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Alis Lesley: 'female Elvis' performing on Bob Dylan's new book cover | Bob Dylan

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IIn the early days of modern US pop music, female artists struggled to gain recognition from their male counterparts. Thus, a new marketing metaphor emerged. He labeled jazz trumpeter Ernestine “Tiny” Davis as “female Louis Armstrong.” Big band drummer Viola Smith became “female Gene Krupa.” Rockabilly pianist Alice Faye Perkins transformed into “female Jerry Lee Lewis” Laura Lee Perkins.

But no artist has inspired their female counterparts as much as the king of rock’n’roll. “There was a particular urge to find a ‘female Elvis’ at several different record labels,” says Leah Branstetter, a musicologist who specializes in women in the first wave of rock’n’roll.

Of the many female Elvis Presleys, there was only one person who truly took on the role. She tilted her hair to one side and styled it to give it a sideburn effect. She wore a low guitar and became known for her endless turns. And Alis Lesley took her stage name, so that only a few consonants separated her from the king. “I’m not aware of anyone obsessed with the female Elvis a bit like Alis Lesley,” Branstetter says.

While this approach brought Lesley some early success, his music career was short-lived. She left rock’n’roll in 1959 at the age of 21. Since then, he has reportedly only given an interview with she. This year, however, Lesley has unexpectedly returned to the spotlight when she appeared as the figure between Little Richard and Eddie Cochran on the cover of Bob Dylan’s new book, the first since 2004’s Chronicles: Volume One. The Modern Philosophy of Song, to be published in November, consists of 60 articles by Dylan on songs by other artists. The press release states that the illustrations in the book are “carefully curated,” inviting speculation as to why an unknown artist like Lesley should be chosen for the cover. Dylan, naturally, did not comment.

I’m not aware of anyone in ‘Australia’ stuck with the “female Elvis” piece like Alice Lesley, pictured in 1957. Photo courtesy of Derek Glenister/John Dixon

Lesley started out in Dylan’s developmental years, so he might be familiar with him or even have seen him go through the US tour track. In her hometown of Phoenix, she started playing in local nightclubs in a band called the Arizona Stringdusters. But her big break came in 1956, when she was invited on stage with bandleader Buddy Morrow. During an unrestrained rendition of Blue Suede Shoes, Lesley took off her shoes. The audience loved it, and tour schedules were soon prepared.

When Lesley performed in Las Vegas, Presley himself came to see her. He was reportedly impressed enough to recommend him for Little Richard’s next tour to Australia. The press began to take notice, declaring that Lesley was “destined to long-term stardom.”

He released his first single in April 1957. Unfortunately, it would also be her last single. Titled Heartbreak Harry, the record invited an obvious affair with Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, the best-selling single of the previous year. And despite receiving positive notice in the trade magazine Cashbox calling it “awesome rock and roller,” the record didn’t catch the public’s attention. During her Australian tour with Little Richard a few months later, Lesley was already talking about quitting. “I’m not getting old in show business,” he told a reporter. “I’m thinking about the future.”

Other media reports at the time hinted at his ambitions to write original material. Branstetter suggests this may be a factor behind frustration with the music business. “I think the interviews with Alis Lesley show that she has a lot of ambition and has no intention of being a ‘female Elvis’ forever. Maybe his desire to write his own songs had something to do with it.”

When Lesley returned to the United States, she spoke even more candidly to the press. “I especially don’t like show business,” she said. “But I can’t get out of my contracts for at least two more years.”

Over the next two years, Elvis continued touring, producing a playlist full of hits – Hound Dog, Don’t Be Cruel, and Blue Suede Shoes. He once shared the bill with Bobby Darin when he was going superstardom. And it seems to have become especially popular in Quebec, Canada, having visited it four times.

Lesley’s last big breakout attempt came in late 1959, when Elvis was recording at Sun Studio, where he started. He cut Charlie Rich’s Handsome Man six times, but the deal didn’t happen. By the end of the year, Lesley had completely left the music scene.

Little we know about Lesley’s later years comes from a single interview she gave to researcher Will Beard, excerpted by Hank Davis, released on the CD set of Memphis Belles: The Women of Sun Records. According to what he told her, Lesley had returned home to care for her sick mother. She earned a degree in education and worked closely with Native American communities as an educator and missionary. She spent her retirement “traveling the world” and she was a cancer survivor in the 90s.

Lesley is now 84 years old and still lives in Phoenix. Despite staying out of the public eye, she fondly remembers her music career: after local journalist Ed Masley wrote about her in the Arizona Republic earlier this year, in a letter to her, she expressed gratitude for being remembered and said she looks forward to being remembered. Publication of Dylan’s book.

However, if Lesley has any theories as to why Dylan chose his own picture for the cover, he has yet to share them.

Alice Lesley.
‘He had a lot of ambition and had no intention of being a ‘female Elvis’ forever” … Alis Lesley. Photo courtesy of Era Records/John Dixon

Laura Tenschert, host of the Definitely Dylan podcast, who also sits on the board of directors of the University of Tulsa Bob Dylan Studies Institute, suggests that the choice of images may not be about Lesley but rather her combination with Little Richard and Cochran. “It seems to be an acknowledgment of the diverse roots of modern American music,” she says.

He argues that “the three figures on the cover can be seen to represent different aspects of Dylan’s own musical identity.” For Lesley, this representation may be in assuming another artist’s personality. Dylan took a similar approach in his early years, modeling himself on folk singer Woody Guthrie. But where Dylan is able to go beyond that and establish his own identity, Lesley’s ambitions seem to be completely overshadowed by his “female Elvis” persona.

More broadly, the cover can be seen as an acknowledgment of the ephemeral nature of what Dylan calls the “modern song.” Branstetter states that all three artists on the cover left the music scene “about two years after this photo was taken.” Little Richard resigned to join the ministry. Lesley traded his guitar for a quieter life. And Cochran died in a car accident at the age of 21.

Dylan’s career was much longer-lived. But he has always been aware of the ephemeral nature of popular music. When asked how he felt about Rolling Stone magazine declaring Like a Rolling Stone the greatest of all time, he simply shrugged and replied, “Who says how long this will take?” (Indeed, Rolling Stone downgraded Dylan’s song to number four in a recent update.)

Perhaps some of Dylan’s demeanor is summed up in this cover art. The faces of Alis Lesley, Little Richard and Eddie Cochran are smiling at us, full of youth and hope, at the center of a musical revolution – not knowing that it will all end before they predict it. Dylan pays tribute and pays homage to these rock’n’roll pioneers who came before him. But perhaps he also acknowledges how brief those moments were – “how the present would have passed later” and that today’s “modern song” is tomorrow’s history.

Bob Dylan’s Philosophy of Modern Song published by Simon & Schuster on November 1. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at: Guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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