Goldie and the Gingerbreads: Remembering Rock's First All-Women Band - Rolling Stone
Home Music Music Features

Goldie and the Gingerbreads Were One of Rock’s First All-Women Bands. Why Are They Still So Obscure?

In the mid-Sixties, this New York quartet signed with Atlantic, opened for the Stones, and toured overseas. Now, more than 50 years after their breakup, we can finally hear all their pioneering work in one place

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970:  Photo of Goldie and The Gingerbreads  Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty ImagesUNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970:  Photo of Goldie and The Gingerbreads  Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Goldie and the Gingerbreads. Clockwise from top: Genya Ravan, Ginger Bianco, Carol MacDonald, and Margo Lewis.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“Do you see this poster?” the veteran female musician says, proudly pointing toward a framed club ad in her home in Woodstock, New York. “What does it say? ‘Beauty and the Beat’!”

The woman doing the talking — in a casual white blouse, reddish-blond hair framing her ruddy face — isn’t a member of the Go-Go’s, nor is she referring to that group’s first and most enduring album. Today, she’s mostly known as Genya Ravan, but decades ago, she was Goldie, lead singer of one of the most important bands that most people have never heard or seen.

This fall, the Go-Go’s will make history by becoming the first all-women band to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But neither they nor the Runaways (the Seventies proto-punk/metallists who gave us Joan Jett and Lita Ford) were the first to crack pop’s glass ceiling. It’s difficult to say which rock & roll band was the first to only have female members, but there’s no question that one of the contenders would have to be Goldie and the Gingerbreads, the ahead-of-its-time band Ravan fronted during the first half of the Sixties.

As the sight of the Linda Lindas bashing out punk on variety shows reminds us, the idea of a band made up entirely of women is now woven into the fabric of pop. But it wasn’t always so, as Ravan, now 81, recalls, in a voice still reflecting her “Noo Yawk” upbringing. “These days, chicks play piano or violin,” she says, “but [back then] no kid grew up saying, ‘Mommy, I would like a Ludwig set’ or, ‘Mommy, I would like to play rock & roll guitar.’ They’d smack you.”

Goldie and the Gingerbreads weren’t a guitar-heavy garage band; their music leaned toward R&B-infused pop. But they accompanied themselves onstage as a self-contained unit — and, during their peak moment, with a guitar-organ-drums setup that preceded the equally bass-less Doors. They opened shows for the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, and others. They were signed to a major label, Atlantic Records, by none other than its illustrious founder, Ahmet Ertegun — after he’d seen them play at a Manhattan party where Andy Warhol and some of the Stones caught their act. Tom Wolfe, who wrote about that gathering in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, took note of “four girls in gold lamé tights who will play the rock and roll,“ complimenting Ravan on her “husky voice and nice kind of slightly thick — you know — gloriously sort of East End features, only she is from New York.”

For all their accomplishments, Goldie and the Gingerbreads left behind a trail that’s disintegrated bit by bit over the past decades. They only released three singles — none of them major hits — and never made a full album, so don’t count on finding a deluxe CD or streaming edition of a vintage Gingerbreads LP anywhere. Even Steve Van Zandt, who recruited Ravan to host a show on his Underground Garage SiriusXM channel, admits he wasn’t aware of them until he launched his program about 20 years ago. “This is stuff I discovered when I started the radio show, and I had to go back and research our entire business, really,” he says. “Growing up, I wouldn’t have heard of them.”

Some validation and vindication will arrive this month, when the British label Ace releases Thinking About the Good Times: Complete Recordings 1964–1966. A first-ever collection of their work, culled from master tapes and outtakes, the album will finally allow the world to hear the band’s toughened-up pop (covers of the Kinks’ “Look for Me Baby” and Ray Charles and Ann Fisher’s “What Kind of Man Are You”), organ-driven instrumentals, and their version of “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat.” The latter should have been their hit but, in one of many bad breaks they had, it instead became a smash for the (all-male) British Invasion band Herman’s Hermits.

For Go-Go’s bassist Kathy Valentine, who became aware of Goldie and the Gingerbreads years ago when she was exploring the history of all-women groups, the band’s obscurity is part of an unfortunate continuum in pop. “It drives home to me how women’s history in music is so dismissed,” she says. “In the Sixties and Seventies, when so much critically and culturally important music was being made, how many more women might have been starting bands if there was common knowledge about these bands? It would have made a big difference.”

For the surviving members of the band, the arrival of a Goldie and the Gingerbreads album nearly 60 years after they launched is fulfilling but also bittersweet, especially in light of this year’s Hall of Fame ceremony. “I heard the Go-Go’s had just gotten in there and I thought, Jeez,” says Ginger Bianco, the band’s drummer. “But it’s so political. I wish we could get the recognition we deserve.”

One night in Greenwich Village, around the summer of 1962, Ravan couldn’t believe what she was hearing. At Trude Heller’s Versailles Club, she was having a good enough time singing in a local band led by her boyfriend when, during a break, she wandered over to a nearby venue to check out a male headliner — and heard a racket coming from within. “I’m hearing drums in the back: ‘Who’s the drummer?’” Ravan recalls. “It was a chick drummer. I said, ‘Fuck the Escorts! I’m going to start a girl band!’”

At 22, Ravan — born Genyusha Zeklowitz (sometimes Zeklovicz), daughter of Jewish parents who’d emigrated from Poland — had already lived several lives. After her family arrived at Ellis Island when Ravan was seven, her mother renamed her “Goldie” to make her sound more American, and life at home on New York’s Lower East Side was so rough (her father would get drunk and sometimes hit his wife) that Ravan, at 16, married a man nearly twice her age just to escape. (That husband would regularly take her to strip clubs.)

When she was a teenager in the late Fifties, Ravan attended one of the era’s then-prevalent multi-act rock shows, where she saw Lillian Briggs, the Pennsylvania-born belter known as the “Queen of Rock & Roll” in the mid-Fifties. Watching a woman wail rock & roll, albeit with male musicians behind her, Ravan’s life changed. “It was definitely the seed that planted something,” she says. “Of course, I was unaware of what it planted, but I said to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

Not long after, Ravan found herself with some pals at a club in her new home of Brooklyn, watching a local band, the Escorts. She’d already drank a little, singing along at the table, when one of her friends goaded her into joining the Escorts onstage. Mid-song, Ravan approached the band’s keyboardist, future hits-of-the-stars producer Richard Perry (Carly Simon, Ringo Starr). “I’m pulling on Richie’s coat while they’re playing, and he goes, ‘Could you wait till I’m offstage?’” Ravan says with a laugh. “I think he thought I was comin’ on to him.” Afterward, she told him she wanted to sing with them and suggested Connie Francis’ “Stupid Cupid.” “He says to me, ‘What key?’” she roars. “And I said, ‘What do you want my key for?’ I didn’t know what he was talking about.” As Perry wrote in his memoir, “She was totally from the street, but I found her to be a breath of fresh air.”

As Ravan admits, she was fearless and never shied away from putting herself out there in the world: To make money after quitting school at 16, she’d posed in partly nude cheesecake photos. “I was always proud of my breasts,” she says. “I guess you could tell by some of the pictures. I was getting 100 bucks an hour in the early Sixties. I’d like to get that now!”

But crashing the Escorts’ gig jacked up her extroverted side to another level. “Hearing myself through a microphone, I loved it,” she says — and so did the Escorts, who fired their singer and hired her. (“When she finished, the crowd went nuts,” wrote Perry.) She and Perry also became lovers, and the new, Ravan-fronted Escorts cut a few singles (one making a small splash in Detroit). Then came that night at Trude Heller’s, and everything changed when she saw and heard Ginger Bianco.

Born Virginia Panebianco, Bianco was all of 16, a Long Island kid inspired by her uncle to learn drums. She’d already played in a school marching band and a local group with boys. After Ravan had seen her in action, Bianco stopped by to catch some of Ravan’s act and was equally floored. “I see Goldie up there and she was, like, such a tough girl,” she says. “For me, that was, ‘Oh, my God!’”

Playing off the name of their lead singer and percussionist, they settled on a moniker, Goldie and the Gingerbreads, but finding qualified women to join them became the first challenge. Ravan pored through local listings at the New York musicians’ union to track down what few female musicians were in town. During its early days, the group went through a bunch of them, most eventually deemed unsuitable. “Namby-pamby girls,” says Ravan. “One of the guitar players used to bring her mother to gigs. Oh, my God! You had to be dedicated. Anybody in Goldie and the Gingerbreads who had dreams of being a housewife was fired immediately.”

Even during those transitional days, they managed to land gigs in nightclubs, bars, and even bowling alleys (“You could hear me between strikes,” says Ravan). In a nod to a then-current dance craze, newspaper ads for their gigs billed the group as, for example, “The Only All-Girl Twist Band in the World,” even though their sets were largely covers of pop hits of the day. They weren’t booed off those early stages, but as Bianco recalls, they had to prove themselves. “It was, ‘Look at these girls playing instruments — these broads!’” she recalls. “They were ready to put us down before we even started.”

Luckily, they had attitude to spare along with the required musical chops. At one early job, the bar owner — one of many likely Mob-connected types they dealt with — asked them, “Youse broads really know how to play?” Ravan said they did, but during the soundcheck, she instructed her bandmates to freak him out. “I told the girls, ‘Everybody play in the wrong key. Let’s play like shit and scare the shit out of this guy.’ And that’s what we did. He came out of the kitchen, going crazy. He was going to call our agent. I said, ‘Relax. We’re just pulling your leg.’ And then we did a real soundcheck and he was, like, so relieved.”

After a year of gigging around New York, Ravan remained dissatisfied with their lineup, but the steadiest Gingerbreads incarnation would soon arrive. By her early twenties, Margo Lewis (then Crocitto) was already adept at the Hammond B-3 organ, an instrument that was in vogue at the time. An uncle, also a musician, had suggested she take up the instrument, and one day, she ventured over to an organ in his catering hall. “With my foot, I played a chord, and then I was playing a chord with my left hand and a melody with my right hand, and put my little toe on the root of the chord,” she recalls. “And I was like, Wow — this is what it’s about.”

At the suggestion of an agent who’d booked her on society gigs and other jobs, Lewis went to see the Gingerbreads, who were looking for a new keyboard player. “Goldie’s gonna kill me,” Lewis says with a laugh. “She was in the middle of having her hair bleached, and they had put the processing material on her and it had to stay on for a while, and she couldn’t wait anymore. She goes to the gig with this purple stuff in her hair! But she was extremely attractive and very captivating onstage.” The next day, Ravan and Bianco went to the Crocitto family home in Brooklyn, where Lewis auditioned and became a Gingerbread.

Ravan had more than a sonic vision for her band; at her command, they dolled up onstage in everything from leather jackets to what looked like one-piece bathing suits and sporting fashionable beehive hairdos. “I wanted us to look like women,” she says. Lewis also adapted to the band’s wardrobe, never considering anything grungier. “Of course not!” she exclaims. “We were in our twenties — we were wearing high heels! But it was a helluva challenge. I played heel to toe.”

The early version of Goldie and the Gingerbreads had a few breaks, including gigs opening for teen idol Paul Anka in Las Vegas and being flown to Europe to open shows for Chubby Checker and British pop star Tony Sheridan (who’d sung with an early version of the Beatles). After that, they finally found the guitarist they wanted — Carol MacDonald, a Delaware-born player then living in New Jersey. With Lewis playing bass parts on her organ, the Gingerbreads’ lineup — Ravan, Bianco, Lewis, and MacDonald — solidified.

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Goldie and The Gingerbreads Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Goldie and the Gingerbreads in the 1960s. “I’m going to start a girl band!’” Ravan said when she first heard Ginger Bianco play drums.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Ravan, who had the earthy charisma of an Italian movie starlet, admits she thought a band would also be a good way to meet men. But she saw the Gingerbreads as a gang of sisters who could support and protect each other, especially in the male-dominated business of the time. “They were all hitting on me,” she says of male fans and executives. “Every guy that came on to me would say, ‘Would you like to go out for breakfast after your gig tonight?’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, I’d love to.’ And we’d all go. We never went on separate dates. We needed our protection. Ginger is very shy, doesn’t talk much, but man, oh, man, she has taken me out of scrapes.”

That bond proved to be handy after the band signed its first record deal. As Ravan tells it, she and Bianco were invited by a potential producer to his hotel suite, where the women would sleep in an adjoining room. The producer asked Ravan into his room to talk about business, but before she knew it, she says he was all over her. “He had both his knees on my knee, and he had both my hands above my head,” she says. “The man was very close to raping me.” In the next room, Bianco heard Ravan’s screams and ran in and hit the guy over the head with a beer bottle. (Ravan thinks she threatened him with a lamp.) “He was terrible,” Bianco says. “He was just coming on to her, and it got out of control.”

At first, Ravan wanted out of the professional arrangement entirely: “I said to him, when I left with tears in my eyes, ‘Get me out of my contract. I’m not recording with you. I’m having a good time playing onstage, making good money. I don’t need this.’” They proceeded with the session, with a different producer, and their first single, “Skinny Vinnie,” a cute novelty ditty that didn’t pretend to be anything more, showcased Ravan’s slinky voice. But in the first of several ominous signs for them, the song was recorded, then shelved for several months. According to Gingerbreads historian Alec Palao, who spent years pulling together the new compilation, the reason may have been John F. Kennedy’s assassination — the song may have been too perky for its moment. By the time it was released, early in 1964, it failed to crack the pop chart, but at least the group had made a record.

Those early stumbles aside, Goldie and the Gingerbreads were undeterred, and as with Jimi Hendrix after them, they looked to England as their launching pad. Keith Richards had caught the band playing at a private party and likely mentioned it to his friends in the Animals, some of whom saw Goldie and the Gingerbreads at one of their regular gigs at the Wagon Wheel, a club in Times Square. Word got around, and Goldie and the Gingerbreads were soon hired to play at a party honoring the Rolling Stones during their first trip to America, in the fall of 1964. Photographer Jerry Schatzberg, who hosted the party at his studio on Park Avenue South, says the band’s all-women lineup made them a natural fit for the bash. “It was very unusual, and that’s why we suggested them,” says Schatzberg, who still remembers those gold lamé outfits. “You don’t put on a local band for the Stones. You needed someone special.”

Lewis remembers watching as members of the Stones, Andy Warhol, and Ronnie Spector wafted in and out. “To see a rock & roll group like that was a landmark,” recalls Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham, who was also at the party. “It registered with us.”

Also in the house was Ertegun, who’d already signed MacDonald as a solo act. But at MacDonald’s insistence, he was talked into taking all of Goldie and the Gingerbreads. “He didn’t lose Carol — he gained a band,” Lewis says proudly. During the same moment, the Animals’ manager landed them a British record deal, and Goldie and the Gingerbreads looked to be going worldwide.

Starting in the spring of 1965, they toured the U.K. as an opening act for the Stones, then on a package tour opening for the Kinks and the Yardbirds. The band members knew they had to play as well as possible: “We weren’t there to be idiots,” says Lewis. “We were there to prove ourselves.” During their 15- to 20-minute sets, they endeared themselves to fans of the headliners with their R&B-centric covers and Ravan’s shimmying dance moves. (Before that tour or in the years after, they gravitated toward the likes of Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin,” the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go,” and Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood.”) “We’d seen this English band called the Honeycombs, who had a girl drummer,” recalls the Kinks’ Dave Davies. “But this was the first girl band I ever recall. Quite unusual. Goldie had a really good voice — raspy and gritty, more than the usual pretty voice. Some people were surprised. But when they realized they could play as well as the guys, it was fine.”

During that period, the Gingerbreads bonded with the other musicians in numerous ways. Ravan admits having hotel (and other) liaisons with Jagger and Jeff Beck, then in the Yardbirds. During one show, one of the Stones, possibly Jagger, tied a rope to Bianco’s drums and pulled them back as when she was playing. “I’m playing and going, ‘What the hell?’” she recalls. “I kept getting further and further away from the drums.” The Stones and the women went out to dinner one night after a show, but when the only place still open — a casino — refused to admit the slacks-wearing Gingerbreads, Jagger announced they were leaving. Lewis also thinks they influenced one of the headliners. “On that tour, we played a tune called ‘Harlem Shuffle,’” she says of the song the Stones would later cut on Dirty Work. “Years later, I sent a note to Mick that said, ‘Wow, it only took you [21] years to learn the tune!’”

A few months before, the band recorded what should have been its signature song, the one for which they’d be remembered on oldies collections: “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat,” a chipper piece of British Invasion pop. The Gingerbreads were not entirely sold on it: “It was not our style of music,” Lewis says. “R&B, that’s Goldie and the Gingerbreads. That’s what our hearts desired. But we went along with the program, as younger people will do, afraid to hurt a relationship.” As Ravan says, “I said, ‘The song is so white — I can’t stand it!’”

But they recorded it anyway, and the single was released in the U.K. in early 1965. The record did respectably on the British charts, but everyone’s hopes that it would then conquer America were crushed when another version, by Herman’s Hermits — the pop band led by toothy lead singer Peter Noone — arrived in America first. “Pissed us off to no end,” Ravan says with a hint of lingering resentment. “So mission not accomplished. What a disappointment that was for us.”

“Herman’s Hermits,” Bianco sighs. “It was always something. Finally you’re going do something big — and then, boom.” In America, the Hermits’ version went all the way to Number Two.

Things were never the same. By the fall of 1965, years of nonstop work, combined with the failure of any of their subsequent singles to chart, began wearing the group down. “The black stations wouldn’t play us because they knew we were white girls, and the white stations wouldn’t play us because we were too R&B,” says Ravan. An infected tooth forced her to stay with a friend in London rather than at the same hotel as the band, which she says was taken as a diss by her bandmates. This incident, coupled with other factors — the way the British media would often refer to the band simply as “Goldie,” for example, as if Ravan were a solo act — caused relationships within the band to fray. “We reached our limit after two years of being ripped off and not making any money,” says Ravan, “and it was time for a change.”

Soon, Ravan was working with a new manager and Stones’ producer Oldham. “Goldie wanted to go out on her own,” says Bianco. “I was devastated and heartbroken.” Lewis and MacDonald stayed in the U.K. to start a new band, but Bianco returned to the States, selling her cymbals to cover the plane fare. “Instead of it solidifying when we were there, it started to fall apart,” says Lewis. “People were making moves on their own. I say no more. But it was so hurtful. It was rough for everybody, but everybody had to do what they had to do. That’s how you have to look at it.”

Ravan, now a solo act billed as “Goldie,” recorded a version of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Goin’ Back” with Oldham. But a shot at a new beginning stalled: The 45 was quickly pulled off the market following its release. Dusty Springfield jumped out of her skin, called Carole King, and said, ‘I thought you were saving that song for me,'” says Ravan. “She made a big to-do about it. I told Andrew, ‘Can the single.’ Dusty was a friend of mine.” (Legend also has it that King’s publisher wasn’t thrilled with some of the tweaks made to the lyrics.)

Not long after, Ravan heard that her old band was being given another chance. “They said, ‘We got a great song that this guy came up with. He’s willing to put us in a studio, pay for everything, blah, blah, blah. Would you consider coming back?’” says Ravan. She agreed. Goldie and the Gingerbreads reconvened for a few more recordings, but Lewis was losing interest. “When the magic is gone, no matter how you try to put it together…” she says. “Something was lacking. There was so much hurt, too many emotions. We loved each other so much that we were hurt by each other.”

Credited to Goldie and the Gingerbreads but likely only featuring Ravan and maybe Bianco, the 1967 single “Walking in Different Circles” tried to find a middle ground between emotive girl-group pop and psychedelia. (Since MacDonald and Lewis didn’t play on it, making it a less-than-pure Goldie and the Gingerbreads record, it’s not included in the new anthology.) But by the time it was released, rock & roll had moved on from the style of pop that Goldie and the Gingerbreads had been perfecting, overtaken by Sgt. Pepper–style experimentation and acid-dosed San Francisco jamming, among other innovations. The Gingerbreads were back to gigs like a pajama party at a lodge in Wisconsin. When the group found itself stranded at a hotel in Chicago after their manager bailed on them, Ravan had finally had enough. “I said, ‘This is not the beginning of my career here. We’ve been through this,’” she says. “It was the last straw.” Lewis quit, then Ravan.

It didn’t help that, in the later days of the band’s existence, Ravan and MacDonald became lovers for two years. “Yeah, that was a dumb move,” Ravan admits in terms of its impact on the band. “But you know what? I gave it an all-American try. And I have to tell you, that was one of my most fantastic relationships. But it was missing in the sexual area. My body was built for a man.”

By 1968, Goldie and the Gingerbreads crumbled for good. Ravan moved on to form Ten Wheel Drive, a horn-fueled rock and R&B band that continued into the Seventies; she later made solo albums, infiltrated the CBGB scene (producing the debut album by the Dead Boys and becoming a godmother to the scene), and published a memoir. MacDonald and Bianco formed another all-women band, Isis, which made a few albums. As with Goldie and the Gingerbreads, though, they failed to find a large audience. In the early Eighties, Lewis started a talent agency, Talent Consultations International.

In 1997, Ravan, Bianco, and Lewis played a one-off reunion gig (tied to the publication of Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock), but afterward, they returned to their separate lives. Lewis continued with her talent agency but also became Bo Diddley’s touring keyboardist until his death in 2008. Bianco took a job at Home Depot, where she’s been (at various locations) for more than 20 years. “We weren’t doing 401Ks or pension plans,” she says of her band days. “All of a sudden one day, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t have any of these things.’” MacDonald, who would always insist that the music business penalized her for being gay, died of liver disease in 2007, at 63.

Van Zandt, who remains a champion of the band, is still hoping to get them into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame at some point. “They were courageous, because it was not something the industry embraced until the Go-Go’s,” he says. “It was looked upon as a gimmick, even though it wasn’t. And it’s a shame. It’s really important for young women to have that as a role model and career option. Girl groups are very empowering.”

With that poster behind her, Ravan echoes the sentiment and some of that frustration, making air quotes with her hands to prove her point. “I’m the ‘pioneer’ of so many things,” she says, with equal parts humor and exasperation. “I was part of that movement that turned it around. Now you got chicks everywhere. I’m tired of paving the roads, OK? Stop paving — let me get my pay!”


Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.