As a music blogger, I’m hungry to learn about all genres of music. That’s why when I got a pitch about a rockabilly history book, I jumped on it. Rockabilly, the Twang Heard Round the World: The Illustrated History, by Michael Dregni, (232 pages. Voyageur Press. $30) is the first illustrated history of the bands, instruments, attitudes, and styles which changed music history forever. Artists profiled include Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Brian Setzer, and The Cramps. Contributors include Greil Marcus, Peter Guralnick, Robert Gordon, Craig Morrison, and Randy McNutt.
When I requested a review copy, I was expecting to receive a standard hardcover with a few pictures here or there. Boy, was I in for a surprise. This large and colorful book explodes with more than 600 rare images of concert posters, singles, and memorabilia. It’s not only informative but could also serve as a beautiful coffee table book.
One entire well-deserved chapter explores Elvis’s rockabilly career. I was particularly fascinated by Sigrid Arnott’s article about Elvis’s invention of Rockabilly Style. Apparently, as a teen in Memphis, Elvis liked to window shop at the flashy clothing stores in the African-American neighborhood. He began to buy his outfits at Lansky’s, a store owned by an immigrant Jewish family from Kiev. The shop specialized in “cat clothes” for the African-American clientele who wanted to dress up for a night on the town. In addition to being one of the first white musicians to adopt African-American clothing styles, Elvis was also one of the first male rock stars to wear eye makeup.
The Elvis chapter also includes articles about the Gibson ES-295 (the first rock ‘n roll guitar) and Echosonic amplifiers. I can’t claim to be interested in the gear side of things, but I’m sure it would be fascinating to avid rockabilly fans.
In addition to profiling famous artists from the Sun Records label including Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison, the book covers a multitude of lesser known musicians. I was intrigued by an article on guitarist Grady Martin, a studio musician at Owen Bradley’s Quonset Hut Studio in Nashville. Apparently, Bradley’s was so determined to make professional-sounding hit records that they would often replace all of the bandmembers (except for the vocalist) with technically proficient studio musicians. Some of the bands who likely used these musicians included Johnny Carroll, Buddy Holly, and Johnny Burnett’s Rock ‘n Roll Trio. Many believe that Martin played lead guitar on Burnett tunes like “The Train Kept A-Rollin'” and “Honey Hush”. Sadly, Grady Martin never received credit for what is often considered to be some of the best guitar work in rockabilly music
I was pleased to discover information about female rockabilly artists including Janis Martin, known to many as the “Female Elvis”; 2009 Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame Inductee and “Rockabilly Queen” Wanda Jackson; and current Irish rockabilly diva, Imelda May.
Although rockabilly music went underground in the 1960s, a revival erupted in the 1980s. The book includes articles about Brian Setzer (who I’m ashamed to say I only knew as a swing band musician), The Cramps (who did some music for the Angel TV soundtrack), and The Meteors (from a sub genre called Psychobilly). My favorite article from this section is Peter Guralnick’s piece about honky-tonk rocker, Sleepy LaBeef. He never had a flashy career, but he plugged away for years at Alan’s Truckstop in the Northeast backwater of Amesbury, Massachusetts. I enjoyed reading about the easy-going artist and his encyclopedic knowledge of rock ‘n roll.
Perhaps the best way to sum up the attitude of rockabilly music and this fascinating book is in the foreword by Sonny Burgess, frontman for The Pacers. He compares rockabilly’s free-wheeling spirit with today’s conventional pop music. “Nowadays they want it too pretty. Everything’s got to be perfect. They have machines that will put you in tune if you sing out of tune or put you back in time. And I think that’s where music has lost its soul. There’s no feeling to it anymore.”
- Alis Lesley (retrorambling.wordpress.com)
- Music Review: Brian Setzer – Setzer Goes Instru-MENTAL (blogcritics.org)
- In the Mail: Queen and Rockabilly (collectedmiscellany.com)