It was the transition American popular music, between rhythm ‘n’ blues, country and western, and the melding of the two into the rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s. Its heyday didn’t last a long time — but at its peak, it blasted a generation of young people, not only here but overseas as well, into a delirium of excitement, with its rhythm, superb guitar and bass fiddle playing, some of the greatest lead vocals ever, and a feeling that they had indeed discovered something totally unique in music — something exhilarating, mind-bending, not heard before — but totally joyful and American.
If you didn’t live through the ’50s, you may not even be familiar with the term “Rockabilly.” But as it says on the cover of Jerry Naylor and Steve Halliday’s fascinating book, “The Rockabilly Legends,” “They called it rockabilly before they called it rock ‘n’ roll.”
My guess would be that you’d recognize the names of the “legends” of the genre, though. Try Jerry Lee Lewis (“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”, “Great Balls of Fire”), who could do things with a piano — and his voice — like nobody else; and Buddy Holly (“Peggy Sue,” “That’ll Be the Day”), who wore horn-rimmed glasses on stage when almost no other performer did, but who wrote and sang music that influenced many, many rock and pop stars of the future — including four young Englishmen called The Beatles.
WANT SOME MORE names? Try Carl Perkins (“Blue Suede Shoes”), a master at the guitar with a most distinctive way with a song, both at writing it, and singing it. Then there was Johnny Cash (“Understand Your Man,” “Folsom Prison Blues”), a legend in his own time, “The Man in Black,” with a totally unique voice and commanding stage presence. And Roy Orbison (“Oh, Pretty Woman”, “It’s Over”), whose beautifully unique singing was considered by many the best they’d ever heard.
And, of course, last but by no means least, The King: Elvis Presley. The several shows he appeared in in Texas, in early January 1955, a year before his nationwide, meteoric rise began, so inspired several young men about his own age in that part of the country that they immediately began trying to imitate him, to follow in the path he had tread, into a new sound, a new kind of music …
There were other Rockabilly pioneers, less well known but just as intense about this new, exciting music; guys like Eddie Cochran, and Gene Vincent (“Race With the Devil”; “Bluejean Bop”); Buddy Knox, and Bob Luman; brothers Johnny and Dorsey Burnette. Vincent’s band, Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, was certified many years later as the very first rock ‘n’ roll band ever formed.
So what made Rockabilly unique? Well, it was usually sung solo, rather than by all the members of the band, as was the case in rhythm ‘n’ blues or rock ‘n’ roll. The rhythm guitar was expected to be “fat,” to push the beat energetically. The lead guitar must be very “in your face,” putting out the melody with an unmistakable flair. The stand-up bass player should strum and slap aggressively and rhythmically, adding a “spine” to the whole production. Plus, the “tape-delay echo,” on recordings, which gave the music a slightly other-worldly sound. And occasionally, drums were included in the mix.
ROCKABILLY’S TYPICAL “wham, bam, thank you, ma’am!” feel was rousing and exhilarating to the young people who heard it for the first time. It made them want to get up and dance. And, obviously, it made them want to have sex, too. That pounding beat, the often-sensual tone of the singing … oh, baby! All this and heaven too!
Rockabilly didn’t stay just an American phenomenon, either. Go to YouTube, and you can find some Rockabilly tracks, done by modern Rockabilly bands, who are from GERMANY! One is named The Kentucky Boys; another, Mess of Booze. And then there’s Kaffee Korn und Rockabilly. And Lou Cifer and the Hellions. I’ll wait while you ponder that last one. They’re German, also, formed from members of two other Rockabilly bands who decided to get together in a new group. No, they don’t “Sieg Heil” or wear swastikas. But they do write many Rockabilly songs, with German lyrics. You’ve never heard anything until you’ve heard Rockabilly lyrics, in German.
Some of the other modern Rockabilly bands? Well, there’s “The Devil’s Daughters.” And “The Slapbacks,” who hail from Vienna, Austria, and who sing just like some good ole boys from West Texas. Then there’s “The Blue Cats Trio”; and “The Chiri Chiri Sisters,” from Japan. And of course, “The Baboons,” with their hit song, “Drinkin’ Gasoline.”
There are people who have said that they find Rockabilly “too predictable.” Well, isn’t most music “predictable,” to one degree or another, once you learn its rhythms and patterns? If it floats your boat, if it excites your soul, then what’s wrong with that? And for many, many millions of people, both here in the U.S. and overseas, Rockabilly has floated and excited, with its up-tempo beat, its forceful lead singers, and its extremely skilled guitar breaks, for more than 60 years.
IF YOU WANT to pinpoint the “birth of Rockabilly,” try Jan. 5-7, 1955. A young Mississippian, by way of Memphis, named Elvis Presley had started making rock ‘n’ roll records the year before, then doing personal appearances where his sensual voice and primal gyrating had the girls doing a lot of screaming and squirming themselves.
Just after the start of 1955, Elvis made personal appearances on three consecutive nights in West Texas, two of them at Lubbock and Midland, as part of his “Louisiana Hayride Tour.” At Lubbock, a young man named Charles Hardin Holley who had been tooling around with his own country music band, attended the Presley concert, and was thunderstruck by what he heard and saw. It was his “Paul on the Road to Damascus” moment. He became an instant convert to the new, exciting world of Rockabilly, and overnight changed his whole musical style.
That was on Jan. 5. On the 7th, when Elvis appeared at Midland, a young musician named Roy Orbison underwent a similar conversion from country after hearing Elvis’s singing and watching the crowd’s delirious reaction.
Roy Orbison, in the years to come, became known as having the must unique, beautiful voice in Rockabilly. “Buddy” Holly, who dropped the “e” from his last name for stage purposes, lived only about four years after entering Rockabilly, but he left a musical legacy that influenced the Beatles and many others in the Rockabilly-rock ‘n’ roll-rock years to come.
BUDDY KNOX was a cheerful, smiling young singer from Happy, Texas (fittingly enough), who had formed his own musical group called the Serenaders in 1954. But like Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison, they attended one of Elvis’s Texas concerts at the beginning of the new year, and it changed their lives. Soon, they had become a new Rockabilly group: The Rhythm Orchids, from the color of the shirts they wore on stage. Buddy Knox and his band didn’t gain the popularity or status of some of the Rockabilly artists — but his song “Party Doll” is one that many of us older folks still remember fondly, 60 years later.
What are the things I remember most about early Rockabilly? Well …
Jerry Lee Lewis in his numerous appearances on the “Steve Allen Show,” pounding out the rhythms and melodies on his piano (but doing it skillfully — oh, so skilfully!), kicking the piano bench backwards out from under him, standing up and continuing his assault on the keys, singing at the top of his lungs, his thick, wavy hair flopped down over his forehead (he normally combed it straight back), turning to plunk his butt down on the keys for a couple of seconds, still playing on melody, tickling the ivories with one foot, then the other, then his elbows …
Elvis Presley posing, grinning, on stage for the girls, legs apart, elbows out; then starting a rock song in that unmistakable voice, moving his hips, twisting his legs, giving the girls the sly, wicked grin that said, “Come on, hon, come on; you know you want it …”, that made them scream even louder and wet their pants (“There wasn’t a dry seat in the house.”) …
Buddy Holly, guitar in place, singing in his happy, unmistakable tone, a smile on his face, with his back-up band the Crickets providing their skilled support just behind him. Buddy, wearing his horn-rimmed glasses on stage, which NOBODY did in those days. Nobody except Buddy. “Who, ME leave my glasses off? That’ll be the day! I wanna SEE all those girls!”
ROY ORBISON, a big, slightly nerdy-looking guy, wearing dark glasses (he wasn’t blind; his eyes were sensitive to bright light), standing on stage and strumming his guitar, the only things moving being his hands and his lips. But, oh, that voice! It could float clear up into the stratosphere, as no other star’s pipes could. I remember listening to a song of his I’d never heard before, back in 1964, while I was home on leave from the Army, and a friend and I were riding around in his car, listening to music on the radio and singing along. We didn’t sing along with this one, though; we just listened. When the song was over, I said, “Kenny, that’s going to be a BIG hit!”; and it was. It was “Oh, Pretty Woman.”
All those young men, except Elvis, were from a triangle of states from the South and Southwest: Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas. Several of them got their inspiration, had their “magic moment,” when they heard Elvis sing in West Texas in January 1955. He changed their lives. And they changed America’s musical history.
Most were from that West Texas area, with Jerry Lee Lewis hailing from Louisiana and Johnny Cash from Arkansas. And maybe it was just a historical accident — or maybe it was something else, something higher — but all of them were born between the years 1932 and 1936. Johnny Cash was the oldest, Buddy Holly the youngest.
The Rockabilly era — or at least the part of it that grabbed hundreds of thousands of kids, exciting them, causing them to dance at concerts, squirm like Elvis, pound instruments like Jerry Lee, lust for the sensual intimacy that the beat, the movements, and the lyrics encouraged — did not last long. It started to decline when Jerry Lee took his 13-year-old bride — a second cousin — to England with him on a tour in 1958, and the British press got wind of the “scandalous” situation. The bad publicity played havoc with Jerry Lee’s British tour, and American recording companies and live TV shows began avoiding him like the plague.
THEN IN FEBRUARY 1959, the whole world of American young folks’ music idols was shaken to its foundations when Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens were killed in the crash of a private plane during a tour they were making of the Plains States.
A little over a year later, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochrane were making a personal appearance tour in England. One night the taxi they were riding in crashed, and Cochrane was killed. Vincent later related how he carried the dying Cochrane, his good friend, away from the wrecked taxi.
Elvis, who had moved from Rockabilly to “movie songs” of little substance, then found his sexier, coarser side again starting in 1968, began making personal appearances again, after several years of seclusion. But he put on a ton of weight, wrecked his health with massive drug use, and died of a heart attack, in his bathroom at Graceland, in 1977, just 42 years old.
Roy Orbison developed heart trouble, dying in a hospital in 1988, age only 52. Ten years later, in 1998, Carl Perkins passed away at age 66. The next year, Buddy Knox died of cancer. He was 65.
JOHNNY CASH, who had battled diabetes and other ailments for years, succumbed to them in 2003, the “old man” of the group at 71. His death came just a few months after that of his beloved wife and fellow entertainer, June Carter Cash.
And so, the “Last Man Standing,” the last survivor of Rockabilly’s glory days, is “The Killer” himself, Jerry Lee Lewis. “Last Man Standing” was the title of a highly-regarded album he released when already in his 70s, with 21 other musical stars featured, but also with no doubt who was the “Main Gezeek,” as my dad would have said. Jerry Lee, now living quietly (for him, anyway) in retirement near Memphis in Mississippi, will be 80 years old on Sept. 29. Which is also, by coincidence or divine ordinance, the birthday of the favorite singing cowboy of Jerry Lee’s youth, Gene Autry.
Wonder if Ole Gene liked Rockabilly? My bet is, he did.
Carl Perkins, in his last years, summed up his view of Rockabilly in musings quoted in Naylor and Halliday’s excellent book, named at the start of this column:
“I guess few people grow up between two cotton rows without any reason to believe, as you put your little country ear against a little battery radio, and dream of what the stage of the Grand Ole Opry looks like — and you push, then you pray, and in America, you can. Some day you can sing a song about some shoes, or your best girlfriend, or a prison, and people will cry and dance and cheer. Don’t tell me we don’t live in the greatest country in the world! This is America. This is where dreams can come true and Rockabilly will live forever.”