The word “rockabilly” is a fusion of “rock” (from “rock’n’roll”) and “hillbilly”. ‘Hillbilly’ was a term used to describe some country music or mountain music. The term morphed over time to acquire different meanings with new generations. By the time the Beverly Hillbillies was a hit on TV, the word had grown to imply: ‘Hick’ or ‘country’ used as a derogatory. In its earlier form, there was an implication of a rich tradition of country music that embodied a variety of sources from the Blues to Cowboy, Western Swing and Boogie Woogie.
The first nationwide country hit was ‘Wreck of the Old ’97’ followed by ‘Lonesome Road Blues’. Jimmie Rodgers, known as the ‘Blue Yodeler’, was perhaps the “first true country star.” The structure of most of his songs were blues-based chord progressions, although his blues had different instrumentation and sound from the recordings of his black blues contemporaries like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Bessie Smith.
During the 1930s and 1940s two new country sounds emerged:
- Western Swing by bands like Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, which combined country singing and steel guitar with big band jazz influences with horn sections. These corresponded to the public’s passion for Cowboy movies and the growing popularity of Big Bands. Recordings of Wills from the mid-40s to the early 50s include “two beat jazz” rhythms, “jazz choruses”, and guitar work that preceded early rockabilly recordings. 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.”
- In 1938 blues artists like Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson launched a nationwide boogie craze. Country artists like Moon Mullican, the Delmore Brothers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Speedy West, Jimmy Bryant, and the Maddox Brothers and Rose began recording what was known as “Hillbilly Boogie”, consisting of “hillbilly” vocals and instrumentation with a boogie bass line.
The Maddox Brothers
Fred Maddox of the Maddox Brothers and Rose discovered that he could get a dramatic percussive ‘slap’ by a combination of slapping and vertically plucking strings of the stand-up 3/4 bass fiddle. Combined with a Boogie bass line, he could really drive the bottom end of the band and audiences couldn’t keep still. 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 kicked into high gear, pressing a more honky-tonk feel, with a heavy, manic bottom end. “They played hillbilly music but it sounded real hot. They played real loud for that time, too.” The Maddoxes were also known for their lively antics. “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.” The Maddoxes helped release white bodies from traditional notions of decorum — they just couldn’t keep from dancing. Seeing how well this excited crowds, more and more younger white bands began to behave like the Maddoxes on stage. Some believe they were one of the first Rockabilly groups, if not the very first.
By the 1950s, it wasn’t clear what direction popular music would take. The recording ban had displaced Big Bands from the charts and smaller bands were emerging. The soldiers who returned from WWII were settling down with wives and young families. Restless teenagers were looking for a change. The South was still deeply segregated but new technologies were making it possible to experience music across cultures. There were black radio stations that played ‘race’ music and white radio stations that played anything but ‘race’ music. The airwaves, however, were color-blind. Late at night, teens could dial in whatever stations they wanted. The black stations were playing music with more rhythm & blues – more exciting music – stuff that made you really want to move. To young whites it was off-limits, intriguing, and helped the teens think they were getting away with something — rebelling. The music was sexually expressive. The romantic ballads of the 1930s were from the heart — these were from someplace a bit lower.
Memphis, TN was located at the intersection of the States of Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee — on the banks of the mighty Mississippi river. The city existed because of the cotton trade and river transportation routes to the rest of the country. Every musician traveling from the birthplace of Jazz, New Orleans , all the way to Chicago, every Mississippi Delta blues player, sharecroppers, Cajuns, river men, gamblers and thieves; they all passed through Memphis, leaving a little bit of their music behind. There was a rich tradition of Gospel Music in the many Baptist, fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches. The churches held all-night Gospel sings that were popular with the young. Beale Street was alive with black rhythm & blues. There was black music, there was white music, and there was no effective way to keep them apart. If you were a musician and played any kind of instrument in Memphis TN in the 1950s, you had to be aware of all these traditions. They were everywhere. Like a good meal, they had to be tasted and were just too good to pass up.
Saturday Night Jamboree
The Saturday Night Jamboree was a local musical stage show held at the Goodwyn Institute Auditorium in downtown Memphis between 1953 & 1954. The show may have been interesting but it was what was going on backstage that had more historical significance: the backstage dressing rooms were a gathering place where musicians could experiment with new sounds, mixing fast country, gospel, blues and boogie-woogie. Guys were trading ‘licks’ and teaching them to each other. Eventually, these new sounds would make their way out onto the stage where they found a receptive audience. The Goodwyn Institute Auditorium dressing rooms became a breeding ground for new electric guitar and bass riffs.
Johnny & Dorsey Burnette and Paul Burlison
Young musicians around Memphis Tennessee were beginning to play a mix of musical styles. Paul Burlison, for example, was playing in nondescript hillbilly bands in the very early 1950s. One of these early groups secured a 15-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 later become known as rockabilly. In 1951 and 1952 Burlison and the Burnettes (Johnny and Dorsey) played around Memphis (TN) 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.”
They began playing their energetic brand of rockabilly to small and 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. It wasn’t until 1957 that the song was recorded.
The trio released “Train Kept A-Rollin'” in 1956. This song is listed by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the top 500 rock songs of all time. The song has also been covered by the Yardbirds, Aerosmith, and others. Some consider this 1956 recording to be the 1st use of guitar distortion on a rock song (played by lead guitarist Paul Burlison).
At 706 Union Avenue in Memphis was Sun Studio, a recording studio opened by Sam Phillips on January 3rd, 1950. It was originally called the Memphis Recording Service, sharing the same building with the Sun Records (label) business. Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ recorded “Rocket 88” there in 1951 with song composer Ike Turner on keyboards, reputedly the first rock-and-roll single. Many allow the studio to make the claim “the birthplace of rock & roll.” Blues and R&B artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Parker, Little Milton, B.B. King, James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, and Rosco Gordon all recorded there in the early 1950s. Sam Phillips knew the music that the black community was playing was special — he loved it — but he couldn’t get it played on the white stations.
Elvis Aaron Presley (January 8th, 1935 – August 16th, 1977)
In August 1953, Elvis Presley walked into the office of Sun Records. He wanted to buy a few minutes of studio time to record a two-sided acetate disc, “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” He apparently chose Sun Studio in the hope of being discovered. The receptionist Marion Keisker was the only one there that day and after he finished the unremarkable recording she made a note of the young man’s name along with the commentary, “Good ballad singer. Hold.” Presley cut a 2nd acetate in January 1954, “I’ll Never Stand In Your Way” and “It Wouldn’t Be the Same Without You”, but nothing came of it.
Shortly after, he failed an audition for a local vocal quartet the Songfellows. Songfellow Jim Hamill claimed that he didn’t demonstrate an ear for harmony. In April, Presley took a job as a truck driver for the Crown Electric company. After playing a few local gigs, his friend Ronnie Smith suggested he contact Eddie Bond, the leader of Smith’s band, which needed a vocalist. Bond also rejected him, advising Presley to stick to truck driving “because you’re never going to make it as a singer.”
Sam Phillips was always on the lookout for someone who could bring the sound of black musicians to a broader audience. Marion Keisker reported, “Over and over I remember Sam saying, ‘If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.'” In June, he acquired a demo recording of a ballad, “Without You”, that he thought might suit the young singer. Presley tried but was unable to do it justice. Phillips asked Presley to sing some other numbers and started the tape machine. He was sufficiently impressed by what he heard to invite two local musicians to work out some arrangements with Presley for a recording session. They were guitarist Winfield “Scotty” Moore and upright bass player Bill Black.
The July 5th, 1954 session didn’t appear to be going well. Phillips wasn’t getting the results that he wanted. Frustrated, he stepped out of the control room into the back alley for a cigarette. Presley, Moore and Black had been at it for hours and were a little punchy. Presley started playing and singing a 1946 Arthur Crudup tune ‘That’s All Right’ while jiving to the music. Bill Black picked right up with Maddox-style slap bass and was dancing around as well. It sounded pretty good to Moore who jumped in with his distinctive fingerstyle boogie. According to Scotty Moore, Phillips heard the jam from the alley and stuck his head back in saying, “What are you doing?” We said, “We don’t know.” “Well, back up,” he said “Try to find a place to start, and do it again.” Then Sam started the tape machine.
Three days later Sam delivered the demo to the one DJ he thought might play it, Dewey Phillips. The popular Memphis DJ played “That’s All Right” on his Red, Hot, and Blue show that evening. Listeners began phoning in, wanting to know who the singer was. The interest was so great that Phillips played the record 16 times during the last two hours of his show. Dewey Phillips quickly requested an on-air interview and asked Presley what high school he attended in order to clarify his color for the many callers who had assumed he was black. Sam Phillips called the trio back to record Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” for a ‘B’ side of a single. Sam used a jerry-rigged echo effect that he dubbed “slapback.” A single was pressed & released right away. Popular music would never be the same.
By the end of 1954, Elvis had asked D.J. Fontana to join them. Drums were not common in country music but they sure helped with this new dance music. In the 1955 sessions shortly after Presley’s move from Sun Records to RCA, Presley’s backup band included Moore, Black, Fontana, lap steel guitarist Jimmy Day, and pianist Floyd Cramer. In 1956 Elvis added vocal backup with the Jordanaires.
Carl Lee Perkins (April 9th, 1932 – January 19th, 1998)
Carl Perkins and his brothers Jay Perkins and Clayton Perkins, along with drummer W. S. Holland, had been playing their style of music about 90 miles from Memphis TN. The Perkins Brothers Band, featuring Carl and Jay on lead vocals, quickly established themselves as the hottest band on the cutthroat, “get-hot-or-go-home” Jackson, TN 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. It was here that Carl started composing his first songs. He carefully watched the dance floor for crowd reactions, working out more rhythmically driving styles of music (neither country nor blues, but had elements of both). Perkins kept reshaping the songs until he had something worth committing to paper. Carl was sending demos to New York record companies, who kept rejecting him, explaining that this strange new style of country wasn’t commercial. That would change on December 19th, 1955 when he recorded ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. Perkins’ original version became a rock’n’roll standard.
Perkins has been called “the King of Rockabilly”. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll, the Rockabilly, and the Nashville Songwriters Halls of Fame, and has received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
William John Clifton “Bill” Haley (July 6th, 1925 – February 9th, 1981)
In 1951 a 26-year-old band leader named Bill Haley recorded a version of Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” with his old Western Swing group, the Saddlemen. Haley and his band crafted a ‘rockabilly’ sound and followed with versions of “Rock the Joint” in 1952 and original works such as “Real Rock Drive” and “Crazy Man, Crazy” which reached #12 on the American Billboard chart in 1953.
On April 12th, 1954, the band’s new name was Bill Haley and His Comets. They recorded “Rock Around the Clock” for Decca Records. When it was 1st released in May 1954, “Rock Around the Clock” made the charts for 1 week at #23, and sold 75,000 copies. A year later it was featured in the film ‘Blackboard Jungle’. “Rock Around the Clock” hit #1, held that position for 8 weeks, and was the #2 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 1955. The recording was, until the late 1990s, recognized by Guinness Book of World Records as having the highest sales claim for a pop vinyl recording, with an “unaudited” claim of 25,000,000 copies sold.
1955 was also the year that Chuck Berry’s ‘Maybellene’ reached the charts as a crossover hit.
1956 – Rockabilly Goes National
In January 1956, 3 new songs by Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Elvis 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).
Perkins’s ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ for a short period sold 20,000 records a day, and it was the first 1,000,000-selling country song to cross over to both rhythm & blues and pop charts. On February 11th, Presley appeared on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show for the third time, singing ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. He performed ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ two more times on national television, and ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ three times through 1956.
Carl Perkins first performed ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ on television on March 17th on Ozark Jubilee, a weekly ABC-TV program.
From 1955 to 1960, the live national radio and TV show from Springfield, Missouri featured Brenda Lee and Wanda Jackson and guests included Gene Vincent and other rockabilly artists.
In March Columbia Records tried to enter the rockabilly market with ‘Honky Tonk Man’ by Johnny Horton. King put out ‘Seven Nights to Rock’ by Moon Mullican, Mercury Records released ‘Rockin’ Daddy’ by Eddie Bond, and Starday Records released Bill Mack’s ‘Fat Woman’. Also in March 1956, Carl Perkins was injured in a major automobile accident on his way to appear on national television.
Texan Charles Hardin ‘Buddy’ Holley (September 7th, 1936 – February 3rd, 1959) debuted on the Decca label in April, and Roy Orbison (as a member of the Teen Kings) debuted with “Ooby Dooby” on the New Mexico/Texas based Je-wel label. Holly’s biggest hits would not be released until 1957.
In April and May 1956, The Rock and Roll Trio played on the Ted Mack’s TV talent show in New York City. They won all three times and guaranteed them a finalist position in the September supershow.
Vincent Eugene Craddock (February 11th, 1935 – October 12th, 1971), known as Gene Vincent, with his band Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps, recorded of ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ which was released on June 2nd, 1956, backed by ‘Woman Love’. Within 21 days it sold over 200,000 records, staying at the top of national pop and country charts for 20 weeks, and sold more than 1,000,000 copies. These same musicians would have two more releases in 1956, followed by another in January 1957.
“Queen of Rockabilly” Wanda Jackson’s first record “I Gotta Know” came out in July on the Capitol label, followed by “Hot Dog That Made Him Mad” in November. Capitol would release nine more records by Jackson, some with songs she had written herself, before the end of the 1950s.
Jerry Lee Lewis (September 29th, 1935 -October 28, 2022 ) Jerry Lee Lewis’ first record was released on December 22nd, 1956, and it featured the song: ‘Crazy Arms’ which had been a #1 hit for Ray Price for 20 weeks earlier in the year, along with ‘End of the Road’. Lewis would have big hits in 1957 with his version of ‘Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Going On’ and ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ (both on the Sun label).
Although Ricky Nelson – Eric Hilliard Nelson (May 8th, 1940 – December 31st, 1985) – records were released beginning in April 1957, his first hit record (#8) was ‘Believe What You Say’ released in March 1958. The guitarist was James Burton who signed with Nelson that year and lived in the Nelson home for 2 years.
In the summer of 1958, Eddie Cochran (October 3rd, 1938 – April 17th, 1960) had a chart topping hit with ‘Summertime Blues’ followed by ‘Sitting in the Balcony’ released in early 1957, ‘C’mon Everybody’ released in October 1958, and ‘Somethin’ Else’ released in July 1959. Then in April 1960 while touring with Gene Vincent in the U.K., their taxi crashed into a concrete lamp post. Eddie was killed at age 21. The grim coincidence was that his posthumous UK number 1 hit was called ‘Three Steps to Heaven’.
Rockabilly enjoyed wide popularity in the U.S. during 1956 & 1957, but radio airplay began to decline after 1960. Factors contributing to the decline include the induction of Elvis Presley into the army in 1958, the death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in 1959, and a change in American musical tastes. The rockabilly style remained popular, however, in England where it attracted a strong following through the mid 1960s.
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Compiled, edited & expanded from Wikipedia and numerous other sources including primary sources
Special thanks to fan web sites for Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Sun Studio, Gene Vincent, Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash & Wanda Jackson