Sparkle Moore is back… and this time, her distinctive talent — and the unanswered question that is her life — refuses to be ignored.
For some time, Sparkle Moore was little more to me than a long forgotten early rock ‘n’ roller whose name, followed by a question mark, was jotted in my notebook. I was simultaneously puzzled and intrigued. As a rockabilly enthusiast, I had built a career writing about the genre. How was it that I had never heard of her? I began to question Moore’s talent. After all, the singer had only recorded five tunes before drifting into obscurity; how good could she have been?
Oh, she was good. Very good. With one listen to Sparkle Moore’s throaty, hiccuping vocal on “Rock-a-Bop”, I knew that I was hearing something special, a talented performer who possessed the potential to give Wanda Jackson some stiff competition for her “Queen of Rockabilly” crown.
As with so many hopes from countless other dreamers, it would never be fully realized.
Barbara Morgan loved music. For years, the Omaha, Neb. native had played any instrument that she could wrap her fingers around. At the age of 10, she purchased a Hawaiian steel guitar from a pawn shop, and began to sing along with assorted cowboy songs. She played the cello in her grade school orchestra, then graduated to the bassoon and string bass in her high school counterparts.
Rock ‘n’ roll was saturating radio airwaves, and teenage Barbara quickly fell in love with the music. She penned her own songs and even ran away to join a New Orleans rock band before sending a demo to Grahame “Crackers” Richards, a disc jockey for Omaha radio station KOWH. Richards liked what he heard and, within weeks, Barbara - now Sparkle Moore, named thus for her similarity in appearance to the Dick Tracy comic strip character Sparkle Plenty - had been signed to Cincinnati’s Fraternity Records.
The newly christened Sparkle Moore had that certain something, that extra touch of indescribably quality, that causes one to nod their head, as if to say, “Yeah, I understand what all of the fuss is about.” Record companies were quick to capitalize on the Elvis Presley phenomenon, and dubbed whichever lady rock ‘n’ roller under contract as “The Female Elvis”, a distinction held by Janis Martin, Alis Lesley, and now, Sparkle Moore. Although the moniker would become synonymous with Martin, Moore appeared to be most deserving of it. Her multifaceted voice, like Presley’s, was reflected in the material that she performed: the snarling “Killer”, the bubbly “Skull & Crossbones”; the silky “Tiger”. She wore flashy jackets and — gasp — pants, and had her curly blond tresses tamed into an Elvis-like pompadour. She performed with Ronnie Self, and opened a series of dates for rockabilly icon Gene Vincent. A scheduled Grand Ole Opry appearance was canceled due to a bout with laryngitis.
Moore’s raw, energetic sound and eye popping looks were just what the public seemed to crave. Although her meager recorded output — including the unreleased “Flower of My Heart”, a peculiar, soaring ballad — failed to produce a hit, Sparkle Moore appeared poised for stardom.
And then, she was gone, her scant, two-year career finished before it had really begun. Sparkle Moore disappeared just as quickly as she had arrived, leaving behind a quintet of songs, a smattering of outtakes, and the head scratching question, “Why?”
So, what happened? Why did Sparkle Moore, this woman with the remarkable voice, walk away? The answer was mirrored in Moore’s fellow female Elvis, Janis Martin. She was pregnant.
Sparkle apparently left Fraternity Records and returned home to raise a family. While Barbara Morgan continued to create new music — she reportedly earned a living as a songwriter — Sparkle Moore seemed to vanish. The release of her brief catalog on multiple rockabilly compilations revived interest in her music, yet Moore remained a largely private person. Talk of a Sparkle Moore stalker began to make the rounds within rockabilly circles, and the one-off interviews that the musician would occasionally grant evaporated.
The epitome of success for many journalists is obtaining that single, sought after, thought to be unattainable interview. For some, it might be with the President of the United States; for others, the actor du jour. For this writer, it’s Sparkle Moore. She is my “get”. For years, I’d emailed colleagues and passed on my contact information to possible go-betweens, all in the ever waning hope of speaking to Sparkle Moore for a paltry five minutes. After all, everyone has a story to tell, and I desperately wanted to hear hers.
My efforts remained fruitless until a few years ago, when a fellow roots music-loving writer emailed to say that Sparkle Moore was living in Iowa. My heart hammered in my chest. Could this be it? Could one of the three Barbara Morgans that my friend had obtained phone numbers for be the Sparkle Moore?
The next few hours were filled frantic instant messages and attempts to determine which Barbara Morgan was the correct one. Phone calls were placed, and Barbara number three appeared to be our winner… until a conversation with the woman’s husband devolved into an Abbott & Costello routine that left my friend — and me — confused and utterly exasperated. If the identity of our final candidate was, indeed, Sparkle Moore, it remained a well-kept secret.
So, it was back to the drawing board, a place that I was growing increasingly tired of visiting. But a tiny ember of hope that, someday, I would land my “get” burned within my gut and, a few days ago, I renewed my search for Sparkle Moore… again.
There was news.
It was a big year for Moore. In 2010, she was inducted into the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Music Association’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and, some 50 years after her final recording session for Fraternity Records, she released an album, Spark-A-Billy. Sparkle Moore may be in her seventies, but she remains a versatile musician who can still belt out a tune. I fired off an email to the IRRMA, then another to the webmaster of a page that declared itself to be the official Sparkle Moore website, in the hopes that someone — anyone — would put me in touch with the singer.
There’s that word again: hope. Although I’ve yet to receive a response to my queries, that pesky four-letter word refuses to roll over and die. When we’re at our most miserable, our most depraved, hope is what keeps us going. Hope is what enables us to survive; to live. Perhaps hope is what keeps us human.
Sparkle Moore has returned to her place amongst Bonnie Lou, Alis Lesley and a collection of other “whatever became of” early female rockers. She remains a tantalizing, unsolved musical mystery, as elusive as ever.
Published: June 21, 2012