Rockabilly Born of Boomer America

Sixth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Anonymous 19-year-old singer Elvis Presley was building confidence, self-esteem by the time he cut That’s All Right Mama for Sun Records. But he retreated into his loner shell when deejay Dewey Phillips debuted the song on Memphis radio. As listener response exploded that night for WHBQ, in July 1954, Presley’s mother fetched him from hiding at a movie theater. “Quick, Elvis,” said Gladys Presley. “They want you over at the radio station. They’ve been playing your record.”

Sun owner Sam Phillips remembered “all hell broke loose” over Presley, speaking later with Rolling Stone. “People were calling that station, and it really actually surprised me, because I knew nobody knew Elvis. Elvis just didn’t have friends, didn’t have a bunch of guys he ran with or anything, you know? Anyway, it was just fantastic. To my knowledge, there weren’t any adverse calls.”

Presley recorded songs for Sun Records through 1955 and the portfolio was soon regarded as pioneer rockabilly, a rock genre of the Fifties variously defined.

Malcolm Yelvington simplified rockabilly as “just a hopped-up version of country,” but rangy characterizations continued for decades. In 1984 music historian Craig Morrison stated: “The definition is based not only on the characteristics of the sound, but in part by the musicians who performed it. A rockabilly performance, for me, is any song in a rock n’ roll or rhythm-and-blues style played by Southern country musicians, reflecting some aspects of the synthesis of black/white styles. I expand on this to include songs by artists who can be perceived as emulating the style of Southern country musicians… and by others who were influenced by these artists.”

Rockabilly resulted of marrying musical strains amid Baby Boomer America. Modern mass media pushed musical integration, particularly television’s influence on pop culture. Morrison noted the factors fostering rockabilly after World War II included audience spikes for country and black music, rise of the disc jockey, urbanization of the working class, marketing toward youths, and durable 45-rpm records, cheaply produced.

“In the early Fifties, country [music] was chic,” Terry Gordon, rockabilly discographer, told Morrison. “Hank Williams songs would be covered by pop singers. You’d have square dancers on TV, etc. By ’54, ’55, rhythm-and-blues was the ‘in’ thing, and that was at the expense of country. There were radio stations that would change format from country to rhythm-and-blues.”

Morrison emphasized rockabilly was spurred by “need for dance music, unfulfilled by the pop music of the day.” The point was echoed by guitarist Carl Perkins and his delta peer of the early 1950s, Paul Burlison. “See, all of us liked certain parts of the blues and certain parts of country,” Burlison said, “so we just tied them together and put a little beat to it, and that was what we called rockabilly. And the people really liked it. Whenever we’d blast ’em with something that had a pretty good beat, they’d get out there on the dance floor and the dust would get to flying.”

Presley corroborated on rockabilly roots, tracing back to his school days in Memphis. Presley, defending himself in 1956 against moralists who alleged “vulgar” music and stage behavior, said, “It’s not bad, it’s just rock and roll, and it has been around for five years now.” Presley described his style as “a little rock and roll and a little hillbilly.”

Burlison, who as a boy used phone wire to electrify a guitar, worked with Presley at Crown Electric in Memphis before the latter made it at Sun. During work breaks the two picked guitars with Burlison offering tips, as moonlighting musician. Burlison felt energized, celebratory, when Presley recorded That’s All Right Mama then Blue Moon of Kentucky for the A and B sides of a 45 disc, which quickly sold 20,000 copies primarily through Southern radio.

“That record opened the door for all of us around here,” Burlison said. “It combined country and blues, which we had been doing in clubs but which no one would play on the radio. Suddenly, we all had momentum.”

And so did the crusaders against heathen “beat” music for young people. “Rock n’ roll probably put more money in the collection boxes of the churches across America than anything the preacher could have said,” Sam Phillips remarked. “Not only them. Disc jockeys broke the hell out of my records. Broke ’em on the air. Slammed them over the damn microphone. Now if I hadn’t affected people like that, I might have been in trouble.”

The producer Phillips had said, before he knew Elvis: “You can’t tell where you’ll strike gold.” And Phillips’ big strikes only began with Presley.

Carl Perkins heard Presley on the radio and met him in person. Then Perkins and his brothers approached Phillips outside the door at Sun Records, pleading to audition. Phillips complied, recalling: “I guess Carl was the best natural country musician that became—mainly through his guitar work—one of the top rockers of all time.”

“This guy, for then, could have been an unbelievable country singer,” Phillips told The Memphis Commercial Appeal. “I was not interested in trying to do country because I thought Nashville was doing fine with it. So we started to play around. Carl could get down on that guitar pretty good. When we started getting a little sassy in the old matchbox [studio]… it showed me that this guy, he wanted to rock like Elvis.”

Another walk-in at Sun hailed from northeast Arkansas, John “J.R.” Cash, who was raw like Elvis to begin, of novice music experience. Cash, 22, had been discharged from the Air Force, arriving at Memphis within days of Presley’s recording That’s All Right Mama. Cash came home with priorities in mind: his fiancé in Texas, Vivian Liberto, and his dream for a musical career. Young Cash got married, relocated to Memphis from rural Dyess, Ark., and took a job in door-to-door sales while attending radio school at night.

Cash met Presley as the breakout singer developed Good Rockin’ Tonight with Moore and Black, and he found Elvis to be engaging. Cash didn’t ask Presley for help in the music business, taking his own path.  Cash wrote songs, played guitar, formed a trio, and purchased radio time.

Cash and his sidemen took an audience where they could find it, including a few family members and friends in January 1955. “The Ray Cash family enjoyed a musical in their home last Sunday afternoon put on by J. R. Cash, [Marshall] Grant, Mr. Tate and Leroy Perkins of Memphis,” reported The Blytheville Courier News, via correspondent from Dyess. “Their wives accompanied their husbands. Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Pickens were also present.”

John Cash gained an audition at Sun, destined to become the label’s best-selling artist. “Elvis was the beacon that brought us all there,” Cash said later. “But we were out there just waitin’ for our chance and opportunity to do it the way we felt it.”

“Elvis opened the door, and Sam let us stay.”

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Matt Chaney is a writer, editor, publisher and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit Email: