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Leah Tallen Branstetter

Cleveland, Ohio

Leah Branstetter is a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University, where she focuses her research on nineteenth- and twentieth-century American popular music, theater music, and opera. She also serves as an editorial assistant for the Journal of the American Musicological Society and volunteers at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s Library and Archives.

Abstract:

"Little Miss Swivel Hips 1957: In Search of the 'Female Elvis'"

In 1957, seventeen-year-old Alice Faye Perkins traveled by bus from the coal mining community in rural West Virginia where she was raised to the urban Midwest. “The first thing they teach a hillbilly baby,” she told me in an interview, “is how to get to Detroit.” She made it as far as Cleveland, where, with the help of a local DJ, she began cutting demos. Soon she was in Hollywood recording for Imperial Records; when she returned, it was as Laura Lee Perkins, the “female Jerry Lee Lewis.”

There were many women like Perkins, but most of them have been relegated to the footnotes of rock’n’roll history. For a period during the heyday of rockabilly, however, it seemed almost unquestioned in the music industry that King Elvis should have a queen.

In this paper, I will—like journalists and record company executives of the 1950s—go in search of the “female Elvis.” As Charlie Gillett wrote in The Sound of the City, adolescents of the time “staked out their freedom in the cities, inspired and reassured by the rock and roll beat.” Hearing the voices of girls in this metropolitan mix, I will argue, requires turning our attention away from Top 40 hits and instead tuning in to record hops, nightclubs, and talent shows. Drawing on contemporaneous periodicals, the trove of once obscure records now available online, and personal interviews with Laura Lee Perkins, Sparkle Moore, Kay Wheeler, and other women who were active in rockabilly and rock’n’roll during the late 1950s, I will consider how the careers and music of female artists both compared and contrasted with those of their male counterparts