Rockabilly is one of the earliest forms of rock and roll as a distinct style of music. It is a fusion of blues, hillbilly boogie, bluegrass music and country music, and its origins lie in the American South.
Peter Guralnick wrote, 'Its rhythm was nervously uptempo, as well as accented on the offbeat, and propelled by a distinctively slapping bass.... The sound was further bolstered by generous use of echo, a homemade technique refined independently by Sam Phillips and Leonard Chess in Chicago with sewer pipes and bathroom acoustics'. While recording artists such as Bill Haley were playing music that fused rhythm and blues, western swing and country music in the early 1950s, and Tennessee Ernie Ford performed in a somewhat similar style on songs such as 'Smokey Mountain Boogie', they were not playing rockabilly. As Nick Tosches writes, 'By the early 1950s, it was not uncommon to encounter simultaneous country and rhythm-and-blues recordings of the same song'.
Tosches also points out that the Delmore Brothers and Hank Williams were performing, in the late 1940s, music that could be called rock and roll. But rockabilly was a stripped-down version of its various sources, and thus a specific stylistic moment in the evolution of music that before had existed in many forms. The rockabilly movement of loud, fast, simple music that communicates directly with the audience was echoed in Great Britain by the resurgence of skiffle music. Both forms contributed materially to the development of rock and roll.
Bill Flagg was the first to name the music when he recorded for Tetra Records in 1955−1956. His song 'Go Cat Go' went into the National Billboard charts in 1956. He was inducted as a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
In 1952, Bill Haley and the Comets, released 'Rock the Joint' on the Essex label, which is most likely the first 'true' rockabilly recording. Replete with slap bass and the hallmark, country/blues sound and the first appearance of guitar solo would appear in two years later in his biggest hit, 'Rock Around the Clock'.
Elvis Presley's 1954 Memphis sessions for Sam Phillips's Sun Records produced arguably the most influential rockabilly recordings. 'That's All Right (Mama)', first performed by Arthur Crudup, was a reworking of a blues tune, done with overtones of country music. 'Blue Moon of Kentucky', by Bill Monroe, was a bluegrass standard, done with overtones of blues. Elvis had been singing similar songs on the Louisiana Hayride where he was billed as 'The Hillbilly Cat', a title that embodies the rockabilly synthesis.
During roughly the same period of time, a young singer/songwriter down in Lubbock, Texas named Buddy Holly was busy taking elements of various musical styles (blues, country, gospel, south of the border, etc...) and melding them into what later became the 'Tex-Mex' sound. Holly's rockabilly sound was a strong element in much of his work.
Carl Perkins, who also recorded for Sun, is another performer whose recordings helped to define the genre. 'Blue Suede Shoes', written by Perkins, it is considered a classic of the style. The early recordings of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Dale Hawkins, Charlie Feathers, Hasil Adkins, Gene Vincent, Billy Lee Riley, Johnny Burnette and Roy Orbison are also considered essential, although Cash, Vincent, Lewis, Burnette and Orbison each went on to perform in other styles. Eddie Cochran and Ricky Nelson also are considered rockabilly performers.
Rockabilly was also a vehicle for many women performers to display their musical talents as well. Women like Wanda Jackson and Janis Martin performed a liberating form of rockabilly. Wanda Jackson was the first woman to shed her cowboy hat and boots and opt for rhinesone earrings and high heels when singing rockabilly music. She utilized Elvis' backing group the Jordanaires in her recordings.
Holly's death in a plane crash in 1959 tended to mark the end of the classic rockabilly era.
Led Zeppelin released Presence in 1976, which featured a number of rockabilly style songs including 'Candy Store Rock' and 'For Your Life'. In 1979, the rock band Queen released 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love', which combined a rockabilly sound with modern chords and which went to #1 on the U.S. charts. A few years later in the early 1980s The Stray Cats followed. The Stray Cats appeared often on MTV and had many hit records including 'Stray Cat Strut', 'Rock this Town', and 'Sexy and 17'. Another noteworthy rockabilly band of the '80s was the Blasters.
Other revivalists followed in the 1990s, like High Noon, Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, Lone Star Trio, Danny Dean and the Homewreckers the Dave and Deke Combo, The Racketeers, and many others. Dire Straits recorded a rockabilly track 'The Bug', on their 1991 album On Every Street.
Guralnick writes, 'Rockabilly is the purest of all rock 'n' roll genres. That is because it never went anywhere. It is preserved in perfect isolation within an indistinct time period.... '.
In 1997, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame was founded by Bob Timmers to present early rock and roll history and information relative to the artists and personalities involved in pioneering this music genre.
Several rockabilly festivals take place each year; mostly in the U.S. and Europe. Attendance at these festivals ranges from a few hundred to several thousand. Since the late '90s the most popular of these has been Viva Las Vegas, which takes place each Easter weekend in Las Vegas and the Heavy Rebel Weekender, located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, during the 4th of July weekend.
Devoted followers of Rockabilly music and its fashion are known as Rockabillies, or Billys within the "scene". The hairstyle is usually a tame or more exaggerated 'pomp' or pompadour hairstyle as was popular with 1950s artists like Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and revivalists stars from the '80s, The Stray Cats. This hair style is usually maintained with large amounts of pomade hair wax from traditional brand names like Royal Crown, Black & White Pluko, Murrays, and Layrite. It was rumoured that Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash both used B&W Pomade to hold up their hair with a thick and shiny look.
The clothing is largely reflective of the popular styles worn by the musicians in the 1950s themselves; slacks, pastel coloured and Daddy-O styled shirts, baggy coats with the shirt collars worn over the coat collar, Brothel creeper shoes in every colour of the spectrum, with black and white being the most popular. Of course Levi jeans (501 or 505) and more casual items are also part of the wardrobe, to include t-shirts and motorcycle jackets. In regard to fashion, Rockabillies look very similar to other music/fashion subcultures like Greasers, Teds (Teddy Boys) and Rockers of the same era. All have a love and respect of classic American cars, British motorcycles, Rock and Roll, and vintage clothing.
The female hairstyle is just evident today as in the '50s within the 'scene'. Long and short with bangs, in ponytails, or in curls with flowers in the hair. The clothing too reflects the 'scene', pencil skirts, halter dresses, sweetheart dress, rockabilly circle skirt, sailor inspired suits, peddle pushers (a.k.a. capris), poodle skirts, cuffed jeans, as well as the western shirts. The shoes, mary jane, saddle shoes, flats, cowboy boots, and the ever so essential peep toe pumps, are commonly worn by Rockabilly girls.