ITVS Presents: Welcome to the Club – The Women of Rockabilly

December 4, 2001

To Air Nationally on PBS Stations in March, 2002

(San Francisco, CA) Their stage antics were sassy, aggressive, almost raunchy. Their vocal styles featured distinctly “unladylike” growls, hiccups and moans. Their lyrics spoke of parties and hot rods, teen love and teen angst. They played everywhere from country fairs to honky-tonks to rock shows. They boldly strutted their stuff and were billed as “Little Miss Dynamite,” “The Nation’s Number One Party Girl” and “The Female Elvis.” In Beth Harrington’s eye-opening WELCOME TO THE CLUB-THE WOMEN OF ROCKABILLY we meet four of the most influential rockabilly women – Wanda Jackson, Brenda Lee, Janis Martin, and Lorrie Collins – all of whom have survived a life of hard knocks and are still rocking today. WELCOME TO THE CLUB will air nationally on PBS stations in March, 2002 (check local listings.)

Uniquely American artists, yet loved by enclaves of dedicated fans the world over, Wanda, Brenda, Janis and Lorrie were the queens of rockabilly, rock and roll’s country cousin that had its short but influential heyday in the mid-1950’s. For a few brief moments, they burst onto a predominantly male scene with an unprecedented musical message of female power and assertiveness. They not only bucked the staid notion of what was appropriate to sing as a country star, but also rejected the models of post-war femininity that were being marketed in the wider culture — models of suburban wedded bliss and a return to “traditional” motherhood. The women of rockabilly were anything but demure, decking themselves out in leather, denim or vampy, skin-tight sheath dresses. While Donna Reed was baking, these gals were shaking!

The music known as rockabilly was an amalgam of swing, country, and rhythm and blues that first flourished in the southern and western United States in the mid-’50s and ’60s. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins were best known for it, daring to take the forbidden “race” music, black rhythm and blues, to a white listening public. Rockabilly defied the social order. It was gender-bending material, sanctioning alternative approaches to performing – and being.

In WELCOME TO THE CLUB -THE WOMEN OF ROCKABILLY, Brenda Lee (whose autobiography will come out in March as well, from Hyperion), Lorrie Collins, Janis Martin and Wanda Jackson discuss their passion for the music, the trajectories of their careers and personal lives, and the surprise and pleasure with which they view the present-day resurgence of interest in their music. Clearly, they are genuine trailblazers, as full of life, defiance and exuberance today as when they first hit the stage over forty years ago.

About the People Featured in the Film

As pre-teens, Lorrie and Larry Collins appeared regularly on Town Hall Party, a weekly 1950s-era Los Angeles television show hosted by country star Tex Ritter. As “The Collins Kids,” Lorrie would belt out rock & roll numbers with the authority and audacity of someone twice her age while her younger brother would play the double-neck Mosrite guitar with a manic energy only equaled by his precocious talent. Born into a family of Oklahoma dairy farmers, their parents sold the farm and moved to California so the kids could pursue their show business destinies. Besides Town Hall Party, the Collins Kids appeared on national TV shows like Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen and toured with stars like Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Lorrie’s highly publicized romance with Ricky Nelson thrust her briefly into the spotlight but her subsequent marriage to a much older man, while still a teen, pretty much ended the Collins Kids’ career. By 1962, the duo had stopped recording; Lorrie concentrated on motherhood and Larry turned his skills to songwriting (he wrote the hit “Delta Dawn” and has been nominated for several songwriting awards, including the Grammy). Thirty years later, they made an enormously successful appearance at the 1993 Hemsby rockabilly festival in England and the Collins Kids have been entertaining their legions of fans, including rockers like Elvis Costello and Marshall Crenshaw, ever since.

Luridly but lovingly described by music writer Nick Tosches as “simply and without contest, the greatest menstruating rock’n’roll singer whom the world has ever known,” Wanda Jackson has been rocking the socks off her fans in the U.S. and abroad since the early 1950’s. A native of Oklahoma, Wanda’s talents were encouraged and nurtured by the likes of country singing legend Hank Thompson and later, Elvis himself. She has recorded for both Decca and Capitol Records and has been extremely popular overseas with hit records and sell-out performances in places as far-flung as Japan, Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Austria. Wanda has been nominated for the Grammy Award twice as the best performing female singer and has been inducted into The Oklahoma Country Music Hall of Fame and The Gospel Music Hall of Fame. In all, she has released over 50 albums worldwide. Recently Bear Family Records of Germany released her first box set, Right or Wrong, which has brought her a whole new audience of young fans. After a life of hard living, Wanda became a devout Christian and also performs gospel music. She lives happily with her husband/manager, Wendell Goodman, in Oklahoma City.

Brenda Lee, whom John Lennon said had “the greatest rock’n’roll voice of them all,” was born Brenda Mae Tarpley in the charity ward of Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. Her father was killed in a construction accident in 1953 and, at an early age, the tiny singer with the big voice became the major source of financial support for the struggling Tarpley family. Her talents were soon discovered by Red Foley of the Ozark Jubilee TV show and thus began a career in the music business that has spanned 45 years and put her on the bill with virtually every major pop act of the 20th century, including Elvis Presley and the Beatles. She is a four-time Grammy nominee, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the winner of four awards from the National Association of Record Manufacturers. Brenda has served on the Country Music Association Board of Directors and is presently on the Board of Governors of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). She and her husband/manager Ronnie Shacklett have been married for 37 years and her autobiography, Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee, will be published by Hyperion Books in March 2002 (for further information on the book, contact Breene Wesson at Hyperion at 212/456-0174).

Janis Martin, born in rural Virginia in 1940, showed an early interest in music, won numerous talent contests and, at age 11, began her career as a member of the WDVA Barndance in Danville, Virginia. Soon after, she was invited to become a regular member of the Old Dominion Barndance in Richmond, one of the largest shows of its kind at the time. After recording a demo with two local songwriters, she was signed to a contract with RCA. But it was her self-penned single, Drugstore Rock And Roll which made the big impact, selling over 750,000 copies. Her success did not go unnoticed by fellow RCA artist Elvis Presley, who gave Janis his permission to use the title “The Female Elvis.” Janis went on to appear on The Tonight Show, American Bandstand, Ozark Jubilee and Dave Garroway’s Today Show. She traveled in the U.S. and overseas, making appearances on TV, radio and stage with artists like Hank Snow, Faron Young, Porter Waggoner, Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves and Carl Perkins. She played the Grand Old Opry and was voted the “Most Promising Female Artist of 1956” by Billboard. Motherhood and two marriages that ended in divorce disrupted her career but, in the late 1970’s, a resurgence of interest in rockabilly brought her back to live performing. Now, at age 61, she is embarking on a new phase of her career, devoting herself to her beloved music full-time.

Rosanne Cash (Narrator) was born in Memphis in 1955, the daughter of Vivian Liberto and singer Johnny Cash. Raised mostly in Southern California, she spent two years on the road with her father after graduating high school. She went on to study music theory and songwriting, then traveled to London in 1976 to work at CBS Records. Upon her return, she studied drama at Vanderbilt University and at the Lee Strasberg Institute in Los Angeles. Her 1980 recording debut, Right or Wrong, landed on every major Top-Ten list nationwide and confirmed Rosanne as one of the leading forces of the new Country. She has gone on to release numerous albums and is also a published author with works including Bodies of Water, Somewhere in the Stars and a children’s book, Penelope Jane: A Fairy’s Tale. She is also the editor of Songs without Rhyme: Prose by Celebrated Songwriters.

Mary A. Bufwack is one of two rockabilly experts featured in the film. Mary is a cultural anthropologist who specializes in women’s studies. While an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Relations at Colgate University, she also developed their Women’s Studies program. A move to Nashville in 1982 led to her increasing focus on the culture and lives of working class and poor women, particularly as revealed in country music. She is now known in the music community as an annotator, journalist and reviewer. She is the co-author of the award-winning book Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music, along with her husband, Robert Oermann. She has lectured frequently on women in country music, has written liner notes for albums by Wanda Jackson, Kitty Wells, Dolly Parton and Patsy Montana, and her magazine credits include The Journal of Country Music, Nashville Scene and Southern Quarterly.

Robert Oermann, our other featured expert, writes nationally syndicated music features weekly for The Tennessean. He is a regular on the Nashville Network show Today’s Country as well as a columnist for Music Row magazine and a regular contributor to Music City News. His national TV scripts include the 1996 America’s Music six-hour miniseries on TBS, the 1993 CBS-TV special The Women of Country and numerous industry tribute shows. He has co-authored six books on music including Finding Her Voice and the upcoming Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee, to be published by Hyperion in March 2002.

About the Filmmaker

Beth Harrington (Producer/Director/Writer) is a Boston-born and bred filmmaker transplanted to the Pacific Northwest who has been producing media work professionally for almost 25 years. She is the producer/director/writer of the award-winning “creative nonfiction” film The Blinking Madonna & Other Miracles, which aired on public television in 1997 and was funded by ITVS. Since moving to the greater Portland area, she freelances with Oregon Public Broadcasting and has recently produced and directed Digital TV: A Cringely Crash Course, a special with techno-guru host Bob Cringely for the launch of high definition television on PBS. She is also the producer and writer of the upcoming PBS special, Aleutians: Cradle of the Storms, a two-hour history of the Aleutian Islands. Working with the Documentary Guild in Boston for WGBH, Beth served as a line producer and associate producer on other PBS shows, among them programs for NOVA, Frontline and The Health Quarterly, in addition to two PBS specials. These shows have been honored with a number of awards, including a Peabody (Dating in the Age of AIDS) and two national Emmy nominations (In the Path of a Killer Volcano and Apollo 13: To The Edge and Back). She has a Bachelors in Communications from Syracuse University and a Masters in American Studies from UMass-Boston. In a previous lifetime, she herself was a rock & roll singer, a member of the cult band Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers (Sire Records).

About ITVS

Unique in American public television, the Independent Television Service (ITVS) was established by Congress to fund and present programs that “involve creative risks and address the needs of underserved audiences, especially children and minorities,” while granting artistic control to independent producers. ITVS has funded more than 375 programs for public television since its inception in 1991. Critically acclaimed ITVS programs include THE FARMER’S WIFE; AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY; FORGOTTEN FIRES and SCOUT’S HONOR; Emmy Award-winners BLINK; SING FASTER: THE STAGEHANDS’ RING CYCLE; SCHOOL PRAYER: A COMMUNITY AT WAR; GIRLS LIKE US and NOBODY’S BUSINESS; the Peabody Award-winning documentaries TRAVIS; A HEALTHY BABY GIRL; COMING OUT UNDER FIRE and THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE, and duPont Award-winners TAKEN IN: THE LIVES OF AMERICA’S FOSTER CHILDREN and STRUGGLES IN STEEL: A STORY OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN STEELWORKERS. ITVS is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. For information, contact ITVS at 501 York St., San Francisco, CA 94110; e-mail: or visit the ITVS website

Contact: Mary Lugo at 770/623-8190/