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1950's "Rockabilly" book by Harlan Ellison 1950's "Rockabilly" book by Harlan Ellison

Rockabilly is the earliest form of rock and roll as a distinct style of music. It is a fusion of blues, hillbilly boogie, bluegrass music and country music, and its origins lie in the American South. As Peter Guralnick writes, "Its rhythm was nervously uptempo, accented on the offbeat, and propelled by a distinctively slapping bass....The sound was further bolstered by generous use of echo, a homemade technique refined independently by Sam Phillips and Leonard Chess in Chicago with sewer pipes and bathroom acoustics." While recording artists such as Bill Haley were playing music that fused rhythm and blues, western swing and country music in the early 1950s, and Tennessee Ernie Ford performed in a somewhat similar style on songs such as "Smokey Mountain Boogie," they were not playing rockabilly. As Nick Tosches writes, "By the early 1950s, it was not uncommon to encounter simultaneous country and rhythm-and-blues recordings of the same song." And he points out that the Delmore Brothers and Hank Williams were performing, in the late 1940s, music that could be called rock and roll. But rockabilly was a stripped-down version of its various sources, and thus a specific stylistic moment in the evolution of music that before had existed in many forms.

Bill Flagg was the first to name the music when he recorded for Tetra Records in 1955 - 1956. His song "Go Cat Go" went into the National Billboard charts in 1956. He is a member of the Rockabilly Hall Of Fame.

Elvis Presley's 1954 Memphis sessions for Sam Phillips's Sun Records produced arguably the first rockabilly recordings. "That's All Right," first performed by Arthur Crudup, was a reworking of a blues tune, done with overtones of country music. "Blue Moon of Kentucky," by Bill Monroe, was a bluegrass standard, done with overtones of blues.

During roughly the same period of time, a young singer/songwriter down in Lubbock, Texas named Buddy Holly was busy taking elements of various musical styles (blues, country, gospel, south of the border, etc...) and melding them into what later became the "Tex-Mex" sound. Holly's pioneering efforts are legendary, and the rockabilly sound was a strong element in much of his work.

Carl Perkins, who also recorded for Sun, is another performer whose recordings helped to define the genre. "Blue Suede Shoes", written by Carl, is considered a classic of the style. The early recordings of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Dale Hawkins, Charlie Feathers, Hasil Adkins, Gene Vincent, Billy Lee Riley and Roy Orbison are also considered essential, although Cash, Vincent, Lewis and Orbison each went on to perform in other styles. Eddie Cochran and Ricky Nelson also are considered rockabilly performers; they were not, however, from the South, although Nelson's guitarist, James Burton, grew up in Shreveport.

Although the influence of rockabilly, both as a musical style and as a set of attitudes and gestures, has never waned, Holly's death in a plane crash in 1959 tended to mark the end of the classic rockabilly era. In the 1980s, The Stray Cats led a brief revival of interest in rockabilly, while another revival followed in the 1990s with bands like High Noon, Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys, the Dave and Deke Combo, The Racketeers, and many others. And bands like The Cramps, Tav Falco's Panther Burns, Reverend Horton Heat, Southern Culture on the Skids, Batmobile and more importantly The Meteors merged the music with Punk rock/Horror, forming a distinct sub-genre referred to as psychobilly. Dire Straits did a rockabilly track, The Bug, on their 1991 album On Every Street.

Guralnick writes, "Rockabilly is the purest of all rock 'n' roll genres. That is because it never went anywhere. It is preserved in perfect isolation within an indistinct time period....".

In 1997, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame was founded by Bob Timmers to present early rock and roll history and information relative to the artists and personalities involved in this pioneering American music genre.


Some Rockabilly Acts

More recent rockabilly performers have merged the style with western swing and jump blues to produce a music that combines elements of music common to the late 1940s and 1950s, without adhering to the strict practices of rockabilly itself.

The Fashion Sub-Culture

Worthy of mentioning is the fact that devoted followers of Rockabilly music and its fashion are known as Rockabillies, or "Billys" within the "scene." The hairstyle is usually a tame or more exaggerated "pomp" or pompadour hairstyle as was popular with 1950s artists like Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and revivalists stars from the '80s, The Stray Cats. This hair style is usually maintained with large amounts of pomade hair wax from traditional brand names like Brylcreem, Black & White Pluko, Murrays, and Layrite. It was rumored that Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash both used Genuine B&W Pomade to hold up their hair with a thick and shiny look.

The clothing is largely reflective of the popular styles worn by the musicians in the 1950s themselves; slacks, pastel colored and Daddy-O styled shirts, baggy coats with the shirt collars worn over the coat collar, creeper shoes in every colour of the spectrum, with black and white being the most popular. Of course Levi jeans (501 or 505) and more casual items are also part of the wardrobe, to include t-shirts and motorcycle jackets. In regard to fashion, Rockabillies look very similar to other music/fashion subcultures like Greasers, Teds (Teddy Boys) and Rockers of the same era. All have a love and respect of classic American cars, British motorcycles, Rock and Roll, and vintage clothing. And all have a steady and popular revivalist following all over the world.


Hasil Adkins
Ace Andres and *The X-15s
Belmont Playboys
Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys
Blacktop Rockets
Buddy Holly
Cari Lee and the Saddle-ites
Cave Catt Sammy
Cigar Store Indians
Charlie Feathers
Chuck Berry
Dagmar and the Seductones
David Vanian and the Phantom Chords
Dead Man's Hand
Deke Dickerson
Dragstrip 77
The Dempseys
Frantic Flattops
High Noon
Hillbilly Hellcats
Hillbilly Moon Explosion
Hot Rod Lincoln
Jack Knife and the Sharps
Johnny Knox and High Test
Johnny Mercury
Josie Kreuzer
Kim Lenz
Lee Rocker
Marti Brom
The Raging Teens
Reverend Elvis & Undead Syncopators
Rocket 350
Rusty and the Dragstrip Trio
Sasquatch & The Sick-A-Billys
Social Distortion
Sonoramic Commando
The Caravans
The Memphis Morticians
The Living End
The Pistoleers
The Tremors
The Reverend Horton Heat
The Stray Cats
This Train
Three Bad Jacks
The Young Werewolves
Thirteen Stars
Th' Legendary Shack Shakers

The Skip Rats


Further reading

  • Roadkill on the Three-Chord Highway, Colin Escott, Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0-415-93783-3
  • Miller, Jim (editor). The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. (1976). New York: Rolling Stone Press/Random House. ISBN 0-394-40327-4. ("Rockabilly," chapter written by Guralnick, Peter. pp. 64-67.)
  • Tosches, Nick. Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll. (1984). New York: Harmony Books. ISBN 0-517-58052-7.
  • Morrison, Craig. Go Cat Go!: Rockabilly Music and its Makers. (1996). Illinois. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-06538-7.

External links

See also

Home | Up | Alternative country | Bluegrass music | Rockabilly | Western swing

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