The Hottest Thing in the Country
The main reason I wanted to write a book about rockabilly is that I’ve loved it for many years, and in all that time, as different musical genres came and went, it seemed as if it never really received the respect it deserved. The history of rock music in general has been shaped by journalists from the sixties generation. Modern rock writing began with mid-to-late sixties magazines, staffed by people in their early twenties who grew up on the Beatles and the Stones, for whom the fifties were already ancient history – something that happened before they were old enough to care much about music. Hence, the work of the fifties rockers – even though barely a decade old at the time – was often depicted in those magazines as a quaint survival from another era, to be mocked and humoured like ear trumpets, horseless carriages and Granny’s Victorian furniture. Nineteen sixty-two and the first Beatles recordings were seen as Year Zero, the invention of everything modern, and all that came before it some unmentionable embarrassment. As the years have passed, that generation of writers has continually shifted the goalposts, so that even though those same Beatles records are now approaching their half-century anniversary, as far as much rock writing is concerned, the Fab Four are still ‘modern’, and the fifties still back in the Dark Ages. Rockabilly, and much original rock’n’roll, has often been sidelined and ignored over the years because of this attitude.
Music books that have mentioned rockabilly in passing often seemed to think that running through the achievements of five or six of the best-known artists from Sam Phillips’ Sun label was sufficient to cover the entire genre, as if these were the sole figures of note, and Sam’s groundbreaking label had been the only game in town. This is about as useful as assuming that the whole complexity of the 1920s blues scene can be adequately dealt with by buying a Bessie Smith greatest-hits package. There were hundreds of labels, many thousands of performers who made it onto wax, and tens of thousands of recordings. The scale of activity was immense, yet rockabilly as a genre has still received remarkably little of the attention that it deserves. One book couldn’t possibly mention every artist, still less every record, but the aim here is to give a picture of how the music developed, where and how it was made, and in what situations it was heard – the clubs, the radio and TV shows, and the films. This is the story of the music itself, rather than any individual performer, although Elvis rightly casts a giant shadow over its glory years.
So what exactly is rockabilly music? Essentially a mutant blend of uptempo country and hillbilly sounds combined with the backbeat of jump R&B, it erupted in numerous dance halls, bars and cheap studios across America in the wake of the massively influential handful of singles which Elvis cut for the Sun label in 1954 and ’55. Rockabilly on its own ground is as pure, direct and unmistakable as the guitar blues of Robert Johnson or the rebel sounds of early Jamaican ska, perfect in its simplicity, but open to thousands of variations.
The story of rockabilly is largely one of individual recordings rather than stars. Most of the great performances were laid down by unknowns whose careers were over almost before the ink dried on their record contracts: one killer record, then a lifetime of low-paying straight jobs. Yet the first pure rockabilly record ever made launched its teenage singer on the biggest and most successful career trajectory the music world has ever known. When Elvis walked into Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in May 1954 to record his debut single – ‘That’s All Right’/‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’ – he laid down the blueprint for the worldwide rock explosion of the 1950s, but also defined pure rockabilly for all time.
The term ‘rock’n’roll’ proved wide enough in the fifties to encompass everything from the R&B-flavoured, sax-and-piano-led sounds of Little Richard to the pure street-corner harmony vocalising of Dion & the Belmonts. Chuck Berry is for many the epitome of rock’n’roll, yet his records were reviewed favourably in Britain at the time by the rock-hating magazine Jazz Journal as an example of pure urban blues. Rockabilly, however, is a more elemental strain: less inclusive than rock’n’roll, but easier to define. Take the two sides of Elvis’s 1954 debut single. Both were cover versions of songs from the mid-1940s. ‘That’s All Right’ was a gutsy uptempo jump blues written and recorded by Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup. ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ had been the biggest hit recorded by Bill Monroe, the man who mapped out and defined his own genre of music: bluegrass. In the hands of a simple three-man band – Elvis, Scotty & Bill – these two songs, one black, one white, became 100 per cent rockabilly.
Although many of the original performers simply called their music rock’n’roll, and generally tell interviewers these days that they never, ever called it rockabilly back in the 1950s, the word ‘rockabilly’ surfaced in various song titles and band names of the time, yet no one could quite agree on the spelling. There were songs called ‘Rock-a-billy Rhythm’, ‘Rock-a-billie Music’, ‘Rock Billy Boogie’, ‘Rockabilly Gal’, and even – praise the Lord and let’s have another bottle of whatever they were drinking – ‘Rockabilly Bungalow’. The word seems to have been a particular favourite of the music industry, and was certainly in regular use from 1956 in the pages of the main trade paper, Billboard. In January 1957, reviewing the musical trends of the previous year, in the wake of the colossal success of Presley, Carl Perkins and others – all of whom were seen as basically country & western artists – the newspaper attempted to define for its readers how the word had come about: ‘... this resurgence of country talent in the pop play area was part of the whole so-called “rock and roll” surge in all fields and gave rise to the term “rockabilly”, applicable to country artists who performed blues tunes and other material backed by the Big Beat.’ In short, hillbilly music with 5,000 volts shot through it.
While the influence of the blues on rockabilly is clear, there was also a strong strain of traditional hill-country songs blended into the mix, going back to the pioneering 1920s sounds of people like the Carter Family, whose high lonesome sounds and simple instrumentation had evolved in turn from the folk ballads which came over with the first settlers many decades earlier.
The story of rockabilly is much like that of the blues in the 1920s and ’30s – a tale of impoverished, unsung musicians making groundbreaking recordings which are only given proper recognition decades later. This was not music that was dreamed up by the major record companies or Tin Pan Alley songsmiths and aimed at the mass market. Rather, the majority of rockabilly recordings stand up as an accurate sample of what was heard at dance halls, roadhouses and high-school hops across the South: stripped down, pure, untainted by studio trickery or the kind of sugary, intrusive arrangements that the major labels were liable to inflict on their more successful artists. Most important of all, you could sing your own songs: in an age where the record company was king, and most singers were saddled with whichever tune the bosses thought would sell, the average rockabilly could mostly write about whatever he wanted: rockets to the moon, Asiatic flu, baboons doing the boogie, stuttering, you name it…
Jerry Lee Lewis
Charlie Feathers always said, when asked to explain why his music sounded the way it did, that it was just a feeling that gets a hold of you – it sounds that way because that’s exactly the way it has to sound: deceptively simple, but devilishly hard to do right. Like punk, or ska, or sixties garage, if you try to make it too fancy, you destroy the very essence of the music. Those that succeeded in capturing the authentic rockabilly sound hit on something elemental – as Jerry Lee Lewis once famously shouted at Sam Phillips during an argument in the Sun Studio that was being captured on tape, ‘That’s right! You’re right! You’re so right you don’t even know what you’re saying!’
Youthful enthusiasm, urgent rhythms and stripped-down arrangements driven along by a slapping upright double bass; these were songs sung mostly by teenagers which dealt with all the essentials of the hepcat lifestyle: girls, cars, booze, dancing. Just like the punk explosion twenty years later, fifties rockabilly was a spontaneous outburst of spirited three-chord songs, in which the major companies had a stake, but there was still plenty of room for tiny record labels, primitive studios, fiercely partisan audiences and wild-eyed, driven performers who weren’t planning much farther ahead than the following week. They were chasing something you couldn’t ever quite catch up with, nail down or explain to your parents.
Lightning in a bottle, a tiger by the tail, a rocket in your pocket…