The Complicatist : The Spirit of Rockabilly

The sound of white trash contenders, from over 50 years ago…

by Gordon Campbell

Rockabilly hit its brief, blazing peak between 1957 and 1959. While a few great tracks exist outside that timeframe, it essentially became one more casualty of the day the music died, on February 3, 1959. With Buddy Holly dead and Elvis shipped out to Germany, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand became the prime outlet for white kids aiming for music stardom. From then on, white trash wannabes either got locked into regional obscurity, or cleaned up and became teen idols on Clark’s show in Philadelphia, or on the same town’s Cameo-Parkway labels.

The best rockabilly has proved incredibly durable, regardless. (That’s Charlie Feathers pictured, around the time he recorded “ One Hand Loose.”) At base, it was the music of white kids as they first came to grips with the power of rock’n’roll. It offered an escape route. If they could bottle one flash of pure lightning in the studio, maybe they too, could escape from the hills and hollows and suburban wasteland for good. Rockabilly was the American Dream at its fastest, and most desperate. Go, man, go!

1. Link Wray “Rumble” ; Commonwealth Jones : “Who’s Been Here”
These are bookends for the era. In this clip, Link Wray’s great brooding instrumental has been set to the pre-credit sequence from the Jerry Lewis movie The Delicate Delinquent. Trivia note : the main hoodlum in this footage is Robert Ivers, who starred in James Cagney’s only directed film Shortcut To Hell and went on to win the Elvis Fans Choice Award in 2003 as the Best Elvis Sidekick Ever for his role as “Cookie” in G.I. Blues. Now, there’s a career. (One reviewer of Shortcut To Hell described Ivers as looking like “a rat-faced James Dean.”)

At the other end of the rockabilly timeframe comes the fantastic single by Commonwealth Jones. This was actually Ronnie “Dee” Dawson, who enjoyed mini-hits like “Action Packed” and “Rockin’ Bones.” The “ Who’s Been Here” track and its excellent flipside “ Do Do Do” were recorded on Columbia in the early 1960s, and the sound is not dissimilar to some of the album cuts ( eg “From a Buick 6” ) recorded for the same label in the mid 1960s by one B. Dylan.


2. Carl Perkins “Where the Rio De Rosa Flows”
“Her Love Rubbed Off”
Carl Perkins was always an odd man out. Not as handsome as Elvis, not as distinctive a singer as Roy Orbison, not as wild as Jerry Lee Lewis and with none of the gravitas of Johnny Cash. What Perkins had was a coiled intensity as a singer and solid writing skills most famously demonstrated on ”Blue Suede Shoes” and “Get Your Cat Clothes On”,,,But to my mind, the two tracks here were his best efforts. The great, loose-limbed “Where the Rio De Rosa Flows” is from a later period on Columbia Records, but “ Her Love Rubbed Off ” captures Perkins at his wiry, lascivious Sun Records best.


3.Gene Maltais “The Raging Sea” “Gang War” There are probably a couple of reasons why Gene Maltais never made it big. One, he was a kind of ugly looking guy. Secondly, he came from Boston which never has been much of a music town. A real shame for Maltais, who put out these two phenomenal singles in the late 1950s, to no visible effect. They’ve since become jewels in the rockabilly crown. “Raging Sea’ is the better song, but the endearing “ Gang War” might be the only song to ever link well-shined shoes with juvenile delinquency.


4. Wanda Jackson : “Hard Headed Woman” Lorrie Collins “ Heartbeat
Janis Martin “Teen Street” Barbara Pittman : “I Need a Man”

First up, Wanda Jackson onstage, at her untamed peak – although the smouldering “You Don’t Know Baby” from the same period is also well worth your time. Lorrie Collins and her kid brother Larry (see below) should have been huge, but they became fatally sidelined as a novelty act. She was the smoking hot older sister – and girlfriend of teen idol Ricky Nelson – and he was the child prodigy with the double-neck Mosrite guitar and dance moves and a disconcerting habit of snuggling up romantically to his sister whenever the lyrics required it. In “ Heartbeat” Lorrie is singing on her own, and she’s almost in Patsy Cline’s league.

Janis Martin never survived RCA marketing her as the female Elvis, but tracks like “Teen Street” and “Bang Bang” still sound pretty great, regardless. Barbara Pittman was one of the few women on Sun Records, and is remembered today solely for her relentless “I Need A Man” track, where its unclear whether she aims to love that man, or eat him for dinner. Pittman did have a wistful side though, and her teen lament “Two Young Fools In Love” on Youtube is also worth checking out.


4.. The Phantom “Love Me”; Kip Tyler “She’s My Witch”
By its very nature, rockabilly was destined to produce a lot of one hit wonders. The Phantom aka Jerry Lott, had only 90 seconds of greatness, and its all here. Kip Tyler’s “She’s My Witch” may have been too sensuous to sit easily on the radio in the late 1950s – eg. when Kip says he loves her though “she’s good ‘n’ bad’ it sounds like he’s paying her a slightly different compliment. Either way, it’s a great song and arrangement, with the dirty sax solo being courtesy of Jim Horn, at that time working with Duane Eddy’s band, the Rebels.


5. Collins Kids “I Got Stung” “Rock Boppin’ Baby” etc
OK, here are the Collins Kids in all their gaudy, freakish glory. Larry Collins could really play that weird looking guitar, partly because he had been tutored by guitar maestro Joe Maphis, a contemporary of Chet Atkins and Merle Travis. So, as a couple of extras, I’ve included a jaw dropping clip from 1954 (when Larry was only nine years old!) and another of him at about 13, in speed picking duets with Maphis,.


6. Hasil Adkins : “Chicken Walk” Junior Thompson and the Meteors “Who’s That Knocking “ Laura Lee Perkins “ Hound Dog Demo”
Okay, here are some of the wild ones. For a long time, Hasil Adkins was the house geek at the rockabilly carnival, and – each to their own taste – he inspires the same ambivalent feelings in me as other damaged performers like Roky Erickson and Daniel Johnston. Junior Thompson came from Florence, Alabama but recorded in Memphis and this track for Meteor Records is from December 1956. Finally, Laura Lee Perkins is the result you might expect to get if Jerry Lee Lewis had been Elvis Presley’s sister, and she’d turned her pumping piano loose on a version of “ Hound Dog” one night in the heart of the 1950s.


6. Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones “Black Slacks”; Dwight Pullen “Sunglasses After Dark”

More one-off wonders, this time illustrating the joys and the tribulations of impractical fashion. Here’s a great clip of Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones wearing white slacks while singing about just how peachy keen black slacks can look, whether on a fellow or a girl. Dwight Pullen sings his hilarious and semi-famous (the Cramps covered it) cautionary tale about looking cool and bumping into things…while wearing shades as a fashion statement, after sunset.


7.Jody Reynolds “ Endless Sleep” Billy Harlan “ I Wanna Bop” With rockabilly, you can hear the sound of things to come. A lot of Jody Reynolds’ music for instance, foreshadows the sound of surf music. In his biggest hit for instance – the doleful, near miss suicide song called “Endless Sleep” – check the embryonic surf guitar sound.

I’ve chosen Billy Harlan’s obscure “ I Wanna Bop” to end this column. Mainly because its innocent repetitions and lonely commitment to the spirit of rock’n’roll are the stuff that 15 years later, Jonathan Richman was to celebrate in “Roadrunner” itself a precursor to punk. This is music as consolation and confirmation of the misfit in all of us.