Before Heart, before the Go-Go’s and the Bangles, there was The Deadly Nightshade, led by rocker Pamela Robin Brandt.
In 1974, Deadly Nightshade signed with the RCA/Phantom label two years after forming, making them one of the first all-female bands to sign with a major record label.
Brandt, who died from a heart attack at 68 on July 31 in Miami, proved an early trailblazer in the male-dominated world of rock and roll. She would later become a food critic for Miami New Times and Biscayne Times, a freelance writer on food, travel and feminism for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Gourmet and Ms., and coauthored Are You Two Together? Gay and Lesbian Travel Guide to Europe, for Random House and The Girls Next Door: Into the Heart of Lesbian America, published by Simon and Schuster, with former partner Lindsy Van Gelder.
Sure, by 1974, female rockers like Grace Slick, Janis Joplin and a fledgling Stevie Nicks had all gone the major label route and, in the case of Slick and the late Joplin, proved cultural touchstones and the de facto leaders of the coed bands they fronted.
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But with Brandt’s lead, an arts major graduate from Mount Holyoke College, The Deadly Nightshade scored an early victory that famously eluded the Wilson sisters of Heart: They secured veto power over advertising that would offend a feminist sensibility.
Compare that to the fate of Ann and Nancy Wilson who, in 1976, suffered from a demoralizing, suggestive ad taken by their former label, Mushroom. The ad featured the sisters bare-shouldered with a caption that read, “It was only our first time” — the implication being that they were lesbian lovers.
“I do think her feminism started with our mother — both mother’s encouragement for her to live her dreams and Pamela’s dissatisfaction about the traditional role mother had assumed,” said her brother Robert Brandt. “The early band experiences strengthened her position.”
By 1976, The Deadly Nightshade landed on Sesame Street and broke onto the national Billboard Hot 100 at No. 67 with a disco version of the Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman Theme, a borderline novelty tune coproduced by jazz musician Mike Mainieri (Carly Simon, Dire Straits) and in-demand session guitarist David Spinozza (John Lennon, Paul and Linda McCartney, James Taylor).
The single, featuring session musicians playing to Deadly Nightshade’s harmonies, owed nothing to the group’s country-rock style on its two RCA albums, and had a considerably larger audience in the Miami market thanks to airplay on local AM and FM pop stations like WQAM and Y-100.
A year later, the group broke up but reunited for gigs in 2008.
Brandt, born in New York City on Feb. 6, 1947, and raised in Montclair, New Jersey, moved to Miami in 1993. She never lost her witty sense of humor or nerve.
A March 2008 New Times review Brandt wrote on The Famous Kosher Restaurant in Aventura opened as such: “It's said that Jewish history, along with the religious holidays that celebrate it, can be summed up in three sentences: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat!”
At 52, she also started a new all-woman rock band, Cactus Rose, with lead guitarist Kathi Gibson. The group played bars and clubs in Hollywood, Miami and the Caribbean Club in Key Largo. Brandt took her rocker status seriously. She wore a holster for her beer bottle.
“We recently got booked into this biker bar in Fort Lauderdale,” bass player Brandt told the Miami Herald in a 1999 feature. “I think they basically wanted babes. They put us in this magazine called Playtime or something like that. You could identify our band right away because we were the only women in the whole magazine who had our clothes on.”
Playing rock over 50 didn’t dissuade Nicks or the Wilsons and it sure wasn’t going to slow Brandt.
“Listen, back in 1967 when I started playing they were saying women couldn’t play rock and roll. I didn’t listen then. Why should I listen now when they say you can’t be past 30 and make it? The whole idea of rock and roll is about rebellion.”
Brandt is survived by her mother Doris Marshall, brothers Robert and Richard Brandt, stempmother Janet Claire Brandt and stepsister Jeannette Muehlhof Brew. Services will be private.
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.