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Rockabilly

Rockabilly Wikipedia

Rockabilly

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This article is about the genre of music. For wrestler formerly known as Rockabilly, see Monty Sopp. For the 1957 popular song, see Rock-a-Billy (song).
Rockabilly
Stylistic origins
Cultural origins Early to mid-1950s, Southern United States
Typical instruments
Derivative forms Garage rock
Fusion genres
Other topics

Rockabilly is one of the earliest styles of rock and roll music, dating back to the early 1950s in the United States, especially the South. As a genre it blends the sound of Western musical styles such as country with that of rhythm and blues,[1][2] leading to what is considered "classic" rock and roll.[3] Some have also described it as a blend of bluegrass with rock and roll.[4] The term "rockabilly" itself is a portmanteau of "rock" (from "rock 'n' roll") and "hillbilly", the latter a reference to the country music (often called "hillbilly music" in the 1940s and 1950s) that contributed strongly to the style. Other important influences on rockabilly include western swingboogie-woogiejump blues, and electric blues.[5]

Defining features of the rockabilly sound included strong rhythms, vocal twangs, and common use of the tape echo;[6] but progressive addition of different instruments and vocal harmonies led to its "dilution".[2] Initially popularized by artists such as Wanda JacksonBilly AdamsJohnny CashBill HaleyBuddy HollyElvis PresleyCarl PerkinsBob Luman, and Jerry Lee Lewis,[7] the influence and success of the style waned in the late 1950s; nonetheless, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, rockabilly enjoyed a major revival. An interest in the genre endures even in the 21st century, often within a subculture. Rockabilly has left a legacy, spawning a variety of sub-styles and influencing other genres such as punk rock.[6]

Contents

Origins[edit]

See also: Origins of rock and roll

There was a close relationship between blues and country music from the very earliest country recordings in the 1920s. The first nationwide country hit was "Wreck of the Old 97",[8][9] backed with "Lonesome Road Blues", which also became quite popular. Jimmie Rodgers, the "first true country star", was known as the "Blue Yodeler", and most of his songs used blues-based chord progressions, although with very different instrumentation and sound from the recordings of his black contemporaries like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Bessie Smith.[10]

During the 1930s and 1940s, two new sounds emerged. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were the leading proponents of Western Swing, which combined country singing and steel guitar with big band jazz influences and horn sections; Wills's music found massive popularity. Recordings of Wills's from the mid 1940s to the early 1950s include "two beat jazz" rhythms, "jazz choruses", and guitar work that preceded early rockabilly recordings.[11] Wills is quoted as saying "Rock and Roll? Why, man, that's the same kind of music we've been playin' since 1928!... But it's just basic rhythm and has gone by a lot of different names in my time. It's the same, whether you just follow a drum beat like in Africa or surround it with a lot of instruments. The rhythm's what's important."[12]

After blues artists like Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson launched a nationwide boogie craze starting in 1938, country artists like Moon Mullican, the Delmore BrothersTennessee Ernie FordSpeedy WestJimmy Bryant, and the Maddox Brothers and Rose began recording what was known as "Hillbilly Boogie", which consisted of "hillbilly" vocals and instrumentation with a boogie bass line.[13]

The Maddox Brothers and Rose were at "the leading edge of rockabilly with the slapped bass that Fred Maddox had developed".[14][15] Maddox said, "You've got to have somethin' they can tap their foot, or dance to, or to make 'em feel it." After World War II the band shifted into higher gear leaning more toward a whimsical honky-tonk feel, with a heavy, manic bottom end - the slap bass of Fred Maddox. "They played hillbilly music but it sounded real hot. They played real loud for that time, too ..."[16] The Maddoxes were also known for their lively "antics and stuff." "We always put on a show ... I mean it just wasn't us up there pickin' and singing. There was something going on all the time."[17] "... the demonstrative Maddoxes, helped release white bodies from traditional motions of decorum... more and more younger white artists began to behave on stage like the lively Maddoxes."[18] Others believe that they were not only at the leading edge, but were one of the first Rockabilly groups, if not the first.[19]

Little Junior's Blue Flames - "Love My Baby" (1953)

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"Love My Baby" (1953) by Memphis electric blues band Little Junior's Blue Flames, featuring Pat Hare on the guitar, is considered an important contribution to the rockabilly genre.

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Along with country, swing and boogie influences, jump blues artists such as Wynonie Harris and Roy Brown, and electric blues acts such as Howlin' WolfJunior Parker, and Arthur Crudup, influenced the development of rockabilly.[5] The Memphis blues musician Junior Parker and his electric blues band, Little Junior's Blue Flames, featuring Pat Hare on the guitar, were a major influence on the rockabilly style, particularly with their songs "Love My Baby" and "Mystery Train" in 1953.[20][21]

Zeb Turner's February 1953 recording of "Jersey Rock" with its mix of musical styles, lyrics about music and dancing, and guitar solo,[22] is another example of the mixing of musical genres in the first half of the 1950s.

Bill Monroe is known as the Father of Bluegrass, a specific style of country music. Many of his songs were in blues form, while others took the form of folk ballads, parlor songs, or waltzes. Bluegrass was a staple of country music in the early 1950s, and is often mentioned as an influence in the development of rockabilly.[23]

The Honky Tonk sound, which "tended to focus on working-class life, with frequently tragic themes of lost love, adultery, loneliness, alcoholism, and self-pity", also included songs of energetic, uptempo Hillbilly Boogie. Some of the better known musicians who recorded and performed these songs are: the Delmore Brothers, the Maddox Brothers and Rose, Merle TravisHank WilliamsHank Snow, and Tennessee Ernie Ford.[24]

Curtis Gordon's 1953 "Rompin' and Stompin'", an uptempo hillbilly-boogie included the lyrics, "Way down south where I was born / They rocked all night 'til early morn' / They start rockin' / They start rockin' an rollin'."[25][26][27]

Tennessee[edit]

Carl Perkins[edit]

Sharecroppers' sons Carl Perkins and his brothers Jay Perkins and Clayton Perkins, along with drummer W. S. Holland, had been playing their music roughly ninety miles from Memphis. The Perkins Brothers Band, featuring both Carl and Jay on lead vocals, quickly established themselves as the hottest band on the cutthroat, "get-hot-or-go-home" Jackson, Tennessee honky tonk circuit. Most of the requests for songs were for hillbilly songs that were delivered as jived up versions—classic Hank Williams standards infused with a faster rhythm.[28]

It was here that Carl started composing his first songs with an eye toward the future. Watching the dance floor at all times for a reaction, working out a more rhythmically driving style of music that was neither country nor blues, but had elements of both, Perkins kept reshaping these loosely structured songs until he had a completed composition, which would then be finally put to paper. Carl was already sending demos to New York record companies, who kept rejecting him, sometimes explaining that this strange new style of country with a pronounced rhythm fit no current commercial trend. That would change in 1955[29][30] after recording the song "Blue Suede Shoes" (recorded 19 December 1955) on Sam Phillips' Memphis-based Sun Records. Later made more famous by Elvis Presley, Perkins' original version was an early rock 'n' roll standard.[7][31]

Memphis[edit]

In the early 1950s there was heavy competition among Memphis area bands playing an audience-savvy mix of covers, original songs, and hillbilly flavored blues. One source mentions both local disc jockey Dewey Phillips and Sam Phillips as being influential. Scotty Moore remembers that, "You could play ... As long as you could play, say, the top eight or ten songs from country, pop, R&B. They didn't care what instruments you had, as long as people could dance."[32]

The Saturday Night Jamboree[edit]

The Saturday Night Jamboree was a local stage show held every Saturday night at the Goodwyn Institute Auditorium in downtown Memphis, Tennessee in 1953–54. But of more historical significance were the then-unknown artists who came to perform at the Jamboree. They include: Elvis Presley, Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, Eddie Bond, Charlie Feathers, Jim Cannon, Reggie Young, Barbara Pittman, the Lazenby Twins, Bud Deckleman, Harmonica Frank Floyd, Marcus Van Story, Lloyd Arnold, and more. The shows were sometimes broadcast on KWEM Radio Station in West Memphis, Arkansas by Joe Manuel, who fronted the Jamboree and was a KWEM personality.[33] Every Saturday night in 1953, the dressing rooms backstage were a gathering place where musicians would come together and experiment with new sounds—mixing fast country, gospel, blues and boogie woogie. Guys were bringing in new "licks" that they had developed and were teaching them to other musicians and were learning new "licks" from yet other musicians backstage. Soon these new sounds began to make their way out onto the stage of the Jamboree where they found a very receptive audience.[34]

The Burnettes and Burlison[edit]

Younger musicians around Memphis were beginning to play a mix of musical styles. Paul Burlison, for one, was playing in nondescript hillbilly bands in the very early 1950s. One of these early groups secured a fifteen-minute show on radio station KWEM in West Memphis, Arkansas. The time slot was adjacent to Howlin' Wolf's and the music quickly became a curious blend of blues, country and what would become known as rockabilly music. In 1951 and 1952 the Burnettes (Johnny and Dorsey) and Burlison played around Memphis and established a reputation for wild music. According to Burlison, "... when we started playing in 1951, we played an uptempo-style country beat with gospel, blues, and a little swing mixed in."[35]

They played with Doc McQueen's swing band at the Hideaway Club but hated the type of music played by "chart musicians." Soon they broke away and began playing their energetic brand of rockabilly to small, but appreciative, local audiences. They wrote "Rock Billy Boogie," named after Johnny's new baby boy Rocky Burnette and Dorsey's new son Billy, who were both born in 1953, while working at the Hideaway.[36] Unfortunately for the Burnettes and Burlison, they did not record the song until 1957.[37][38]

The trio released "Train Kept A-Rollin'" in 1956, listed by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the top 500 rock songs of all time, having been covered by the YardbirdsAerosmith, and many others. Many consider this 1956 recording to be the first intentional use of a distortion guitar on a rock song, which was played by lead guitarist Paul Burlison. Many rockabilly guitarists and historians now accept that on many of the classic recordings Johnny Burnette did in Nashville for Decca it was the legendary "A Team" of Grady Martin on guitar, Bob Moore on bass and Buddy Harmann on drums [39][40] backing Johnny and Dorsey on vocals (the author of this comment has had discussions with Bob Moore where he confirms this). In all likelihood both Paul Burlison and Grady Martin played on some of the Nashville recordings, with who played what lost in the mists of time.[41] The recordings done in the Pythian Temple in New York are undoubtedly all the work of Paul Burlison.

The use of distortion on a rock'n'roll record was more accurately "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats. The legend of how the sound came about says that guitarist Willy Kizart's amplifier was damaged on Highway 61 when the band was driving from Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee. An attempt was made to hold the cone in place by stuffing the amplifier with wadded newspapers, which unintentionally created a distorted sound; Phillips liked the sound and used it. Robert Palmer has written that the amplifier "had fallen from the top of the car", and attributes this information to Sam Phillips. However, in a recorded interview at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, Washington, Ike Turner stated that the amplifier was in the trunk of the car and that rain may have caused the damage; he is certain that it did not fall from the roof of the car.

Elvis Presley[edit]

A black and white photograph of Elvis Presley standing between two sets of bars
Elvis Presley in a promotion shot for Jailhouse Rock in 1957
Elvis Presley - "That's All Right" (1954)

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Elvis Presley's "That's All Right" (1954), an early rockabilly song. It was a cover of Arthur Crudup's 1947 blues song of the same name.

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Presley's first recording, a blues song titled "That's All Right Mama", was previously recorded in 1946 by Arthur Crudup. In this recording Presley married "black" and "white" genres to an extent that it was denied airplay on (white) country radio stations and (black) R&B stations, dismissed for being defined as both "black" and "white" music. Record Producer Sam Phillips was told by country deejays that Presley's "That's Alright Mama" was "black music" and lamented they would be "run out of town" for playing it. Similarly, R&B deejays categorized it as a (white) country song. When the song was finally played by one rogue deejay, Dewey Phillips,[42] Presley's recording created so much excitement it was described as having waged war on segregated radio stations. "The Sun recordings were the first salvos in an undeclared war on segregated radio stations nationwide."

All of Presley's early records combined a blues song on one side and a country song on the other, but both sung in the same vein.[43]

Presley's unique musical style rocketed him into the spotlight, and drew masses of followers: "But it's Presley's singing, halfway between a country western and a R&B rock 'n' roll style that has sent teenagers into a trance. Whether you like it or not, there will always be an Elvis Presley."[44]

Presley's first, historical recordings took place at Sun Records, a small independent label run by Sam Phillips in Memphis, Tennessee.[42] The historical significance of these first Presley recordings and their impact on future musical artists is well exemplified by the actions of legendary musical artist Bob Dylan, who is said to have gone to Sun Records and kissed the "x" where Elvis had stood to record his first recordings. Further stated by Dylan: "I thank God for Elvis Presley".[citation needed]

For several years, Phillips had been recording and releasing performances by blues and country musicians in the area. He also ran a service allowing anyone to come in off the street and for $3.98 (plus tax) record himself on a two-song vanity record. One young man who came to record himself as a surprise for his mother, he claimed, was Elvis Presley.[45]

According to Phillips, "Ninety-five percent of the people I had been working with were black, most of them of course no name people. Elvis fit right in. He was born and raised in poverty. He was around people that had very little in the way of worldly goods."[46]

Presley made enough of an impression that Phillips deputized guitarist Scotty Moore, who then enlisted bassist Bill Black, both from the Starlight Wranglers, a local western swing band, to work with the green young Elvis.[47] The trio rehearsed dozens of songs, from traditional country, to "Harbor Lights", a hit for crooner Bing Crosby[48] to gospel. During a break on July 5, 1954, Elvis "jumped up ... and started frailin' guitar and singin' "That's All Right, Mama" (a 1946 blues song by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup). Scotty and Bill began playing along. Excited, Phillips told them to "back up and start from the beginning." Two or three takes later, Phillips had a satisfactory recording, and released "That's All Right", on July 19, 1954, along with an "Elvis Presley Scotty and Bill" version of Bill Monroe's waltz, Blue Moon of Kentucky, a country standard.[47]

Presley's Sun recordings feature his vocals and rhythm guitar, Bill Black's percussive slapped bass, and Scotty Moore on an amplified guitar. Slap bass had been a staple of both Western Swing and Hillbilly Boogie since the 1940s. Commenting on his own guitar playing, Scotty Moore said, "All I can tell you is I just stole from every guitar player I heard over the years. Put it in my data bank. An' when I played that's just what come out."[49]

Scotty Moore described their first session, resulting in the recording of "That's Alright Mama":

We were taking a break and, all of sudden, Elvis started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool. Then Bill Black picked up his bass and began acting the fool too, and I started playing with them. Sam had the door to the control room open, and stuck his head out and said, 'What are you doing?' We said, 'We don't know'. He said, 'Well, back up. Try to find a place to start, and do it again'. So we kinda talked it over and figured out a little bit what we were doin'. We ran it again, and of course Sam is listenin'. 'Bout the third or fourth time through, we just cut it. It was basically a rhythm record. It wasn't any great thing. It wasn't Sam tellin' him what to do. Elvis was joking around, just doing what come naturally, what he felt.[50]

Tillman Franks has been quoted as saying, "I want you to give Bill Black the credit. … on 'That's All Right (Mama)' and 'Blue Moon of Kentucky.' Elvis sang the way Bill Black played bass."[51]

Some have claimed that the sound of "That's Alright" was not entirely new, "It wasn't that they said 'I never heard anything like it before.' It wasn't as if this started a revolution, it galvanized a revolution. Not because Elvis had expressed something new, but he expressed something they had all been trying to express."[49] Sam Phillips indicated that for him it was a new sound, saying "It just broke me up". And many echo the sentiment that it was a sound like no other they had heard: "When I first heard Elvis singing 'That's Alright Mama'. The time just stood still. It knocked my socks off." --Ramon Maupin.

Nobody was sure what to call Presley's music, so Elvis was described as "The Hillbilly Cat" and "King of Western Bop." Over the next year, Elvis would record four more singles for Sun. Rockabilly recorded by artists prior to Presley can be described as being in the long-standing country style of Rockabilly. Presley's recordings are described by some as quintessential rockabilly for their true union of country and R&B, which can be described as the true realization of the Rockabilly genre. In addition to the fusion of distinct genres, Presley's recordings contain some traditional as well as new traits: "nervously up tempo" (as Peter Guralnick describes it), with slap bass, fancy guitar picking, lots of echo, shouts of encouragement, and vocals full of histrionics such as hiccups, stutters, and swoops from falsetto to bass and back again.[52][53]

By end of 1954 Elvis asked D.J. Fontana, who was the underutilized drummer for the Louisiana Hayride, "Would you go with us if we got any more dates?" Presley was now using drums,[54] as did many other rockabilly performers; drums were then uncommon in country music. In the 1956 sessions shortly after Presley's move from Sun Records to RCA, Presley was backed by a band that included Moore, Black, Fontana, and pianist Floyd Cramer.[55] In 1956 Elvis also acquired vocal backup via the Jordanaires.[56]

North of the Mason-Dixon Line[edit]

Bill Haley[edit]


Bill Haley and His Comets during a TV appearance.
Bill Haley and His Comets - "Rock Around the Clock" (1954)

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Bill Haley and His Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" (1954) is credited with popularizing rockabilly music.

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In 1951 a western swing bandleader named Bill Haley recorded a version of "Rocket 88" with his group, the Saddlemen. It is considered one of the earliest recognized rockabilly recordings. Haley and his bandmates crafted a rockabilly sound during this period as the Saddlemen.[57] It was followed by versions of "Rock the Joint" in 1952, and original works such as "Real Rock Drive" and "Crazy Man, Crazy", the latter of which reached number 12 on the American Billboard chart in 1953.[58][59]

On April 12, 1954, Haley with his band (now known as Bill Haley and His Comets) recorded "Rock Around the Clock" for Decca Records of New York City. When first released in May 1954, "Rock Around the Clock" made the charts for one week at number 23, and sold 75,000 copies.[60] A year later it was featured in the film Blackboard Jungle, and soon afterwards it was topping charts all over the world and opening up a new genre of entertainment. "Rock Around the Clock" hit No. 1, held that position for eight weeks, and was the number two song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 1955.[61] The recording was, until the late 1990s, recognized by Guinness World Records as having the highest sales claim for a pop vinyl recording, with an "unaudited" claim of 25 million copies sold.[62]

Rock 'n' roll, an expansive term coined a couple years earlier by DJ Alan Freed, had now been to the pop mountaintop, a position it would never quite relinquish.[63][64]

Bill Flagg[edit]

Maine native and Connecticut resident Bill Flagg began using the term rockabilly for his combination of rock 'n' roll and hillbilly music as early as 1953[65] He cut several songs for Tetra Records in 1956 and 1957.[66] "Go Cat Go" went into the National Billboard charts in 1956, and his "Guitar Rock" is cited as classic rockabilly.[65]

Janis Martin on The Old Dominion Barn Dance Show[edit]

In 1953 at the age of 13 Janis Martin was developing her own proto-rockabilly style on WRVA's Old Dominion Barn Dance,[67][68][69] which broadcast out of Richmond, VA. Although Martin performed mostly country songs for the show, she also did songs by Rhythm and blues singers Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker, as well as a few Dinah Washington songs. "The audience didn't know what to make of it. They didn't hardly allow electric instruments, and I was doing some songs by black artists—stuff like Ruth Brown's "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean."[70][71]

Cash, Perkins and Presley[edit]

In 1954, both Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins auditioned for Sam Phillips. Cash hoped to record gospel music, but Phillips immediately nixed that idea. Cash did not return until 1955. In October 1954 Carl Perkins and "The Perkins Brothers Band" showed up at the Sun Studios. Phillips recorded Perkins's original song Movie Magg, which was released early March 1955 on Phillips's Flip label, which was all country.[72]

Presley's second and third records were not as successful as the first.[73] The fourth release in May 1955 Baby, Let's Play House peaked at number five on the national Billboard Country Chart.[74] The Sun label correctly lists "Gunter" (Arthur) as the songwriter,[75] a song which he recorded in 1954. In 1951 Eddy Arnold recorded a song titled "I Want to Play House with You"[76] by Cy Coben [77] that sounds nothing like the Arthur Gunter song recorded by Presley.[according to whom?]

Cash returned to Sun in 1955 with his song Hey, Porter, and his group the Tennessee Three, who became the Tennessee Two before the session was over. This song and another Cash original, Cry! Cry! Cry! were released in July.[78] Cry! Cry! Cry! managed to crack Billboard's Top 20, peaking at No. 14.[79]

In August Sun released Elvis's versions of "I Forgot to Remember to Forget" and "Mystery Train". "Forgot ...", written by Sun country artists Stan Kesler and Charlie Feathers, spent a total of 39 weeks on the Billboard Country Chart, with five of those weeks at the number one spot. "Mystery Train", with writing credits for both Herman Little Junior Parker and Sam Phillips, peaked at number 11.

Through most of 1955, Cash, Perkins, Presley, and other Louisiana Hayride performers toured through Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Mississippi. Sun released two more Perkins songs in October: "Gone, Gone, Gone" and "Let the Jukebox Keep on Playing".[80] Scotty Moore commented on the different roles of Elvis and Perkins, "Carl was a nice-looking big hunk, like out in the cornfield type. Elvis was more like an Adonis. But as a rockabilly, Carl was the king of that."[81]

1955 was also the year in which Chuck Berry's hillbilly-influenced Maybellene reached high in the charts as a crossover hit, and Bill Haley and His CometsRock Around the Clock was not only number one for eight weeks, but was the number two record for the year.[61] Rock 'n' Roll in general, and rockabilly in particular, was at critical mass and the next year, Elvis Presley's Heartbreak Hotel and Don't Be Cruel would top the Billboard Charts as well.[82]

Rockabilly goes national: 1956[edit]

In January 1956 three new classic songs by Cash, Perkins, and Presley were released: "Folsom Prison Blues" by Cash, and "Blue Suede Shoes" by Perkins, both on Sun; and "Heartbreak Hotel" by Presley on RCA. Other rockabilly tunes released this month included "See You Later, Alligator" by Roy Hall and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" by the Commodores (no relation to the '70s Motown group).[83][84]

Perkins's "Blue Suede Shoes" sold 20,000 records a day at o



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