Rockabilly is the earliest form of rock and roll as a distinct style of music. It is a fusion of blues, hillbilly boogie, bluegrass music and country music, and its origins lie in the American South. As Peter Guralnick writes, "Its rhythm was nervously uptempo, accented on the offbeat, and propelled by a distinctively slapping bass....The sound was further bolstered by generous use of echo, a homemade technique refined independently by Sam Phillips and Leonard Chess in Chicago with sewer pipes and bathroom acoustics." While recording artists such as Bill Haley were playing music that fused rhythm and blues, western swing and country music in the early 1950s, and Tennessee Ernie Ford performed in a somewhat similar style on songs such as "Smokey Mountain Boogie," they were not playing rockabilly. As Nick Tosches writes, "By the early 1950s, it was not uncommon to encounter simultaneous country and rhythm-and-blues recordings of the same song." And he points out that the Delmore Brothers and Hank Williams were performing, in the late 1940s, music that could be called rock and roll. But rockabilly was a stripped-down version of its various sources, and thus a specific stylistic moment in the evolution of music that before had existed in many forms.

Elvis Presley's 1954 Memphis sessions for Sam Phillips's Sun Records produced the first rockabilly recordings. "That's All Right," first performed by Arthur Crudup, was a reworking of a blues tune, done with overtones of country music. "Blue Moon of Kentucky," by Bill Monroe, was a bluegrass standard, done with overtones of blues. In addition, Presley's image as a rebellious, young, sexual singer was the first definitive rock and roll persona.

Carl Perkins, who also recorded for Sun, is another performer whose recordings defined the genre. His "Blue Suede Shoes," "Dixie Fried" and "Boppin' the Blues" are considered classics of the style. The early recordings of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Dale Hawkins, Charlie Feathers, Gene Vincent, Billy Lee Riley and Roy Orbison are also considered essential, although Cash, Vincent, Lewis and Orbison each went on to perform in other styles. Eddie Cochran and Ricky Nelson also are considered rockabilly performers; they were not, however, from the South, although Nelson's guitarist, James Burton, one of the most celebrated rockabilly guitarists (along with Carl Perkins and Presley's guitarist, Scotty Moore), grew up in Shreveport.

Although the influence of rockabilly, both as a musical style and as a set of attitudes and gestures, has never waned, Presley's induction into the Army in 1958 was the end of the classic rockabilly era. In the 1980s, The Stray Cats led a brief revival of interest in rockabilly. And bands like The Cramps, Tav Falco's Panther Burns, Reverend Horton Heat, Southern Culture on the Skids, and more recently Tiger Army merged the music with punk, forming a distinct sub-genre sometimes referred to as psychobilly.

Guralnick writes, "Rockabilly is the purest of all rock 'n' roll genres. That is because it never went anywhere. It is preserved in perfect isolation within an indistinct time period, bounded on the one hand by Elvis's first record...and on the other by the decline and fall of Elvis....He was the colossus that bestrode its narrow world."

More recent rockabilly performers have merged the style with western swing and jump blues to produce a music that combines elements of music common to the late 1940s and 1950s, without adhering to the strict practices of rockabilly itself.


Further reading

  • Miller, Jim (editor). The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. (1976). New York: Rolling Stone Press/Random House. ISBN 0-394-40327-4. ("Rockabilly," chapter written by Guralnick, Peter. pp. 64-67.)
  • Tosches, Nick. Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll. (1984). New York: Harmony Books. ISBN 0-517-58052-7.

External link

Country music | Country genres
Bakersfield sound - Bluegrass - Close harmony - Country blues - Honky tonk - Jug band - Lubbock sound - Nashville sound - Outlaw country
Alternative country - Country rock - Psychobilly - Rockabilly
Styles of American folk music
Appalachian | Blues (Ragtime) | Cajun and Creole (Zydeco) | Country (Honky tonk and Bluegrass) | Jazz | Native American | Spirituals and Gospel | Tejano

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