Jerry Naylor – Tribute to The Rockabilly Legends
“Rockabilly” or “ROCK-A-BILLY” – Like so many other slang descriptors of various types of music, such as Boogie-woogie, Dixieland and Swing, no one seems to know who actually coined the word, “Rockabilly.” The only fact on which most everyone agrees is that Rockabilly was born on the night of July 5, 1954, when a young truck driver-turned-struggling-singer was horsing around during a coffee break of a demo session at Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service studio. E. A. Presley, as he was listed on the studio sign-in sheet, was determined to sing boring crooner ballads during a trial demo session, arranged by guitarist Scotty Moore for the rough-and-tumble Beale Street record man, Sam Phillips. When Sam had heard enough of this impotent whitewash crooning, and was about two bars away from throwing Presley, Moore and bass player Bill Black out of the studio on their backsides, Elvis panicked – frustrated and terrified of rejection. Full of nervous energy, Elvis grabbed his guitar and started beating the fire out of it and singing what little he knew of the old Arthur “Big Boy” Cruddup blues song, “That’s All Right (Mama)”—a race song he had heard on a local black rhythm and blues radio station. Scotty Moore nervously joined in, stabbing in some jazz chords, and Bill Black heard the new attempt, started laughing, joining Elvis in the studio, and commented, “Get that on the radio, they’ll run us out of town.”
At this, Phillips, the stunned Sun Records founder, shouted, “That’s IT!! That’s what I’ve been looking for — a white boy who can sing like the Blacks!”
It was a complete accident. No one planned it or expected it to happen. Out of the dark, and frustration of disappointment, it came. Elvis, Scotty, and Bill had given birth to a new sound called Rockabilly, and started a musical revolution heard around the world that would change all pop music to follow.
They had indeed coupled the excitement, soul, and performance of the black man’s music and performed it in a brand-new genre that people of all races around the world would accept.
Sam Phillips captured this magic on tape, added his own brand of tape delay and signature slap-back tape delay echo to “That’s All Right Mama” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and for decades to come, thousands of singers and record producers around the world would do everything in their power to reproduce this unique rhythmic sound.
The “Rockabilly virus” had exploded into existence! Historians would write about the impact of this contagious, revolutionary music for decades to come, and millions would feel the impact of its infectious power.
The manner in which these historical Elvis Presley recordings evolved may seem unusual today, but in retrospect, the fact that Elvis delivered this spontaneous and ingenious performance was no accident at all. Like every young singer trying to claw his way into the record business in the early Fifties, Elvis must have had some hidden, budding desire to release a flurry of suppressed natural musical instincts–Southern instincts, heavily influenced by the merging of early hillbilly music, the purity of bluegrass, the infectious Mississippi Delta blues, soul-saving, shoutin’ Southern gospel and the earthy cotton field chant of African American slave spirituals. This is the music at the heart and soul of Rockabilly. Then it must be a fact that Elvis Presley’s “accident” documents the birth of Rockabilly.
But, wait!! The name “Rockabilly” was actually born one year earlier, in June 1953, when the Burnette brothers—Johnny and Dorsey–wrote some raging revolutionary songs for their newborn sons, Rocky and Billy. The Burnette Brothers and their gutsy, guitar-playing pal, Paul Burlison, better known as the Johnny Burnette Trio, were setting Memphis honky tonks on fire with raw Rockabilly performances which they literally had to bare-knuckle fight to defend. What if they had recorded their legendary songs, “Rockabilly Boogie” or “Tear It Up,” in 1953? What if they hadn’t thrown their bothersome neighbor, Elvis Presley, out of the rehearsals in the laundry room of the government housing complex where they all lived? Would the history of Rockabilly and Rock and Roll be written differently if Sam Phillips had listened more closely to these outlaw Burnette brothers’ performances one year before that magic night of July 5, 1954?