The term ‘Rockabilly’ is a confusing one, and there is no real way to distinguish or define it clearly. The word itself was used sporadically during the 50’s, but didn’t really come into general use until the 1970’s and 80’s. But let’s deal with the usage of the word before diving into the music and the lifestyle itself.
Back in the 50’s, rockabilly was, as I mentioned, used sporadically, by such luminaries as Carl Perkins and Wanda Jackson. A few record reviews described a particular record as ‘Rock - A - Billy’, and The Rock n’ Roll Trio (Johnny & Dorsey Burnette and Paul Birlison) sang, “Rockabilly Boogie’. Arguably the worst usage came from the Guy Mitchell song, “Rockabilly Rock”, the music of which was anything but!
In it’s simplest terms, rockabilly music was and is a hybrid fusion of Blues, 50’s Rythm n’ Blues, Hillbilly, Country, Jazz and Swing. The people playing the music are called Rockabillies. In the 1970’s there was a huge explosion of rock n roll, a revival, mainly in England and Europe. The term Rockabilly was used in conjunction with that, however, many fans of rock n roll music were dismayed to see that heavy metal bands and even some pop bands used the term ‘Rock n Roll' to describe their music. Massively overdubbed powerchords, screamed vocals and excessive feedback are hardly fitting with the original spirit of rock n’ roll, so gradually we have come to a situation whereby music such as “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard and “C’mon everybody” by Eddie Cochran, traditonally described as rock n roll, are now labelled under the term rockabilly. Perhaps it was a subconscious relation against modern bands using the term rock n roll to describe their music, that has bought this about.
In the USA just after world war II, most popular commercial music was the swing dance band style perpetuated by Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and their ilk. This music was popular across most of the continent and indeed the world. It was a given that children and teenagers mostly did what their parents did and indeed, listened to what their parents listened to. America had done pretty well out of the war financially. They had entered it to help Great Britain out, but because Britain was financially drained, the two nations had agreed on a shrewd (from an American perspective) piece of legislation known as “lend-lease”. Basically this meant that America had supplied finances and equipment to the allied campaign, that would have to be repaid when the war finished. It was indeed repaid, but the cost was that America was propelled into the most powerful nation on earth, whilst the British were relegated to the second division, financially crippled by having to repay the loans. Following the austerity of the war years, America was having a huge consumer party, it was flush with money, ideas and hope for the future. One of the by products of this was that teenagers, for the first time, had what modern sociologists would call “disposable income”, i.e. money to burn!
Although the big band music was number one, in the southern states country music (then known as country and western) was equally as popular. There was also black music, rhythm and blues. The next few years would see a series of ‘crazes’, such as Boogie Woogie and western swing. The latter was a reaction to the big band sound by the country music industry. Country musicians playing big band swing ...western swing. Listening to this music now, one can hear many of the elements of rockabilly and rock n roll that would come later on.
Black music was a separate issue. White teenagers, especially the white middle class (the Ivy League) were not encouraged to listen to black music. But many of them did. The jump jive blues of Joe Turner, Louis Jordan and Howling Wolf were incredibly popular with white teenage audiences, however, they were forced by the conventions of their society to listen to this music on small portable radios under the pillow or by secretly visiting record stores where there would be booths to listen to the music on headphones. Because of the inherent racism in America, black music had the words “Race Music” stamped on the label. Whilst modern society would be appalled at this, the black music industry actively encouraged such definitions.
The 1950’s was a period of change and things were beginning to change rapidly. The honky tonk singer, Hank Williams died in 1953, ostensibly of a mixture of drugs and drink. He had shaken country music up with his heartfelt lyrics and style. In some circles, his influence was so great that he has been given the soubriquet, “The Grandaddy of Rockabilly”. In the same year, a young truck driver, named Elvis Presley entered Sam Phillip’s Sun Recording studio in Memphis, to record a song as a birthday present for his Mother.
Sam Phillips had set up SUN Records mainly to record local talent from the Memphis area. Mostly black artists recorded for SUN, the acetates were then leased to bigger companies for distribution. However, Phillips had always maintained that if he could find a white singer that could sing like a negro, then he would make a million dollars. What it was about Elvis that had sparked the attention of Marion Keiser, Sam Phillip's Secretary, is unknown, but about 6 months after he had originally been in, Sam Phillips invited him back to the studio. At first Phillips was frustrated. This boy had no particular style. If he was asked to croon, he would, if he was asked to sing country, he could so that, the same with gospel and pop songs. Phillips later described him as a sponge, he had listened to and absorbed many different styles and was thus confused about where he was going with his music.
Phillips then called in two local musicians. Bill Black and Scotty Moore. Both had been playing with Doug Pointdexter and the starlight Wranglers, a local country - boogie band, but they had also done session work for Phillips in the past. So it was that on a hot summer evening in July 1954, the three of them gathered in the studio of SUN Records to try and find something. Apparently the session did not go well, Elvis again displaying his numerous influences. Then during a break in recording, Elvis began strumming his guitar wildly and started to sing a song that had been recorded originally by Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup called, ‘That’s Alright Mama’. Bill Black on upright bass joined in and Phillips in the control booth suddenly shouted out, “What’re you doing in there?”, Elvis sheepishly replied that he didn’t know, to which Phillips replied, “Well find out and let’s do it again!”. After they had finished the recording, one of the musicians said, “Dam if you release that Sam, they’ll run us out of town!”.
Elvis went on to make 6 records for SUN, all were released and did well locally. He was sent off with Bill Black and Scotty Moore on tour, under the name 'Elvis, Scotty and Bill', where he met with mixed reactions. At one time he was booked to play in Las Vegas, but the gambling city just wasn't ready for this brash young rockabilly performer. He Bombed. However, in clubs and bars around the south he fared much better. In some places the girls went wild whenever he started shaking his leg, whilst in others he was attacked by angry boyfriends. Whatever he was doing, he was getting noticed by big record companies.
At around the same time in Cleveland, a Hillbilly bandleader, William Clifton Haley, had noticed that white teenagers were listening to black ‘race music’ records in the local stores. His band, The Saddlemen were playing bluegrass, Hillbilly and Western Swing, but Haley thought that there might be some mileage in introducing some black music into the show. He decided to test the water and was surprised at how well the songs were received. So, he changed the name of the band to Bill Haley & the Comets and began recording black r n b records. One piece of music that he recorded was “Rock around the clock”, which was basically a piece of tin pan alley - vaudeville written by two ageing songsmiths. Haley picked it up and recorded it, but the record disappeared without much interest.
Also in and around the Cleveland area, there was a white DJ named Alan Freed. He played black records for a white audience, but partly because of the potential bad feeling this might have caused, he went under the name of Moondog. Mostly he played what we now call ‘doo wop’, black acappella groups singing in three and four part harmonies, but he also played r n b, jump blues records by people such as Joe Turner, Lightning Hopkins and the Dominoes. He would cause controversy by imploring teenagers to lean out of their windows, wherever they were and hoot and holler, often thumping the console in time with the music and generally having a great time.
Around six months after it’s initial release, “Rock around the clock” was chosen as the title track for a film called ‘Blackboard Jungle’. This was a film about a black teacher arriving at an inner city school and trying to control the (mostly) hoodlums that made up his class. Why all of a sudden teenagers were interested may never be known, but they were and suddenly “Rock around the clock” shot to the top of the charts.
Back in the south, many country studios with their ears to the ground realised something was changing. They watched Elvis Presley performing and decided that they too should have a performer that would appeal to the younger market, rather than the elder one, which is where country and western was aimed.
Capitol Records signed Gene Vincent, Coral Records signed Buddy Holly and the Crickets as well as Johnny Burnette and the Rock n Roll trio. Meteor Records, a rival of SUN in Memphis, got Charlie Feathers, King Records in Cincinnatti got Mac Curtis and the trend was repeated across the industry.
These musicians went into the studios and began to make music, often unsucessfully at first. Until RCA bought Elvis’ contract from Sam Phillips for an unprecedented $35,000. The top performer at the time was Frank Sinatra, a young crooner from the big band/swing world, and even he wasn’t paid that much!
RCA re-released all of his SUN catalogue, but then began recording him themselves and released a series of records, “ Don’t be cruel”, “Heartbreak hotel”, “ Hound dog”, all went to No 1, and caused a sensation. Elvis was everything that middle class white America had feared. He was young, sexy and the teenagers loved him. His live appearance on a TV show was filmed from the waste up only, because critics argued that he was obscene. Often parts of his TV shows where he performed were inaudible because the girls were screaming too much. Although Bill Haley had a huge hit with “Rock around the clock”, even he realised that he couldn’t compete with this. Where Elvis was young, Haley was already in his 30’s, not the iconic image that teenagers wanted.
At Capitol Gene Vincent recorded and released “Be Bop a lula”, the song was successful on three American singles charts: it peaked at number seven on the US Billboard pop music chart, number eight on the R&B chart 4 and also made the top ten on the C&W Best Seller chart peaking at number five. Suddenly it seemed as if the whole world was rocking and rolling. Any musician worth his salt jumped onto the bandwagon, often under assumed names. Black musicians such as Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, who claimed they had been singing this stuff for years, also hit the charts with songs such as “Maybelline”, Sweet Little Sixteen”, “Johnny B Good” and “Blueberry Hill”.
Back in Memphis, no one really questioned Sam Phillips sanity when he released Elvis contract. Sun records didn’t have the political clout within the industry to promote him like RCA could, although there is an argument to suggest that Elvis might have made it anyway, it would just have taken longer. Instead, Phillips reasoning was that the sale of Elvis allowed him to bring on other performers and he did that in some style. Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and others all came out of the woodwork to record on Sun. Jerry Lee Lewis in particular made a huge impact on the charts with his wild style and firebrand stage personality. Johnny Cash became a legendary country performer whilst Carl Perkins recorded the original (and best) version of Blue suede shoes. Sam Phillips certainly made his million dollars from Elvis, although it was perhaps not the way that he had originally envisaged.
Rock n roll lasted just a few short years, from 1954 through to 1958, by which time a series of catastrophes sounded it’s demise. Chuck Berry had been jailed, little Richard had thrown all of his jewelry into Sydney Harbour whilst on tour in Australia, claiming to have found God, Elvis was drafted into the army and would never recapture the excitement of his early years, Jerry Lee Lewis toured the UK but had to return home early when the British press found out that he’d married his 13 year old cousin....an outrage to a very conservatively minded Britain, even though it was common practice in the Southern states of America.
Alan Freed, the DJ was cited in the Payola scandal, where it was said that DJ’s accepted bribes to promote certain records...he was cleared but the stigma remained. In 1958, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper all perished in a plane crash. Eddie Cochran would die in a car crash a few years later. Rock n roll, at first an almost uncontrollably raw explosion of rebellious music, had lost it’s edge and the music industry finally got it under control. What emerged was a pale imitation of the original, with syrupy lyrics and teen idols such as Fabian, Neil Sedaka and Tommy Roe producing limp pop songs. Most of those that had jumped on the bandwagon of rock n roll, just as quickly jumped off and returned to their country roots. However, performers such as Charlie Feathers, Wanda Jackson and Carl Perkins continued, but didn’t do particularly well. By the 60’s there was a new phenonemon, The Beatles.
It was in the early 1970’s that rock n roll returned to mainstream public attention. And it was on the other side of the Atlantic In 1972 a concert at London’s Wembley stadium, which had never been done before, was held. It was entitled ‘The London rock n roll show’ and featured Little Richard, Bill Haley & his Comets, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Didley as well as a host of British bands that had been performing on the largely underground UK rock n Roll scene.
One such band, the House shakers would hire a then unknown piano player by the name of Rockin Dave just a couple of years later and change their name to the Hellraisers. The organisers' of the London Show, were worried that no one would turn up, they needn’t have. 87,000 old rock n rollers...teddy boys, greasers and ton up boys came out of the closet and rocked London. Within five years there was a major revival going on. Record companies scoured their archives releasing more and more tracks, many of them obscure rarities. One Company, Charly Records, released a little known track that had originally come out on the King Label in Cincinatti, called “Jungle rock”, by Hank Mizell. It shot to number 1 on the British pop charts. Charly Records also signed Rockin Dave in 1978, when he was just 21.
A young Rockin Dave
Throughout the 1970’s rock n roll was very high profile throughout Britain and Europe. America still hadn’t caught on, to such an extent that American based bands such as the Stray cats were forced to come to the UK, because at home they would have been ignored. By the end of the 1970’s the situation had reached saturation point. There were four or five (and often more) live events every night in London, and the rest of the country was the same. It was a case of everyone wanting a slice of the pie and something had to give. In the early 80’s, the whole scene collapsed. Clubs and pubs stopped holding rock n roll bands, some even closed altogether. By that time Rockin Dave was doing very well in Finland where he became a household name.
The scene back in London did rebuild itself and it continues to this day, albeit with a smaller, much lower profile than in the 70’s. In fact the scene is much stronger now. Quite apart from the music, should you so wish, you can decorate the interior of your house in 50’s style, you can dress in original 50’s or 50’s style clothing, drive an original Cadillac or Chevrolet or you can just simply enjoy the most fantastic amount of music available.