Styles & Forms | Rockabilly | Pop

A slapped upright bass, twanging lead guitar and acoustic rhythm guitar; a blues structure with country and blues inflections; a strong beat and moderate-to-fast tempo; a wild, yelping, often stuttering vocal style, together with plenty of echo on the recordings are the main ingredients of rockabilly.

The rockabilly style was an eclectic hybrid of R&B, hillbilly music and country-boogie that emerged during the mid-1950s, and again owed much to Sam Phillips and his Sun Records label.

While country-boogie had drawn on jazz boogie-woogie rhythms during the previous decade, and been popularized by acts such as The Delmore Brothers, Webb Pierce, Red Foley and Moon Mullican, the acoustic bass and steel guitar prevalent in the hillbilly sound of Hank Williams exerted just as much influence on the likes of Bill Haley and, a little later on, Carl Perkins. When Perkins arrived at Sun, he was performing hillbilly honky tonk infused with the rhythm of black blues music. With Phillips’ guidance he then added some R&B touches by way of scatting his vocal phrases and completing them on guitar, resulting in cuts such as ‘Gone, Gone, Gone’, which appeared on the flip side of his first Sun single, and the seminal self-penned ‘Blue Suede Shoes’.

A More Commercial Sound

Complemented by Phillips’ trademark use of slap-back echo and over-amplification, songs such as ‘Gone, Gone, Gone’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ were quintessential rockabilly (or ‘hillbilly bop’, as they were sometimes described), a style that the producer had largely concocted in collaboration with Elvis Presley. The B-side of Elvis’s first single (‘That’s All Right’, issued in July 1954) was a total revamping of Bill Monroe’s 1947 bluegrass waltz, ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’. Searching for a more commercial sound that might appeal to a widespread audience, Phillips tried to encourage the young singer, as well as guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black, to find a comfortable uptempo groove. This began to take shape over the course of several takes – ‘Hell, that’s fine! That’s different!’ Phillips can be heard exclaiming at one point on the session tape: ‘That’s a pop song now, nearly ’bout!’ – until what finally emerged was a jumped-up, freewheeling, echo-bathed version, the feel of which was light years away from that of the Monroe original.

The process continued through subsequent Presley recordings such as ‘I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine’, ‘Milkcow Blues Boogie’ and, most supremely, an electrifying cover of Junior Parker’s ‘Mystery Train’, which borrowed a guitar riff from Parker’s earlier ‘Love My Baby’ to bridge the gap between country and R&B. Still, it was Carl Perkins’ 1956 recording of the self-penned ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ that gained rockabilly worldwide recognition, encouraging major labels such as Capitol, Columbia, Decca, Mercury and RCA to jump on the bandwagon and exploit the genre. Coral signed The Johnny Burnette Rock’n’Roll Trio, Capitol signed Gene Vincent and RCA even signed ‘the female Elvis...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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