It wasn’t always a given, but rockabilly music has earned a permanent spot in the rock and roll spotlight. Today’s rockabilly acts not only keep the genre alive, but they keep it energized and thriving. It could have been a different story; rockabilly’s heyday was remarkably short considering the profound effect it had on the development of the new rock and roll scene.
One of the great debates surrounding rockabilly music is the actual birth date of the genre. Many say it was born with Elvis at Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Services studios one night in 1954. But others make compelling arguments that other acts were singing rockabilly music for several years prior to that famous night. Many point to The Maddox Brothers and Rose and the material they were turning out even as far back as the late 1940s and ask, “if that ain’t rockabilly, then what do you call it?”
Regardless of where you put your pin on the timeline to mark the first rockabilly recording, there’s no real doubt that it was Elvis that kicked the genre into overdrive in 1954. And by 1959, the formative body of rockabilly work had pretty much all been recorded. Certainly by 1960 rock and roll had evolved beyond rockabilly and despite the success of a few late hits, rockabilly output had dwindled to almost nothing. So really, the formative period lasted for a short five years or so.
And that might have been the end of the genre. It very nearly was the end in the United States. But there was one small detail: though the hits stopped coming, the influence that rockabilly and the early pioneers had on the next wave of rock and rollers was astronomically out of proportion to the limited commercial success of the rockabilly genre itself even during the glory years.
The new breed of 60s rockers, particularly the new British invasion bands led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were not shy about admitting the influence that rockabilly had on them. If the Americans where hungry for the radical departure that rockabilly was from the blandness of pop music at the time, the British were absolutely famished. Rockabilly resonated for them long after the hits stopped coming. There are many theories as to why that’s the case, but the theories don’t really matter. What matters is that the British never let rockabilly die.
And the British enthusiasm for rockabilly spread throughout the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. Rockabilly became a permanent part of the music scene in Europe. Europe cared for the neglected American child until Robert Gordon, the Stray Cats, and other rockabilly revivalists brought it home to American shores again in the late 70s and early 80s.
In the 80s the genre solidified and diversified. Rockabilly and its psychobilly offshoot just grew stronger and stronger throughout the 80s and 90s until by the turn of the century there was no doubt that rockabilly had achieved permanence throughout the world.
Now, over 50 years after rockabilly could have nearly been declared dead, it’s alive and well. In fact, it’s never been healthier. The genre thrives with fantastic rockabilly acts throughout the world and a whole new generation of rockabilly fans that will ensure that rockabilly will forever hold its permanent place in rock and roll history.