Five Women Band Together to Rock On

By Renee Stovsky
December 27, 2004

Image: The Hot Flashes
The Hot Flashes - from left, Rose Maguire, Carol Jennings, Sherre Birenbaum, Melinda Petty and Mary Dobbs - perform at Graham's Grill in Kirkwood

They've been much in demand for private gigs, from high school reunions to wedding receptions. By day, they lead fairly conventional lives -- as nurse assistants, opticians, business entrepreneurs and the like. But by night, they indulge in a pastime that might be considered a bit eccentric for five middle-aged, Midwestern women. They're members of an all-girl rock band, appropriately named "The Hot Flashes."

But hey, if Mick Jagger can still strut his stuff at 60-plus, why not Sherre Birenbaum, Mary Dobbs, Carol Jennings, Rose Maguire and Melinda Petty?

"Playing songs from a simpler, more innocent time of life brings back a lot of good feelings for us," says Birenbaum, 56, of Olivette. "And if it allows other people to escape their current worries for a few hours, that's great. How can anyone stay angry or upset when they hear Bobby Darin's 'Splish, Splash' or Manfred Mann's 'Do Wah Diddy'?"

Make no mistake about it, though. Music -- from jazz and rockabilly to folk and hard rock -- has been much more than a passing fancy in each of these women's lives. It's a major part of each of their histories.

Image: Mary Dobbs
Mary Dobbs

Take Birenbaum, for example. She started studying guitar at 12, playing with local bands in high school and college -- everywhere from the coffeehouses of Gaslight Square to now-defunct bars such as Bogart's near St. Louis University. Even today, her main gig is as owner of Maplewood's the Disc-Connection, a CD store that specializes in classic rock.

Dobbs, 54, of Florissant, played first in her father's big band and later, his jazz trio. She's studied bass, piano, organ, guitar and drums (one teacher was local legend Bob Kuban), and she was drummer for the Teen Queens, an all-girl band, when she was in high school.

Image: Carol Jennings
Carol Jennings

Jennings, 58, of South County, played piano in grade school, then she switched to trumpet and saxophone. Also a member of the Teen Queens, she studied music at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and took lessons from Susan Slaughter of the St. Louis Symphony.

Rose Maguire, 58, of south St. Louis, studied piano, then bassoon at the behest of her philharmonic musician mother and her stepfather, a symphony violinist.

A music major at Fontbonne College, she later took up keyboards and played with several blues groups, from Mr. Chesterfield and the Smokers, to Streamline. In 1998, she performed with her own group, Twilight Jump, on a U.S. Department of Defense tour of Bahrain and the Azores.

And Melinda Petty of South County, the baby of the Hot Flashes, at 48, played organ, piano and keyboards as a kid, then switched to drums at age 42. She played with Atomic Bombshells and in 2001, made the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in Jackson, Tenn., after participating in the rockabilly festival drum-off led by Sam Perkins, son of the late, great guitarist Carl Perkins.

Still, it wasn't until Dobbs, an ophthalmic technician, had a serious auto accident in the late 1990s that the idea for the Hot Flashes began to coalesce.

Image: Sherre Birenbaum
Melinda Petty and Sherre Birenbaum

I hadn't really been involved in music since I came down with myasthenia gravis in college," says Dobbs.

Instead, she was putting in 60-70 hour weeks working and teaching at both Washington University and St. Louis University when her father became gravely ill, and then she suffered serious injuries from a car crash. "That's when I started thinking that life was too short for such long hours. And I began asking myself, 'What do I want to do for fun?' Music was the obvious answer," she said.

Dobbs contacted Jennings, who had carved out a career first in real estate and then as a nurse assistant. At first, Jennings was less than enthusiastic, but after a tough year in 2000, when she first battled colon cancer and then underwent a hysterectomy, she rented a soprano sax and gave Dobbs the green light.

Dobbs, who was set on playing bass, met Petty, an optician, when she went to work for Ophthalmology Associates in Creve Coeur. "I spied a drum clock in Melinda's display case and started talking about music with her. When I found out she played, I told her about my dream of starting an all-girl rock group," says Dobbs.

That left openings for a keyboardist and guitar/vocalist. Petty heard about Maguire, an executive assistant, through a contact at an ophthalmic equipment company. And Birenbaum was drafted when she showed up as a patient at Ophthalmology Associates.

"Melinda knew about Sherre through Drum Headquarters; Sherre's husband, Rob Birenbaum, is the owner. But it took a lot of convincing to get her to seriously consider the idea," Dobbs said.

Since its first jam session in the Birenbaum basement in April, 2003, however, none of the women has had a doubt about being part of the band.

Image: Rose Maguire
Rose Maguire

"It's great to be able to share our love for '50s, '60s and '70s music with each other," says Birenbaum. "People come with various ideas about doing a Motown song, something from Jerry Lee Lewis, Dylan, the Beatles -- and we see if it clicks. What's really strange is when two people come in with the same piece in mind, like Sarah Vaughn's 'Black Coffee.' How cool is that?"

We practice individually, then put things together in a team environment. As our trust in each other develops, we become more creative and improvise," added Maguire.

The Hot Flashes usually practice about four hours each Sunday. When a special engagement is in the works, they may add another session on a weeknight as well. Since last spring, they've played regularly at Riddle's Penultimate Cafe & Wine Bar, 6307 Delmar Boulevard in University City, and Grahm's Grill & Bayou Bar, 612 West Woodbine Avenue in Kirkwood. And they've been much in demand for private gigs, from high school reunions to wedding receptions, as well.

Predictably, their fan base is primarily baby boomers. At a recent concert at Grahm's Grill, accountant Cathy Goldsticker of Clayton enjoyed a wide-ranging selection of songs, from "Homeward Bound," by Simon & Garfunkel, to "The Way You Do The Things You Do," by The Temptations, and "Nights in White Satin," by The Moody Blues. "This is my kind of music, and the contrast of the band's voices is great," she said.

Meanwhile, St. Louis University professor Mike McClymond of Kirkwood listened attentively to The Hot Flashes' renditions of "Bye, Bye Love," by the Everly Brothers, and "Good Lovin'," by The Rascals.

"By reputation, all-girl bands are usually not as edgy as male bands, but they're doing a pretty good job," said McClymond, an amateur musician himself and member of another local band, the Pneumatics.

And though the main impetus for members of the Hot Flashes to join together was a shared love of the golden era of rock 'n' roll, in the process, the band has become a symbol of how middle-aged women can embrace new life opportunities. On April 16, they'll be showcased as part of a program, "Celebrating Women: Reinventing Ourselves After 50," at the University of Missouri St. Louis.

"I think we've inadvertently become an inspiration for other women hitting the half-century mark," Dobbs said. "It's really a happy time of life, when you can become more of your own person and less concerned about what others think of you. We're having a blast."