History Of Rockabilly Music. rockabilly is a distinctive style of rock and roll music that emerged in the mid-1950s, primarily in the American South. It combined the energetic sounds of blues and country, characterized by slapping string bass, twanging lead guitar, and acoustic rhythm guitar with plenty of echo. While often associated with white southern musicians, rockabilly crossed racial boundaries, with artists like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry finding popularity among both white and black audiences. The heyday of rockabilly was centered around the famous Sun Records studios in Memphis, Tennessee, where artists like Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis were discovered by owner Sam Phillips. Although rockabilly eventually fused with mainstream rock and roll, it has seen periods of revival, with various artists and bands continuing to celebrate the genre’s roots.

Background

Rockabilly is a genre of music that emerged in the mid-1950s as one of the earliest forms of rock and roll. It originated in the American south and was characterized by its lively and unselfconscious blend of blues and country music. While rockabilly is often associated with white southern musicians, its fusion of blues and country transcended racial boundaries. Artists like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley gained popularity among both black and white audiences, although white radio stations sometimes refused to play their music due to concerns about corrupting the youth. Similarly, black musician Chuck Berry’s songs often resembled rockabilly, although they were not typically classified as such.

Rockabilly’s roots can be traced back to the 1940s, when several country acts began incorporating blues-influenced songs with driving rhythms into their repertoire. This style anticipated the sound of rockabilly and set the stage for its later development. Artists like Bill Monroe, the Delmore Brothers, and Hank Williams added drums and electric guitars to their music, creating a pre-rockabilly sound that paved the way for the genre’s emergence.

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The Heyday of Rockabilly

The heyday of rockabilly occurred in the mid-1950s, with the Sun Records studio in Memphis serving as its epicenter. Sun owner Sam Phillips played a pivotal role in discovering and promoting rockabilly artists. Notable musicians like Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis were all signed to Sun Records and helped define the genre with their influential recordings.

Elvis Presley’s Memphis sessions for Sun Records in 1954 produced some of the most iconic rockabilly recordings of all time. Songs like “That’s All Right Mama” and a rocking version of the bluegrass standard “Blue Moon of Kentucky” showcased Presley’s unique blend of blues, country, and rockabilly elements. His performances on the Louisiana Hayride radio show, where he was billed as The Hillbilly Cat, solidified his reputation as a pioneer of rockabilly.

Buddy Holly, a singer/songwriter from Lubbock, Texas, was another influential figure in the heyday of rockabilly. Holly’s work incorporated elements from various musical styles, including blues, country, gospel, and more. His innovative approach to songwriting and his incorporation of rockabilly elements cemented his status as a legend in the genre.

Other noteworthy rockabilly artists of the era included Gene Vincent, Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty, and Buddy Holly. Their contributions to the genre helped shape its distinct sound and influence future rock and roll musicians.

History Of Rockabilly Music

Defining recordings by Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others

While many artists contributed to the development of rockabilly, some recordings stand out as defining moments for the genre. Carl Perkins, in particular, had a significant impact on rockabilly with his song “Blue Suede Shoes.” Released in 1956, the song became a classic and exemplified the energy and spirit of rockabilly.

Jerry Lee Lewis, known for his electrifying piano playing and dynamic performances, also made significant contributions to the genre. His early recordings on Sun Records, including “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” showcased his wild and energetic rockabilly style.

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Other artists like Johnny Cash, Dale Hawkins, Charlie Feathers, Gene Vincent, Billy Lee Riley, Johnny Burnette, and Roy Orbison also left their mark on rockabilly with their unique recordings. The early hits of the Everly Brothers, such as “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Susie,” incorporated rockabilly elements that further solidified the genre’s popularity.

In addition to male artists, rockabilly also provided a platform for female performers to showcase their musical talents. Women like Wanda Jackson and Janis Martin embraced rockabilly and brought a liberating energy to the genre. Wanda Jackson, in particular, broke barriers by shedding the traditional cowboy attire and adopting a more glamorous and edgy style.

Rockabilly Music

Revival

Despite its initial popularity in the mid-1950s, rockabilly’s prominence declined in the 1960s with the emergence of other musical genres. However, the genre experienced a revival in the 1980s, thanks to the efforts of artists like Robert Gordon and The Stray Cats.

Robert Gordon, accompanied by guitarist Link Wray, spearheaded the conscious rockabilly revival in 1977 with his cover version of Billy Lee Riley’s “Red Hot.” The release of his album “Rock Billy Boogie” in 1979 brought renewed attention to the genre and helped reignite interest among rockabilly enthusiasts.

The Stray Cats, a band formed in the early 1980s, also played a significant role in the rockabilly revival. Their fusion of rockabilly, punk rock, and pop sensibilities propelled them to mainstream success with hits like “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut.” The Stray Cats’ popularity helped reintroduce rockabilly to a new generation of listeners and inspired other bands to embrace the genre.

During the revival period, rockabilly also spawned a sub-genre known as psychobilly. Bands like The Cramps, Batmobile, and The Meteors merged rockabilly with punk rock, creating a distinct and edgier sound that appealed to a niche audience.

To celebrate the genre’s rich history and influence, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame was founded in 1997 by Bob Timmers. The hall aims to preserve and showcase the pioneers of rock and roll and their contributions to the development of rockabilly. Several rockabilly festivals also take place each year in the United States and Europe, providing a platform for both established and emerging rockabilly artists to perform and connect with fans.

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History Of Rockabilly Music

History Of Rockabilly Music See also

Rockabilly’s impact on the music world can be seen in its influence on other genres and styles. Western Swing, an American music genre that emerged in the 1920s, incorporated elements of jazz, blues, and country music. Western Swing shared similarities with rockabilly in its fusion of different musical styles and its emphasis on lively and energetic performances.

History Of Rockabilly Music The Nervous Fellas

Alternative country, a genre that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, also drew inspiration from rockabilly. Alternative country blended elements of rock, folk, blues, and country music to create a distinct and alternative sound within the country music scene.

Punk rock, known for its raw and rebellious energy, also has roots in rockabilly. Punk rock musicians like the Ramones and the Clash drew inspiration from the fast-paced rhythms and rebellious spirit of early rockabilly.

The influence of rockabilly can still be felt in the music of today. Artists like Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Buddy Holly continue to be revered for their contributions to the genre and their impact on the evolution of rock and roll. Their music serves as a reminder of the creative and influential spirit of rockabilly and its enduring legacy in the music world.

By Mark Twang

I'm Mark Twang, a musician, guitarist, and songwriter. I've always had a deep love for Rockabilly, Blues, and Roots Music. That's why I created marktwanglive.com. On this website, I share pictures, press articles, videos, and audio, giving you a glimpse into the rich history of The Nervous Fellas, a band I was a part of with Ronnie Haward and Butch Murphy. But that's not all. Through my eyes, you'll also experience the journey of other bands I've played with over the years, such as The Bopsters with Rich Hagensen, Trouble Bound with Britt Hagerty, and so many talented local bands and players. Get in touch with me at [email protected] and let's dive into the captivating world of rockabilly, blues, and roots music together.