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Our List of Women Who Rock

These musicians topped charts, went viral, and shaped the counterculture.

September 2, 2022
by Pat Joseph
Illustrations by Patrick Welsh

Marié Digby, who studied philosophy at Cal in the mid-2000s, scored a viral hit on YouTube with her cover of Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” which she plays solo on acoustic guitar while sitting on the floor of her living room. It currently has more than 22 million views. It wasn’t pure chance; by the time she released the homemade video in 2007, the honey-voiced singer had already signed with Hollywood Records and was using social media to build an audience. Digby, who also writes and performs original songs, has since posted covers of artists ranging from the Goo Goo Dolls to Soundgarden. In 2010, she played live at Cal’s Zellerbach Hall for the Rock Your Cause benefit. 

The first all-female band to release an album with a major label was the cheekily named Fanny, led by June Millington, who enrolled at Cal in 1967. Millington, of American and Filipina parentage, played guitar and sang in the band, alongside sister Jean on bass. Among Fanny’s fans: Bonnie Raitt and David Bowie, who once told Rolling Stone the group was “colossal and wonderful” while lamenting that no one had heard of them. A new documentary coming to PBS in 2023, called Fanny: The Right to Rock, may help remedy that. For a taste of their music, check out Fanny’s rollicking 1972 cover performance of Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” on YouTube, featuring Millington on lead vocals and slide guitar.

Sue Ennis, M.A. ’76, was a graduate student at Cal in German literature—all but dissertation on her Ph.D., in fact—when, as she recalled, the band she was writing for “got really, really huge.” That band was Heart, headed up by her childhood friends from Bellevue, Washington, Ann and Nancy Wilson. Ennis remembers the sisters pulling up in a limo outside her apartment on Arch Street and asking for help finishing their fourth album. The dissertation never got finished, but the album, Dog and Butterfly, went double platinum. All told, she cowrote more than 70 songs for the band. Ennis now teaches songwriting and the music business at Shoreline Community College in Seattle. 

Music fans from a certain era will remember Susanna Hoffs ’80 as the big-haired singer who would “Walk Like an Egyptian” on MTV. Hoffs’s band, The Bangles, took that song to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1986, besting an earlier single, the Prince-penned “Manic Monday,” which topped out at number two that same year. Hoffs, who studied painting at Cal, credits her exposure to the punk scene with shifting her sights from a dancing career to being in a band. The Bangles (originally The Bangs) broke up in 1989 but reunited by the early 2000s. Additionally, Hoffs has done solo work and collaborated with the likes of comic Mike Myers and alt rocker Matthew Sweet. 

Even before joining Ace of Cups, the all-female rock band out of San Francisco, Denise Kaufman was psychedelic royalty, known as Mary Microgram to the Pranksters on Ken Kesey’s magic bus. And even before that, as a freshman at Cal, she was part of the counterculture, arrested in Sproul Hall during the Free Speech Movement. As guitarist and harmonica player in Ace of Cups, Kaufman opened for acts including Janis Joplin, The Band, and Jimi Hendrix, but never recorded an album. That changed in 2018, when the band members, all in their seventies, released the eponymous Ace of Cups, followed in 2020 by Sing Your Dreams

Born to refugee parents, Cambodian American singer Laura Mam ’08 was raised speaking English but sung to sleep with Khmer lullabies. Today, she champions her ancestral culture by performing original Khmer music. While few Americans are aware, Cambodia was in the middle of a rock revolution when Pol Pot began his reign of terror. Mam’s songs—many written with her mother, Thida—harken back to that era with Khmer lyrics and pop-inflected melodies. In 2016, Thida and Laura, who got her degree in anthropology at Cal, formed the production company Baramey to promote and produce other Khmer musical artists, helping to shift the Cambodian narrative from one exclusively about “temples and genocide” to one that includes vibrant, creative culture. 

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