They're talented, brassy, and bursting with a sexual energy that defied the repressed conservative manner of the '50s. The women of the early era of rockabilly had brains, heart, and the ambition for success, but it's a time-tested truth: it's hard to be a woman in the music business. As you'll read, the careers of many of the early pioneers of rockabilly did not run smoothly, but despite obstacles made giant strides in performing and recording music, making enormous contributions to the genre and inspiring younger generations of performers after them.
While there's many more fine female rockabilly musicians where these came from, here's a look at some of the trailblazers whose music has stood the test of time, as well as the best new musicians rocking the genre today.
10. Lorrie Collins
Half of the teeny-bopper duo The Collins Kids, Lorrie Collins enjoyed a sweet fame singing rockabilly tunes beside her younger brother Larry, who was himself a mean force on a double-necked electric guitar. Lorrie felt confined in her teen idol image, and found a kinship with boyfriend and popular television star, Ricky Nelson. Although her relationship with Nelson was high profile it was very brief, and at age 17 she married Johnny Cash's manager Stu Carnall, who at the time was twice her age. Despite that, she kept up her acting career and even continued performing, both solo and as part of The Collins Kids for some time.
Collins' solo performance here shows how even at a young age, Collins wasn't just a pretty face but a solid musician with the right skills and showmanship.
9. Sparkle Moore
Sparkle Moore's career is best summed up in the few singles released on the Fraternity label in the 1950s, but despite that she's still seen as one of the pioneering female figures of rockabilly music. Born Barbara Morgan, Moore was musical fanatic from an early age, even running away from home at one point to join a band. Just as her name (inspired by comic character Sparkle Plenty) suggests, Moore stood out with her shock of platinum blonde hair, the flashy men's suits she wore, her confident attitude and her charisma. In fact, Moore is probably the early female embodiment of rock n' roll, if not punk rock.
As an exceptional guitarist, she would go on to perform across the country at small rock n' roll shows, and toured with rockabilly great Gene Vincent. Most people would have you believe her career in music ended after she started a family, but she's still rather active in writing and recording music, and posts a lot of her poetry on her website.
8. Charline Arthur
Charline Arthur is definitely one of those musicians who fell into relative obscurity, but nonetheless made an impact on music. Arthur was a radio star, slinging country and honky tonk songs and touring with a traveling medicine show. She was also very multi-talented; she could play up to 8 instruments.
Beyond musical capabilities, Arthur was also a major rebel. Known as a proto-rockabilly artist, Arthur's performances became marked by electrifying on-stage antics: ostentatious hip shaking, singing while lying on the floor, and gyrating madly years: and this was years before Elvis conceived of doing such things for his own act. Instead of dresses she performed in pants, and she was the first woman to be photographed smoking (legend has it). Of course, her refusal to conform to societal standards for women would earn her the reputation of being difficult, especially with label managers, and for this Arthur never really made it to mainstream success. Despite that, her influence definitely pervaded in the acts to follow after her, and her music lives on through the various songs she recorded herself.
7. Amber Foxx
Amber Foxx is one of many fine rockabilly singers to emerge from the Southern California rockabilly scene of recent years. Another artist that combines a more classic country sound to her rockabilly, her songs are laced with the accompaniment of a twangy guitar and carried forth by her lilting vocals, making for a blissful combination. Looking less like she belongs on an episode of Hayride, instead she's always dressed the part of a glamorous nightclub singer from the swingin' years.
Starting in 2002, Foxx and her group (which features her husband on bass) have performed in various rockabilly music festivals around the world, and currently have a monthly residency at the Continental Room in Fullerton.
Nowadays, plenty of female singers out there are adapting the sounds of classic '60s soul with modern pop, rock or jazz, but not many of them have as big a voice as Latina rockabilly singer Gizzelle. With a rich, booming vocal style that recalls the talents of Big Mama Thornton, Ruth Brown and Mahalia Jackson, Gizzelle- or Lil Gizzelle- channels the early rhythm n' blues sound in her rockabilly. Gizzelle is signed to the Wild Records label from Los Angeles, which promotes lots of newer rockabilly and rock n' roll artists, many of whom are Latino. So it's not surprising that among a bunch of other artists who have reincarnated the genre, Gizzelle stands as a giant among them through her own unique musical prowess.
Gizzelle is also featured in the Wild Records documentary "Los Wild Ones," which has been generating a lot of buzz on the film festival circuit, but to the many fans she's gained from touring over the years, her success comes as no surprise.
5. Brenda Lee
Most people don't know that Lee began her singing career before her mega-hit "I'm Sorry" sprang her into musical stardom. But it's true; Lee displayed a natural singing ability as a wee lass and was a rising radio star before she signed with the Decca Label in 1956. Nicknamed "Little Miss Dynamite," Lee recorded several rockabilly songs that became hits as rock n' roll was starting to pick up steam. Lee's strong vocal range would blossom and her career would evolve into recording pop hits during the '60s. As she grew older, her career waned, but Lee continued to record country music, and to this day has been inducted to the Country Hall of Fame. But really, her range as a singer is incredible; she's fully capable of turning out songs of any genre, despite making the most impact in the early years of rock n' roll.
4. Kim Lenz
SoCal-born and bred Kim Lenz is quite the starlet. The redheaded Lenz grew up on a wide range of musical influences, from Irving Berlin to New Wave female singers of the '80s, and as the singular female lead for her group, The Jaguars, she keeps a roots/Americana sound in her brand of rockabilly, along with some influences of Western Swing and honky tonk. With her distinctive crooning and purring, she's the rockabilly answer to Chrissy Hynde, adding something of a punk edge in the way she snarls her way through some of her songs, whilst showing the vulnerability of a maimed bird in some of her more heartfelt ditties.
Despite taking a short hiatus to start a family, Lenz bounced back into the scene with another album and has never been short of love or admiration from fans. This song is from one of her earliest albums The One and Only, and is a great example of the sensuality and electrifying swagger Lenz adds to a classic rockabilly song she's covering.
3. Janis Martin
Known famously as the "Female Elvis" Martin started her career in country music and signed with RCA records at the ripe age of fifteen. Having initially rejected the 'Female Elvis' title given to her by RCA's image gurus, Martin later embraced it and adopted a stage persona that further likened her to Presley, who was already turning the hair of public decency crusaders white. Tired of her sweet teenage image crafted for her, she broke out of it by getting eloped and later getting pregnant, two moves that seemingly ruined her career until she was rediscovered and brought out of retirement in the 1970s.
Most of Martin's early catalog has a very teeny bopper vibe to it, but ya can't deny its catchiness and Martin's natural abilities at such a young age. Ironically, one of her singles is called "Baby Let's Elope."
2. Rosie Flores
Seeing how country, honky tonk, and Western swing are all thriving music genres in Texas, it's only natural that rockabilly would follow suit, and there may be no better rockabilly songstress to emerge from that scene than Rosie Flores. Flores' style of rockabilly merges together the twang of Western swing with Tex-Mex, along with other elements like country, pop and jazz. Flores started out playing in a cowpunk band Screaming Sirens before launching her own solo album in 1987. The self-titled debut featured the hit "Crying Over You," which became a sensation and rocketed Flores up the Billboard country charts, becoming the first female Latina country artist to do so. Flores is loved so much in Texas, that August 31st is Rosie Flores Day. She continues to produce music and perform today.
1. Wanda Jackson
The indelible queen of rockabilly that captured hearts with songs such as "Hard Headed Woman," "Fujiyama Mama" and "Hot Dog That Made Him Mad" is of course, number one on this list. The vintage luster in her voice has only grown in richness as the years have gone by, as Jackson continues to perform and rock audiences today.
Born Wanda Lavonne Jackson in Maud, Oklahoma, Jackson moved with her family to Bakersfield, California and there saw country music greats Spade Cooley and Bob Wills. After moving back to Oklahoma at age, 11, Jackson became a popular country singing star. It wasn't until Elvis Presley (whom she briefly dated) suggested she sing rockabilly did Jackson score big hits stateside and abroad.
Jackson achieved success around the same time as Martin, Arthur, and Lee, so why is she commonly regarded as the First Lady of Rockabilly? Jackson definitely exudes a star power apparent in her glamorous presentation (her mother designed her clothes!), her unique vocal style and her vivacious stage presence. She's served as an inspiration for other female musicians among various genres and has kept up a lasting career in rockabilly, country and gospel music.
More recently she's collaborated with modern musicians like Jack White, and performs in OC quite often, solidifying her reign and introducing her to new generations of fans.