It all started for me with a compilation album, " Sun Rockabillys", subtitled "Put Your Cat Clothes On", with a bright yellow sleeve and garish red print. This would be 1973, on the old Phonogram imprint. Well, OK, actually the first time I had seen real yellow Sun record labels was a year or so earlier at Ted Carroll's Rock On record stall on Golborne Road W10. Not to mention boxes full of 45s known as "repros", which were the only way back then to fill the demand for very expensive hard-to-find American originals, which included Charlie Feathers and Mac Curtis on the blue King label. One of the most popular among these with Ted's customers being Bottle To The Baby coupled with One Hand Loose by Charlie Feathers. And I do mean popular, very popular. But maybe that wasn't really the beginning either? The first time I had seen the Sun label was on the sleeve of that 1966 London LP, "The Blues Came Down From Memphis", which I didn't buy, but stared at the same copy in the same department store week after week. I had borrowed Carl Perkins' "Dance Album" from a friend for the whole of the previous year. The first time I ever heard the name Charlie Feathers was in a music paper article headlined "A Memphis snapshot". It was subtitled, "Breathless Dan talks to rock fans about his USA trip". I can't remember what paper that was in, but it would be 1967, at around the time most rock fans were talking about another kind of trip entirely.
And why, you may be asking, am I confusing the Sun label of Memphis, Tennessee with the King label of Cincinnati, Ohio? (Apart from the fact that Breathless Dan was visiting Memphis when he met Charlie Feathers during that USA trip.) Well, what that "Sun Rockabillys" album actually started was a run of compilations throughout the 1970s that introduced a young generation of avid rockabilly fans to the amazing portfolio of rockin' country music that had been recorded by the major USA record companies in the latter 1950s. And some independents too, of course.
A bunch of intrepid rock'n'roll collectors and researchers, with names like Leadbitter, Escott, Hawkins, Broven, Sax, Vernon, and a list too long to complete (for which apologies), held the major U.K. record companies to ransom, cajoling, pleading, and probably sending hundreds of envelopes without stamps, until each one of these companies yielded at least one low-run "rockabilly" compilation. I even tried it myself in a 1974 letter to RCA, trying to convince them of their vault full of rockabilly gems. They thanked me and reminded me that they already had albums by Neil Sedaka and Homer & Jethro in their catalogue!! Anyway, in this way we were presented with label compilations on Chess, Mercury, MGM, Columbia (CBS), Capitol and many many more. Some would follow with a second and even third volume. Eventually Bill Millar and Ray Topping would even get the RCA project off the ground in 1979.
In 1974 it was the turn of Roger Ford and Simon Gee, who were responsible for convincing Polydor, that Teutonic giant, to press up the wonderful surprise entitled "ROCKABILLY KINGS", featuring the King recordings of Charlie Feathers and Mac Curtis. The two aptly titled singers got a side each, with eight songs apiece. Charlie Feathers' side actually contained his entire King output, a total of four of the most devastating pure rockabilly singles that set the standard by which the genre has been bound ever since. The inclusion of Bottle To The Baby, One Hand Loose, Nobody's Woman and Everybody's Lovin' My Baby probably helped sell this album out of its initial pressing faster than the company thought likely. The Mac Curtis side of the LP, which presented a well selected eight of his bounciest and best from 1956 and 1957, included the only track that had ever been released previously in the UK You Ain't Treatin' Me Right had been issued on EMI's Parlophone imprint in March 1957, together with The Low Road (which was not included on the original album but is present on our CD). According to legend this single garnered one solitary play on the BBC's Light Programme, but had been the most successful regional hit for Mac back in the States. It got him on Alan Freed's 1956 Christmas Rock 'n' Roll Revue. The success in New York could be why the disc found a release in Britain early the following year. Nevertheless, Mac's 45 that would have set you back 5/7d at the time, will now cost you in excess of ¬£1500. If you can find one!
The success of the "Rockabilly Kings" album, and the fact that an enterprising nut out in California named Rockin' Ronnie Weiser was recording both artists on a series of rockabilly sides (and in Mac's case, whole albums), led to European tours. Mac and Charlie both came with separate packages in 1977. While Mac continues to visit these shores, Charlie's health forced him to slow down considerably. During his last European tour he sang from a wheelchair, and still thrilled his loyal following as much as ever. Charlie had become legend for his story-telling by now, and while he may not have been considered a source for reliable research, he was certainly an entertaining raconteur. He died in 1998 from a stroke, leaving the world short of one of its leading exponents of the rockabilly art form.
This writer had the considerable pleasure of playing behind Mac Curtis in Finland in 1999. During a sound check-cum-rehearsal the band were running through Mac's set, while the man himself sat and chatted with one of the other performers on the bill. Midway through a rendition of Half Hearted Love an argument broke out as to the chord sequence, and having had his attention grabbed, Mac decided it was time to join us and run through some stuff. As he climbed the stage with his acoustic round his shoulders, he broke into a blues lick while the rest of us fell into place. Before we knew it, we were jamming and sounding better than we had without him. As we played my thoughts went to the fact that these original rockabilly guys were basically country cats with a hankering to play the blues. Nothing had changed. Mac Curtis could effortlessly slip into a blues jam as if it was in his blood. It wasn't rocket science, but it sure was the real deal. By the way, regarding Half Hearted Love: we've included a never before released version on this CD.
And speaking of this CD, which by now I should be, it's quite amazing that it's taken until now for the original "Rockabilly Kings" LP to be issued on this format. This time around not only do you have every one of Charlie Feather's King sides, but every complete alternate take as a bonus. Never before all in one place, on one CD. And on the Mac Curtis "side" you get the original cuts from the LP, together with five bonus tunes culled from the best of Mac's rockin' King repertoire. Including that unheard take I mentioned. Some would say this is one of the best rockabilly re-issue albums of all, for the first time on CD. The original LP has been unavailable since at least 1978, so this comp is putting that right. I should just add that all these tracks are mastered directly from the master tapes and the alternate takes are mostly issued legally for the first time anywhere. And they sound better than ever!
This album contains not a single chart hit. But it contains what amounts to some of the most incendiary rock'n'roll ever committed to tape. And as for the two artists featured, there could not be a more apt title for an album; Rockabilly Kings indeed. Now, what's the betting we might re-issue "Sun Rockabillys" next?
By Brian Nevill