It was in a 20-by-30-foot studio in an unassuming cinderblock building on Memphis' Union Avenue called Sun Studios that rockabilly music was born screaming and shaking in the hands of Elvis Presley and producer Sam Phillips. The romanticized image of rockabilly's heyday (1955-1958) casts eroticized young hillbilly rockers in primitive studios throughout the South recording for small independent labels like Meteor, Goldband, Dixie and Sage. These small labels, with their ears in tune with changing tastes of the regional markets, supposedly were best able to capture this new and crazy hybrid of uptempo hillbilly and black styles.
However, the truth is that the lumbering giants of popular music like Columbia, Capitol and Decca moved quickly and, in some cases, effectively into the rockabilly arena by exploiting their already impressive reserve of country artists, musicians and recording facilities. With three albums of Columbia rockabilly material already available in England, it seemed an act of providence to find released here "Rockabilly Stars: Volume I" (Epic EG 37618) and "Volume II" (Epic 37621), both double albums and both budget priced. Here, finally, was an American company willing to dig into its vaults and document its role in the comet-like ascendance and decline of this uniquely Southern and exotic form of rock 'n' roll.
Unfortunately, neither of these double sets succeeds as the good '50s rock 'n' roll albums or intriguing historical documents they could have been. The clue to what's wrong is in the title, "Rockabilly Stars." Rather than document Columbia's rich and varied '50s experience with all manner of up-tempo hillbilly rock (much of it obscure and wonderful), both double albums consist of Columbia and Epic recordings from the '50s, '60s and '70s by an assortment of rockabilly-associated artists, most of whom are well known.
One album of each set is devoted to '60s and '70s recordings by artists whose best rockabilly was not only in the past, but on other labels. Thus, we get rockers by Bob Luman (imitating Johnny Cash), Mac Curtis (doing Carl Perkins), Carl Perkins (with the well-intentioned but hapless NRBQ), Mickey Gilley (forever chasing his cousin's shadow), and Rick Nelson (when he wasn't even called Ricky) that are really footnotes to their legendary rockabilly recordings. We also get Charlie Rich and Johnny Cash who were never comfortable rocking, even in the '50s. Worse, as these artists tried to come to terms with national pop tastes, you can hear the inevitable and eviscerating creep of Nashville country-rock formulas into their recordings. One listen to Bob Luman's "Mystery Train" proves that there is nothing worse than a rockabilly song chugging along with a female backup chorus.
The use of this more contemporary material by name artists in a "rockabilly" collection is typical of the commercially inspired compromises major record companies reach when exploiting their considerable archives in order to reissue material of historic interest. RCA's Presley reissues, incredible hodgepodges of rare and common recordings, of the embarrassing, trite and truly significant are typical of many labels' inability to say something coherent about rock 'n' roll history and the artists and labels that are part of it. Arista's Roots of Rock 'n' Roll series -- a systematic set of reissues of the Savoy label's rhythm and blues -- is an example, on the other hand, of the kind of well-documented and esthetically realized projects that companies are capable of when their hearts and minds have as much say as their pocketbooks.
Two new double-album sets in this Arista series have been released, "Southern Blues" (Savoy 2255) and "Ladies Sing the Blues" (Savoy 2256). Both sets are remarkable for the diversity and strength of the recordings they present, especially because these are volumes 11 and 12 in the series. "Southern Blues" presents eight different artists, ranging from a whole side of the harsh and primitive blues and boogie of John Lee Hooker to one side of Billy Wright's sophisticated jump blues. Similarly, "Ladies Sing the Blues" presents seven female vocalists including, most notably, Big Maybelle, Varetta Dillard and Annie Laurie. The emphasis here is not on the raunchier side of rhythm and blues, but on the more subdued, sophisticated classic blues style.
To be fair to Columbia's "Rockabilly Stars" collections, however, the first albums in "Volume I" and "Volume II," both consisting of '50s material, present exciting and diverse aural portraits of Columbia's role in rockabilly. Little Jimmy Dickens' "Rockin' With Red," a 1953 recording of Piano Red original, is a good example of a traditional country artist's experimentation with black blues before Presley's Sun recordings. The way in which many country artists successfully modified their styles in the wake of Presley's success can be heard in Marty Robbins' "That's All Right" and Johnny Horton's sensational "Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor." There are six cuts on these albums by the almost pubescent Collins Kids. Larry Collins' incendiary guitar work (he played a then futuristic twin-necked Mosrite) and Lorrie Collins' exuberantly nasal shrieking added up to some of the most joyous homages to teen-age culture ever recorded.
But finally and unfortunately, it is rockabilly's greatest poseur, Ersel Hickey, who best characterizes the "Rockabilly Stars" collections. Hickey is represented here by his big hit, "Bluebirds Over the Mountain," a piece of pop fluff that is as rockabilly as a Norman Rockwell print. Posing as impressively as ever on the back of "Volume I," Hickey looked the rockabilly like none before or since. But much like these two double albums, he never lived up to the legend.