Born Genyusha Zelkowitz in Łódź, Poland, Genya Ravan came to the states in 1949 as a part of a family that had survived the Nazi Holocaust. By 1962, she was calling herself Goldie Zelkowitz as part of the very first all-girl rock band, Goldie and the Gingerbreads. In 1965, the group hit their stride in England where they toured with The Rolling Stones, Manfred Mann, and The Yardbirds among other British Invasion heavyweights. One fan, Ringo Starr, got them on television as guests on Dudley Moore and Peter Cook’s Not Only… But Also BBC variety program. They performed their UK hit “Can’t You Hear My Heart Beat,” which didn’t jump to the American charts. Herman’s Hermits beat them to it by two weeks.
By 1969, Ravan had hooked up with songwriters Michael Zager and Aram Schefrin who became the nucleus of the jazz-rock, big band Ten Wheel Drive. Now billed as Genya Ravan, she sang lead on their criminally neglected (and I mean it) Construction #1 (1969), Brief Replies (1970), and Peculiar Friends (1971). Why didn’t this highly accomplished ensemble break through? I’ve long thought that, because of the mythology building around Janis Joplin at the time, there wasn’t room in the critical press for another female blues singer who also boasted a raw, rough-edged delivery. In addition, Ten Wheel Drive’s best-known song, “Morning Much Better,” was banned from most radio stations for its graphic lyrics. But why Ravan’s heart-wrenching version of “Stay With Me” didn’t become an instant classic is a mystery never to be solved.
In addition, while widely admired, especially among musicians, Ten Wheel Drive was doomed by bad decisions. For one matter, the large size of the group and its entourage made making money difficult. For another, not wanting to do free gigs, against Ravan’s wishes the players refused to perform at Woodstock. Despite the fact that Zager and Schefrin, along with Ravan herself, got more focused in crafting songs geared for Ravan’s powerful and soulful voice and the overall band sound evolved from album to album, she departed TWD. In a recent interview with me, she admits she should probably have done just one more album. It might have been, as she says, “the miracle.”
Throughout the following decades, Ravan spent time in the producer’s booth (with the likes of Ronnie Spector and the Dead Boys) and issued a string of sporadic solo albums. Her favorite was 1979′s …And I Mean It!, and rightly so. (You can find a sample on YouTube, the LPs rousing opening track, “Pedal To The Metal.”) Why haven’t you heard of it? Because her label, 20th Century Fox Records, went belly-up and dumped her off to a disinterested RCA. Then came 10 years of fighting cancer and no new music from Genya Ravan.
All these stories, and many more, are in Ravan’s 2004 autobiography, Lollipop Lounge, Memoirs Of A Rock And Roll Refugee. Some of them are also part of Ravan’s new album, Cheesecake Girl, which is designed to be a companion to her book. It’s also an album that is currently being discussed as a basis for an upcoming stage musical. Yes, it helps to know some of the background to fully understand what Ravan is after in these new songs, but you don’t really need to have read anything about the singer to get into her hot, bluesy, ballsy, scorching new collection. It’s now, by far, her best album ever.
The 15 songs on Cheesecake Girl are full of imagery about a young girl who wanted badly to fit into her New York City surroundings. Like all of us, her road to love was full of rough tumbles and pain, and hers was also a story of what life was like for a female singer on the road. A good indication of what’s to come is the album’s opening title track where Ravan tells us who she is, believing all rock and roll girl singers are “Cheesecake Girls.” Naming many of the venues she’s appeared at, she sings about life on stage and what it takes to put on a good show for both the boys and the girls. She drops even more names in “Cobblestones/ Rolling Stones,” which is an obvious history of what Goldie and the Gingerbreads did in London in 1965. They had, simply said, a great time!
Perhaps half the album is set on the road or perhaps in indeterminate cities, but Ravan’s heart seems to clearly be in New York. Her most powerful songs include a version of Lou Reed’s “Coney Island Baby” and also “Lady of the Harbor,” the latter including ship foghorns and gospel singers in an ode to the Statue of Liberty. In songs that could apply to any woman anywhere, Ravan gets lonely and country in the reflective “Angel of the Odd” about one of those really bad romantic choices. Likewise, Marijohn Wilkin and Kent Westberry’s “I Don’t Understand” is pedal-steel guitar blues about a man who says one thing and does another. It’s harder to get more hoedown happy than “I Will Follow,” which tells the other side of love’s story, the excitement of a new beginning.
Among the covers, the first single, “Do You Know What I Mean,” is a revised version of the Lee Michaels’ 1971 hit. Leslie West’s “Baby I’m Down” is a slow power ballad with R&B girl-group support and some blistering guitar. If Ten Wheel Drive had ever gotten a down and dirty Chicago blues groove going, it might have sounded like “Bad Bad Girl.” “Me and My Yo Yo” is much closer to the Ten Wheel Drive horn sound in a song about, she tells me, her dog. Drugs? Yes of course, in “Stoop to High Heaven” where Ravan talks about how, once again, a young girl wanted to fit in, but this time not in the best places.
Cheesecake Girl: Scenes from Lollipop Lounge shouldn’t be just for Genya Ravan fans who remember her productive if not commercially lucrative years. Or for those who listen to her monthly radio show on Steve Van Zandt’s Underground Garage on Sirius Satellite Radio. Even as we speak, Stana Katic is being filmed in her role as Ravan in the upcoming feature movie, CBGB. With all this going on, 2013 could be the year where Ravan breaks through to a wider audience, and this album is good enough to do just that. I just checked Amazon and saw the extremely rare The Best of Ten Wheel Drive is commanding prices up to $95.00. Cheesecake Girl won’t set you back anywhere close to that, but it might help signal why collectors would be willing to pay so much.