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When the raw, primal beat of That’s All Right by Elvis Presley rocked out of Memphis and across the airwaves of America in 1954, no one knew quite what to make of it. Was it country? It certainly wasn’t blues. The head-scratching led to Elvis being dubbed the ‘Hillbilly Cat’ or even ‘the King of Western Bop’. The country music establishment knew one thing – they didn’t like it. Elvis was practically booed off when he appeared at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry that year.

In the ’50s the name ‘hillbilly’ was pinned on just about any white folk who lived outside the cities in the Deep South, and those who had it pushed on them felt it to be more than a little derogatory. Elvis Presley was about to make the term cool, sexy and rebellious.

Many artists on this list started out playing and loving country music. Then came frenetic slappin’ bass and loud guitars, and when Elvis mixed gospel, blues and feisty teenage attitude into his southern drawl the gates crashed open and an unruly boppin’ horde followed behind. Slick city boys Bill Haley and the Comets hit with Rock Around The Clock that same year, but for the teens of America, Elvis was the real deal.

By 1956 hillbilly had evolved into ‘rock billy’ and established country stars were muscling in. On one side there were big hats and cowboys boots; on the other, quiffed-up hairdos and swivelling hips. Many crossed the tracks and made it into our list. Some didn’t quite go the whole distance… but all drove forward the frenetic, irresistible beat we now know as rockabilly


Record Label Sun Records

Released 1960

Whether he meant it or not, this is the ultimate rockabilly stalker song. ‘Well you can mask your face, dye your hair, no matter where you go, just turn around I’ll be there,’ drawls Rich with fanatical glee. The first version of this song on Sun was by Ray Smith in ’58, who also did well with another Rich composition, Break Up. When piano player Charlie started recording for the label they thought he was just too slick and jazzy, so he was handed a stack of Jerry Lee Lewis platters and told to ‘come back when you can play that bad’. Rich went on to become a huge ‘countrypolitan’ music star in the mid-’70s with a string of hits topped by The Most Beautiful Girl In The World in 1973, but in the late ’50s and early ’60s he had some real success on Sun with records like the Jerry Lee-style Whirlwind.


Record Label Columbia

Released 1954

This Texan outfit were pushing Western Swing into smooth, big-band protorockabilly before Elvis or even Bill Haley had gotten out of the blocks. They started out as the Western Melody Makers and cut several singles in the early part of 1954 for Houston’s Starday records in the popular Western Swing style, but when the wind of change blew in from Memphis they went into the studio for Columbia under a new name and added more bite to that well-polished swing. Sag Drag And Fall took Presley’s bopped-up hillbilly and made it sound huge with sax, pedal steel, drums and an extra bit of R&B groove underpinning it all. They were ahead of the game and showed how big bands could take the new form and run with it; unfortunately, they never became a huge draw outside of Texas.

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About Vintage Rock

Vintage Rock: Winter issue 2011 features: 50 Greatest Rockabilly tracks - Prepare yourself for the greatest party tape in history with our essential cuts. The Roots of Rock’n’Roll - The definitive lowdown on how it all began The stars - Fantastic features on Elvis, Hank Marvin, Jet Harris, Carl Perkins, Ike Turner and many more Rockabilly Hair - Tope stylist Mr Ducktail tells all, ably assisted by Levi and Bernie Dexter All Mama’s Children - News, reviews and events for the incorrigibly beat-minded