anthem “Bobbie and Maria.” While it’s encouraging to know that such songs were released back then by a major label, MacDonald later told She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll author Gillian G. Gaar that coming out of the closet was discouraged within the music business and likely halted Isis’ shot at commercial success. Despite a lack of hits, the band maintained a visible platform as a touring act, sharing stages with KISS, ZZ Top, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Interest in Goldie and the Gingerbread’s legacy has spiked at times over the past 20 years, including a one-off comeback show in 1997 and inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 2011 “Women Who Rock” traveling exhibit. An Isis reunion followed in 2001 but was halted by MacDonald’s health concerns. She passed away in 2007.
Each flurry of interest in MacDonald’s career draws well-deserved attention to two of the first all-woman bands signed by major labels. It also highlights the varied contributions of a guitarist, singer, and songwriter whose brilliance outshone cultural biases against her gender and sexuality.