Friday, August 14, 2009

Latin Rhythms in American Rockabilly?

While reading an essay by Paul Clifford recently on the birth of rockabilly, I was struck by an assertion I had never considered. Rockabilly musicians of the 1950's, while searching for "exotic beats and rhythms" to integrate into the fresh style, willingly infused some of their material with Latin based rhythms without realizing their origins. Since syncopated percussion in rockabilly constitutes a major shift from the "drumless" country music groups of the 1940's and 50's, these rhythms are often heard in drum acompaniments. Also, Clifford notes that rockabilly musicians used "hybrid guitar lines" that accentuated certain notes of a boogie- woogie line, creating the unique feature of rockabilly rhythms. Clifford also offers interesting examples of this same phenomenon in the left hand piano work on Fat's Domino's "Blue Monday" and the saxophone sections of Little Richard's 1956 recording "Slippin and a Slidin."

Musicologist Roy Brewer's concise definition of American rockabilly; "the hybrid of blues and country that became rock& roll," does seem to capture the essence of this unique 1950's music style. Interestingly, Brewer goes a step further to assert that rockabilly musicians, much like most all African American music forms, incorporate the "habanera rhythm" into their music while remaining unaware that it is of Afro Cuban origin and comes into American rhythm and blues through jump blues and New Orleans style dance bands. Brewer goes on to offer fascinating examples of the "habanera rhythm" in American rockabilly such as the famous and very controversial Elvis performance of "Hound Dog" on the Milton Berle show from June of 1956. The famous Elvis gyrations scandalized many, and Scotty Moore and D.J Fontana do actually slow the cadence of the song to allow Elvis more wiggle room. Due to the controversial nature of this television performance, Brewer also notes that "Presley's producers did not exploit the habanera pattern with his subsequent releases regardless of the overwhelming success of "Houndog." According to Brewer another good example of the habanera rhythm can be heard on Scotty Moore's guitar introduction to "Don't be Cruel, " and on "I'm Left, Your Right, She's Gone." A close examination of the many lesser known rockabilly recordings from the period would undoubtedly reveal that this is not an isolated tendency. With the demise of rockabilly by around 1961, habanera rhythms disappear from the scene.

Clifford cites a few other interesting examples of the obvious use of the habanera rhythm technique in music of the period. Some of the most interesting are Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock," and "Teenage Partner" by Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, which demonstrate hybrid guitar lines with unique accentuation of notes. On the Cochran classic the "habanera rhythm" is used on by the guitar and bass during the verses, imbuing the song with it's unique feeling, a feeling that is one of the central differentiating features between rockabilly and country music. Unfortunately, as Brewer points out, this original and distinguishing trait of 1950's rockabilly was lost to the revivalists who helped resurrect the music in the 1980's.


  1. Really interesting. Two names came to mind here that cut a wide swath, Chano Pozo and Earl Palmer.

  2. Thanks Jack, I want to post on Cuban influence in a broader sense next month.

  3. hank snow. "rhumba boogie"and "cuban rhumba".