Celebrating 50 years of women’s music
Olivia Records, the pioneering women’s music label, was born 50 years ago, the result of a casual conversation between songwriters Meg Christian and Cris Williamson. While being interviewed on a Washington, DC radio program in 1973, Christian began talking about the obstacles women faced in the music business.
As Williamson recalls: “The idea for a women’s recording company slipped off my tongue, and off the top of my brain, in an interview with a group of women in a recorded interview for Sophie’s Parlor, the first women’s radio show. These women (Meg, me, Judy Dlucagz, Ginny Berson and a few others) took that idea and ran with it, trudged with it, dreamed it, talked about it and made it happen. We made it a reality in the lives of so many. It took so many, lots of faith and belief in something good, something better than was happening anywhere. Hard to believe it was 50 years ago. Oh, how the years slip by. I truly believe we changed the world.”
Williamson’s first album for the label, The Changer and the Changed, was one of the first hits of the Women’s Music Movement. It remains one of the best-selling albums to come out of the genre. As of this writing, it has sold enough copies to qualify for a gold record and is on National Public Radio’s list of The Greatest Albums Made by Women.
“It wasn’t the first woman’s music record, but it sure was mighty,” Williamson said. “Meg’s album, I Know You Know, was an all-women production and was the first album on Olivia. Then came Changer. We found a studio that would let us work in a closed-door fashion, so we could at least make our own mistakes, with no one hovering over us.
“I did the whole album by myself at first, playing the songs I’d played for a long time already. I listened to it over the weekend and decided I wanted to add other musicians,” Williamson recalled. “It was shocking for Olivia at first, but I knew intuitively that I was right. So many women heard about the making of this album, and about Olivia, and they wanted in.”
Williamson was joined in the studio by guitarists Meg Christian and June Millington, famous for her guitar work with the all-woman rock band, Fanny; bass and cello player Jackie Robbins; drummer Jackie Furman; and back-up singers Holly Near and Margie Adams, both now icons in the women’s music movement. Its fusion of country, folk and pop still sounds modern today.
“It was a scary big thing for me to do, producing it,” Williamson said. “People were depending on me. I had to grow up fast and pull this off, something that had never been done before. I think we were all dumbfounded at its success, and it continues to this day. I didn’t approach it as though I were going to make the album of all time. I had no time for that much intention, nor the desire. I just wanted it to be beautiful, and it is.”
The Changer and the Changed will provide part of the soundtrack for Olivia’s 50th Anniversary Celebration at the Freight and Salvage on Jan. 6 and 7. Performers will include Vicki Randle (formerly percussionist with The Tonight Show Band); Shelley Doty, Kofy Brown and Katie Cash, Randal’s band mates in Skip the Needle; Ingrid and Ty from Mouths of Babes; Barbara Higbie; Mary Watkins; Julie Wolf; and other special guests.
“This reunion concert has been in the making for some time,” Christian said. “COVID prevented it from happening, as it just was not safe for all of us to get together. I knew I wanted to do something different, so I thought to ask the help of Skip The Needle, with Vicki and Shelly, a rock band that lifts you off the floor, as well as other fine players from the Bay Area. They all come from various points on the musical spectrum and will bring new life to these venerated tunes.
“We have done a version of this show before, two years ago, but because new things are added, we will definitely be rehearsing. My long-time friend, Vicki Randle, is the musical director for all of us. Vicki is currently rehearsing the band. I will join them for rehearsals, just ahead of the shows,” Christian continued. “Everybody gets a solo turn, especially in the special first set, and together, we all do The Changer album from top to bottom to close out the nights. Together, we will provide a taste of pretty much everything.”
Williamson said the concert would be COVID safe. “At this time, I am not doing shows if there isn’t a masking policy and good ventilation. The Freight has a powerful HVAC/HEPA system and graciously honored our masking request. In addition, the only ones without masks, at any time during the show, are the artists, who test daily.
“Live shows are absolutely heaven on earth for me, a chance to shine and do what I love to do. I am so at home on the stage. I never forget how I got there and all the many years where no one came for me. Now they do, and it’s glorious,” said Williamson. “I was in a rock and roll band in college and love electric instruments. There is such power there. Why should I not avail myself of that power whenever I am able? Using an electric band brings all that to life in a way that only adds to the acoustic center. One can always add more, as long as that center is recognizable and familiar.”
‘Cris Williamson: The Grand Reunion: A Celebration of Women’s Music and 50 Years of Olivia Records’ takes place on Friday, Jan. 6 and Saturday, Jan. 7 at 7pm at the Freight and Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley. The freight.org. 510-644-2020.