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Rockabilly Rules!

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If Skiffle was uniquely British, then Rockabilly was no doubt uniquely American.  But where Skiffle assumed a definite identity right from the get-go with the Koyler brothers, Chris Barber and Tony Donegan (think Lonnie) launching the genre with their “breakdown” sessions between “trad” jazz performances, Rockabilly was very different.

In the excellent historical narrative, “Go Cat Go!” by Craig Morrison, the author puts forth a set of ‘rules’ or more precisely a “recipe” for defining what qualifies as genuine rockabilly – not an easy task but a fun exercise nonetheless.

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Morrison’s Rules of the Rockabilly Road

Here are a few of the “recipe” components, which are divided into three categories for scoring a rockabilly candidate. Morrison assigns points, deducts points and adds bonus points within the categories – Now we have to understand that candidates don’t necessarily adhere to all of the point categories.  In fact, many musicians delivering rockabilly numbers more often would record good old country or swing or what have you.  Morrison points out that nearly 100 percent of all musicians recording or performing “rockabilly” recorded and performed other forms – probably most of the time.

Here are a few Morrison’s scoring examples:

Points Awarded If:

  • If there is an Elvis influence
  • If an echo effect is used
  • If  a wild or extreme vocal style is employed
  • If an upright bass is present – “especially if played in a slapped manner”
  • If song recorded in the years 1954, 1955 or 1956

Points Deducted If:

  • A saxophone is employed
  • If song is backed by a vocal chorus – especially if female
  • If “condescendingly juvenile” lyrics are employed
  • If there is a slow tempo
  • If recorded in any year after 1957

Bonus Points Awarded If:

  • If group employs acoustic/electric guitars, stand-up bass but no drums
  • If song is recorded at Sun studio or has a Memphis origin
  • If the artist is very obscure

These along with additional parts of the “recipe” is how Morrison would answer the inquiry “What is rockabilly?”

Hiram, Aaron & Tony

Like Skiffle’s “Moment” when the Chris Barber “breakdown” group stepped forward between sets in May of 1953 in a London Nightclub with Lonnie Donegan fronting the group with his guitar along with Ken Colyer, Alex Korner, Bill Coyler and Chris Barber  – launching the Brits on a path to rock and roll!

In America the date was just two weeks earlier in the Memphis studio at Sun when Sam Phillips turned on his tape machine when he heard something he hadn’t heard previously coming from the young trio of musicians who were almost goofing around between takes – “That’s All Right” by Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black was the game changer.

There was another young performer who turned the heads of young country musicians throughout the South was a Hiram Williams or “Hank” as he would become known.  Although never a rocker – his style and vocal innovation inspired so many of the rockabilly artists who came down the pike.  Williams was killed in an auto mishap well before the rockabilly phenomenon was under way and just a few months ahead of the the Donegan/Presley break outs – January, 1953.  He was 30 years old at the time of his death.

The Skiffle musicians were very cognizant of the term “skiffle” instantly applying it to their group names or song titles.  With rockabilly, this wasn’t the case.   Morrison explains that “rockabilly” didn’t suddenly pop into the jargon of the day.  Sam Phillips, he explains, didn’t use the term but preferred “rock n roll” and disclaimed any authorship to the identifier “rockabilly”.

Established country musicians of the day used it as a derogatory term for the new young bucks employing the genre.  Hank didn’t really rock but he changed Country Music and all that followed!

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