Friday, August 7, 2009

Red Hot Missouri Rockabilly: The 1950's

In previous posts I have discussed the regional nature of the rockabilly phenomenon at the state level, specifically Texas and Arkansas. While Missouri usually doesn't come to mind when one thinks of 1950's rockabilly, the state did produce more than its share of top flight rockabilly recordings during the decade of the fifties. In many ways this is not at all surprising. Red Foley's hugely popular television program Ozark Jubilee and Porter Wagoner's Ozark Jamboree, both originating out of Springfield, helped promote both country and rockabilly musicians during the decade, and probably have quite a bit to do with the the commercial success of Branson today. At the time the Jubilee was rivaled only by the Louisiana Hayride and and Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, and an appearance on these shows could literally launch a successful career, as evidenced by some of the cases outlined below.

Due to its proximity to Memphis and eastern Arkansas, most Missouri rockabilly musicians hailed from the southern half of the state. Also significant are Elvis Presley's initial visits to the state, both to the Sikeston and Popular Bluff in the Missouri Bootheel. In 1956, Elvis also performs live at the Shrine Mosque in Springfield, consolidating his musical influence on the southern section of the state. In a general sense, Springfield becomes the epicenter of rockabilly in Missouri, continuing the groundwork which had been established by the Jubilee.

The transitional rockabilly related recordings to emerge from Missouri are those of Chandos Mcrill and Lee Finn. These recording are demonstrative of the transition from"hillbilly boogie" or traditional country to rockabilly, and lack the style and technique of other recordings from the later 1950's. Check out Mcrill's Poor Me from 1959 for a taste of this style. Finn, from Kansas City, also works in the transitional format with the "High Class Feeling" whose message of class awareness is a recurring one in rockabilly recordings. Lee Ebert's "Let's Jive It" on the Rocket label from 1958 is another good example of transitional rockabilly.

Just as rockabilly had a hierarchy of musicians based on popularity on a national level, Missouri's recording artists can also be categorized in a similar way. The indisputable king of Missouri rockabilly was Ronnie Self from Tin Town, who worked out of Springfield. In my opinion, Ronnie was a remarkable talent comparable to greats like Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent. He wrote some incredible songs, including Brenda Lee's huge hit "I'm Sorry" as well as her more rockabillyesque "Sweet Nothing's" . Just for a taste of what Ronnie could do, I include his classic "Big Town" and the fascinating "Ain't I a Dog" which enjoyed regional popularity in the south. We also have "Flame of Love," and "Big Fool," both great tunes Ronnie recorded for the Columbia label in 1957 with an all star band backing him, Grady Martin and Hank Garland on guitar. Simply outstanding. Great vocals on both and Martin's guitar lead and comping are magical. While Ronnie is largely forgotten to most here in the states, his stature in Europe continues to grow where he is a veritable legend.

Close behind Ronnie are Glen Glenn from Joplin and Don Woody from Tuscumbia in central Missouri. After working with Porter Wagoner Glenn gets swept into the Elvis vortex and becomes a "cat," moving to California. Glenn's "Blue Jeans and a Boy's Shirt" from 1958 showcase his lilting vocal style and has become an iconic rockabilly tune. Also check out "I'm Glad My Baby's Gone Away" and "Everybody's Movin," both are quintessential rockabilly, simply timeless. Don Woody is another fascinating story. He got off the ground by associating with the Ozarks Jubilee and writes a song for Brenda Lee which he eventually parlays into a record deal with Decca and a recording session in Nashville with the premiere rockabilly guitarist of the time, Grady Martin. Don's "Bird Dog" and "Barking Up the Wrong Tree" from 1958 are brilliantly conceived and Martin is in top form on guitar. Fantastic stuff.

I have compiled a rather long list of additional Missouri rockabilly/rock n' roll recordings with commentary on each. Most of these musicians enjoyed limited success in their time and have since fallen into almost complete obscurity. Nonetheless, many of these recording are excellent, and thanks to the collectors on youtube, we have access to them.

Jim Lowe: Also from Springfield, his song "The Green Door" became a huge hit in 1956. For me, his "The Crossing" is a fascinating rockabilly recording from 1958 in the tradition of Ramblin' Jimmy Dolan's and Arkie Shibley's Hot Rod Race. Great guitar solo on "The Crossing."

Bill Duniven: Bill is from Steele in southeastern Missouri. "Knockin on the Back Side of Your Heart" is more akin to rock n' roll piano based composition on the Vaden label out of Jonesboro, Arkansas.

Bo Davis: From Advance, Missouri, "Let's Coast Awhile" is another auto tune that features Eddie Cochran on guitar. Very nice recording from 1956.

Rusty Draper: Draper is from Kirksville also has early association with the Ozark Jubilee. Rusty is generally associated with more pop related material. Nonetheless, his 1956 cover of the Sammy Masters classic "Pink Cadillac" is pure rockabilly, and well done.

Jimmy Edwards: From the small town of Senath in the Bootheel, Jimmy's Love Bug Crawl is a nice recording from 1957. Classic rockabilly sound.

Herbie Duncan: I'm pretty sure Herbie is from St. Louis, where he recorded "Hot Lips Baby" for the MarVel Label in 1958.

Maynard Horlick: Also from St. Louis, and totally obscure. "Love and Lost" is from 1958 on the ST. Louis VIR label.

Gene Mckown: From Kansas City, Gene's "Rockabilly Rhythm" from 1958 is an excellent anthem that exalts the origins, novelty and power of the genre. Very nice guitar.

Lee Dresser and the Krazy Cats: Lee's combo hails from Moberly in northern Missouri and is stylistically closer to rock ' roll but also has distinct rockabilly elements. "Wiggly Little Mama" from 1959 is a perfect example. Very nice.


  1. Nice post. BTW: Don Woody made his Decca recordings in 1956, Decca released "Bird Dog" b/w "Barking Up the Wrong Tree" in 1957, not 1958.


  2. Thanks for stopping by, and for the correction on the Don Woody Decca release date. Do you think that after Sun, Decca was probably the premiere rockabilly label? It does seem that way.
    Take care, Bill

  3. Mmm... the regional character of Rockabilly is worth of a extense study. Many different regions present some particular characteristics that enriches the variability of Rockabilly across the United States of America. This situation resembles me those who Buy Viagra.