Rockabilly is a lead guitar, a rhythm guitar and a upright bass. Real true rockabilly… well you get too carried away till a drummer can’t keep up with it!
— Charlie Feathers, 1979 —
The Rockabilly style evolved out of post-war country-boogie, hillbilly, and rhythm & blues. Between 1945 and 1954 these disparate musical styles crossed paths and developed the hybridknown as rockabilly. The Delmore Brothers were early exponents of the country-boogie style, which had grown out of jazz boogie-woogie rhythms. They recorded several influential discs on the King label in the mid-forties, including “Hillbilly Boogie” and “Pan American Boogie” in 1945. These set the course for other country artists who assimilated the Delmores’ rhythms into their own work. Hank Thompson, Webb Pierce, Red Foley and Moon Mullican among others built careers around the boogie beat. Equally important in the evolution of rockabilly was the hillbilly style of Hank Williams. His honky-tonk hillbilly sound, utilizing steel guitar, acoustic bass and profound influence on Bill Haley and Carl Perkins.
As early as 1952, Haley and his group the Saddlemen employed the slapped bass sound, which was to become the hallmark of the rockabilly style. Perkins, a country boy like Williams, sang in a pure hillbilly manner. In fact, his very first release, “Turn Around” (1955), on the Flip label, was classic hillbilly, owing much to his affinity for the Hank Williams style. From the very same session came “Gone Gone Gone” (1955), which combined Perkins’ hillbilly style with a primitive rockabilly rhythm.
The final ingredient in the rockabilly mix, rhythm & blues, owes much to Sam Phillips. Forming the Memphis Recording Service in 1950, Phillips initially recorded what was to become a virtual ‘who’s who of bluesmen,’ namely: Junior Parker, Bobby Bland, Little Milton, Howlin’ Wolf, Walter Horton, James Cotton and many more. Phillips’ use of flutter echo and over-amplification created a stark, primitive sound that he later adapted to his efforts with country artists.
Interestingly, it was a guitar riff from Junior Parker a “Love My Baby” (1953) in Elvis Presley’s 1955 version of “Mystery Train” (also a Parker original) that positively forms a link between the country and rhythm & blues styles. Indeed, it was Presley’s historic Sun recordings that crystallized the emerging rockabilly style and laid the groundwork for Phillips pioneering efforts at his tiny studio in Memphis. Over the next four years Phillips recorded countless rockailly artists, but none had greater importance than Carl Perkins.
While Elvis undisputably stands as the progenitor of the new idiom, it was, in fact, Carl Perkins‘ original self-penned recording of “Blue Suede Shoes” (1956) which resulted in international recognition for rockabilly. Perkins’ Sun recordings were quintessential rockabilly, combining all the elements of the style. Further, he opened the floodgates for the exploitation of rockabilly by other labels. At first issued only on small independent Memphis and Texas labels (Shimmy, Fernwood, Erwin, Lin, Jan), rockabilly quickly found its way to the majors. Columbia, Capitol, Decca/Coral and Mercury recorded rockabilly artists feverishly during 1956-57.
Their recordings constitute one of the most fruitful and exciting periods in the history of rock ‘n roll. And the key to their continuing popularity is their basic honesty. Rockabilly musicians recorded in the most uninhibited fashion with the sparest instrumentation, often on primitive equipment. Most of today’s music, cold and calculated, pales in comparison with the simplicity and beauty of these early pioneering efforts.
Tom Henneberry, 1978