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An A-Z of Rockabilly

With this issue packed with rockabilly, we’re kicking off with a guide to the 50s classics. This A-Z isn’t exhaustive, of course not – that would be a book. But whether you’re a newbie needing a primer on legendary cuts and the sharpest of stars, or a seasoned rockabilly who wants some rarer fare to add to your collection, we hope it’s a good place to start…
“Sleepy” LaBeef got his nickname because of his lazy eye
Paul Harris/Getty



Thomas “Sleepy” LaBeef (né LaBeff) cut this rockabilly classic in 1957 when he was 18. Sleepy was never a star and this was never a hit – although he cut over 100 records, he possibly earned more money from his work as a truck driver, a lumberjack, a grocery clerk and even playing The Swamp Thing in 1968 horror flick The Exotic Ones (he’s 6ft 5_, so was perfect). All The Time, his second single, is explosive rockabilly: no drums, just slapping, throbbing upright bass, razor guitar licks from the great Hal Harris and the lazy-eyed Sleepy declaiming: “No I can’t stop my crazy heart / It feels just like it will break apart / And I want her with me… all the time / (Let’s git it now!)” Should’ve been a smash, any time.


Fabor Robison started Abbott Records in 1951 (with funding from Sid Abbott, proprietor of Abbott Drugs!), with the express purpose of recording country/ rockabilly pioneer Johnny Horton. Robison then launched the Fabor and Radio imprints – see the Bear Family compilation That’ll Flat Git It, Vol. 8: Rockabilly From The Vaults of Abbott-Fabor-Radio Records.



They never went out of style with rockabillies, but due to the recent success of Mad Men and even the dress code of Charlie Sheen (Charlie Harper) in US sitcom Two And A Half Men, they are back, back, back. Gucci offer this (above). For $1,150!


Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Memphis-bred brothers

Johnny (vocals, rhythm guitar) and Dorsey Burnette (bass) were tough – they delighted in beating the hell out of one another when they weren’t venting their aggression musically. And with Paul Burlison on lead guitar, the trio made a limited number of recordings for Coral that rank as rockabilly’s meanest.

From the moment they blasted out their frantic debut Tear It Up billed as Johnny Burnette And The Rock’N’Roll Trio, these crazy cats were infamous. Perhaps strangely given their Memphis roots, the yelping and screaming of their debut album was mostly cut in Nashville: Paul Burlison had earlier dropped his amp at a Philly gig, loosening its tubes so his licks sounded fuzzy. When he got to Music City, he intentionally loosened them again to get an identical effect for Johnny’s hair-on-fire version of Tiny Bradshaw’s jump blues The Train Kept A-Rollin’. It was guitar heaven and hell all at once.

That debut LP also included a blast of R&B covers, but the Burnettes planted their music’s flag with their own Rock Billy Boogie, which featured session ace Grady Martin on lead geetar. But there were no big hits and Dorsey split before year’s end. They reunited to write Waitin’ In School and Believe What You Say for Ricky Nelson, but Johnny and Dorsey’s respective solo careers were of softer, more pop-slanted styles. Even so, nothing can take away from the Trio’s early ballistic blast of truly rebellious rockabilly.

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