“For sixty years, conventional wisdom has told us that women generally did not perform rock and roll during the 1950s,” writes Leah Branstetter, Ph.D. candidate in musicology at Case Western Reserve University. Like so many cultural forms into which we are initiated, through education, personal interest, and general osmosis, this popular form of Western music—now a genre with seventy years under its belt—has functioned as an almost ideal example of the great man theory of history.
It can seem like settled fact that Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and their celebrated male contemporaries invented the music; and that women played passive roles as fans, studio audience members, groupies, personifications of cars and guitars….
The recognition of rare exceptions, like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, does not challenge the rule. But Branstetter’s Women in Rock and Roll’s First Wave project almost single-handedly does.
The reality is, however, that hundreds—or maybe thousands—of women and girls performed and recorded rock and roll in its early years. And many more participated in other ways: writing songs, owning or working for record labels, working as session or touring musicians,designing stage wear, dancing, or managing talent…. [W]omen’s careers didn’t always resemble those of their more famous male counterparts. Some female performers were well known and performed nationally as stars, while others had more influence regionally or only in one tiny club. Some made the pop charts, but even more had impact through live performance. Some women exhibited the kind of wild onstage behavior that had come to be expected from figures Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard—but that wasn’t the only way to be rebellious, and others found their own methods of being revolutionary.
Branstetter’s project, a digital dissertation, covers dozens of musicians from the period, just a fraction of the names she has uncovered in her research. Some of the women profiled were never particularly well-known. Many more were accomplished stars before the 60’s girl group phenomenon, and continued performing into the 21st century.
Meet rockers like Sparkle Moore (see up top), born in Omaha, Nebraska and inspired by Bill Haley in the mid-fifties to play rockabilly in her hometown. She went on to tour the country, putting out record after record. “By 1957,” writes Branstetter, “she had about forty songwriting credits to her name.” Teen magazine Dig wrote that Moore had “an amazing resemblance to the late James Dean… Presley’s style and Dean’s looks.” She is still a “favorite with rockabilly fans,” notes her biography. Moore “has been inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and also made a new album in 2010 entitled Spark-a-Billy.”
Meet Lillie Bryant, one half of duo Billie & Lillie, whose breezier R&B sounds and more wholesome image resonated with early rock and roll fans, promoters, and stars. Bryant began performing in New York City clubs as a teenager. Then producers Bob Crewe and Frank Slay turned her and singer Billie Ford into a duo who went on to star in legendary DJ Alan Freed’s stage shows, “including a six-week tour with Chuck Berry and Frankie Lymon” and an appearance on American Bandstand. Bryant still performs in her hometown of Newburgh, New York.
Meet The Chantels. “Formed in the Bronx, New York in the early 1950s,” they were “among the first African-American female vocal groups to gain national attention.” They also toured with Alan Freed and appeared on American Bandstand and The Dick Clark Show. In 1961, their hit “Look in My Eyes” went to number 14 on the pop charts and 6 on the R&B charts. (Thirty years later, it appeared on the Goodfellas soundtrack.)
Most people who grew up on the music of the 50s and 60s have likely heard of many of these women rockers, or have at least heard their music if they didn’t know the names and faces. But Branstetter’s project does more than tell the stories of individuals—in biographies, interviews (with, for one, Jerry Lee Lewis’s sister, singer and piano player Linda Gail Lewis), blog posts, playlists (hear one below), song analyses, and essays.
She also substantiates her larger claim that women’s “contributions shaped the culture and sound of rock and roll,” in numerous well-documented ways. This despite the fact that women in early rock were told versions of the same thing Joan Jett heard 20 years later—“girls don’t play rock and roll.” They sometimes heard it from other women in the music business. Pop singer Connie Frances, for example, offered her opinion in a 1958 issue of Billboard: “A girl can’t sing rock and roll. It’s basically too savage for a girl singer to handle.”
Attitudes like these persisted so long, and became so unconscious, that one of the largest guitar makers in the world, Fender, and several other musical instrument makers, may have lost millions in sales before they finally realized that women make up half of new guitar players. Women in Rock and Roll’s First Wave will inspire and enlighten many of those young musicians who didn’t grow up knowing anything about Sparkle Moore or The Chantels, but should have. Unless rock historians willingly ignore the work of scholars like Branstetter, subsequent accounts should reflect a more expansive, inclusive, view of the territory. Start here.
Watch the Hot Guitar Solos of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “America’s First Gospel Rock Star”
How Joan Jett Started the Runaways at 15 and Faced Down Every Barrier for Women in Rock and Roll
33 Songs That Document the History of Feminist Punk (1975-2015): A Playlist Curated by Pitchfork
Chrissie Hynde’s 10 Pieces of Advice for “Chick Rockers” (1994)
Four Female Punk Bands That Changed Women’s Role in Rock
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Complete nonsense to suggest women rockers were ever overlooked, many had top 10 hits. By the 60s there was a profusion including via Motown, of R & B women groups. There was also a renaissance in the 70s and 80s during the Rockabilly revival.
Motown and R&B are not the same thing as rock & roll, and the 70s and 80s were quite a different time from the 50s.
I’m glad Kay Starr’s “Rock’n’Roll Waltz” was included in this list. I’ve always thought this song was “Surrender” long before there was a Cheap Trick.
At least give Wanda Jackson a shout-out! It made the article seem incomplete.
What about the Dixie Cups from New Orleans?
How can I contribute to this website, as I have written on this subject from Canada.
Please feel free to drop me a line through the form on the “About” page of the site (www.womeninrockproject.org) so I have your contact info.
Fujiyama Mama is #5 in the playlist in the article.
Are comments “approved” instead of immediately published?
(Reposted) Because the first time it did not seem to take.
Because I have followed with great interest the career of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, I will disagree with the statement: “The recognition of rare exceptions, like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, does not challenge the rule.”
Although she had recorded since 1938 her popularity waned in 1949. Even though On January 1, 1950 Rosetta appears with the Rosettes on the Perry Como Supper Club show. It is her first national TV appearance. In 1951 to stir up interest once again, she held a (pay to attend) wedding and drew 25,000 people which all paid her manager to see her wed her 3rd husband. From approximately 1951 to 1959 she was living in and out of a state of duress, she even defaulted on her mortgage in 1957. She traveled to the UK touring extensively through GB, France, Germany, Spain and Scandanavia until she could again afford a house. She eventually bought a house in Philadelphia in 1960.
Tharpe was booked for a month-long tour of the UK by British trombonist Chris Barber and promptly nearly forgotten until 1964. In April and May 1964, Tharpe toured Europe as part of the Blues and Gospel Caravan, alongside Muddy Waters and Otis Spann, and others and began to gain a name for herself in Rock n’ Roll. The problem was, that Tharpe’s PRE-CURSOR to Rock N’ Roll was ahead of it’s time. Her song “Strange Things Happening Every Day”, recorded in 1944 with Sammy Price, Decca’s house boogie woogie pianist, showcased her virtuosity as a guitarist and her witty lyrics and delivery.But she was first and foremost a gospel musician and not Rock N’ Roll, which had not even been invented yet. “Strange Things Happening Every Day” was the first gospel song to make Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade (later known as Race Records, then R&B) Top Ten. This 1944 record has been called the first rock and roll record.
This writer is uninformed, or else too young to remember, since she only had brief mentions and small eras of popularity which mostly came about after her death in 73. (RESEARCH) It pisses me off. Anyway, music does not have a color it has a texture…which shifts between cultures.
That’s not to say “Rock and Roll began with Sister Rosetta Tharpe.” Not really (it began with people like Wild Bill Moore, Wynonie Harris, and Roy Brown), but she was a great artist who was widely respected by other artists including rock and roll artists. I understand that calling her a founder of rock and roll is very fashionable these days. Rock and roll was jokingly sacrilegious (the joke was, partying is our religion) secular jump blues with gospel backbeat that was popularized during 1947-1949 by people such as Moore, Harris, and Brown, a period when Tharpe disapproved of secular songs, so she wouldn’t sing them. Let alone jokingly sacrilegious secular songs. People who are interested in black female rock and roll should praise actual black female rock and roll artists such as Erline “Rock And Roll” Harris, who was using that nickname publicly in late 1949 when she made the rock and roll recording “Jump And Shout,” and Albennie Jones, who made the rock and roll recording “Hole In The Wall” in early 1949, and Honey Brown for “Rockin’ And Jumpin’,” and Mari Jones for “Real Lovin’ Mama,” and Fluffy Hunter for “The Walkin’ Blues,” and the like, before they praise Tharpe (in connection with rock and roll) for being… one of the great gospel artists. She used backbeat because gospel used backbeat. So anyway, in closing, to put Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the Rock N’ Roll category in this article above, as well as say she had any degree of huge fame ( Quote: “The recognition of rare exceptions”) is not only incorrect, it’s apples and oranges. Sorry, it’s an overall ‘nice’ article but it skims over Wanda Jackson, features a bland and popular song from Sparkle Moore (Barbara Morgan) when another better song to showcase her talents is clearly “Killer” (look it up on youtube)
This is all very glossed over and blandly nice, much like Rock and Rolls inclusion of women in the 1950’s. Sorry, I had to go off a little there.
So in case anyone wants to skim over the lengthy comment and get to my point – It’s incorrect to say Sister Rosetta Tharpe had any degree of critical “recognition” back then, as much as it is irrelevant to use as an example. Because she was primarily a GOSPEL artist and never a ROCK N’ ROLL artist.
Thank you for this. I was taken aback to see Sister Rosetta not included in this list. Glad to see someone else noticed too. cheers.
ah well, i see now that we have a slightly different take on it. i think it’s fair to say she was rock n roll before there was rock n roll. anyway i appreciate your post, all the same.
I can’t speak to what was mentioned in this article, which I didn’t write, but for the web project itself (www.womeninrockproject.org), I already have a list of something like 200 more people to include as it grows. The playlist here also wasn’t meant to be comprehensive. In fact, some records I would love to include on my playlists aren’t even on Spotify yet!
However you want to categorize Sister Rosetta Tharpe, she was certainly an important model and influence in rock and roll, and she will be represented in some way as soon as I am able. This is currently a labor of love while I work a full-time day job, so check back! There will be lots of updates.
how you forget Little Miss Dynamite ?
In the 1950’s Cordell Jackson tried to get a job at Sun records in Memphis
Tenn. doing studio work as a guitarist and as a recording engineer. Sam Philips
(owner of Sun Records) did not want to hire a female guitar player for session
work or to do record production and engineering. He had worked with Cordell
on private ventures and was well acquainted with her abilities. Sam Philips felt
that the other male musicians and engineers in his studio would not accept
working with Cordell because of her gender. At Sun studios the attitude was
women could be used in vocals but only men were capable to handle
arrangement and production.
In 1956 she started her own record label, “Moon Records” which was the
first record label owned by a women. She was the first woman recording
engineer and producer in the U.S. Cordell was also first female rock music
songwriter. She solely wrote, arranged and produced and manufactured her
first record. In 1986, Spin Magazine listed her as one of the top 20 guitarists of
Anyone still alive who lived in the 1950s (and that’s a lot of people!) is well aware that there were many single female artists as well as group female artists who had either sung or written big hits during that time. Millennials, not so much…and they probably don’t give a damn! :)
@KDL, don’t apologize, you’re right about what you said about Rosetta Tharpe, and you’re right about the writer of this article; they need to do their research better.
For me, this whole thing started in the ’60’s with bands like The Poor Girls (mentioned in Chrissie Hynde’s bio Reckless), Goldie & the Gingerbreads, The Cimmats, The Continental Co-ets, The Liverbirds, Sugar and the Spices, The Tremelons, plus a ton of others during that decade, all of which were short lived (many of them breaking up in the late ’60’s/early ’70’s. The bands are all mentioned here:
All-Female Bands of the 1960’s