One of the side effects of devouring Record Geek Porn is you inevitably wind up listening to (or, heaven forbid, purchasing) whatever it is you’re reading about. My old roommate in New York used to joke that he could always guess what books I was in the middle of based on the records in rotation on our hi-fi.
This week, I’ve been getting reacquainted with Re/Search #14: Incredibly Strange Music, Vol. 1. One genre that comes up repeatedly in the interview with collectors and artists is rockabilly. As the popularity of the recent BBE compilation Lost & Found: Rockabilly and Jump Blues, compiled by Keb Darge and Cut Chemist attests, there is a ton of great, unknown music in this field ripe for rediscovery.
Amidst the myriad greasers mentioned in Incredibly Strange…, one name jumped out of a couple of interviews: Sparkle Moore. I knew I had to hear this rockabilly pioneer after Ivy Rorschach of the Cramps described her thusly: “She looks right out of the detective mags or J.D. [juvenile delinquent] paperbacks of the ’50s.” Hot dog! Don’t get me wrong, I love the songs and style of Wanda Jackson, Rose Maddox, and Janis Martin, but I’m always game for a dame who looks like trouble.
A native of Omaha, NE, Sparkle was born Barbara Morgan; her stage name, with its burlesque vibe, was lifted from a character in the “Dick Tracy” comics. She only made five sides for the Fraternity label, but dang, what a quintet of killer cuts they were. And you can find versions of all of them on Good Girls Gone Bad: Wild, Weird and Wanted, a great anthology of overlooked ladies assembled by the folks at UK reissue label Ace. That’s Sparkle there on the CD cover, clutching her six-string and snarling from beneath a bleached blonde pompadour/ponytail combo coif.
Admittedly, some of Moore’s material doesn’t quite match what I imagined. After reading an anecdote about how the label had to edit out her screaming on the original recording of “Killer,” I expected to hear something mind-blowing on the alternate version on this comp. Like Diamanda Galas fronting the Tennessee Two. Alas, Sparkle’s interjections sound more like she’s clearing her throat than howling in pain. Still, it was probably pretty revolutionary for a young lady to conduct herself in such a fashion in 1956.
But the pinnacle of her brief career is “Skull & Crossbones.” Listening to her hiccup through its cautionary lyric, about how a troublesome paramour should be labeled as a health hazard, my initial thought was, “Oh my God, this is the grandmother of Britney’s ‘Toxic.'” Except that comparison does a terrible disservice to Sparkle. For one, she wrote her own material. And these were actual songs, not cobbled-together studio confections dependent on high-gloss videos to augment their limited charms. Plus, while her singing may sound odd, at least she did it all by herself, unassisted.
Alas, Sparkle bowed out early in her music career, when she became pregnant. It’s a pity she didn’t record more, but at least she left listeners wanting more. Would that Britney had the good sense to do the same.
DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org.