Though they’ve rarely received due credit for their contributions, black women played an essential role in building the foundation of rock ‘n’ roll, from Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Big Mama Thornton to Ruth Brown and Tina Turner. A talent-laden program at Freight & Salvage on Thursday, June 4, showcases the leading black women who are rockin’ and groovin’ the Bay Area today. Featuring the supergroup Skip the Needle, Sistas in the Pit, and Dolorata, the interlaced triple bill presents an array of musical approaches united by combustible energy, potent charisma and unapologetic genre mashing.
“When we decided to put this show on we chose June because of Pride month, and without really planning it we came up with three all-female rock bands,” says Vicki Randle, a multi-instrumentalist who plays bass in Skip the Needle. “We ended up with just about every black women in the Bay Area playing rock right now.”
With Kofy Brown on drums and guitarists Shelley Doty and Katie Colpitts, Skip the Needle brings together four women who are all bandleaders in their own right. They alternate on lead vocals, and compose collectively, creating songs that draw on funk, punk, jazz and hard rock.
“Katie was basically a punk rocker,” Randle says. “Kofy is a lead singer in her own funk and soul band, and bassist in Sistas. My experiences and Shelly’s are more broad. When I went out in the world I played all different kinds of music, but I grew up listening and playing rock bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, that was my high school experience.”
Founded in 2003, Sistas In the Pit was originally a power trio with Kofy Brown, guitarist Anita Lofton, and drummer Ieela Grant. With the addition of Shelley Doty the band has honed a sound they describe as the love child of Sade and Jimi Hendrix. And Dolorata is a hard rock combo featuring Skip the Needle’s Katie Colpitts on guitar and lead vocals, Dori Sappo on guitar, bassist Veronica Savage, and drummer Dawn Richardson.
With an impressively diverse array of credits, Randle is the best known musician on the bill. She had a national profile even before she joined Jay Leno’s original Tonight Show band led by Branford Marsalis in 1992, a gig she held until 2010. Taping a daily television show is notoriously demanding work, and she was ready for a long break, but when Randle got a call to perform with gospel and soul legend Mavis Staples she couldn’t refuse. While initially she thought it was a one-off gig in LA, “it turned into, can you tour for the rest of the year?” Randle recalls. She’s been a featured member of Staples’ band ever since.
“After the Tonight Show I was seriously considering laying on my couch for at least two months, and it almost worked out that way, but I ended up rehearsing for a week with Mavis and I really love working with her,” Randle says. “The music is fun. It’s inspirational. And she surrounds herself with good people. It’s the easiest and best touring situation I’ve ever been in.”
Skip the Needle was a similarly unplanned endeavor. Randle connected with Doty and Brown years ago when she was booked to perform at the Art & Soul Festival following Sistas In the Pit. Though she was the headliner, she caught the trio during sound check and ended “begging the promoter to let me play first,” she says. “They were going to blow the socks off of the audience, and then I was just up there with my guitar. Shelly is an event, an amazing accomplished guitarist who embodies pure joy. Kofy too. I told myself I’m gong to play with those guys some day.”
Randle moved back up to the Bay Area in 2012, and she before long invited herself to a casual jam where Brown was playing drums with Doty on guitar. While she’s usually hired as a percussionist, Randle figured she’d pull out her bass for the session.
“I had played bass with Laura Nyro,” she says. “Since Kofy was on drums I picked it up and we immediately started writing songs. We came out with two fully formed ideas, and the group turned into a writing fest. We came up with ideas in tandem really well. Eventually we started doing gigs as a trio, and then Katie was wanted in to, so we’ve been working as quartet and the first shows we did people went wild.”
In many ways, Randle traces Skip the Needle’s stylistically encompassing approach to her deep Berkeley roots. Her mother moved here as a child in the mid-1930s and graduated from Berkeley High. When her parents relocated to Los Angeles so her father could pursue work as a jazz pianist, she ended up as the only black girl in her Orange County high school. But the family spent most summers and vacations back in Berkeley, and she lived in town before moving back to LA to take the Tonight Show gig.
She taught at Cazadero Summer Music Camp, and one of her students was trumpeter Steven Bernstein, who went on from Berkeley High to an illustrious career as a bandleader, composer and arranger. Decades later he was playing with Levon Helm and their paths crossed again when The Band’s drummer and Mavis Staple started planning a tour and recording (she and the Staple Singers had performed with The Band on The Last Waltz, and Staples has long made “The Weight” a centerpiece of her performances).
But Helm’s death in April 2012 put an end to the project and when Randle got to the first rehearsal she got the news and found Bernstein in tears. The reunion did give her a chance to reflect on the way that “Berkeley was such an incubator for artists like Steven and Peter Apfelbaum, these musician who take something from every genre,” she says. “That’s what’s happening with Skip the Needle. There’s this amalgam, and it feels cohesive and natural and good.”
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
Want to know what else is going on in Berkeley and nearby? Visit Berkeleyside’s new-look Events Calendar. Submit your own events for free if they aren’t there already — and give them featured status for as little as $10 a day.