Below are cover-notes from some of the Rockabilly compilation albums in my collection. I chose them, not because they contain any great insights into the phenomenon that was Rockabilly, but because they admirably convey the atmosphere that prevailed in those early days of rock and roll - rebellion, pure and simple.
In the early days of rock’n’roll there were those creatures that dwelt on the
fringe in rock’n’roll’s twilight zone. Deranged visionaries who took their music
to the edge – and sometimes over. They were the Rockabilly singers of the
A rhythmic, hard-driving blend of country blues, Rockabilly blazed out of the
South during 1954. It was probably the purest of all rock’n’roll genres, a music
of almost classic simplicity and definition. Its rhythm was uptempo, accented
on the off-beat, and propelled by a distinctive slapping bass. Instrumentation
took its cue from the original groups – rhythm guitar, lead guitar and string bass,
with drums only added later and the honky tonk piano establishing a whole new
The sound was always clean, never cluttered, with a kind of tensile strength and
manic energy that resisted all attempts to channel it. Even the vocal technique
was something of a constant, with a generation of hiccuppers, stutterers, and
vibrato-laden warblers from Billy Barrix’s Cool Off Baby through Buddy Holly
and up to Narvel Felts.
Rockabilly was generally recorded under primitive conditions. However what
might have been lacking in hi-fidelity was often compensated for with pure energy,
musicianship and sheer enthusiasm.
Sadly, the big record labels preferred to concentrate on their established stars and rarely signed the young rockabillies to a contract, forcing them to record on the Independent labels which lacked the distribution facilities of the bigger labels. As a result, the rockabillies found themselves shunted into the shadowlands of rock'n'roll, and by 1958 they had all but disappeared.
But what an amazing four years it was. It has been estimated that the Independent labels (Sun, Starday, Arhoolie, King, et al) were recording as many as 200 new songs every week during the four years that rockabilly ruled. Most of them lasted just a week or two on the local charts and then disappeared forever - well almost forever, but not quite.
In the 1980's the hardcore fanatics (like me) had created a market that encouraged entrepreneurs to search through the archives and re-release the primitive recordings on compilation albums. It was still a specialist market, but it was profitable, and the search for "rockabilly rarities" became ever more frenetic. Songs that sold as few as 200 copies when first released in 1954 are selling by the tens of thousands today - and more are becoming available every year.
It wasn't just the localised markets and distribution problems, however, that saw the demise of Rockabilly in the 1950's: The competition was keen and artists became more and more outrageous as they attempted to snatch a piece of the ever dwindling market - so much so, that by 1958 the genre had become an almost laughable parody of itself.
Consider the sound of Buddy Holly in his famous recording of "Peggy Sue". It was the first time that many of us had heard what became known as the "rockabilly hiccup" when Buddy told us about his love for "Peggy Sue-ah-hu-oo-ah-hu-ah-hu". It was a strange new sound, but cute enough, and actually rather clever when you came to think about it.
From that moment onwards, stuttering hiccups became part of the rockabilly sound and new artists tried their hardest to improve upon it - but with devastating results. The songs became ever more demented and by 1958 the genre had spiralled into an oblivion from which it would take another forty years to recover. Here are three songs to illustrate the point:
* First we have Buddy Holly's original hiccup in "Peggy Sue"
* Then comes Arthur Osborne's "Hey Ruby", and already the hiccup has become just a little too cute; just a little too self-conscious
* And finally we have Billy Barrix with "Almost". If anything signposted the demise of rockabilly, it was "Almost" by Billy Barrix.
Since he was mentioned earlier in this blog I might as well include Narvel Felts singing "Lonely River" in the mid-1950's, and just for fun, fifty years later, the same artist singing "My Babe" in 2005.
Also, as an added bonus, one of my favourite songs: "She's Mine" by Johnny Strickland. It's a damn good rockabilly and hard to believe that his career lasted just three short years from 1958 to 1961. He died in relative obscurity in 1994 at the age of 59.