Women on the Verge of a Breakthrough

On-stage and behind the scenes, a diverse and determined group is carving off a big piece of the local rock

"We're creating our own history," offers Helaine Blum, manager of promising local rock band Black Janet. She is trying to explain what sets South Florida's rock music scene apart from other cities', and in particular why she and so many other local women have taken up the cause. "Because of my skills, nobody here really cared if I was a female. I don't think that I'd have the opportunities in New York or L.A. that I've found here because it's all growing so fast. And that's something that's as exciting to me as anything I'm doing with an individual club or band I might be promoting -- being a part of the explosive growth in the overall scene."
For once, South Florida's original music scene appears to be ahead of the curve on an emerging trend: the prevalence of women in rock. Bands like Black Janet, Voidville, Jack Off Jill, Little Nicky and the Slicks, and Demonomacy; promoters like Miami Rocks (an annual band showcase and industry seminar-cum-schmoozefest) founder Georgina Vidal; band managers like Blum; even club owners like the Cactus Cantina's Linda Lou Nelson. Women have, in recent years, been making a huge impact in local o-rock circles. Trend, hell. Like Blum says, it's an explosion.

Less than a dozen years ago, females were commonly relegated to support roles in the rock hierarchy. Women rarely fronted bands, and those who did tended to trade on their sexuality more than their musicianship. Gypsy Queen, featuring the Mattioli twins, Pam and Paula, was a prime example. While the band was one of the more musically accomplished outfits playing Miami's cheap-beer-and-Zeppelin-covers circuit, it was probably more famous for the twins' appearance in a Playboy pictorial. Which is not to say Gypsy Queen deliberatley set out to exploit the twins' looks. That was just the way it was.

Vesper Sparrow broke the mold; appropriately, Vesper's history is a perfect example of how women's influence in the local scene has blossomed from one little band into a maze of musical and business offshoots.

While nobody would be naive enough to suggest that the presence of four attractive women hurt their chances for getting gigs, solid songwriting really set Vesper apart. At their late-Eighties peak, the lineup of Kelly Christy, Carolyn Colachicco, Mary Karlzen, and Rose Guilot was making some of the best original music South Florida had to offer, regardless of gender.

"I don't want to sound pompous," says drummer Colachicco, "but yeah, I suppose in a way Vesper opened the door. Our thing wasn't, 'Is there a place to play?' It was the songs. Back in '85, we'd play any place that would have us," she reminisces, mentioning the Reunion Room in Fort Lauderdale, Churchill's Hideaway in Little Haiti, Club Beirut on South Beach, and the Jockey Pub, a brutal blue-collar dive in Davie known for cheap suds and live music. "There wasn't that much interest in original rock in general. We used to play the Jockey Pub once a week, four sets a night, for $60. I don't think a lot of these bands today would work for that."

Yet Vesper Sparrow hasn't cashed in on original rock's surging popularity. After showcasing at New York's storied CBGB in 1989, the band splintered. Colachicco and Christy have endured a series of personnel changes without settling on a permanent lineup; of late they've been, in Colachicco's words, "hiding out, writing new stuff, trying to decide whether it's worth the investment to release a CD or just save money and record more songs on tape." Guilot has been maintaining a low profile, running her own digital recording studio, applying to UM's musical engineering program, and writing songs with her band Paper Dolls, which has yet to take a public bow.

Mary Karlzen, meanwhile, is now flying solo, and flying high; she has released two CDs. Mary -- she's attained single-name status thanks to the tireless promotion of her manager, Y&T Music founder Richard Ulloa A writes and sings country music with a strong folk-rock edge. Although her video for the song "A Long Time Ago" has been picked up by The Nashville Network, Country Music Television, and the Americana TV Network in Branson, Missouri, Mary is a purist who laments the dawning of the MTV era.

"I hate 'em -- videos -- but they're a Necessary Evil. The Big N.E. It's all someone else's images," complains the songwriter. "It's a little like country radio -- a bunch of plastic, cloned Barbie dolls who don't write their own songs. The labels send them to finishing school to learn how to talk to the media, how to dress. They're Stepford singers. Perfect hair, perfect bodies," says Mary, whose outspokenness may have cost her some country radio airplay. "I think anybody could sell CDs with the right people behind them."

Despite her tendency to pooh-pooh her own accomplishments, Mary's music has been the foundation upon which Rich Ulloa has, in effect, built a record label. The first CD eventually paid for itself; the second, a six-song EP titled Hide, has sold more than 800 copies. Rachel Spitz, WVUM's public relations director, manager of funk rockers Second Coming, and Ulloa's assistant, has been tracking national radio exposure, and she confirms that Mary has been receiving airplay in locales as diverse as Aspen, Des Moines, Taos, and Santa Monica, and held the top spot for a week (and was in the top five for more than a month) at WMNF-FM in Tampa.

Lydia Ojeda, former marketing and promotions director at Pandisc records, where for four years she handled national acts such as Young and Restless, was hired to push Hide to retail outlets nationally. Ojeda has been involved in the music business her entire life; her father owns a record company in Puerto Rico, and Lydia claims to have been "born on the floor of a recording studio." When she isn't working the phones on behalf of Hide, she's sharing her expertise with upstart bands that "have no clue how to make a flyer, much less cut a demo."

"We're doing it all ourselves," enthuses label honcho Ulloa. "This way we have complete control. It's exciting. It's challenging. It's rewarding. But the bottom line is getting Mary's music out there. She's a tremendous artist and she deserves to be successful."

It's almost biblical: The all-female band begat the female solo artist which begat the fledgling record label which begat the administrative assistant which begat the promoter...

Mary Karlzen is one of three female performers with local rock pedigrees who are on the cusp of breaking out of this market in a very big way. Another, Diane Ward, traversed an equally winding path to prominence.

For nearly a decade Ward's wrenching vocals have been provoking heart palpitations in local fans. A native Miamian, she started out as a drummer -- Dade County's best as a ninth grader -- and was good enough to intern with the Miami Beach Symphony Orchestra as a senior at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High.

"I started singing by accident," Ward admits. "I was in a cover band [Hemlock] and one night our regular vocalist didn't show up for a gig. She'd gone to Gainesville to be with some guy she fell in love with. She ended up marrying him."

Ward proved far too gifted a warbler to sequester behind a drum kit. She taught herself how to play keyboards at about the same time she and Hemlock bassist Louis Lowy (currently a member of the Bellefires) tired of playing covers. In 1985 they formed an original band, Bootleg, and began a seven-year collaboration; Ward sang and composed the music and Lowy played bass and wrote lyrics. Like Vesper Sparrow, Bootleg frequently performed at the Jockey Pub, Churchill's, and Club Beirut. Bootleg broke up, changed drummers, and reformed as the Wait. Ward made another instrument switch, from keyboards to guitar ("It was a mobility thing," she explains). While still part of that band, she began honing her songwriting and performing talents, lugging her jet-black Guild six-string to open-mike nights at venues like Churchill's, and Washington Square and Uncle Sam's on South Beach.

The solo performances were a revelation. An acoustic framework showcased the power and range of Ward's distinctive voice, as well as her burgeoning lyrical acumen, and soon established her as the reigning queen of local rock vocalists. When she formed Voidville with lead guitarist Sturgis Nikides last November, there was already a serious buzz on the street. Voidville's official live debut, on New Year's Eve at the Square, was one of the most eagerly anticipated coming-out parties an unsigned original rock band has ever received.

A scant five months later, Voidville (which, in addition to Ward and Nikides, includes drummer Randy Blitz and bassist Shane Soloski) was inking a management contract with Andrea Starr, formerly a vice president of Virgin Music and Records and an executive at Overland Management in New York. While at Overland she managed bands like the Talking Heads, the B-52's, the Ramones, the Thompson Twins, and Jane's Addiction. In January of this year Starr opened the Andrea Starr Management company, and Voidville is one of her first projects since hanging her own shingle.

"Things are happening so fast. The energy's enormous," says Starr of her new client's prospects. "I've signed many bands. Tom Petty. Dwight Twilly. Nothing's moved as quickly as this. I listen to this tape [Voidville's demo] constantly. I played it for Joey [Ramone] and he absolutely flipped. It's a unique sound A strong, focused, powerful. Diane is amazingly talented and versatile. I just found out she's a drummer. As far as Diane's concerned, there's no category yet. She's going to put Miami on the map."

Like Ward and Karlzen, Nicole Yarling is a local rock vocalist who is getting some serious national attention. But she, unlike the other two, is not a blonde. To be more specific, Nicole Yarling is black.

Yarling is not alone when she wonders aloud whether her race and sex have prevented her band, Little Nicky and the Slicks, from being taken seriously as a rock band rather than an R&B or straight blues act.

"You always have to prove yourself, especially when you go on the road. It's kind of a challenge," says Yarling, who is also an accomplished violinist. "But I chose to do this and I know what comes with it. I guess I kind of like the climb."

After a dozen years as one of the area's most respected musicians (Yarling and her drummer husband, John, are constantly in demand for their seemingly effortless ability to play jazz, blues, rock, and even country), Yarling caught a break when Jimmy Buffett heard the Slicks perform at his Margaritaville Cafe in Key West and signed up the singing violinist to go on tour with him. She's been a regular for two years now, and has become an integral part of the tropical troubador's stage show. Gigging with the Slicks when she's not touring with the head parrot leaves Yarling little time to reflect on her good fortune. And a recent CD released by Buffett's MCA-distributed Margaritaville Records label, Margaritaville Cafe Late Night Menu, features two Little Nicky and the Slicks songs and two other compositions she either co-wrote or played on.

"Jimmy's really great to work with -- like he says, 'It's a great summer job.' Everything runs like clockwork. Top-of-the-line organization. There are fifteen people in the band and over 50 in the entourage, so it's a logistical nightmare. But the crew's like one big party -- no throwing TVs out hotel windows or anything like that; no dirt. Remember, I have to work with these people," Yarling laughs.

Yet the Little Nicky in her is still fighting for respect. "We've been playing original music for years and probably have as much name recognition as anyone. But the rock clubs don't take us seriously. Maybe it's because we don't play a lot of jangly guitar; it seems like that's something all the alternative bands have. Maybe it's because we're a little selective about what gigs we'll play. I understand that you've got a lot of young bands around that will play for whatever. I've worked with all the jazz people, Dizzy [Gillespie], Ira [Sullivan]. I've worked with all the blues people. I'm touring with Jimmy [Buffett]. I have a track record. People have known me for a long time. But I come home and sometimes I can't get a gig.

"One of the last things we did as the Slicks was Miami Rocks's opening night," Yarling says. "Something like that means a lot more to me than just going out and banging out tunes, knocking around the bar scene and playing for shitty money. It's like the difference between eating a real meal when you're really hungry as opposed to munching on cheese doodles and potato chips."

Yarling knows she will never be consigned to a cheese doodle diet as long as Linda Lou Nelson owns the Cactus Cantina on Sixth Street on South Beach. Nelson opened the joint in 1989 aspiring to "become the Tobacco Road of South Beach, a place where there would be live music every night," as she puts it.

"I've made a conscious effort to include women in the spotlight," Nelson asserts. "I grew up in the Sixties, I've always been involved in women's issues as a lawyer, and I may be the only female live music club owner in South Florida. This will be the fourth year we've held a Women in Music month in September, featuring a woman performing every night for the entire month, and we've sponsored the Women Rock Miami night of Miami Rocks the last two years."

The Cactus provides a regular venue for local acts such as the irrepressible Magda Hiller, an earthy singer-songwriter with a knockout voice and a bawdy sense of humor who has cooked up the club's Sunday night musical fare for the better part of a year. Vesper Sparrow, Mary Karlzen, Diane Ward (with and without Voidville), and Nicole Yarling have all played the club several times, as have countless other women over the years.

And the distaff influence doesn't end there. The Cactus is one of the few local clubs almost completely staffed by women, from general manager Nicole Hoge and kitchen boss Pattie Behnstedt to promotions director Ulla Nielsen and "slave laborers" (Behnstedt's description) Megan Saperstein and Jennifer Fletcher. (Not that Nelson discriminates; the Cactus also employs three male bartenders.)

While Nelson may be the only woman in South Florida who actually owns a rock-oriented live music club, Helaine Blum knows firsthand what it's like to manage one. From 1991 through April of this year, Blum served as promotions director at Squeeze, the popular Broward alternative nightclub, before assuming the reins as Black Janet's manager. Blum got involved in the local music scene later than most A she has a fifteen-year-old son who accompanied her to last year's Lollapalooza festival A after spending some time as the adult program director at Piper High School's alternative radio station, WKPX-FM, in the late Eighties.

Blum's duties at Squeeze were assumed by Lisa Cillo, a onetime substitute teacher at Piper High who had also followed Blum as the adult supervisor at WKPX. And continuing in Blum's footsteps, Cillo's long-range goals include band management; to that end she's taken rising talents Six Silver Spiders into her web.

Like Squeeze, Miami Beach's Stephen Talkhouse and Fort Lauderdale's Musicians Exchange are popular destinations for fans of homegrown music. Mia Johnson moved to Miami from Tampa in October and immediately immersed herself in original music, helping to organize the South Florida Rock Awards. A graduate of the University of South Carolina, Johnson is currently involved in booking and promotions at the Talkhouse, specializing in original bands. Rose Tucci is Johnson's counterpart at Musicians Exchange, booking the Broward nightlife fixture's original rock fare on Wednesdays.

The president of Broward-based Long Distance Entertainment, a multifaceted entertainment company that manages and promotes bands and books clubs and concerts, Darlene Delano has worked her share of original bands into clubs over the years. "I can remember when the roster of available original acts was less than one sheet of notebook paper long," she says. "Now it's more than twenty pages of computer printouts -- over 360 rock and alternative acts, and those are just the bands that we do business with. I've got way too many gray hairs for a woman my age; I've got a six-year-old daughter and a very understanding significant other and I've quit smoking three times already."

It's been pure pandemonium for Long Distance since January, when the company severed ties with the Cincinnati-based outfit they were originally affiliated with and embarked upon an aggressive expansion program. From a two-person operation (Adrian Biondo, a reformed music writer, has been with Delano almost from the start), Long Distance has grown to employ a staff of twelve, not including student interns.

"It's fair to say we're undergoing severe growing pains," admits Delano. "But we're one of the few (if not the only) companies that can take a local original band and still service them when they go national. It isn't easy, and a lot of times you have to keep your personal feelings out of it. There are a lot of bands that I book every day that I would never go see, but they make a lot of money, and there are other bands I love that I can't book very often because they don't make enough. You can't lose sight of the fact that it's a business." (Delano is far too savvy to tell a nosy music writer which bands fall under which category.)

Ironically, the woman who has had the greatest influence on Miami's original rock scene might be neither a member of a band nor a behind-the-scenes businessperson. Kay Kramer, mother of Matt (former Saigon Kick lead singer), is a vocal coach (she prefers the term "voice technician") who, in addition to her famous rock star son, counts Mary Karlzen, Valerie Archon (of the Bellefires), Kathy Fleischmann, Cindy Ditto (of the band Ditto), Robert Melendez (formerly of Coral Gables), and Rene Alvarez (Forget the Name) among her clients.

In action, Kramer, who has studied voice virtually her entire adult life, including fifteen years of opera training, is a little like a benevolent drill sergeant. "I'm not an easy teacher, but an effective one," is how she puts it.

"It's something I believe in with all my heart," she adds. "The voice is part of a whole person. Singers are the only musicians who carry their instruments inside their body. A voice is not like a guitar, where if you break a string you can just go out and buy another one. I specialize in singers who have suffered some vocal damage, and if I think the damage is serious enough, I may have them stop singing and talking -- not using your speaking voice properly can harm your singing. It's a strenuous art if done correctly, and I try to build a solid foundation through creative visualization and yoga. Rock singers have to be on top of things physically as well as vocally.

"Nobody ever reaches the point where they can afford to quit studying A not even Pavarotti. When you think you're green, you're growing. When you think you're ripe, you're rotten."

Words of wisdom for women whose musical prospects look green indeed.

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