Rockabilly is a lead guitar, a rhythm guitar and an upright bass.
Real true rockabilly… well, you get too carried away till a drummer can’t keep up with it!
Charlie Feathers, 1979
Rockabilly is one of the earliest styles of rock and roll music, dating to the early 1950s in the United States, especially the South.
As a genre it blends the sound of Western musical styles such as country with that of rhythm and blues, leading to what is considered “classic” rock and roll. Some have also described it as a blend of the bluegrass style with rock and roll.
The term “rockabilly” itself is a portmanteau of “rock” (from “rock ‘n’ roll”) and “hillbilly”, the latter a reference to the country music (often called “hillbilly music” in the 1940s and 1950s) that contributed strongly to the style. Other important influences on rockabilly include western swing, boogie-woogie, jump blues and electric blues.
Defining features of the rockabilly sound included strong rhythms, vocal twangs and common use of the tape echo, but the progressive addition of different instruments and vocal harmonies led to its “dilution”. Initially popularized by artists such as Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Bob Luman and Jerry Lee Lewis, the influence and success of the style waned in the 1960s; nonetheless, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, rockabilly enjoyed a major revival through acts such as Stray Cats.
An interest in the genre endures even in the 21st century, often within a subculture. Rockabilly has left a legacy, spawning a variety of sub-styles and influencing other genres such as punk rock.
Rockabilly Revival: 1970–90
Gazzguzzlers use the classic instruments associated with rockabilly: a hollow-body guitar, and upright bass, and a pared-down drum kit.
The 1968 Elvis “comeback” and acts such as Sha Na Na, Creedence Clearwater Revival, John Roman Jackson, Don McLean, Linda Ronstadt and the Everly Brothers, the film American Graffiti, the television show Happy Days and the Teddy Boy revival, created curiosity about the real music of the 1950s, particularly in England, where a rockabilly revival scene began to develop from the 1970s in record collecting and clubs.
The most successful early product of the scene was Dave Edmunds, who joined up with songwriter Nick Lowe to form a band called Rockpile in 1975. They had a string of minor rockabilly-style hits like “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ‘n’ Roll)”. The group became a popular touring act in the UK and the US, leading to respectable album sales. Edmunds also nurtured and produced many younger artists who shared his love of rockabilly, most notably the Stray Cats.
Robert Gordon emerged from late 1970s CBGB punk act Tuff Darts to reinvent himself as a rockabilly revival solo artist. He recorded first with 1950s guitar legend Link Wray and later with UK studio guitar veteran Chris Spedding and found borderline mainstream success. Also festering at CBGB’s punk environs were The Cramps, who combined primitive and wild rockabilly sounds with lyrics inspired by old drive-in horror movies in songs like “Human Fly” and “I Was a Teenage Werewolf”. Lead singer Lux Interior’s energetic and unpredictable live shows attracted a fervent cult audience. Their “psychobilly” music influenced The Meteors and Reverend Horton Heat.
In the early ’80s, the Latin genre was born in Colombia by Marco T (Marco Tulio Sanchez), with The Gatos Montañeros. The Polecats, from North London, were originally called The Cult Heroes; they couldn’t get any gigs at rockabilly clubs with a name that sounded “punk”, so the original drummer Chris Hawkes came up with the name “Polecats”. Tim Polecat and Boz Boorer started playing together in 1976, then hooked up with Phil Bloomberg and Chris Hawkes at the end of 1977. The Polecats played rockabilly with a punk sense of anarchy and helped revive the genre for a new generation in the early 1980s.
In 1980, Queen scored a number-one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with the rockabilly-inspired single “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”.
The Stray Cats were the most commercially successful of the new rockabilly artists. The band formed on Long Island in 1979 when Brian Setzer teamed up with two school chums calling themselves Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom. Attracting little attention in New York, they flew to London in 1980, where they had heard that there was an active rockabilly scene. Early shows were attended by the Rolling Stones and Dave Edmunds, who quickly ushered the boys into a recording studio. The Stray Cats had three UK Top Ten singles to their credit and two best-selling albums. They returned to the USA, performing on the TV show Fridays with a message flashing across the screen that they had no record deal in the States.
Soon EMI picked them up, their first videos appeared on MTV, and they stormed up the charts stateside. Their third LP, Rant ‘N’ Rave with the Stray Cats, topped charts across the US and Europe as they sold out shows everywhere during 1983. However, personal conflicts led the band to break up at the height of their popularity. Brian Setzer went on to solo success working in both rockabilly and swing styles, while Rocker and Phantom continued to record in bands both together and singly. The group has reconvened several times to make new records or tours and continue to attract large audiences, although record sales have never again approached their early ’80s success.
Shakin’ Stevens was a Welsh singer who gained fame in the UK portraying Elvis in a stage play. In 1980, he took a cover of The Blasters’ “Marie Marie” into the UK Top 20. His hopped-up versions of songs like “This Ole House” and “Green Door” were giant sellers across Europe. Shakin’ Stevens was the biggest selling singles artist of the 1980s in the UK and number two across Europe, outstripping Michael Jackson, Prince, and Bruce Springsteen. Despite his popularity in Europe, he never became popular in the US. In 2005, his greatest hits album topped the charts in England. Other notable British rockabilly bands of the 1980s included The Jets, Crazy Cavan, Matchbox, and the Rockats.
Jason & the Scorchers combined heavy metal, Chuck Berry and Hank Williams to create a punk-influenced style of rockabilly, often labelled as alt-country or cowpunk. They achieved critical acclaim and a following in America but never managed a major hit.
The revival was related to the “roots rock” movement, which continued through the 1980s, led by artists like James Intveld, who later toured as lead guitar for The Blasters, High Noon, the Beat Farmers, The Paladins, Forbidden Pigs, Del-Lords, Long Ryders, The Last Wild Sons, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Los Lobos, The Fleshtones, Del Fuegos, Reverend Horton Heat and Barrence Whitfield and the Savages. These bands, like the Blasters, were inspired by a full range of historic American styles: blues, country, rockabilly, R&B and New Orleans jazz. They held a strong appeal for listeners who were tired of the commercially oriented MTV-style synthpop and glam metal bands that dominated radio play during this time period, but none of these musicians became major stars.
In 1983, Neil Young recorded a rockabilly album titled Everybody’s Rockin’. The album was not a commercial success and Young was involved in a widely publicized legal fight with Geffen Records who sued him for making a record that didn’t sound “like a Neil Young record”. Young made no further albums in the rockabilly style.
During the 1980s, a number of country music stars scored hits recording in a rockabilly style. Marty Stuart’s “Hillbilly Rock” and Hank Williams, Jr.’s “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” were the most noteworthy examples of this trend, but they and other artists like Steve Earle and the Kentucky Headhunters charted many records with this approach.
While not true rockabilly, many contemporary indie pop, blues rock, and country-rock groups from the US, like Kings of Leon, Black Keys, Blackfoot, and the White Stripes, were heavily influenced by rockabilly.
Morrissey adopted a rockabilly style during the early 1990s, being largely influenced by his guitarists Boz Boorer and Alain Whyte and working with former Fairground Attraction bass-guitarist and songwriter Mark E. Nevin. His rockabilly style was emphasised in the singles “Pregnant for the Last Time” and “Sing Your Life”, as well as his second solo album and tour Kill Uncle.
Irish rockabilly artist Imelda May has been partly responsible for a resurgence of European interest in the genre, scoring three successive number one albums in Ireland, with two of those also reaching the top ten in the UK charts.
Drake Bell, a pop-rock singer-songwriter and actor, revived rockabilly with his 2014 album, Ready Steady Go!, which was produced by Brian Setzer, frontman of the rockabilly revival band, The Stray Cats. The album peaked at #182 on the Billboard 200 and sold over 2,000 copies in its first week of release. The album received positive reviews from critics.
Neo-rockabilly UK band Restless, played neo-rockabilly from the early 80s. The style was to mix any popular music to a rockabilly set up, drums, slap bass and guitar. This was followed by many other artists at the time in London.
Today, bands like Lower The Tone are more aligned to neo-rockabilly that suits popular music venues instead of the dedicated rockabilly clubs that expect only original rockabilly.