The Story Of The All-Female ’70s Group Birtha And Their Best Songs

Birtha Songs

Feature Photo Album Cover ABC Records – Fair Use for review purposes

The story of the all-female ’70s group Birtha and their self-titled, debut album would make a great rock movie. What’s cooler than vintage gear, bell bottoms, ’70s tunes, and fiercely talented women? Perhaps, touring with the top bands of that era as they did. In this article we’ll take a look at Birtha’s self-titled debut, which was a winner and released in 1972. Definitely, a beautiful example of the rocking soul of the pioneering all-girl band. Along with exploring their early formation in California, we’ll try and make sense of their early breakup, as well as their careers after Birtha.

As Birtha realized, making it in the music business is not easy. That holds true whether it’s the ’70s or today. Clearly, stardom was even more out of reach for the few all-female bands slugging it out during the 1960s and 1970s, like Birtha.

The group burned brightly but not long enough and was active from the late sixties to 1975. They made an impact and paved the way for future female rockers, such as the Runaways and many other musicians. Though their short-lived music career stalled, it shouldn’t be forgotten. What they left us is a glorious rock-soul debut–a must for any vinyl collection. Surely, their story will inspire many to ask what led to their abrupt demise.

Background – The Times

It isn’t that all-girl rock bands didn’t exist in the ’60s and ’70s but they were scarce or flew under the radar. Plus, it’s no secret that female musicians experienced discrimination. Birtha was one such band that brushed up against fame and had their fair share of challenges. Back then, recording companies really missed the mark while promoting all-female bands. Like the ill-fated marketing tag “Birtha’s Got Balls,” in which some feel the world wasn’t ready for and caused an unseemly impression of the band. Basically, it was sexist to say “OK! They can play like dudes”–as if some sort of circus act. One thing’s for sure, their music and performances were killer. One could say they had big-time sass and confidence more than anything else.

Other female artists/groups were on the scene while the members of Birtha were formulating their sound, such as The Pleasure Seekers, Ace of Cups, Suzi Quatro and Fanny. Years later, Joan Jett would profess her “love” for rock and roll, and clearly someone had to open the stage door for her. During Birtha’s time, the girl-rock movement was budding, but it would take longer for it to gain lasting momentum.

Incidentally, the band doesn’t have anyone named Birtha in it, but it consisted of four super-talented women. Their lineup included Olivia Favela (singer/drummer), Shele Pinizzotto (guitar/vocals), Rosemary Butler (bass/vocals), and Sherry Hagler (keyboards/backing vocals). One of the early all-female rock groups in the United States, they formed in 1968 and released two studio albums, their self-titled debut in 1972 and 1973’s Can’t Stop the Madness.

The “Birth” of Birtha” – Early Days & Girl Groups

Birtha sprung from the ’60s California-dreaming Americana culture. Tracing their history calls to mind the best early-rock biopics, staging mini-dressed gals and sunglass wearing boys–images of the evolving California music scene. The ’60s in Southern California was a happy place for emerging rock groups, surf bands, sunny vocal groups, and hipsters along the Sunset Strip.

It was among this Whiskey a Go Go groovy scene in which Butler, Hagler and Pinizzotto were high schoolers at the time. They all played in various bands around Orange and Los Angeles counties before forming Birtha. Butler and Pinizzotto were first in The Ladybirds, a girl band hailing from Fullerton CA, who opened for The Rolling Stones in 1964. Butler and Pinizzotto subsequently formed The Daisy Chain, this one was a more psychedelic-vibed girl group. They released the album Straight or Lame, in 1967 on United International Records. The Daisy Chain years were a period of transition where they experimented with soulful, trippy, pop summer of love tunes. To top it off, they added flute and horns into the mix as well. As time would tell, it wasn’t quite the sound they were meant to rock.

As fate would have it, they formed Birtha in 1968 and were ready to get to the next level with singer/drummer Favela. Required of any good up-and-coming band, Birtha hit the garage. The worked out the kinks, started gigging a lot, and by 1971 they were on track writing songs and nurturing their already bubbling chemistry.

Sound and Talent

 At this point, the band was coming into their own, from their look to their sound. Each band member had vocal talent and contributed rich harmonies to their music. They kicked things up a notch, jamming and experimenting, and learned how to play tight as a unit.

Birtha’s tunes such as “Fine Talking Man” and “Free Spirit” challenged the sugary love ballads, and the easy-listening tunes of the day. To be real, their sound wasn’t common for an all-girl band. Birtha favored the hard-driving soulful rock that was more typical of Uriah Heep and Grand Funk Railroad. People weren’t used to women in rock–at least, not yet. Although they had a few contemporaries, on par with Fanny and Suzi Quatro, they were unique as far as music industry trends at the time – until Heart and others broke the mold.

Birtha personified ’70s rock with amazing instrumentation–striking a cool balance between blues-rock and funk-soul. Hagler’s impressive keyboard skills and Butler’s funky bass parts fleshed out and bolstered their songs even more. Of course, being a solid songwriting team, they had something to say, and they expressed it from lyrics to melodies. Indeed, the ’70s music scene was a fun, rocking time, and the band had tons of personality, too, as seen in their publicity photos and album covers. All told, you can see and hear Birtha’s influence on the mid-70s to ’80s female rock and pop rock groups.

A special plug must go out to their guitar player, Shele Pinizzotto. Her guitar work is wonderful, equally functional from both the standpoint of her lead and rhythm playing. Pinizzotto is truly a gem and completely authentic. A woman who loves a Gibson SG, rocking a flared jumpsuit on stage and playing loud and proud. That right there says a lot about her individually and confidence. Truly, she could tear it up with the best of them.

Debut Album, Birtha and Touring

Birtha was released on Dunhill Records in 1972. It was the same year Kiss formed, and HBO connected to homes that had cable TV. Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever, I Saw Your Face” was the year’s #1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 chart–a far cry from Birtha’s soulful, southern-boogie style. The world was changing, and Birtha was coming out to play with the big boys. Somehow, the album Birtha got buried in rock’s elusive archives, but it is a true vinyl treasure. As a whole, the tracks on Birtha are expressive lyrically as well as instrumentally.

Steering the ship in the studio, Gabriel Mekler (Three Dog Night, Janis Joplin, Etta James, and Steppenwolf, among others) produced Birth’s first album and co-wrote the band’s track “Forgotten Soul” along with Favela. However, Birtha was keen on writing most of their own songs. Even though Birtha was awesome, their second album Can’t Stop the Madness showed more growth, as is the case with many groups.

For their debt, all tracks recorded, promo in place, Birtha hit the road. These outstanding women howled, riffed, and rolled into rock history, toured with The Kinks, and later on with Fleetwood Mac, B.B. King, Alice Cooper, and others. Along with their studio work, the group killed it on stage, such as their 1972 performance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, a BBC music television program that first aired in 1971.

It’s evident, the list of groups that can rouse a reaction the way Birtha has with this album, merely from the full blown elation that flows from their playing music, is a rarity for any decade. Ultimately, their chemistry is evident and not easy to come by for any band.

Standout Tracks on Birtha

Free Spirit

Hard rocker “Free Spirit” kicks off the album and is a fine example of Birtha’s tight righteous jams. The track showcases the band’s vocals, especially the Janis Joplin-like pipes belting out from behind the kit via Favela. Pinizzotto’s killer guitar tone and biting riffs anchor the tune with an added punch. Hagler’s swirling, groovy keyboard contributions shine throughout the song as well. When the ladies sing “free, free spirit” in unison it feels like a groovy 1970s cry of liberation.

Too Much Woman (For A Hen Pecked Man)

Birtha has a great mix of diverse rock numbers, like this cover of “Too Much Woman (For A Hen Pecked Man)” by Ike and Tina Turner. A bit more revved up than the Ike and Tina version, the ladies achieve a funkified, Gospel-vocal, tambourine-tickled number after they put the finishing touches on it. Overall, a pretty bold choice.

Fine Talking Man

A soulful tune that’ll get the heart pumping–this fine talking man slinks in on Butler’s walking bass line and sets the tone for the rest of the song. On the track, like countless bands before and after them, Birtha navigates the “can’t live with, or without ’em” dilemma. Be ready, when Favela hits a high note in-between the “Baby, baby, baby” sections, the household pets may go into a frenzy. Undeniably, her vocal style is a nod to the old-school blues singers throughout history.

Forgotten Soul

To feel like a forgotten soul, has got to be the bluest of blues, and that’s how the song begins, slow and haunting. Favela’s stark vocals accompanied by a resounding keyboard sets the pace. The ladies slow-brew this one intentionally and then let it percolate nicely. Eventually, the drums kick in, and the rest of the band brings home a Zeppelin-inspired blues number. Lyrically, the song explores topics such as loss, loneliness, and breakups. The track gains rock momentum, as does Pinizzotto’s crying guitar licks and the keys venture into Jon Lord territory as the tune progresses. Overall, Birtha navigates the peaks and valleys of “Forgotten Soul” the same as the emotional journeys of life.

Coda – Legacy

Inexplicably, Birtha disbanded in 1975. Indeed, their spirited music still holds up today–funkified and heartfelt. Admittedly, they didn’t go onto greatness or have lasting popularity by industry standards. If they were able to go on, it would have been a game changer. Surely, they would have had struggles, just like Heart. One can hope that passionate, defiant songs would have followed–finally, ultimately, songs of celebration.

On a low note, Shele Pinizzotto (Michele Urquhart) passed away in 2014. While not a touring artist, music was still a big part of her life after the band. She worked as a music instructor teaching vocals, piano and guitar. Along with that, she owned a recording studio and ran a children’s choir in Canoga Park, CA.

Rosemary Butler continued her career in music and enjoyed success. For decades, she worked as a backup vocalist for major artists, from Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor to Jackson Browne and many others. She also released her own album Rose in 1983. Today, she continues working as a performer and vocal instructor.

To sum up, Birtha emerged with drive and confidence. They tried to challenge the norm, whether intentionally or not, just merely by being themselves. Birtha’s look and writing spoke to female empowerment. An asian drummer singer was pretty unheard of to be sure, as well as a dungaree, overall-wearing guitar slinger. What a fantastic group to look back on. Decades ago, they were unfortunately viewed as a novelty act. Their great songs, television performances, and live tours are their legacy. All unforgettable and to be remembered and enjoyed and nothing novel about them.

The Story Of The All-Female ’70s Group Birtha And Their Best Songs  article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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  1. Avatar Sherry Talmage November 11, 2023

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