If you’re like most people, when you think of the term “grunge,” you picture a bunch of white guys with long hair and plaid shirts playing angst-ridden, power-chord style rock and roll. Canadian folk artist turned rock musician Neil Young is often seen as the godfather of grunge, for his love of both plaid shirts and hard-rocking music. But some would argue that one of the real pioneers of grunge in the 1980s was a tiny Black woman named Tina Bell and her band, Bam Bam. Not only was the music pioneering, but the band gave some more famous grunge artists a start as well, including a drummer who went on to play with Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, and a young roadie name Kurt Cobain.
Bam Bam was formed as a punk band in 1983 in Seattle. Bell, a petite brown-skinned spitfire with more hairstyle changes than David Bowie, sang lead vocals and wrote most of the lyrics. Her then-husband Tommy Martin was on guitars (the band’s name is an acronym of their last names: Bell And Martin), Scotty “Buttocks” Ledgerwood played bass, and Matt Cameron was on drums. Cameron would leave the band in its first year and go on to fame as the drummer for Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. But he paid homage to his beginnings by wearing a Tina Bell T-shirt in a photoshoot for Pearl Jam’s 2017 Anthology.
“She was fucking badass. That’s all there is to it. She was amazing as a performer. I’ve only seen one White male lead singer command the stage in a similar way that Tina Bell did, and that was Bon Scott of AC/DC,” says Om Johari, who attended Bam Bam shows as a Black teenager in the ’80s and who would go on to lead all-female AC/DC cover band Hell’s Belles.
Bell quit the band in 1990, and withdrew from music completely, says her son, Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker TJ Martin. “Grunge, whatever that means, is being identified as from your community, your colleagues, your sound that you were a participant in help shaping, and you’re not even mentioned in any of it,” Martin says. “I can’t even fathom what that would feel like for it to be sort of spit back in your face with such frequency.”
Bell died alone in her Las Vegas apartment in 2012, and the official cause of death listed was cirrhosis of the liver. She had struggled with alcohol and depression. Her son says the coroner estimated her time of death as a couple weeks before her body was discovered. She was 55 years old.