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.
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.
Influences on the British Invasion and the Beatles
Teddy Boys, the first rockabilly enthusiasts in the UK, were known for their long, Edwardian-style frock coats, tight, black drainpipe pants, and brothel creeper shoes. The Ton-Up guys, who rode British motorcycles and became known as rockers in the early 1960s, were another group of rockabilly followers in the 1950s. The rockers’ severely slicked pompadour haircuts were complemented by their trademark greaser style, which included T-shirts, trousers, and leather jackets. Rockers such as Gene Vincent were among their favorite 1950s rock and roll musicians, and some British rockabilly enthusiasts started bands to play their own versions of the music.
The Beatles were the most famous of these groups. Paul McCartney’s command of both the chords and the lyrics to Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” wowed John Lennon when they first met. The band adopted the “Beatle” moniker and Gene Vincent’s signature black leather outfit when they got more established and started performing in Hamburg. They blended Holly’s melodic songwriting sensibility with Vincent and Carl Perkins’ rough rock and roll sound to create their own unique musical style. More than any other writer outside the band—aside from Larry Williams, who also contributed three songs to their discography—The Beatles issued three separate Carl Perkins compositions when they rose to international fame.
The members of the band kept an interest in rockabilly going for a very long time after they split up. Lennon released an album called Rock ‘n’ Roll in 1975, which included cover versions of rockabilly tunes with a picture of him wearing full Gene Vincent leather on the cover. At around the same period, Ringo Starr’s cover of Johnny Burnette’s “You’re Sixteen” became popular. In the 1980s, McCartney and Carl Perkins recorded a duet, and George Harrison and Roy Orbison formed the Traveling Wilburys. McCartney released his own album of rockabilly covers, Run Devil Run, in 1999.
Even heavy guitar legends like Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page were influenced by rockabilly guitarists, making the Beatles not the only British Invasion artists to draw inspiration from the genre. Crazy Legs is Beck’s personal tribute album to Cliff Gallup, the guitarist for Gene Vincent, and in the 1970s, Led Zeppelin promised to support Elvis Presley. Presley, however, never accepted their invitation. Years later, Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin released The Honeydrippers: Volume One as an homage to the music of the 1950s.
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.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
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.
Source: Wikimedia Commons |
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.
Characteristics of Rockabilly Music
From a performance and recording perspective, rockabilly music has several distinctive characteristics, such as:
1. The band
A typical rockabilly band had three to four musicians, including a vocalist, an upright bass player, and two guitars—one electric and one acoustic—for lead and rhythm roles. However, a lot of guitarists, like Carl Perkins, were also singers. The bass could be used for both rhythm and percussion, therefore drumming was frequently only a secondary consideration.
2. Echo, delay, and reverb
Early rockabilly recordings included reverb, tape delay, and echo. Room acoustics, such as the domed ceiling of Decca Records’ studio in New York, may have contributed to the echo. Engineers can also produce it by switching the signal between two recording devices to produce a brief or “slap-back” echo.
3. Upbeat blues chord progression
A rockabilly song had an upbeat, frantic interpretation of a blues chord progression. The powerful twang of country boogie was adopted by lead guitars, while upright bass was frequently played using a slapping technique rather than plucked notes. The sound had the raw intensity of a live performance because of the slap-back echo.
4. Deep, heated vocals
Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent were two rockabilly singers who loved the distorted, overly deep tones of R&B and blues performers. Some added vocal tics and antics, ranging from hiccups to croons, like the quirky Charlie Feathers. Numerous female vocalists, such as Brenda Lee and Wanda Jackson, competed successfully with their male counterparts.
Four Notable Rockabilly Artists
Some rockabilly musicians faded into obscurity, while others entered the history of popular American music.
1. Elvis Presley
Although rockabilly only made up a minor fraction of Elvis Presley’s recording career, without his rockabilly sides for Sun Records, the genre—and rock ‘n’ roll itself—might not have been. Elvis sang songs like “That’s All Right,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” and the Bill Monroe bluegrass standard “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” demonstrating the shared roots of both black and white music.
2. Carl Perkins
Carl Perkins, a singer, and guitarist from Tennessee is known as “The King of Rockabilly”. He contributed mostly as a songwriter to the rockabilly genre despite recording rockabilly songs. One of them was “Blue Suede Shoes,” which Elvis Presley popularized in 1956.
3. Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash created one of the iconic rockabillies sounds with his band the Tennessee Three: a chugging “boom-chicka-boom” mix of slapping bass, drums, and guitar. Like Elvis, Cash’s recorded career only included a little amount of rockabilly, but from it came such songs as “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”
4. Jerry Lew Lewis
Jerry Lee Lewis stood out from most rockabilly performances thanks to his “pumping piano” and delivery, which frequently changed from lewd to ecstatic inside a single song. Lewis released several rockabilly singles, such as “Great Balls of Fire,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and “Breathless,” before switching to country music.
Famous Rockabilly Songs
- “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins
- “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis
- “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley
- “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard
- “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” by Jerry Lee Lewis
- “Be-Bop-A-Lula” by Gene Vincent
- “Good Rockin’ Tonight” by Roy Brown
- “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets
- “Baby Let’s Play House” by Elvis Presley
- “Raunchy” by Bill Justis.
These songs become iconic representations of the genre of rockabilly and contributed to its development.