News Local

Rockabilly revival quietly thriving


Social scientists tell us that people use music as a way of organizing themselves into groups. So we have rappers, rockers, mods, folkies, hipsters, punks, parrot heads and whatever, all defining themselves by the music they listen to. There are thousands of these subcultures around the world; some are casual like the parrot heads, who flock to Jimmy Buffet concerts dressed in Hawaiian shirts. Others are more cult-like, encompassing a whole lifestyle in the way the adherents dress, talk and act all day, every day.

One of the larger, and most enduring subcultures is the one surrounding rockabilly music.

Rockabilly (or rock-a-billy, take your pick) started in the early 1950s. It's a mixture of country and blues, specifically country musicians playing blues-based music. Now that had been going on since the beginning of country music, but around 1950, a number of then-unknown artists including Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Johnny Burnette, Janis Martin and Bill Haley were experimenting with more aggressive rhythms that were centred on getting people to dance. They also brought electric guitars and drum kits into the mix. At first, they were just gathering small but enthusiastic audiences in clubs but then Elvis Presley brought rockabilly to the mass media with his first recordings for Sun Records in 1954.

The term rockabilly was meant to be derogatory, referring unsophisticated musicians, but as rock 'n' roll became massively popular in the late '50s, many more musicians including Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, Wanda Jackson, Ronnie Hawkins and hundreds of others took up rockabilly as a "pure" form of rock 'n' roll. Original records by these artists are highly collectable today, usually selling for hundreds, sometimes even thousands of dollars each.

Of course, real rock 'n' roll didn't last long. By 1960, pop music was dominated by stylists like Pat Boone, Paul Anka and dozens of singers named Bobby. The mid-'60s brought us the British Invasion and psychedelia, but by the late 1960s, there started to be an interest in the early music again.

It was Elvis Presley's comeback TV special in 1968 that shook a lot of people out of their purple haze. That was also the year the Beatles, whose last hit had beenStrawberry Fields Forever, released the Fats Domino-inspiredLady Madonna,and the Rolling Stones followed upShe's A Rainbowwith the straight rockerJumpin' Jack Flash.In the early 1970s, the moviesAmerican Graffiti, The Buddy Holly Storyand American Hot Waxas well as the TV showHappy Dayskept the 1950s in the public consciousness, even if they presented an inaccurate, sentimental vision of the era.

However, by the late 1970s, there was an ever-growing sense that popular music, with its art-rock, progressive rock and disco had become bloated, pretentious and over-commercialized.

One reaction against this was punk music, kids who played three chords and yelled a lot, another was a huge revival in rockabilly. This was not the clownish 1950s parodies like Sha Na Na had been dishing out. This was genuine, hard-edged rock 'n' roll done the old-time way, with just guitar, drums and a stand-up, acoustic bass.

Most of us will remember it. Robert Gordon, who had started his career with a punk band, teamed up with original rocker Link Wray to re-create the rockabilly sound and look, producing a few minor hits in 1979. Biggest of all, The Stray Cats had major chart success emulating the old Gene Vincent band. Although they were from the U. S., the Cats had to go to England to be noticed because that's where the real rockabilly action was.

There, cults like the Teddy Boys and the Rockers, who followed specific styles of new or original rockabilly, became major cultural forces. Singers Dave Edmonds and Crazy Cavan were having top ten hits with rockabilly. One rockabilly singer, called Shakin' Stevens, was outselling Michael Jackson, Prince and Bruce Springsteen all over Europe but couldn't get a hit in North America. Even glam-rock band Queen got into the act, theirCrazy Little Thing Called Loveis noted as the last rockabilly song to reach No. 1 on Billboard in 1979.

Like all fads, this one eventually subsided and pop music went back to being pretentious and over-commercialized but the rockabilly subculture never really went away. Today, it is actually stronger with a new generation of fans, most of whom don't remember the 1980s revival much less going to the soda shop and putting a nickel in the jukebox. These modern rockers get together for "weekenders" of concerts, dances and car shows all over North America and Europe.

My daughter is not part of the rockabilly cult but she does get out more than I do and a few weeks ago, she treated me to a weekend trip to Montreal for a rockabilly festival and car show. I looked forward to the father-daughter experience but frankly was a bit apprehensive about the music. The headliner was Wanda Jackson -- could she possibly still perform rock 'n' roll 50 years after her heyday? And what about all these young guys who could call Carl Perkins grandpa?

Well it turns out, Wanda can still belt out a tune and those young groups are loaded with talent.

The rockabilly subculture is very strong, vibrant and well established all over the world. There are many young bands earning a decent living playing strictly rockabilly and a lot of the original 1950s performers who can still put on a decent show have had their careers revived. Montreal has a particularly strong rockabilly scene, oddly enough because it is a very European city. We spent two nights in a packed club watching a steady parade of bands, most of which were excellent, but it was also fascinating to watch the people. They live and breathe the rockabilly style.

Their hair, their clothes, their cars, the way they talk (even in French) are all meticulously, even obsessively, patterned to what they would see in a movie likeRebel Without A Cause except that they have more tattoos. They all sport many, large, colourful, prominent tattoos, which set the true believers apart from the wannabes.

Rockabilly has always been about dancing and this is also a serious dance cult. Everybody dances, really, really well. Some of them could be on the TV show So You Think You Can Dance,except that they only do one style: the jive.

The rockabilly phenomenon overlaps a bit with the swing dance craze as well as punk, goth and other fringe subcultures. What they have in common is a distain for mainstream culture and a love of the old ways. There is a belief that at this one point in our cultural development there was a magic convergence of modern and traditional, the desire for change along with respect for the past and maybe we could use a bit more of that now.

It's remarkable that rockabilly is basically back where it started in 1950 -- not on the airwaves or in auditoriums but in small clubs, and that's the best way to enjoy it.

Lorne VanSinclair is organizer of the Toronto Musical Collectables Show & Sale, Canada's largest record collectors' event. Email him at

Featured Businesses

Go to the Marketplace »