Rockabilly Essentials: Musicians You Have to Know About

By Buster Fayte, Featured Author, Sad Man’s Tongue

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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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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About Sad Man's Tongue: Rockabilly Bar & Bistro - Prague

We are a Bar and Bistro where old school meets the new school, dedicated to preserving the roots of rock and roll and it's modern adaptations as well as preserving the cultural identity of our neighborhood through our food, the the principles of the slow food movement. A little bit of rockabilly and retro combine with the kustom kulture of today, in an atmosphere devoid of Pretension.
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