My new book is a history of rockabilly, because I’ve loved that music for damn near 40 years. The first album I ever bought, back in 1973, was a compilation with a mixture of rock’n’roll and rockabilly, including tracks by Wanda Jackson, Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent. When Ace Records first came along later that decade, I was blown away by the range and quality of the material they were issuing. Records like Ace’s landmark “Rockabilly Party” 10-inch LP from 1978, with sleevenotes by the great Ray Topping, which contained Hal Harris’ phenomenal unissued ‘Jitterbop Baby’ – purebred rockabilly with an unstoppably infectious groove riding along on top of some of the most perfectly recorded, echo-drenched slap-bass of all time. Over the years there’s been a wealth of class-A rockin’ material released on the label, so I’m genuinely delighted to have been asked to help compile a selection of the wildest rockabilly tracks for this collection, which is issued at the same time as the book.
The story of rockabilly is largely one of individual recordings, rather than stars. Many great performances were laid down by unknowns whose careers were over almost before the ink dried on their record contracts. Yet the first pure rockabilly record ever made launched its teenage singer on the biggest and most successful career trajectory the music world has ever known. The five singles that Elvis, Scotty and Bill cut in Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in 1954 and 1955 laid down the blueprint for the worldwide rock explosion of the 1950s, but also defined rockabilly for all time. What you have on this collection is Elvis and a selection of those who were chasing his shadow.
The music came in various styles, from the largely acoustic-flavoured hillbilly strain to the flat-out screamers knocking hell out of any instruments within reach, but the focus with this particular selection is mostly on the wilder cuts: Dale Vaughn’s magnificent one-off for the tiny Von label, ‘How Can You Be Mean To Me’; Gene Maltais in the living room of a soundman in New Hampshire, hollerin’ his way through a berserk rendition of ‘The Raging Sea’; an unissued alternate take of Jackie Morningstar’s much-loved song about the joys of being belted over the head with a rock by a thing from beyond the grave, ‘Rockin’ In The Graveyard’.
Youthful enthusiasm, urgent rhythms and stripped-down arrangements driven along by a slapping upright double bass; these were songs sung mostly by teenagers which dealt with all the essentials of the hepcat lifestyle: girls, cars, booze, dancing. Just like the punk explosion 20 years later, 50s rockabilly was a spontaneous outburst of spirited three-chord songs, in which the major companies had a stake, but there was still plenty of room for tiny record labels, primitive studios, fiercely partisan audiences and wild-eyed, driven performers who weren’t planning much farther ahead than the following week. They were chasing something you couldn’t ever quite catch up with, nail down or explain to your parents.
Lightning in a bottle, a tiger by the tail, a rocket in your pocket.
By Max Décharné