Rockabilly is considered to be one of the earliest forms of rock music. The genre rose to popularity in the mid-1950s and was introduced by white performers in the American South, its very first practitioners. Rockabilly’s style is often described as a brash and lively mix of blues and country.
The term ‘rockabilly’ is a marriage of the words ‘rock’ (from rock ‘n’ roll) and ‘hillbilly,’ referring to the type of country music that greatly influenced the genre’s development. Record reviewers coined the term ‘rockabilly’ – literally, rock and roll by the hillbillies – to describe this intense and rhythm-driven musical style.
Songs under this genre have moderately fast tempos and are characterized by an assertive and confident single vocal performance. It typically features three to four musicians playing the acoustic rhythm guitar, “slap” bass, and electric lead guitar. Discernible studio echo-effects are sometimes mixed with the recording to enhance it further.
The Birth of Rockabilly
During the late 1940s, blues, rhythm and blues, and gospel music dominated the airwaves. Bill Monroe’s upbeat songs, Heavy Traffic Ahead and Rocky Road Blues, and the Delmore Brothers 1945 hits Hillbilly Boogie and Pan American Boogie, are some examples of numbers that preceded rockabilly.
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Listeners across North America became fans of these genres, and it spurred white, working-class musicians, especially those in areas with African-American populations, to mix black music styles with country music styles. These include the western swing, bluegrass, hillbilly boogie, and honky-tonk. The product was initially dubbed as country-and-western rhythm and blues, which later became known as rockabilly.
The very first real rockabilly recording is believed to be Rock the Joint, released by Bill Haley in 1952. The song was full of the characteristic slap bass and country/blues sound. However, rockabilly’s prime only came in July 1954, when Elvis Presley had his first session for Sun Records, which was owned by Sam Phillips at the time. In Memphis, Tennessee, Presley recorded two songs, That’s All Right, composed by Mississippi bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, and Blue Moon of Kentucky, a medium tempo waltz by Bill Monroe. Both of these records cemented the foundation of rockabilly.
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Unlike most country singers during his time, Presley sang with African-American inflections and with more emotional intensity. His usual accompaniment was an acoustic guitar. Scotty Moore added fills with his electric guitar, and Bill Black played the upright bass. With this, the musical trio established the instrumentation essentials of rockabilly.
Following this standard, rockabilly songs typically featured an enthusiastic vocalist belting out a blues song while strumming away on an acoustic guitar. The bass, played in a slapping style, provided the backing. A drummer is there to support while an electric guitarist filled the gaps with a lively solo. The final sound was amplified by a studio effect called slap-back, also known as “Sun echo,” the proponent of which was Phillips.
The magical trio, together with their drummer D.J. Fontana, toured around the South in 1954 and 1955. It inspired other musicians to make the switch from country to rockabilly, which was becoming increasingly popular at the time. Buddy Holly, who was a young singer/songwriter at the time, and Marty Robbins, were among the many artists who jumped on the bandwagon. During these early years, almost all rockabilly songs recorded were performed by musicians who had seen Presley in his shows.
In 1956, Presley captivated millions of fans with his electric performances on prime-time television. The icon went on to sell millions of records.
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Sun Records became home to rockabilly artists, catering to singers such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Warren Smith, Billy Lee Riley, Sonny Burgess, among many others. One of the label’s most popular stars was Carl Perkins, who performed the genre’s best-known hit, Blue Suede Shoes. Presley released his own version of the song in 1956, but Perkins’s original sounded much more rockabilly.
Artists in Nashville, Tennessee, switched to rockabilly, as well as young female performers such as Wanda Jackson, Brenda Lee, and Janis Martin, who all performed a liberating form of rockabilly. Texas and California also developed strong rockabilly communities. But even if thousands of songs in this genre were recorded, only a few made it to the charts.
The Fall of Rockabilly
Rockabilly continued to evolve, but it didn’t flourish much longer with the emergence of new sounds like the saxophone, piano, and harmony singing. By the end of the 1950s, rockabilly’s status as the hottest music genre began to waver.
In 1977, rockabilly resurfaced due to the conscious effort of other artists to revive the genre and partly because of Presley’s death. The loss of the great artist prompted his fans all over the world to don 50s-style clothing and collect his old records. Veteran rockabillies performed in festivals in the artist’s honor.
Robert Gordon and guitar player Link Wray started a rockabilly movement in 1977. Gordon covered Billy Lee Riley’s Red Hot, and it garnered significant radio play. RCA then released his album Rock Billy Boogie in 1979. That same year, rock band Queen produced Crazy Little Thing Called Love, a rockabilly record that ranked number one for a time on the American charts.
If you’re a true blue rockabilly fan, then the International Rock-A-Billy Hall of Fame and Museum in Jackson, Tennessee is the place to be. It was opened in 2001 by Henry Harrison, a resident of the city and a big fan of the music style. The venue features a variety of attractions, including 14 life-size oil portraits of rockabilly superstars, an extensive collection of historical videos, and memorabilia from several artists.
Some rockabilly artists today include Abby Girl & The Real Deal, Chris Casello & The Sabres, and Royal Crown Revue. These bands continue to fire up the rockabilly scene by holding tours and performances all over the country.
Rockabilly’s peak fame may have been short-lived, but its prime years is undoubtedly one of the most exciting periods in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.