Listen to this track by Atlantic criss-crossing rockabilly revivalist trio The Stray Cats. It’s “Rock This Town”, their 1981 single as taken off of their debut record The Stray Cats. It would appear again the next year on the US-released Built For Speed album, which EMI released in North America on the strength of that earlier UK record.
The band was from Long island, forming on the New York scene playing both Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, with those scenes being breeding grounds for all kinds of “back to basics” approaches, even if the Stray Cats went back further than most. It was the enduring Ted scene in Britain that lured them across the pond, where they would eventually record their initial two albums, and this single with Rockpile’s Dave Edmunds as producer, himself known for his love of the Sun Records sound.
The single eventually hit top ten in the US and here in Canada, too. But how? Read more
Listen to this track by Texan first-generation rock ‘n’ roll revivalist Bobby Fuller, and his three compatriots, making up the Bobby Fuller Four. It’s “Let Her Dance”, their June of 1965 single. This song was a local-to-Los Angeles hit that served as an example of authentic Tex-Mex flavoured rock ‘n’ roll in the spirit of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens.
“Let Her Dance” proves that rock ‘n’ roll was not a forgotten form in America that only British groups were bringing to the table by the early to mid 1960s. It’s true that American rock ‘n’ roll had morphed somewhat by the early 1960s, with a number of other “Bobby’s” on hand that were more of the teen idol persuasion rather than inheritors of Buddy Holly’s independent rock ‘n’ roll songwriting spirit. But, Bobby Fuller wasn’t like them. Like Holly, Fuller was a songwriter, singer, guitar player, bandleader, and an enthusiastic record maker.
Yet, he is also a musical figure surrounded by mystery, and tragedy.
Listen to this track, a rollicking number from the King, Elvis Presley, who on this coming Saturday January 8th would have been 76 had he survived his battles with bad food, prescription drugs, and the Colonel. It’s one of my favourites of his pre-Army RCA days, “I Got Stung”, a double A-side to his 1958 single “One Night”, and a feature on the compilation record 50 000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong: Elvis Golden Records, Vol 2.
Only 1:51 long, it packs in the sex and violence just as effectively as any punk rock song, kids. It would be his last recorded song in the ’50s (June 11, 1958 to be exact), the end of an era for him, and perhaps too for everyone. He would be shipped to Germany as a part of the U.S Army after this, and his early career would be over.
Elvis’ RCA period is often lost in the shuffle, when considering his cooler Sun Records period, and his decidedly un-cooler ’60s movie period. Where I think the split here is not quite as sharply defined in those terms, some of Elvis’ best singles come out of this middle period, with this one being one of my favorites. What we’ve got here is all the production sparkle of a bigger operation like RCA, along with Elvis’ still supple, youthful swagger that we hear on the Sun sides locked right in there. He sounds like a badass on this. And what about that band?
Listen to this song made famous by Elvis, but written and originally recorded by rockabilly demigod and Million Dollar Quartet member Carl Perkins. It’s “Blue Suede Shoes”, not so much a song as a culturally significant statement that echoes down the decades as if from God’s own megaphone.
Carl Perkins never achieved the heights of fame when compared to his contemporaries, perhaps only because his career was not quite as fraught with controversy as it was in the careers of Jerry Lee Lewis (marrying his teenaged cousin), Chuck Berry (transporting an underage girl across a state line for the purposes of … well, you know), and Little Richard (a black, gay man in the 1950s? ‘Nuff said).
Yet, Perkins was as rock ‘n’ roll as any of them, mixing country with rhythm and blues with the greatest of ease, demonstrating how interrelated those genres of American music are, and crafting many an anthem to inspire rock fans everywhere.
This hit song was one of these. And even if fellow Sun Records artist Elvis Presley kind of stole his thunder with this one, his influence did not go unnoticed by the next generation of rock ‘n’ roll groups, including the Beatles who recorded a number of Perkins tunes even during the height of their own careers. His “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby” is the closing number on 1964’s Beatles For Sale album. That song’s lead singer, George Harrison, was a huge Perkins fan, temporarily christening himself as “Carl Harrison” when the Beatles were in Hamburg, and modeling his own approach to the guitar on Perkins’.
After a string of hits, Perkins appeared with Johnny Cash on a number of dates, including the historic Folsom Prison shows by the end of the 1960s with another Perkins – Luther Perkins – , Cash’s full-time guitar player in the Tennessee Three. And his songwriting continued in earnest, particularly on the country standard “Daddy Sang Bass”, which Cash also famously recorded. Perkins even wrote with Bob Dylan around the time of Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album.
One characteristic of Perkins’ career, and his personality, is consistency. Perkins held the torch high for the early rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly sound, continued as a hard-working touring musician into the 80s and 90s, and working with a new generation of rockabillly musicians including revivalists the Stray Cats, and country-rock band The Kentucky Headhunters. He remained married to his wife Valda through out, clearly valuing the stability of family even when singing dangerous rock ‘n’ roll songs .
Upon his death in death 1998, George Harrison attended his funeral, struggling himself with a battle against cancer at the time. George passed by the original rock ‘n’ roller’s casket, and gave it an affectionate pat and then sang Perkins’ “Your True Love”, a final thank-you from one rock legend to another.
Listen to this song by rockabilly foot soldier and R&B crossover phenomenon Dale Hawkins. It’s “Suzie Q”, his hit from 1958 as taken from the albumOh Suzie Q, soon to be covered by the Rolling Stones on their 1964 12×5 album, and even more famously by Credence Clearwater Revival.
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Dale Hawkins hails from Louisiana, and brings something of the swamp to this rockabilly blues number, the song which would make him a star. Hawkins was one of the only white artists on the Chess Records label, laying down some of the dirtiest rockabilly guitar, and primitive bluesy stomps ever commited to vinyl, while clearly under the influence of labelmate Bo Diddley.
Hawkins’ sound attracted a number of guitar luminaries to his side. Some of these included Roy Buchannan, Elvis Presley sideman Scotty Moore, and another great guitarist who would later play with Presley, James Burton, who plays the central riff here on this song.
If ever there was a case for the benefits of ‘more cowbell’, then “Suzie Q” is certainly exhibit A. In addition to standard rockabilly instrumentation, the song is driven forward by the clatter of the cowbell. To my ears, this makes it a bit edgy, and unpredictable somehow, and the song comes off as even more lustful in turn.
The song embodies the core nature of rock ‘n’ roll, tracing it back to its origins in the blues, and adding in a bit of country swagger at the same time. Additionally, Hawkins added some of the percussive sounds of Louisiana folk music into his sonic stew. And in mixing these elements together, Hawkins became one of the architects of Swamp Rock or Swamp Boogie, a style which influenced later artists such as Tony Joe White, J.J Cale, and Little Feat. It’s no wonder that back-to-basics CCR chose it as a cover version, later to have a hit with it.
Dale Hawkins would make modest success of his career, with ‘Suzie Q” being his greatest achievement. He continued to champion rock music as a TV host (‘The Dale Hawkins Show”) and as a producer.
Listen to this song by Lubbock Texas’ favourite son, Buddy Holly. It’s “Everyday”, a hit from 1958. The song was in many ways kind of an oddity in the rock’n’ roll world, using as it does a celesta as its lead instrument, rather than Buddy’s standard sunburst Fender stratocaster, and without a drum kit in sight, too.
I think Holly’s unconventional approach to arranging his songs is one of the many reasons he was so ahead of his time. He understood the importance of timbre as a means of getting the attention of listeners, and expanded the definition of what a pop song could be in the process. And in this tune, kind of a soft-spoken rock n’ roll lullaby, he manages to make a song which is not only charming in its simplicity, but also one which is highly interpretable and timeless. Artists like Bobby Vee, and James Taylor had similar chart success when covering this unassuming little song, which sounds like a kid’s song, if not for the twisty-turny middle-eight section. He didn’t invent the middle-eight, but he sure did make it an important part of rock songwriting, breaking the pattern of verse-chorus-verse, and giving rock songwriting the same potential depth and variety as any tin pan alley tune. Holly knew how to structure a song as a whole, do it unconventionally, and still make it stick in your head.
The great thing about the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll is that everyone in the pantheon seemed to have a place in making sure that this music would make a lasting impact. Bo Diddley brought out the rhythm encoded in our genes all the way back to Africa. Chuck Berry gave us a clear manifesto; Cars, Makin’ out, and No School. Little Richard gave us theatricality, flamboyance, and a hint of the funk. Jerry Lee provided the danger. And Elvis gave the beast legs, in every sense of the word.
I think what Buddy Holly brought to the table in his 18 month recording career was pure craft. He could take three minutes and make them transcendent using odd timbres, weird chord changes that worked, and interesting rhythm patterns (see another Holly hit, “Peggy Sue” – where did he get that strumming pattern from?). In the process, he gave the act of songwriting a quality that was something akin to creating life beyond its creator, and beyond the times in which a song was first written. Songwriters spend their whole lives slaving over getting their craft up to this level. Holly seemed to be able to do it naturally, and in short order. He started a tradition of songwriting which lasts until today; the idea that a song can be immediate, and be immortal at the same time.
Still, it makes me sad to think that Holly would never see his musical baby grow up. His influence on other acts is well-documented. His sway over the songwriters of the British Invasion period, and even on modern country music, which is where I think Holly would have gone had he lived, is immense. In my alternate reality, he would have created some great, earthy music of his own well into the 1970s (including a cover version of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Cotton Jenny”, which is clearly written with Buddy in mind…), and maybe he would have joined the Highwaymen in the 80s, with his old friend Waylon Jennings. The 90s would have seen him become an elder statesman to alt-country acts, headlining festivals, and recording stripped-down albums that displayed his undiminished spark. Our 21st century would find him semi-retired, surrounded by grandkids and great grandkids, teaching them all to “hiccup” in his unique style while leading them in renditions of kids songs.
There have been a lot of artists who have been mourned as having been struck down in their prime. But, Holly was one of the most random and most senseless of all, killed in an airplane crash in Clearlake Iowa after a show, while his pregnant wife waited for him at home. Even if he didn’t record another note, he should have had the chance to be a dad.
Here’s a clip featuring British rockabilly outfit Vince Taylor & The Playboys’ 1958 hit “Brand New Cadillac” famously covered by the Clash on their 1979 double album London Calling. One thing that this song proved was that by ’79, the Clash had left behind all of the pretensions of the punk year-zero ethic, and discovered their inner teddy boy.
Vince Taylor was an originalteddy boy (or “ted”), born in Isleworth England in 1939. Taylor’s own career would be tarnished and celebrated in equal measure as a minor figure in European pop music who would be remembered for more than his music. Taylor had made a name for himself touring France in the early ’60s, associating himself with the same scene French rock n’ roll star, Johnny Hallyday. Taylor was known for his erratic behaviour both on stage and off, which culminated in an episode on stage in which he was caught up in a drug-fuelled religious outpouring, declaring himself a prophet, and effectively ending any hope of a wider career – a bona fide rock n’ roll suicide. Taylor spent the rest of his life living in Switzerland, dying in 1991 at the age of 52.
Apart from the Clash connection, Taylor also inspired another major figure in rock – David Bowie, who allegedly based his Ziggy Stardust persona and song character on Taylor, the “leper Messiah” swallowed up by the excesses and pressures of pursuing the life of a would-be rock star.
Here’s a clip of Rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson with her song “I Gotta Know”, found on her 1960 album Rockin’ With Wanda. The thing I most like about this is that it’s so playful. Wanda goes from a straight-forward country song, to rockabilly, back to country, and so on. She gives away a bit of her background in country, and undercuts it with a bit of blues-influenced twang. Where this is not an example of her mean and dirty delivery, I think it shows another side of her – the demure side that hints that she may not be demure at all.
Rock n’ roll is largely a man’s man’s man’s world. But, Wanda Jackson is a scorching exception to the rule, and has been since the late 50s. Apart from laying down some of the grittiest, purest rockabilly ever committed to vinyl, she rocked Elvis’ worldfor a while in more than one sense of the word. He recorded versions of “Hard-Headed Woman” and “Let’s Have A Party”, both of these being Wanda Jackson staples.
Native to Oklahoma City, Jackson made a name for herself while still in her teens in the mid-50s. Raised on country music radio, Wanda took an interest in performing herself, and did so on a regular local radio program which brought her to the attention of country singerHank Thompson, through whom she was able to make her way as a professional musician. She finished school, went out on the road, and signed to Decca records in a short span of time. She joined a tour with Elvis, who took a shine to her, in 1955-56. And it was Elvis who encouraged her (directly in this case, unlike the rest of us) in the direction of rockabilly, away from the country music she’d been doing previously. She later signed to Capitol records and charted on the country charts well into the 60s.
She’s toured ever since, gathering an audience all over the world, and twice nominated for a Grammy.