Alice Leslie: “The Female Elvis” takes center stage on the cover of Bob Dylan’s new book

IIn the early days of modern American pop music, female artists struggled to achieve the recognition of their male counterparts. So a new marketing metaphor has emerged. Trumpeter Ernestine Davis described “the little one” as “the female Louis Armstrong”. Big band drummer Viola Smith became “The Female Jane Krupa”. And rockabilly pianist Alice Fay Perkins turned into Laura Lee Perkins, “the female Jerry Lee Lewis.”

But no artist has inspired his peers more than the king of rock and roll. “There seems to be a particular drive to find a ‘female Elvis’ on many different record companies,” says Leah Branstetter, a musicologist who specializes in women in first wave rock ‘n’ roll.

Of the many female Elvis Presley, there was only one who literally took the role. She styled and styled her hair to give the sideburns effect. She wore a low-profile guitar and became known for her unrestrained chords. It took the stage name Alis Lesley so that only two consonants separate it from the king. “I’m not aware of anyone who has grabbed the ‘female Elvis’ part quite like Alice Leslie,” Branstetter says.

While this approach brought Leslie some early success, her music career was short-lived. In 1959, when she was 21, she left rock ‘n’ roll behind. In the ensuing decades, she reportedly only gave one interview. But, this year, Leslie unexpectedly returned to the spotlight when she was revealed as the character between Little Richard and Eddie Cochran on the cover of Bob Dylan’s new book, his first since 2004’s Chronicles: Volume One. November’s “Philosophy of Modern Song” is set to feature 60 articles written by Dylan on songs by other artists. The press release states that the book’s visuals have been “carefully curated,” which invites speculation as to why an obscure artist like Leslie chose the cover. Naturally, Dylan did not comment.

“I’m not aware of anyone who has stuck to the ‘female Elvis’ part quite like Alice Leslie”… Pictured in Australia, 1957. Photo: Courtesy of Derek Glennister/John Dixon

Leslie got her start during Dylan’s formative years, so it’s possible that he may have been familiar with her, or even seen her pass on the US tour circuit. She started playing in local nightclubs in a band called Arizona Stringdusts in her hometown of Phoenix. But her big break came in 1956 when she was invited to sing with conductor Buddy Morrow. During an unrestricted display of Blue Suede shoes, Leslie started her shoes. The audience liked it and soon tour schedules were set.

When Leslie sang in Las Vegas, Presley came to see her. He was reportedly impressed enough to recommend her to Little Richard’s upcoming tour of Australia. The press began to gain interest and announced that Leslie was “destined for stardom for the long term”.

She released her first single in April 1957. Unfortunately, this would also be her last single. Titled Heartbreak Harry, the record called an apparent association with Presley’s Heartbreak, the previous year’s best-selling song. And while it received positive notice in the cash-box trade magazine, which called it “a great rock and roll”, the record failed to capture the public’s attention. By the time of her Australia tour with Little Richard a few months later, Leslie was already talking about quitting. “I’m not getting old in the show business,” she told a reporter. “I’m thinking about the future.”

Other press coverage at the time indicated her ambitions to write original material. Branstetter speculates that this may have been a factor behind her disillusionment with music. “I think the interviews with Alice Leslie show that she has a lot of ambition and that she doesn’t intend to be an ‘Female Elvis’ forever. Perhaps the desire to write her songs had something to do with that.”

When Leslie returned to the United States, she spoke more candidly to the press. “I don’t particularly like show business,” she said. “But I can’t cancel my contract for at least another two years.”

Over the next two years, she continued to tour, performing a track list filled with Elvis songs – Hound Dog, Don’t Be Cruel, and Blue Suede Shoes. She once shared the bill with Bobby Darin as he was turning to stardom. It seems to have been especially popular in Quebec, Canada, where she visited it four times.

Leslie’s last attempt at a big break came late in 1959, when she recorded at Sun Studio – the place where Elvis got his start. She cut six clips from the song Charlie Rich, Handsome Guy, but the deal didn’t go through. By the end of the year, Leslie had left the music scene for good.

The little we know about Leslie’s later years comes from one interview she gave with researcher Will Bird, excerpts of which Hank Davis published on the CD collection Memphis Belles: The Women of Sun Records. According to what she told him, Leslie came home to take care of her sick mother. She has a degree in education and has worked closely with Native American communities as an educator and missionary. She spent her retirement “traveling the world” and survived cancer in the 1990s.

Leslie is now 84 years old and still lives in Phoenix. And though she’s been out of the public eye, she remembers her music career fondly: After local journalist Ed Masley wrote about it in the Arizona Republic earlier this year, she wrote to him to express her gratitude for being remembered and said she looked forward to publishing Dylan’s book.

But, if Leslie has any theories as to why Dylan chose her cover photo, she hasn’t shared it yet.

Alice Leslie.
“She had a huge ambition and didn’t intend to be an ‘Female Elvis’ forever…Alice Leslie. Photo: Era Chronicles / Courtesy of John Dixon

Laura Tenchert, host of the Definitely Dylan podcast who also sits on the board of the University of Tulsa Institute for Bob Dylan Studies, suggests that the choice of image might not be about Leslie, but her blending alongside Little Richard and Cochran. “It seems to be an acknowledgment of the diverse roots of modern American music,” she says.

She argues that “the three characters on the cover can be seen as representing different aspects of Dylan’s own musical identity”. For Leslie, this representation may be in her assumption of another artist’s personality. Dylan took a similar approach in his early years, modeling himself on folk singer Woody Guthrie. But where Dylan was able to transcend this and establish his own identity, it seems that Leslie’s ambitions have been completely overshadowed by the “female Elvis” character.

More broadly, the cover can be seen as an acknowledgment of the ephemeral nature of what Dylan calls the “modern song”. Branstetter notes that the three artists on the cover have left the music scene “within two years or so of this photo being taken.” Little Richard resigned to join the ministry. Leslie traded in her guitar for a quieter life. Cochran died in a car accident at the age of 21.

Dylan’s career has enjoyed a much longer life. But he was always aware of the fleeting nature of popular music. When asked how he felt about Rolling Stone magazine’s announcement that his song as Rolling Stone was the greatest of all time, he just shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Who’s going to say how long this will last?” (In fact, in a recent update, Rolling Stone downgraded Dylan’s song to fourth greatest.)

Some of Dylan’s situations may have been wrapped up in that cover photo. Smiling faces of Alice Leslie, Little Richard and Eddie Cochran, full of youth and hope, at the heart of a musical revolution – knowing that it will all be over before any of them expected. Dylan pays tribute to the pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll who came before him. But he, perhaps, also acknowledges how brief their moment is – how ‘the present now will be hereafter’ and today’s ‘modern song’ is tomorrow’s history.

Bob Dylan popularized the philosophy of modern song by Simon & Schuster on me November 1. To support the Guardian and Controller, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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