On New Year’s Day 1982 Jeanette Wood (née Jacobs) died in the middle of a grand mal seizure. She was 32 years old. Half her life ago at age 16, she helped start a girl group revolution. Three sassy chicks named The Cake wrote their own songs, did their own musical arrangements. and produced their own records. They left behind a legacy of Girl Power and autonomy.
I doubt that you even know them. Only a handful of people do. But they are the Greatest Girl Band of All Time, and they live in the shadows of history.
Teenagers Jeanette Jacobs, Barbara Morillo, and Eleanor Barooshian formed the group in New York in 1966. Their baroque pop style, close madrigal harmonies, and psychedelia-tinged orchestrations made their combination of R ‘n’ B covers and original compositions stand out from the crowd.
Their entire discography consists of two albums – 1967’s The Cake, and 1968’s A Slice of Cake (both on Decca Records) – and four singles: Baby That’s Me (1967), You Can Have Him (1967), Firefly/Rainbow Wood (1968), and P.T. 280 (1968). None made a dent in the Billboard charts.
Who Were They?
Eleanor Barooshian went by several aliases through her career, with the slight variant Eleanor Baruchian for a time, and then Chelsea Lee, which she goes by nowadays. Born in 1950, the then teenage Barooshian performed on a regular basis at The Scene in New York, where Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary) discovered her.
Yarrow cast her in his documentary You Are What You Eat (1967) about the late-1960s counterculture movement. She features in a scene where she sings the male part to Tiny Tim’s female part in a cover of Sonny and Cher’s hit I Got You, Babe.
In interviews, she dismisses the whole thing as something of a lark, but nevertheless, she seems to have been quite the fixture both in The Scene and on the scene.
As Fate would have it, it was after one such performance of I Got You, Babe, that she bumped into soon to be band mates Barbara and Jeanette in the club’s bathroom and talked serious music. The legend goes that they emerged singing harmonies, and the rest is history.
(You Are What You Eat is a fascinating oddity in itself. Released by United Artists, who were responsible for a number of the hippie exploitation movies, it zooms across from East Coast to West Coast and features performances by Paul Butterfield, Harpers Bizarre, The Mothers of Invention (overdubbed by Electric Flag for legal reasons), and more, along with quasi-documentary pieces.
Eleanor and Tiny Tim duet are backed by the last ever session from The Hawks, Screaming Jay Hawkins’ backing band, right before they took off with Bob Dylan and transformed into The Band.
Haight Ashbury luminaries the Family Dog appear, as does legendary and infamous drug dealer Super Spade, who became one of the Haight’s most notorious murder victims.
Big Brother producer John Simon also features heavily and performs My Name is Jack over a lengthy montage of the so-called Greta Garbo House, a semi-derelict hotel in San Francisco populated by speed freaks. Manfred Mann went on to cover a censored version of the song with all the name checks removed, most notably that of Super Spade.)
Barbara Morillo, on the other hand, bumped into Jeanette in the ladies’ room of an apartment in Manhattan. Then 18 she moved in with her and the pair started writing songs pretty much immediately. It was Barbara’s idea to set up three-part harmonies and layer the vocals and music using reel to reel tape. One night they visited The Scene, bumped into Eleanor, traded harmonies, and the rest is history.
Jeanette Jacobs dated Jimi Hendrix before marrying Chris Wood of Traffic. Her severe and debilitating epilepsy made her a strange presence on stage and in TV performances – a tiny, late 60s beauty with ethereal features, she would stand stock still and appear almost as if in a coma while the other two girls gyrated and danced around her.
But what make the threesome stand head and shoulders above the rest are some potent ingredients:
- they insisted not only on writing their own material but also being involved in every aspect of the production
- they were fully immersed in the 60s counterculture – every aspect from free love to acid and beyond
- they went far beyond the usual boy/girl pop of girl bands, embracing baroque, psychedelia, and the blues
- they were never the girlfriends, the studio puppets, or the ingenues – they partied as equals with all the bands on the scene, jammed with them, and lived the rock star life, singing and gigging at every available opportunity
What Is Their Legacy?
Fashionable, switched-on, feisty, and determined, they knew everyone, gigged everywhere, and should have been The Next Big Thing. But, as so often happened in the constantly shifting decade that was the sixties, The Next Big Thing eluded them.
In his excellent book Psychedelia and Other Colours Rob Chapman posits that you can attribute the early meteoric rise of The Beatles (when their songs were still moon/June and yeah, yeah, yeah, and thus not that original) to the notion that they are in fact a girl group and not a boy band.
Declarations of I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Things We Said Today owe more to a certain female wistfulness and longing than they do to trouser-shaking boy hormones. Add in the chiming harmonies and jangling guitars, the smart uniforms and cheeky personas and you have the next step in girl band history.
What he doesn’t explore in the book is what happened when The Beatles went all groovy and psychedelic and started singing about blue jay ways and diamond skies, a very non-girl group pursuit.
Now The Cake possessed nowhere near the lyrical and cultural genius of The Beatles but they follow a similar career trajectory on a smaller scale. There doesn’t appear to be any girl group before, during or since who went from sha la la rhythm and blues to full psychedelic pop madrigals. If The Beatles really well a girl band somewhere in a parallel universe, they may very well have been The Cake.
But despite all that, it seems that in a time of rapid change and far-reaching experimentation that The Cake simply got lost in the mix. After the band dissolved Jeanette and Eleanor toured with Doctor John and joined Ginger Baker’s Air Force. A small resurgence of interest in the band came with the reissue of their two albums on Rev-Ola Records, and a mini reunion at a Hendrix tribute night in 2006. The rest though remains with dedicated fans and collectors, who know that The Cake is indeed the greatest girl band in history.
Jeanette Wood (nee Jacobs) died on January 1st, 1982, Eleanor Barooshian died on August 30th, 2016.