Hit It and Quit It: Hail to the Lady Drummers!

karen carpenter

Imagine a Leave it to Beaver episode that opens with Ward Cleaver entering his home and hearing a live rock band.  He walks into his kitchen and does a double-take when he sees his quintessential 1950s wife, June, not cooking a pot roast but cooking behind a drum kit between two long-haired, male guitarists. Pretty unheard of at the time.

In Viola Smith’s case, thanks to her astute Pop, she began drumming professionally in 1925 at the age of thirteen in order to accompany her seven sisters and one brother in a band that happened to be managed by her dad.  While her siblings stopped playing music in public, she never stopped pounding the skins in mostly all-men bands–until she was 106 years old! She could look back at a career that featured her turning down Benny Goodman’s offer to join his band, receiving endorsement deals from Ludwig drums, playing at Harry Truman’s inauguration, and drumming in the first Broadway run of Cabaret.

But for those woman drummers, life was far from a cabaret; as Ann “Honey” Lantree (whose manager renamed her “Honey’) of The Honeycombs would attest. Journalists wondered if she was in the band only as a gimmick and didn’t even play drums on their feet-stomping hit “Have I the Right.”

“We couldn’t do nothing about it,” Honeycombs guitarist Martin Murray lamented.  “Just deny it, which is the truth.”

Their smash hit was produced by Joe Meek, England’s version of Phil Spector.  These two eccentrics were well-known as maverick producers and idiosyncratic artists with murder raps: Spector killed actress Lana Clarkson and Meek murdered his landlady because he thought she was acting as a spy for Spector.

The Honeycombs’ time with Meek and their success was short-lived but affected Lantree for a long time.  She stated: “It was very traumatic.  I was still living at home with my parents and I went back to hairdressing.  People still recognized me and it was hard to get on with a new life.”

Drummer/singer Jan Errico could certainly relate to Ann; especially in the name-change department.  In an attempt to sound more British and thus more commercial, Jan Errico became “Jan Ashton.”  Jan, whose cousin Greg played drums for Sly and the Family Stone, went on to drum and sing for the Vejtables, a band produced by Sly. The folk-rock group had only fleeting success with the #83 hit in 1965, the very poppy “I Still Love You.”  She left this one-hit-wonder group for another one-and-done gang called the Mojo Men, whose version of Stephen Stills’ “Sit Down I Think I Love You” deservedly reached #36 in 1967.  Two years later, Jan and the Mojos were not working.

While Jan and Honey longed to have more hits, Karen Carpenter longed to be a full-time drummer.  She even identified herself as “a drummer who just sings.”  But it’s hard to argue with worldwide success or her brother, Richard, who wisely put session superstar Hal Blaine behind a drum kit and Karen in front of a mike; whereupon she became a great singer who rarely played drums.  On the Carpenters’ fifth album, Now and Then, Karen did get to drum on every song (except one).

Conversely, Moe Tucker drummed on every Lou Reed-led Velvet Underground album except arguably their best one, Loaded, which she missed because she was pregnant.  Her charming voice sang “After Hours” and the sweet “I’m Sticking With You;” which was featured in a 2021 commercial for a Bronx hospital.

At least when Moe returned to the group, she didn’t have to contend with her ex-husband being in the band—as was drummer Meg White’s fate with Jack.

Perhaps her years of spending so much time with Jack caused her ex to cancel the White Stripes’ 2007 tour, citing that Meg was suffering from acute anxiety and unable to travel. Or, maybe it was the thin-skinned Jack who was suffering because Meg wasn’t one to stroke an ego.  Jack noted in 2014: “She’s one of those people who won’t high-five me when I get a touchdown.  She viewed me that way of ‘Oh, big deal, you did it, so what?’”

No word if Jack wanted to employ another female drummer to take Meg’s place in 2007 only to discover that her replacement had died in 2006:  The Shaggs’ Helen Wiggin.

-Mark Daponte

Photo: Karen Carpenter (public domain)

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Mark Daponte is a copy/blog writer for an advertising company and has published/sold four short stories, three full length screenplays, nine short screenplays (including two animation scripts) and punches up screenplays—because they don’t punch back. He has had six short comedic plays performed by various theater companies, including one in Los Angeles, (Sacred Fools) and Sacramento, CA (Sacramento Actors Theater Company). When he isn’t sinking down to a thirteen-year-old’s level to make his teenaged sons laugh, he can be found seeking signs of intelligent life in his hometown of Brooklyn, NY.

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