If you’re new to rockabilly, or haven’t had much chance to explore the genre, you may feel lost when the conversation turns to the early idols. If you want to keep up with the conversation, then you need some basic essentials to get you up to speed. In this article, let’s focus on five artists who had a huge hand in shaping the original art form that we call rockabilly music.
This list is not necessarily in order of importance. I’ve been around the rockabilly scene long enough to know that if you ask 100 rockabilly fans to rate the early influencers according to importance, you’re liable to end up with 100 totally different lists. So depending upon who you ask, this might not even be a list of the five most important. But hopefully no one would argue that each of these five played a huge role in early rock and roll and deserve mention here. If you can talk about each of these people or acts, then you can join in the rockabilly conversation with confidence! Here then are the five:
- Elvis Presley: They don’t call him “The King” for nothing. Elvis is probably mentioned more than any other artist as the inventor of rockabilly. His early recordings at the Memphis Recording Service studios and Sun Records set the standard for the genre. His raw energy and dangerous (for the times) sensuality set the girls to screaming, the boys to dreaming, and the grownups to steaming!
- Sam Phillips: Sam was the owner of the Memphis Recording Service studios in Memphis Tennessee (sometimes mistakenly called “Sun Studios,” a name which didn’t come until later) and the fabled Sun Records. Phillips once said something to the effect of, “If I could find a white boy who can sing like a black boy I’d make a million dollars” (a sign of the shameful racism that infected 1950s America–not Phillips though as he worked with many black blues artists before rockabilly made his label famous). He found that boy in Elvis. But Elvis wasn’t his only ace. He also discovered Jonny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, and many, many more. Phillips had the insight to see–and hear–that he was on to something huge with these performers and their wild new musical style. Rockabilly owes a huge debt to Phillips.
- Carl Perkins: Sometimes called “The Godfather of rock and roll,” Perkins was a guitar player/singer/songwriter who also came out of Phillips’ studios. Most people know his smash hit “Blue Suede Shoes,” but his influence goes incredibly far beyond that song. He influenced the guitar playing of virtually every player that came after him including the Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney. His lyrics also had a huge impact on the slang of rock and roll and though it’s easy to get lost in his guitar playing, focus on his lyrics the next time you listen and you’ll hear a veritable dictionary of terms that became the ’50s slang that we know now.
- Jerry Lee Lewis: “The Killer” is yet another star to come out of Sam Phillips’ studio. His wild, pounding piano style oozed bad-boy energy. He had several hits before his personal-life antics caught up with him and put him into a spot of trouble. But he rebounded and is still going strong today well into his 70s.
- Johnny Cash: You might start detecting a theme here, but Sam Phillips discovered “The Man in Black” too! Of course, Johnny went on to superstardom as a country artist instead of a rock god, but his early Sun records emoted his own unique brand of rockabilly. With the classically under-stated guitar sound of his lead player, Luther Perkins (no relation to Carl mentioned above), he brought a somewhat more subdued and introspective facet to rockabilly. Some of his early recordings are arguably his best
So there you have five rockabilly luminaries. This group of guys is definitely essential to understanding rockabilly. They’re certainly not the end of the rockabilly story, but they make a great beginning!
Buster Fayte is an author and rockabilly musician. He Blogs at “Buster Fayte’s Rockabilly Romp” where he writes about the passion he shares with millions of musicians and fans for rockabilly and oldies music. Buster has written several books including the “Complete Home Music Recording Start Kit”. He writes original songs, sings, and plays both guitar and bass.
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