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Genya Ravan is an important rock & roll personality and influential vocalist and record producer, born Genya Zelkowitz on April 19, 1945, in Lodz, Poland. Her mom later changed her name to Goldie Zelkowitz, Ravan taking her birth name back when she formed the band Ten Wheel Drive. When her parents left Poland, they went into a Russian camp. The singer kindly gave personal details of her youth to AMG on April 4, 2002: "We lost everyone. I never had an aunt or an uncle, I had two brothers, they died. I never met my grandparents, it was me and my sister and my mom and dad. They came from big families and saw all of them die. We escaped to the U.S. via a ship. We were DPs and went straight to Ellis Island."
Young Goldie Zelkowitz never knew she could sing until in her late teens "then I picked up alto sax, drums, and harmonica." In the summer of 1962, she asked to sing with the Escorts (not Felix Cavaliere's band from Syracuse University nor the '50s group or U.K. band of the same name) who were performing at the Lollipop Lounge in Brooklyn, NY. She remembers it was the summer because: "I had pants that showed my belly button, they could not get their eyes off it." Soon, she was rehearsing with the band and became the first girlfriend of Richard Perry, bass vocalist in the group and the man who would go on to produce Ringo Starr, Carly Simon, Leo Sayer, the Pointer Sisters, and so many others. The band recorded and released a few singles on Coral Records in 1962 and 1963: "Somewhere" b/w "Submarine Race Watching," "I Can't Be Free" b/w "One Hand, One Heart," and "Something Has Changed Him" b/w "Back Home Again."
After she left the Escorts, Zelkowitz formed Goldie & the Gingerbreads, an original all-female band that was only the first of many firsts for Zelkowitz. All girls in a man's music world was as daunting a task as a woman trying to become president of the United States. Petula Clark, Lulu, Cilla Black, Skeeter Davis, and Kitty Wells simply did not have a crew of women backing them up. Where the Go-Go's became a bit of a novelty years later, the people who came before that hit '80s band, Goldie & the Gingerbreads, Fanny, and later, Isis, all had a harder edge and would have done more for the cause's credibility had they had the hit singles to go along with their critical acclaim.
In the new millennium "women's music" is a huge industry with Dar Williams, Phranc, Ferron, and others making waves around the world, but they all owe a debt to the work of Zelkowitz and her original international pop group. The gals released singles on Decca and Immediate in the U.K., with "Can't You Hear My Heart Beat," produced by Alan Price of the Animals, hitting on the British charts. Their manager was Michael Jeffries who split from producer Mickie Most and kept Goldie & the Gingerbreads and the Animals under his wing (and, of course, Jimi Hendrix later through the Animals' Chas Chandler). Most took Herman's Hermits with him and that band had a hit with "Can't You Hear My Heart Beat" in America. Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun signed Goldie & the Gingerbreads to his Atco imprint and released their singles in the U.S. After the Gingerbreads, Zelkowitz former the electric and brass rock group Ten Wheel Drive and Genya Ravan was born.
A drummer named Les Demerle told Ravan she should use her real name instead of Goldie and that she sounded so black she should call herself "raven," as in blackbird, but she wanted it spelled different, thus Ravan. This is the fellow who turned Ravan onto Bill Takas and the Breckers and how she knew enough jazz musicians to put together Ten Wheel Drive. She met Aram Schefrin and Mike Zager through her manager, Billy Fields. "He had a friend in New Jersey that said he had two incredible writers looking for someone to start a band with. Billy Fields was close to Sid Bernstein and they went on to manage all of us," she said.
The band recorded three albums for Polydor with the rhythm and horn sections changing constantly. Judy Collins' bassist Bill Takas and Buzzy Linhart/Bette Midler drummer Luther "Leon" Rix were members of the original Ten Wheel Drive on their Construction #1 album. Ravan was and is friends with Linhart, and it is interesting how Rix would play with Midler, and Midler would make a grand statement in her film The Rose with Ravan's signature tune from Ten Wheel Drive days, Jerry Ragovoy's "Stay With Me." Midler may have used it as the show-stopper in her motion picture, which was loosely based on the life of Ravan's contemporary, Janis Joplin (the two women played on the same bills at times), but it is the Ten Wheel Drive/Genya Ravan version which is definitive and timeless, the prototype never surpassed when Kiki Dee, John Verity, and even Midler took it on.
After leaving Ten Wheel Drive for a solo career, she had philosophical disagreements with Clive Davis at Columbia Records and her self-titled album debut had, like Ten Wheel Drive, too many directions. Not content to be the new Janis Joplin for CBS, the singer instinctively knew her value as an extraordinary vocalist and music pioneer. The album features the band Baby backing Ravan up, and myriad producers, though she felt more comfortable with Zager and Schefrin handling that chore. The 1972 single, not on the album, "Morning Glory," is a fine example of what could have been. It is important to note, though, that this was not Ravan's solo debut — there was an Island Records 45 rpm released in 1966 under the name Patsy Cole. "This is a whole other story," she said. "I walked in on a session in London to do background with Dusty Springfield. When she left, the session was over. I started to play piano and sing an old song that Baby Washington & the Hearts did and Chris Blackwell loved it, so he said 'Let's roll tape' and he had to give me another name, I was under contract, and that single went on to be a hit in Jamaica and I believe it got to number one. I had Spencer Davis, Georgie Fame horns, and Stevie Winwood playing on that single under the name Patsy Cole."
Zager & Schefrin re-formed yet another Ten Wheel Drive and released an album in 1974 on EMI with latter-day Rascals vocalist Annie Sutton performing one Ravan co-write, "Why Am I So Easy to Leave." Meanwhile, Ravan went on to cut more solo records, a brilliant Goldie Zelkowitz with the underrated Gabriel Mekler producing for Janus Records, They Love Me, They Love Me Not with the late Rolling Stones producer Jimmy Miller and Stones' engineer Joe Zagarino producing, and the incredible body of work kept building, with no noticeable Top 40 chart recognition that songs on the albums warranted. She reunited with Miller in 1986 for the unreleased Buddy Guy tapes that also feature Nils Lofgren, Aerosmith's Joe Perry, singer Jo Jo Laine, and others. During the sessions in Warren, RI, both she and Miller got on-stage to jam with Buddy Guy while he performed an evening show at one of the city's nighclubs. It was absolutely magical. Ravan took things into her own hands and the "significant projects (are) Urban Desire and ...And I Mean It! (both on 20th Century)...because I wrote most of it and I got to produce it. (They were) also the best sellers for me." Indeed, Ravan began producing for other acts, most notably the groundbreaking punk band the Dead Boys for Sire Records, and then Ronnie Spector's Siren album for Ravan's own imprint, Polish Records, with the handle "Who Do I F*** to Get Off This Label?"
Outside of women producing themselves, Genya Ravan was the very first woman to produce significant male bands. "Sonic Reducer" by the Dead Boys is an underground classic and was one of the better-sounding discs when Sire Records started heralding the new wave rock movement. Ravan has produced numerous groups, from Joy Rider released on Polydor in Europe to the Crumbsuckers, Certain General, Long John Baldrey, Kool & the Gang, Tiny Tim, and many, many others. Her visibility as a vocalist is at times overshadowed by the huge amount of production and industry work that she took on, from promotion to A&R at various labels.
In 2001, she released For Fans Only, a collection of songs recorded over the years available only from her website, www.genyaravan.com. She has been a painter and has recorded music, and at the dawn of the new millennium was busy writing a book/screenplay about her incredible life in the music industry. From major girl group and blues vocalist to pioneering record producer and having performed with Steve Winwood, Dusty Springfield, Buddy Guy, Kool & the Gang, and so many others as an artist, the music industry would be a different place without the vast contributions of Genya Ravan, contributions that the world has still failed to recognize.
1940 in Lódz, Poland