Four of Rockabilly’s Greatest Leading Ladies
Like much of music, the rockabilly genre has historically been a boys club. The early incarnation of rock and roll, blending country honky tonk and swing with rhythm and blues boogie woogie was popularized in the 1950s, building a foundation for everyone from the Beatles to the White Stripes that followed. And, even still, a devoted fan base lives on committed to the retro sub genre.
But while the likes of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Bill Haley, Johnny Cash, Bob Luman, Jerry Lee Lewis and others are often credited as the forefathers of the genre, often forgotten are their female counterparts — some of the most rockin’ women of all time.
Take Wanda Jackson, for instance, one of the first popular female rockabilly singers: After she was discovered by musician Hank Thompson in 1954 and asked to perform with his band and on local radio, she recorded several songs for the group’s label Capitol Records, including the hit duet “You Can’t Have My Love.” When she asked Capitol to sign her following, she was turned down by a producer who told her, “Girls don’t sell records.” Instead she signed with Decca Records and went on to experience a long, fruitful career.
In honor of those often overlooked founding mothers of rock, here is a look at some of the greatest in the genre :
Often called the “Queen of Rockabilly” or “The First Lady of Rockabilly,” Wanda Jackson built a career mixing country and fast paced rockabilly and managed to parlay her popularity into mainstream when the rockabilly genre declined in the mid-1960s. Her track “Fujiyama Mama” hit No. 1 in Japan and led to tours of that country, while her first U.S. Top 40 success came with a recording of “Let’s Have a Party”.
Barbara Pittman was one of the few female singers to record at the famed Sun Studio, which bred such popular male acts as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others. She actually grew up as friends and neighbors with Presley, and it was The King who first brought her into Sun Studios.
Laura Lee Perkins
The piano playing Laura Lee Perkins brought a lot of attitude in just six recordings that marked her career, and while she never became the female Jerry Lee Lewis as it had been hoped (and her name was changed to resemble), she definitely made her mark on the rockabilly genre. Her distinctive playing and singing makes her a standout in the genre.
Janis Martin’s career launched at an early age with the nickname of the “Female Elvis” for her dance moves that resembled those of Presley’s. Her first and biggest hit “Will You Willyum” came to her from a radio announcer looking to make a demo tape. When he pitched it to prominent RCA Victor producer Steve Sholes, he’s said to have replied, “Well, who’s the girl doin’ the demo?” The track was released in 1956 when she was just 15 and soon she was performing on American Bandstand, The Today Show, Tonight Starring Steve Allen, Jubilee USA. She appeared on the Grand Ole Opry as one of the show’s youngest performers ever and Billboard named her Most Promising Female Vocalist that year.
Though she only released a few songs in her career, Sparkle Moore’s impact as a pioneer of female rockabilly was substantial. She born Barbara Morgan but earned her nickname due to her similarity to to the Dick Tracy comics’ Sparkle Plenty character, with an Elvis-Influenced pompadour and cool almost cartoonish style that often had her dressed in men’s clothing. Her career only really lasted a year, touring with Gene Vincent and releasing singles in 1956 and 1957, then retiring after becoming pregnant and focusing on raising her family.