Girl Power

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"She was sort of a country music Janis Joplin," Hall says of her old friend. "She might have been like that, just a real rebel. But it led to her undoing."

In 1957, RCA dropped Arthur when she proved too commercially unviable; at the same time, she also divorced her husband Jack, who had been her bassist. She moved around, from Utah to Idaho to California, and kept recording for small labels, but nothing ever came of it. She wound up broke and, according to some stories, addicted to drugs (she suffered from debilitating arthritis). In 1986, Bear Family, a German label devoted to reissuing the works of unsung heroes of country and rock and roll, released a collection of her material, Welcome to the Club; a year later, Arthur died penniless and, from all accounts, utterly alone. "She is," Dennard says, "a tragic heroine."

In the end, what makes something like The Gals of the Big "D" Jamboree so intoxicating isn't just the music but the lost tales these women tell--of sharing stages with the likes of Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton, of playing with the Light Crust Doughboys, and of sacrificing their careers for their families. That, more than anything else, is why so many of these women have vanished from the history books: More often than not, they willingly settled down, had children, and left behind the hellish life of the touring bus.

That's the very reason Sherry Davis gives for quitting the show-business life in 1971--despite the fact she once recorded with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, toured Texas with Elvis Presley, and performed in Las Vegas for several years with Esquivel, whose music would, in the 1990s, become the soundtrack for would-be hipsters living in their space-age bachelor pads.

Davis is represented on The Gals by five songs, most of which she barely remembers recording. Of the hell-raising "Bop City," cut in a Dallas studio in 1957, she will only say that it's "something I don't even remember doing." But she very clearly recalls recording "Broken Promises" in July 1957; no amount of distance can fog the memory of making music with Buddy Holly in Clovis, New Mexico, a mere two months after Holly cut "That'll Be the Day" in the same studio.

"This was before Buddy Holly became famous," says Davis, better known to fans of her long-running Las Vegas act as "Della Lee." "Buddy was crashing there at the little apartment in back of Norman Petty's studio, so when Norman Petty asked him and the Crickets if they'd mind backing me, they said no, they didn't mind. I didn't know it was Buddy Holly. I met him, and we all had a long conversation over dinner, so when he became famous, I realized this was the group that backed me. But my manager would not release 'Broken Promises' without the publishing rights, and none of the major record companies wanted to give us the publishing rights, because that's where they made their money. It was two years before my manager found a small company that agreed to let him have the publishing, and by then I had moved on and didn't have any interest in it whatsoever."

Three months after recording with Holly, Ed McLemore persuaded Davis to do a short tour of Texas with Presley, and she recalls the trip with mixed emotions: She was thrilled to perform with Elvis, but it wasn't easy being one of the only God-fearing Christians among so many rock-and-roll heathens. But it would always be like that for Davis, who moved to Cocoa Beach, Florida, in 1962 to entertain the Mercury astronauts--she recalls that John Glenn asked her to perform "Around the World" upon his return from outer space--and then wound up in Las Vegas to sing with Esquivel. (She appears on but one recording: "Malaguena Salerosa" on 1967's The Genius of Esquivel.)

She quit show business completely in 1971, when she had a daughter after years of being told she'd never be able to have children. For years, Davis never let her girl out of her sight, refusing even to leave her with baby sitters to go out to dinner. She now lives back in Dallas, known as Della Lee to her closest, churchgoing friends. No one's called her Sherry Davis in a long, long time.

But even though she's quick to denounce rock and roll as "squalling and screaming" made by those with "long hair and no dignity and no quality," Davis is a bit thrilled about having these old recordings out there, even something as bawdy and brash as "Bop City." If nothing else, people will be able to hear the pride she took back then--the quality of her craft, as she likes to say. And there is no crime in wanting to be remembered.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky