Saturday, May 28, 2011

"Rockabilly: The Twang Heard 'Round the World" Book Review

Rockabilly, loosely defined as the white man’s first foray into rock and roll during the mid- to late-1950’s, gets a visual blast from Voyageur Press’s new book on the subject. Written by multiple authors, the book features in-depth biographical chapters on all the big names of the genre -- Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis – but it also includes shorter chapters on Rockabilly’s lesser-known players (and the guitars they played – really).

Sam Phillips was the man who initially recorded it all in his tiny Memphis-based Sun Records studio and the book features dozens of close-up shots of his records. In fact, the book contains so many stunning visuals – studio photos, live concert shots, concert advertisement posters, sheet music covers, tickets – that the era nearly jumps off each page.

The history of Rockabilly is fraught with drama and this book captures some of those moments. For instance, in describing what many believe to be the genre’s birth -- Elvis’s recording of “That’s All Right Mama” at Sam Phillips’ place -- the book quotes someone who was there, Scotty Moore, who told the following story in a 1955 interview: “Elvis started clowning around. Just picked up his guitar and started kibitzing, singing “That’s All Right” and clowning around the studio dancing, just cutting up in general, and Bill picked up his bass, started slapping it and clowning also . . . I joined in with just a rhythm vamp. Sam was in the control room, the door was open. He came out and said, ‘What are y’all doing?’ We said ‘We don’t know.’ He said, ‘Well, see if you can do it again the same way. Let’s put it on tape, see what it sounds like.’”

The book also portrays a dramatic moment in the life of Rockabilly great, Carl Perkins (“Blue Suede Shoes”). Although on the verge of having a hit song, Perkins had no available cash to buy Christmas presents for his children and went to pick cotton in order to do so: “As he drove toward the Jackson city limits, he hated himself, hated his life, hated what he had to do, hated that all his years of hard work had brought him back to a cotton field. About ten miles out of town he parked, took a sack off a wagon, and headed out to pick from daybreak to sunset, “from can to can’t,” in the picker’s lexicon.

As Carl made his way down a row, he felt the other picker’s eyes boring in on him. ‘You look like that sanger,’ drawled on of the older ones . . .”

U.S. Rockabilly came to an end somewhere in the late 50’s (the book provides three possible death dates) but chapter seven opens with the words “In Europe, Rockabilly lived on while it died back home.” Rockabilly was revered outside the U.S. (which shouldn’t surprise any Beatles scholars since the Fab Four chose their name with Buddy Holly’s band, The Crickets, in mind). The book also provides a chapter on the Rockabilly Renaissance of the 1980’s with the advent of the U.S.-born Stray Cats.

The book doesn’t precisely define Rockabilly but to define any American musical genre with the printed page alone is nearly impossible. The best thing for the uninitiated is a trip to You Tube with a list of classic Rockabilly titles in hand (see below). But for those who already have Rockabilly hits playing in their heads, the book’s interviews, biographies, and photos will be sure to fill in some information gaps while providing a stunning visual treat.





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