Hailing from Norfolk, Virginia, Gene Vincent is considered one of the pioneering forefathers of major label rockabilly music. After a motorcycle crash left his left leg shattered and a promising career in the United States Navy derailed, Vincent concentrated his efforts on music. He formed the Blue Caps (a term for enlisted naval officers) in the mid 1950s and was signed shortly thereafter to Capitol Records, when the label got hold of a demo of his biggest hit “Be-Bop-A-Lula.”
Vincent recorded many seminal albums for Capitol, including this magnificent debut, before another devastating wreck (this time in a car), killed tour mate Eddie Cochran and left Vincent badly injured. Gene Vincent soldiered on, but shifting tastes in popular music coupled with constant personal problems greatly reduced his star power up until his death in 1971 at the age of 36.
It can be argued that in his 21 years on earth, Eddie Cochran did more to advance rockabilly music into the mainstream than any of his contemporaries. As a session musician, Cochran played on the recordings of countless artists, for multiple record labels. During his short but seminal solo career he appeared in three feature length films, and counted artists such as Buddy Holly & Richie Valens as close friends. His best-known song “Summertime Blues” has been covered by everyone from the Who to Dwight Yoakam, and his “Twenty Flight Rock” was performed by Jack White & Conan O’Brien to commemorate Conan’s move to TBS.
Cochran’s promising career was cut tragically short in 1960, when he was killed in an auto accident in the UK while on tour with Gene Vincent. Despite being only 21 at the time of his death, Cochran’s influence on the genre continues to this day, and this posthumous release is a perfect introduction to his most accessible and important work.
Dale Hawkins’ 45rpm version of “Susie-Q” (spelling variations exist on the single and LP) was released in 1957 on the mostly blues-centric Checker Records label. The tune hit big with the record buying public, and a year later this LP was rushed out to capitalize. Hawkins was a Louisiana native who developed a “swamp pop boogie” sound while playing rockabilly music in clubs. He had a profound effect on bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, who would go on to brilliantly cover “Susie Q” more than a decade later on their debut LP.
If you’re into 1960s rock & roll, chances are the Everly Brothers are your favorite band’s favorite band. Phil and Don Everly were born into a musical family, and from an early age exhibited a striking vocal talent that would go on to influence everyone from the Beatles to Simon & Garfunkel. The Everlys found mainstream success in the late 1950s combining straight ahead rockabilly flair with vocal pop sensibilities, and this debut LP on the Cadence label showcases some of their finest examples of crossover tunes.
Growing up on a steady diet of Sun Records rockabilly artists, Ricky Nelson got his start in entertainment at the tender age of eight. By seventeen, he had a full-fledged career as a recording artist and movie star, and had started a run of placing 53 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Nelson’s music was a product of the time; a little bit country, a little bit pop, and a little bit rock & roll. This mixture made a perfect rockabilly concoction that Nelson would cultivate throughout the early ‘60s while recording for Imperial Records.
Ricky is a timeless example of a teen idol in the making paying homage to his rockabilly heroes. Some of the tracks may be a bit watered down, but his backing band rips, and the record as a whole stands as a shining example of how the rockabilly sound was infiltrating popular culture of the late ‘50s
Before going on to an extensive recording career with major labels such as Liberty Records and Capitol Records, Johnny Burnette fronted the gritty, raw rockabilly band the Rock And Roll Trio. Alongside his brother Dorsey and childhood friend Paul Burlison, Burnette and his band teach a master class on primitive rockabilly rabble rousing on this LP; their first and only release as a trio.
The album didn’t sell commercially but contains songs such as “Train Kept A Rollin” and “Rock Billy Boogie” that would go on to influence many of the first wave ‘60s British Invasion bands.
You may know Wanda Jackson from her recent collaboration work with Jack White for his Third Man Records imprint, but 40 some years before that she was rockin’ way harder. Wanda Jackson is living music history. “The Queen Of Rockabilly” toured with (and briefly dated) Elvis Presley, had a long career on the roster of the premier record label of the day (Capitol Records), and released such influential singles as “Let’s Have A Party,” “Mean Mean Man,” and “Fujiyama Mama.” Hell-raisin’ party anthems aplenty grace this 1960 compilation release, and it’s been repressed so many times, it can be had on the cheap.
Distortion. Feedback. The power chord. All these cornerstones of modern rock & roll are well represented on Link Wray’s groundbreaking 1958 instrumental “Rumble.” Long before it was featured in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the song was banned from radio airwaves due to concerns about glorifying teenage delinquency (the word “rumble” was a popular term for a street fight). This debut LP with his band The Wraymen for Epic Records in 1960 shows Wray doing what he does best, namely upbeat rockabilly-based instrumentals.
When getting into first generation rockabilly, compilation LPs are a must. Most artists of the day didn’t have the money to make full-length albums, so the cheaper/easier way to try the market was to produce a single 45rpm record.
And what better place to start an aural critique of some of the craziest rockabilly singles ever produced, than Sam Phillips’ venerable Memphis, Tennessee Sun Records label.
Sun may have been the first to record Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison, but names like Warren Smith, Billy Lee Riley, Sonny Burgess, and Slim Rhodes steal the show here. The Sun roster B-team brings the heat on this great introductory comp to the label’s underrated, lesser-known talent.
At this point there’s not much left to write about Elvis Presley, so I’ll just spare us both the time and note that if you’re going to get into first gen rockabilly, The King’s self-titled debut album for RCA Victor better be hard-filed in your collection.
Released in 1956, this Rosetta Stone of major label rockabilly predates most of the releases on our list by 3-4 years and clocks in at a running time of just over 28 minutes. “Blue Suede Shoes,” “I Got A Woman,” and “Tutti Frutti” are the standout tracks.