The History of Rockabilly

Aces and Eighths Music Resource

Rockabilly is one of the earliest styles of rock and roll music, and emerged in the early 1950s.  The term rockabilly is a marriage 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’s development. Other important influences on rockabilly include western swing, boogie woogie, and rhythm and blues. Although there are notable exceptions, its origins lie primarily in the southern United States.

The influence and popularity of the style waned in the 1960s, but during the late 1970s and early 1980s, rockabilly enjoyed a major revival of popularity that has endured to the present, often within a rockabilly subculture.

There was a close relationship between the 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 “The Prisoner’s Song”, which also became very 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 than 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’ music found massive popularity. Recordings of Wills’ from the mid 40s to the early 50s 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, theDelmore BrothersTennessee Ernie FordSpeedy WestJimmy 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 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, up-tempo Hillbilly Boogie.

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 WWII the band shifted into higher gear leaning more toward a whimsical honky-tonk feel, with a heavy, manic bottom end created by 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 stage presence. “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 loosen up the traditional motions of stage 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, if not the first, “Rockabilly” group.

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 was something that was going on backstage in the dressing rooms. 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. Within a year these musicians were going into the recording studios around town and recording these sounds. A couple of years later these sounds were given a name: rockabilly. The Saturday Night Jamboree was probably where the first live rockabilly was performed.

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, TN 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 1954.

Younger musicians around Memphis, Tennessee 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. 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,” while working at the Hideaway. Unfortunately for the Burnettes and Burlison, they didn’t record the song until 1957.

In 1953 at the tender 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.’

In an interview, 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.” Although the term was in common use even before the Burnettes wrote “Rock Billy Boogie”, 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”. The first record to contain the word “rockabilly” in a song title was issued in November of 1956, “Rock a Billy Gal”.

In 1951, a western swing bandleader named Bill Haley recorded a version of “Rocket 88” with his group, the Saddlemen. Considered one of the earliest recognized rockabilly recordings, 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 #12 on the American Billboard chart in 1953. On April 12, 1954, Haley with his band (now known as Bill Haley & His Comets) recorded “Rock Around the Clock” for Decca Records of New York City. When first released in May of 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 #2 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. Rock ‘n’ roll, an expansive term coined a couple years earlier by DJ Alan Freed, had now been to the pop mountaintop, a position it would never quite relinquish.

Maine native, and Connecticut resident Bill Flagg began using the term rockbilly 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.

Sun Records was a small independent label run by Sam Phillips in Memphis, Tennessee. 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 ( Blue Moon Boys), 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 Alright, Mama” (a 1946 blues song byArthur “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.” But what really sets this recording apart is Elvis’s vocal, which soars across a wide range and expresses both a youthful humor and a boundless confidence. The overall feeling the song communicates is one of limitless freedom.

Although some state that the sound of “That’s All Right” was entirely new, others are of the opinion that “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.”

When “That’s Alright” was played on Memphis radio, listeners called to ask about the song. Nevertheless, from August 18 1954 through December 8, 1954 “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was consistently charted at a higher position. Nobody was sure what to call this 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. Together, the upbeat numbers can be used as a touchstone for the rockabilly style: “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 the 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. Each of Presley’s Sun singles combined a blues song on one side with a country song on the other, but both sung in the same vein. In the 1955 sessions shortly after Presley’s move from Sun Records to RCA, Presley was backed by a band that included Moore, Black, Fontana, lap steel guitarist Jimmy Day, and pianist Floyd Cramer. In 1956 Elvis acquired vocal backup via the Jordanaires. The 1957 recording of Jailhouse Rock for the film of the same name clearly features piano and saxophone.

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 1955 Carl Perkins and “The Perkins Brothers Band” showed up at the Sun Studios. Phillips recorded Perkins’ original song Movie Magg, which was released early March 1955 on Phillip’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, of Baby, Let’s Play House peaked at #5 on the national Billboard Country Chart. The Sun label lists “Gunter” (Arthur) as the song writer, a song which he recorded it in 1954. However, in 1951 Eddy Arnold recorded a song titled I Want to Play House with You by Cy Coben. Lyrics for the two songs are nearly identical.

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’ 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 the those weeks at the #1 spot. “Mystery Train”, with writing credits for both Herman ‘Little Junior’ Parker and Sam Phillips, peaked at #11.

Through most of 1955, Cash, Perkins, Presley, and other Louisiana Hayride performers toured through Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Sun released two more Perkins songs in October: “Gone, Gone, Gone” and “Let the Jukebox Keep on Playing”.   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 #1 for 8 weeks, but was the #2 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 also top the Billboard Charts as well.

Slapback, slapback echo, flutter echo, tape delay echo, echo, and reverb are some of the terms used to describe one particular aspect of rockabilly recordings.

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 an ingenious and entirely original system of “slap-back” tape echo which involved feeding the original signal from one tape machine through a second machine with an slight delay. 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.” The recordings were thus an idealized representation of the customary live sound . When Elvis Presley left Phillips’ Sun Records and recorded Heartbreak Hotel for RCA, the RCA producers placed microphones at the end of a hallway to achieve a similar effect.

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, andHeartbreak 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. Perkins’ “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. He would first perform the song on television November 11 on Ozark Jubilee, a weekly ABC-TV program. The live national radio and TV show, which had debuted in January 1955, featured Brenda LeeWanda Jackson and other rockabilly artists and would be televised through September 1960. On February 11 Presley appeared on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show for the third time singing both “Heartbreak Hotel” and Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes”. Elvis would perform “Blue Suede Shoes” two more times on national television, and “Heartbreak Hotel” three times throughout 1956. Heartbreak Hotel and Don’t Be Cruel both topped the Billboard Charts. .

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 Jewel 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.

In April and May, 1956, The Rock and Roll Trio brought down the house with three electrifying rockabilly performances on the Ted Mack’s TV talent show in New York City, winning all three times and guaranteeing them a finalist position in the September supershow.

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 it featured the song “Crazy Arms” which had been a #1 hit for Ray Price for 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.

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 RileySonny BurgessCharlie Feathers, and Warren Smith. There were also several female performers like Wanda JacksonJanis MartinJo Ann Campbell, and Alys 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’ 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, when artists like Becky HobbsRosie Flores, and Kim Lenz would join the Rockabilly Revival.

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 {along with Richie 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.

Influence on the Beatles and the British Invasion

The first wave of rockabilly fans in Britain were called Teddy Boys because they wore long, Edwardian-style frock coats, along with tight black drainpipe trousers and brothel creeper shoes. By the early 1960s, they had metamorphosed into the rockers, and 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 pop sensibility with the rough and rocking sounds 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.

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 played 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. The Who, despite being mod favorites, covered Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” 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.

By 1968, the British Invasion had largely chased the older American rock artists off the charts. Most of the 1950s rockabilly performers who were still alive, such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, had taken refuge in country music. And Elvis Presley was mired in an endless series of lousy movies, seemingly a has-been in his 30s.
In December 1968, Elvis appeared on an NBC-TV special. Clad in black leather, he sang his heart out, proving not only that he could rock, but that he had far more emotional depth to share than he had 10 years earlier. The so-called “comeback special” created tremendous excitement among the record-buying public, and Elvis’s newer, harder-hitting songs soon began enjoying major chart success. Songs like “Suspicious Minds,” “Promised Land,” and “Burning Love” were all cut from Presley’s classic mold and they enjoyed huge international sales. The King returned to live performances, setting attendance records across the USA.

In the wake of Elvis’s return, a renewed interest developed in 1950s music. A young band from San Francisco, Creedence Clearwater Revival, became one of the best-selling rock groups of the era playing old rockabilly songs and new songs written in the same style. Don McLean had a giant hit with “American Pie,” a song about the death of Buddy Holly. Then, in 1973, George Lucas released his film American Graffiti. This movie, and its chart-topping oldies soundtrack, launched a major 1970s industry of ’50s nostalgia. Soon TV had its own version of Graffiti in Happy Days. Artists like Sha Na Na gained fame playing 1950s rock as a cartoon joke and many original artists began playing “oldies” shows. Linda Ronstadt enjoyed a major string of hit singles with soft-rock covers of songs by Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and the Everly Brothers. Although none of these captured the fire and excitement of 1950s rockabilly, they did create curiosity about the real music of that era.

Elvis’s death in 1977 inspired an unprecedented outpouring of news coverage, radio tributes, books, and documentaries. Presley’s records were all over the radio for months, and efforts to document the early history of rock ’n’ roll began to reach a mass audience. Although there was an unfortunate explosion in the number of cheesy Elvis impersonator stage acts, over time all of the hoopla drew attention to the original music, too.

Two films released in the late 1970s really did capture the excitement of the music, even though they confused several facts. The Buddy Holly Story was a bio-pic starring the magnetic Gary Busey, who seemed possessed by Holly’s spirit, even though nearly all of Holly’s friends and relatives denounced the screenplay’s cavalier way with the truth.American Hot Wax, a film bio of DJ Alan Freed, was even more creative with the details of history, but concluded with a barn-burning concert sequence featuring Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry, proving they still had all the moxie and charisma that made them rock gods in the ’50s. This was exciting, but was just the prelude to even bigger things.

Rockabilly Revival

In the early 1970s, some young listeners began perceiving the chart-dominating “light rock” and disco to be excessively commercialized, and there was a sense among some listeners that the “art rock” and progressive rock bands had become pretentious and bloated. These listeners wanted to return to the simple, loud, fast, emotionally-direct music of early rock and roll. Some musicians stripped their sound down to three chords, loud guitars, and shouted lyrics, creating early punk rock. Other musicians turned back to the original rock and roll music of the 1950s for inspiration, and in the late 1970s, an underground rockabilly revival began to emerge. By the early 1980s, a few bands such as the Stray Cats had mainstream chart success.

In England, in the early 1970s, there was a Teddy boy & rocker scene. Teddy Boys listened to bands such as Crazy Cavan, “Rockers” listened to “1950’s rock’n roll”. In the early 1970s Levi Dexter was a Teddy boy in London England. He was on the Teddy Boy circuit for years & learning to sing while jamming with Teddy boy bands at clubs like the Black Raven. Levi Dexter was soon discovered in England by David Bowie’s former manager Lee Childers while singing a song with Shakin’ Stevens. Within months Levi Dexter & the Rockats were formed. They played on live tv shows such as The Merv Griffin Show & Wolfman Jack‘s. Levi Dexter has been called “The James Brown of Rockabilly”. Levi Dexter brought energy to rockabilly & the early LA punk scene no one had ever seen before. Best describe as desperate,sweaty & urgent “Neo” rockabilly! after appearing on the tv shows in 1977 they appeared on the Louisiana Hayride & toured America. They recorded Note From the South, Room To Rock & many other great songs played on KROQ-FM radio in Los Angeles. Levi went on to record more records & still recording to this day.

Rock and roll singer Robert Gordon, who was formerly the vocalist for New York punk band the Tuff Darts, went solo and began performing old rockabilly songs in 1977. Unlike Sha Na Na or the Elvis impersonators, Gordon was not presenting the music as a joke, but trying to recapture the wild energy and excitement of the 1950s performers. He teamed with guitarist Link Wray and recorded an album that year, spawning a minor hit single with a cover of Billy Lee Riley’s “Red Hot.” Gordon also covered the 1958 Gene Summers recording of “Nervous” on his “Bad Boy” album issued in 1979 on RCA Records. He also toured with guitarist Danny Gatton; one of their gigs was released as The Humbler, a searing re-creation of rockabilly hits and obscurities.

Four more albums followed by 1981 (first on independent Private Stock, then on major label RCA), with another minor pop hit and two low-level country chart hits. Gordon toured around the country and his dedication and energy inspired many listeners and musicians to begin to explore rockabilly music.

The Diversions were a Washington D.C. band in the early 1980s influenced by early Rock and Roll and Rockabilly and had regional success as did Tex Rubinowitz and the Bad Boys who were also from Washington, D.C.. The scene in Washington had many Rockabilly Bands during the early 1980s. Danny Gatton had much success playing Rockabilly and Rock and Roll. Johnny Seaton from DC was an Elvis impersonator and later a Rockabilly. Link Wray had spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C. and Robert Gordon had come from DC before moving to NYC. By the late 80’s the rockabilly scene in Washington had faded into obscurity.

Dave Edmunds 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 Britain 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.

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 number two best selling singles artist of the 1980s in 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.

The Cramps rose out of the punk scene at the New York club CBGB, combining 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 “psycho-billy” music influenced The Meteors and Reverend Horton Heat.

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. The trio fully adopted the Gene Vincent look, complete with flashy pompadour haircuts, leather jackets, and tattoos aplenty. 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.

In short order, 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 USA 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 Eighties success.

The Blasters were centered around brothers Phil (who sang and played harmonica and guitar) and Dave Alvin (who played lead guitar and wrote songs). The brothers and their musical friends had grown up in a country town called Downey, outside Los Angeles, and had spent their teens playing with such legendary R&B musicians as Big Joe Turner, Willie Dixon, Jimmy Reed’s former bandleader Marcus Johnson, and Lee Allen, the sax player on the hits of Fats Domino and Little Richard. Having learned American roots music from the masters, the band began playing around LA in the late 1970s, attracting a following for their combination of classic styles, punk energy, and Dave Alvin’s powerful songs. Several albums on the Warner Brothers-distributed label Slash and appearances in movies failed to land a chart hit, although sales were respectable and the band captured a strong cult following among fans and critics, even inspiring fan John Cougar Mellencamp to write and produce a single for the band. In the late 1980s, Dave Alvin left the band to begin a successful solo career and Phil went back to UCLA to get his doctorate in Mathematics. Today Phil tours with a new Blasters lineup and the original members occasionally gather for performances.

Jason & The Scorchers combined heavy metal, Chuck Berry, and Hank Williams into a punk-powered blender, creating a truly modern style of rockabilly. Although many would slap them with another label, such as alt-country or cow-punk, Jason and the Scorchers did what Elvis and the others had done in the 1950s: they combined the rocking-est current urban sounds with the most backwoods country to create a new sound that had more edge than either of its sources. Although they were critics’ darlings and drew a rabid fan base from coast to coast, the Scorchers never managed to have the big hit record their label demanded. Today their works are nearly all out of print, although they periodically reappear for new tours.

Many other bands were associated with the rockabilly bandwagon in the early 1980s, including the RockatsDanny Dean and the HomewreckersThe Shakin’ PyramidsThe PolecatsZanteesThe Kingbees,Leroi BrothersThe Nervous FellasLone Justice, and Chris Isaak.

Closely related was the “Roots Rock” movement which continued through the 1980s, led by artists like James Intveld, who later toured as lead guitar for The Blasters, the Beat FarmersDel-LordsLong Ryders,The Fabulous ThunderbirdsLos LobosThe FleshtonesDel Fuegos, 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 technopop and glam metal bands that dominated radio play during this time period, but none of these musicians became major stars.

Also related, but much more successful, were the artists who rose to fame in the wake of Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen first achieved pop chart success with “Born to Run” in 1975 and had always been strongly influenced by earlier styles, notably rockabilly, Sixties girl groups and garage bands, and soul music. (In fact, Springsteen originally wrote his song “Fire”” for Robert Gordon, although the Pointer Sisters version sold more copies than Gordon’s.) Although he was a hugely popular performer throughout the 1970s, his 1984 LP Born in the USA brought him overwhelming success. Not only did the supporting tour set attendance records, but Springsteen’s songs became ubiquitous on radio and MTV. The album spawned a slew of hit singles and several other veteran performers with similar roots-oriented sounds and socially-conscious lyrics enjoyed renewed popularity during the mid 1980s: Bob SegerJohn Cougar MellencampJohn Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s former leader John Fogerty, who scored a chart-topping triumph with his solo album Centerfield in 1985.

In 1983, country rock singer 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.  Finally, 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. Although these styles of music were overshadowed after 1990 by the rise of grunge and rap, they left behind a sizable cult audience that continued to support rockabilly and roots-influenced performers through the 1990s and into the present.

Rockabilly has joined the ranks of established musical subcultures in the United States. As with other established music genres such as jazz, blues, bluegrass, and punk rock, a small core of rockabilly musicians are able to earn a steady but limited income, primarily by touring and playing at festivals specialist venues and recording for independent record labels. Like the other subcultures, the rockabilly “scene” supports musicians and their performances using fanzines, websites, and chat pages.

Although no other rockabilly performers have risen to the level of mass popularity enjoyed by the Stray Cats in the 1980s, the scene has grown in the 2000s. There has been a significant overlap with, and interaction between, the rockabilly scene and swing revival. Brian Setzer (of the Stray Cats and The Brian Setzer Orchestra) helped to join these two subcultures, in that he was both a rockabilly band leader and a swing band leader. Other artists, such as Tom Catmul and The ClericsTrick Pony, Danny Dean and the Homewreckers, (a country music trio influenced by both rockabilly and honky-tonk styles), The Reverend Horton HeatRattled Roosters, and Royal Crown Revue were also popular among both camps. Additionally, the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, a multi-genre rock band who found their biggest success in the swing revival scene, had recorded a number of rockabilly and country tunes on their studio albums.

There are active rockabilly scenes in many major US cities, particularly on the west coast; as well as major festivals such as Viva Las Vegas and Hootenanny and the Heavy Rebel Weekend festival on the east coast. Rockabilly fans have made common cause with hot rod vintage car enthusiasts, and many festivals feature both music and vintage cars with a 1950s flavor. With the growth of satellite and internet radio, there are regular broadcast outlets for rockabilly music. The not-for-profit Rockabilly Hall of Fame was created March 21,1997 to remember the early rockabilly music and to promote those who want to continue rockabilly music popularity and accessibility into the future.

In Europe, rockabilly remains a vibrant and active subculture, with strong interest not only in current revivalist musicians, but also in performances and recordings by surviving artists from the 1950s. Along with the revival of 1950s-style rockabilly music, several rockabilly disc jockeys have arisen around the world. A significant reason for the continuing phenomenon of new generations discovering and embracing rockabilly is their dissatisfaction with mainstream culture, music, and stylistic icons. Rockabilly often becomes a way of life or lifestyle to those involved, who consider the larger group to be a brotherhood. The rockabilly lifestyle is not confined to just the music but also the home furnishings, cars, and even small things like the cigarettes smoked. The rockabilly culture is an antithesis to current trends as it embraces its roots in “old school” societal fringes (50’s movies “The Wild One”, James Dean’s “Rebel Without A Cause”, etc.) concentrated in countries like USA, Australia, New Zealand, UK, and also in the rest of Europe. “Good Rockin’ Tonight”

Rockabilly Hall of Fame, was established on March 21, 1997 to present early rock and roll history and information relative to the artists and personalities involved in this pioneering American music genre. It Headquartered in a former recording studio in Burns, Tennessee, about 30 miles west of Nashville. In 2000, the “International Rock-A-Billy Hall of Fame Museum” was established in Jackson, TN.

1 Response
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    November 22, 2022

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