Friday, November 10, 2017


A blend of country & western and rhythm & blues, rockabilly arose in mid-1950s. The genre's stylistic legacy--it pointed the way to classic rock 'n' roll--far outweighed its commercial impact. By the late 1950s, virtually all rockabilly practitioners had been subsumed by either pop-rock or country music.

Elvis Presley: the Genre's Seminal Figure

General Assessment
Elvis Presley is a supreme figure in American life, one whose presence, no matter how banal or predictable, discourages any comparisons. He is honored equally by long-haired rock critics, middle-aged women, the city of Memphis (it named a major road after him), and even a president (Richard Nixon had him over to the White House, and made him an honorary narcotics agent). While other music stars define different versions of America, Presley's career almost has the scope to take in the whole of America: poor boy makes good, the rebel without a cause, the denizen of respectability who joined the army (when he really wouldn't have had to) and made clean movies, the comeback kid (after a decade of mediocre musicmaking, he reinvented himself as a leatherclad rocker), the glitter king reigning over the gambling casinos, and mysterious recluse. His music encompasses not only the hits of the period, but patriotic recitals, country gospel, dirty blues, and Vegas pop schlock.

His Moment of Destiny
There are four men in the cramped Sun Records studio: bassist Bill Black, guitarist Scotty Moore, producer Sam Phillips in the back, and the sexy young kid thumping his guitar as he sings, nineteen-year-old Elvis Presley. It's 1954. Sam Phillips is doing all right for himself. He has been among the first to record men who will be giants in the world of postwar blues: B.B. King, Junior Parker, and Howlin' Wolf. There are many others ready to follow in their footsteps, but he has deeper aspirations. In Presley, he sees the new world order: a white boy, culturally influenced by country and gospel, who can sing the blues.

The four of them, having reached a momentary musical impasse, take a break. They all seem to realize that they're on the brink of something big; however, they can't quite seem to put it all together. Their conservation--about music, naturally--comes around to the blues, interpreters like Arthur Crudup. You know that one song he did? It goes like this! Presley picks up his guitar and starts riffing. In a second he is singing, "That's all right, mama, that's all right with me..." Black and Moore pick up the groove behind him.

Their hijinks get Phillips' attention. Liking what he hears, he encourages the musicians to try it one more time without any changes--this time with the tape machine running. The song is cut in rapid order. They all listen to the playback, make a few comments, and then leave the studio.

Phillips further ponders the implications of what he has captured on tape. Would he be able to get any radio stations to play such a record? White disc jockeys probably would avoid it because it sounded like black music, whereas blacks were likely to consider it too hillbilly. Still, it sounded great!

Phillips went ahead and released a run of records. In doing so he ushered in the heyday of Sun Records and the rockabilly sound. The music had a fast, aggressive feel: simple, crisp drumming, vibrant guitar licks, wild country boogie piano. The music spurred a generation of young Southern musicians to search out Phillips and his imitators in hopes of building their own legacy.

As a creative force, rockabilly faded almost as soon as the general public became aware of its existence. The total output was slim; even with Presley's Sun singles included, the genre sold less records than releases of Fat Domino alone. Nevertheless, it fixed, in the words of Greil Marcus (Mystery Train), "the crucial image of rock 'n' roll: the sexy, half-crazed fool standing on stage singing his guts out." Marcus further elaborates,

Rockabilly is one of the earliest styles of rock and roll music, dating back to the early 1950s in the United States, especially the South. As a genre it blends the sound of Western musical styles such as country with that of rhythm and blues, leading to what is considered "classic" rock and roll. Some have also described it as a blend of bluegrass with rock and roll. The term "rockabilly" itself is a portmanteau of "rock" (from "rock 'n' roll") and "hillbilly", the latter a reference to the country music (often called "hillbilly music" in the 1940s and 1950s) that contributed strongly to the style. Other important influences on rockabilly include western swing, boogie woogie, jump blues, and electric blues.

Defining features of the rockabilly sound included strong rhythms, vocal twangs, and common use of the tape echo; but progressive addition of different instruments and vocal harmonies led to its "dilution". Initially popularized by artists such as Johnny Cash, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Bob Luman, and Jerry Lee Lewis, the influence and success of the style waned in the 1960s; nonetheless, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, rockabilly enjoyed a major revival. An interest in the genre endures even in the 21st century, often within a subculture. Rockabilly has left a legacy, spawning a variety of sub-styles and influencing other genres such as punk rock.

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