Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young: The Early History of Rockabilly

50's wild man Hasil Adkins

Recently I’ve become obsessed with early rock and even pre-rock and roll musical forms.  For about six months now basically all I’ve been downloading, and listening to, is country, western swing, jump blues, and rockabilly.  I’ve mentioned in some recent posts that I’ve been getting more and more into country and that has led me to explore the bifurcation point between country and rock, which is essentially rockabilly.  Rockabilly is a portmanteau of “rock” and “hillbilly”, and it is fitting. Rockabilly music hews pretty strictly to a sparse sound defined by a country-influenced electric guitar picking, usually with stand-up bass and skeletal drums for rhythm.  Rockabilly really arose from Sun Records in the mid-50’s and the country boogie sounds and songs of Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins (right now one of my favorite songs is Perkins’ “Matchbox”) but quickly caught on and became the dominant music form of the latter 50’s.  Sun themselves tried to capitalize on the new sound they created by cranking out singles by acts even wilder and less polished than Elvis or Perkins.  They have systematically released compilations of these early singles for obsessive fans (like me) over the last four decades.    Among my favorites are “Flying Saucers Rock and Roll” and “Red Hot” by wildman Billy Lee Riley, “Honey Don’t” and “Put Your Cat Clothes On” by the aforementioned Carl Perkins, the instrumental “Raunchy” by Bill Justus,  “Rock and Roll Ruby” and “Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache” by Warren Smith, “Drinkin’ Wine” by Gene Simmons (no, not THAT Gene Simmons), “Right Behind You Baby” by Ray Smith, “Slow Down” by Jack Earls, the almost maniacal “Come On Little Mama” by Ray Harris, “Your Lovin’ Man” by Vernon Taylor, “Tough Tough Tough” by Andy Anderson,  “Tennessee Zip” by Kenneth Parchman, “Rakin’ and Scrapin’” by Dean Beard, “Rabbit Action” by Junior Thompson, “Mama, Mama, Mama” by Hayden Thompson, “Mad Man” by Jimmy Wages, “Huh Babe” by Luke McDaniel, “Goin’ Crazy” by Mack Self, “Flat Foot Sam” by Tommy Blake, and “Bottle To the Baby” by Charlie Feathers.  Most of these can be found on the 2006 compilation Essential Sun Rockabillies Vol. 1 on iTunes.

Charlie Feathers went on to record several other standout rockabilly songs for a variety of other labels; I like “One Hand Loose” and “Everybody’s Loving My Baby” that he recorded for the King Label; He also recorded “Jungle Fever” and “Wild Wild Party”.  He has become quite a darling of rockabilly for his countrified vocals and easy straddling of the line between true country and rockabilly.

Of course other labels were also jumping onto the rock/rockabilly bandwagon, and throughout the late 50’s there was an explosion of rockabilly released.  I recently got into the countrified rock of Autry Inman, primarily because of the wild, twangy guitar work of country/rockabilly/jazz legend Hank Garland; my favorites are “Be Bop Baby” and “Don’t Drop It”, but I also like “Uh Uh Honey” and “(It Would Be) A Doggone Lie”.  Inman, incidentally, started out as a bassist for country star Cowboy Copas (Copas played some good twangy country that bordered on rock himself; I like the vaguely morbid “Hangman’s Boogie”).  Copas achieved lasting notoriety for being one of the other people killed in the plane crash that killed Patsy Cline, alongside yet another hillbilly boogie artist, Hawkshaw Hawkins. 

A song I’ve loved for about 25 years now is “Tallahassee Lassie” by Freddie Cannon, with its hand claps and wild yelps and driving, danceable beat and strutting rhythm.  A more recent find of mine is the early work of historical story song man Johnny Horton; he reached his most fame with songs like “The Battle of New Orleans” and “Sink the Bismark” but in his early incarnation he was a wild rockabilly guy, as can be seen on songs like “Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor”, with its fat, thrumming electric bass and gutbucket rhythm, the loping “Lover’s Rock”, the chugging “I’m Comin’ Home”, and the slightly more traditionally country “I’m a One Woman Man” and “Honky Tonk Man”.  These songs really are at the nexus of country and rock in the early 50’s and help explain how and why acts like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis hit first and foremost on the country charts.  In a similar vein was Little Jimmie Dickens; like Horton, his music was an electrified country boogie that wasn’t quite rockabilly but wasn’t regular country either.  His corny “A-Sleepin’ at the Foot of the Bed” has some sweet country fiddle interspersed with some good twangy guitar.  “Just When I Needed You” is really a good country lament, but “Hillbilly Fever” is one of his best rockers, still corn pone enough to make the country charts but with a rocking rhythm that makes it stand out; same with “I’m Little But I’m Loud” and the even more rocking “Rockin’ With Red” and “I’ve Got a Whole In My Pocket”, which is straight up rockabilly.

Another weird country/rockabilly artist was Forest Rye.  Released in 1953, “Wild Cat Boogie” has a definite rock element, in its walking bass rhythm, well before Elvis shook his pelvis or Haley rocked around the clock.  I can find almost nothing on this fascinatingly early and obscure artist other than he was from the un-country city of Detroit.  Two other Rye songs available on iTunes are “Pepper Hot Babie”, a honky tonk country number enlivened with its “Two-four-six-eight-ten” chorus.  “My Sweet Baby’s Gone” is more of a New Orleans bump and grind slow jam that recalls the work of Fats Domino.  Very cool stuff.

A noteworthy county artist who started as a rave-up rockabilly force of nature was Conway Twitty.  Twitty cut some sides for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records under his given name of Harold Jenkins, including the twangy ballad “Just in Time”, but it’s his post-Sun work that stands the strongest now.  His rockafied covers of “Mona Lisa” (made famous in smooth vocal ballad form by Nat King Cole) and the Irish standard “Danny Boy” (covered to brilliant effect by Brian Setzer in the hilarious and utterly under-rated 1996 film Great White Hype) obviously showcase Twitty’s ability to play up-tempo, but it’s his slower tunes that really highlight what a phenomenal rockabilly talent Twitty was.  “Knock Three Times” with its twangy intro and chugging, raunchy tempo meld wonderfully with the barrelhouse piano and Twitty’s raw, passionate vocal; this is one of my favorite songs right now. “Lonely Blue Boy” is Twitty’s closest approach to the raw sensuality of Elvis Presley and again he utterly nails the vocal.  “Long Black Train” pulls on the long musical fascination with railroads in country and rock music and it cavorts along with malicious glee.  “Is a Bluebird Blue” and “Its Driving Me Wild” are also great; the latter has that greasy yowl that bands like Them and the Standells would imitate during garage rock’s mid-60’s heyday.

Several other artists blew up in the wake of Elvis (and Carl).  Buddy Holly put Lubbock Texas on the map and became a massive star in his own right before his untimely demise in 1959.  In addition to his obvious hits like “Oh Boy”, “That’ll Be the Day”, and “Peggy Sue”, Holly put out an astonishing number of phenomenal songs.  “Peggy Sue” and its rumbling rhythm has always been one of my personal faves, but I’m equally into less well known numbers like “Not Fade Away”, which melds a heavy Bo Diddley beat to Holly’s sweet falsetto to create a masterful sound, and “Rave On”, where Holly pulls out the stops and rocks as hard as he ever did.  Buddy’s early rave-ups like “Midnight Shift” and “Rock Around with Ollie Vee” (both recorded in Nashville in 1956, when Elvis was just breaking big) showcase his ability to tear it up with good twangy rockabilly.  “Everyday” is a sweet vocal ballad that evokes the Fleetwoods and even some aspects of early doo-wop with its slapped rhythm and chiming xylophone and Holly’s honey smooth vocals.  “I’m Gonna Love You Too” was famously covered by Blondie on their masterwork Parallel Lines but Holly’s original is just as fiery and fun.  “Look at Me”, with its rollicking piano and Holly’s hiccup-y delivery is another terrific song.  I also love Holly’s version of Lieber and Stoller’s “(You’re So Square) Baby I don’t Care” as much as the original by Elvis Presley.   “Words of Love” is particularly poignant to listen to, since it comes the closest to some of the sweet, jangly melodies Holly’s biggest and most successful imitators, the Beatles, crafted on their earliest originals. For my money Holly may well have been second only to Elvis himself in his ability to both tear it up rocker style and slow it down ballad-wise.  He was an amazingly versatile artist and I don’t consider it to be any exaggeration to say that music DID die the day his plane fell from the sky.

He became a huge teen idol in part due to his role on TV’s “Ozzie and Harriet”, and rock and roll made him a superstar for several years in the late 50’s, but despite or perhaps because of this fame Rick Nelson has never really received his fair share of recognition for his rockabilly work.  Nelson released far too many syrupy ballads designed to cash in on his teen idol image, but he did also record some great twangers that deserve recognition.  But Nelson hooked up with guitar virtuoso James Burton (who would go on to play with Elvis Presley and Emmylou Harris).  Ricky’s cover of “Summertime” by George Gershwin, from Porgy and Bess (Gene Vincent also covered this song, in 1958) is fantastic, characterized by Nelson’s smoldering vocals; frankly, its surprising that Chris Isaak hasn’t covered this song, it seems tailor-made for his highly sexual neo-rockabilly. Nelson’s version was also the inspiration for Deep Purple’s 1970 single “Black Night”.  “If You Can’t Rock Me” is a pepped-up AAB blues with outstanding fretwork by Burton, particularly on his alternatingly deep-and-twangy guitar solo, which may be one of the most memorable of the 50’s.  His cover of “Mystery Train” is too vanilla for me, lacking any trace of the sultry fire Elvis brought to this classic, but “Believe What You Say” is another wild rocker that rolls along on another fine Burton solo, as is “Stood Up”.  “Be Bop Baby” (cashing in on the popularity of Eddie Cochran’s “Be Bop a-Lula”) is perky and fresh while his cover of Hank Williams’ “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” is sassy and up-tempo.

Eddie Cochran hit it huge with the oft-covered “Summertime Blues” most memorably in ear bleeding volume by 60’s acid rockers Blue Cheer.  This may be one of the best, most rocking songs ever recorded and it is absolutely unsurprising that a punk act would want to cover a song this raw. His first hit, “Sittin’ in the Balcony”, is a little to mellow to me in comparison, but Cochran’s low, sensual vocal and terrific guitar solo save it from being boring.  His second single, “Twenty Flight Rock”, is catchy but slightly goofy.   “Rock and Roll Blues” is more melodic with its’ Jordanaire-like background vocals.  But my favorite song of his is “Somethin’ Else”, which was covered by Sid Vicious before his death.  The rhythm track of this song is positively rumbling, especially on the musical refrain following each lyrical segment.  Cochran was another far-too-early early rock casualty, dying in a car crash in 1960 that also severely injured his good friend Gene Vincent.

I recently discovered a great album on iTunes called Rockin’ It Country Style, which collects a number of obscure songs from Cochran’s earliest career, and in particular his work as guitarist and vocal accompanist to established country star Hank Cochran (no relation, though they often billed themselves as the Cochran Brothers).  “Rockin’ and Flyin” is a peppy country boogie highlighted by Eddie’s terrific proto-rockabilly guitar work, particular on the solo.  “Steelin’ the Blues” has some phenomenal steel guitar and a sedate vocal by Eddie; within a few years Eddie and the other rockabilly pioneers would drop the steel guitar, pump up the electric guitar, and change music forever, but it’s fascinating to see how it all started within the context of traditional country.  “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young” espouses a classic rock and roll point of view; the song, and the vocal by Eddie in particular, is very reminiscent of Little Jimmy Dickens. 

Gene Vincent was another phenomenal talent; his “Be Bop A Lula” was a bona fide classic as well, but he had a number of other fantastic tracks, like “Red Blue Jeans and a Pony Tail” with its snappy beat; “Woman Love”, which emulates the slow, languorous beat of “Be Bop A Lula”; and “B I Bickey-Bi, Bo Bo Go”, which is wilder and faster than his other songs.

Once the floodgates were opened, a virtual deluge of rockabilly flooded American juke boxes and radios between 1956-1961.  Texan Sonny Fisher whipped up a wild tumult with his Elvis-inspired “Pink and Black”.  Orangie Ray Hubbard (who recently died, in 2011) from Cincinnati cut “Sweet Love” for the Dixie label in 1957, which became a minor hit.  John Worthan has a country hillbilly voice similar to Charlie Feathers’ which can be best appreciated on his “The Cats Were Jumpin’” for Peach Records.  Curtis Gordon was a country singer but crossed over for a number of singles for Mercury in the late 50’s; one of the best is “Draggin’”, with its insane echo.  Fellow Memphian Eddie Bond also recorded for Mercury and released a couple of hot rockabilly singles in the wake of the King, including “Flip Flop Mama” (which cribs the basic structure of “Blue Suede Shoes”) and the raunchy “Slip Slip Slippin’ In”. Thomas Wayne was the brother of Johnny Cash guitarist Luther Perkins (himself no relation to Carl); his “You’re The One That Done It” is magnificent; its basic outline is kind of similar to “Fujiyama Mama” by the queen of rockabilly, Wanda Jackson.  Carl Mann released some killer singles on Jaxon Records, including 1957’s “Gonna Rock ‘n’ Roll Tonight”; he also cut a rock version of “Mona Lisa” at the same time as Conway Twitty.  Gene Criss recorded some sides for Fernwood Records; Fernwood, which was like Sun  Records was founded in Memphis, was also home to Billy Lee Riley and even Scotty and Bill after Elvis was drafted. “Hep Cat Baby” by Criss is understated but features some fine vocals by him and some capable fretwork as well.  Jackie Lee Cochran (no relation to Eddie) started as a country singer but like Curtis Gordon and Charlie Feathers (and Conway Twitty and Buck Owens) also recorded rockabilly in the late 50’s; “Hip Shakin’ Mama” and “Mama Don’t You Think I Know” capture his fun, wild music.  Phil Gray and his Go Boys cut a single for Rhythm Records that’s become one of the rarest and most sought after records on the collector market, the exquisite “Pepper Hot Baby” backed with “Bluest Boy In Town”, both of which were heavily influenced by the work of Elvis but retain enough originality to be interesting.  Wayne Walker’s “Bo Bo Ska Diddle Daddle” is another great rockin’ song; the backing vocals are particularly good on this song. “Daddy-o-Rock” by Jeff Daniels (no, not THAT Dumb and Dumber Jeff Daniels) is a clean tight rockabilly in the format of Carl Perkins.

Perhaps the most bizarre artist to record in the 50’s was Hasil Adkins.  Adkins was a crazy white cracker from West Virginia who recorded strange, primitive music influenced by one man blues bands like Doctor Ross and Joe Hill Louis, with guitar, drums, and harmonica all played by Adkins.  His lyrics consisted of hoots, yelps, hollers, shrieks, and random lyrics about hot dogs, chicken, aliens, and other strange stuff.  Adkins has become kind of the patron saint of psychobilly, and indeed the Cramps covered his songs and played concerts with him in the 80’s.  His “She Said” and “Ha Ha Cat Walk Baby” are arguably the strangest records released in the 50’s. 

Rockabilly fell out of favor in the early 60’s; there are many theories as to why this happened.  One is that rock itself “died” in the late 50’s as Elvis entered the army, Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent were badly injured in car accidents, Little Richard left rock for the ministry, Chuck Berry was persecuted on Mann Act charges and Jerry Lee Lewis was reviled for marrying his 13 year old cousin, and Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran died.  Another theory focuses on how rock was eroded, first by the resurgence of country (artists like Buck Owens and Conway Twitty and Johnny Horton left rockabilly for country, for example) as well as by pop (acts like Bobby Darin) and so forth.  Rock also diversified into surf, doo wop, and soul.  All of these contributed to rockabilly’s downfall, but another major force was the rise of the English Invasion and the profound influence the Stones, the Who and especially the Beatles had on changing the shape of rock in the early to mid 60’s.