The concept of rockabilly as a style distinct from mainstream rock and roll simply didn't exist in the mid-1950s. Southern musicians considered the term an insult or as Barbara Pittman of the Experience Music Project points out: “It was their way of calling us hillbillies”
As long as there's been music, there have been genres. Slotting music into categories made it easy for artists, record labels, radio stations and music stores to market their products to a specific audience or demographic. Sometimes it's easier said than done. When rock & roll first broke, the style really didn't have a label. Someone would have to invent a name for this raucous hybrid. D.J. Alan Freed is generally given credit for coining the term “rock & roll” though its true origins are unknown and the subject of much debate. What is known however, is that once Freed took to calling the music he played rock & roll, it stuck.
Jerry Lee Lewis saw it a little different “I had created rock & roll before they ever thought about having rock & roll, he said. “When Elvis come out, he was rockabilly. When I come out with Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On, that was rock & roll. That's when the name rock & roll was put in front”
Take all my troubles, take all my pain and load them on that mystery train
“Elvis is where pop begins and ends. He's the great original and even now, he's the image that makes all others seem shoddy, the boss, for once, the fan club spiel is justified, Elvis is King.” Nik Cohn, Awopbobaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock
We were all sucked in long ago by the cult of Elvis. While the King was one of the early originators of rockabilly by 1958 his music was anything but that. Presley built the template and in turn, rockabilly's early pioneers followed it to the letter. They would blast onto the scene, record raw original music and then sign with a major label and morph into marketable country/pop singers. Cleaned up and forced to conform with the norm, they were safe as mother's milk. In fact, the original wave was rather short lived and one thing for certain, by the time Buddy Holly's plane went down in that Iowa cornfield, rockabilly was old school.
Just four years after Crazy Man, Crazy marked the first time a rock and roll song had hit the U.S. Charts, the genre was being written off. That very point was brought to light during an interview conducted by Red Robinson in Vancouver, B.C. Oct. 23rd. 1957 when Red asked Buddy Holly “What do you think about rock and roll music, is it on the wane or what?” to which Holly replies “I think it is going out quite a bit in the states” Red then asked: “How long do you think it will last... another six months, seven months? Buddy answers: “Oh, possibly, yeah... it might pick up after Christmas but I really doubt it.”
It seems that once the Benzedrine buzz wore off, the music lost its edge. Rockabilly was fueled by fast cars, fast women and bennies by the handful. Years later, still holding out like it was 1955 instead of 1965, "The Killer" Jerry Lee Lewis was busted in Grand Prairie, Texas for having in his possession a prodigious amount of prescription pills. The cops found 700 pills, which J.W. Whitten, Jerry Lee's road manager explained as “Two hundred of 'em for the boys and the rest were Jerry's.” Stoked on pharmaceuticals, these hillbilly cats put out a dangerous vibe. They also crafted amazingly innovative music that has held to the test of time. More so than the so called “popular” music of the day.
The subtle R&B played by black musicians was jacked up almost beyond recognition. A raw force, powered by the slapping beat of the stand-up bass. Vocals styles ranging from Elvis Presley's cool choir boy approach, to the primal yelps of Johnny Burnette. Buddy Holly's drawling twang stood in contrast to Roy 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 but never dull. Others such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, made up for their lack of vocals gymnastics with high energy and attitude.
Rockabilly was thought to be, simple music played by simple men, but that was never the case. The genre was full of innovators. The rolling tom-toms of Jerry Allison (The Crickets) were often imitated but never fully duplicated. Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore & Bill Black practically improvised their way to stardom at the tail end of a long evening session at Sun Records under the watchful eye of Sam Phillips. The lead guitars were always upfront, precise picking interspersed with looping or stuttering lead runs. Paul Burlison loosened the tubes on his amp to invent the distorted guitar beat that gave the Rock & Roll Trio their unique sound.
Buddy Holly not only sang and composed his own songs, but he also played lead guitar for the Crickets. It's also a little known fact that Roy Orbison, better known for his operatic vocals, was a better than average guitarist while fronting the Teen Kings (that's Roy playing lead with Peanuts Wilson playing rhythm on such classics as Ooby Dooby, Rock House, Trying to Get to You) Cliff Gallup, lead guitarist for Gene Vincent, developed a sinuous style of playing that caught the ear of future British guitar giants such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, George Harrison and Jeff Beck, who recorded an entire album (Crazy Legs) of Gene Vincent covers, duplicating Gallup's style note by note.
Rock Around With Ollie Vee- Buddy Holly
That'll be the Day- Buddy Holly
Rock House- Roy Orbison w/ The Teen Kings
Party Doll- Buddy Knox
I'm Sticking With You- Jimmy Bowen
Reelin' and Rockin'- Chuck Berry
Bang Bang- Janis Martin
Bottle to the Baby- Charlie Feathers
We Wanna Boogie- Sonny Burgess
Breathless- Jerry Lee Lewis
Bad Bad Boy- Bobby Lollar
Love Me- The Phantom (Jerry Lott)
Saturday Midnight Bop- Jerry J. Nixon
Little Sister- Elvis Presley
Woman Love- Gene Vincent & The Blue Caps
Gone Gone Gone- Carl Perkins
You Can't Catch Me- Chuck Berry
Jailhouse Rock- Elvis Presley
Ooh My Soul!- Little Richard
Not Fade Away- Buddy Holly
Mama Don't You Think I Know- Jackie Lee Cochran “Jack the Cat”
Had Enough- Jerry Reed
Lewis Boogie- Jerry Lee Lewis
Rave On- Buddy Holly
Ooby Dooby- Roy Orbison & The Teen Kings
Bop-a-Lena – Ronnie Self
Come On Let's Go- Ritchie Valens
Back in the USA- Chuck Berry
High School Confidential- Jerry Lee Lewis
Good Rockin' Tonight- Elvis Presley
My Boy Elvis- Janis Martin