It's Women's History Month! To celebrate, join our music team as they rediscover some influential female "movers and shakers" from Boston:
DONNA SUMMER, QUEEN OF DISCO
Donna Summer is the Queen of Disco—a singer-songwriter who helped raise the genre’s popularity. She’s the disco diva, commonly referred to as the original "Bad Girl.” Born and raised in Boston, she began singing in her church’s gospel choir.
After leaving Boston, Summer moved to Munich. There she met Italian synth composer Giorgio Moroder. The pair began writing songs together. Her early songs were hits in Europe, but the release of “Love To Love You Baby” catapulted Summer into global stardom.
Other iconic songs like “I Feel Love,” “Hot Stuff,” and “Bad Girls” helped Summer rise to prominence during the disco boom of the 1970s.
Donna Summer went on to sell over 100 million records, earn 12 Billboard Top Ten Hits, and win five Grammy Awards.
In an interview with The New York Times, she discussed the impact of disco during the post-war era: "In that period people were in a dance mood,” she exclaimed, “They wanted to be lifted up, they wanted to have fun, they didn't want to think.”
Donna Summer died on May 17, 2012, of lung cancer. She’s widely recognized as one of the most influential disco artists.
- Breanna Nesbeth, Music Coordinator
JJ GONSON, VENUE OWNER
You might know JJ Gonson as the owner of ONCE Lounge and Ballroom in Sommerville. Or as the iconic photographer who captured so many of the ubiquitous photographs of Kurt Cobain. Or you might be familiar with her work for Save Our Stages and the National Independent Venue Association. However you may know her, I’m sure you know she’s transformed the Boston music community and continues to do so today.
Born in Boston in 1966, Gonson grew up with a keen interest in photography. She received her first SLR camera from her grandmother when she was 13. She further developed her photography skills as a student at the Massachusetts College of Art and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Eventually, she received an education degree from Tufts University to teach photography.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, she would frequent clubs like The Rathskeller in Kenmore Square and T.T. the Bear’s Place in Central Square to shoot punk, metal, and alternative rock bands. She’s also well known for working with the late Elliot Smith. She photographed Smith's self-titled and Roman Candle album covers. Gonson also managed Elliott’s band, Heatmiser, and Elliott himself before his passing.
Gonson wanted to share her love of music with the world, so decided to manage ONCE Lounge and Ballroom. She ran the 411-capacity Somerville music club for six years. On Highland Avenue with a parquet dance floor, gold ceiling, and funky chandeliers, ONCE became one of the most unique independent venues in Boston.
Sadly, ONCE was permanently closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, since the physical closure, ONCE decided to launch a “virtual venue.” Overall, Gonson and the ONCE team have produced more than 100 online video performances. As a result of its success, Gonson has been able to revive ONCE as a physical venue in Boynton Yards.
In an interview with The Somerville Times, Gonson said, “Photos are about memory, what we hold on to, what we choose to preserve.” Ultimately, Gonson has curated her own memory through her incredible work. Publications like The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and Boston Rock have all featured her photos. She continues to advocate for independent music venues and accessible catering.
- Breanna Nesbeth, Music Coordinator
KIP TIERNAN, FOUNDER OF ROSIE’S PLACE
Kip Tiernan — born Mary Jane Tiernan in West Haven, Connecticut in the year 1926 — was the true definition of a mover and shaker. A champion for social justice, she is most known for being the founder of the nation’s first women’s shelter, Rosie’s Place. The shelter is still serving Boston’s poor and homeless women today.
In 1947, Tiernan moved to Boston to study at the Boston Conservatory. Tiernan had been a jazz pianist since age 16. While understandably a more overshadowed component of her legacy considering all she accomplished, Tiernan’s passion for music and the arts was ever-present throughout her life. Around the time of her death, she was rewriting a play she had written 20 years earlier that centered around housing.
It was in Boston that she blossomed into a powerful advocate for those in poverty. She started out volunteering at Warwick house, a Catholic ministry that fought for civil rights and against poverty. It was there that she first encountered the unique challenges faced by homeless women. Women disguised themselves as men in order to gain access to male-only homeless shelters. These early experiences are what inspired Tiernan to open Rosie’s Place in 1974. The shelter is a safe place for poor and homeless women where they could access shelter, food, and other services.
Tiernan’s legacy extends far beyond Rosie’s Place. She was a founder of the Boston Food Bank and co-founder of the Boston Women’s Fund, Healthcare for the Homeless, and Community Works. She organized “spare change” fund collections to fuel grassroots groups fighting homelessness, hunger, and social injustice. A powerful speaker and writer, her words inspired and enlightened, whether through social commentaries, teachings as an adjunct professor, or lectures at high schools, churches, and conferences.
Kip Tiernan passed away of cancer in 2011 at the age of 85. “She brought unconditional love to each encounter with the homeless,” her obituary in the Boston Globe reads, “And she didn’t hesitate to criticize the powerful if they backed what she believed were unfair policies.” In each quote her obituary features — from Boston mayor Thomas M. Manino, to Rosies’s Place’s president, to a woman served by the shelter, to Tiernan’s wife — it is clear just how strongly her presence touched so many lives.
Today, Rosie’s Place continues to help thousands of women every year. WERS is proud to consider Rosie’s Place a friend of the station, and to have partnered with Rosie’s Place on our Food & Friend’s Drive for the past 10 years.
- Nora Onanian, Web Services Coordinator
JOAN BAEZ, COMPOSER AND ACTIVIST
Throughout the 1960s, social movements sparked major changes across the U.S. Simultaneously, musicians like Joan Baez initiated the folk music revival—a genre that is inherently musical and political. Baez launched her career right here in Boston, performing at Club 47 (now known as Club Passim) for the first time in 1959. Then, in 1960, she released her self-titled debut album.
Baez is a prolific songwriter with a discography of over 30 albums, spanning roughly 60 years. In many ways, her lyrics are a call to action. Peace, love, and perseverance are all common themes in Baez’s music. She also covered a variety of protest songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “What Have They Done To The Rain.” An outspoken activist, Baez performed at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and the 1978 protests against anti-gay legislation in California.
Baez inspired—and continues to inspire—musicians and songwriters of all genres. Specifically, she influenced Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.
Baez’s melodies are timeless. Fans of all ages love her acclaimed original songs, like “Diamonds and Rust” and “O Brother!” Baez has won a multitude of awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Additionally, she joined the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.
In a 2019 interview with The Guardian, Baez reflected on her life and career. She also described the power of music: “Songs change a lot. Music lifts the spirits, crosses boundaries and can move people to do things they would not otherwise have done.” Despite her life-long passion for music, Baez is no longer performing. She completed her final tour in July 2019.
Over the past few years, Baez has focused on a variety of fine art pursuits. Her new book, Am I pretty when I Fly? is a collection of the musician’s drawings; its release date is April 4th.
- Claire Dunham, Blog Assistant