Rockabilly is one of the earliest styles of rock and roll music, dating back to the early 1950s in the United States, especially the South. As a genre it blends the sound of Western musical styles such as country with that of rhythm and blues, leading to what is considered "classic" rock and roll. Some have also described it as a blend of bluegrass with rock and roll. The term "rockabilly" itself is a portmanteau of "rock" (from "rock 'n' roll") and "hillbilly", the latter a reference to the country music (often called "hillbilly music" in the 1940s and 1950s) that contributed strongly to the style. Other important influences on rockabilly include western swing, boogie-woogie, jump blues, and electric blues.
|Cultural origins||Early to mid-1950s, Southern United States|
|Derivative forms||Garage rock|
Defining features of the rockabilly sound included strong rhythms, vocal twangs, and common use of the tape echo; but progressive addition of different instruments and vocal harmonies led to its "dilution". Initially popularized by artists such as Wanda Jackson, Billy Adams, Johnny Cash, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Bob Luman, and Jerry Lee Lewis, the influence and success of the style waned in the late 1950s; nonetheless, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, rockabilly enjoyed a major revival. An interest in the genre endures even in the 21st century, often within a subculture. Rockabilly has left a legacy, spawning a variety of sub-styles and influencing other genres such as punk rock.
There was a close relationship between blues and country music from the very earliest country recordings in the 1920s. The first nationwide country hit was "Wreck of the Old 97", backed with "Lonesome Road Blues", which also became quite popular. Jimmie Rodgers, the "first true country star", was known as the "Blue Yodeler", and most of his songs used blues-based chord progressions, although with very different instrumentation and sound from the recordings of his black contemporaries like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Bessie Smith.
During the 1930s and 1940s, two new sounds emerged. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were the leading proponents of Western Swing, which combined country singing and steel guitar with big band jazz influences and horn sections; Wills's music found massive popularity. Recordings of Wills's from the mid 1940s to the early 1950s include "two beat jazz" rhythms, "jazz choruses", and guitar work that preceded early rockabilly recordings. Wills is quoted as saying "Rock and Roll? Why, man, that's the same kind of music we've been playin' since 1928!... But it's just basic rhythm and has gone by a lot of different names in my time. It's the same, whether you just follow a drum beat like in Africa or surround it with a lot of instruments. The rhythm's what's important."
After blues artists like Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson launched a nationwide boogie craze starting in 1938, country artists like Moon Mullican, the Delmore Brothers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Speedy West, Jimmy Bryant, and the Maddox Brothers and Rose began recording what was known as "Hillbilly Boogie", which consisted of "hillbilly" vocals and instrumentation with a boogie bass line.
The Maddox Brothers and Rose were at "the leading edge of rockabilly with the slapped bass that Fred Maddox had developed". Maddox said, "You've got to have somethin' they can tap their foot, or dance to, or to make 'em feel it." After World War II the band shifted into higher gear leaning more toward a whimsical honky-tonk feel, with a heavy, manic bottom end - the slap bass of Fred Maddox. "They played hillbilly music but it sounded real hot. They played real loud for that time, too ..." The Maddoxes were also known for their lively "antics and stuff." "We always put on a show ... I mean it just wasn't us up there pickin' and singing. There was something going on all the time." "... the demonstrative Maddoxes, helped release white bodies from traditional motions of decorum... more and more younger white artists began to behave on stage like the lively Maddoxes." Others believe that they were not only at the leading edge, but were one of the first Rockabilly groups, if not the first.
Along with country, swing and boogie influences, jump blues artists such as Wynonie Harris and Roy Brown, and electric blues acts such as Howlin' Wolf, Junior Parker, and Arthur Crudup, influenced the development of rockabilly. The Memphis blues musician Junior Parker and his electric blues band, Little Junior's Blue Flames, featuring Pat Hare on the guitar, were a major influence on the rockabilly style, particularly with their songs "Love My Baby" and "Mystery Train" in 1953.
Zeb Turner's February 1953 recording of "Jersey Rock" with its mix of musical styles, lyrics about music and dancing, and guitar solo, is another example of the mixing of musical genres in the first half of the 1950s.
Bill Monroe is known as the Father of Bluegrass, a specific style of country music. Many of his songs were in blues form, while others took the form of folk ballads, parlor songs, or waltzes. Bluegrass was a staple of country music in the early 1950s, and is often mentioned as an influence in the development of rockabilly.
The Honky Tonk sound, which "tended to focus on working-class life, with frequently tragic themes of lost love, adultery, loneliness, alcoholism, and self-pity", also included songs of energetic, uptempo Hillbilly Boogie. Some of the better known musicians who recorded and performed these songs are: the Delmore Brothers, the Maddox Brothers and Rose, Merle Travis, Hank Williams, Hank Snow, and Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Curtis Gordon's 1953 "Rompin' and Stompin'", an uptempo hillbilly-boogie included the lyrics, "Way down south where I was born / They rocked all night 'til early morn' / They start rockin' / They start rockin' an rollin'."
Sharecroppers' sons Carl Perkins and his brothers Jay Perkins and Clayton Perkins, along with drummer W. S. Holland, had been playing their music roughly ninety miles from Memphis. The Perkins Brothers Band, featuring both Carl and Jay on lead vocals, quickly established themselves as the hottest band on the cutthroat, "get-hot-or-go-home" Jackson, Tennessee honky tonk circuit. Most of the requests for songs were for hillbilly songs that were delivered as jived up versions—classic Hank Williams standards infused with a faster rhythm.
It was here that Carl started composing his first songs with an eye toward the future. Watching the dance floor at all times for a reaction, working out a more rhythmically driving style of music that was neither country nor blues, but had elements of both, Perkins kept reshaping these loosely structured songs until he had a completed composition, which would then be finally put to paper. Carl was already sending demos to New York record companies, who kept rejecting him, sometimes explaining that this strange new style of country with a pronounced rhythm fit no current commercial trend. That would change in 1955 after recording the song "Blue Suede Shoes" (recorded 19 December 1955) on Sam Phillips' Memphis-based Sun Records. Later made more famous by Elvis Presley, Perkins' original version was an early rock 'n' roll standard.
In the early 1950s there was heavy competition among Memphis area bands playing an audience-savvy mix of covers, original songs, and hillbilly flavored blues. One source mentions both local disc jockey Dewey Phillips and Sam Phillips as being influential. Scotty Moore remembers that, "You could play ... As long as you could play, say, the top eight or ten songs from country, pop, R&B. They didn't care what instruments you had, as long as people could dance."
The Saturday Night Jamboree
The Saturday Night Jamboree was a local stage show held every Saturday night at the Goodwyn Institute Auditorium in downtown Memphis, Tennessee in 1953–54. But of more historical significance were the then-unknown artists who came to perform at the Jamboree. They include: Elvis Presley, Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, Eddie Bond, Charlie Feathers, Jim Cannon, Reggie Young, Barbara Pittman, the Lazenby Twins, Bud Deckleman, Harmonica Frank Floyd, Marcus Van Story, Lloyd Arnold, and more. The shows were sometimes broadcast on KWEM Radio Station in West Memphis, Arkansas by Joe Manuel, who fronted the Jamboree and was a KWEM personality. Every Saturday night in 1953, the dressing rooms backstage were a gathering place where musicians would come together and experiment with new sounds—mixing fast country, gospel, blues and boogie woogie. Guys were bringing in new "licks" that they had developed and were teaching them to other musicians and were learning new "licks" from yet other musicians backstage. Soon these new sounds began to make their way out onto the stage of the Jamboree where they found a very receptive audience.
The Burnettes and Burlison
Younger musicians around Memphis were beginning to play a mix of musical styles. Paul Burlison, for one, was playing in nondescript hillbilly bands in the very early 1950s. One of these early groups secured a fifteen-minute show on radio station KWEM in West Memphis, Arkansas. The time slot was adjacent to Howlin' Wolf's and the music quickly became a curious blend of blues, country and what would become known as rockabilly music. In 1951 and 1952 the Burnettes (Johnny and Dorsey) and Burlison played around Memphis and established a reputation for wild music. According to Burlison, "... when we started playing in 1951, we played an uptempo-style country beat with gospel, blues, and a little swing mixed in."
They played with Doc McQueen's swing band at the Hideaway Club but hated the type of music played by "chart musicians." Soon they broke away and began playing their energetic brand of rockabilly to small, but appreciative, local audiences. They wrote "Rock Billy Boogie," named after Johnny's new baby boy Rocky Burnette and Dorsey's new son Billy, who were both born in 1953, while working at the Hideaway. Unfortunately for the Burnettes and Burlison, they did not record the song until 1957.
The trio released "Train Kept A-Rollin'" in 1956, listed by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the top 500 rock songs of all time, having been covered by the Yardbirds, Aerosmith, and many others. Many consider this 1956 recording to be the first intentional use of a distortion guitar on a rock song, which was played by lead guitarist Paul Burlison. Many rockabilly guitarists and historians now accept that on many of the classic recordings Johnny Burnette did in Nashville for Decca it was the legendary "A Team" of Grady Martin on guitar, Bob Moore on bass and Buddy Harmann on drums backing Johnny and Dorsey on vocals (the author of this comment has had discussions with Bob Moore where he confirms this). In all likelihood both Paul Burlison and Grady Martin played on some of the Nashville recordings, with who played what lost in the mists of time. The recordings done in the Pythian Temple in New York are undoubtedly all the work of Paul Burlison.
The use of distortion on a rock'n'roll record was more accurately "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats. The legend of how the sound came about says that guitarist Willy Kizart's amplifier was damaged on Highway 61 when the band was driving from Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee. An attempt was made to hold the cone in place by stuffing the amplifier with wadded newspapers, which unintentionally created a distorted sound; Phillips liked the sound and used it. Robert Palmer has written that the amplifier "had fallen from the top of the car", and attributes this information to Sam Phillips. However, in a recorded interview at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, Washington, Ike Turner stated that the amplifier was in the trunk of the car and that rain may have caused the damage; he is certain that it did not fall from the roof of the car.
Presley's first recording, a blues song titled "That's All Right Mama", was previously recorded in 1946 by Arthur Crudup. In this recording Presley married "black" and "white" genres to an extent that it was denied airplay on (white) country radio stations and (black) R&B stations, dismissed for being defined as both "black" and "white" music. Record Producer Sam Phillips was told by country deejays that Presley's "That's Alright Mama" was "black music" and lamented they would be "run out of town" for playing it. Similarly, R&B deejays categorized it as a (white) country song. When the song was finally played by one rogue deejay, Dewey Phillips, Presley's recording created so much excitement it was described as having waged war on segregated radio stations. "The Sun recordings were the first salvos in an undeclared war on segregated radio stations nationwide."
Presley's unique musical style rocketed him into the spotlight, and drew masses of followers: "But it's Presley's singing, halfway between a country western and a R&B rock 'n' roll style that has sent teenagers into a trance. Whether you like it or not, there will always be an Elvis Presley."
Presley's first, historical recordings took place at Sun Records, a small independent label run by Sam Phillips in Memphis, Tennessee. The historical significance of these first Presley recordings and their impact on future musical artists is well exemplified by the actions of legendary musical artist Bob Dylan, who is said to have gone to Sun Records and kissed the "x" where Elvis had stood to record his first recordings. Further stated by Dylan: "I thank God for Elvis Presley".
For several years, Phillips had been recording and releasing performances by blues and country musicians in the area. He also ran a service allowing anyone to come in off the street and for $3.98 (plus tax) record himself on a two-song vanity record. One young man who came to record himself as a surprise for his mother, he claimed, was Elvis Presley.
According to Phillips, "Ninety-five percent of the people I had been working with were black, most of them of course no name people. Elvis fit right in. He was born and raised in poverty. He was around people that had very little in the way of worldly goods."
Presley made enough of an impression that Phillips deputized guitarist Scotty Moore, who then enlisted bassist Bill Black, both from the Starlight Wranglers, a local western swing band, to work with the green young Elvis. The trio rehearsed dozens of songs, from traditional country, to "Harbor Lights", a hit for crooner Bing Crosby to gospel. During a break on July 5, 1954, Elvis "jumped up ... and started frailin' guitar and singin' "That's All Right, Mama" (a 1946 blues song by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup). Scotty and Bill began playing along. Excited, Phillips told them to "back up and start from the beginning." Two or three takes later, Phillips had a satisfactory recording, and released "That's All Right", on July 19, 1954, along with an "Elvis Presley Scotty and Bill" version of Bill Monroe's waltz, Blue Moon of Kentucky, a country standard.
Presley's Sun recordings feature his vocals and rhythm guitar, Bill Black's percussive slapped bass, and Scotty Moore on an amplified guitar. Slap bass had been a staple of both Western Swing and Hillbilly Boogie since the 1940s. Commenting on his own guitar playing, Scotty Moore said, "All I can tell you is I just stole from every guitar player I heard over the years. Put it in my data bank. An' when I played that's just what come out."
Scotty Moore described their first session, resulting in the recording of "That's Alright Mama":
We were taking a break and, all of sudden, Elvis started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool. Then Bill Black picked up his bass and began acting the fool too, and I started playing with them. Sam had the door to the control room open, and stuck his head out and said, 'What are you doing?' We said, 'We don't know'. He said, 'Well, back up. Try to find a place to start, and do it again'. So we kinda talked it over and figured out a little bit what we were doin'. We ran it again, and of course Sam is listenin'. 'Bout the third or fourth time through, we just cut it. It was basically a rhythm record. It wasn't any great thing. It wasn't Sam tellin' him what to do. Elvis was joking around, just doing what come naturally, what he felt.
Tillman Franks has been quoted as saying, "I want you to give Bill Black the credit. … on 'That's All Right (Mama)' and 'Blue Moon of Kentucky.' Elvis sang the way Bill Black played bass."
Some have claimed that the sound of "That's Alright" was not entirely new, "It wasn't that they said 'I never heard anything like it before.' It wasn't as if this started a revolution, it galvanized a revolution. Not because Elvis had expressed something new, but he expressed something they had all been trying to express." Sam Phillips indicated that for him it was a new sound, saying "It just broke me up". And many echo the sentiment that it was a sound like no other they had heard: "When I first heard Elvis singing 'That's Alright Mama'. The time just stood still. It knocked my socks off." --Ramon Maupin.
Nobody was sure what to call Presley's music, so Elvis was described as "The Hillbilly Cat" and "King of Western Bop." Over the next year, Elvis would record four more singles for Sun. Rockabilly recorded by artists prior to Presley can be described as being in the long-standing country style of Rockabilly. Presley's recordings are described by some as quintessential rockabilly for their true union of country and R&B, which can be described as the true realization of the Rockabilly genre. In addition to the fusion of distinct genres, Presley's recordings contain some traditional as well as new traits: "nervously up tempo" (as Peter Guralnick describes it), with slap bass, fancy guitar picking, lots of echo, shouts of encouragement, and vocals full of histrionics such as hiccups, stutters, and swoops from falsetto to bass and back again.
By end of 1954 Elvis asked D.J. Fontana, who was the underutilized drummer for the Louisiana Hayride, "Would you go with us if we got any more dates?" Presley was now using drums, as did many other rockabilly performers; drums were then uncommon in country music. In the 1956 sessions shortly after Presley's move from Sun Records to RCA, Presley was backed by a band that included Moore, Black, Fontana, and pianist Floyd Cramer. In 1956 Elvis also acquired vocal backup via the Jordanaires.
North of the Mason-Dixon Line
In 1951 a western swing bandleader named Bill Haley recorded a version of "Rocket 88" with his group, the Saddlemen. It is considered one of the earliest recognized rockabilly recordings. Haley and his bandmates crafted a rockabilly sound during this period as the Saddlemen. It was followed by versions of "Rock the Joint" in 1952, and original works such as "Real Rock Drive" and "Crazy Man, Crazy", the latter of which reached number 12 on the American Billboard chart in 1953.
On April 12, 1954, Haley with his band (now known as Bill Haley and His Comets) recorded "Rock Around the Clock" for Decca Records of New York City. When first released in May 1954, "Rock Around the Clock" made the charts for one week at number 23, and sold 75,000 copies. A year later it was featured in the film Blackboard Jungle, and soon afterwards it was topping charts all over the world and opening up a new genre of entertainment. "Rock Around the Clock" hit No. 1, held that position for eight weeks, and was the number two song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 1955. The recording was, until the late 1990s, recognized by Guinness World Records as having the highest sales claim for a pop vinyl recording, with an "unaudited" claim of 25 million copies sold.
Maine native and Connecticut resident Bill Flagg began using the term rockabilly for his combination of rock 'n' roll and hillbilly music as early as 1953 He cut several songs for Tetra Records in 1956 and 1957. "Go Cat Go" went into the National Billboard charts in 1956, and his "Guitar Rock" is cited as classic rockabilly.
Janis Martin on The Old Dominion Barn Dance Show
In 1953 at the age of 13 Janis Martin was developing her own proto-rockabilly style on WRVA's Old Dominion Barn Dance, which broadcast out of Richmond, VA. Although Martin performed mostly country songs for the show, she also did songs by Rhythm and blues singers Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker, as well as a few Dinah Washington songs. "The audience didn't know what to make of it. They didn't hardly allow electric instruments, and I was doing some songs by black artists—stuff like Ruth Brown's "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean."
Cash, Perkins and Presley
In 1954, both Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins auditioned for Sam Phillips. Cash hoped to record gospel music, but Phillips immediately nixed that idea. Cash did not return until 1955. In October 1954 Carl Perkins and "The Perkins Brothers Band" showed up at the Sun Studios. Phillips recorded Perkins's original song Movie Magg, which was released early March 1955 on Phillips's Flip label, which was all country.
Presley's second and third records were not as successful as the first. The fourth release in May 1955 Baby, Let's Play House peaked at number five on the national Billboard Country Chart. The Sun label correctly lists "Gunter" (Arthur) as the songwriter, a song which he recorded in 1954. In 1951 Eddy Arnold recorded a song titled "I Want to Play House with You" by Cy Coben that sounds nothing like the Arthur Gunter song recorded by Presley.
Cash returned to Sun in 1955 with his song Hey, Porter, and his group the Tennessee Three, who became the Tennessee Two before the session was over. This song and another Cash original, Cry! Cry! Cry! were released in July. Cry! Cry! Cry! managed to crack Billboard's Top 20, peaking at No. 14.
In August Sun released Elvis's versions of "I Forgot to Remember to Forget" and "Mystery Train". "Forgot ...", written by Sun country artists Stan Kesler and Charlie Feathers, spent a total of 39 weeks on the Billboard Country Chart, with five of those weeks at the number one spot. "Mystery Train", with writing credits for both Herman Little Junior Parker and Sam Phillips, peaked at number 11.
Through most of 1955, Cash, Perkins, Presley, and other Louisiana Hayride performers toured through Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Mississippi. Sun released two more Perkins songs in October: "Gone, Gone, Gone" and "Let the Jukebox Keep on Playing". Scotty Moore commented on the different roles of Elvis and Perkins, "Carl was a nice-looking big hunk, like out in the cornfield type. Elvis was more like an Adonis. But as a rockabilly, Carl was the king of that."
1955 was also the year in which Chuck Berry's hillbilly-influenced Maybellene reached high in the charts as a crossover hit, and Bill Haley and His Comets' Rock Around the Clock was not only number one for eight weeks, but was the number two record for the year. Rock 'n' Roll in general, and rockabilly in particular, was at critical mass and the next year, Elvis Presley's Heartbreak Hotel and Don't Be Cruel would top the Billboard Charts as well.
Rockabilly goes national: 1956
In January 1956 three new classic songs by Cash, Perkins, and Presley were released: "Folsom Prison Blues" by Cash, and "Blue Suede Shoes" by Perkins, both on Sun; and "Heartbreak Hotel" by Presley on RCA. Other rockabilly tunes released this month included "See You Later, Alligator" by Roy Hall and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" by the Commodores (no relation to the '70s Motown group).
Perkins's "Blue Suede Shoes" sold 20,000 records a day at one point, and it was the first million-selling country song to cross over to both rhythm and blues and pop charts. On February 11, Presley appeared on the Dorsey Brothers' Stage Show for the third time, singing "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Heartbreak Hotel." He performed "Blue Suede Shoes" two more times on national television, and "Heartbreak Hotel" three times throughout 1956. Both songs topped the Billboard charts.
Perkins first performed "Blue Suede Shoes" on television March 17 on Ozark Jubilee, a weekly ABC-TV program. From 1955 to 1960, the live national radio and TV show from Springfield, Missouri featured Brenda Lee and Wanda Jackson and guests included Gene Vincent and other rockabilly artists.
Sun and RCA weren't the only record companies releasing rockabilly music. In March Columbia released "Honky Tonk Man" by Johnny Horton, King put out "Seven Nights to Rock" by Moon Mullican, Mercury issued "Rockin' Daddy" by Eddie Bond, and Starday released Bill Mack's "Fat Woman". Carl Perkins, meanwhile, was involved in a major automobile accident on his way to appear on national television.
Two young men from Texas made their record debuts in April 1956: Buddy Holly on the Decca label, and, as a member of the Teen Kings, Roy Orbison with "Ooby Dooby" on the New Mexico/Texas based Je-wel label. Holly's big hits would not be released until 1957. Janis Martin was all of fifteen years old when RCA issued a record with "Will You, Willyum" and the Martin composed "Drugstore Rock 'n' Roll", which sold over 750,000 copies. King records issued a new disk by forty-seven-year-old Moon Mullican: "Seven Nights to Rock" and "Rock 'N' Roll Mr. Bullfrog". Twenty more sides were issued by various labels including 4 Star, Blue Hen, Dot, Cold Bond, Mercury, Reject, Republic, Rodeo, and Starday.
Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps' recording of "Be-Bop-A-Lula" was released on June 2, 1956, backed by "Woman Love." Within twenty-one days it sold over two hundred thousand records, stayed at the top of national pop and country charts for twenty weeks, and sold more than a million copies. These same musicians would have two more releases in 1956, followed by another in January 1957.
"Queen of Rockabilly" Wanda Jackson's first record came out in July, "I Gotta Know" on the Capitol label; followed by "Hot Dog That Made Him Mad" in November. Capitol would release nine more records by Jackson, some with songs she had written herself, before the 1950s were over.
The first record by Jerry Lee Lewis came out on December 22, 1956 and featured the song "Crazy Arms" (which had been a #1 hit for Ray Price some twenty weeks earlier in the year) along with "End of the Road". Lewis would have big hits in 1957 with his version of "Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On", issued in May, and "Great Balls Of Fire" on Sun.
Additional performers and information
There were thousands of musicians who recorded songs in the rockabilly style. An online database lists 262 musicians with names beginning with "A". And many record companies released rockabilly records. Some enjoyed major chart success and were important influences on future rock musicians.
Sun also hosted performers, such as Billy Lee Riley, Sonny Burgess, Charlie Feathers, and Warren Smith. There were also several female performers like Wanda Jackson who recorded rockabilly music long after the other ladies, Janis Martin, the female Elvis Jo Ann Campbell, and Alis Lesley, who also sang in the rockabilly style. Mel Kimbrough -"Slim", recorded "I Get Lonesome Too" and "Ha Ha, Hey Hey" for Glenn Records along with "Love in West Virginia" and "Country Rock Sound" for Checkmate a division of Caprice Records.
Gene Summers, a Dallas native and Rockabilly Hall of Fame inductee, released his classic Jan/Jane 45s in 1958-59. He continued to record rockabilly music well into 1964 with the release of "Alabama Shake". In 2005, Summers's most popular recording, School of Rock 'n Roll, was selected by Bob Solly and Record Collector Magazine as one of the "100 Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Records".
Tommy Sleepy LaBeef (LaBeff) recorded rockabilly tunes on a number of labels from 1957 through 1963. Rockabilly pioneers the Maddox Brothers and Rose, both as a group, and with Rose as a solo act, added onto their two decades of performing by making records that were even more rocking. However, none of these artists had any major hits and their influence would not be felt until decades later
In the summer of 1958 Eddie Cochran had a chart-topping hit with "Summertime Blues". Cochran's brief career included only a few more hits, such as "Sitting in the Balcony" released in early 1957, "C'mon Everybody" released in October 1958, and "Somethin' Else" released in July 1959. Then in April 1960, while touring with Gene Vincent in the UK, their taxi crashed into a concrete lamp post, killing Eddie at the young age of 21. The grim coincidence in this all was that his posthumous UK number-one hit was called "Three Steps to Heaven".
Rockabilly music enjoyed great popularity in the United States during 1956 and 1957, but radio play declined after 1960. Factors contributing to this decline are usually cited as the 1959 death of Buddy Holly in an airplane crash (along with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper), the induction of Elvis Presley into the army in 1958, and a general change in American musical tastes. The style remained popular longer in England, where it attracted a fanatical following right up through the mid-1960s.
Rockabilly music cultivated an attitude that assured its enduring appeal to teenagers. This was a combination of rebellion, sexuality, and freedom—a sneering expression of disdain for the workaday world of parents and authority figures. It was the first rock ‘n' roll style to be performed primarily by white musicians, thus setting off a cultural revolution that is still reverberating today.
Use of the term "rockabilly"
In an interview that can be viewed at the Experience Music Project, Barbara Pittman states that, "It was so new and it was so easy. It was a three chord change. 'Rockabilly' was actually an insult to the southern rockers at that time. Over the years it has picked up a little dignity. It was their way of calling us 'hillbillies'."
One of the first written uses of the term "rockabilly" was in a June 23, 1956, Billboard review of Ruckus Tyler's "Rock Town Rock". Three weeks earlier, "rockabilly" was used in a press release describing Gene Vincent's "Be-Bop-A-Lula".
The first record to contain the word "rockabilly" in a song title was issued in November 1956 "Rock a Billy Gal", although Johnny and Dorsey Burnette recorded "Rock Billy Boogie" for the Coral label on July 4, 1956. The song had been written and performed much earlier, and refer to the birth of Johnny's son Rocky and Dorsey's son Billy, who were born around the same time in 1953, and were firstborns for each of the brothers. The song was part of their repertoire in 1956 when they were living in New York City and performing with Gene Vincent. It's easy to understand how the New York audience might have thought the Burnettes were singing "Rockabilly Boogie," but they never would, because the term hillbilly was derogatory and would never have been used by the artists themselves. Rocky Burnette, who later would become a rockabilly artist himself, has stated on his website that the term rockabilly derives from that song. It's also interesting, that this song has been covered by hundreds of artists in the years since, and is always called "Rockabilly Boogie".
The distinctive reverberation on the early hit records such as "Rock Around The Clock" (April 12, 1954, released May 15) by Bill Haley & His Comets was created by recording the band under the domed ceiling of Decca's studio in New York, located in a former ballroom called The Pythian Temple. It was a big, barn-like building with great echo. This same facility would also be used to record other rockabilly musicians such as Buddy Holly and The Rock and Roll Trio.
In Memphis Sam Phillips used various techniques to create similar acoustics at his Memphis Recording Services Studio. The shape of the ceiling, corrugated tiles, and the setup of the studio were augmented by "slap-back" tape echo which involved feeding the original signal from one tape machine through a second machine. The echo effect had been used, less subtly, on Wilf Carter Victor records of the 1930s, and in Eddy Arnold's 1945 "Cattle Call".
According to Cowboy Jack Clement, who took over production duties from Sam Phillips, "There's two heads; one records, and one plays back. The sound comes along and it's recorded on this head, and a split second later, it goes to the playback head. But you can take that and loop it to where it plays a split second after it was recorded and it flips right back into the record head. Or, you can have a separate machine and do that. if you do it on one machine, you have to echo everything." In more technical terms a tape delay and a 71⁄2-ips, instead of the more advanced 15-ips. The recordings were thus an idealized representation of the customary live sound.
A comparison of rockabilly versions of country songs shows that while form, lyrics, chord progressions and arrangements are simplified and with sparser instrumentation, a fuller sound was achieved by more percussive playing—i.e., subdivisions of the beat receive more emphasis. Tempos were increased, texts are altered with deletions, additions, more intense, flamboyant loose singing, along with variation in melody from verse to verse.
Influence on the Beatles and the British Invasion
The first wave of rockabilly fans in the United Kingdom were called Teddy Boys because they wore long, Edwardian-style frock coats, along with tight black drainpipe trousers and brothel creeper shoes. Another group in the 1950s that were followers of rockabilly were the Ton-Up boys, who rode British motorcycles and would later be known as rockers in the early 1960s. The rockers had adopted the classic greaser look of T-shirts, jeans, and leather jackets to go with their heavily slicked pompadour haircuts. The rockers loved 1950s rock and roll artists such as Gene Vincent, and some British rockabilly fans formed bands and played their own version of the music.
The most notable of these bands was The Beatles. When John Lennon first met Paul McCartney, he was impressed that McCartney knew all the chords and the words to Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock". As the band became more professional and began playing in Hamburg, they took on the "Beatle" name (inspired by Buddy Holly's Crickets ) and they adopted the black leather look of Gene Vincent. Musically, they combined Holly's melodic songwriting sensibility with the rough rock and roll sound of Vincent and Carl Perkins. When The Beatles became worldwide stars, they released versions of three different Carl Perkins songs, more than any other songwriter outside the band, except Larry Williams, who also added three songs to their discography. (Curiously, none of these three were sung by the Beatles' regular lead vocalists—"Honey Don't" (sung by Ringo) and "Everybody's Trying to be my Baby" (sung by George) from Beatles for Sale (1964) and "Matchbox" (sung by Ringo) on the Long Tall Sally EP (1964)).
Long after the band broke up, the members continued to show their interest in rockabilly. In 1975, Lennon recorded an album called Rock 'n' Roll, featuring versions of rockabilly hits and a cover photo showing him in full Gene Vincent leather. About the same time, Ringo Starr had a hit with a version of Johnny Burnette's "You're Sixteen". In the 1980s, McCartney recorded a duet with Carl Perkins, and George Harrison collaborated with Roy Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys. In 1999, McCartney released Run Devil Run, his own record of rockabilly covers.
The Beatles were not the only British Invasion artists influenced by rockabilly. The Rolling Stones recorded Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" on an early single and later a rockabilly-style song, "Rip This Joint", on Exile on Main St. The Who, despite being mod favourites, covered Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" and Johnny Kidd and The Pirates' Shakin' All Over on their Live at Leeds album. Even heavy guitar heroes such as Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page were influenced by rockabilly musicians. Beck recorded his own tribute album to Gene Vincent's guitarist Cliff Gallup—Crazy Legs—and Page's band, Led Zeppelin, offered to work as Elvis Presley's backing band in the 1970s. However, Presley never took them up on that offer. Years later, Led Zeppelin's Page and Robert Plant recorded a tribute to the music of the 1950s called The Honeydrippers: Volume One.
Rockabilly revival: 1970–90
The 1968 Elvis "comeback" and acts such as Sha Na Na, Creedence Clearwater Revival, John Roman Jackson, Don McLean, Linda Ronstadt and the Everly Brothers, the film American Graffiti and the television show Happy Days created curiosity about the real music of the 1950s, particularly in England, where a rockabilly revival scene began to develop from the 1970s in record collecting and clubs. The most successful early product of the scene was Dave Edmunds, who joined up with songwriter Nick Lowe to form a band called Rockpile in 1975. They had a string of minor rockabilly-style hits like "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock 'n' Roll)". The group became a popular touring act in the UK and the US, leading to respectable album sales. Edmunds also nurtured and produced many younger artists who shared his love of rockabilly, most notably the Stray Cats.
Robert Gordon emerged from late 1970s CBGB punk act Tuff Darts to reinvent himself as a rockabilly revival solo artist. He recorded first with 1950s guitar legend Link Wray and later with UK studio guitar veteran Chris Spedding and found borderline mainstream success. Also festering at CBGB's punk environs were The Cramps, who combined primitive and wild rockabilly sounds with lyrics inspired by old drive-in horror movies in songs like "Human Fly" and "I Was a Teenage Werewolf". Lead singer Lux Interior's energetic and unpredictable live shows attracted a fervent cult audience. Their "psychobilly" music influenced The Meteors and Reverend Horton Heat. In the early '80s, the Latin genre was born in Colombia by Marco T (Marco Tulio Sanchez), with The Gatos Montañeros. The Polecats, from North London, were originally called The Cult Heroes; they couldn't get any gigs at rockabilly clubs with a name that sounded "punk", so the original drummer Chris Hawkes came up with the name "Polecats". Tim Polecat and Boz Boorer started playing together in 1976, then hooked up with Phil Bloomberg and Chris Hawkes at the end of 1977. The Polecats played rockabilly with a punk sense of anarchy and helped revive the genre for a new generation in the early 1980s.
The Stray Cats were the most commercially successful of the new rockabilly artists. The band formed on Long Island in 1979 when Brian Setzer teamed up with two school chums calling themselves Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom. Attracting little attention in New York, they flew to London in 1980, where they had heard that there was an active rockabilly scene. Early shows were attended by the Rolling Stones and Dave Edmunds, who quickly ushered the boys into a recording studio. The Stray Cats had three UK Top Ten singles to their credit and two best-selling albums. They returned to the USA, performing on the TV show Fridays with a message flashing across the screen that they had no record deal in the States.
Soon EMI picked them up, their first videos appeared on MTV, and they stormed up the charts stateside. Their third LP, Rant 'N' Rave with the Stray Cats, topped charts across the US and Europe as they sold out shows everywhere during 1983. However, personal conflicts led the band to break up at the height of their popularity. Brian Setzer went on to solo success working in both rockabilly and swing styles, while Rocker and Phantom continued to record in bands both together and singly. The group has reconvened several times to make new records or tours and continue to attract large audiences live, although record sales have never again approached their early '80s success.
Shakin' Stevens was a Welsh singer who gained fame in the UK portraying Elvis in a stage play. In 1980, he took a cover of The Blasters' "Marie Marie" into the UK Top 20. His hopped-up versions of songs like "This Ole House" and "Green Door" were giant sellers across Europe. Shakin' Stevens was the biggest selling singles artist of the 1980s in the UK and number two across Europe, outstripping Michael Jackson, Prince, and Bruce Springsteen. Despite his popularity in Europe, he never became popular in the US. In 2005, his greatest hits album topped the charts in England. Other notable British rockabilly bands of the 1980s included The Jets, Crazy Cavan, Matchbox, and the Rockats.
Jason & the Scorchers combined heavy metal, Chuck Berry and Hank Williams to create a punk-influenced style of rockabilly, often labelled as alt-country or cowpunk. They achieved critical acclaim and a following in America but never managed a major hit.
The revival was related to the "roots rock" movement, which continued through the 1980s, led by artists like James Intveld, who later toured as lead guitar for The Blasters, High Noon, the Beat Farmers, The Paladins, Forbidden Pigs, Del-Lords, Long Ryders, The Last Wild Sons, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Los Lobos, The Fleshtones, Del Fuegos, Reverend Horton Heat and Barrence Whitfield and the Savages. These bands, like the Blasters, were inspired by a full range of historic American styles: blues, country, rockabilly, R&B and New Orleans jazz. They held a strong appeal for listeners who were tired of the commercially oriented MTV-style synthpop and glam metal bands that dominated radio play during this time period, but none of these musicians became major stars.
In 1983, Neil Young recorded a rockabilly album titled Everybody's Rockin'. The album was not a commercial success and Young was involved in a widely publicized legal fight with Geffen Records who sued him for making a record that didn't sound "like a Neil Young record". Young made no further albums in the rockabilly style. During the 1980s, a number of country music stars scored hits recording in a rockabilly style. Marty Stuart's "Hillbilly Rock" and Hank Williams, Jr.'s "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight" were the most noteworthy examples of this trend, but they and other artists like Steve Earle and the Kentucky Headhunters charted many records with this approach.
While not true rockabilly, many contemporary indie pop, blues rock, and country rock groups from the US, like Kings of Leon, Black Keys, Blackfoot, and the White Stripes, were heavily influenced by rockabilly.
Morrissey adopted a rockabilly style during the early 1990s, being largely influenced by his guitarists Boz Boorer and Alain Whyte and working with former Fairground Attraction bass-guitarist and songwriter Mark E. Nevin. His rockabilly style was emphasised in the singles "Pregnant for the Last Time" and "Sing Your Life", as well as his second solo album and tour Kill Uncle.
Irish rockabilly artist Imelda May has been partly responsible for a resurgence of European interest in the genre, scoring three successive number one albums in Ireland, with two of those also reaching the top ten in the UK charts.
Drake Bell, a pop rock singer-songwriter and actor, revived rockabilly with his 2014 album, Ready Steady Go!, which was produced by Brian Setzer, frontman of the rockabilly revival band, The Stray Cats. The album peaked at #182 on the Billboard 200 and sold over 2,000 copies in its first week of release. The album received positive reviews from critics.
Neo-rockabilly UK band Restless, played neo-rockabilly from the early 80s. The style was to mix any popular music to a rockabilly set up, drums, slap bass and guitar. This was followed by many other artists at the time in London. Today, bands like Lower The Tone are more aligned to neo-rockabilly that suits popular music venues instead of the dedicated rockabilly clubs that expect only original rockabilly.
Rockabilly Hall of Fame
The original Rockabilly Hall of Fame was established by Bob Timmers on March 21, 1997, to present early rock and roll history and information relative to the original artists and personalities involved in this pioneering American music genre. It is headquartered in Nashville.
In 2000, an International Rock-A-Billy Hall of Fame Museum was established in Jackson, Tennessee.
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