- Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s guitar playing established the architecture for rock and roll. A gospel singer and guitar player who achieved mass appeal, Tharpe’s guitar style is singularly cathartic, creating an effervescent outflowing of feeling that contrasts with the heavy backbeat of the blues. Whether paired with a gospel choir or a brass band, Tharpe took center stage, dispatching cascading fireworks from her white Gibson electric. She was a genuine star: Tharpe’s 1951 wedding at Griffith Stadium in Washington DC attracted 25,000 paying guests. Given that Elvis Presley cited Tharpe as an influence, it’s no small irony that the 1950s marked the low ebb of Tharpe’s career; slender, young, white men working from Tharpe’s template proved to be more marketable than a black woman in her forties.
- Big Mama Thornton
Like Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton had the whole package: She sang, played killer harmonica and wrote her own material. Compare that to Elvis, whose talents were singing and selecting material by other artists to cover. Thornton, a blues shouter from Houston, was the first to record “Hound Dog,” the song penned by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller that Elvis covered in 1956. It was Janis Joplin’s cover of Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” in 1968 that reignited Thornton’s career. She was a big woman with a big voice who defied gender stereotypes of women as demure objects of male desire. Check out the YouTube video of Thornton wading through an audience of young hippies in Eugene, Ore. in 1971 and taking the stage as undisputed royalty. As with her music, Thornton defied gender expectations with her dress, from porkpie hats and plaid shirts in the mid-1960s to her final appearance in Los Angeles in 1984 wearing a suit and tie and cowboy hat while puffing on a cigar.
- Ruth Brown
Elvis’ recording of “That’s Alright Mama” in 1954 is cited as the first chapter of rock and roll, although some argue that “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, released by Sun Records in 1951, is the first recorded rock song. While Sun Records was working out its alchemy in Memphis, Ruth Brown, from Portsmouth, Va., was cranking out an unending stream of hard-driving R&B songs with attitude to spare and ribald, sexually risqué lyrics starting in 1950. Brown’s growling vocals and her band’s combustible arrangements were rock and roll by another name: Brown was the acknowledge queen of R&B in the ’50s.
- Janis Martin
One of Brown’s biggest fans was Janis Martin, a fellow Virginian who signed to the RCA Victor label in 1956 and was marketed as the “female Elvis.” The one time the two women met shortly before both of them died, they performed Brown’s 1953 hit “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” together. “I had an idol,” Martin told the audience. “When I was 13-years-old I heard Ruth Brown sing. It just opened my eyes to what could happen out there. We were doing an all-country show with nothing on there but a snare drum and one little cymbal. I was doing black rhythm and blues. And they loved it. But hell, if they hadn’t I’d-a done it anyway.”
- Wanda Jackson
Janis Martin and Wanda Jackson were among the few women rockabilly artists who emerged in the ’50s. Jackson, who briefly dated Elvis, encountered some of the same difficulties as Martin. While white men like Elvis and a few black cohorts like Chuck Berry and Little Richard caused a stir, white America simply wasn’t ready for an assertive woman who shimmied onstage and displayed a feisty vocal style. But Jackson wasn’t a novelty act. Watching her fiery1958 performance of “Hard Headed Woman” on Town Hall Party backed by a standard country band is to behold a performer at the peak of confidence and command. And her catalogue is as deep and varied as any of her male contemporaries. “Funnel of Love,” recorded in 1961, sounds like a surreal and heartbroken surf dream. After straddling rock and country, Jackson largely retreated to the country genre in the 1960s. Jackson and Martin both saw their stature as rockabilly pioneers restored thanks to guest appearances on Rosie Flores’ 1995 album Rockabilly Filly. At the age of 80, Jackson is still going strong: As recently as 2017, she can be seen on YouTube giving ferocious renditions of her classic songs with a backing band half her age.
- Barbara Lynn
Hailing from Beaumont, Texas, Barbara Lynn earned a No. 1 hit on the R&B charts with her own song, “You’ll Lose a Good Thing,” in 1962 at the age of 20. It’s a shame that she isn’t recognized not only as a first-rate R&B singer, but also as a wonderful guitar player and gifted songwriter. The diminution of Lynn’s legacy can only be considered a function of aggregate racism by the music industry and journalists: Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton are considered artists, while Lynn is relegated to the role of singer and associated with one song. But she also wrote “Oh! Baby (We Got A Good Thing Going),” which was covered by the Rolling Stones in 1964. Watch the YouTube video of Lynn’s 1966 performance of “It’s Better to Have It” on “The !!!! Beat,” and you’ll see the model for what Janis Joplin, born in neighboring Port Arthur, would attempt four years later with the Full Tilt Boogie Band. Lynn recorded “You Left the Water Running” before Otis Redding. She’s continued to write great songs, like “Don’t Hit Me No More,” released on her 2000 Hot Night Tonight album and to perform. Now 76 years old, she’s still got it.
- Rosie Flores
Rosie Flores was responsible for reviving the careers of rockabilly pioneers Wanda Jackson and Janis Martin in 1995. As a testament to how little has changed in the music business, Flores has largely suffered the same fate as Jackson, struggling in obscurity while being fully accepted in neither rock nor country. She’s been playing guitar since she started a band in her parents’ garage in southern California at the age of 16 in 1966, which makes her roughly a contemporary of the late Tom Petty. Flores’ yelping vocal style and super-charged guitar picking makes her one of the true latter-day rockabilly torch-bearers. While working the current rockabilly circuit with peers like Marti Brom, the Reverend Horton Heat and Dale Watson, Flores’ music also veers into Beatlesque melodies and honky-tonk. While Flores deserves acclaim as a rockabilly artist, it’s tragic that she also got shut out of the country music industry. Watch her crisp and emotive performance with the Ronnie Mack Band at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood in 1989, and it’s easy to imagine that Flores was on the cusp of breaking into the country mainstream as part of the neotraditional wave that lifted up artists like Dwight Yoakam and Patty Loveless. But she perseveres with spunk and good humor, and at the age of 67, maybe she’s on the verge of being discovered. A 2015 interview with the Blot Magazine is telling. “So Rosie, is this your first time playing South by Southwest?” the interviewer asks. “I’ve been playing South by Southwest just about every year since it started,” Flores replies. “I think I missed two. The first one I did was in 1988.”