Monday, March 30, 2009
In a previous post "The New Rockabilly Geography" I pointed out just how far reaching the genre's influence is felt in the contemporary music scene. Literally hundreds of rockabillyesque groups have appeared all over the globe, and its popularity seems to be increasing rather than diminishing. Where did this all begin? In order to symplify, I will agree with Billy Poore's claim that rockabilly was "born" in the Sun studios in July of 1954, with Sam Phillips orchestration of Elvis and Scotty Moore doing The Arthur Crudup classic " That's All Right Mama." Once that tune became a hit, the style simply caught fire for the next five or six years, then faded, until....
Rockabilly was not popular during the 1960's and even into the 1970's, save a few peculiar exceptions. The Beatles' great covers of Carl Perkins, Bobby Fuller's 1966 hit "I Fought the Law" and CCR's covers of the Dale Hawkin's hit "Suzie Q" and Roy Orbison's "Ooby Dooby." By the early 1970's, while most U.S. bands were either pursuing "country rock" or a more bluesy mode, Commander Cody was forging a most eclectic style by exploring the diversity of American roots back to the 1940's. Cody's cover hit of the old Charlie Ryan tune "Hot Rod Lincoln," which was probably more inspired by the Johnny Bond version, became a hit in 1972 and stood out as one of the few links to the rockbilly style in the eary 70's.
What is generally referred to as the "second wave" of rockabilly appears in the later 1970's, and some have argued that it was an offshoot of the British punk rock scene. While that claim is dabatable, what is documentable is that Robert Gordon really got the rockabilly train rolling again in 1977 as he teamed up with Link Wray on the Billy Lee Riley classic "Red Hot" which hit the charts in the fall of the same year. Gordon went on to record five subsequent albums, teaming with other "red hot" guitarists like British session ace Chris Spedding and the incomparable Danny Gatton on different LP's.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Dave Edmonds was ahead of the game as he began mining the American music tradition to create hits like his cover of the Smiley Lewis ryhthm and blues classic "I Hear You Knockin," which was a top ten song in 1971. His later album and Rock Pile, released in 1972, was also true to the roots, containing many covers of American 1950's classics. Several years later here in the states Brian Setzer's Stray Cats also hit it rather big in the early 1980's, and their popularity helped boost awareness of rockabilly in general. During the same period, Jinx Jones and his Jaguars were exploring rockabilly styles with success in the Denver area, check out Jinx's blistering guitar chops here. Also contributing to the fun was Dave Alvin's outfit, The Blasters, whose first LPs, American Music (1979), was an amalgamation of rockabilly and R&B roots music and was a success in launching Alvin's career. Curiously, Danny Gatton's 1975 LP with his group Danny and the Fat Boys, which was also entitled American Music, featured a diverse offering of 50's material which highlighted the Warren Smith's rockabilly classic Ubangi Stomp as well as a tribute to the 1950's R&B star Amos Milburn.
Finally, I would be remiss with discussing an exceptional group from my home state of Missouri whose unique blend of retro esoterica and rockabilly got me very interested in the genre back during the second wave. Seeing band leaders Lou Whitney (bass) and D. Clinton Thompson (guitar) perform live in 1979 with their first group The Symptoms and rip through the Johnny Burnette classic "Rock Therapy" or cover Chuck Berry's "Too much Monkey Business" was a transformative experience. The group later morphed into The Morells but the outcome was the same: an outstanding and very original retro sound. Whether it was covering obscure rockabilly numbers like Ronnie Self's "Ain't I a Dog" or doing sizzling originals like "Reds" or "Trans Am," The Morells have made a name for themselves in a way some of the other groups mentioned here could not, and they are still doing it.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
When I was 18 years old and a sophomore at the University of Missouri, some friends and I went to see a traveling Blues show called the Memphis Blues Caravan. I was already into Chicago blues but was far from ready for the show one of the performers names Sam Chatmon put on. Listening to Sam's unique amalgam of Delta blues, originals some crossoverish country tunes that he had adapted struck a chord I had to continue exploring: the incredibly rich tradition of country blues players from all over the U. S. Sam's performance and the wonderful reissues Yazoo records was releasing at the time allowed me to explore many of the lesser known rural blusemen, many of whom have remained in obscurity, but nonetheless contribute mightily to our cultural patrimony.
In the 1930's three Chatmon Brothers formed a small ensemble dubbed the Mississippi Sheiks which was known for its versatility of style, ranging from traditional country blues to medicine show and pop material. Their eclectic range allowed for popularity among both white and black audiences alike. The sheiks featured Bo Chatmon ( Bo Carter) on guitar and vocals, Sam on bass and Lonnie on fiddle. One of their classic originals, "Sittin on top of the World" has been covered by scores of artists, and is classified as an American classic tune.
Bo Chatmon, more popularly known as Bo Carter was the Sheik whose musical originality propelled him to fame in the 1930's and 40's as a solo artist. His unique, incomparable blend of erotic folk poetry played to his flawless finger-picking in open G and dropped D tunings are a veritable treasure of American art. Contemporary country blues guitar wizard John Miller, who offers superb instructional videos on how to approach Carter's style, writes: "the origins of Bo’s music are shrouded in mystery, and it is very unlikely we’ll ever find an explanation for the harmonic richness of his music, so different from other musicians of his region. Bo’s right hand approach was different, too, picking with all fingers and moving fluidly between alternation, thumping and runs with his thumb."
Give a listen to "All round man," a classic that foregrounds Bo's picking style and double entendre lyrics quite well.
Miller does an exceptional job of playing and explaining another Bo Carter classic, " My Baby," in this instructional video.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
Two very gifted and under-appreciated guitarists who were contemporaries are George Barnes and Jimmy Bryant. Both were influenced by jazz guitar pioneers Django Rienhardt and Eddie Lang in the 1930's, and both both maintained involvement in jazz into the 40s and 50s but also worked in separate genres, Barnes in pop music and Bryant in country. Both were exceptional players with quite different styles and approaches, but they shared one important feature: delicious and exceptionally clean chops.
George Barnes is sometimes credited with being the first to amplify the guitar to play jazz, yet this is also a claim made by others and is hard to confirm. Interestingly, Barnes got his start recording with with blues great Big Bill Broonzy using an electric guitar in 1938. Barnes is known for his extra smooth, clear tone and sense of timing in jazz instrumental arrangements. His rendition of of State Street Boogie higlights his techniques. He recorded jazz guitar duet LPs with jazz legend Carl Kress and later with Bucky Pizzarelli. He is generally credited for helping legitimize the guitar as a solo instrument in the genre. In 1977, I remember helping to reissue one of Barnes' classic recordings with Carl Cress that was recorded in the 60's but had fallen out of print. We had 250 copies of Guitars Anyone ? - pictured above - reprinted and sold them all the same year.
Jimmy Bryant comes out of the same "country swing/jazz tradition discussed in a previous post. Bryant is know for his early association with pedal steel guitarist Speedy West, with whom he recorded for Capitol Records. Said to have been influenced by his contemporary Joe Maphis, Bryant's early recordings were classified as country but show a clear jazz influence. His rapid, fluid approach won him praise in country and jazz circles alike. Listen to Jimmy tear it up here with Speedy West on "Night Rider." Also, check out Bryant's accuracy and speed on "Little Rock Getaway" here.
Both Barnes and Bryant went on to influence a whole generation of jazz and country guitarists who followed them. Barnes on players like Jim Hall, Joe Pass and Howard Roberts, Bryant on players like Phil Baugh, Albert Lee and many others. Danny Gatton often cited both Barnes and Bryant as major influences.
Friday, March 20, 2009
I remember reading Sam Phillips' obituary a few years back and one the quotes from Sam has always stuck with me. When asked which musician was the most impressive entertainer he had ever had the pleasure to record at Sun records, Sam responded "Howlin Wolf" without hesitation. Wolf was certainly gifted and a most imposing force to watch, but he also had the guitar prowess of Hubert Sumlin at his side, a player whose roots go back to Charlie Patton and is said to have been a major influence on blues and rock guitarists from Stevie Ray Vaughn to Hendrix.
In the last post I briefly examined an association between jazz and western swing guitarists in the 1940's and alluded to how those guitarist left an imprint on rockabilly styles. Obviously, another major guitar style that nourishes rockabilly is blues guitar. And the stereotype of rockabilly is that it is essentially country music that incorporates blues, jump blues and or boogie woogie styles. Certainly this is true, but rarely do we see the immediate connection in specific songs, save the most notable of all, Elvis' cover of Arthur Crudup's "That all right Mama."
Al Casey was a talented Phoenix musician who played several instruments and broke into popular music just as rockabilly was catching fire, in 1955. He appeared as lead guitarist on several high quality rockabilly singles behind singer Sanford Clark starting in 1956. The tune that perfectly captures the the "borrowing" of blues styles by rockabilly players is "The Fool," recorded in 1956, in which Casey's nifty guitar work is, to put it euphemistically, strikingly similar to Hubert Sumlin's signature guitar riffs on Howlin Wolf's famous "Smokestack Lightning." First listen to Wolf's number with Sumlin. On Sanford Clark's "The Fool," a classic rockabilly number recorded the same year, Casey goes straight to Sumlin, but also does some nifty work of his own. Casey also displayed some very adroit guitar work on two other great songs, a shuffle with cheesy vocals Guitars Guitars Guitars, and the another Sunlike rocker with Sanford Clark, "Lonesome for a Letter." Also check out his guitar work on Cat Daddy with Jimmy Johnson on vocals. Nice guitar work on all four, the first shows a direct linkage between blues and rockabilly recordings being made the same year.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Listening to rockabilly guitar players always produces a distinct sense of their hybridness, a feature that is central to the genre. Attempting to investigate and pin down the roots of rockabilly or 1950's rock and roll guitar can be an exercise in futility; the trail invariably forks and splits, leading one in several different directions. In this post I will address only one of the variants that impacts the development of rockabilly guitar styles. This style is western swing guitar and here the trail leads straight back to Oklahoma and Texas during the 1940's.
The roots of Western Swing guitar can be traced to the 1920's and 30's a period in which jazz styles or "race music" as it was sometimes referred to had considerable influence over the swing bands that were popular in the south, and particularly in Texas and Oklahoma. The prototype is found in BoB Wills' early band, The Light Crusty Doughboys, which featured the upbeat guitar of
Muriel "Zeke" Campbell. Bob Will's later band The Texas Playboys gave rise to the very greatest Western Swing guitar players, whose style of play was a hybrid mix of country, jazz and the boogie woogie sound emerging in the 1940's. The string of guitar players who played for Will reads like an All Star line up of talent: Eldon Shamblin, Jimmy Wyble, Junior Barnard and Noel Boggs. Just for a sample give a listen to this short clip of Junior Barnard' chops.
It is significant that all these guitarists originated in Oklahoma with the exception of Wyble, who is from Port Arthur, Texas. Oklahoma City in particular was a seminal city for the development of western swing guitar where the "territory bands" were famous in the 1930's. It is no coincidence that the legendary Charlie Christian is from this same region and that western swing guitar left a formative mark on his style, nor that he was in contact with Bob Wills' guitar players while still in Oklahoma, particularly Noel Boggs. This experience became the foundation for the amplified be bop style he would later evolve and for which today he is most famous for.
Jimmy Wyble, pictured above alongside Charlie Christian, is perhaps the best example of a guitarist who worked in both genres, western swing and jazz. Wyble followed a jazz path after his brief association with Bob Wills, recording later with Barney Kessel and worrking with Benny Goodman, as well as getting work as a studio musician.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Living in Arkansas gives impetus to curiosity about musicians who originate here. A bit of precursory research reveals that the state has a very rich musical heritage, representing blues, soul, country and rockabilly. For knowing that Louis Jordan, Roosevelt Sykes, Robert Lockwood, Jimmy Witherspoon, Robert Nighthawk, Junior Wells, Junior Walker, Sonny Burgess and Billy Lee Riley were born here brings certain solace, as does knowing that National Public Radio Commentator Andrei Codrescu lives just over the hills from me in Yellville. I have these facts more than ready when I hear sniping condescension from friends about the state I now call home.
Another part of Arkansas' musical heritage can be found in the work of Ronnie Hawkins. Hawkins is the cousin of Dale Hawkins, who made a name for himself with the classic and oft covered 1957 hit "Suzie Q," which he co-wrote with James Burton, known for his guitar work with Ricky Nelson. Ronnie Hawkins also made a name for himself during the early rockabilly years with his group The Hawks and their 1959 release of "Forty Days" on the Roulette Label. He followed up his first hit the same year with a cover, his rockabilly version of "Mary Lou," and old R&B standard.
Hawkins eventually moved to Canada in the 1960's after his group The Hawks disbanded in the mid 1960's. Interestingly, The Hawks get back together again in 1967 with a new name, The Band, but without Ronnie Hawkins. The group's relationship with Bob Dylan is well known and will not be covered here.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
A survey of the top hits from 1956 reveals that black musicians had begun to crack the Billboard's top choices by melding R&B sounds into top hits. Chuck Berry and Fats Domino were the first to do so, Berry being assisted in large part by the promotional acumen of Alan Freed. Chuck's first hit, Maybellene, which is generally considered the first authentic crossover hit to reach the Billboard charts, made it to #5 on the in 1955. By 1956, Little Richard was also in on the fun with Tutti Frutti, and the Platters were also hitting it big in a Doo Wop vein.
Another lesser known crossover hit in 1956 was organist Bill Doggett's instrumental classic, Honky Tonk, which sold over three million copies and was quite the rave during the fall of that year, reaching #2 on the Billboard charts. This classic has several unique features: it had an authentically bluesy backbeat which usually didn't translate into Billboard material, it was an instrumental, and, Doggett was essentially an unknown entity in popular music when it came out. Among black musicians, he was well established however, having played with Louis Jordan, Lionel Hampton and Johnny Otis. The tune includes classic guitar work by Bill Butler, who later hooked up with King Curtis on a cover of the same tune and wonderful sax work by Shep Shepard. The fact that Doggett's Honky Tonk was able to successfully "crossover" while talent laden musicians at Chess such as Muddy Waters and Little Walter never broke out of the R&B charts speaks to segregation in the industry that effectively isolated many gifted musicians from more mainstream recognition.
Finally, Honky Tonk resurfaces in an odd place in the 1980's; in David Lynch's classic noirish film Blue Velvet. The inclusion of the hypnotically seductive rhythm works perfectly as a backdrop to the sordid scene in which the tune is featured.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
While the origins of contemporary blues are most easily traced to the prototypical recordings of Charlie Patton and Skip James, the intricate blues and ragtime finger-picking of Blind Blake has probably left a deeper imprint on a wide range of guitar players since the 1930's. The Reverend Gary Davis cites Blake as a primary influence as did John Jackson, a blues and ragtime picker from Virginia who died in 2002. Well known contemporary guitarists Ry Cooder and Jorma Kaukonen also point to him as an inspiration, and Blake continues to inspire scores of imitators on Youtube, some much better than others. When I was in college back in the 1970's and fully immersed in the fascinating reissues from Yahoo records, there was one incredible guitar player, John Miller, whose astonishing covers of Blake and Bo Carter set a very high standard on his first Blue Goose LP, First Degree Blues, issued in 1972. Also recommended is Woody Mann's very informative instructional video on Blake's Black Dog Blues.
It is also interesting and significant that Arnold Shultz, the black blues guitarist from Kentucky, is generally credited for having influenced the thumb based Travis picking styles of Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. Shultz was an active player in the 1920's when Blake's Paramount recordings were making a splash and must have certainly been exposed to them. Obviously, the implication here is that Blake's unique and very popular style cast a very wide net in the 1920's and 30's, probably wider than the master is generally given credit for. After almost forty years of listening to him, I never get tired of hearing that wicked right thumb work double time.
Friday, March 13, 2009
Anyone who is a rockabilly musician or fan has noticed the explosion in the number of groups that are staying true to the roots of the genre. This is great news for us roots music fans. Also, Myspace and communication with some of my friends there has allowed me a closer look at the phenomena of rockabilly and what strikes me immediately is the distinctly international character of the movement. I simply had no idea of the the strength and commitment to rockabilly in Spain, Australia, Sweden, Italy and Finland, just to mention a few. For example, check out the top 30 myspace friends of the Swedish rockabilly outfit Wildfire Willie and the Ramblers. Our 1950's roots are running deeper than ever in Europe right now. Is Asia next?
Closer to home, Canada also has a very strong representation in the genre. And here in the U.S., that representation seems to break down regionally, with exceptions of course. Rockabilly groups have proliferated in California and all along the West Coast, and the state of Washington seems to have a real concentration of groups. And, to be expected, there is also a very strong following in the musically rich cities of Austin and Nashville, and quite a few groups in Boston and New York State.
In spite of these concentrations, rockabilly is well represented all across the U.S. map, from Lincoln, Nebraska to Athens, Georgia. Congrats to all who are staying true to the roots.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
It has been said that guitar wizard Alvin Lee of Ten Year After was paying homage to Sun Records in his searing rendition of "I'm Going Home" which he performed live at Woodstock in 1969. While I have no way to verify this claim, the dynamics and style of this number certainly are reminiscent of the reckless abandon on display during the early rockabilly years. What is verifiable is the direction Alvin Lee has gone in recent years with recordings such as Alvin Lee in Tennessee, (2004) recorded in Memphis together with the living legend Scotty Moore, known for his guitar work on the early Elvis recordings at Sam Phillips' studio at Sun Records. Lee follows this recording up in a similar roots vein with Saguitar, released in 2007.
Another of the "British Kings," Jimmy Page, also found his way home in the collaborative effort with Led Zeppelin's own Robert Plant as the Honeydrippers, a group whose covers clearly demonstrate their interest in American roots music from the the 1950's. Their hit "Sea of Love" from the Honeydrippers album, a cover of the Phil Phillips 1959 number 1 Billboard hit, was a winner for them in 1984.
Finally, Jeff Beck, who many claim to be Great Britain's finest guitarist, came home in a big way with his 1993 release of Crazy Legs, a wholehearted tribute to the guitar genius of the late Cliff Gallup, Gene Vincent's guitar player on the Blue Caps recordings from 1956.
The Bettie Page look or attitude is so common among rockabilly cats that her visage is practically synonymous with the movement. Now the group "The Royal Crowns," one of Canada's hottest rockabilly groups, pays homage to the fetish Diva Bettie in their very original and entertaining song. Give a listen, great lyrics and tasty guitar work by Danny Bartley.
Today as I survey the music scene in Europe it strikes me how much has changed. For while the the earlier British groups fed on rockabilly and American roots music to later evolve their own styles, many of today's European and Australian players have actually migrated back to that same rockabilly/roots period and embraced it whole-clothe. A precursory survey of the proliferation of "indie" groups from Europe and and Canada tends to confirm this phenomena. I find the full circle return to be long overdue and at its core a resounding affirmation of the power of American roots music that crystallized here in the 1950s. Long live the power of music from that period.