Thursday, April 9, 2009
The Evolution of Texas Rockabilly
By early 1955, after Elvis made his big splash in 54 with the Sun recordings, the style we call rockabilly literally caught fire. Scores of musicians that just months earlier would have been classified as "country and western" suddenly became"rockers" or "cats" by latching on to the new back-beat coming out of the Sun recording studios. This phenomena, whose epicenter was Memphis, rippled throughout the South, and when aspiring Texas musicians like Bob Luman and Buddy Holly saw Elvis perform his magic live in the summer of 1955 on a tour through Texas, the issue was settled. Their recordings, along with those of other musicians that followed in the Lone Star state solidified the rockabilly craze in Texas.
Pioneering the boogie-woogie swing style of rockabilly's inception in Texas prior to Sun influence was radio host Bill Mack, who recorded "Play My Boogie" for Imperial in 1952. The cut reveals Texas swing influence with pedal steel guitar and roadhouse boogie piano, and is extraordinary in that it anticipates the coming rockabilly wave. One of the first Texas country music groups that felt rockabilly's Memphis undertow was Sid King and the Five Strings. One of their first rockabilly efforts was from 1955, the fascinating When My Bay Left Me, which contains both traces of Texas C&W and even echoes of gospel music within a rockabilly format. The group had little if any commercial success in the fifties but interestingly Sid is still kicking today in Alba, Texas. The early work of Alvis Wayne is also classic Texas rockabilly, particularly his 1956 single Swing Bop Boogie on the Westport label which features steel guitar and excellent lead work as well. Other early Texas rockabilly musicians who recorded but languished in relative obscurity are Joe Poovey whose 1957 hit "Move Around" on the Dixie label caused quite a stir in his hometown Dallas. As with so many rockabilly musicians of the period, wider fame eluded him, as it did the virtually unknown Houston rocker Bill Blevins, whose 1957 Crazy Blues is a very unique number that draws from diverse Texas musical traditions, primarily blues. The same can be said for Eddie Dugosh, a Texas swing musician whose 1956 rockabilly cut Strange Kinda Feelin on the Sarge label has some really sweet Texas swing style guitar work.
Another intriguing artist who got into the scene early was Lew Williams, pictured above. Lew was a true innovator in that he forged an eclectic style that drew on blues, gospel and country music traditions from Texas. His first recording of "Cat Talk" (1954) predates the Sun explosion that begins the same year and is exemplifies the new feeling of "cat music," the hybrid blend of rhythm and blues and country traditions. Williams' recordings on the Imperial label in 1955 and 1956 are absolute gems of early Texas rockabilly that have a unique flavor somewhat out of the sphere of far-reaching Sun influence. His classics "Was it Something I Said" and Centipede not only feature his unique vocals but also guitars solos that appear to be more closely tied to Texas Swing guitar than anything coming out of Memphis at the time. The inclusion of piano on his more bluesy Gone Ape Man also distinguishes Lew's work from other similar ensembles of the period. Lew has made a comeback in recent years and has played festivals here in the U.S. as well as several countries in Europe. This recent live version of Something I Said is great, but it's hard to capture the magic of the original.
It would be difficult to talk about early Texas rockabilly without mentioning the outstanding 1955 recordings of Sonny Fisher and his ace guitarist Joey Long. Fisher recorded several very unique rockabilly numbers for the Starday label that capture the essence of his most distinct sound. Rockin Daddy and I Can't Lose should not be missed by fans of early rockabilly with a regional flavor, in this case, Texas. Like so many rockabilly musicians of this period, Sonny could never expand his following beyond his home-state Texas, and eventually came to be more widely appreciated in Europe than the U.S.
With the obvious exception of the almost mythical Buddy Holly, the three rockabilly artists to experience some commercial success were Bob Luman, Johnny Carroll and Ronnie Dawson. Luman's most authentic rockabilly work can be heard on his earl 1957 Imperial recordings, All Night Long is a good example. His appearance in the movie Carnival Rock is exceptional, where he is backed by the young James Burton on guitar on This is the Night. His later work moves more toward a country mode but retains its very high quality. Johnny Carroll had some very high energy rockabilly recordings on the Decca label from 1956 in which he was accompanied by the fabulous Grady Martin on guitar. Check out Hot Rock and Crazy Little Mama, a cover of the 1955 hit "At My Front Door" by the wonderful early Doo Wop and R&B combo The El Dorados. Martin's nifty guitar work and Carroll's vocal work on "Hot Rock" make this an extraordinary piece. Finally, Dallas born Ronnie Dawson's work in rockabilly began while the Sun was highest, and his fame in Europe eclipsed his recognition here in the U.S. Check out his energy on this sampler of "Do Do Do". Dawson's 1959 hit Rockin Bones is a classic of late rockabilly whose lyrics beg for transcendence and anticipate Bill Kirchen's wonderful take on the whole era with his tune Rockabilly Funeral , recorded live in France with Red Volkeart on lead guitar.