New Web Project Immortalizes the Overlooked Women Who Helped Create Rock and Roll in the 1950s

“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 songsown­ing 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.

via WFMU

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

by | Permalink | Comments (18) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (18)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Alan Woolf says:

    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.

  • Charlotte says:

    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.

  • Fran says:

    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.

  • Bill W. says:

    At least give Wan­da Jack­son a shout-out! It made the arti­cle seem incom­plete.

  • Carol Durusau says:

    What about the Dix­ie Cups from New Orleans?

  • Connie Kuhns says:

    How can I con­tribute to this web­site, as I have writ­ten on this sub­ject from Cana­da.

  • Leah Branstetter says:

    Hi Con­nie,

    Please feel free to drop me a line through the form on the “About” page of the site ( so I have your con­tact info.


  • Peter M says:

    Fujiya­ma Mama is #5 in the playlist in the arti­cle.

  • KDL says:

    Are com­ments “approved” instead of imme­di­ate­ly pub­lished?

  • KDL says:

    (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.

  • KDL says:

    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.

  • Olah M Canady says:

    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.

  • Olah M Canady says:

    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.

  • Leah Branstetter says:

    I can’t speak to what was men­tioned in this arti­cle, which I did­n’t write, but for the web project itself (, 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.

  • daniel says:

    how you for­get Lit­tle Miss Dyna­mite ?

  • Pearl Obrien says:

    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
    all time.

  • Bob Corder says:

    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! :)

  • Lefty Throckmorton says:

    @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

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.