Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Wanda Jackson, Brenda Lee and Joyce Green – the three great rockabilly fillies of the Fifties

I’m not quite sure how I could have missed Joyce Green’s terrific rocker from 1959 until now – but I somehow managed it. It’s probably because I’ve never warmed to female rock and roll singers from that era. Compared to the many powerful, gutsy, hollering, melismatic, soulful female black singers of that period – the likes of Ruth Brown, Etta James and Big Mama Thornton – white girls just sounded so damned refined and half-hearted and, well, weedy. You get the feeling that some desperate record company executive dragged them in off the street to fill that elusive “female rocker” gap in the market.

I’ve heard cases made out for the likes of Barbara Pittman, Janis Martin, Sparkle Moore, Jean Chapel, Rose Maddox and Barbara Tennant, but my boat remains unfloated. I’m not saying that all the records they produced were bad – but somehow they all sound like female versions of Pat Boone, as if they’d prefer to be doing pure country or gentle ballads backed by a Big Band.

Apart from Joyce Green (who only made one record) the era only produced two great rock and roll female singers, namely Wanda Jackson and the far better-known Brenda Lee. Jackson, an Okie, stands comparison with the top male rock ‘n’ rollers. Reputedly helped by some vocal coaching from Elvis Presley, she benefited from the ability to deliver a raunchy, rasping vocal sound, and she she sounded as if she genuinely this sort of rough, rocking music – she ordered her Capitol records producer Ken Nelson to make her records sound like Gene Vincent’s, and he duly assembled a fine team of session musicians to meet the challenge, including pianist Merrill Moore and the young Buck Owens. The results were spectacular:

That's better than the Elvis orginal!

Brenda Lee, from Atlanta, was a 4’9” tall phenomenon – she cut her first record, a version of Jambalya, at the age of 11. She was all of 12 when made this great rocker (with session guitar genius Grady Martin reprising some signature licks from his previous year’s sessions with the Johnny Burnette Trio):

She had her first big hit, "Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree", when she was 13.The following year, 1959, brought another brace of classics:

My favourite Brenda Lee track, "Here Comes That Feeling", a B-side in the US, but a No. 5 hit here in the UK, was released in 1961:

What a voice! 

It was another four years before the UK produced a female singer with that sort of natural rocking oomph (though she would undoubtedly have befitted from Brenda's backing band!):

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