Don’t disregard female rock ‘n’ roll pioneers

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Although men dominated rock ‘n’ roll music during the 1950s, women contributed to the establishment of rock ‘n’ roll in many ways that people today do not realize.

I have listed five female artists who reigned during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. These women had an impact on rock ‘n’ roll musically, vocally and lyrically. Drawing from their country, jazz, blues and gospel roots, they each added something different to rock ‘n’ roll. Their musical technique, song structure and attitude were later imitated by many of the most popular artists of the rock ‘n’ roll era.

Singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe stands out as a prominent innovator. She windmilled her electric guitar before Chuck Berry did and performed with more charisma than Little Richard.  The gospel artist gained a large following during her career from the 1930s to when she died in 1973 and continues to prevail as one of the most significant artists of the 20th century.

Her musical skill and showmanship contributed greatly to the formation of rock ‘n’ roll, influencing many icons of the 1950s, such as Elvis PresleyJerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Today, few people outside of the music field know her music and the impact she had on rock ‘n’ roll.

The documentary “The Godmother of Rock & Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe” tells the story of an extraordinary female musician whose spiritual passion and musical prowess helped lay the foundation of rock ‘n’ roll. Filmmaker Mike Csaky directed the 53-minute film, which aired in February 2014 on PBS as part of the American Masters series.

Cordell Jackson was also a leading figure for women in rock ‘n’ roll. She remains the first woman to produce, engineer and promote music on her own rock ‘n’ roll music label. She opened Moon Records in Memphis, Tenn., in 1956. Born in 1923, she began performing at age 12 with her father’s band. Jackson played the guitar and the double bass for 69 years. She operated Moon Records until her death in 2004.

In a 1991 Budweiser commercial, Jackson, also know as the “Rockin’ Granny,” played rings around Brian Setzer, former front man and guitarists for the rockabilly band, The Stray Cats.

Rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s originated predominantly from African-American genres. Big Maybelle, born Mabel Louise Smith in 1924, remains an unsung rhythm and blues heroine who bridged the gap between rhythm and blues and early rock ‘n’ roll. She sang and played the piano, recording several hits for Okeh Records in the 1950s, including “Gabbin’ Blues,” which reached No. 3 on the Billboard R&B chart.

Jerry Lee Lewis covered Big Maybelle’s song “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” two years after she had recorded it. Lewis’s version became a defining track of the rock ‘n’ roll era, while Big Maybelle gained minimal success from the song.

Samantha Ainsley, a graduate of Columbia University in New York City, claims in her essay, “Black Rhythm, White Power,” that white musicians have capitalized on many genres rooted in black culture, such as jazz and hip-hop.

“When whites cannot stake claims to black music—as in the case of hip-hop—the nature of the relationship between mainstream society and African-American culture is simply exploitative,” Ainsley stated in her essay inThe Morningside Reviews, a journal published by the Undergraduate Writing Program at Columbia University.

Lewis was only one of many rock ‘n’ roll legends to turn a rhythm and blues tune into a smash hit. Elvis Presley covered the song “Hound Dog,” which was originally recorded by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. While Thornton’s recording topped the R&B charts for seven weeks, Presley’s version stayed at No. 1 on the U.S. pop, country and R&B charts for 11 weeks. The song is still prevalent in American culture today, but most people associated it with Presley.

Thornton, who also played the harmonica and drums, remains one of the most influential people in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Few women made a living in the rock ‘n’ roll industry during the 1950s. Janis Martin was an exception. Not only was she unique for being a female artist in the male-dominated field, but also she was very young when she hit the stage for the first time. The rockabilly and country artist began singing and playing the guitar at six years old. RCA Records signed her in 1956 at age 15. During the same year, she recorded the song “Drug Store Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which hit both the country and pop charts.

Soon she became known as the “Female Elvis” for her musical style and dance moves, both of which resembled Presley’s. She even sang a song called “My Boy Elvis.”

Martin’s influence to rock ‘n’ roll is distinct in that, while other female musicians helped mold the genre in specific ways, she contributed to the music as a popular artist of the rock ‘n’ roll era.

The female musicians acknowledged here are among many who have contributed to rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s. And, like many others, they receive little credit. None of the women I mentioned are in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. They deserve recognition because their influence ultimately altered the way people today listen to rock ‘n’ roll.



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