Written By Max Gibson, Featured Writer, Fresh Jive
Loud, fast, irreverent and fun. Those words and many more characterize the essence of Rockabilly music in the 1950s. An amalgamation of rhythm & blues, western swing, boogie woogie and country, it is one of the earliest styles of rock n’ roll music. The term Rockabilly was born from the words “rock n’ roll” and “hillbilly.” Popularized by icons such as Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins, Rockabilly music was native to the Southern United States, although the genre gained widespread popularity throughout the 1950s. Controversial for its time, Rockabilly music unified various forms of musical genres, and in the process helped to redefine popular music in America.
It happened by chance; a series of circumstances that led to the birth of Rockabilly music in America. It was the summer of 1953. Still unknown to the world, it was a young Elvis Presley who would walk through the doors of record executive Sam Phillips’ recording studio and alter the course of popular music. Elvis came with cash in hand to record a song onto acetate as a gift for his mother. Phillips wasn’t impressed with his singing, but the boy did leave a memorable impression on him. He got him back to the studio a year later when he thought he had found a ballad that would suit him well, but nothing came of it. He then called upon local guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black to jam with Elvis in the Sun Studios to see what they could come up with. The session was flat. Deciding to take a break, it was Elvis who began to mess around on his guitar improvising the old blues tunes, “That’s All Right Mama,” an upbeat tune originally cut by Arthur Grudup in 1946. Scotty and Bill joined in and began cutting it up alongside Elvis.
Within earshot of the group’s jovial sound, Phillips was drawn to it. “Sam was in the control room, and the door was open,” remembers Scotty Moore. “He came out and said, ‘What are ya’ll doing? That sounds pretty good.’ We said, ‘We don’t know,’ Phillips said, “Well, see if you can do it again the same way. Let’s put it on tape, see what it sounds like.”
It was in this relaxed, spontaneous environment of Sun Studios that Rockabilly music was born. Cutting a demo that night, Phillips brought the music to popular Memphis DJ, Dewey “Daddy-O” Phillips three days later. Spinning the improvised records on his locally famous Red, Hot & Blue radio show, the DJ was surprised when listeners instantly began to call in raving about the unknown performer. Over the next two hours, Dewey played Elvis’ tracks repeatedly as listeners were galvanized by this unknown performers’ sound, whom many assumed was an African American.
The Elvis Effect
Elvis Presley performed live for the first time alongside his new band mates on July 17, 1954. Although he developed a nervous tick on stage when he first started, it was clear that Elvis was a natural performer. With his unconventional attire matching his unique dance moves that many deemed lewd, he quickly became a polarizing figure in the South as he was wholly shunned or warmly embraced.
“Between the radio broadcasts and the weekday shows, Elvis’s rockabilly spread across the South,” remembers author Greil Marcus. “Along the way, he was outraging moralists, stoking fires of passion in young women, angering jealous teenaged boys, giving concerned parents ulcers, upsetting the country-music old guard, inspiring other would-be rock ‘n’ rollers, and changing music forever.” A lightning rod of creativity but also controversy, it would be Elvis who would first introduce the Rockabilly sound to the rest of the world.
A New Sound
Rockabilly music soon spread throughout the country. Under Sam Phillips’ watchful eye, Sun Records emerged as the epicenter of Rockabilly royalty. Finding their home at the studio, artists from Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins to Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash recorded numerous hits at Sun, making it the destination for rock ‘n’ roll’s new rebellious sound. Songs such as “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Baby Let’s Play House,” established Sun’s relevance to the genre, albeit its small stature.
However, with a stable of superstar performers, Phillips was never able to financially manage their multiple careers. Eventually, each singer would find greener pastures amongst larger records labels, although many of their classics were created at Sun.
Although the popularity of Rockabilly music subsided into the 1960s, it was the major influence across the Atlantic in England’s emerging rock n’ rollers, making an impression on 4 young men who would soon be known as the Beatles. In America, the genre saw a revival in the late 1970s to early 1980s, where the style, music and culture of this early form of rock n’ roll was embraced by a new generation.
Source: Fresh Jive
- Elvis Presley’s First Guitar Man, Scotty Moore, Turns 80 (sadmanstongue.com)
- Rockabilly Essentials: Musicians You Have to Know About (sadmanstongue.com)