This month I’m going pay tribute to a rockin’ 1950s icon, who in opinion was the greatest female rocker of them all. Many would disagree with my choice. For example I haven’t chosen Wanda Jackson or Brenda Lee. In fact I suspect the name is one which will be new to a certain percentage of you.
On 18th April we organised a concert in Moscow at the prestigious Esse Cafe, in memory of this great singer (I hasten to add she is still with us, albeit in retirement for many a long year). She was Jo Ann Campbell and in the late 1950s sang and performed some of the greatest songs by any female rocker. “You’re driving me mad”, “Wassa matter with you” “Wait a minute”, “Boogie woogie country girl” and “Motorcycle Michael” in my opinion are some of the greatest numbers ever recorded by any female singer in the history of rock’n’roll. Plus she really knew how to perform on stage.
As we were celebrating a female singer, my choice of performers just had to be the female icons of Russian rock’n’roll, the Marshmallows. Regular readers of my column in this magazine will know quite a bit about them. They’re 3 beautiful and charismatic young women who sing and perform 1950s style r’n’r, with the support of 3 backing musicians. As they have done already quite a few times at the Esse Café, once more they wowed us with a great concert. Some of the photos you can see were taken at the event.
Like I said, Jo Ann Campbell was a great performer. Here is how Billy Poore, a writer and music promoter who lived through those times in the 1950s, describes his impressions the first time he saw her in action: “It wasn’t just that outfit and them great looks. It was also what she was doin’. The way she rocked, shook, bumped and moved while playin’ and slingin’ her guitar around, as well as turnin’ sideways and pointin’ it atcha with a pout on her face while she was growlin’ out this rockabilly tune I’d never heard, was just a killer memory that’s lasted a whole lifetime for me. That was my first introduction to the wildest live stage female performer ever to belt out a rockabilly tune.”
The rock’n’roll story of Jo Ann Campbell really begins in her early teens, when rock’n’roll was in its infancy. Living in Jacksonville, Florida, she would tune in to one of the very few radio stations that were playing rock’n’roll at that time. Like many of her peers during that early period, the listening had to be done secretly when her parents were not around, as the music had a real bad reputation amongst that generation’s parents. This is just another example of how revolutionary rock’n’roll was back then. It was the first really recognisable youth culture, which shocked and worried their parents.
Having got hooked on rock’n’roll, Jo Ann then began her career as a professional dancer. She had been learning dancing throughout her childhood and it was always the intention of her and her family that she should take it up professionally. She went to Europe on a big tour of the United States Army bases, performing as a dancer for the American troops stationed there. On her return, she joined a dancing group, “the Johnny Conrad Dancers”, and appeared regularly on US TV shows. She was still officially in High School at this time (she was 17) and the number of dance bookings she was getting made her leave school in 1955 to concentrate on her dancing career.
But in November 1955 an event occurred which changed her life. She happened to attend an Alan Freed rock’n’roll show at the New York Paramount Theatre. In previous articles I’ve written in this column covering the history of rock’n’roll, inevitably the name Alan Freed has kept popping up. He was a crucial figure in the early days of rock’n’roll, as a promoter and disc jockey. And sure enough he was about to play a crucial role in the career of Jo Ann Campbell. Here’s how she described what happened at the show: “As that show went on and Alan Freed kept bringin’ on acts like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, The Moonglows, The Cadillacs, Bill Haley and His Comets, Chuck Berry and all the rest, it made me jump up and down and scream till I was dizzy. I mean kids were all out in the aisles and in front of the stage dancin’ and just goin’ crazy. Well, when I first came out of that first Alan Freed rock’n’roll show, I knew my days as a dancer were over, even though at the time I was up for parts in Broadway plays then. I was just determined I was gonna sing rock’n’roll and be on Alan Freed’s stage one day. The next morning, I went into my manager’s office and told him I wasn’t gonna dance anymore and that I wanted to make a rock’n’roll record.”
Fortunately for Jo Ann, her manager, although astonished at her decision, had a few contacts in the music business and used them to try and get her started on a rock’n’roll career. She started performing, cut some records and her fame started to grow. Sure enough, Alan Freed got to hear about her, saw her in action and from then on signed her to all his rock’n’roll shows. This really was Jo Ann’s golden period, when she was singing and performing at her rock’n’roll best.
Then in 1960 she made a decision which in hindsight even she regretted. She was signed to the ABC Paramount record label, one of the biggest recording companies in the World. She figured it was a big step towards super-stardom and for sure it did bring her some chart success for her records. But Paramount were not interested in real rock’n’roll and had her performing and recording much blander pop songs. She had been known as “Alan Freed’s wild, rockin’ gal” as a result of her tremendous performances on his shows, but now her style was much less rockin’ and much more poppy. She continued performing until 1967, at which time she quit the business to concentrate on her family life.
Why not check out some of those earlier recordings by her. She was a female who could rock with the best, at a time when only a tiny percentage of rock’n’roll artists were women. For sure, there were other brilliant women rockers, like Wanda Jackson and Brenda Lee. But Wanda carried on way too long after her best days were over and Brenda wasn’t rockin’ enough for me. Don’t get me wrong, both were very special, but I preferred Jo Ann. So here’s to a unique female rocker – Jo Ann Campbell. As the title of one of her best albums named her, she was indeed “That Real Gone Gal” !