Daddy-O! at the Inn on Shipyard Park, Mattapoisett MA
Why Did Rockabilly Music Die?
The other day I posted a headline that said some think rockabilly is dead. So, why did it die? Yes, yes…of course I know rockabilly music isn’t dead! It never died. But as far as the charts go, it was certainly on life support for a while. And though every now and then a rockabilly (or rockabillyish) song breaks through, for the most part you don’t hear modern rockabilly on popular radio. After the ’50s, it all but disappeared from the top of the charts and from radio airplay.
So, what happened? With a star like Elvis driving it, how could it possibly have had such a dramatic fall in popularity? It seems fairly clear to understand why it had such a meteoric rise in popularity, but why the equally dramatic plunge?
Naturally, I don’t have the definitive answer to that question, but as usual, I’m not afraid to jump into the breach with my opinion! Figuring out where to begin…that’s the problem. Maybe it’s best I just toss a couple of ideas out there and invite you to add your thoughts.
When Elvis hit the scene in the mid ’50s, kids were hungry for music they could relate to. Something that they could call their music. Something that didn’t belong to their parents. No more “How Much is that Doggie in the Window.” What they wanted–what they needed–was something that spoke to them. And, in accordance with the unwritten but surely understood rule of teenage honor everywhere, it had to be something the parents couldn’t like.
Well, there was certainly not much that the white suburban American parent of 1955 couldn’t tolerate more than their kids listening to “race” music–the music being made by hundreds of brilliant black American musicians. The blues, jazz, rhythm and blues. This wasn’t “nice” music for “good” white boys and girls. The ’50s seem idyllic in many ways, but the shame of white America’s treatment of their black countrymen and women is certainly a blot on our county’s glorious history.
So, it took someone to bridge the gap. Someone who wasn’t black, but sounded black. Bang! Elvis meets Sam Phillips and the rocket explodes.
But as big as Elvis became, he was no match for bigotry, puritanical thinking, powerful people in the US government, angry parents, and the naked greed of his handlers and record company execs drooling over the money they could make off of him if they just made him nicer. All of these powers combined to very effectively kill the rockabilly movement.
Elvis and many other hot rockin’ artists suddenly found themselves holding letters of induction into the US Army. Coincidence? Of course, I have no proof, but I doubt it, that’s for sure. And with the King and others like him off of the scene, the door was now open for the record companies to foist prepackaged pretty boys and nice girls onto the public. Moms and dads could hate a song with the white-hot passion of a million suns if Gene Vincent sang it, but put out a recording of that same song with the squeaky clean Pat Boone behind the mic and suddenly the song was wonderful. Approved for teenagers everywhere.
The big-money record producers and companies were certainly a lot of things, but stupid wasn’t one of them. They manufactured artists that had just enough of the look and sound of rockabilly (and other unapproved forms of music like those I mentioned earlier) to exploit what it was that ignited the kids. But they toned the bad stuff back far enough that the parents could be OK with it. What we ended up with was a lot of really embarrassingly bland music made by sadly bland artists.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the music Elvis was recording by the mid ’60s for a series of stupid movies that his management (I don’t even like to credit the man by mentioning his name) pushed him into. Don’t forget; the King was still really just a kid. He got caught up in something he had no clue how to handle. So the grown-ups handled it for him and–while there is no doubt he made a lot of wonderful music even in the context of those asinine movies–we are the poorer for never knowing what kind of music the man would have made had he been allowed to grow as a musician according to his own passions. Maybe that’s where Elvis was too weak to handle the position of undisputed leadership he earned for himself with his breakthrough brilliance.
So, it happened again–history repeated itself. It didn’t take the kids long to realize that they’d been duped by the Fabians and Bobby Darins. Not that these guys didn’t record some fine music of their own–they did, I guess. But it wasn’t the rebellion the kids wanted. Then, enter a band called the Beatles. Love them or hate them, they changed the landscape just as drastically as Elvis had. They spoke directly to the kids with a new musical sound that was built off of all of their rock and roll influences, including in no small part, rockabilly.
The kids had a new music to call their own. And this time, the kids were too powerful to be denied. They made the Beatles musical gods and the parents along with their establishment of power and money could do nothing to stop it. The kids would not be denied a second time. Besides, the record companies were wiser by now too. They knew a money train when it rolled into their station. And the Beatles where certainly a money train.
OK; I’m not saying the Beatles killed rockabilly. The band paid tribute to their rockabilly heroes time and again. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve even answered my original question. But at least maybe I’ve got you thinking. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic. So, why did rockabilly music “die?”
Clayton endorsed band Daddy-O! recreates the 1950s style era and uses only Clayton USA guitar picks and products.