An open letter to Alis Lesley

Dear Ms. Lesley,

This letter won’t begin with the usual pleasantries. There will be no inquiries about your health or discussion of how warm the summer has been. I won’t ask how your husband is enjoying his retirement, or if your granddaughter has decided to hold her wedding ceremony outdoors beneath Arizona’s endless expanse of star-filled sky and prickly pear cactus. There will be no questions about your week-long Italian vacation; no listening as you describe your plans to refurbish the living room in a Western motif. Such queries would imply a level of familiarity with you that I simply do not possess.

I can’t speak with you about the relatives you may or may not have had or your ambitions for a music career that inexplicably faltered because, no matter how much time I spend navigating through Internet message boards or websites specifically designed for such a purpose, I can’t seem to locate you. Should I plaster the photo of you sandwiched between rock ‘n’ roll kingpins Little Richard and Eddie Cochran on a billboard under the heading “Have You Seen This Person”? Maybe I should hire a private investigator, although I suspect he or she would fail to produce any significant results. Aside from placing your picture on milk cartons, I am unsure of how to find you — and how to unearth the answer to the one question that so many who enjoy your abbreviated musical output have been asking for over 50 years: what happened?

I had been paging through books and trawling early rock ‘n’ roll-themed Web pages, conducting research for a project on female rockabilly acts, when I first encountered your music. The similarity between your name and that of a certain hit making, pompadoured performer was striking, and I quickly discovered just why you joined Janis Martin and Sparkle Moore on a growing list of feminine rockers dubbed “The Female Elvis Presley”. Your first single, the velvety “He Will Come Back to Me”, and its flip side, “Heartbreak Harry”, an upbeat, finger snapping number, displayed a measure of promise. Although I realized that you hadn’t achieved the level of success that others who launched their careers during rock ‘n’ roll’s infancy had, I fully expected to uncover a trove of uncharted releases and alternate cuts. Perhaps you had undergone an image scrubbing or a name change; record companies did — and continue to do — that type of thing all of the time with under-performing or legally troubled acts. I was convinced that I would discover how someone with your potential could, bafflingly, be erased from the music business.

I was wrong.

What I found was a paltry three additional recordings — no outtakes or collaborations with other artists — and an equally meager biography, the details of which have since woven their way into the colorful tapestry that is the rockabilly genre’s history. I learned that you were born in 1938, supposedly as Alice Lesley, although I suspect that the spelling of your surname may have also been altered to further enhance your “Female Elvis” persona. You were a Chicago, Ill., transplant living in Phoenix, Ariz., where you majored in some aspect of television and radio at Phoenix Junior College. You began performing rockabilly tunes and captured the approving ear of area TV show hostess, Kathy Godfrey, sister of the controversial radio and TV personality, Arthur Godfrey. You sang in local night clubs and on Phoenix television station KTVK, before recording 1957’s “He Will Come Back to Me” for the California-based Era Records. You toured in support of the single, your slicked hair, long sideburns — yes, sideburns — and guitar the epitome of Elvis’ female counterpart, and one that Presley would receive an eyeful of when he attended your performance at Las Vegas’ Silver Slipper casino. You joined rockabilly flag bearers Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, and popular Aussie singer Johnny O’Keefe for a series of shows in Australia — a tour shortened when its headliner, the flamboyant Little Richard, became a born-again Christian and renounced rock ‘n’ roll.

Weeks ticked by; then months. 1957 slipped into 1958 and… nothing. Despite the buzz surrounding “He Will Come Back to Me”, there would be no follow-up. There weren’t any launch parties for the release of “So Sad”, or appearances at record shops. There were no newspaper write-ups touting “Why Do I Feel This Way” or “Don’t Burn Your Bridges”, a pair of sweeping ballads reminiscent of pop songstress Connie Francis. There weren’t radio interviews or one-off shows at Phoenix clubs of questionable reputation. There wasn’t anything. At all. Heck, the genesis of these tracks remains a mystery, their existence finally acknowledged when the K-tel label — which had purchased Era Records’ catalog some years earlier — released the shelved tunes via digital download in 2008. While I’m heartened that another generation has been afforded the opportunity to enjoy your music, I’m, frankly, dumbfounded by your disappearance. How, in our technologically savvy society, with wallet-sized computers at our fingertips and cameras tracking our every movement in many large cities, does someone vanish? How can 50-some years of life, love and what might have been simply not exist?

Unfortunately, those are questions that no one seems to have the answers to — except for you, Alis Lesley… wherever you are.

Sincerely,

Denise Daliege-Pierce

Published: August 23, 2012
New Article ID: 2012708239995