Rockabilly is one of the earliest styles of rock and roll music, dating back to the early 1950s in the United States, especially the South. As a genre it blends the sound of Western musical styles such as country with that of rhythm and blues, leading to what is considered “classic” rock and roll.
Some have also described it as a blend of bluegrass with rock and roll.
The term “rockabilly” itself is a portmanteau of “rock” (from “rock ‘n’ roll”) and “hillbilly”, the latter a reference to the country music (often called “hillbilly music” in the 1940s and 1950s) that contributed strongly to the style. Other important influences on rockabilly include western swing, boogie woogie, jump blues, and electric blues.
Defining features of the rockabilly sound included strong rhythms, vocal twangs, and common use of the tape echo; but progressive addition of different instruments and vocal harmonies led to its “dilution”.
Initially popularised by artists such as Johnny Cash, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Bob Luman, and Jerry Lee Lewis, the influence and success of the style waned in the 1960s; nonetheless, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, rockabilly enjoyed a major revival. An interest in the genre and
subcultures even in the 21st century, often within a subculture. Rockabilly has left a legacy, spawning a variety of sub-styles and influencing other genres such as punk rock.
One of the first written uses of the term “rockabilly” was in a June 23, 1956, Billboard review of Ruckus Tyler’s “Rock Town Rock”. Three weeks earlier, “rockabilly” was used in a press release describing Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula”.
The first record to contain the word “rockabilly” in a song title was issued in November 1956 “Rock a Billy Gal”, although Johnny and Dorsey Burnette recorded “Rock Billy Boogie” for the Coral label on July 4, 1956. The song had been written and performed much earlier, and refer to the birth of Johnny’s son Rocky and Dorsey’s son Billy, who were born around the same time in 1953, and were firstborns for each of the brothers. The song was part of their repertoire in 1956 when they were living in New York City and performing with Gene Vincent. It’s easy to understand how the New York audience might have thought the Burnettes were singing “Rockabilly Boogie,” but they never would, because the term hillbilly was derogatory and would never have been used by the artists themselves. Rocky Burnette, who later would become a rockabilly artist himself, has stated on his website that the term rockabilly derives from that song. It’s also interesting, that this song has been covered by hundreds of artists in the years since, and is always called “Rockabilly Boogie”.