Stop Three On The Rockabilly Roadtrip

There Was Sun and Then There Was The Rest

haley presley

Well, last week I talked at great length about Sam Phillips and the fabulous Sun Records, but there was a whole lot more to rockabilly in the fifties than just that one label and the handful of artists that were signed to it. Indeed the rockabilly revolution took hold all over the United States and swept people from all over into a rockin’ and reelin’ frenzy that could only be satisfied by slap bass and tons of reverb.

It is true, however, that in the early years of the rockabilly movement most of the music and groups did seem to focus around Memphis, Tennessee. One of the reasons for this may be the simple fact that many of the early rockabilly performers hailed from Memphis or at least came from the area. This meant that the young musicians were all hanging out in the same places, listen to the same music, going to the same shows, and, when they were all playing in bands, learning techniques from one another and trading songs. Another element that added to Memphis’s status as the rockabilly hotspot was the fact that the city had dedicated shows for the new style whereas it was a lot harder for bands to gain acceptance elsewhere.

The Saturday Night Jamboree, for instance, was one such regular gig in Memphis that allowed new artists to promote themselves and gain a certain degree of exposure. This brought all manner of people like The Burnette Brothers and Charlie Feathers to the show hoping to get themselves a little glimpse of the limelight and if they were lucky a little radio airtime (the show was occasionally broadcast live on the West Memphis radio station KWEM). Here is just a little taste of the kinds of artists that played at The Saturday Night Jamboree:

Wild Wild Party – Charlie Feathers

Hey Little One – Dorsey Burnette

Barefoot Rock – Bud Deckelman

But of course as said before, not all of rockabilly as coming from Memphis, and all through the South people were getting rockabilly fever. One of the most important and influential of these performers was a young man you may have heard of from Lubbock, Texas who went by the name of Buddy Holly (despite the fact that his birth name was spelt ‘Holley’).

In 1955 the young Buddy Holly saw Elvis Presley performing down in Lubbock, and decided to incorporate a rockabilly edge to his music in an effort to recreate the sound of Sun Studio. He did this by using elements such as the reverb effect characteristic of Elvis’s records and adding a big slap bass to his line up, but Holly was no mere reproduction of the Memphis sound. No, Holly forged his own unique sound by using the then relatively unpopular Fender Stratacaster guitar, making use of a pounding, rolling tom drum rhythm, and, perhaps most notable writing his own material.

Peggy Sue – Buddy Holly

Also performing around the South of the United States were iconic rockabilly legends such as Eddie Cochran in California, Gene Summers in Texas, and Gene Vincent in Virginia. These artists, among a whole host of others, were incredibly influential in cementing the rockabilly sound and defining it as a genre. Also of note is how these early rockabilly artists helped to form the ‘outlaw’ image that has become so characteristic of rockabilly with their oil-slicked hair and motorcycle jackets. These next three tracks will, hopefully, go to show how this dangerous image and the sound of rockabilly music all worked together to gather these men fame and root rockabilly firmly in the hearts and minds of America.

Nervous Breakdown – Eddie Cochran

Straight Skirt – Gene Summers

Race With The Devil – Gene Vincent

North of the Mason-Dixon line rockabilly was starting to take off as well with performers like Bill Haley & His Comets recording up in New York City and Bill Flagg in Connecticut. The sounds of the North, however, were slightly more cleaned up than their Southern counterparts and the element of danger was somewhat downplayed. There was also a much larger element of swing to the music and less of the blues that made the Sun recordings saw raw and energetic, as will be seen in these next two tracks:

See You Later Alligator – Bill Haley & His Coments

Go Cat Go – Bill Flagg

But, even though these North American rockabilly sounds differed somewhat in their attitudes it is clear that the music itself had captured the imagination of the country, and that the swinging rhythms and slapping bass were just what the nation needed to get everybody up on their feet and dancing. This is by no means a complete description of the music that was being made in the rockabilly scene either. Far from it! There were dozens (perhaps hundreds) of other artists and performers that were doing the circuits or just playing the local bars all around the country, which just goes to show how much rockabilly took the nation by storm and made it swing.

One thing you may be thinking to yourself, however (and I know I was when I was starting to do my research for this series of articles) is “where the heck are all the women in this?” And if you were thinking this have no fear, for while I have only really talked about male performers so far, there were indeed quite a few female rockabilly singers who were active at the time, and I shall be writing a fill piece on them for next week.

But, until then I shall leave you all with this little taste of the fabulous female-led rockabilly that is to come with this great clip of Wanda Jackson performing a track originally made famous by Elvis Presley.

Hard Headed Woman – Wanda Jackson


9 thoughts on “Stop Three On The Rockabilly Roadtrip

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