Roots of Rock & Roll – Rockabilly

The AWESOME! page has random music stuff that I think is cool. You never know what you will find here!

Here’s the fifth blog for the on-going series, “The Roots of Rock & Roll.” Check out the other blogs in the series – Alan Freed (August 6, 2017), Bill Haley and the Comets’ Rock Around the Clock (October 8, 2017), History of the Electric Guitar (December 10, 2017), and Chuck Berry (July 29, 2018) – all part of my AWESOME! page.

The term “rockabilly” is a combination of “rock” and “hillbilly,” and the origins of the sound are the blending of early country music (often called hillbilly music in the 40s and 50s) with rhythm & blues music. Rockabilly songs tended to have lots of rhythm and twangy vocals. The term started to be used to describe the genre in 1956, but the earliest country hits were in the late 20s by artists like Jimmie Rodgers. In the 30s and 40s, the sound evolved with Western Swing, where country music and jazz were blended together, along with hillbilly boogie, which blended country and blues-boogie music. In the 40s and early 50s, other blues styles evolved that influenced what became rockabilly, such as electric blues, jump blues and Memphis blues.

Tennessee became a hot bed for artists that developed the rockabilly sound. In Memphis, record producer Sam Phillips founded Sun Records, and he produced recordings for the artists that would make rockabilly a national phenomenon. In January 1956, 3 songs were released that made the genre official – Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues, Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel and Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes. These songs are rockabilly standards.

Not all rockabilly was from Tennessee. Philadelphia’s Bill Haley & His Comets and their song Rock Around the Clock fits the rockabilly category well – it was released in 1954, and by 1955 it was the second biggest song of the year. Two rockabilly heavyweights from Texas started releasing music in 1956 – Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly. And in 1957, Jerry Lee Lewis released his hits Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On and Great Balls of Fire. 

By 1960, the genre lost its popularity as radio started playing other styles of music, though rockabilly certainly influenced the music of that decade – most notably The Beatles. There was a rockabilly revival during the 70s, thanks to Elvis’ comeback, the film American Graffiti and the popular TV show Happy Days. And punk rock acts that followed borrowed heavily from the sounds of rockabilly, along with bands like The Stray Cats.

Here are clips of those 3 amazing songs, all released within weeks of one another, that made rockabilly famous.




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