ROCK-A-BILLY: (n.) An emotionally intense and rhythmic blend of [hillbilly] country music, bluegrass, rhythm and blues, Southern gospel, and African American spirituals. Originally performed by white musicians from the mid-southern region of the United States.
Characterized by assertive, confident single vocal performance, moderately fast tempos, and three to four musicians using acoustic rhythm guitar, upright “slap” bass, electric lead guitar, and sometimes drums. Discernible studio echo-effects enhance the recordings.
Like many slang definitions of various types of music—think of boogie-woogie, Dixieland, and swing—no one seems to know who actually coined the word Rockabilly.
The only fact on which most everyone agrees is that Rockabilly music was born on the sweltering night of July 5, 1954, when Elvis Presley, a young truck driver turned struggling singer was nervously horsing around during a coffee break of a demo session at the Sun Recording Studio in Memphis, Tennessee started singing “That’s All Right Mama”.
This was the beginning of Rockabilly and Rock and Roll music. The sound created by Elvis, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black was so unique, so different and so exciting it spawned a revolution in the world of music, and all this took place 60 years ago. Oh yes, there were many records that claimed to be the first, and some with justification, but mostly these were R&B or what was labeled “Race Music.” In 1948 Fats Domino recorded “The Fat Man” in New Orleans, and this has to be considered a benchmark recording. Bill Haley charted “Crazy, Man Crazy” in Billboard magazine in 1953. This, too, is a contender, but all those early recordings, including “Rocket 88,” were R&B based, whereas Elvis’ song was a hybrid in the truest sense. It sounded like country but felt like R&B. It was new, it was different. It was Rockabilly.
That young Mississippian led the Rockabilly explosion—a powerful new type of music that ignited young people all across the nation while at the same time causing panic among parents and preachers. But he never would have caught anyone’s attention at all without the help of a creative, eccentric businessman named Sam Phillips.
Sun Records was the birthplace of so much of the early rhythm and blues, country and rock and roll. Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, had an ear for hits. He was responsible for signing Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. Sam’s small label had a major disadvantage in that distribution of his product could not compare with the giants such as RCA Victor, Decca, Capitol and Columbia. This prevented some of the early Elvis hits from getting exposure other than in the South, where he toured extensively. Regardless of the size of Sun, Phillips was at the forefront of the new age with a new sound. He had something the big companies didn’t have, and that was an ear for success. He also was, as they say in the business, “closer to the streets.” He watched public reaction to his performers, whether in concert or on the radio and television, and from that public response, he moved forward. It was “hands-on” marketing and it worked, but more importantly, it gave birth to some of the greatest recordings of the 20th Century.