It was a chilly Monday night in November 1991. Two sisters were about to take the stage at the Ace of Clubs in Nashville, Tennessee, for a performance that could crack open their long-gestating career. Both just north of 40, Vicki and Ronni Gossett were not new to the business. After more than a quarter century of practice, performing, and songwriting, with their teenage band the Female Species and more recently as contractually-bound publishing functionaries, this label-sponsored showcase before RCA Records rank and file, Nashville music royalty, and friends and family, was their big break. If nothing else, the night would be a testament to the sisters’ skill and perseverance.
Nearly a year in the making, nothing was left to chance. The Gossets did two long days of rehearsals with a crack team of Music City session stalwarts; Bill Lloyd and John D. Willis on guitars, Glen Worf on bass, Harry Stinson on drums, and Matt Rollings on keyboards. The band was here to model a major act in full flight, and the sisters needed to convincingly play the part of stars-in-the- making for any of this to work.
With credibility and capital on the line, RCA’s A&R man Randy Talmadge placed the full weight of his faith, influence, and ego behind the sisters, despite their advanced age and winding path. A successful performance could kickstart a lavishly-funded career, and bump up an executive like Talmadge to new heights. A misfire would be the end of the line with the label in question, and for 43-year-old Vicki Gossett, would more than likely mark the conclusion of any real deal rock n’ roll adventure. Twenty-five years in the making, the Gossett sisters gave the show of their lives, walked off stage, shook a few hands, and waited for their long-dreamed future to arrive.
Southern California in 1966 was a magical setting for teenage dreams—surfboards, sunsets, pool parties, convertibles. Vicki was 16 and a student at Monte Vista High School in the L.A. County town of Whittier. Her vision hit like a lightning bolt on February 9, 1964, when a quartet from Liverpool made their American debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” She was going to play rock n’ roll with her little sister Ronni.
“I want a band that’s just like the Beatles, only it’s going to be all girls. That’s what was in my head,” Vicki explained half a century later. “And I got the idea because when we saw them we thought, ‘Man, that’s cool—they only have four people. That’ll be easy.’”
One day when Vicki was pedaling home from the store on her ten-speed bike, she was struck by a drunk driver. The motorist was uninsured, and Vicki was mostly unhurt. Her parents—known to all as Big Al and Loretta—weren’t the litigious type. Instead, they accepted a $200 cash reparation. “And I thought hmmm. This is the perfect time to ask for a new guitar,” Vicki remembered. “That’s how it started.”
Loretta conceived of the intriguing moniker of the Female Species, but from that point on Vicki was at the wheel. Little sis Ronni, who was 14-years-old, was recruited on bass. Though she was a novice player, her gift for harmonizing was such that her big sister drafted her to coach the other girls. Dawna Snow, a classically-trained school chum, was tapped to play keyboards. Linda Peters plucked the lead guitar, and Michelle Molner was the first of many drummers.
Ronni and Vicki were self-taught, and it was a pain, Vicki thought, to learn popular songs from the radio, so they wrote their own repertoire of jangly, psychedelic-tinged pop. Vicki’s low, smooth vocals added just the right edge of teen melancholia to the haunting “Tale of My Lost Love” or the tougher garage groove of “You Need Me” with shrill, mildly deranged keyboard solos from Snow.
When Molner departed for college, the sisters placed an ad in the paper looking for a replacement. “This gal calls and says, ‘Yeah, my name is Karen. Are you still looking for a female drummer?’” Vicki remembered. “We quiz her over the phone. She says, ‘I live in Downey,’—about ten miles from Whittier. We made a plan to get together... I see her driving up, sitting in the passenger seat, and out the door and on the side of her station wagon they had this stick-on sign that said Richard Carpenter Trio.”
Karen Carpenter and her brother Richard were playing the same teen circuit as the Female Species. A ringer on the drums, Karen fit the vibe, and rehearsals began. After a few months of rehearsing, Carpenter broke the news that she’d only be able to play with the girls on the nights her brother’s trio had off. “That’s when we had to part ways,” Vicki said. “It was friendly, but I wish she would’ve told us that two months earlier.”
Not long after, and with their new drummer Jan Grubish, the Species were on a plane to Hawaii for a gig. Vicki plugged into the in-flight radio programming and a longing interpretation of The Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” spilled from her headphones. “That’s the Carpenters, oh my God!,” Vicki declared. “I started yelling at everybody, the whole band on the plane. ‘Hey, Karen’s on the radio! They got a deal!’’
If the Female Species were going to catch up to the Carpenters, they’d need to start gigging more. With all members still in high school and underage, nightclubs were off the table, so they played restaurants, cruises, and the like. The Johnny Robinson Agency booked them on the military circuit at bases in Southern California, Hawaii and Alaska. That supposedly wholesome scene wasn’t always what the girls bargained for. “I think the owner of the Oasis in Honolulu thought we were hired to do a little more than entertain with our music,” Vicki said. “They offered us rooms in the back of the club. We called our agent in Hollywood who set him straight very quickly.”
When the girls weren’t gigging, they practiced. “We were all focused on music being number one,” Vicki said. “That’s all we did—went to high school, every spare minute we’d practice, and then on the weekends we’d play out. There were a couple girls—myself included— that had planned on going to college, but we all put it aside. We were making too much money.”
Shortly after high school, Big Al, who’d taken on booking the group on the side, secured them a gig in Las Vegas, at the Silver Slipper casino. The lounge served food, which meant underage Ronni could legally perform. The gigs were plentiful and the money was so good that in 1971, they relocated. They made fast friends with other showbiz workers, casino dealers and showgirls who kept the same nocturnal schedule. Over the course of eight years they worked the Maxim, Aladdin, Frontier, and Showboat. At the Flamingo they shared a bill with Paul Revere and the Raiders, and Ronni was briefly involved with singer Mark Lindsay.
Their days began late afternoon by the pool. Stagetime commenced at 10pm and might go nearly to daybreak. “At 4AM you go out and party with your friends, because everyone’s on the same shift,” Vicki said. “And then you come home around noon and go to sleep.” LA friends often made the four-hour trip east, as did their parents. At 23 Vicki bought a house and settled in for what she thought was the long haul. “Those were our growing-up years,” she said.
Dawna Snow left the group to get married in 1973. In 1975, Jan Grubbish moved on to another band. Accompanied by a Roland TR-626 drum machine, Vicki and Ronni started performing as the Gossett Sisters. A decade into their dream, they were stalled out—pitching songs, playing lounges, in need of a reboot. When California country icon Cliffie Stone came calling, the duo were initially skeptical. “He took a liking to us and he wanted our music,” Ronni said of the one time impresario behind the ’50s TV show Hometown Jamboree. “In our hearts, we’re really not country, but we tried to gear it that way to do his country shows and possibly get a deal, which is what we wanted.”
“So we got a couple of cowboy hats, and cowboy boots and thought we would try country music,“ Vicki continued. “Cliffie really loved our music, but not much happened—and those hats were stupid anyway. Felt like a couple of dorks!”
At the dawn of the ’80s, Vicki and Ronni figured there were only a few places you could go to make it as a performing songwriter. “If you’re trying to get a record deal, you have to be in LA, New York or Nashville,” Vicki proclaimed. “That’s what it comes down to. And we got stuck in Vegas, because it was a great place to live, it was a great place to work. It was great money. So, you get comfortable there, you know? As far as furthering a career, getting a writer’s contract, Vegas would not be the place.”
A brief retreat to Los Angeles was hardly the answer. “Many doors were slammed,“ said Ronni. “Not country enough, not rock enough, we were always down the middle.” They began sending tapes off to Nashville publishing companies—“cheesy demos, like on a boombox,” Vicki recalled—and garnered enough interest to motivate a visit and see what the songwriting mecca might have to offer. It looked promising enough that in 1982, the sisters packed a rented Ryder truck and made the move, with Big Al driving.
It took two years to land a deal, but the Gossett sisters were finally real-live pro songwriters, turning in at least a composition a week to Peer-Talbot Publishing. There was just one problem: they still didn’t like country music any more than they had when they’d gamely put on cowgirl hats for Cliffie Stone. But country music was what Peer-Talbot was in the business of making.
“They liked the songs. But when we’d go into the studio, they would turn them into these country arrangements. Well, we didn’t like it, and all of a sudden the song didn’t even sound good. We stayed with them for two years,” said Vicki. “But then, Ronni and I discussed it, and said, ‘hey man, they’re turning all our music into this crap.’ We couldn’t stand it.” The Sisters asked for a release from their contract, and got it.
“We just weren’t happy with the way they wanted to arrange our music,” Vicki reflected. “And they’re paying for everything, and paying us. We didn’t have a whole lot to say. But we all parted ways friendly. And, even when we left that company, we said, ‘Hey, can we buy back all our music? And that shocked them, but they were very, very nice and they let us.”
Millhouse Publishing co-owner Harold Shedd worked with K.T. Oslin and had engineered Southern rock outfit Alabama’s deal with RCA and a platinum run. He saw potential in Vicki and Ronni, and signed them to their second major songwriting deal. The Gossetts thought the Shedd sound—Southern rock, pop, a little blues, less of the traditional twang they didn’t love— was at least a step in the right direction. They’d moved beyond the soft-psych of the Female Species and were producing slick pop-infused ballads (“Someone Lock Me Up”) and radio-ready country rock (“The Silence Said It All”). Even the throwaway novelty piece “Me and Jane Fonda,”—a wink at the booming ’80s diet- exercise complex—sounded like a readymade Dolly Parton record.
Although they were making a steady living as writers, the sisters hadn’t given up on stardom.
“[Millhouse] knew we wanted to be artists,” Ronni explained. “We were going for a record deal, so Harold would say, ‘Don’t pitch their stuff, I want to save it for them.’ That’s what he was going for.”
At one point The Judds put “Someone Lock Me Up” on hold for two months, but no recording ever took place. After four years with Shedd, there was no deal, and the Gossetts decided to move on. This time, the songs they’d written under contract weren’t available to buy back.
They continued to write, record and pitch demos, keeping the faith that the big break was within reach. They played as a duo in clubs around town and rubbed elbows with plenty of country legends. Ronni was married for a short patch. “He knew what I did for a living, but he thought that the minute I got married I would quit the business,” said Ronni. “Like this is just a hobby I’ve got going for the past 25 years.”
“This was never a hobby,” Vicki added. “I gave up college. This was our living. It wasn’t like we could get disappointed and go do something else. This was the only income we ever had.”
In the early 90s, executive Randy Talmadge joined the A&R team of the iconic RCA Nashville, with a superstar roster including The Judds and Clint Black. Talmadge was a fan of the Gossetts, and personally offered Millhouse $80,000 to buy their 42 compositions as part of a plan to shop the Gossett Sisters performing act to labels, but Millhouse passed.
In 1991, Talmadge convinced the boys at RCA to grant the Gossetts a showcase at the Ace of Clubs. The lead-up was intense—new songs, new image, new wardrobe, hair and styling. “‘Vicki you’re going to have red hair. Ronni you’re going to have black hair,’” Vicki recalled of the process. “They’ve got us looking like Elvis and Opie. And guess what, we had nothing to say about it. I mean, they own you.” The November gig was high energy. “This was the full blown, loud band,” Vicki said. “Anything we ever did in the studio was on the edge. They put it over the edge that night. We took this showcase to the limit. It was not country.”
“It was a wonderful showcase. I thought we had it. We have got this deal,” Ronni remembered. “That’s what we thought. It turned out perfect. The next day we got word that they passed on us—meaning the end. I tell you, we went downhill like you would never believe. I don’t think we even came out of the house for two days. We couldn’t believe it. We put everything we had into that.”
Big Al suggested they build something themselves, so they did—a duplex on 1.3 acres. They looked for other employment. Ronni spent two decades working at a Christian music distributor before retiring in 2017. Vicki took a job at the Jeep dealership where they’d bought their first new car in Nashville. (“It wasn’t a typical dealership, it was pretty cool—they were all kind of young and hanging out,” Vicki said. “I’m making money real quick... I can make three, four thousand on a good day. Ronni’s pitching songs and I’m gone ten hours a day...”) She worked there for a dozen years. When she won a Caribbean cruise for two, for being one of the top salespeople in the country, she took Ronni as her guest.
“I still see her at my door every morning at 6 a.m.” said Ronni. Or was it Vicki?
Of course they would have preferred hitting the top of the charts along the way. Listening now, it’s almost hard to believe that never happened. To be sure, the story of Female Species and the Gossett Sisters is a tale of what might have been. Many of their love songs find the two looking in from the outside, not unlike their ride in the music business. There is disappointment and heartbreak. But there are no regrets.
– Alison Fensterstock, November 2020