Rockin’ Bones – 1950s Punk and Rockabilly
By Blaine Schultz
Everyone knows Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, but when you think of rockabilly’s iconic image the person who comes to mind is Ersel Hickey. You might not know the name but trust me, odds are you’ve seen the photograph of this proto-rockabilly cat – all greasy pompadour, suggestive stance and hollow body guitar. It has been said that rock & roll died when Elvis was inducted into the Army. Truth be told, around the same time Little Richard saw the Light, Chuck Berry was doing time and Buddy Holly died in a plane wreck. So, yeah rock & roll had pretty much shot its wad by the end of the ‘50s.
But prior to that there were untold countless backwoods wannabees, regular guys who had a little talent and inspired maniacs who were aimed like Halley’s Comet for their one shot at the big time. Rockabilly’s premise couldn’t be simpler: here’s three chords stolen from country music or the blues and some primed teenage angst. Toss in the sharpies at small record companies looking to make a buck, a handful off green pills and more attitude than Hollywood could ever manufacture and what you have is mid-20th century American History in four acts.
Now in a perfect world we would all have access to The Cramps’ record collection, but this will save you the time you’d spend digging up all these 45s on your knees in dusty backrooms of thrift stores (presuming you own a record player), not to mention the collector scum prices you’d fork over if you went the auction route. Consider each of these gems a musical resume whereby the artist gets to grab your attention. And usually in little over two minutes it’s the musical equivalent of 0 to 60 and a chugged Red Bull. Lightning in a bottle, even.
In the world of rockabilly obscure is often better. While the Big Four are all represented – plus a pre-operatic Roy Orbison – it is not with their most recognized tunes. In Fact, Elvis’ “One Night of Sin” oozes blues. Representing what can be considered the next echelon of artists – never quite becoming household names – these folks managed to have careers in the music biz, and were often held as icons in Europe and Japan. You get a dose of Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Link Wray, Johnny Burnette/Rock & Roll Trio and Wanda Jackson. A little less polite, a little less camera time and a whole lot more grit in their guitars than the household names – well maybe except for the Killer and Elvis’ bloated decline.
Many consider Link Wray’s “Rumble” as the National Anthem to a generation of kids who were part of the British Invasion and ultimately turned into Heavy Metal. Paul Burlison’s playing with the Burnette brothers employed that perfect amount of tube distortion that such a discerning listener as Howlin’ Wolf once had Burlison play an on-air radio program with him. Vincent’s minimal production drew the listener to pay closer attention only to explode. Cochran’s genius was cut short by an auto accident, but we at least get to hear him figuring out the sounds in his head. And Jackson was truly a wild young woman (she too would see the Light), one of the few voices in the testosterone-heavy sweepstakes. Albeit a real feral testosterone it would seem, for whatever reason. Both Ronnie Hawkins and Dale Hawkins had the prescience to collaborate with great guitar players. Ronnie’s “Who Do You Love” is jabbed by some of the fiercest playing Robbie Robertson would record in a career that includes Bob Dylan and The Band, while Dale’s “Suzie Q” features the great James Burton, who would head up Elvis Vegas-era TCB band, Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band and, of course, Rickey Nelson. And let’s make particular mention of Nelson. Where else on a weekly national television show could you see Nelson and Burton, but in the home of Ozzie and Harriet? And make no mistake this is serious guitar picker’s music. With the exception of the Killer, Big Al Downing is the only other piano player of note, or make that footnote.
There is plenty more to dig into here. But for me this set boils down to three tunes. Charlie Feathers’ “One Hand Loose” is a glimpse into a guy who seemed to live his life to play this music – having learned guitar from Mississippi Hill Country blues players, he would likely be hesitant to call it rockabilly or anything. “Sinners” by Freddie and the Hitchhikers (who?) is a prime exhibit of a song that seems to barely ease in from a fading twilight zone radio station as you are on a road trip deep in the night, just beyond the middle of nowhere – I’m guessing Shreveport. Is it blues, gospel, doo wop? Well let’s just call it rockabilly so it gets included here and you get to hear it. And finally John and Jackie’s “Little Girl”. Hmmm, how to delicately put this…. Jackie sounds like she is in heat. Well maybe not, but she is pretty convincing for someone in a recording studio. John sings in this up-tempo doofus voice, could be he’s not interested (fat chance, judging from Jackie’s ummmm …urgency) but maybe he’s just leering at her all along. You never really know for sure. At the heart of rockabilly is the odd sense of mystery, not unlike David Lynch’s hairstyle. VS