In the mid-1950s, Sparkle Moore had a strong voice, killer songs, and a really cool look. She was sometimes called the “female Elvis,” but the Omaha rocker born Barbara Morgan wound up having a wildly different career than the King’s. That’s what makes her such a fascinating character.
Whereas Elvis made gobs of money and stuck around long enough to become a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of fame, Moore released just two 45 RPM singles before settling down to start a family. Neither of her records made the charts, but in a review of the first, 1956’s “Rock-A-Bop,” Billboard wrote, “Gal pulls a female Elvis Presley and belts out a catchy rock and roll ditty with style and drive."
The critic probably didn’t flip the platter to play “Skull and Crossbones,” the far more memorable B side. Addressed to a guy who Sparkle calls “a jinx to my soul,” the jaunty rockabilly jam was a precursor to “Killer” and “Tiger,” the A and B sides of Moore’s second and final single, released in May of 1957.
Written by Sparkle herself, the three songs form a kind of bad-boy trilogy that must have seemed pretty daring at the time. Compare “Skull and Crossbones” to "Will You Willyum,” the signature hit by Moore’s nationally acclaimed contemporary Janis Martin—the most famous “female Elvis”—and Sparkle is practically punk.
She certainly dressed the part. At a time when female singers only wore dresses, Sparkle sported men’s slacks and suit jackets. She was butch on the bottom and bombshell up top, with a platinum blonde pompadour that made her look like Sparkle Plenty, the Dick Tracy character for whom she was named. In a rare 1986 interview with the magazine Kicks, Sparkle remembered how she used to freak people out with her masculine stage wear.
“People would see me when I went to play somewhere, and they’d say, ‘Can’t you wear something more sexy, like a gown?’” Moore said. “And I never would. I always wore a playing suit, and I’d say, ‘This is as sexy as I get.’”
It was plenty sexy—just like her music.
On “Killer,” a showcase for her Elvis-style “hmmm” ad libs and hiccuping delivery, Moore sings, “I was a victim of the killer’s charms / I’m not a victim of the killer’s arms / I took my chance and ignored the alarms.” She tangled with this duck-tailed lothario, gave as good as she got, and lived to tell the tale.
Her performance on “Tiger,” all about a smooth operator who seduces with his record collection, is even stronger. This one ends on a tender note: Just as Moore starts crying about her crush packing up his 45s and going home, her mother reassures her, “Look his way / I think this daddy is a goin' to stay.”
That’s essentially where the story ends. The unreleased ballad “Flowers of My Heart” surfaced years later, but Moore’s discography is basically those four songs, all issued on the Cincinnati indie label Fraternity and subsequently repackaged on various rockabilly compilations.
Moore's career lasted less than two years—just long enough for her to tour with pill-popping rockabilly wildman Gene Vincent; hobnob with celebs like Sammy Davis Jr., who compared her to James Dean; and get booked at the Grand Ole Opry, a gig she had to cancel due to laryngitis. The bio on Sparkle’s official website also claims that she “takes credit for being the first hippie to hit California several years later with a guitar strapped on the side of a Harley,” but since she’s done virtually no press, it’s unknown what adventures she got into in Hollywood. (Interview requests sent through her site's “Contact” form yielded no replies.)
It’s also unclear to what extent Moore chose to walk away from show business to raise a child. For as sexist as the music industry is today, it was even worse in the ‘50s, when female rockers were very much a novelty and women in general were expected to stay home and keep house. It would be great if Moore was totally free to make the decision that was right for her, but the reality was probably more complicated.
Either way, her story didn’t quite end in 1957. In 2010, the same year she was inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Moore returned with Spark-A-Billy, a 22-song collection she wrote and self-recorded. With its hodgepodge of styles and homemade digital production aesthetic, the album is a detour from her old sound. Still, it’s nice to know that Sparkle continues to make music, and on her own terms.