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Skidmore College
Music Department

2014 Tsou Scholar Maureen Mahon, New York University
Thursday, October 2 at 8 p.m.
Helen Filene Ladd Hall, Zankel Music Center


This talk will reference the experiences and musical style of African American women such as P. P. Arnold, Ava Cherry, Merry Clayton, Venetta Fields, Gloria Jones, Clydie King, Claudia Lennear, and Doris Troy, who brought their gospel-trained voices to hard rock during the late 1960s and 1970s as they recorded and performed in concert with artists such as David Bowie, Joe Cocker, Bob Dylan, Humble Pie, Elton John, Lynryd Skynrd, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, the Small Faces, Steely Dan, T-Rex, and Neil Young.

By putting these black background singers into the foreground and exploring the interracial, cross-gender collaborations in which they were engaged, I will demonstrate the ways they helped create the “authentic” sound sought by the white artists with whom they collaborated. This consideration of the sonic presence of African American women in rock highlights the intersection of race, gender, and authenticity in the music of the classic rock era, a context in which romanticized notions of “black sound” and black identity fueled the attraction (among artists and fans) to the sound these women provided.  An additional goal is to draw attention to an underacknowledged aspect of black women’s cultural production.

About the Speaker

Maureen Mahon is an associate professor in the Department of Music at New York University. A cultural anthropologist, her research interests include African American music and culture; the construction and performance of race and gender in music; and the relationship between race, class, generation, and culture. She teaches courses on the history of rock and roll, music and the construction of race, fieldwork methods, and African American women and music.

She is the author of Right To Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race (Duke University Press, 2004), an inquiry into the ways African American rock musicians in the 1990s used music and activism to challenge prevailing ideas about black music and identity. Her articles on African-American cultural studies have appeared in academic venues such as American Ethnologist, Journal of Popular Music Studies; Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture; and Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society and online at and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum website.

Mahon has held fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the American Association of University Women. She has received a 2013–14 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for her research on the contribution of African American women such as Big Mama Thornton, the Shirelles, Tina Turner, Darlene Love, Betty Davis, and Labelle to rock. Her book on the subject, Beyond Brown Sugar: Voices of African American Women in Rock and Roll, 1953–1984, is under contract with Duke University Press.



Classes visited: First-Year Seminar: “Music, Race, & Class”; Professor Lei Ouyang Bryant     
Ethnomusicology Seminar: “Introduction to Popular Music Studies”; Professor Elizabeth Macy
Senior Seminar (MU363); Professor Gordon Thompson