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Contents Introduction: They Called It Rockabilly Long Before They Called It Rock and Roll 1. The Accidental Big Bang 2. Three Days That Changed the World 3. It's in the Soul 4. The Only Music We Wanted to Make 5. Fellas, We Hardly Knew Ye Epilogue>/toc>Introduction They Called It Rockabilly Long Before They Called It Rock and Roll You may call it "the birth of Rock and Roll," "Early Rock," "Foundational Rock and Roll," "the beginning of Rock," or perhaps even "Fifties Rock and Roll." But whatever name you put to this 1950s infectious, raw musical genre-a phenomenon that changed world culture and influenced all music that followed-you simply must know that Carl Perkins, Mr. "Blue Suede Shoes" himself, described it best. When asked to explain his musical creations, Carl took a deep breath and with his distinctive Southern drawl, definitively exclaimed, "Well, they called it Rockabilly, long before they called it Rock and Roll!" And friends, if Carl Perkins calls it Rockabilly, then it was and still is ROCKABILLY! With his 1956 classic recording, Carl Perkins defined and established Rockabilly music as the necessary precursor to Rock and Roll. "Blue Suede Shoes" holds the distinction of being the first million-selling Rockabilly record in history. Carl's original recording of the song quickly climbed to the number one position on all three national Billboard Magazine charts-Pop, Country and Rhythm & Blues-a feat never again achieved by any other artist. The success of "Blue Suede Shoes" propelled Perkins into Rock and Roll royalty; in 1987 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. (You'll read more about his legendary exploits a little later.) The fact is, seven of the Rockabilly Legends celebrated in this book are inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis got things moving when they became members of the first class in 1986. Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison joined them the next year, while Johnny Cash followed them in 1992; Gene Vincent took his well-deserved place in 1998. The Johnny Burnette Trio, Buddy Knox and The Crickets are all on a short list of Rockabilly Legends destined for future induction into the Rock and Roll Hall Fame and Museum. And, yes Carl, it's important to say it one more time: "They called it Rockabilly long before they called it Rock and Roll!" Rockabilly Changed My Life I was only fifteen years old when an untamed force unlike anything I had ever experienced permanently altered the direction of my professional career. It was 1954, a year destined to go down in music history as pure magic. When I wasn't attending classes at Lake View High School in San Angelo, Texas, I performed as a singer wherever someone would have me. Most Friday and Saturday nights, my band and I performed the best tunes of Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, T. Texas Tyler, Bill Monroe and Bob Wills in the local beer joints. I considered it creative nourishment: poignant hillbilly country music, sung live and with passion in the dank, smoky honkytonks where we played-often while dodging flying beer bottles! Although I was not legally old enough even to enter these joints, the life experiences I had there fundamentally ripened me. They also filled a deep hunger raging within my soul. I was born to sing, and shortly after I entered this world, my dear, sweet mother (who played piano in our small country church) placed me at her feet, just under the edge of the old, upright piano, while she pounded out those great gospel "shaped-notes" into a passionate pattern of spiritual excellence. So it should surprise no one that, during my teen years, my Saturday-night-honkytonk-singing quickly evolved into Sunday-morning-and-Sunday-night-church-singing. Instinctively and with equal passion, I belted out "I'll Fly Away" and other grand old southern gospel testimonials from the hymnal of the Carlsbad, Texas, Southern Baptist Church. I first heard African-American spirituals and Delta Blues at age thirteen, and by 1954, I was singing with an all-black trio-Robert T. Smith and his Men of Blues-in Negro clubs around San Angelo. Those places knew no racial divide, no hint of segregation. This was the Mississippi Delta Blues, meant for all people-even us young white boys from West Texas. I still feel riveted by Jerry Lee Lewis' stories of how he and his cousins, Jimmy Swaggart and Mickey Gilley, fed their piano-playing passion at the expense of defying copperhead snakes. At a very early age they crawled far up under the old wooden floor boards of black Pentecostal churches around Ferriday, Louisiana, settling directly under the pounding rhythm of the piano player's feet. Each of them shadow-played along on their make-believe pianos in the moist dirt, carefully following the pounding spirituals on the keyboard above. While lying on their bellies in the Louisiana dirt, they all got literally baptized with a flood of sounds and rhythms of black southern gospel music at its very richest. It was this foundation that bequeathed to each of us the vibrant musical patterns to come. In fact, Rockabilly music never would have developed at all without southern gospel. All of us started in church. We may have drifted pretty far away for a time, but eventually nearly all of us came back. Church is where we experienced the real meaning of singing and praising; and from church we incorporated gospel influences into our routine performances and creative writing. So whether it's in church or on the concert stage, when the music gets to rocking, the hands get to clapping, and the crowd gets to praising, that's pure heaven on earth. Radio Lends a Hand Radio also played a critical role in my career, as it did for each of the Rockabilly Legends. From age fourteen, I worked as a disc jockey on KPEP radio in San Angelo, one of the first stations in America to program country music as a full-time format. Until then, just about every radio station featured "block" formats: diverse national and local daily programming that included drama, news, and various genres of music, ranging from big band to classical and hillbilly. And on one blistering hot West Texas July afternoon, my world changed forever. The very moment I picked up the newly arrived 45 RPM vinyl record-the one with a bright, yellow label, a large black rooster and the bold letters S-U-N on it-the "Rockabilly virus" seized my soul. I literally shook as I gently placed the record onto the control room turntable, carefully eased the stylus down and opened my microphone. As the booming Martin guitar churned out a new and magical kind of pushy rhythm, I announced, "This is the first record release from a brand new singer down in Memphis, Tennessee. His name is Elvis Presley. AHHH, That's All Right Mama!" At that moment Elvis took over the airwaves, singing, "Wellll that's all right now Mama, that's all right for you, that's all right now Mama, any way you doooo, well that's all right!" I had never heard anything like it. I clicked off the announcer's mike and this unique, raw, original music reverberated off the walls of KPEP's control room. I stood up and began to shout and dance around. I turned up the monitors even louder and yelled with uncontrollable excitement, "This is it! This is what I've been waiting for! This is GREAT!!" At that very moment, I knew for a fact that my life would never be the same. I wanted to run down the road, shouting to everybody, "The world of music has changed forever!" What Makes Rockabilly Different? So what makes Rockabilly so unique? I think it comes down to several unique characteristics: * a "pushy," fat rhythm guitar * the electrifying magnetism of a gutsy, rhythmic lead guitar * the blistering slap of an upright bass fiddle * plus, all of these elements swimming in a man-made lake of "tape-delay echo." In other words, the magic of Rockabilly erupts as much in the detail of the music as in the lyrics of the song and the singer's performance. Rockabilly evolved into a distinct form in a very small window of time. It began in 1953 and by 1959, it had clear definition-just six short years! Still, the explosive musical originality that rocked those years continues to exert a tremendous influence today; just listen to almost every contemporary rock and roll, pop, and country music artist. Within their music, Fifties Rockabilly still lives! A Decade of Change The Fifties were a decade of change. Young people around the world who know about this period of history only vicariously can still relate to it as an exciting time of wild and reckless abandonment. Everywhere, it seemed, people were shedding everything old for new experiments and fresh experiences. But beneath the frivolity and tinsel of a decade that saw millions gyrating with hula hoops and wearing funny glasses at the movies, "The Fabulous Fifties" made possible a growing awareness of change that ignited the Civil Rights Movement, created a space program and nurtured a "King." The babies born during the Great Depression and World War II came of age in the Fifties. This groundbreaking decade gave us the Interstate highway system, network television, new developments in entertainment, music, art and literature . . . and even the distinctly American experiment of "junk food." The Fifties were an era charged with vitality and complexity, an often turbulent time set against the backdrop of an energetic economic boom laden with fads, stars and tragedies. History-making moments and trends all got exaggerated within themselves. The Korean War erupted as the first major East-West conflict; Senator Eugene McCarthy waged a war on Communists (and on some of America's most creative icons); Dwight Eisenhower became president, presiding over an eerie national calm from his office on the Potomac; the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in the schools; the Civil Rights Movement began its long march under the courageous leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr.; Russia's Sputnik satellite scared the United States into launching its own aggressive space program; television became an American way of life, threatening the motion picture industry and changing family lifestyles; drive-in movies, 3-D and giant-screen Cinerama movies became a national sensation; James Dean, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe and other media darlings entertained the country; and a powerful new movement in music began to change the world, led by a young truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi, who became the "King of Rockabilly"! Half a century later, Rockabilly music is very much alive and well, as evidenced in our anthology, The Rockabilly Legends: They Called It Rockabilly Long Before They Called It Rock and Roll. This long overdue tribute reveals the deep respect I have for the pioneers of this powerful genre of music. I feel very blessed to have known, worked with and become friends with most of these great legends-and I'm very proud to have this opportunity to share these personal memories with you. This is our story. In Their Own Words Rockabilly? It's a feeling that you can never forget. It's a way of life, a music that literally moves you. Well, it shakes you up! - George Hunt, Renowned African-American Contemporary Artist Rockabilly is taken from some of those old gospel songs, black spirituals, the delta blues, blue grass, country and hillbilly. You know, it's the whole thing. Rockabilly covers it all. -Tillman Franks, Songwriter, Musician, Personal Manager, Promoter Why do I like this kind of music? First of all, it has a good beat; it's not complicated; it's not trying to sell me something; it's not trying to straighten my morals out or screw my morals up. - Buddy Knox, West Texas Fifties Rock and Roll-Rockabilly Legend
Library of Congress Subject Headings for this publication:
Rockabilly music -- History and criticism.