Introduction

For sixty years, conventional wisdom has told us that women generally did not perform rock and roll during the 1950s.

In every decade, you can find someone commenting on the absence of women on the charts during rock and roll’s heyday. Others note that women during that era were typically not so inclined to a wild, raucous style.

(click bullets to view quotations)

A girl can’t sing rock and roll. It’s basically too savage for a girl singer to handle.

—Connie Francis
“On the Beat,” Billboard, 16 June 1958

During the [early] floodtide of rock and roll, . . . the popularity of girl singers was at a nadir; or, put another way, rock bottom.

—Ren Gravatt
Billboard, 27 February 1961

It is perfectly true that no female performer of the rocker era could rival the wildness and intensity of Jerry Lee Lewis . . . or attain the popularity of Elvis Presley.

—Robert Oermann and Mary Bufwack
“Rockabilly Women,” Journal of Country Music 8, no. 1 (1979): 65.

The most memorable figures of the first years of rock’n’roll presented an aggressively sexual, flamboyant, even threatening image. Not surprisingly, perhaps, they were also male. . . . Not until rock’n’roll lost its spark of spontaneity and became a tributary of the musical mainstream, with its waters paddled by clean-cut kids, was it acceptable for white girls to dip a toe in.

—John Pigeon
“Venus: The Role Of Women In Fifties Music,” The History of Rock (1981)

The post-World War II ideal of domestic femininity proved to be extremely powerful and provoked no widespread challenges until the 1960s. Given the tenor of the times, an empowered black female rock’n’roll idol would have been . . . unlikely—which is why African American women have played no part in this discussion.

—Joseph G. Schloss, Larry Starr, and Christopher Waterman,
Rock Music, Culture, and Business (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 73.

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—to give just a few examples.

It is true that women’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.

Learn about some of these rockers by searching or browsing the Biographies section (new biographies added regularly) or listening to and reading the performers’ accounts in their own words in the Interviews section.

“Rock and roll” has never had a singular meaning.

While there may be some performances that we all agree fit the definition, from its first days, “rock and roll” has enveloped a wide variety of sounds and influences—drawing from and giving back to doo-wop, rockabilly, swing, blues, and more.

Once the phrase took hold in the mid 1950s, promoters, record labels, songwriters, publishers, and performers themselves used “rock and roll” as a broad umbrella term in order to capture as much of the youth market as possible. When we begin to examine the huge variety of performances that occurred and records that were sold under that banner, an equally wide array of women’s performances becomes visible.

Listen to a sampler playlist of artists & styles featured throughout this site.

We might set out looking for a female rock star who resembled Elvis Presley—and some did—but she might just as well have been founding her own vocal group, recording a witty retort to a song by a male contemporary, or bringing rock and roll to Japan.

Visit the Discover page to find articles and multimedia demonstrating how music by women was an important part of a broader rock and roll culture.

Women’s participation in rock and roll may not yet fully be a part of the way we talk about the history of the genre, and there remain many performers about whom we know very little today. There are many stories yet to be told. Yet women performers from this generation aren’t entirely “lost,” either. Scholars, fans, and the performers have written articles and books that include information about women in rock and related genres. Browse or search the Bibliography to find some of the sources that informed this project.

Women in Rock & Roll’s First Wave is an ever-expanding project. If you have information or want to share your story or a family member’s, please get in touch!

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