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Beth Harrington And The Rockabilly Babes: An Interview With The Filmmaker

by Carla A. Desantis

Beth Harrington The world may not have been ready for the likes of rockabilly queens Wanda Jackson, Brenda Lee, Janis Martin, and Lorrie Collins back in the '50s, but their inspirational stories - both individually and collectively - will surely strike a chord with female artists today.

Sassy and tough, the women profiled in the PBS documentary film WELCOME TO THE CLUB - The Women of Rockabilly were ahead of their time as players in rock's earliest days, and all are still making music today.

Narrated by Roseanne Cash, the film recounts the challenges and joys of these unique and un- sung heroines of rock. We asked Portland, Oregon-based producer/director/writer Beth Harrington (a former singer with Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers) how she came to film this inspiring tribute.

Tell me a little about your life in The Modern Lovers.

I was one of two original female members of the Modern Lovers. The other was my friend, Ellie Marshall. We toured with Jonathan Richman and the band from 1980 to 1983 all across the US and Canada, and made an album on Sire Records entitled Jonathan Sings. I was 25 years old when Jonathan asked me to join and it was a funny time. I loved rock & roll and I loved to sing. I had been a fan of Jonathan's for many years. We are both from Boston and I used to go see his band.

I'd always secretly wanted to be in a band, but there weren't a lot of opportunities for a woman to be in a rock band. It never occurred to me that I should go out and do it myself. I guess this underscores the value of role models.

The real trailblazers like Patti Smith and Deborah Harry were out there, but there weren't a lot of utility players (which is how I view my singing).

Jonathan heard a certain naive quality in the way Ellie and I sang together, and it really worked for the kind of music he was doing. It was a great opportunity.

The three years I toured with the band were amazing. They were interesting, fun, tiring, exhilarating, annoying, and gratifying - the whole gamut of emotions and experiences. One day you're featured in Rolling Stone and the next day you're in some cheesy motel in the middle of nowhere eating cold burritos.

How did you become interested in rockabilly and the women you featured in particular?

Jonathan encouraged Ellie and me to find early rock, doo-wop, and pop songs to perform in the band. Most of Jonathan's material is original, but it's written for his delivery, so finding old songs to sing seemed like a good way to go. I stumbled upon Wild, Wild Young Women, an anthology of women rockabilly singers put out by Rounder Records. Though I consider myself to be a student of rock music most of these women were unknown to me. I was dumbfounded. I remember thinking, "Why don't I know about these women? And who else don't I know about?"

I was getting into filmmaking around this time and thought, "Someday I'm going to make a film about this." It only took me 21 years to do it!

When I finally made the film I realized I couldn't do an encyclopedic thing with every single woman who had ever recorded a rockabilly record. There were quite a few women rockabilly performers. It might have been valuable historically to include them, but I thought it would make the viewing tedious. So I focused on the ones whose work I loved and whose personal experiences captured something universal in all the women's stories.

Were there other artists you wanted to include in the film but didn't have an opportunity to speak to?

I met with Barbara Pittman, Linda Gail Lewis, Cordell Jackson and Martha Carson. I'd known Skeeter Davis of the Davis Sisters for many years. They're all great women and they've all made a contribution to rockabilly in their own way, but ultimately I had to narrow things down. It was a question of capturing the essence of being a woman rock & roller in the days before there was a name for it. The ones I picked illustrated the issues of the time and the spirit of rockabilly women in general.

How did you reach each of these artists?

I contacted Wanda when she played a gig in Portland. Brenda Lee was tracked down through her management company by a researcher friend. Lorrie Collins and Janis "The Female Elvis" Martin were harder to find. I was introduced to them by a great promoter/record collector/rockabilly fan named Don Kirsch. It's the serious fans and students who know where the trails lead!

Which stories in the movie do you find most stand out?

The most dramatic anecdotes have to do with the way women were treated at that time. Ernest Tubb told Wanda Jackson that a dress that bared her shoulders on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry was too revealing. Lorrie Collins and Janis Martin had to end their careers because of marriage and pregnancy. Things that seem unimaginable today were par for the course back then. Those were the stories I found most powerful.

How long did it take to complete the film?

If you don't count the time from 1980 until I finished (those 21 years!) I'd say it took five years. Most of that time was spent trying to raise money for the film, doing research and occasionally shooting a gig and a quick interview with one of the gals when I had enough money for film and crew. When I finally received the bulk of the funding from the Independent Television Service, I was able to complete it in a year. What a difference money makes.

What exactly did Wanda Jackson's nickname "The Nation's Number One Party Girl" mean?

I'm not entirely sure. Specifically, it referred to Wanda's song "Let's Have a Party," but what connotation a rockin', wigglin', partyin' girl had in the late '50s is anyone's guess. If they wouldn't let you show your shoulders, a "party girl" must've been wild! The "powers that be" were always playing both ends against the middle. Even at that time sex sold. But you couldn't be too risqué or there might be a backlash. Women like Wanda who were sensual and sassy, had an aggressive stage presence, and really rocked must have raised eyebrows.

Is there anything in the film you wish you would have done differently?

I had hoped to get all the gals together for a big gig, which I wanted to film, but resources, logistics, and schedules didn't permit. It could have been fabulous, or maybe it just would have seemed forced or contrived. These women never had the chance to play together. But I have no regrets. After I got over the exhaustion of making the film, I remembered why I originally wanted to do it and what I love about rock & roll.

Reprinted with permission from the January/February 2002 issue of Rockrgrl magazine.


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