'There's no better person to provide us with this wonderfully alluring historical perspective of women and motorcycles than Cris Sommer Simmons," writes former Doobie Brothers' lead singer Michael McDonald on the back of her new book "The American Motorcycle Girls." "Just like the incredible females she so lovingly illuminates in this great book, she is herself the real deal."
A remarkable labor of love, "The American Motorcycle Girls: 1900 to 1950," celebrates pioneering female motorcyclists in a sumptuous, 240-page coffee table book, packed with an amazing array of vintage photographs. Combining a unique historical document with a work of art, page after page reveals the lives of these early women riders who braved extraordinary conditions to fulfill their dreams - whether crossing America alone, winning races or mastering daredevil stunts.
Passionate about riding, Maui author Cris Sommer Simmons, a three-time Motorcycle Hall of Fame inductee, has been writing about bikes since the early 1980s. Collecting period photographs for more than 30 years, Sommer Simmons scoured photo collections across the country, and spent hundreds of hours researching women riders to compile her book.
Michael Lichter photo
Cris Sommer Simmons
Simmons Family collection
Women line up at a Southern California race event in 1933
"I started a women's motorcycling magazine in 1985, so I knew a lot of people, and I've been collecting for years," she explains. "It's something I've had in the back of my mind for a long time."
Both bike fans and non-enthusiasts will find much to admire. "The American Motorcycle Girls" can be simply appreciated as a glossy photographic treasure, and the many profiles included provide a fascinating exploration of these brave trail-blazers.
"It was totally awe inspiring," she says about detailing the pioneering spirit of the early women riders. "I felt like it was my duty to tell people about them, because if I didn't do the book, who's going to know about them?
Cris Sommer Simmons will sign her book, "The American Motorcycle Girls: 1900 to 1950," at Borders Books Music Movies and Cafe in Kahului's Maui Marketplace at 2 p.m. Saturday.
"The Van Buren sisters, women in their 20s, rode alone across the country in 1916, from New York to California (5,500 miles in 58 days). Roads were pretty non existent back then and maps were rare.
"There are some pictures in my book of the Hotchkiss mother and daughter who rode across the country in their sidecar rig in 1915, and got caught in mud and ended up breaking a wheel. They found a farmer who took a wheel off a threshing machine and welded it on so they could continue their journey. There were no motels, no Motel 6, you slept in fields and barns. It's all pretty inspiring."
"Fear doesn't bother me," mother Avis Hotchkiss is quoted in the book. "My daughter Effie is a good mechanic and does her own repairing."
Then there's Bessy Stringfield, the first African-American woman to ride cross-country in the 1930s, who endured extreme prejudice to pursue her passion.
"Way before Rosa Parks, Bessy often couldn't buy gas, and people wouldn't give her a place to sleep, or let her eat because she was black," notes Sommer Simmons. "But she did it and lived into her 80s."
A co-founder of Harley Women magazine, considered the first widely distributed magazine for women riders in the world, Sommer Simmons has been active in promoting motorcycling, writing for several magazines in the United States, including American Iron, Motorcycle Collector and Easyriders. She had her own column for 12 years in the popular Japanese magazine Hot Bike Japan. In 1996, she was one of four women featured in the Turner Broadcasting System documentary "Biker Women."
"I started getting into motorcycles heavily in my early 20s, and I saw all these motorcycle magazines where women were scantily clad," she recalls. "I wanted to look at the bikes. So with a friend we started our own magazine. We took the storyboards to Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee and they let us use the name Harley, and they gave us support for many years. We had fun doing it, but it was a lot of work. We were surprised because men also really got into it."
While producing the magazine, she met her future husband, Doobie Brothers' lead guitarist/singer Pat Simmons, attending the massive bike rally in Sturgis, S.D.
"He was playing a benefit there for Harley-Davidson in 1989, and I was hawking magazines," she explains. "A friend who worked for Harley Davidson said, 'Why don't you come out to the press conference and meet the Doobie Brothers?' I wasn't really into the whole celebrity thing, but he said, 'There's a lot food,' so I met Pat briefly, and then we led their tour bus into Sturgis on our bikes. We rode really fast on purpose and they had to chase us to keep up. It's a huge rally and Pat hung out with me, and we've been together ever since."
Combining her love of writing and music, she has developed a new passion, composing more than a dozen songs with Pat, including the track "Don't Be Afraid" (also written with Maui's Bob Bangerter) on the Doobies' album "Sibling Rivalry."
"Almost as soon as we got together we started writing," she says.
Has she contributed to the new, forthcoming Doobie Brothers' album?"
"No, but Pat has a song on the record he wrote for me called 'Little Prayer.' It's a beautiful, acoustic, sweet song."
The Doobies have reunited with their former producer, Ted Templeman, who helped them shape their major hits. "They've been in the same studio they recorded 'Minute By Minute' and 'Take It to The Streets,' " she continues. "Ted did all their hits. The chemistry is so strong, there are some wonderful songs."
Besides composing with her husband, Cris has lately teamed with Gail Swanson. The two crafted a new song, which friend Willie Nelson has lauded as "a masterpiece."
"Most of the lyrics came in one day," she says. "We played it for Pat and he thought it was great. He was going to produce it for us, and it turned into him producing three or four more tracks for Gail. We played it for Willie the other day, and he said it was a masterpiece. That's a pretty cool compliment. And he's going to sing it with Gail as a duet on her record. It's kind of going to be the duet record because Michael McDonald sings and plays keyboards on it."
With her book just published, Sommer Simmons is turning her attention to making a documentary about pioneering women riders.
"I met all these wonderful women who are still living, and I've interviewed four on film so far," she reports. "I'm having so much fun with it, and maybe I'll get it into the Maui Film Festival next year.
She will sign her book at 2 p.m. Saturday at Borders Books Music Movies and Cafe in the Maui Marketplace. Pat Simmons will also attend, and maybe we'll hear a little Doobies music as well.
With the Doobie Brothers heading out on a summer tour, Pat Simmons Jr. will open a handful of their shows solo, including a 22,000 capacity venue in Chicago.
Among the guests joining Pablo Cruise on stage recently at the MACC, Eric Gilliom pitched in on their big hit "What'cha Gonna Do When She Says Good-By." Eric's expanding musically, currently working on a dance album. "It's soul-house," he says. "I want to party." He's also looking toward making a small, independent feature film.
Makana entertained in the Castle Theater Yokouchi Founders Court before Eddie Vedder's amazing show on June 29. Makana is about to help launch the return of Hawaiian music to The Royal Hawaiian hotel in Waikiki on a regular basis.
The "Curators of Hawaiian Music" concert series opens today with Makana as the headliner through Aug. 27 (Thursday nights only). Maunalua will perform in September and October, followed by Cecilio & Kapono in November and December.
"I am honored to be the first musician to perform in this series," Makana said in a press release. "We've created a dynamic, theatrical performance that pays homage to the cultural heritage of Hawaii and promises to keep the music of these islands alive and thriving."
And look for his new CD, "Venus, and the Sky Turns to Clay," in August.