She was the Female Elvis. How a Phoenix rockabilly teen made the cover of Bob Dylan's book

Ed Masley
Arizona Republic

In 1957, Alis Lesley was a barefoot rockabilly singer out of Phoenix being touted as "the Female Elvis Presley" when she found herself touring Australia with Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Johnny O'Keefe. 

That tour was famously cut short when Little Richard felt he had received a sign from God to repent for his scandalous rock 'n' roll ways and retired from secular music to study theology.

A lifetime later, a photograph of Lesley flanked on one side by a grinning Little Richard and the other by Cochran is set to appear on the cover of Bob Dylan's first new book since picking up the Nobel Prize for Literature, "The Philosophy of Modern Song."

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Alis Lesley's first and only single 

Lesley was 19 in the photo and had recently released her first and only single — 1957's "He Will Come Back to Me" backed with "Heartbreak Harry" on Era Records, the label that sent Gogi Grant's "The Wayward Wind" to No. 1 in 1956. 

The overall vibe of the record may be a few degrees closer in spirit to something Vincent and his Blue Caps would've cut in 1957 than what Presley was doing at that point but it definitely has that early rockabilly swagger.

According to a bio on womeninrockproject.org, Billboard responded to the song with, “Lesley rhymes with Presley, and that is the gist of this disc.”

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Female Elvis builds a buzz in Phoenix

Lesley was born in Chicago to Mr. and Mrs. Fred Dodd (her real name is Dorothy Dodd).

The family moved to Phoenix, where she graduated from North Phoenix High School and went on to major in television and radio at Phoenix Junior College.

That's where Lesley started singing rockabilly and caught the attention of Kathryn Godfrey, a Phoenix television personality whose brother was the legendary Arthur Godfrey.

With Godfrey's assistance, Lesley built a buzz in Phoenix through appearances on the television station KTVK and in local clubs. 

Much of that attention came to focus on her image as the Female Elvis Presley, with her slicked-back hair and combed-down "sideburns."

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'A teen-aged bundle of TNT with a short fuse'

In August 1958, the Reno Gazette-Journal wrote of her "making a career of the famous Presley trademarks — sideburns, guitar and unjointed pelvis."

A newspaper ad for a gig in Montana promised "a teen-aged bundle of TNT with a short fuse!"

Alis Lesley ad as it appeared in the Great Falls Tribune on Dec. 17, 1956. The "Female Elvis Presley" is described as "A Teen-Aged Bundle of TNT With a Short Fuse!"

A feature in the Boston Globe showed Lesley signing autographs for young male fans.

"Wherever Alis goes males are sure to follow," the caption read. "Teenage boys have been Alis' most vociferous rooters."

An article promoting her appearance on the Little Richard tour said she was also billed at one point as Little Miss Swivel Hips. 

She shared her thoughts on rock 'n' roll with that Australian paper.

"It's the beat that gets you," she said. "It gets all young people these days. Rock 'n' roll is a violent release from the quiet, dull lives most people lead."

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'Elvis and I get along real good'

The Arizona Republic ran an article in 1957 headlined "Alis outdoes Elvis in Las Vegas show."

"It was bound to happen," Patricia Smith wrote. "Elvis Presley has a female counterpart whose gyrations, it is said, make the boy from Memphis look like a Salvation Army drummer."

According to the story, Presley was "among the admiring audience" when Lesley played the Silver Slipper Gambling Hall in Vegas. 

It was after that performance that Presley reportedly recommended Lesley for the Little Richard tour.

As Lesley told the Atlanta Constitution in early 1958, "Elvis and I get along real good."

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'Mostly, I just sing, jump, scream and holler'

Betty Carrollton, a writer for the Constitution, praised the singer's energy.

"Alis dons velveteen toreador pants, frilly blouse worn with a bow tie — and high heels," she wrote. 

"However, the shoes don't last long. After opening her act with 'Don't Be Cruel,' she kicks them off to swing into 'Blue Suede Shoes and other rock 'n' roll numbers, with a sprinkling of ballads thrown in for good measure."

Lesley herself summed up her show in that same article with "Mostly, I just sing, jump, scream and holler."

The New York Daily News responded to her act in early 1957 with a story headlined "This is just too much." 

"There will be no topping Alis Lesley if she goes in for snake dancing," the Daily News reported. "The way she wriggles, wiggles and squirms while belting out a song is a wonder to behold."

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Alis Lesley with Little Richard and Eddie Cochran on the cover of Now Dig This Issue 145, April 1995.

Other writers were less taken by her charms.

After noting that Lesley has picked up the nickname "The Malice," The Arizona Republic referenced a Las Vegas newspaper columnist describing her voice as "a cross between the hooting of an owl caught in an electrical storm and a barefooted tenor stepping on a nail in the bathroom while gargling." 

There's nothing on those Lesley records to suggest that there's anything truthful about that review, but that's how daily newspaper columnists tended to write about the early days of rock 'n' roll. 

The Republic story also mentioned a concert in San Bernardino that resulted in a riot that was quelled only by the combined forces of the police and fire departments." 

The story ends with a reference to a major studio in Hollywood "dickering" for Lesley's services and a Thanksgiving Day performance on the Perry Como TV show.

That same year, the Nashville Banner's Stookie Allen featured Lesley in his Keen Teens comic, raving, "Lookout, Elvis! With sideburns, a guitar and a string tie, this Phoenix, Ariz., girl is putting on an act in Las Vegas and Hollywood that is sensational."

An advertisement for a late November 1957 Lesley concert at the Canyon Lake Club in Rapid City, South Dakota, promised "she's sensational and uninhibited!" and would apparently be introducing "the new and exciting craze, 'Rock-a-Baby.'"

'I'm not growing old in show business'

Alis Lesley in Now Dig This Issue 145  April 1995

There are posters and newspaper clippings on the Alis Lesley Rockabilly Page on Facebook that show her touring Canada in June of 1959.

But by the time she made it to Australia, Lesley was already planning for a future far removed from the sensational and uninhibited world of rock 'n' roll, telling the Australian paper she planned to return to Phoenix College at 21 to study veterinary science. 

"I'm not growing old in show business," she said. "I'm thinking of the future now."

According to womeninrockprject.org, she appears to have granted only one brief interview since 1959.

Excerpts of that interview with Hank Davis appeared in the liner notes to Bear Family Records' "Memphis Belles: The Women of Sun Records" in 2002.

She told Davis that at the conclusion of her final tour, she returned to Arizona to care for her ailing mother, and went on to work as a teacher and a missionary, continued to do occasional vocal work and coaching before retiring in 1980.

Local music historian John Dixon met Lesley in the early '90s at a backyard jam session at the home of Al Casey, a session guitarist who played on Sanford Clark's "The Fool" and countless seminal recordings by Duane Eddy before joining the Wrecking Crew in L.A.

"She almost looked like she was dressed as a sister to me, like she was in an order," Dixon says. 

"She just looked kind of mild. And you would look at that, and then look at those pictures of her all over the stage in her ducktail, bending back playing guitar and you'd go 'It can't be the same person.' She just did not have that rock 'n' roll aura about her."

Barefoot Rockabilly Angel gets her due

In 2008, K-Tel Records released a five-song EP titled "Barefoot Rockabilly Angel," which featured both sides of her Era Records 45 and four previously unreleased recordings.

Eight years later, Sleazy Records followed with a six-song, 10-inch vinyl EP titled "He Will Come Back to Me," which also featured both sides of her Era Records 45 as well as Lesley's take on Charlie Rich's rockabilly classic "Handsome Man." 

The Sleazy liner notes say, "Alis Lesley, The Female Elvis, was a perfect replica of the King of Tupelo. In the '50s she was the ultimate rockin' gal, with a refined, androgynous image: greased hair, pseudo sideburns and low slung guitar. No wonder she become one of the most recognizable icons of rockabilly."

Reach the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.

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