I suppose you could say that rockabilly itself is obscure, but even many of us who know and love the wild form of early rock and roll music really know only the most famous rockabilly performers. But as with anything, underneath the stars is a whole world of lights that, though they didn’t shine quite as famously, certainly didn’t shine any less brightly or with any less intense heat! This article takes a look at a few lesser-known rockabilly pioneers who turned out some great music of their own.
- Ersel Hickey: Not all rockabilly cats came from Memphis or even from the south for that matter. Ersel hailed from New York and had a hard young life. His father died when he was four, his mother was institutionalized, he eventually ran away from one foster home after another, and at 15 ran off with his sister, an exotic dancer who travelled the carnival circuit. Eventually he landed in a home for troubled kids where he was introduced to gospel and R&B. Then he heard Elvis and found his career. His very cool 1958 “Shame on Me” sounds ahead of its time and should have made him a star. He did have some chart success both for himself and with songs he wrote for others.
- Don Terry: I couldn’t find much information on Don Terry, but he had a couple of pretty cool songs that, while they might not be classics, certainly add to the wealth of rockabilly treasure. “Knees Shaking” was (I think) backed by the b-side “She Giggles” on the obscure Lin record label out of Gainsville. Terry may have been a DJ at a Gainsville radio station.
- Carl Mann: On the strength of the rockin’ “Rock and Roll Tonight,” on the Jaxon Records label, Mann was eventually signed to Sun Records. Although he only flirted with any real success, Mann cut some great-sounding rockabilly. His “Baby I Don’t Care” (not to be confused with Elvis’ “I Don’t Care”) has a real Jerry Lee Lewis feel to it.
- Johnny Powers: Powers was another northerner (from Michigan) drawn to rockabilly when he heard Elvis’ early songs. He recorded for several small local labels and his “Long Blonde Hair” backed with “Rock, Rock” is a fabulous rockabilly 45. He eventually landed a deal with Sun Records and recorded one record for Sun in 1959 (“With Your Love, With Your Kiss”), but by that time music was beginning to change, rockabilly was on the wane, and Sun’s star was beginning to set. He never released another Sun record. Interestingly enough, Powers was eventually signed to Mowtown records and is the only white artist to have been signed by both Sun and Mowtown.
- Fred Neil: Yet another northerner (Ohio), Neil was a staff writer and wrote songs that were recorded by the likes of Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison. During this time he recorded a handful of rockabilly songs of his own, but never had any success as a performer. “You Ain’t Treatin’ Me Right” is a Big Bopperesque number that shows he had potential that was never really realized as a performer. He went on to have success as a writer of folk songs.
Fame never really came to any of the artists on this list. And there are many others like them. But still, their contributions to the richness of rockabilly can’t be denied when you listen to their records… if you can find them!
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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