Pioneers of Rock
In 1952, Cleveland deejay Alan Freed presented and promoted what is considered to be the first rock and roll concert ever, in Cleveland, and R&B singer Varetta Dillard was among the line-up. In 1953, Ruth Brown topped the R&B chart with “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” paving the way for her record label Atlantic to come to be known as “the House that Ruth built.” That same year, Big Mama Thornton had a massive hit with “Hound Dog,” catching the ear of a kid from Mississippi named Elvis. In 1954, school segregation was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the following year a woman named Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. Her actions sparked a boycott of the bus system spearheaded by local Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr. and the local women’s political council. That same year WHER in Memphis went on the air as the first “all-girl” radio station, staffed almost exclusively by women. Also in 1955, Wanda Jackson met Elvis Presley, who convinced her to move from country music to rockabilly.
The early rock and roll road was rough. African-American women in the early days of rock had an especially hard time in the segregated South, often the only women on the bus, with nowhere on the road to meet their most basic needs. Ruth Brown was nearly killed in a horrific car crash while traveling to her audition for Atlantic Records. The road proved fatal for country chanteuse Patsy Cline, who had cheated death twice previously in serious car crashes. Eager to see her children after weeks on the road, she declined a friend’s offer of a ride and decided to take a plane, which crashed just minutes away from her home.
But the women of rock persevered. As the 1960s began, women had managed to become part of the fabric of the new rock and roll industry, not just as singers, but as instrumentalists, songwriters, producers and record-label owners, paving the way for the next generation of female rockers.
Learn more by visiting Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power, the provocative new exhibit now on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.