Rockabilly: Was this the purest style in rock?

A DEFT, HARD-DRIVING BLEND of country, gospel and blues, rockabilly was performed mainly by white artists who traded legitimate country backgrounds for a short-lived but frenzied involvement in music with a strong beat. Young, naturally exuberant musicians were the prime exponents, but traditional country singers were not without guile and, for a brief period around 1954-57, they too sang with a flash and glamour to match their rhinestoned clothes.

The word rockabilly was first coined by American trade papers who required a catchall term to cover a new development which had a variety of names including ‘western and bop’, ‘cat music’ or ‘country rock’n’roll’. A contagious beat, accented by slapping the strings of an upright bass; the chopped rhythms of an acoustic guitar, and blues-derived electric lead-guitar breaks – these are the hallmarks of the first and finest rockabilly, although the presence of a vocal chorus, as well as drums, a piano, steel guitar or skittering fiddle need not erode this loose definition.

Ignoring the conventions

The human voice was the most important instrument of all. Rockabilly and ‘pop’ singing were incompatible; the best vocalists possessed little more than a rural accent and the ability to lose themselves in the emotion of the moment. They sang as they felt, ignoring the conventions which made popular crooning smooth and inoffensive. Similarly, although Carl Perkins’ voice is riddled with flaws and imperfections, he is probably the finest rockabilly singer ever.

Rockabilly lyrics were derived from traditional blues couplets with a heavy sprinkling of exhortations to ‘Bop’, ‘Git It’ or ‘Go, Cat, Go’. They were often aggressive ("Dan jerked out his razor but he wasn’t shavin’’ – Carl Perkins’ ‘Dixie Fried’); narcissistic ("Don’t mess with my ducktails" – Rudy Grayzell) or derisive towards women: for every paean to redhot, hoppin’ high-school babes, another puts them down ("She’s gotta hole in her head, if she wasn’t good lookin’ she’d be better off dead" – ‘Fleabrain’ by Bob Center).

A spectrum of styles

Given such essentially simple and limited ingredients, the trick with rockabilly was to make each song not sound like every other rockabilly song. Since Memphis was the focal point and Elvis defined the style, mere mimicry was hard to avoid, but a number of singers managed to accomplish recognizably individual styles. Carl Perkins sang of Southern life with an irony which rivaled Chuck Berry’s. Dale Hawkins, an acne’d farmboy from Goldmine, Louisiana, forged a new departure from rockabilly’s skipping rhythms with ‘Suzie-Q’ and ‘La-Do-Da-Da’ (both Top Forty hits). His whiplash vocals and heavy, cracking accompaniment (James Burton played guitar on ‘Suzie-Q’) evoked steamy Louisiana nights; you could practically hear the dogs baying and the cotton growing. Long before he was imprisoned in black leather, Gene Vincent cut some of rockabilly’s quintessential records in a tortured, breathy, highly animated style. At the other end of the spectrum, Buddy Knox, Sanford Clark and Ricky Nelson made atmospheric discs with cool, sensual vocals and unbeatable instrumental expertise.

From 1956 to 1959, the American trade journal Billboard called almost every white rock’n’roller a rockabilly. On this exceptionally broad definition, rockabilly’s contribution to pop music is simply incalculable. Eddie Cochran, the Everly Brothers, the Big Bopper, Brenda Lee, Johnny Cash, George Hamilton IV, Jerry Lee Lewis and Conway Twitty (to name but a few Top Twenty entrants) had all made rockabilly records at some stage in their careers. It is now clear, however, that their biggest hits are more readily identified with well developed, less primitive sounds: doomy ballads, crossover country, contrived novelties and fully-fledged rock’n’roll. However it’s classified, their music bears little relation to rockabilly in its earliest and purest manifestation.

Moreover, rockabilly’s few star performers (bogus or genuine) were merely the tip of the iceberg. The rockabilly of Pat Cupp, the early Burnette Brothers, Andy Star, Charlie Feathers, Mac Curtis and Sonny Fisher made absolutely no impression on the pop charts. Feathers, a silver-haired system from Hollow Springs, Mississippi, had a unique vocal style full of high-pitched whines, glottal mumbling and exaggerated hiccups. Johnny and Dorsey Burnette enveloped rockabilly is a febrile connoction of snarls, yelps and distinctive, over-amplified guitar licks. Sonny Fisher, a cadaverous Houston floor-layer, helped produce the music’s most primitive sounds with the nastiest, note-bending guitar you’ll ever encounter.

A fleeting magic

Many artists captured an awesome but fleeting magic on no more than one or two singles which are now confined to auction lists with astronomical prices. Originally a true and honest folk music, rockabilly was too raw, too localized and too unsophisticated to be considered worthy of mass promotion. Moreover, label owners hadn’t the resources to push more than a handful of releases within the music’s conspicuously brief life-span (Carl Perkins put out only two singles a year) and, since very few really knew what they were dealing with, their idea of good rockabilly was inevitably haphazard. With the hindsight and redefinitions of history, hundreds of obscure records sound as good, if not better, than those which had commercial success.

By 1960, commercial enterprise had replaced the frantic energy, jumping rhythms and slurred Southern vocals with obvious chord changes, polished production and novelty sounds. Rockabillies remained anonymous or changed their music to meet the tastes of an expanding teenage market. Compare Johnny Burnette’s ‘Honey Hush’ with his ‘Dreamin’; Roy Orbison’s ‘Ooby Dooby’ with ‘Only The Lonely’; Bob Luman’s ‘Red Hot’ with Let’s Think About Living’ or – more obvious still – Elvis’ ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’ with ‘It’s Now Or Never.’

New-wave rockabilly

While genuine rockabilly disappeared from the charts (where its overt impact was always negligible) it helped to lay the foundations for 25 years of rock’n’roll. Its influence lingered on in the music of the Beatles (who copied Carl Perkins’ guitar solos and recorded five of his songs), Creedence Clearwater Revival (who reaffirmed the enduring appeal of the blues-orientated, rhythm-centered Sun sound) and such country-rock superstars as Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Johnny Cash and Charlie Rich, all of whom made rockabilly records in their youth. The British charts of the early Eighties played host to the new-wave rockabilly of Matchbox and the Polecats

European enthusiasm has brought a fresh lease of life to many of the original stalwarts, and performers like Johnny Carroll, Groovy Joe Poovey, Sonny Fisher, Gene Summers and Mac Curtis – men who rarely ventured outside their honky-tonk, truckstop world – now appear in dance-halls before a thousand would-be rockabilly rebels. The music of some has not always withstood the ravages of time but other, particularly the devastating Sleepy LaBeef, retain all their early talent, making use of fresh audiences to revitalize long-dormant careers

© Bill Millar, 1981

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