Happy holidays, everyone! After a bit of a hiatus on this project, I’m now at work behind the scenes on a whole bunch of new biographies and blog posts—as well as hopefully some site updates—all to come in 2021. I’m so grateful to everyone who has reached out with suggestions and other leads since womeninrockproject.org launched in 2019!
In the meantime, to wish you all a fantastic holiday season, here’s a playlist of some holiday songs recorded by women rock and roll pioneers and other 1950s influencers.
When rock and roll first became popular, some performers who had already established themselves in other genres had to walk a fine line between capitalizing on the fad and alienating existing fans. Several records by women from this era show that one technique to strike this balance was to perform songs that juxtaposed rock and roll with another genre. Often, the verse will be in one style and the chorus in the other. These songs typically also have an element of humor—we get the sense that the performer is making fun of one genre or the other—but there may be some ambiguity in the end as to the performer’s “real” style.
Three songs, all popular between 1955 and 1956, demonstrate how this works.
One example is Wanda Jackson‘s recording of “I Gotta Know.” In her autobiography, Jackson writes:
“I told [songwriter Thelma Blackmon] about Elvis encouraging me to try my hand at rockabilly music, but I confessed that I didn’t really know how to get into it. I had a dilemma because I wanted to venture into a new realm, but I also didn’t want to lose my country fan base. Unbeknownst to me, Thelma took it upon herself to go off and write a song that blended the two styles together. When she brought me “I Gotta Know,” I said “This is it!” 1
Here’s Jackson discussing and performing the song live in a 2018 performance (audio courtesy of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame):
Successful performance of the song relies on the arrangement and performance style creating an obvious contrast between the two sections. Here, the choruses—which in Jackson’s 1956 recording feature fiddles and pedal steel—resemble those of a country ballad, and Jackson plays up the twang in her voice. The verses, on the other hand, become faster and more percussion-heavy, and Jackson turns on her signature rockabilly growl. The record became one of her more popular singles that year.
Another example of this kind of musical switching occurs in Teresa Brewer’s recording of “Sweet Old Fashioned Girl,” also from 1956, which became a top 10 hit in Billboard. Brewer started her career as a pop singer in the late 1940s. She was a versatile vocalist, and she did participate in the practice of covering R&B songs for major labels, but neither she nor her record label ever went all in on marketing her music as rock and roll. “Sweet Old Fashioned Girl,” however, plays with the idea that she could have.
Accompanied by orchestral strings, Brewer asks “wouldn’t anyone like to meet a sweet old fashioned girl?” and then scat-sings a silly tune. Moments later, the strings abruptly cut out in favor of a jump-blues inspired band, and Brewer sings: “Who’s a frantic little bopper in some sloppy socks / Just a crazy rock and roller, little Goldilocks.”
Kay Starr’s recording of “Rock and Roll Waltz” also fits this model. The idea for the song started with Alan Freed:
Songwriters Shorty Allen and Roy Alfred, always turning over new song ideas, were tuned into Alan Freed’s Rock ’n Roll Show one day, when the famous jockey happened to remark in connection with a record he was about to play, “The next thing we’ll have is rock and roll in waltz time.” That was all the fellows needed. They wrote the tune, the first rock ’n roller in that tempo in history, and based the lyrics on some of the romantic thoughts expressed in the many wires and letters received by Freed.2
Much of the record is a lilting waltz, with orchestral strings and in a clear 3/4 time. Over this, Starr tells the story of a young teen who happens upon her parents trying to dance to a rock and roll record. But twice within the song, when Starr pronounces the phrase “one, two, and three rock / one, two, and three roll,” she changes her vocal timbre to a gruffer sound, and the accompaniment correspondingly shifts to a brass band.
The song shot to #1 on the pop charts, where it remained for several weeks.
Rock and roll was still controversial at the time these three records were made, so these songs and their arrangements may have allowed some women singers—particularly white, middle-class women—to dabble in rock and roll in a non-threatening way.
Some of rock and roll’s best known girl groups—the Supremes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, the Ronnettes—were active in the 1960s, but the girl group phenomenon has roots in the 1950s. It was during the 50s that the first prominent vocal groups made up of teenage girls began to show up on the popularity charts, both pop and R&B.
This playlist highlights some of the vocal groups that were beginning to proliferate during the early rock and roll era. These groups were drawing from a variety of influences, including the “sister” ensembles of the swing era (like the Andrews Sisters) and from the male doo-wop groups that were also popular in the fifties (one of the first girl groups, the Queens, was founded by Shirley Gunter, whose brother Cornell was a member of the Coasters).
Much of the early girl group music features the tight vocal harmonies and nonsense syllables that came from the sister groups or doo-wop, but these “girl group” songs also created a new platform for the concerns of teenage girls. Girl group historian and musicologist Jacqueline Warwick writes that the popularity of these groups “marked the first instance in U.S. history of a music centered around adolescent girls and their experiences coming of age, in a society were teenagers were emerging as a newly signfiicant group.” 1
All of the groups on this playlist were part of rock and roll culture in the fifties—they performed on package shows and were heard on rock and roll radio programs, for example—with the possible exception of the Chordettes, who are performing a hit song written by a teen girl songwriter, Beverly Ross. While a number of girl group hits were written and produced by men, the Brill Building songwriting teams who increasingly worked with girl groups in the 1960s also included songwriters who were young women themselves, including Carole King, Ellie Greenwich, and Cynthia Weil. Ross was among the first.
I first met Linda Gail Lewis when she came to Cleveland in September of 2018 for a tour date in support of her new album with Robbie Fulks, Wild! Wild! Wild!
Lewis carries forth the tradition of 1950s rock and roll. Her technique was learned in part from her brother Jerry Lee Lewis, and it shows: by the end of the night, she was playing the keyboard standing up with one foot in the air. Her current repertoire is a mix of early rock and roll classics—she reports that “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” are always crowd favorites—and songs from her more recent albums.
My cell phone video from a favorite moment of the show.
When we had a chance to speak in greater depth, Lewis told me more about being a witness to the birth of rock and roll from following her brother on the road and beginning to perform and record herself in her teens. In the 1980s, however, inspired by figures like Wanda Jackson, Lewis embraced her own ability to rock “like a man” and forged a solo career for herself:
I had never done a vocal on a rock and roll song like “Whole Lotta shakin’ Goin’ On” or “Great Balls of Fire” and had it sound… I’d never done them. But then when I started doing them after being on the road with Wanda [Jackson] on that tour, and seeing how she sang and the way she approached—I guess it’s the way you approach the song. And the only way I can describe it, is just that it’s just balls to the wall. And I am a woman, but I do have balls. And if you are going to be a woman in this business and if you are going to sing rock and roll or play rock and roll or be a rocker—you’ve got to be a woman with balls.
In 2011, I had an absolutely delightful interview with Laura Lee Perkins (her stage name from the fifties—she was born Alice Faye Perkins), sometimes referred to as the Female “Jerry Lee Lewis” in press.
Our conversation focused on her journey from a small coal mining town in West Virginia, to the Cleveland area where she was first discovered by DJ Jeff Baxter, to California where she recorded for Imperial Records, to eventually Detroit where she settled and continued to perform and tour until her early twenties.
Perkins talked about the difficulty she found promoting records as a young, single woman working as a waitress in an age of payola:
And how she became “Laura Lee” instead of “Alice Faye”? Or who decided to call her “the Female Jerry Lee Lewis”? She had no idea!
When we hear a record of a woman rocking and rolling in the fifties, it is often tempting to ascribe “wild” vocal qualities like screaming, shouting, and growling to a sense of personal empowerment or daring. Conversely, smoother vocalizing is associated with restraint and repression. But is that always the case?
By the 1950s, there was a body of scientific and pseudo-scientific research claiming that voice and personality were inextricably linked. One expert, Paul J. Moses—who published widely in the post-World War II era—claimed that he could diagnose neurosis simply by hearing a recording of the patient’s voice, which he would analyze for qualities like pitch, pathos, speed, melody, respiration, “rhythmical prevalence,” and glissando. Women were thought of as particularly susceptible to showing tension or neurosis in their voices, because their higher tessitura could lead to audible shrillness. Moses identified the vocal chords as a secondary sex organ, therefore susceptible to sexual frustration. “The frustrated female voice,” he notes, “is a widespread symptom in contemporary Western cultures.” 1 The more “glissando,” or instability, a woman had in her voice, the more neurotic she was believed to be.
Ideas about female and effeminate voices also emerged in the popular press, where they infiltrated books on voice training and manuals on health, hygiene, and etiquette—many of which were aimed at teenage girls. The Guide to Good Grooming for Negro Girls (1959), for example, offers that “the girl most likely to succeed . . . is the girl with a voice that is as feminine and charming as the girl herself (or the girl she is trying to be).”2 Girls were told that their voices were an important means of attracting a husband—and, conversely, that poor vocal habits could repel members of the opposite sex. These guides counseled women to record their voices so that they might hear and correct their own flaws. Singers were also cautioned to consider what factors made their voices most alluring. “What’s sexy?” actress Dorothy Uris asked women in her book Everybody’s Book of Better Speaking. “Not those raucous ‘singing’ voices that raise the pulse beat of rabid record buyers.”3
Whether or not it was a direct consequence of this kind of advice about what constituted a healthy or sexy voice for women, some female rock and rollers did not like the idea of growling and screaming on their records—at least not all the time.
Women Rock & Rollers on Growling and Screaming
Laura Lee Perkins
As Laura Lee Perkins recalled of her sessions, “They [meaning Imperial Records] gave me some songs to listen to . . . and I had to listen to those and try and learn the words. And then I went back to the studio the next day, and had to perform these songs that I didn’t know, and didn’t like! I hated the songs, and they also wanted me to growl my voice, and I didn’t like that.” “Kiss Me Baby” (1958) demonstrates the result, which has so many growls as to sound forced:
Sparkle Moore tells a similar story about her experience with Cincinnati-based Fraternity Records. She described her sessions as “strange, and slightly disappointing, in the sense that I had no control of [the] sound. I wasn’t accustomed to playing with an older established orchestra. I felt uncomfortable and thought the music didn’t sound right. I wanted a lot of echo, etc., which never happened. The music wasn’t loose enough I thought.” Some of this discomfort is apparent in her voice in alternate takes from these sessions made available by Ace Records, in which a producer can be heard asking her to “scream.”
The takes with the screams were not used for the final release.
In an interview with Holly George-Warren, Wanda Jackson recalled both coming into this sound on her own, but while taking direction from both Capitol Records’s Ken Nelson and her father, who acted as her manager while recording “Fujiyama Mama”:
I didn’t really know . . . what tempo I wanted it; what key would be best—you can move them a little, it makes a big difference in the sound—so [Ken Nelson] was having me do that. And finally we settled in. And then he [Nelson] was still wanting something. And Daddy could see—Daddy was in the control room—he could see I was getting frustrated and confused. And he called a break, or told Ken “just a minute.” He came in the studio, and pulled me aside. And Daddy never had to say much. He was a man of few words, and pretty quiet spoken. But he said, “Wanda, You rear back. And you sing that song however you want to sing it.” I said, “Okay! If Daddy said it.” I’m really not that young any more, but I depended a lot on what he said and what he thought about things. So I went back and I started and—that growl just came out like that. You know it was kind of—it kind of amazed me. 4
Wanda Jackson’s growl is so famous she is sometimes referred to as the “nice lady with the nasty voice,” and she has continued using it in her rockabilly singing into her eighties.
Answer songs have long been one of Tin Pan Alley’s favorite ways to squeak a little extra capital out of someone else’s hit record.
These records take characters or plot points from a popular hit, and rework them in some way— relying on audiences’ knowledge of the prior song to fully “get” the meaning. While many answer songs have been relegated to obscurity, others—like Etta James’s “The Wallflower,” one of many responses to Hank Ballard’s “Work with me Annie”—became hits themselves.
B. Lee Cooper and Frank W. Hoffman the 1946–1975 the “golden era” of answer songs, and the trend was particularly strong in R&B in the 1950s and in country & westernand pop in the 1960s. 1Skeeter Davis, for example, released a whole string of popular answer songs beginning in 1960. 2 Rock and roll also saw its share of answer songs, particularly as it dominated the charts in the mid- to late-1950s.
Most answer songs also include musical elements from the original, ranging from a short audible cue—a host of answer songs to the Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace,” for example, begin with a ringing phone—to wholesale theft of the melody and harmony. These similarities frequently led to lawsuits. “Don’t Want to Be Your Good Luck Charm” by Jo of Judy & Jo (Capitol 4745, 1962), for example, sparked a lawsuit by Gladys Music, which owned the publication rights to “Good Luck Charm” made famous by Elvis Presley. 3
Answer songs often represented dialogue between men and women, frequently showing different perspectives of a love or breakup story—often reinforcing stereotypical gendered roles but occasionally bucking them. When women rock and rollers cut answers songs, they were more often than not answering songs written and performed by men.
Here are some of the common tactics that appear in women’s answer songs.
In this variation on covering a song, any gendered nouns and pronouns in the lyrics are switched, usually to keep romantic narratives heterosexual. Sometimes, however, this also changes the scenario or meaning laid out in the original—as Aretha Franklin’s cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” famously did later in the 1960s.
For example, several women including Meg Myles (1956), Dinah Shore (1958), and Ann-Margret (1962) re-recorded “Thirteen Women” as “Thirteen Men.” The song is perhaps best-known as the B-side of Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock around the Clock,” but it was originally written and recorded by black musician Dickey Thompson. In the song, the protagonist fantasizes about a post-nuclear scenario in which they are the only member of their gender left, while thirteen remain of the opposite. The “female” version of the song doesn’t change any of the other lyrics, however, creating a scenario that could be interpreted as even more risqué, since women are thought of as the primary drivers of monogamy.
The backing track of Meg Myles’s version, cut for Liberty Records and released in 1956, features dissonant horns and an anxious, rapid bongo drum beat that seem to signal that this world would not exactly be a paradise.
Meg Myles, “Thirteen Men”
Novelty / Humor
While in a sense many answer records are novelty records, some didn’t even try to be serious. In 1960, for example, Jeri Lynne Fraser took the already silly “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and told us what happened to the girl in the bikini in her answer, “Poor Begonia (Caught Pneumonia).” Begonia may have gotten sick, but she also gains a new fiancé in the lifeguard who comes to her rescue.
The song has a distinct melody and structure from “Itsy Bitsy,” but it has a similarly light-hearted arrangement. It also satirizes the original for a moment in the pre-chorus by including semi-spoken count off “2-4-6-8, gosh she’s in an awful state!” that resembles the earlier song.
Some women used the answer song as a medium to object to the behaviors of the protagonists in men’s songs. Kitty Wells’s signature hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” (1952), written by Jay Miller as a response to Hank Thompson’s recording of “Wild Side of Life” (1951),set a gold standard for the women’s point of view answer song. (There are a number of examples of these “women’s answer songs” written by men.)
Dion and the Belmonts’ “Runaround Sue” sparked a couple of answer songs from the perspective of “Sue.” Linda Laurie cut one for Rust in 1962, “Stay-at-Home Sue.” The backing vocals are credited to the Del-Satins, a white doo-wop group very similar to the Belmonts. “Stay at Home Sue” is a very close copy of “Runaround Sue”—Laurie even invokes Dion’s vocal style—but the lyrics accuse Dion of cheating and implore: “If you’re in love with a guy who’s not true / don’t sit around and be a stay-at-home Sue!”
Clip: Linda Laurie, “Stay-at-Home Sue”:
Relocated Male Fantasy
Some women’s answer songs reinforced the point of view in the man’s song, rather than countering it or admonishing him in some way. Dodie Stevens cut a response Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight” in 1960 called “Yes, I’m Lonesome Tonight.” The song has a very similar arrangement to Presley’s, with softly crooning background vocalists and a delicate acoustic guitar strum. The melody is also cribbed from the original, and Stevens affirms each of the sentiments from Presley’s record: “Yes I’m Lonesome tonight and I miss you tonight / I’m so sorry we drifted apart And my memory strays to those wonderful days / when you kissed me and called me sweetheart.”
“Fujiyama Mama” was a R&B song written by Jack Hammer in 1954 and best-known as a cover recorded by Wanda Jackson in 1957. The song, in which the protagonist compares herself to a sexually charged atom bomb, was never a hit in the United States. Jackson’s rockabilly-styled cover, however, became a major hit in Japan in the post World War II era—despite explicit references to the devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. This scholarly article digs into the history of the cultural moment that shaped the song’s creation and its reception both in the United States and in Japan, exploring a number of other recordings of the song along the way. It’s a story that includes (among other things) nuclear anxiety, GI lingo, and the fate of Japanese sex workers during the American Occupation of Japan.