Four Bitchin’ Babes find female fellowship

Suzzy Roche, Camille West, Debi Smith and Sally Fingerett are truly four bitchin' babes

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., October 27, 2002) – “You know right away if someone’s a babe,” said singer-songwriter Sally Fingerett in a recent phone interview from her home in Columbus, Ohio.

Fingerett wasn’t talking about how a woman looks in a bathing suit or in sheer panty hose. She was describing the intuitive process that goes into deciding how someone is admitted to the exclusive sorority of the Four Bitchin’ Babes, a revolving-door collective of female singer-songwriters whose latest incarnation performs on Saturday, November 2, at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield at 8. Call 413-443-7171, ext. 10, for tickets and information.

Founded in 1990 by mother babe Christine Lavin, the Four Bitchin’ Babes have since recorded five albums and one video and performed hundreds of concerts. Along the way, members have included Patty Larkin, Janis Ian, Mary Travers, Cheryl Wheeler, Kristina Olsen, Megon McDonough and Julie Gold.

In addition to Fingerett – the only original Babe still in the group -- the current lineup, as reflected on the new CD, “Some Assembly Required” (Shanachie) – includes Camille West, Debi Smith and newest Babe on the block, Suzzy Roche.

When it comes time to replace a departing babe, prospective members are examined as much for proper temperament and touring ability as for the quality of their work, says Fingerett.

“Suzzy toured forever, and she knows the rules. She knows how it goes,” said Fingerett. “It’s also an attitude -- it’s about being a working woman who really gets going to work, coming home, and having twice as much to do and having fun doing it.”

Membership in the ensemble has “always been an evolving thing based on where you are in your career and what else you have going,” said Fingerett.

The Babes material -- found on albums including “Buy Me, Bring Me, Take Me: Don’t Mess My Hair,” “Fax It, Charge It, Don’t Ask Me What’s for Dinner,” “Gabby Road” and “Beyond Bitchin’” -- is characterized by its focus on the realities of contemporary life from the unique perspectives of working women, many of them wives and mothers. Often the songs – with titles like “Bald Headed Men,” “Nervous Wreck of Edna Fitzgerald” and “Viagra in the Waters” -- are funny or satirical, but just as often, especially with Fingerett’s material, it is sensitive and serious.

“We started out being just four performers,” said Fingerett. “Then the Babes started taking on a persona of its own. Now we are four women who go by the name ‘Bitchin’ Babes.’ We go by the concept that it’s tragically hip. We all share the funny and the serious. The underlying current of humor comes from our attitude.”

A Babes stage show is always leavened with plenty of witty repartee. “There’s a lot of interaction and spontaneity on stage,” said Fingerett. “It’s not scripted, so someone will say something and someone will have a quip as it were, and jump off their seat, and you never know what’s going on. It’s so much fun for us. We’re on stage but it’s like we’re sitting in the living room joking.”

While the humor has a decidely female if not feminist bent, Fingerett emphasizes that the Babes strive to be equal-opportunity entertainers.

“We love men, so we’re not into bashing,” she said. “It is very much a man-friendly, life-celebrating good time. We’re not at all snide or cruel. It’s all a lot of fun. It’s nice humor. It’s multigenerational.”

In addition to working as a group, all the Babes have ongoing solo careers. Fingerett has long done commercial work for movies, TV and cartoons and written jingles. A native of Chicago and the mother of a teen-age daughter, she grew up on that city’s thriving folk-blues scene before moving to Columbus. She has four solo albums to her credit and a song recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary.

A winner of the prestigious New Folk Award at the Kerrville Folk Festival, Fingerett is also a free-lance writer and author of the fictional work, “Life’s a Stitch.” Recently she has been working with a national touring company of Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues.” She also tours her own one-woman show, “It’s a Crazy World, But Where Else Would We Live,” in which she plays a character she calls “the Mental Yentl.”

Camille West is a mainstay at the Boston Festival of Funny Songwriters. The mother of two teen-aged sons, she has three solo recordings, including “Suburban Mother From Hell” and “Diva’s Day Off,” and has been honored at the Kennedy Center and the New Jersey Folk Festival New Folk Competition.

Debi Smith is a longtime veteran of the Washington, D.C., folk scene, as half of the sibling duo The Smith Sisters, which recorded four albums produced by Doc Watson. Her musical career began with an all-female Irish group, the Hags, whose members included Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Suzzy Roche is one-third of the singing sisters group, the Roches. The mother of a college-aged daughter, she is a member of the experimental theater company The Wooster Group, and starred in the film “Crossing Delancey.” She has three solo albums to her credit, the most recent being “Zero Church,” a collection of original prayers set to music.

Performing with their sisters – Fingerett calls them “best friends from childhood who didn’t meet until we had our kids” – provides the members of Four Bitchin’ Babes with fellowship, support and musical backing that they don’t get as solo artists.

“Musically, it’s delightful because there are always a couple of guitars going on at the same time, plus all the harmonies and vocals,” said Fingerett. “On stage it’s just a blast, but touring when you get to be forty and above just gets old being alone. Here we are all together.

“The vocal chemistry is very important, but the touring chemistry is equally important. When we step foot out on the road, there are no mommys, no daddys, no kids. We aren’t somebody’s mommy anymore -- we’re just four women, working partners, performers and artists.

“We get to sleep in and eat out. We’ve all been doing this for many years. Doing it with your girlfriends is just terrific, delightful. There’s a symbiotic relationship with music. We’re sitting in the car and break out into a Shirelles piece in four-part harmony. We’ve all got our musical seat at the musical table.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 1, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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