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Focusing on the overlooked women who helped create rock and roll in the 1950s

Rock and roll has been reaching greater dimensions for many decades now, yet when talking about the roots, the creators and the innovators of this genre, we tend to only mention male artists. Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Little Richard and many more are at the top of the list of those who have “invented” rock and roll. But where do the female artists fit in all of this? Leah Branstetter, a PhD candidate in musicology at Case Western Reserve University, has created her online dissertation to honour and shine a light on women who have veritably forged rock and roll music.

A lot of people believe that women only arrived into the rock industry from the sixties, where girl groups like The Ronettes, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, The Crystals and many more took over a large part of the genre’s scene. However, that’s where they’re wrong. Long before then, female artists had already explored guitars and swinging rhythms. Leah Branstetter’s web project – Women in Rock and Roll First Wave – is all about giving some of these women the recognition they deserve. The information gathered about a handful of innovative women she has come across throughout her research – too often forgotten when it comes to the history of rock and roll – is definitely something any girl band fan needs to read.

Those of us who were born and raised listening to Elvis and Chuck Berry would have probably heard of a few of those female names, but for those looking to get an insight into how rock and roll came about, this web project is the perfect tool to discover well-known and unknown names.

Leah Branstetter puts things into perspective by detailing how women were often considered groupies, studio audience members, groupies, and other derogatory labels to strip them of their contribution. Of course, it goes without saying they were far more than that. Whether some of the female artists collected in the aforementioned group produced ground-breaking tracks themselves, or put together all the stage-wear for male artists, women were far from just a bit on the side.

“It is true that women’s careers didn’t always resemble those of their more famous male counterparts,” explains Branstetter in the introduction of her project. “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 an impact through live performance. Some women exhibited the kind of wild onstage behaviour 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.”

Among many of the talented artists covered, we have selected a few to show you just how many hidden female treasures the fifties have to offer.

Many 1960s girl band fans will have had heard of The Chantels. Their famous hit ‘Maybe’ made them the first African-American girl act to sell a million copies in 1957, as well as gain national recognition. Their signature ‘Look In My Eyes’ is also one of their classics today, with fantastic harmonies and high-sky pitched vocals. While also being remarkable singers, the girls played their own instruments, proving just once more that female artists can do both, as well as rock their way up to the charts.

Another band that not many people know of – but who certainly had an impact on the genre – was The Poni-Tails. Their rock ballad ‘Born Too Late’, released in 1958, was the single which earned them national success. However, after having reached the second spot in the Billboard charts, The Poni-Tails didn’t enjoy the same level of success in other mainstream releases in the years that followed. Nevertheless, they certainly were a source of inspiration for many female acts later on.

Etta James is also profiled among Ruth Brown, who was another pioneer in R&B and jazz music as well as rock and roll. Her powerful voice was discovered by different artists including Duke Ellington when she performed at Blanche Calloway’s Crystal Caverns. From that followed her signing at Atlantic Records, where she truly made a name for herself, and the record label was even nicknamed “the House That Ruth Built”.

The majority of singers covered in this online dissertation weren’t particularly well-known in comparison to their male counterparts, but it goes to show just how many female artists did make it to the top of the national charts, and yet their representation is a dismal showing in the annals of rock history. Now, as part of Far Out’s Female Representation in the Arts series, this is the perfect opportunity to finally explore the female version of the fifties, right before the invasion of girl bands, and right before many male artists took a lot of credit for shaping rock and roll.

Leah Branstetter illustrates her discussion that women played an important part in the making of rock and roll with exclusive interviews, including one with Jerry Lee Lewis’s sister, as well as biographies about a selection of women she has come across during her research. You can also find playlists and a precise bibliography for anyone looking to explore this woman-led decade.

Not only is this web project a fresh insight into the fifties, but it’s also a great way to show how important women were – and still are – in the formation of rock and roll, and the impact women had on the music scene of the time. Some of the artists profiled on the website are still going strong today and it feels as though they have finally received the recognition they deserve.

Women in the fifties definitely knew how to rock, and they still do today.

Girl power!