March 11, 2008
Sugar (Dave & Sugar)
Few acts have illustrated the imbalance between the sexes in country music history than Dave & Sugar.
The act was formed in the mid-seventies by Dave Rowland, who had been a player in Charley Pride’s band for many years. He wasn’t having much luck as a solo act, so he decided to form a group. He joined up with two beautiful singers with great pipes: Vicki Hackerman and Jackie Frantz. Rather than come up with a group name encompassing all three talents, the two girls were collectively called “Sugar.” Dave & Sugar were born.
They hit quickly, scoring a mid-level success the first time out with “Queen of the Silver Dollar”, penned by Shel Silverstein and familiar to anyone who owns Emmylou Harris’ Pieces of the Sky. Their next single, “The Door is Always Open”, went all the way to #1, starting a string of ten consecutive top ten hits. Typical success story, right?
Not quite. During the hit run, the makeup of “Sugar” began to change. In 1977, a year where the act scored four top five hits, Jackie Frantz tired of touring, and was replaced by Sue Powell. Two years later, Vickie Hackeman was replaced by Melissa Dean. Dave remained out front, but now there were two completely different women playing the role of “Sugar” behind him.
And the saga continued. Powell exited in 1980, and was replaced by Jamie Jaye. The act was rechristened “Dave Rowland & Sugar”, one year before Rowland made an ill-fated solo attempt, with the unfortunately titled LP Sugar Free. By the time he cut his losses and returned to “Dave & Sugar”, the hits dried up. In the twenty-five years since, there have been more than a dozen women rotating behind him as Sugar.
You would think that these women were so interchangeable because they were little more than backup singers, and everything from the billing to the album covers would lead you to think that. But the reality is their hits were full-fledged duets, with the female singer on lead often dominating the record. In the seminal book Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music, authors Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann captured the sad reality perfectly:
The ladies were lovely and the full-throated singing was thrilling…but the Sugar women with the glorious voices wept “Golden Tears” of anonymity. They had no billing as individuals. And as the hit catalog grew, so did Dave’s ego. Although the women often sang lead, he did the interviews; he took the credit; he owned the act. So on stage and TV, the Sugars glided through their routines, smiled, sang their hearts out, looked great, and had no names.
For all of the strides that women have made in country music in the years since an act like Dave & Sugar could viably exist, it’s important to remember the compromises some women had to make for their shot at the big time. Even in the early nineties, Trisha Yearwood came close to replacing Paulette Carlson as the lead singer of Highway 101, but turned down the offer because of her fear that she wouldn’t be able to establish her own identity. It’s hard to imagine anybody crafting an act like Dave & Sugar today, but their existence in country music history speaks volumes for just how stacked the deck could be back in the day.
Dave & Sugar
- “Queen of the Silver Dollar” – 1975
- “The Door is Always Open” – 1976
- “Tear Time” – 1978
- “Golden Tears” – 1979