Rockabilly  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Rockabilly is one of the earliest styles of rock and roll music to emerge during the 1950s.

The term "rockabilly" is a portmanteau of "rock" and "hillbilly", the latter a reference to the country music (often called "hillbilly music" in the 1940s and '50s) that contributed strongly to the style's development. Other important influences on rockabilly include Western Swing, blues music, boogie woogie, and Jump blues. Although there are notable exceptions, its origins lie in the American South.

The influence and popularity of the style waned in the 1960s, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, rockabilly enjoyed a major revival of popularity that has endured to the present, often within a rockabilly enthusiast subculture.

Rockabilly Revival

Many young listeners were dissatisfied with the “light rock” and bloated “art rock” music on the radio in the 1970s. They wanted to return to the simple, loud, fast, emotionally-direct music rock had started with. Some musicians stripped their sound down to the bare basics of three chords, loud guitars, and emotional lyrics, creating punk rock. Others turned back to the original music of the 1950s for inspiration. Starting slowly in the mid to late Seventies, an underground rockabilly revival began to take shape. By the early 1980s, it broke through to enjoy some mainstream chart success and inspire a new generation of fanatics. The most important of these artists were:

  • The Cramps—Rising out of the punk scene at the New York club CBGB, the Cramps combined the most primitive and wild rockabilly sounds with lyrics inspired by old drive-in horror movies in songs like “Human Fly” and “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.” Lead singer Lux Interior is one of the most unrestrained performers in rock music and the band’s live shows are outstandingly energetic and unpredictable, even for a rockabilly band, which has attracted a fervent cult audience. Their so-called “psychobilly” music has provoked a number of followers, including The Meteors and Reverend Horton Heat.
  • Robert Gordon—Formerly vocalist for pioneering New York punks the Tuff Darts, Gordon went solo and began performing old rockabilly songs in 1977. Unlike Sha Na Na or the Elvis impersonators, Gordon was not presenting the music as a joke, but trying to recapture the wild energy and excitement of the 1950s performers. He teamed with legendary guitarist Link Wray and recorded an album that year, spawning a minor hit single with a cover of Billy Lee Riley’s “Red Hot.” Four more albums followed by 1981 (first on independent Private Stock, then on major label RCA), with another minor pop hit and two low-level country chart hits. Gordon toured tirelessly around the country and his dedication and energy inspired many listeners and musicians to begin to explore rockabilly music.
  • Dave Edmunds and Rockpile—Edmunds had enjoyed an out-of-left-field chart hit in 1970 with his dour but rocking version of Smiley Lewis’s “I Hear You Knocking.” During the early Seventies, he worked in the studio, trying to recreate the Sun Records sound on new songs. In 1975, he joined up with songwriter Nick Lowe to form a band called Rockpile and created a string of minor rockabilly style hits like “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ‘n’ Roll).” The group became a popular touring act in Britain and the US, leading to respectable album sales. Edmunds also nurtured and produced many younger artists who shared his love of rockabilly and Chuck Berry, most notably the Stray Cats
  • Shakin' Stevens—Was a Welsh singer who gained fame in the UK portraying Elvis in a stage play. In 1980, he took a cover of The Blasters’ “Marie Marie” into the UK Top 20, initiating an amazing string of hits. His hopped-up versions of numbers like “This Ole House” and “Green Door” were giant sellers across Europe and he toured constantly selling out large auditoriums across the continent. By the time his streak wound down a decade later, Shakin’ Stevens was the number two bestselling singles artist of the 1980s in Europe, outstripping Michael Jackson, Prince, and Bruce Springsteen. Despite his huge popularity in Europe, he has never been able to catch on in America. In recent years, he returned to public attention in the UK, with a greatest hits album topping the charts in 2005.
  • Stray Cats—Easily the most commercially successful of the new rockabilly artists, the Stray Cats formed on Long Island in 1979 when Brian Setzer teamed up with two school chums calling themselves Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom. The trio fully adopted the Gene Vincent look, complete with flashy pompadour haircuts, leather jackets, and tattoos aplenty. Attracting little attention in New York, they flew to London in 1980, seeking the supposedly active rockabilly scene there. Although the Cats found rockabilly action to be less than reported in the UK, they soon inspired a very active scene to appear. Early shows were attended by the Rolling Stones and Dave Edmunds, who quickly ushered the boys into a recording studio. In short order, the Stray Cats had three UK Top Ten singles to their credit and two bestselling albums. They returned to the USA, performing on the TV show “Fridays” with a message flashing across the screen that they had no record deal in the States. Soon EMI picked them up, their first videos appeared on MTV, and they stormed up the charts stateside. Their third LP, Rant ‘N’ Rave with the Stray Cats, topped charts across the USA and Europe as they sold out shows everywhere during 1983. However, personal conflicts led the band to break up at the height of their popularity. Brian Setzer went on to solo success working in both rockabilly and swing styles, while Rocker and Phantom continued to record in bands both together and singly. The group has reconvened several times to make new records or tours and continue to attract large audiences live, although record sales have never again approached their early Eighties success.
  • The Blasters—were centered around brothers Phil (who sang and played harmonica and guitar) and Dave Alvin (who played lead guitar and wrote songs). The brothers and their musical friends had grown up in a country town called Downey, outside Los Angeles, and had spent their teens playing with such legendary R&B musicians as Big Joe Turner, Willie Dixon, Jimmy Reed’s former bandleader Marcus Johnson, and Lee Allen, the sax player on the hits of Fats Domino and Little Richard. Having learned American roots music from the masters, the band began playing around LA in the late 1970s, attracting a following for their combination of classic styles, punk energy, and Dave Alvin’s powerful songs. Several albums on the Warner Brothers-distributed label Slash and appearances in movies failed to land a chart hit, although sales were respectable and the band captured a strong cult following among fans and critics, even inspiring fan John Cougar Mellencamp to write and produce a single for the band. In the late 1980s, Dave Alvin left the band to begin a successful solo career and Phil went back to UCLA to get his doctorate in Mathematics. Today Phil tours with a new Blasters lineup and the original members occasionally gather for performances.
  • Jason & The Scorchers—Put heavy metal, Chuck Berry, and Hank Williams into a punk-powered blender, creating a truly modern style of rockabilly. Although many would slap them with another label, such as alt-country or cowpunk, Jason and the Scorchers did what Elvis and the others had done in the Fifties: they combined the rockingest current urban sounds with the most backwoods country to create a new sound that had more edge than either of its sources. Although they were critic’s darlings and drew a rabid fan base from coast to coast, the Scorchers never managed to have that big hit record their label demanded and now their works are nearly all out of print, although they periodically reappear for another rip-roaring tour.

Many other bands were associated with the rockabilly bandwagon in the early 1980s, including the Rockats, The Polecats, Zantees, The Kingbees, Leroi Brothers, Lone Justice, and Chris Isaak.

Closely related was the “Roots Rock” movement which continued through the Eighties, led by artists like the Beat Farmers, Del-Lords, Long Ryders, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Los Lobos, The Fleshtones, Del Fuegos, and Barrence Whitfield and the Savages. These bands, like the Blasters, were inspired by a full range of historic American styles: blues, country, rockabilly, R&B, and New Orleans jazz. They held a strong appeal for listeners who were tired of the MTV technopop and glam metal bands that dominated radio play during this time period, but none of these musicians became major stars.

Also related, but much more successful, were the artists who rose to fame in the wake of Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen first achieved pop chart success with “Born to Run” in 1975 and had always been strongly influenced by earlier styles, notably rockabilly, Sixties girl groups and garage bands, and soul music. (In fact, Springsteen originally wrote his song "Fire"" for Robert Gordon, although the Pointer Sisters version sold more copies than Gordon's.) Although he was a hugely popular performer throughout the 1970s, his 1984 LP Born in the USA brought him overwhelming success. Not only did the supporting tour set attendance records, but Springsteen’s songs became ubiquitous on radio and MTV. The album spawned a slew of hit singles and several other veteran performers with similar roots-oriented sounds and socially-conscious lyrics enjoyed renewed popularity during the mid 1980s: Bob Seger, John Cougar Mellencamp, John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s former leader John Fogerty, who scored a chart-topping triumph with his solo album Centerfield in 1985.

In 1983, legendary country rock singer Neil Young recorded a rockabilly album titled "Everybody's Rockin'". The album was not a commercial success and Young was involved in a widely publicized legal fight with Geffen Records who sued him for making a record that didn't sound "like a Neil Young record." Young made no further albums in the rockabilly style. Finally, during the 1980s, a number of country music stars scored hits recording in a rockabilly style. Marty Stuart’s “Hillbilly Rock” and Hank Williams, Jr.’s “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” were the most noteworthy examples of this trend, but they and other artists like Steve Earle and the Kentucky Headhunters charted many records with this approach. Another artist, Dwight Yoakam, rose to success in Nashville after attracting a large following among punk and rockabilly fans in his native Los Angeles. His first album Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. became a surprise hit, despite being considered “too country” by Nashville insiders. In 1989, Yoakum would record a hit version of the Blasters’ “Long White Cadillac.”

Although these styles of music were overshadowed after 1990 by the rise of grunge and rap, they left behind a sizable cult audience that continued to support rockabilly and roots-influenced performers through the 1990s and into the present.



Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Rockabilly" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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