Rockabilly – The Complete History
Rockabilly remains rebel music, thrilling fans with stripped-down rock’n’roll hollerin’ and a bounty of twanging guitar thrills. From the ’50s to its ever-ongoing ‘revival’, Michael Stephens charts the music that could make the dead dance…
We shook the devil loose! We bopped those blues! It’s uptempo, it’s rhythm. You ain’t sitting there worrying about car payments or house notes. You’re out there shakin’ dust loose on those honky-tonk floors.’ The words of the late, great Carl Perkins remain as good a summary of rockabilly as any.
Rockabilly is hard to define exactly, but you know it when you hear it. An initial blend of country and blues, it emerged as a term alongside ‘rock’n’roll’. But rockabilly is more exuberant, wilder, less four-to-the floor. With slapped upright basses, snare-cracking drummers, frenetic guitar solos and lyrics often celebrating music and dancing (unlike a lot of blues or country), rockabilly is – above all – party music.
Add a sax or piano? The music swerves towards rock’n’roll or jump-jazz. Add a fiddle or a banjo, and it’s back to country music. Play it with guitars and at a high-tempo – that’s real rockabilly. Part of rockabilly’s greatness is that it doesn’t really change. Why not? Because it doesn’t need to.
Roots of Rockabilly
Defining the first rockabilly record, as for blues or heavy metal, remains a matter of debate. Elvis Presley’s upbeat reworking of That’s All Right was important – if only because it was very popular. Presley, Ricky Nelson, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison and more get called ‘rockabilly’, but real devotees prefer the rougher stuff.
There are numerous great rockabilly tracks of the mid-late ’50s, some by legends, others by fleeting stars. To some, Elvis Presley’s Mystery Train is outshone by Johnny Carroll’s Hot Rock. Johnny Burnette’s Tear It Up vies with Dale Hawkins’ Suzie Q (starring James Burton) for guitar thrills. Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes was a landmark song and helped launch Elvis.
Joe Clay’s Duck Tail is a cult classic – with stinging guitar and lyrics about his haircut (and referencing blue suede shoes) it ticks all the rockabilly boxes.
But to many guitar fans, it was Gene Vincent who had the whole package – partly because of genius guitarist Cliff Gallup. Listen to Race With The Devil to hear why. Jeff Beck, a lifelong devotee of Vincent and his Blue Caps, once remembered: ‘When I was learning guitar, Cliff Gallup was the biggest influence on my playing. The cut was pretty deep and the scar has never healed. It was just so radical – it probably doesn’t sound threatening now, but if you were back in June ‘56 and turned the record right up… boy!
‘The term rock’n’roll had hardly been bandied about and all the other “rock” records of the time were very polished and audibly nice and round. Then you put on Gene Vincent and had this guy screaming and these raucous guitar solos – it was unheard of, and no one has done anything like it since.’
Beck’s Crazy Legs album (1993) was his homage to Vincent and Gallup, and he’s kept that scar itching. Beck has played with rockabilly-influenced singer Imelda May, whose husband (and guitarist) Darrel Higham is one of the UK’s finest rockabilly players of now. Higham is a mere 40-something – but after being intrigued by his parents’ few Elvis and Eddie Cochran albums in the ’70s, he became smitten.
‘They blew me away. I still remember hearing that music as if it was yesterday… I was four or five. Was I out of step? Maybe, but at that age you are just influenced by what you like, not what everyone else likes. If you hear something and it makes a huge impression on you, it stays with you forever.’ Higham soon became a scholar of classic rock’n’roll and rockabilly, even co-writing an acclaimed Eddie Cochran biography in his adult years. ‘My dad bought me a Spanish acoustic guitar when I was seven. I spent ages drawing f-holes, Bigsby and a G-brand to make it look like a Gretsch. I stood in front of the mirror pretending to be Eddie for about five or six years.’
Of what defines rockabilly, Higham opines, ‘Rock’n’roll meets in the middle of all sorts – hillbilly, blues, rhythm & blues. To me, rockabilly is the first offshoot of rock’n’roll. To me, it seems agreed that the first rockabilly record was That’s Alright/Blue Moon Of Kentucky by Elvis. There wasn’t anything that sounded like that before then. But you can also hear elements of what I call rockabilly in Chuck Berry’s Maybelline. It’s a rewrite of a country tune. Chuck has admitted he was just trying to sell as many records as he could, so he put a bit of country in there.’
Walking in Carl Perkins’ Shoes
Perhaps there’s too much terminology and sub-genres to make sense of it all. But one pioneer who is considered pure rockabilly from the outset is the legendary Carl Perkins. Perkins’ playing was a seed of much rockabilly – and rock’n’roll guitar – that followed. The flip side of Blue Suede Shoes was Honey Don’t, which had originally been intended as the A-side. Honey Don’t was discovered by the Beatles, who covered it along with two more of Perkins’ songs, Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby and Matchbox. Other Perkins fans included Rick Nelson, John Fogerty, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and many more.
John Fogerty recalled in the 1990s, ‘Of course I loved Elvis, but I actually had a greater affinity for Carl Perkins because he was a musician. He played guitar and wrote songs, and that spoke directly to me. He went right to the middle of my musical soul.’
Perkins himself, who died in 1998, remained modest of his influence. Of the Beatles he said, ‘They advanced it [guitar playing] so much. That rockabilly sound wasn’t as simple as I thought it was.’ In another interview, Perkins said the Beatles and Rolling Stones saved rockabilly in the mid-’60s when it was in danger of dying in the USA. ‘They put a nice suit on rockabilly,’ he said. ‘They never really strayed from the simplicity of it, they just beautified it.’
That’s hardly true, as it’s a long and winding road from Matchbox or Boppin’ The Blues to A Day In The Life, but Paul McCartney put Perkins’ contribution bluntly: ‘If there were no Carl Perkins, there would be no Beatles.’ True enough, rockabilly was a strong influence on the Beatles: John Lennon asked McCartney to join his Quarrymen because Paul knew all the words to Eddie Cochran’s Twenty Flight Rock.
For Darrel Higham, early rockabilly still embodies the true original spirit of teen rebellion. ‘It’s all tales of teenage angst,’ he says, ‘and teenagers will always hear that. Rockabilly’s still got that edge, that nastiness. Even the lyrics – there was nothing deep or meaningful on the surface, but there was something in there. Carl Perkins’ Her Love Rubbed Off is a very dark song. Eddie Cochran’s Dark Lonely Street is not truly a rockabilly track, but you do think: what was going through his head when he wrote that? It’s very melancholy. We tend to forget that most of these guys were teenagers or early 20s, yet writing amazing songs and playing to such a great standard
Yet despite rockabilly’s early explosion, it did fade in the charts. Elvis got less rockin’ as movie stardom blossomed, Perkins became more of a sideman (albeit a brilliant one), Gene Vincent had to change his sound soon after wild guitarist Cliff Gallup left in 1956, and scored his last USA hit as early as 1958. Eddie Cochran died in 1960 just a year after releasing his classic barnstormer Somethin’ Else. He was just 21 – and, by 1971, Vincent had also died. Looking back, some might argue that 1956 was both rockabilly’s high-point and the start of the end. But new rockabilly rebels would eventually whup it up again…
The Rockabilly Revival
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, rockabilly enjoyed a major revival – and it was just as strong in the UK as in the USA. Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe’s Rockpile became a rockabilly-ish cult act. The Polecats scored Top 40 hits with rockabilly-reworks of Bolan and Bowie songs and their own Rockabilly Guy. Matchbox’s Rockabilly Rebel charted in eight countries – a #1 in New Zealand, no less. And the Stray Cats, attracting little in attention in their native New York, moved to London to forge a hit-packed career. And laugh if you will, but Shakin’ Stevens – the
UK’s biggest-selling singles artist of the ’80s – hit #1 with an ‘authentic sounding’ (if mild) rockabilly version of country lament This Ole House.
But richer influences were now at work. Darrel Higham rightly points to a noticeable revival of ’50s imagery in late ’70s mainstream culture. ‘In the late ’70s you could watch Grease and Happy Days, and music TV programmes like Let It Rock and the revived Oh Boy! Glam rock stars of the 1970s – Mud, Showaddywaddy – kind of made a laughing stock of Teddy Boys, so rockabilly was revived as a name.’
The comeback sound was often harder, too. Brian Setzer recalls that punk was also a big part of rockabilly’s rebirth. ‘London seemed to be the happening place,’ he recalled. ‘We were just a little bar band in the States. We almost didn’t make it. We’d been living in London for a month, we didn’t have any money. Then all of a sudden the whole thing exploded.’
Setzer said he first saw the term ‘rockabilly’ used again in a UK music paper article, illustrated by a King’s Road Teddy boy-styled punk in crepe soles. Setzer was soon hanging out with Joe Strummer and other ‘punk’ acolytes, but only those whose look and sound was as much ’50s rock’n’roll as it was mohicans, spitting and nihilism.
Setzer: ‘When I heard punk rock, that energy paralleled rockabilly music. Like it or not, we were influenced by it. I remember when that first Sex Pistols record came out I went “Wow, rock’n’roll is back!” It might be heavier sounding, but that same energy was back again.’ The sound spanned generations too – Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and the Rolling Stones were avowed Stray Cats fans.
Some of the rockabilly revival artists were flash-in-the-pan, but Setzer’s not one of them; he’s built a stellar career over 30-plus years, mixing rockabilly with jazz and orchestral/big band styles for a sound of his own. And The Polecats’ Boz Boorer went on to become co-writer and musical director for Morrissey in the early ’90s, and is still at the ex-Smith’s side. His rockabilly influence is clearest on Morrissey’s 1993 album Your Arsenal.
Neo-rockabilly, if you want to call it that, is not for the purists – but it kept the music growing. London’s Meteors (of the early ’80s) are generally regarded as the first ‘psychobilly’ band, but the success of the Cramps, the Reverend Horton Heat, Social Distortion, ‘punkabilly’ Australians The Living End and many others have shown that rockabilly roots can grow a big musical tree.
It wasn’t always appreciated. Neil Young’s neo-rockabilly Everybody’s Rockin’ album of ’83 was a commercial flop – paymasters Geffen Records even sued Young for making a record that didn’t sound “like a Neil Young record”
As with any guitar style, rockabilly can encompass a wide range of sounds and techniques. The must-hears remain the legends – Eddie Cochran, Sun-era Elvis with Scotty Moore, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent with Cliff Gallup, Johnny Burnette And The Rock’n’Roll Trio, Ricky Nelson with James Burton and numerous unsung heroes.
Yet each player brought something unique to the table. Cochran, for example, was best known as a frontman, but his dazzling playing on Skeets McDonald’s 1956 single You Oughta See Grandma Rock – recorded when he was just 18 – remains testament that Eddie could also play killer lead guitar.
‘Rockabilly guitar can give you everything, there are so many different influences,’ argues Higham. ‘There’s a fair bit of jazz about rockabilly – Brian Setzer has taken that to a new level. There’s blues licks in there. There’s country, with the likes of Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. And you look at those session players like Grady Martin – his tone and technique were unbelievable, and he played on so many records.’
Who? Thomas Grady Martin was typical of many ’50s and ’60s session men – never the star, but a key guitarist on numerous tracks. Martin played lead on Johnny Burnette’s Rock’n’Roll Trio album gracing tracks such as Train Kept A-Rollin’ and Rockabilly Boogie, and as part of the “Nashville A-Team” went on to play on Roy Orbison’s Oh, Pretty Woman, the pure rockabilly of Johnny Horton’s I’m Coming Home and hundreds more.
When it comes to technique, prime rockabilly requires precision. For starters, there’ll be only the mildest distortion to cover any fluffed notes.
Working on a root/fifth note alternate pattern, then adding melodies to the top, is a learning curve. The country style of Travis picking – named after Merle Travis – is ultimately what many aim for. Banjo rolls, quickfire triplets, double-stop stabs, precise bends and melodic running-down bursts are all part of the style. And rockabilly is a fast mix, with 120 beats-per-minute a starting point, and 200bpm not uncommon.
Despite the difficulty of playing like an expert, one of rockabilly’s real appeals is that it can sound good even if you are not a great player. It’s because the rhythm is king. It’s not just ‘1-2-3-4’. Go faster and count ‘1-and-of-2 and-of-3 and-of 4…’ and many rockabilly rhythms make more sense.
‘Listen to Elvis’s Sun sessions,’ Darrel Higham advises novices. ‘Scotty Moore could be a very intricate guitar player, but it’s easier – relatively – to come up with a basic interpretation of that music. Or listen to Carl Perkins with Johnny Cash in the ’60s… that’s another excellent place to start. And Eddie Cochran for the rhythm. Rockabilly guitar is so much about rhythm.’
‘Pure’ rockabilly still exists, but like anything from the 1950s it’s now part of a mix. Brian Setzer is a must-listen for any guitarist. Matchbox still tour. Darrel Higham has his new band Kat Men, with the Stray Cats’ Jim Phantom on drums. Imelda May’s huge success confirms the rockabilly ‘revival’ never really went away. Most gigs may now be local and low-key – see www.rnrgigguide.com for listings – but they are there.
Rockabilly is durable. It ain’t changing, ’cos it doesn’t need to. As the late Carl Perkins remarked two decades ago, ‘Rockabilly’s looking healthy. They said it would go away in a year. It’s fooled us all.’
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