She was a petite woman living in an era when females didn’t play lead guitar.
But once the St. Paul native with the stage name “Marcia Hall” stood before a crowd, her fingers flying, she earned the respect of listeners of every stripe.
Hall, whose real name was Marcella Isaac, played in several groups in Minnesota from the 1950s through the 1980s. She was inducted into the Minnesota Rock Country Hall of Fame. She died Nov. 19 at the age of 88.
Growing up in St. Paul, Isaac learned to play on a used guitar, said her sister Dorothy Henninger: “She would play it by the radio and every new song that came on, she picked it out.” When she grew older, her mother took her to a local Montgomery Ward store to choose a new guitar.
Isaac joined an all-female country music band led by Ardis Wells called the Rhythm Ranch Gals in the 1950s. They once appeared on national television’s “Ozark Jubilee.” Their regular gig, however, was playing in the cocktail room at the Flame Cafe nightclub in downtown Minneapolis, said bandmate Jan Sherman, known as Jan North. The Flame would bring in an act from Nashville every week, such as Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson, Sherman said. Those acts would join the Rhythm Ranch Gals for a few songs.
The group later broke down into a trio that toured the southern part of the state. Isaac formed her own musical group which played all types of music, Sherman said.
Isaac eventually earned a degree and worked at the University of Minnesota’s Ophthalmology Department, but continued to play music in her free time.
“She was amazing. She played entirely by ear,” said Jackie Dubbe, a drummer who played in a trio called Self Renewal with Isaac and Virginia Havener in the 1970s and ’80s.
Not quite 5 feet tall, Isaac, whom friends called “Marcy,” had “these little tiny hands, but they would just fly, they would just fly all over the neck of the guitar.”
Listeners were often surprised by her talent, Dubbe said.
“We played at a party, probably back in the early ’80s, and it was a big party,” Dubbe recalled. “It was held out at the Officers Club in Fort Snelling. People came in and here were these three women setting up. Some of the men came up and started clucking at the stage. … Then ... Marcy broke into her incredible guitar-playing and that all stopped. All of a sudden there was instant respect.”
Isaac was inducted into the Minnesota Rock Country Hall of Fame as well as the Mid-America Music Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the Medina ballroom in 2005.
She was “just so nice and so easy to get along with and quite a surprise on stage when you watched her play because you don’t expect that to come out of her,” said Doug Spartz, who co-chairs both halls.
For a few years before her death, Isaac was a resident at Oak Ridge Assisted Living in Hastings. “She was in the memory care unit there, but she still could play her guitar,” Sherman said. “That was very special.”
Besides Henninger, Isaac is survived by siblings Alola Mullen and Michael Quick. Her life partner, Havener, died in 2004. Services have been held.