Rockabilly Can’t Get No Respect – But It Should
Guitarist and Joe Bonamassa mentor Danny Gatton once said that rockabilly didn’t get the respect it deserves. To some extent, rockabilly has been mistreated by music history. Like it was just a passing fad, a footnote on the way from blues to rock music, not worthy of being taken too seriously. But Gatton thinks that this minimization of the importance and influence of rockabilly is a major mistake. That we need to go back and re-discover the true power of rockabilly music, and learn to not just admire it but cherish it.
But why should we care about rockabilly? After all, things don’t just get your respect – they have to earn it. But rockabilly has done more than enough to earn your respect. Here are a few reasons why it has, and why you should reacquaint yourself with rockabilly:
Rockabilly Married the Best of Black & White American Music
Rockabilly is a pure expression of American roots. Because it comes from both the country western as well as blues and rhythm and blues traditions, rockabilly captured both the white and black American experience in musical form. The trailblazers of rockabilly, many of whom were signed to the legendary Sun Records music label, were often poor white musicians who grew up in the tradition of western music like country, but who also craved the freedom and exuberance of black American music like blues and R&B.
Their solution was to merge elements of both styles. This created a country music on steroids effect. It was hopped up, hyped up, wild and crazy-eyed. If rockabilly were a man, it was the kind of man you didn’t want your innocent daughter going out with on Friday nights. It was a sensational music; it was a sexual music. It contained the spirit of adventure and young vibrancy that captured the best of American culture. It reflects the fact that, no matter the color of our skin, we are all Americans.
Rockabilly Was One of the Coolest Forms of Rock and Roll
Let’s be totally honest here. If by rock and roll we mean essentially what happened in rock music prior to the classic rock era that comprised the British invasion, Bob Dylan, and the mid to late 1960’s and beyond, some rock and roll music just isn’t that cool anymore. It’s fun. It’s energetic. And sure, back in its day it was cooler than riding a Harley in the East Village. But, a lot has happened since then, and rock and roll has lost its edgy coolness.
But rockabilly hasn’t.
Rockabilly isn’t sappy. It isn’t schmaltzy. It isn’t dripping with sentimentalism, more cheese than a Cheesecake Factory dessert cake. It’s raw, it’s real, it’s tough as nails, it’s gritty. In the 1950’s, rockabilly is one of the coolest things young America had to offer (it’s not the blues, quite, but what is)? It’s The Fonz. In a Lamberghini. Listening to John Lee Hooker. On his way to hang out at James Dean’s house. And Marilyn Monroe is going to be there too. That’s how cool it was compared to most everything else.
The first record that Elvis Presley cut for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records label was resisted by both white and black radio stations. The country stations wouldn’t play it because it sounded too black; the R&B stations because it sounded too white. Go figure, huh? However, a maverick in the radio field named Dewey Phillips finally had the guts to play Elvis’ record, called “That’s Alright Mama.” And it set the nation ablaze.
So how influential on rock music has Elvis Presley been? Let’s look to one of the patron saints of the genre, Bob Dylan, for an answer. Bob Dylan has said, “I thank God for Elvis Presley”. Further, Dylan once made his way all the way to the Sun Records studio in Memphis to kiss the spot on the ground where Elvis recorded. He probably could have just sent Elvis a thank you note instead, but it’s all good.
Though some have criticized Elvis for not being the pioneer that some make him out to be – and it can certainly be argued that plenty of black music that preceded Elvis was similar in sound and spirit – Elvis’ influence on the history of rock is undeniable. From the pelvis moves to that unmistakable rock vocal croon, Elvis is an icon like few in rock and roll history. That doesn’t mean you should let an Elvis impersonator marry you and your honey in Vegas. But it does mean you should spin some of the Elvis goodies that were recorded for Sun Records right this minute. Here, I’ll help get this party started:
– Brian M. Reiser,