Ruth Brown in front of mic stand wearing sequin dress -  topped the R&B chart with “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean" in 1953

Pioneers of Rock

Written by: Meredith E. Rutledge-Borger

"Pioneers of Rock" is the second installment in a special series that highlights the evolution of women in music by placing their accomplishments, inspirations and influence in the context of the eras that shaped their sounds and messages. "America's Foremothers" introduced the series.

As World War II ended in 1945 and G.I.s returned home, the proportion of women on assembly lines fell from 25 percent to 7.5 percent. Women who had – out of necessity – taken an unprecedented place in the work force were urged back into the home by books like 1947’s Modern Woman: The Lost Sex. The book argued that only a return to traditional values and gender roles could restore “women’s inner balance.”

Female rock and roll pioneers were less interested in restoring “women’s inner balance” than they were seeking an even playing field. Taking cues from Jackie Robinson’s and Larry Doby’s breaking the color line in baseball in 1947, and from President Truman’s desegregating the U.S. Armed Forces with the signing of Executive Order 9981 in 1948, American culture and the music business was at the birth of a new age. As with the birth of the blues, the birth of rock and roll required the hard work and dedication of a good woman – many women, in fact.

R&B royalty Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, Etta James, Big Mama Thornton and Dinah Washington, Zola Taylor of the Platters, Bo Diddley’s gal guitar-slingers Peggy Jones (Lady Bo) and Norma Jean Wafford (the Duchess); rockabilly fire-cat Wanda Jackson (pictured below), Cordell Jackson, Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee; Connie Francis and songwriters Dorothy LaBostrie (who cleaned up Little Richard’s original dirty lyrics for “Tutti Frutti”), Felice Bryant (who, with her husband, wrote hits for the Everly Brothers) and Sharon Sheely (who wrote “Poor Little Fool” for Rick Nelson) were there as rock made its first squeals and howls.

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.