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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,

Most significantly, the image was white. Rockabilly was the only style of early

rock 'n' roll that proved white boys could do it all--that they could be as strange,

as exciting, as scary, and as free as the black men who were suddenly dominating

America's airwaves. These were two kinds of white counterattack on the black

invasion of white popular music that constituted rock 'n' roll: the attempt to soften

black music or freeze it out, and the rockabilly lust to beat the black man at his

own game.


Top Artists and Their Recordings

Johnny Bond--"Hot Rod Lincoln" (1960)

Jimmy Bowen--"I'm Stickin' With You" (1957)

Sonny Burgess

Johnny Burnette Trio--"Tear It Up" (1956); "Midnight Rain" (1956); "Honey Hush" (1956); "Lonesome Train" (1956); "Rock Billy Boogie" (1957)

Ray Campi

Johnny Cash--"I Walk the Line" (1956)

Sanford Clark--"The Fool" (1956)

Ral Donner--"Girl of My Best Friend" (1961); "You Don't Know What You've Got" (1961); "Please Don't Go" (1961); "She's Everything" (1961/2)

Charlie Feathers

Wanda Jackson--Let's Have a Party" (1960); "Right or Wrong" (1961); "In the Middle of a Heartache" (1961)

Buddy Knox--"Party Doll" (1957); "Rock Your Little Baby to Sleep" (1957); "Hula Love" (1957); "Somebody Touched Me" (1958); "Lovey Dovey" (1960/1)

Jerry Lee Lewis--"Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On" (1957); "Great Balls of Fire" (1957/8); "Breathless" (1958); "High School Confidential" (1958); "What's I Say" (1961)

Bob Luman--"Let's Think About Living" (1960)

Carl Mann--"Mona Lisa" (1959); "Pretend" (1959)

Janis Martin--"Will You, Willyum" (1956)

Guy Mitchell--Ninety-Nine Years" (1956); "Singing the Blues" (1956); "Crazy With Love" (1956); "Knee Deep in the Blues"/"Take Me Back Baby" (1957); "Rock-A-Billy" (1957)

Roy Orbison--"Ooby Dooby" (1956)

Carl Perkins--"Blue Suede Shoes" (1956); "Boppin' the Blues" (1956); "Honey Don't" (1956); "Your True Love" (1957); "Pink Pedal Pushers" (1958); "Pointed Toe Shoes" (1959)

Elvis Presley--"That's All Right, Mama"/"Blue Moon of Kentucky" (1954); "I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine" (1954); "Baby, Let's Play House" (1954); "Heartbreak Hotel"/"I Was the One" (1956); "Blue Suede Shoes" (1956); "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You"/"My Baby Left Me" (1956); "Don't Be Cruel"/"Hound Dog" (1956); "Love Me Tender"/"Anyway You Want Me" (1956); "Love Me"/"When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again" (1956/7); "Too Much"/"Playing For Keeps" (1957); "All Shook Up" (1957); "Teddy Bear"/"Loving You" (1957); "Jailhouse Rock"/"Treat Me Nice" (1957); "Don't/"I Beg of You" (1958); "Wear My Ring Around Your Neck"/"Doncha Think It's Time" (1958); "Hard Headed Woman"/"Don't Ask Me Why" (1958); "One Night"/"I Got Stung" (1958); "A Fool Such As I"/"I Need Your Love Tonght" (1959); "A Big Hunk of Love"/"My Wish Came True" (1959); "Stuck on You" (1960)

Johnny Preston--"Running Bear" (1959/60); "Cradle of Love" (1960); "Feel So Fine" (1960)

Charlie Rich--"Lonely Weekends" (1960)

Billy Lee Riley--"Flying Saucers Rock 'N' Roll" (1957)

Charlie Ryan--"Hot Rod Lincoln" (1960)

Jack Scott--"Leroy"/"My True Love" (1958); "With Your Love" (1958); "Goodbye Baby" (1958/9); "The Way I Walk" (1959); "What in the World's Come Over You" (1960); "Burning Bridges"/"Oh, Little One" (1960); "It Only Happened Yesterday" (1960)

Warren Smith--"So Long I'm Gone" (1957); "Ubangi Stomp" (1957)

Conway Twitty--"It's Only Make Believe" (1958); "The Story of My Love" (1959); "Mona Lisa" (1959); "Danny Boy" (1959); "Lonely Blue Boy" (1959/60); "What Am I Living For" (1960)