From The Desk… Something in the Way They Play: Legendary Female Guitarists Part 3

3 Mary's 3 Guitars by JOtwell (click to buy)
3 Mary’s 3 Guitars by JOtwell (click to buy)

By the onset of WW II, all the elements of the electric guitar were in place. Once wartime restrictions were eased by 1947, a slew of manufacturers began offering the new amplified instruments to the market. The war had drastically altered the perception of women in the workplace, with Rosie the Riveter serving as an iconic role model, and it was no different in the music world, as women began to pick up the amplified instrument.  Following the pioneering advertising spreads used by National Guitars with Letricia Kandle, the top manufacturers began casting around for attractive women who were reputable players, in order to show their revolutionary product to the widest possible audience.

Gretsch found their girl in Mary Osborne, a big-band guitarist influenced by Charlie Christian. She had built a reputation as a touring musician and was building an impressive discography by recording with notables such as Mary Lou Williams, Coleman Hawkins, Ethel Waters, and Billie Holiday.  Mary photographed with an impressive hauteur, usually decked in the finest evening gowns, cradling one or another of Gretsch’s archtop electrics (most notably the very expensive White Falcon) on the pages of Downbeat and other hip journals. She looked every bit as expensive as the guitars, which was probably Gretsch’s intention.

Gibson didn’t have to look far because Les Paul’s wife and musical partner Mary Ford was already hugely popular. Although her greater contribution to their success was her multi-tracked, pitch perfect vocal harmonizing, she employed her husband’s revolutionary instruments most attractively and convincingly across the media landscape of the time.

The launch of the Fender line, which established the completely solid-body option, was another giant step in the evolution of electric guitar.  But the advertising people continued to see the benefits of having attractive women players attached to their product, so Fender chose Mary Kaye as their figurehead. The Mary Kaye Trio had established themselves as a top-tier lounge attraction in Las Vegas, on the same level as Louis Prima and Keeley Smith, and Mary was tearing them up with her spirited proto-rock chops. A perfect fit for the space‑age Stratocaster! In 1956 The Mary Kaye Trio was the subject of a Fender promotional photo campaign featuring the new swamp-ash blonde Strat with maple neck and gold hardware.  Made in limited numbers, these are now among the most expensive and collectible guitars in the world.

Mary’s own provenance was pretty special. Descended from the royal Hawaiian line of Queen Liliulokalani, she was born Malia Ka’aihue in 1924. She was sometimes referred to as the First Lady of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and she certainly did her bit.