Blackbird on a Wire

Ayelet Yagil
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The New York Times said she had an "animal presence." The Village Voice described her as "rock pioneer, earth mother, and survivor." Yet the average rock fan has never heard of Genya Ravan. A Polish-born Holocaust survivor who led the first female rock band in the United States, appeared with Lou Reed, recorded with Bruce Springsteen and worked with Mick Jagger (and slept with him, too), Ravan doesn't get many inches in histories of rock `n' roll. And this is exactly what the singer, now living in relative anonymity in New York, is trying to rectify with her recently published book, "Lollipop Lounge: Memoirs of a Rock and Roll Refugee" (Billboard Books, 304 pages).

Ravan is a true rock pioneer, a woman with a powerhouse voice and a personality to match who lived a life of unbounded permissiveness long before that lifestyle became fashionable. Forty-two years ago she founded the breakthrough women's band Goldie and the Gingerbreads in New York, though the band's major success came in Britain and represented something of an American response to the "British invasion" (of rock groups) at the time (Andrew Loog Oldham, the manager of the Rolling Stones, extolled Ravan because she "had the balls to come to the U.K. when it ruled the musical waves" - the quote appears as a blurb on the book jacket). Ravan afterward became the first female musical producer at a major record company and a godparent of the New York punk scene.

However, a series of business and personal failures and setbacks thrust her into the abyss of drugs and alcohol. But unlike others of the time - Janis Joplin, say, to whom Ravan was frequently compared - she survived the roller-coaster ride of the male rock world with the toughness and boldness of someone who has nothing to lose, a character trait she herself attributes to her childhood in the Holocaust. She is truly a "rock and roll refugee."

Ravan was born Genyusha Zelkowitz in Lodz, Poland in 1940. She knows very little about her family from the prewar period, and the war years, too, are little more than spotty memories. She knows that her two older brothers perished in the Holocaust and that she and her parents and her older sister Helenka were sent to a forced-labor camp at Skarzysko-Kamienna near Kielce, Poland. After the camp came under Russian control, the Zelkowitz family was relocated to a Russian camp. One thing she learned in the camps, she writes, was how to hide her feelings, "because to cry or show emotion meant that you would be singled out and punished."

After being "shuffled from one camp to another," the family escaped, the parents carrying Genya and Helen. She remembers hiding in a field, terrified, and how they crossed the Black Forest by hanging on to the outside steps of a train that was too full for them to enter. She remembers clinging to her father with all her might and seeing below her a raging river as her father shouted to her mother that he could no longer hold on.

Her next memory was formed at a DP camp in New Freiman, Germany, from which she and her family were sent to their freedom. "There were two refugee ships there. One was bound for Palestine, the other for the United States. Since the lists were alphabetized and our surname began with Z, we were put on the boat that was bound for the United States," she says in a telephone interview from her home in New York. In January 1947, after spending three weeks at Ellis Island, they were housed in a single room in a hotel, the accommodation paid for by a Jewish couple, Harry and Sheila Solomon, their sponsors through the Joint Distribution Committee welfare agency. After the refugee family was more established, the Solomons loaned Genya's father money to buy a candy store.

Genya Zelkowitz grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an area teeming with refugees and immigrants. Her mother renamed her Goldie, believing it was more American. ("She didn't know it was a completely Yiddish name," Ravan says today.) The atmosphere at home was gloomy, as her parents refused to talk about the past and what they had undergone, but also had no understanding of the language and culture of their new country. "I grew up with two very depressed people," she says. "Mother lost her whole family, including an identical twin sister. But we couldn't talk about that. Whenever I asked her about that time, she started to cry."

Ravan had a rigid upbringing. "My mother lived in fear 24 hours a day and demanded that I come home straight from school. She didn't want me to have friends. When I begged for roller skates, she brought me one skate - because that way, she said, I wouldn't fall down and get hurt. And my father - I used to call him `Dick Tracy' because he followed me everywhere."

Ravan responded to this treatment by growing up wild and developing a rebellious personality. She lied, evaded her parents and used foul language at home: "I would say `fuck' a lot, because my parents had no idea what the word meant." Her parents kept a kosher home until 11-year-old Goldie decided to fry bacon for lunch one day. A couple of years later she joined a street gang and wore jeans, even though the girls in the family were not allowed to wear them. "But on the Lower East Side they were part of a girl's survival gear: your panties didn't show when you got knocked down," she writes in her autobiography. She kept a pair of jeans hidden in the hallway in her building, next to the garbage cans, and put them on after leaving the house. Even though she was also forbidden to go out with non-Jews, her first boyfriend was a Puerto Rican named Colorado. Years later he would be memorialized in a song she recorded with Lou Reed. (The song, and others, can be heard at; Ravan's Web site is

A black man who worked in her father's store and whom Ravan called "Uncle Louie" (his real name was Luther Highsmith) was responsible for her initial musical education. He bought her a radio and got her to listen to a black-music station in New Jersey; she was enthralled by what she heard. Later, Louie brought her a record player and a record by the blues singer Etta James, and thus she discovered the "black" voice within her. Indeed, throughout her career, whether she has sung sweet pop songs or rock ballads, her voice has always sounded "black" - deep, coarse and fraught with emotion. Ironically, it was Etta James, of all people, who scolded her, 20 years later, for having the effrontery to try to pass herself off as black.

When Ravan was 17, her parents, in the best Polish tradition, decided to marry her off to Irving, a well-to-do Jewish man of 28, who was a friend of her sister Helen's husband, in what turned out to be a disastrous mistake. When Irving left for work in his father's business in the morning, his young bride, who dreamed of dates with boys her own age, amused herself at home by singing into a tape recorder. "I knew then," she writes, "that singing satisfied me more than anything else I knew how to do." As for other satisfactions, she had agreed, albeit against her will, to be married, but refused to consummate the marriage. After this state of affairs had gone on for a time, "I realized that I had only two options: I could put out or get out." She decided to get out.

She pawned her four-carat diamond wedding ring for $400 and left for California on the back of a Harley Davidson owned by someone she knew casually from the neighborhood. But not long after arriving in Los Angeles and getting entangled in an affair with two brothers at the same time, she started to miss her family and decided to return to New York. The deserted husband paid for the plane ticket, thinking she was returning to him. But in New York she filed for annulment of the marriage on the grounds that it was unconsummated.

She rented a place with another girl, Jeannie, whom she had met on the subway, and began to make a living by doing "cheesecake [semi-nude] modeling." "I had a body to kill for. I had breasts that stood up forever," she says in an interview for the Stereo Society (, and she posed for magazines for $100 an hour. Shel Silverstein, the future songwriter and children's author who was then a Playboy cartoonist, asked her to pose at a nudist colony that the magazine was running an article about. "I refused to be photographed for Playboy because I knew my father sold the magazine in his store. In the end I asked Silverstein to photograph me only from the back, on a mat in the pool, but my sister identified me anyway."

The turning point in her life was a chance occurrence. In 1961 she went with some girlfriends to the Lollipop Lounge, a Brooklyn club, to see a group called the Escorts, who were doing oldies. The leader of the band, Richard Perry, would become a major record producer in the 1970s, working with Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross and Ringo Starr among many others. Somewhat intoxicated, she declared she wanted to get up and sing. "Jeannie dared me to go to the stage and try to get the band to let me sing. Naturally, I accepted the dare," she writes. "I pulled on the lead singer's sleeve right in the middle of a song. He ignored me at first, so I yanked his arm again. `What do you want?' he asked, understandably pissed off. `I wanna sing!' I told him. `Can't you wait until this song's over?'" After the song she leaped onto the stage and belted out "Stupid Cupid," the Connie Francis hit. Impressed, Perry asked for her phone number. "I thought he just wanted to make it with me, which wasn't what I wanted. Believe it or not, I was still a virgin."

Perry instead asked her to become the group's lead singer. She joined the Escorts, sometimes doing six gigs a night. After a few singles, the big success of Goldie and the Escorts came with a new version of "Somewhere," from "West Side Story," which reached number one on local charts in Detroit and Canada. Goldie hated the song, which she called "white shit music." She didn't like the band's direction; she wanted to move into a style closer to rhythm and blues and soul.

She got her wish in 1962. One evening, after a show by the Escorts, she went with Perry to a club where a friend of his was appearing. His band had a female drummer named Ginger Bianco. She and Ravan became friends and started to dream of an all-women's band. After successfully auditioning a keyboard artist named Margo Crocitto, they decided to form a band called Goldie and the Gingerbreads. "They were both Italian," Ravan relates, "and I find a great similarity between Italians and Jews. But I was definitely the loudest and most aggressive of all of us."

Goldie and the Gingerbreads was considered a breakthrough group because they were a band in the full sense of the word. The three members were skilled musicians who wrote their own songs and lugged their own equipment - amplifiers and a Hammond organ - before and after the performance. The group had a rough, rock sound (in contrast to the "girl groups" of the time, like the Supremes and the Ronettes, with their silky smooth pop production values). Nor was the group afraid to integrate jazz and rhythm and blues in their repertoire, and Goldie's "black voice" set them apart from other white all-female groups such as the Shangri-Las.

However, the start wasn't easy. The search for other suitable musicians was exhausting: "What mother would encourage her little darling to play drums or bass or trombone back then? ... Rock `n' roll was what juvenile delinquents did, not young ladies," she writes. The trio worked with a series of inappropriate guitarists.

Still, getting gigs was no problem. The magic words "girl group" opened doors for them. Bars would publicize them as "Goldie and the Gingerbreads - Girls! Girls! All girls!" They also got paid more than men's groups. "The fact that we worked in a chauvinist industry that was controlled by men worked in our favor then," she says today. They weren't selective, appearing in every possible venue, from clubs to bowling alleys ("You could only hear my vocals between strikes") and military bases, where they befriended all the soldiers, white and black alike. When they were told that their hobnobbing with the black troops would cause race riots, they stopped talking to all the soldiers as a mark of protest. They also refused to appear in the southern states because of their opposition to racial segregation.

In 1962 the group got its first big break when they were approached by a talent agency to be the opening act for Chubby Checker in Germany. Goldie was not eager to return to Germany, where she had been in a DP camp 15 years earlier, but as Crocitto reminded her, "the Germans are paying us. We were taking from them, not them from us," she writes. Before leaving for Germany, she had a large ring made - "a white gold Jewish star with a huge cubic zirconia in the middle. Wherever we went I would show off my ring. Every chance I had, I would go into a jewelry store and ask for a Jewish star. In one small town a proprietor said, `You vill not find a Jewish star in dis store,' and I started to curse and yell. The girls had to pull me out."

Goldie and the Animals

Goldie and the Gingerbreads returned to the United States in 1963. They now found a suitable guitarist, named Carol MacDonald. MacDonald's vague sexuality appealed to Goldie, who was looking for a multi-sexual image for the group. She herself usually went onstage in a gilded outfit without a bra. "That was radical at the time, but I wanted the audience to drool over us. I also wanted both boys and girls to desire us."

In 1964, Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records and the person responsible for launching the careers of legends such as Aretha Franklin, saw the group perform at the Peppermint Lounge in New York. He was so impressed that he signed them to a contract a week later. Goldie and the Gingerbreads were the first women's band signed by a major record company.

In June 1964, when the Rolling Stones came to New York, Jerry Shatzberg, a well-known photographer, asked Goldie and the Gingerbreads to perform at a private party he was holding for them and for the celebrity model Baby Jane Holzer. In her autobiography, Ravan quotes the description of the event by the journalist and writer Tom Wolfe in his first book, "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby": "[They are] all electric, electric guitars, electric bass, drums, loudspeakers, and a couple of spotlights exploding off the gold lame [in which they are dressed]. Baby baby baby where did our love go. The music suddenly fills up the room like a giant egg slicer ... Suddenly everybody is out there in the gloaming, bobbing up and down with the music plugged into Baby baby baby."

At one of the group's shows at the top rock club Wagon Wheel, two members of the British rock group the Animals came in. Eric Burdon, the group's soloist, was stunned by Ravan. "There was so much feeling in Goldie's voice that I was stunned to find such a `black' sound could be produced by a group of white girls," he said later (he is quoted at

Mike Jeffries, the Animals' manager, offered the group his services and invited them to do a series of performances in Britain. At the same time, Goldie began an affair with the Animals' guitarist, Hilton Valentine. Later, in a letter from the U.K., Ravan writes, she mentioned that she was dating Hilton Valentine of the Animals. Her mother "boasted about this to her neighbor: `Mine daughter is going mit an animal.' `Don't worry, Goldie's a smart girl, she'll know how to handle him,' the woman replied."

When they first arrived in London, the group stayed at "The Animals House," a "beautiful duplex on a cobblestoned alley - or, in English parlance, a mews," she writes, where the Animals were living. But enthusiasm for the royal quarters turned to shock when Goldie entered Burdon's room and discovered World War II memorabilia: "There were books about Hitler everywhere, and uniforms, clothes, and war helmets hung on the walls. The group soon quit the "Nazi Hut," as Ravan calls it, and moved to a hotel.

In their British appearances in early 1965, the group opened for many of the era's top groups - the Animals, of course, but also the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Yardbirds. "In the United States we were a curiosity, because we were women, and we also sounded too black for people to appreciate us properly. In England we were treated as equals and people knew we were good musicians. Sometimes people gave us a standing ovation before the Stones came on."

While in England, she reveals in her book, she slept not only with members of the Animals, the Kinks and Manfred Mann, but with Jagger, too. The other women in the group were repelled by the idea ("`Ugh, how could you?' They thought his mouth was awful. Not me, though. I liked his mouth just fine.") Jagger even wrote a song for her, but she didn't record it because it was too pop for her taste.

Bad management deprived Goldie and the Gingerbreads of the success they coveted back home. "Can't You Hear My Heart Beat?", the group's pop single produced by Alan Price, the Animals' keyboard player, did well in Britain, but the group was barred from releasing it in the U.S. The producer Mickie Most, the former partner of Animals manager Mike Jeffries, accused Price of taking the song from him without his permission. After this setback, Goldie and the Gingerbreads lost their momentum, and though they released several singles in the U.S., they never cut a complete album. The fact that the media focused its attention on Goldie also caused a rift between her and the other women in the band and she began to go her own way.

In 1966, Oldham, the Rolling Stones' manager, signed Goldie as a solo artist on his label, Immediate Records. The result was just one single, "Going Back," which was eventually scrapped. But that same year, Goldie had a hit she didn't even know about. She was invited to a London studio by Island Records to do background vocals for the producer Chris Blackwell, who owned the label. "Of course I said yes; it was going to be a superstar session, with Spencer Davis, Stevie Winwood, and Georgie Fame and his horn section, and I was going to do the background singing along with my friends Madeline Bell and Dusty Springfield," Ravan writes. After the session, when Bell and Springfield had left, "I stayed to hang out with all the musicians." She sat down at the piano and began to play a 1950s R&B song, "Disappointed Bride." The musicians joined in and the song was taped.

"Chris said, `This is sounding so black that we can't say it's you, Goldie.'" She was also under contract to Decca at the time. For the song, Blackwell gave her a new name, Patsy Cole. She later discovered that it had been a big hit in Jamaica, but never heard the finished product until 1997.

In 1968, Goldie returned to America and to Goldie and the Gingerbreads. (The group had split up in 1967; Goldie stayed in Europe, the others returned home.) The keyboard player, Margo Crocitto, also came back to New York from Los Angeles, where she had been working as a Playboy bunny. The musical reunion marked the romantic reunion of Goldie and Carol MacDonald, the guitarist. Goldie had already slept with MacDonald once, out of curiosity, but this time the affair lasted for two years. "My relationship with her was the best I ever had. I also had the most fun of any relationship I've been in. It was sensitive, giving and caring," she writes. The two moved into Goldie's old room at her parents' place (her parents never said a word) and later moved to their own apartment. However, neither the group's reunion nor the relationship lasted - Crocitto left the group and Goldie split up with Carol (who, it turned out, had cheated on her with a "high-priced hooker"). Goldie's conclusion: "The whole women's-band concept that had promised and delivered so much was now degenerating into headaches and heartaches. I yearned to work with male musicians," she writes.

It was time to look for a new musical direction. After hearing the first album of Blood, Sweat and Tears, Goldie decided to find that direction in a band that would fuse rock with jazz and rhythm and blues, including a horn section. She also decided to readopt her real name, Genya, and looked around for a catchier surname than Zelkowitz. The drummer she was working with then told her, "`You sound so black when you sing. Why don't you name yourself something black? Raven or something?' Hm. `Genya Raven.' Yeah. Liked it. Maybe I would spell it a bit differently, though, and use an `a' instead of an `e.' Yeah, Genya Ravan."


When she heard that two musicians from New Jersey, Michael Zager and Aram Schefrin, were looking for a singer, she jumped at the chance. In 1969 the three, along with seven other musicians, formed Ten Wheel Drive, a rock-blues-jazz group with a horn section, just as she had dreamed.

The shift from leading a women's group to leading a men's group was unsettling. "The dynamics were completely different," she says. "In Goldie and the Gingerbreads we were all huggy-kissy and sentimental. When one of us had her period, the others would make sure she had tampons. We were very close to one another, sisters. Suddenly I found myself with a bunch of men, and jazz players on top of it, the world's biggest chauvinists." Another problem, she recalls in the book, was that she "didn't understand lots of the lyrics. Aram, the lyricist, had graduated from Harvard. I'd learned how to speak English when I was eight years old and had quit high school at sixteen. At every rehearsal I had to ask him things like `What does that word "lapidary" mean?' Eventually I bought a dictionary so I could understand at least half the words I had to sing."

In the summer of 1969, Ten Wheel Drive, which had been performing at small places, such as The Bitter End on Bleecker Street in the West Village, got an offer of a major gig at the legendary rock club Fillmore East. It was an unforgettable concert. The hippie scene was at its height and Ravan came onstage wearing a chastity belt over hip-hugging jeans - and topless, red stars with blue outlines painted on her breasts. The record company executives loved it and the crowd went wild. Afterward, Ravan continued to perform wearing transparent blouses or no blouse at all.

Despite the gimmick, she missed the chance for glory again. The organizers of the Woodstock event invited Ten Wheel Drive to appear there, "but the horn players didn't want to do it because there was no money involved and our managers weren't strong enough to make them. Bad choice on the horn players' part," she writes. Within the band, Ravan continued to mix business and pleasure, having an affair with Schefrin, who was married, and also getting pregnant.

In 1972, after having an abortion, she again felt the time had come to move on and left the band to embark on a solo career. With typical bluntness, she describes her first LP, "Genya Ravan" (1972), as "my masturbation record." It contained cover versions of songs by Leonard Cohen, Steven Stills and others, without a connecting thread of any kind. After the album's release she went on tour with Sly & the Family Stone. During a concert in New Jersey, her big mouth got her in trouble. While onstage she used the word "fuck" liberally, arousing the ire of Muhammad Ali, who was in the audience with his family. Ali demanded that the show's producer call the police, who arrived and arrested Ravan for obscenity. She spent the night in a holding cell, the police gawking at her see-through blouse, then was released on bail and was acquitted in the trial on the grounds that there was nothing amiss in the use of the word "fuck" as long as it was not used to incite a riot.

In July 1972 she was invited to appear on Johnny Carson's "Tonight" show. Her outspoken language and outgoing character prompted Carson to say, dryly, "The way I see it is that you have just one problem. You're too shy and introverted." Even though the television appearance was a success, it brought about the end of her record contract with CBS, which the company had bought from Polydor for $100,000. Clive Davis of CBS decided to let her go because the appearance on the Carson show hurt her image, he thought. Ravan quotes Davis's 1973 autobiography, in which he described Ravan as "a funky, earthy singer." He added, "She appeared on the Johnny Carson show wearing an evening gown ... it was ridiculous because she is a singer in the [Janis] Joplin tradition with a throaty powerful voice." She says in the book, "I now believe that what Clive really wanted was a replacement for the late Janis Joplin ... That clearly wasn't what I wanted and it wasn't what he got."

Ravan again found herself on an emotional roller coaster. Within a few days, she fell from the peak of a successful appearance on America's top talk show to the depths of rejection. Her reaction was to head for Hollywood.

Through Richard Perry, her old friend from the Escorts period, she networked herself into the Los Angeles musical scene and released her second solo album, "They Love Me, They Love Me Not" (1973). "It didn't exactly sink without trace," she writes, "but it didn't exactly swim, either." While recording her next album she became pregnant by a Japanese painter, and at the same time was informed that her father was dying. She returned to New York and as soon as the shiva was over, she had another abortion. She decided to call the new album "Goldie Zelkowitz," as "a way of preserving my father's name. Because of World War II, he was the last of his line," she writes in the autobiography.

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