I’ve had this topic in my folder since I started blogging four years ago. On the heels of the Elvis post it seems it’s time. Rockabilly by definition is a hybrid name, or technically a portmanteau so I recently learned. A combination of Rock and Roll and Hillbilly music. Rock and Roll as we know started to really develop in the early 1950’s and prior to that much of Country Music was described as Hillbilly Music. However that name was going out of fashion at the same time as Rock and Roll was rising. So it is somewhat fitting that we have a genre that bridges the gap between the two. Just to set the stage for Rockabilly, which not unlike most of what we call a ‘genre’ is actually considered a subgenre, in this case of Rock, so let’s take a look at the roots of the music. As the name says a big influence came from what was labeled as Hillbilly, so geographically we are talking about music from the Appalachia and the Ozarks as well as parts of the American South. It came to be used to describe the music, often in a derogatory way meaning music from the hills of just about anywhere. Hillbilly Music moved under the term Country & Western, which ‘adopted’ this sound and other associated styles including Bluegrass, Folk, Western, and Folk Blues among others. Having said that, post this musical amalgamation the legendary Country star Hank Williams has been described as The Hillbilly Shakespeare which is unrelated to Rockabilly. For a short time in the late 1940’s Cashbox Magazine among its many music charts had one called the The Nations Big 5 Hillbilly. As for the term Hillbilly, it has not gone away entirely and is closely linked to Old Time Music and Bluegrass.
The Rock part is actually a little less straightforward. I say this because in the early days of what we think of as Rock & Roll it was often described as Hillbilly Music. In truth this was where we can see the Black vs’ White styles divide in musical genre. This comes from a couple things, one is geography, as in where some of the Hillbilly Music originated such as the Appalachian and it was (almost exclusively) performed by Whites. The other is the R&B sounds from Black artists, which I think is self explanatory and known as being a major influence of Rock and Roll. As I have referenced before, promoters as well as Elvis (later dubbed the King of Rock and Roll) referred to himself as a Hillbilly Cat early in his career. We think of Johnny Cash as a Country singer but as a contemporary of Elvis, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis he was singing Rockabilly. This moniker was used as the term Rock & Roll was still in its infancy. So Rockabilly itself is part of the genesis of Rock and Roll. If you need more evidence just listen to some of the first recordings of the Sun Records “Million Dollar Quartet” such as “Baby Let’s Play House” by Elvis, Johnny Cash with “Cry, Cry Cry” and Carl Perkins with his original composition “Blue Suede Shoes”, all from 1955. In 1957, “End of the Road” by Jerry Lee Lewis was an original song on the ‘B’ side of his first 45 release of his cover of Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms”.
The music was also taking a lot from the subgenre of Country Boogie, which was very popular in the mid to late 1940’s. For the Boogie piano influence check out the amazing Meade Lux Lewis or Pete Johnson. As for the Country influence check out the “Feudin’ Banjos'” author Arthur Smith with another original instrumental “Guitar Boogie” from 1945. Hillbilly Boogie had a short lived burst of popularity in the mid to late 40’s. Western Swing with Texas legend Bob Wills at the forefront was a big influence on Rockabilly. His band’s version of “Ida Red” from 1938 was also the inspiration for Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene”. Technically Rockabilly is the standard 12 bar blues chord progression you see in most all Rock & Roll songs. Rockabilly adapted the chords in a more minimalist sort of way. This may make it sound like simple music but if you try and play it you’ll find out that it’s not. So if we take some of the upbeat aspects we associate with traditional Rock & Roll add in some Jump Blues, Be-Bop as well as the aforementioned styles and then strip it down a bit and there you have Rockabilly. Typically it presents itself with hard driving lead acoustic (in the early days) guitar and or piano and strong vocals. Most bands would have a lead ‘archtop’ guitar, double bass, piano and drums.
There are many more names that were an influence on the genre and most of us know about the ones I’ve just mentioned. Here are a few lesser known but key artists. They performed under several different names but the Rock and Roll Trio is how they are best remembered. Dorsey Burnette was born in Memphis in 1932, his younger brother Johnny in 1934 and Paul Burlison was born in Brownsville Tennessee in 1929. Through close proximity and series of events that included Dorsey and Paul working for the same Electric company as then truck driver Elvis Presley, the trio started a group in 1952. This was roughly a year before Elvis first walked through the doors of Sun Studio. Their first recordings however were in 1956. Johnny sang lead and played acoustic guitar, Dorsey was on bass and Paul lead guitar. You didn’t want to mess these guys as they were all well trained boxers. In fact it was a fight that led Dorsey to leave the band in 1956. They may very well have been the first Rockabilly group, but despite a lot of talent they just could not chart a song. Nevertheless they are cited as pioneers and a big influence on the genre.
Vincent Eugene Craddock was born in Norfolk Virginia in 1935 and planned a career in the Navy after dropping out of school in 1952 at the age of seventeen, too young to join, his parents had signed his induction papers. Fortunately for us he would write one of the greatest Rockabilly/Rock and Roll songs of all time, “Be-Bop-a-Lula” in 1956. He then changed his name to Gene Vincent. He would have great success with his band The Blue Caps (navy reference) for about three or four years. His first album title track “Blue Jean Bop” was also a hit. “Be-Bop-a-Lula” was not included on the album but pegged as a hot single as DJ’s were playing the heck out of the promo copies they were sent. Vincent as did many performers had tax disputes over the ridiculously high rates they had to pay in the US and for that matter England as well, he had to sell the bands equipment. He headed for Europe and as a solo act would have a series of ups including being on the same ticket as The Beatles at one time, but there were mostly downs as he had an unfortunate affinity for guns. Thus resulting in several incidents and in 1968 he shot at Gary Glitter several times (so not so accurate) and if you know anything about the now imprisoned Glitter, it’s too bad he missed. Vincent would die at the age of 36 on October 12, 1971. He was the first inductee into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 1997 and then the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. A good friend of Vincent was Eddie Cochran, another talented Rockabilly artist that died in a car accident (with Vincent also in the car) at age 21, but not before giving us “Summertime Blues”, “Twenty Flight Rock“, “C’mon Everybody” and more.
Wanda Jackson was a woman on fire. For every bit that Jerry Lee Lewis was blasting out “Great Balls of Fire”, Wanda was one of the best for Rocking out. She retired at age 81 in 2019. According to an article in Rolling Stone Magazine (Reference 3) she once dated Elvis Presley, we know they recorded together and she covered many of this songs. Her debut singles came out in 1954 and she was the first to record the Country classic “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” in 1956. She straddled genres from the beginning of her career and by 1963-65 would be considered more of a Country Singer. Here is a 1958 clip that shows her stage presence and sense of humour performing a cover of Elvis’s “Hard Headed Woman“. Among her many other memorable songs are the original “Right or Wrong” (1961) covered over 25 times. A great original song “Funnel of Love” from 1961 that was very much overlooked at the time but since 1987 it’s been covered over 20 times. She was a big part of the Rockabilly scene especially with her rendition of some well known songs such as “Party“, again an Elvis cover and written by the very talented Jessie Mae Robinson (“Black Night“, “I Went to Your Wedding”). Often cited as Let’s Have a Party her version was used in the movie Dead Poets Society and her songs appear in other media as well.
A contemporary of Wanda Jackson’s was Janis Martin. “Drugstore Rock and Roll” was written by Martin and released March 8, 1956 when she was just 15 years old. She was also linked to Elvis and his label RCA signed her to a contract. She charted only one song “Will You Willyum” #35 on Billboard in 1956. Another unfortunate casualty of a women trying to make it in the music business, life gets’ in the way and sometimes all the talent in the world is not enough. She never stopped singing, here is a clip from 2006, and it’s some awesome stuff. She died of cancer less than a year later at age 67. There were very few other female artists, but Jo Ann Campbell had some success with songs like “Wait a Minute” (1957) and acted in a few “Rock and Roll” movies in the 1960’s. On some of her tracks in the recording studio was Bo Diddley on guitar and saxophone great King Curtis, his instrument is not associated with Rockabilly making many of these songs more straight up pop Rock and Roll. While I often read that Bill Haley & His Comets in their early days are described as Rockabilly I would argue that their heavy use of the Saxophone, sophisticated production and arrangement make them much more pure Rock and Roll. Haley was a Country and Western Swing artist and his record company invested the resources to make his transition a success. Not to mention, while “Rock Around the Clock” has elements of Rockabilly style for sure, it and his other hit “Shake Rattle and Roll” were cover songs. His first minor hit was a cover of the classic R&B song, “Rocket 88”. Quite frankly he was very talented but not one for originality, which led to a very short time having any success.
Briefly, the legendary Brenda Lee lived in this category and certainly her early recording career reflects this brief brush with Rockabilly in songs like “Rock-a-Bye Baby Blues” and “Dynamite” but by 1959 it was all “Sweet Nothin’s” with a rock presentation once again featuring lead Saxophone. She posted two #1 songs and 47 top 40 hits in the 1960’s, more than any other female recording artist, and the fourth most behind The Beatles, Elvis and Ray Charles. As a child performer she had her first national exposure at age 10 and recorded “Dynamite” at at 12.
This style of music has not been forgotten, there are many sub sub genre that sprang from the neo-rockabilly movement in the UK. We now have Psychobilly and Gothabilly for example. Over the years many of the original artists continued to perform and there have been several notable revivalists such as Shakin’ Stevens, Robert Gordon, Marshall Crenshaw, Imelda May, Lanie Lane, and the oft mentioned in my posts, Dave Edmunds. Edmunds produced, The Stray Cat’s who are a great example of a traditional Rockabilly band, they had great success in the early 1980’s in particular.