The Songwriter Who Broke Barriers in the 1950s

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This piece is part of an ongoing series on the unsung women of history. Read more here.

Elvis Presley. Tina Turner. Nat King Cole. Rose Marie McCoy? If one of these things doesn’t seem like the other, you’re forgiven—McCoy was anything but a household name, though her songs were sung by some of history’s greatest artists.

McCoy’s start was not auspicious: Rose Marie Hinton was born to Arkansas farmers in 1922. As a child, she lived in a shack with a tin roof and helped her siblings raise chickens and cotton. But life in rural Arkansas—a place that was not kind to African-Americans—was never enough for Hinton. She began to wonder if she could use her talent for singing and writing songs to raise her family out of poverty.

Armed with $6 and a singing voice, she headed to New York City in 1942. There, the 19-year-old worked ironing shirts and singing in nightclubs around the city, and soon married James McCoy (to whom she would remain married for 57 years, until his death in 2000). But though she was a talented enough singer to eke out a modest living, she quickly got a hint that she could succeed by using a different talent: Four years after arriving in the big city, a harmony group called The Dixieaires with Muriel Gaines recorded “After All,” the first of her songs to make it to a record.

McCoy hadn’t given up on her singing career, though. She stopped put her songwriting skills under wraps, focusing on her singing for six more years. In 1952, she got her big chance: an audition for Wheeler Records, a short-lived blues label based in New York. But Wheeler didn’t just like her voice—what they really liked her were songs “Cheatin’ Blues” and “Georgie Boy Blues.” When McCoy hit number 3 on the R&B charts with her song “Gabbin’ Blues,” her career as a songwriter began in earnest.

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At the time, women songwriters were almost unheard of. Few women participated behind the scenes in the music industry at the time—Carole King was still in elementary school—and even fewer were African-American. They often did their work uncredited and unacknowledged, especially as the artists for whom they wrote grew in popularity. And popular music was in the midst of a seismic shift as rock and roll, which both borrowed from and appropriated forms of music pioneered by African-Americans, took over the charts.

McCoy’s own career shows those tensions. In 1954, she wrote a song called “Tryin’ to Get to You” for The Eagles, a black R&B group, but the song didn’t take off until a young artist named Elvis Presley hit number one with an album that included the song a few years later. “We thought he was terrible because he couldn’t sing,” McCoy remembered years later.

Terrible or not, Presley turned McCoy into a hot commodity. “We thought it was the blues, they called it rock’n.’roll,” she recalled. “I still don’t know the difference.” What McCoy did know was songwriting, and she became a close collaborator of Charlie Singleton, who is best known for writing “Strangers in the Night.” By the 1960s, McCoy had reportedly turned down offers from major labels like Stax and Atlantic and had her own office in the historic Brill Building, the undisputed songwriting capital of the world. As an independent songwriter, she was in control of her own wild success—not beholden to the sound of a particular label or artist.

Over the years, McCoy wrote over 850 songs and jingles for the likes of Sara Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, Nat King Cole and others. She was still writing shortly before her death in 2015 at age 92. As Motown and Stax head Al Bell recalled, “She realized, at some point, that her power was in the pen. She’s just one of those rare persons who wants to be free to write her own songs her own way.” Today, women and women of color are still underrepresented in the recording industry. But whether you’ve heard of them or not, the relatively few women who have come before them—women like Rose Marie McCoy—did so on their own terms.

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