Gary: “The term ‘Rockabilly’ is applied to a type of music. It comes from the word ‘Rock’ as in ‘Rock and Roll’ and ‘Billy’ from the word ‘Hillbilly’ (which is another word for ‘Country’).
Use of this term is very controversial because no one seems to know when it was first used to describe this type of music. Now, I am not an expert but if you are a person of my vintage, then maybe you and I could both be ‘experts’ and look at it logically; the reason this music is called Rockabilly today – it just identifies this genre of music we used to call ‘Rock and Roll’.
Historically, Rockabilly stars, like Johnny Cash claim that the Carter Family was a great influence (Country music), and that goes back to 1927. Another name that keeps raising it’s head is Rose Maddox who started in 1937 with the Hillbilly Singers and a very colourful Hillbilly band, and accordingly a great show.
Now to me anyway, they sounded like Country artists, but who am I to dispute the Rockabilly Stars who stated that they were their influence.
I found a piano player in Sweden, Micke Muster who put what I believe, into song.
Now, to me it’s sad to see the country of origin, abandon Rock and Roll and Rockabilly so early. I estimate that Rock and Roll had a life of maybe 40 years, which is not bad for a music they called just a fad.
Rock and Roll / Rockabilly is still alive and living in Europe, but sadly not so here. I will look at the country of origin, The United States and it’s close neighbour Canada, because Canada also had some thriving Rockabilly Artist’s.
I will look at Sun Records in Memphis and try not to dwell on the obvious, Elvis Presley / Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins because there where many more Artist’s that we either did not know or have forgotten.
Here is a short list of singers who I considered Rock and Roll, but who are now considered ‘Rockabilly’: Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Buddy Knox, Dale Hawkins, Ronnie Hawkins, Rick Nelson, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, and the list goes on.
I do not agree, but I have this authoritative book that I purchased, so let’s just say that I will go with this book’s recommendations.
The first woman I remember in Rockabilly would be from Oklahoma, Wanda Jackson.
When I started this project, I mentioned that I would talk about people, that you may never have heard about. Well here is a great example of early Rockabilly.
This man recorded for Decca records in the mid-fifties, was never really successful in the United States or Canada, became an Icon in Europe, and is now considered the definitive Rock and Roll or Rockabilly performer.
He was an amazing performer, definitely was a pioneer, but nobody in North American really knew who he was, sad because he is no longer with us.
Another Obscure Artist
I was doing my usual research on music and I ran across something, that “I” found interesting. I ran across a really unknown and very early Rock and Roll group called the Strikes.
Now they would have remained unknown except for an interesting fact, that will interest our Ricky Nelson expert, Marilyn, in Washington State. The Strikes or “Willie Jacobs and the Strikes” (Willie was the lead vocalist) would write and record there first record in 1956.
The first recording had two great sides and eventually in 1959 Ricky Nelson would put both songs on his first album.
Now I guess in today’s world the music is called Rockabilly, but in 1956 when everything was exploding it was just called Rock and Roll and this Texas group was just trying to get a piece of it. Ricky of course became a huge success and the Strikes did not, but Willie Jacobs still gets some royalty money now and then.
The Strikes were among the numerous white vocal groups that sprung up around the mid-’50s, trying to grab a piece of the rock & roll action that was starting to swirl around the charts.
They’d started out as a country vocal trio, consisting of Willie Jacobs on lead, Ken Scott singing tenor and playing rhythm guitar, and Paul Kunz on bass, at North Texas State College in the first half of the ’50s — their sound in those days was honky tonk, and their main influence was Hank Williams, but they also had an interest in and appreciation for rhythm & blues which, combined with their country roots, made them a natural fit for the burgeoning sounds of rock & roll.
By 1956, The Strikes — named, according to one interview, in response to a fellow student’s observation that they would “strike out” — were a sextet, rounded out by top-flight rockabilly guitarist A.B. Cornelius, bassist Don Alexander (who soon started singing as well), and drummer Walter Paschal Parsons.
They played around East Texas and cut records backing other artists, most notably Andy Starr at Lin Records in September of 1956, for which Jacobs and Alexander also wrote all four songs that Starr recorded — in the process, Lin founder Joe Leonard was impressed enough to sign the group up, despite the fact that none of the Starr sides hit.
Their first record, “Baby I’m Sorry” b/w “If You Can’t Rock Me,” cut in November of 1956, was as good a piece of rock & roll as the Lin/Kliff labels ever released, and that says something, as Leonard was mainlining some of the best musical talent in his corner of Texas.
Their music intersected Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent without ever sounding exactly like either, and they also called to mind Buddy Holly & the Crickets.
They were equally adept at slow R&B-style numbers, such as “I Do,” and the rhythm numbers that showed off their virtuosity — even better, Alexander, Jacobs, and Scott wrote their own material, and that material worked in various settings, as the surviving alternate takes of the group’s sides confirm; Jacobs was a fine solo lead, on top of their usual shared vocals, and Don Alexander was also no slouch as a solo lead.
There seemed to be vast potential in the group, but it was never realized — their first single never charted and their work was later picked up by Imperial Records as part of a national distribution deal involving Lin’s one confirmed national star, Ken Copeland.
Their music at a second recording session in February of 1957 was as good as that from their first session, but they ran out of time — Willie Jacobs was drafted in September of 1957, and the members — except for Alexander and Scott — soon left music.
They continued writing songs, and Alexander (working as Don Terry) recorded a single for Lin Records late in the decade.
Ironically, Jacobs enjoyed some welcome and unexpected rewards for his work in music following his stint in the army, when “If You Can’t Rock Me,” which he’d written, was recorded by Ricky Nelson and included on the pop/rock superstar’s debut LP, which was one of the biggest-selling rock & roll LPs of 1957/58, and Nelson subsequently recorded Alexander‘s “Baby I’m Sorry” as well.