Sunday, February 20, 2011

Go Cats Go!

I love the term Americana, it's a relatively new expression, that describes music of American origin or roots.  It's a handy tag that can be applied to Bluegrass, Country Rock, Country Swing, Cowboy songs, Country Gothic etc. Which is fine, those are American idioms, but It really doesn't get anymore American than Rockabilly the music that gave us Elvis or Surf music which gave us The Beach Boys (hold off on the groans). The years have not been kind to either one of those genres, both have their fans and detractors.  Rockabilly ushered in a new style of musical expression and excitement at a time when popular music had a bad case of the doldrums.  Surf Music along with the Motown Sound, gave American music fans a homegrown alternative during the initial onslaught of British Invasion bands.  I've always been partial to Rockabilly, sucked in long ago by the cult of Elvis (and a yellow vinyl copy of Presley's Sun Sessions recordings.)  However, while the King was one of the early originators of that genre, by 1958 his music was anything but Rockabilly. Presley was the template the majority of Rockabilly's early pioneers would follow. They would blast onto the scene, record and release some very raw and original music. Then sign with a major label and transform into nice, safe pop or country singers. Look at the men who first ushered in the music, Presley (RCA and Col. Tom had emasculated him), Holly (he had already left rockabilly behind by the time of his death) Jerry Lee Lewis (he would turn to country in order to salvage his career) Johnny Burnette (the man who gave us Honey Hush and Train Kept a Rollin' would go on to record You're Sixteen)  the list goes on; Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Buddy Knox, Jerry Reed, George Jones, Conway Twitty etc. 
It seems that once the Benzedrine bender that the musicians rode in on wore off, the music lost its edge. Rockabilly was fueled by speed; fast cars, fast women and pills by the handful. Amped up on pharmaceuticals, these hillbilly cats gave off a vibe that said, "Don't fuck with me, for I will fuck you up."  One famous example of this was when "The Killer" Jerry Lee Lewis was popped for having in his possession a large stash of pills. When questioned by police about the 600 bennies found in the car, one of his backup musicians explained it as "100 pills for the band and the remainder for Jerry Lee"  Yet, at the same time they crafted some pretty complex and advanced music (for its time). Rockabilly is thought to be, simple music played by simple men, but that was never the case. Rockabilly was full of innovators and originals, Paul Burlison loosened the tubes on his amp to invent the distorted guitar sound that gave the Rock & Roll Trio their unique sound. Scotty Moore and Bill Black crafted the rock guitar and bass style that is the heartbeat of rock and roll.  Buddy Holly's rumbling guitar and rolling drum sound still has not been equaled.
Rockabilly's southern origins meant that it was a boiling pot of mixed influences; Blues, R & B, Jump, Swing, Bop and Country.  It also meant that some of the early rockabilly records had lyrics that would make the p.c. police cringe.  A verse from Warren Smith's "Ubangi Stomp" is probably the most infamous "Well, I rocked through Africa and rolled off the ship and seen them niggers doin' an odd lookin' skip" Smith later dropped the n-word, as did others who covered the song including Jerry Lee Lewis, who had a minor hit with his version. The opening verse of Charlie Feather's "Jungle Fever" starts with "Darkies creeping through the green, Jungle fever got ahold on me." On "Honey Hush", Johnny Burnette tells his girl  to "Come on in this house, stop all that yakity yak" he then reminds her  "Don't make me nervous, cause I'm holding a baseball bat."  "I Had Enough", has Jerry Reed delivering threats of violence to any fellers that may court his gal while he's away, while he hints that she too may get some of it.
These southern cats had taken the more subdued r & b  played by black musicians and amped it up beyond recognition. It was driven by a locomotive force, powered by drums and the slapping beat of the stand-up bass. The lead guitars were always upfront, precise picking interspersed with circular stuttering lead runs. Scotty Moore, Paul Burlison, Cliff Gallup, James Burton and of course Eddie Cochran set the standard for all rock guitarist in the future.  The vocals styles ranged from Elvis Presley's cool choir boy approach, the primal yelps and sexual urgency of Johnny Burnette, Buddy Holly's hiccup and poppy twang, Orbison who's range went from crooner to menacing, sometimes in the same verse,  Charlie Feather's squeals, groans and hiccups, that were at times bizarre and always cutting edge. Others made up for their lack of vocals gymnastics with high energy and attitude (Jerry Lee Lewis,Carl Perkins) while Johnny Cash used a unique talking style that worked well for him. For a short time rockabilly was king, but by 1958 it had lost all its momentum.  The last true hope for rockabilly to remain a force on the American music scene was Eddie Cochran, who was unique because he was from Los Angeles, he wrote his own songs and  played a mean guitar.  Cochran took the tales of teenage angst first popularized by Chuck Berry and mixed them with the speed freak energy of the early rockabilly cats.  He was poised to carry the genre on into the 1960's when sadly he was killed in a car accident while touring in England.
Gene Vincent was traveling in the same vehicle and was seriously injured. Gene and his band (The Blue Caps) were based in Los Angeles, at  first the band also featured Galloping Cliff Gallup on guitar. (Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page & Jeff Beck are just a few who have acknowledged his influence) although Gallup was just one of several guitarist who would work with Vincent. (including Johnny Meeks and Jerry Lee Merritt)  While serving in the US Navy, Vincent was involved in a motorcycle accident that almost cost him his leg, he was left with a permanent limp and constant pain. As a result, Vincent always seemed tortured, but when he sang, an eery almost angelic transformation took place. His strange stage presence, made him the anti-Elvis, he would sling his injured leg around for emphasis or he would bop in place during a guitar solo. Sweet Gene Vincent was a cool cat and a major star but the injuries from the Cochran accident added to his earlier injuries, and derailed his career
 Rockabilly begins and ends with Elvis Presley, he was rockabilly's alpha male, his recording of "That's Alright Mama" predates everyone and everything. The King rose from the public housing slums of Memphis  to become the most recognizable male vocalist of all time. However, it didn't happen by accident, Elvis had talent, the vocals recorded during his Sun Records period, seem to be from another planet.  He transcended sound, he electrified his audience, he re-invented entertainment. Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black (drummer D.J. Fontana would join them later) broke new ground where ever they went. Their tour of West Texas in 1955 would influence two of rock and roll's biggest stars, Buddy Holly (who would open for Presley in Lubbock) and Roy Orbison (who caught the show in Odessa) Elvis had a nervous energy that his band mates would use to stoke up the crowd, but the hip thrusts and leg shaking were just part of it. He had the ability to convey his emotions to the audience, his appeal and charisma were both very natural and his fans (especially the gals) would just eat it up. The day Elvis signed with RCA records he started down the path to self destruction. The money, movies and fame would turn him into a bloated and self indulgent caricature of the rocker he once was. All that was promised and all that was delivered still pale in comparison to the brilliant flash of talent first witnessed in those early years.