What is Rockabilly Music?

A basic guide to Rockabilly music, songs, and artists

Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran
Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. emilyalldis.wordpress.com

One of the major forces behind the creation of rock and roll -- along with urban R&B, jump blues, and the vocal group phenomenon -- Rockabilly was the rural white artist's response to blues music, a style which developed naturally as "race," or blues records, began to sell across the South. An even bigger factor in the development of the style was the modern radio station, which had begun to switch to more music in order to keep pace with television: as a result, blues, R&B and gospel began to be heard often in rural white (i.e., "hillbilly") areas it seldom reached.

The result was a mixture of postwar "rural" styles, namely Western Swing and Country Boogie, with recent developments in black music. It remains the most primitive white rock and roll of its time.

Elvis Presley brought fame to the style (although he had, from the beginning, worked in a number of genres), but Sun Records in Memphis had already been recording rockabilly records by the time he showed up to perfect the fusion in 1954. The typical rockabilly song featured a swinging beat heavily influenced by African-American postwar styles, but with country instrumentation, a simpler, cheaper, pared-down version of Western Swing's big-band orchestration featuring a slap bass, electric guitars, acoustic rhythm, and only occasionally drums or piano. The vocals, typically, split the difference between the two.

Although the style fell off the national charts as rock became more mainstream, it never really died, morphing itself into any number of self-explanatory genres each bearing the surname "-billy" ("punkabilly," "gothabilly," and the more alternative-leaning "psychobilly").

As a clothing style and a look, however, rockabilly has also survived, serving much the same function to America that the "teddy boy" movement has for the UK.

Examples of Rockabilly songs:

Carl Perkins, "Blue Suede Shoes" (purchase/download)

More or less the rockabilly national anthem, both in style amd substance, an ode to looking sharp while staying country, and the song that made Sam Phillips think Carl could be another Elvis.

Elvis Presley, "Baby, Let's Play House" (purchase/download)

A hyped-up riff on an old rickety Excell blues, naturally one of the sexier rockabilly numbers, and outfitted with playful stuttering and a pink Cadillac that may or may not be a metaphor.

Johnny Burnette and the Rock 'N' Roll Trio, "The Train Kept A-Rollin'" (purchase/download)

Rockabilly's greatest band was the original power trio, tearing up old blues and country so hard that everyone from Aerosmith to Zeppelin used this song to set the bar for themselves.

Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps, "Race With The Devil" (purchase/download)

Gene was best known as the "Be-Bop-A-Lula" guy, but his recorded output is wilder and more accomplished than even that smash.

Eddie Cochran, "Twenty Flight Rock" (purchase/download)

A classic about a broken elevator and a worn-out libido, saved from corn by the sheer attack of Cochran's approach.

Jerry Lee Lewis, "Breathless" (purchase/download)

The Killer's last hit before he nearly lost it all is fully the equal of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" and "Great Balls of Fire," leering and propulsive but tighter than either.

Billy Riley, "Red Hot" (purchase/download)

Classic call-and-response, redneck one-upmanship in the best possible sense, clean like New Orleans R&B and enhanced with party clapping.

Sonny Burgess, "Red Headed Woman" (purchase/download)

Sonny was one of those crazies that seemed to be attracted to Sun Records, almost too raucous for Sun, rockabilly, or his own good.

Charlie Feathers, "One Hand Loose" (compare prices)

His groove was less frenetic than some, but Feathers' endlessly expressive and extremely Southern vocal style was a major influence on punkabilly.

Warren Smith, "Ubangi Stomp" (purchase/download)

A travelogue of tribal mayhem and an announcement that rock was bound to take over the world.