Bopping Through Recording History with Collectible Rockabilly Records
by Wayne Jordan (03/04/14).
The “Million Dollar Quartet” record at Sun Records in 1956. Seated: Elvis; Standing, from left: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
Collecting records is easy. Records are widely available and often cheap. But assembling a meaningful record collection requires thought, vigilance and no small investment.
Records have been produced for so long—since 1894—and in so many different musical genres and formats that serious collectors must consider the boundaries and contents of their collections or they will be overwhelmed by the available choices. Will they collect a certain genre of music (rock, jazz, etc.), or type of record (78, 45 or 33 rpm) a certain record label (Sun, Verve) or perhaps just 33-rpm albums with interesting album art?
Some record collectors focus on a particular technological era, collecting not only the records of a period but also the machines that played them. Collectors of 78-rpm records often collect Victrolas, and collectors of Edison-style wax cylinders must, of course, have a cylinder player or two to enjoy their collection.
Other collectors focus on the music of a particular social period or cultural group: the Depression-era protest songs of Woody Guthrie and his contemporaries; the roots music of the Mississippi Delta; the early “hillbilly” music of the Virginia and Kentucky mountains or ’60s psychedelic rock.
Collections that reflect cultural, technological or musical change tend to be well-thought-out collections. Collections that can represent all three of these attributes have the potential to be fine collections, indeed. All three of these attributes exist for collectors of rockabilly records.
Carl Perkins’ composition “Blue Suede Shoes” came from Sun Records, the famous home of numerous rockabilly artists, including Elvis Presley.
The Demand for Dance Music
Although the term “rockabilly” wasn’t coined until the mid-1950s, the cultural and technological changes that nurtured the style began in 1949. That year, RCA Victor unveiled its new 45-rpm record format in response to rival Columbia’s introduction of the 33 1/3-rpm format known as the “long-playing” or LP format.
In the years following the Second World War, the public demanded danceable music and musicians and record producers responded with a flood of danceable tunes. Americans hungered for all forms of entertainment in order to find release from decades of war and economic depression. Movie theaters and radio stations sprung up all over the country; even small rural towns could boast at least one movie theater.
Before the war, most radio was performed live, including the musical numbers. After the war, however, the growth in radio stations and nightclubs outpaced the number of available musicians. Both club owners and radio stations turned to records for musical entertainment. Nightclubs installed jukeboxes, and radio stations turned “program announcers” into disc jockeys.
Meeting the strong demand for music was more problematic than one might think. Poised for explosive growth in the mid-1940s, the record industry was held back by two problems: the musicians themselves and the available record technology.
The musicians union, American Federation of Musicians, wasn’t happy about the royalties being paid on recorded music. Consequently, the 1940s were plagued by musician strikes and recording bans as the union tried to find a suitable royalties arrangement. The poor quality of the records was due to the fact that 78-rpm records were made of low-fidelity, noisy shellac and were extremely fragile.
By 1948, both problems had been addressed. The musicians had a suitable royalties contract and Columbia Records introduced its durable, vinyl 33 1/3-rpm long-playing record.
Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps performed “Bluejean Bop,” another favorite for rockabilly collectors.
The 45-RPM Record Changes Radio
It wasn’t until RCA invented their 45-rpm vinyl record in 1949, though, that American “youth culture” and record sales really exploded into drive-in restaurants and movies, hot rods, sock-hops, pony-tailed bobbysoxers in pedal pushers and guys in pegged pants with greased-back, duck-tailed hair. It was the ’50s, and rockabilly ruled the airwaves.
Record producers rapidly adopted the 45-rpm format because it enabled them to market “singles” rather than albums. Disc jockeys loved the new format because the smaller size of 45s made it easier to cue and spin records. Independent record labels popped up all over America, including Epic, Atco, Vee-Jay, Phillips, Sun, Atlantic, Chess and hundreds of others. My home state of Virginia saw 75 independent record labels in the ’50s and early ’60s.
The bare-bones nature of early singles recording attracted bare-bones bands. Rockabilly bands usually consisted of one electric guitar, an acoustic (“upright”) bass, a drummer, a piano player and a singer. Absent were the fiddles and steel guitars of country music, the slick harmonies of inner-city doo-wop and the violin-thick, sappy arrangements of “teeny-bopper pop” music.
Rockabilly combined the chord progressions of Delta blues with the energy and heavy backbeat of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. Buddy Holly and the Crickets and Bill Haley and the Comets were early adopters of the style.
Pundits have argued which rockabilly record was “the first one,” and they will no doubt argue that point for years to come. In my opinion, a good case can be made for the 1952 Bill Haley and The Saddlemen (pre-Comets) record “Rock This Joint”—steel guitar notwithstanding. Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” is essentially a knock-off of this song.
In the early days of rockabilly, “cutting a record” consisted of playing live in a room with blankets hung as sound baffles and egg cartons tacked to the walls to deaden the acoustics. The recording itself was done on a single-track recorder, which is partially responsible for the “sparse” sound of rockabilly music.
There was nothing fancy about single-track recording. A “recording engineer” would test the microphones in various positions until he was satisfied with the sound, and the band would play their songs over and over until all were happy with the results. Then, the tape would be sent to a record-pressing plant and a monaural single was released.
Link Wray and the Wraymen’s “Rawhide” on Epic Records.
Elvis Leads the Way
In March of 1952, Memphis record producer Sam Phillips opened his Sun Records studio. After a string of commercial failures recording blues artists, Phillips discovered his cash cow: Elvis Presley.
Elvis stayed with Sun for about a year, and then Phillips sold his contract to Col. Tom Parker, who remained Presley’s manager for the remainder of his career. The $35,000-price tag for Elvis enabled Phillips to finance the recording of some of the biggest names in rockabilly: Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich and Conway Twitty.
Rockabilly artist Carl Perkins’ seminal place in rock ‘n’ roll is well established. Paul McCartney often cites Perkins as a major influence of The Beatles. McCartney and Perkins have performed together, and Perkins headlined the documentary “Blue Suede Shoes: the Rockabilly Sessions” with guitarist Eric Clapton and The Beatles’ Ringo Starr and George Harrison.
In August 1958, Billboard Magazine started to track the “Hot 100″ in record sales, adding this list to its existing lists “Best Sellers in Stores,” “Most Played by Jockeys” and “Most Played in Jukeboxes.” Collectors can check their finds against the Billboard archives.
In the spirit of Billboard, here’s a quick look at a random “Hot Five” rockabilly sales on eBay:
• “You Got the Blues,” Johnny Nace on the Jan label, sold for $1,502 with 46 bids;
• “That’s All Right,” Elvis Presley on the Sun label, sold for $1,100 with one bid;
• “Walkin’ Shoes,” Nelson Ray on the Rebel label, sold for $666 with nine bids;
• “Blue Suede Shoes,” Carl Perkins on the Sun label, sold for $417 with 34 bids;
• “Rock Billy Boogie,” Johnnie Burnette on the Coral label, sold for $343 with eight bids.
Of course, rockabilly music is widely available in modern digital formats. But, for the quintessential rockabilly experience, collectors spin 45s on a good quality portable phonograph. Poodle skirts and saddle oxfords are optional.
Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visitWayne Jordan Auctions.