What is Rockabilly?
Rockabilly, a hybrid of rock and country (or "hillbilly") music, emerged from the southern United States in the mid-1950s. The first rockabilly artists were white country musicians experimenting with sounds that, to that point, had been heard only on blues and R&B recordings by black artists.
Rockabilly is a high energy form of music often played with sparse instrumentation, usually including electric guitar and a stand-up acoustic bass. Early rockabilly recordings often used only a minimal drum kit or had no drums at all.
By the end of the 1950s, rockabilly had fallen out of fashion, although hints of it would continue to be heard in the music of the British Invasion, and in late-60s American bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival. A full-fledged rockabilly revival, led by the Stray Cats, occurred in the 1980s, and a new sub-genre, psychobilly, was also born in that decade.
Listed below are what I consider to be some essential rockabilly collections, including selections from both the 1950s and the rockabilly revival eras. I've also included a couple of psychobilly albums that are worth checking out. The list consists entirely of compilation albums, as there's no other way of building a good "essentials" collection containing only good stuff, with no filler. Fortunately, all of the key rockabilly artists have released excellent compilations.
Elvis Presley, Elvis at Sun
Forget about the movies of the 1960s and the white jumpsuits of the 1970s. When a 19 year-old Elvis recorded for Sun Records in 1954, he rocked. Elvis, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black literally invented rockabilly with their version of That's All Right, a song originally released by blues singer Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup in 1949. Elements of rockabilly could be heard on country and blues recordings all the way back to at least the 1940s, but this is where they were all pulled together to give birth to a new musical genre. Elvis at Sun contains 19 tracks recorded by Elvis at Sun Studios, including That's All Right, Good Rockin' Tonight, Mystery Train, and others.
Carl Perkins, Original Sun Greatest Hits
After their success with Elvis, Sun Records added many new acts to their roster, including Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and the greatest rockabilly cat of them all, Carl Perkins. Along with Elvis' guitarist Scotty Moore, Carl Perkins created the basic vocabulary of rockabilly guitar during this period. Among the 16 songs on Original Sun Greatest Hits are Perkins' biggest hit (and Sun Records' first million-selling single), Blue Suede Shoes, and three Perkins songs that were later covered by the Beatles (Honey Don't, Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby, and Matchbox).
Gene Vincent, The Screaming End: The Best of Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps
Although he only had one big hit (Be Bop A Lula), Gene Vincent recorded some of rockabilly's greatest songs. His guitarist, Cliff Gallup, was one of the best musicians ever to play rockabilly guitar, and Vincent's records were packed with plenty of fast, creative, rockin' guitar licks. The songs on The Screaming End include Be Bop A Lula, Blue Jean Bop, Crazy Legs, Cat Man, Cruisin', and 15 more.
Johnny Burnette and His Rock 'n Roll Trio, Tear it Up: The Complete Legendary Coral Recordings
Johnny Burnette and His Rock 'n Roll Trio, featuring guitarist Paul Burlison, played a hard-edged, frantic style of rockabilly, and Tear it Up contains 28 of their best songs. While they didn't achieve great success, Bernette and his Trio influenced later rock bands such as the Beatles, who often included Burnette songs such as Lonesome Tears in My Eyes in their early live performances, as well as the Yardbirds and Aerosmith, both of whom covered Burnette's Train Kept A Rollin'.
Johnny Burnette and His Rock 'n Roll Trio perform Train Kept A Rollin' :
Robert Gordon, Robert Gordon Is Red Hot: An Anthology
Robert Gordon's first album, Robert Gordon With Link Wray (released in 1977), actually preceded the rockabilly revival of the 1980s by a few years, but it was rockabilly all the way. His repertoire consisted mainly of covers of older rockabilly songs, but he did record a few originals, including Fire, a song originally written for Robert Gordon by Bruce Springsteen (the song, with a different arrangement, later became a big hit for the Pointer Sisters). This anthology consists of 25 songs, including Gordon's first hit, Red Hot, as well as his versions of many other rockabilly standards. Also included are his rockabilly version of Marshall Crenshaw's Someday, Someway and a live version of Fire.
Stray Cats, Runaway Boys: Retrospective 81-92
The success of the Stray Cats, led by vocalist/guitarist Brian Setzer, sparked the rockabilly revival of the early 1980s. Setzer's guitar work was faithful to his rockabilly roots, and the band had big hits in 1981 with Rock This Town and Stray Cat Strut, and another top-20 hit in 1983 with (She's) Sexy + 17.
The Stray Cats separated and reunited several times in the years that followed. The 25 tracks on Runaway Boys include all the essential tracks from their peak period of 1981-1983, as well as previously unreleased recordings from that era and some of the best cuts from their later albums.
The Stray Cats perform (She's) Sexy + 17:
Psychobilly is a sub-genre of rockabilly that evolved in the late 1970s and early 1980s, combining rockabilly music with elements taken from the punk music scene that was developing at the time.
The Reverend Horton Heat, Holy Roller
The Reverend Horton Heat is one of psychobilly's best known artists. His career began in the mid-1980s, when he developed a following based on his live shows. His first album was released in 1990. He has since released a total of 10 albums, and remains a popular live act today. The 24 tracks on Holy Roller are a good overview of the Reverend's career, as well as a good general introduction to the psychobilly genre.
The Cramps, File Under Sacred Music: Early Singles 1978-1981
Vocalist Lux Interior insisted that the Cramps weren't a psychobilly band, but it's hard to know what else to call them. With a campy image based on 1950s horror and sci-fi movies, and a sound that borrowed heavily from 50s rockabilly and late-70s punk (with a few additional retro elements such as instrumental surf rock and 60s garage band music sprinkled in), the Cramps were a fun band in a world where rock musicians sometimes take themselves far too seriously.
The Cramps continued to record and perform live until 2009, when the band dissolved following the death of Lux Interior. File Under Sacred Music contains 22 tracks from the band's early years, which many consider to be their best era.
While it has never returned to the heights of popularity it had in the 1950s, rockabilly has never really gone away, either. Today avid fans around the world join fan clubs, attend rockabilly concerts and conventions, and even wear retro rockabilly-inspired fashion. These fans and performers are keeping the rockabilly flame burning, and the genre will undoubtedly be with us for a long time to come.
What rockabilly artists or songs are your favorites? Let us know in the comments below.
Glen Nunes (author) from Cape Cod, Massachusetts on September 02, 2014:
Thanks for commenting, verymary. I did the Sun Studio tour a few years ago and enjoyed it very much. So much great music came from that small studio.
Mary from Chicago area on August 30, 2014:
My dad was born in 1940 and idolized Elvis. I love his Sun recordings, and Carl P's too. Touring Sun Studio was one of the highlights of a Southern roadtrip our family took earlier this month -- had a great guide, and what a thrill just to be there!
Glen Nunes (author) from Cape Cod, Massachusetts on August 28, 2012:
Crystal, that's why they call him the King!
Crystal Tatum from Georgia on August 28, 2012:
Elvis died before I was born, but my mom had many of his records and I listened to those when I was a kid. I can remember listening to a ballad and crying at about age 6, because his voice was so powerful. He had a way of getting under your skin and into your soul. And what he did in the 50s was start a revolution.
Glen Nunes (author) from Cape Cod, Massachusetts on August 28, 2012:
Crystal - Elvis sure was right when he said that! Lots of people since have tried to sound like him, but he was a true original. It's too bad that people only familiar with his later years don't understand how great he was in the 50s.
Mhatter99 - thank you, sir, for the kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed the hub.
Martin Kloess from San Francisco on August 27, 2012:
I saw Rockabilly and I said I must read this. And you didn't let me down. Thank you.
Crystal Tatum from Georgia on August 27, 2012:
The old story goes that when Elvis first went in to audition for Sam Phillips, he was asked who he sounded like. "I don't sound like nobody," he said. And that's why he's the King of Rock n'Roll. I enjoyed this hub - voted up.