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BACKTRACKING

There were a lot more of those stray cats than you thought

Rockabilly collections step well beyond `Blue Suede Shoes' to find the music's diverse voices.

January 24, 2007|Robert Hilburn | Special to The Times

There's something so immediately appealing about rockabilly music that it's easy to assume the invigorating style has been a bestselling fixture on the pop scene ever since its start in the '50s in Memphis, Tenn.

In truth, only one pure rockabilly group has captured the mass pop consciousness over the last quarter century: the Stray Cats, whose engaging, early-'80s hits included "Rock This Town" and "Stray Cat Strut." Other rockabilly-influenced bands, notably the Blasters, did distinguished work during that period, but they remained mostly under national Top-40 radar.

In fact, the list of bona fide rockabilly stars is so small that even your average rock fan from the glory days of rockabilly -- the '50s and early '60s -- tends to think only of a handful of artists when it comes to the genre, primarily Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash.

The lure of Rhino Records' "Rockin' Bones: 1950s Punk and Rockabilly" is that it introduces us to a much wider cast of characters from that era, and the set is a delight, though it also shows why rockabilly's commercial boom was so short-lived. Rockabilly is a powerful strain but a fairly narrow one, which made it hard for artists after Elvis and the others to find enough variations to catch the public's ear.

Besides such landmark rockabilly recordings as Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" and Presley's "Baby, Let's Play House," the four-disc package features songs by dozens of other artists who tried their hand, however fleetingly, at rockabilly. Aficionados will recognize such favorites as the Burnette Brothers, Charlie Feathers and Wanda Jackson, but most of the artists on "Bone" are obscure by even rockabilly standards.

Since male singers dominated early rock, it's no surprise that they also dominated rockabilly. But there are seven women on "Bones," including Jackson, the closest thing to a female rockabilly star, and Jackie DeShannon, who went on to co-write such hits as "Put a Little Love in Your Heart" and "Bette Davis Eyes." Here, she turns in a scorching 1959 version of "Trouble," which Elvis sang in the film "King Creole."

The numerous hopefuls showcased here were so excited by the new sound that they often recorded for tiny labels around the country, just copying their influences. A 66-page booklet sketches briefly each artist's history.

Various Artists

"Rockin' Bones: 1950s Punk & Rockabilly"

(Rhino)

The Stray Cats weren't the first hit rock band to be inspired by rockabilly, whose bright, seductive sound was best described by rock historian Colin Escott as "turbocharged hillbilly."

The Beatles recorded three Carl Perkins songs early in their career and scores of other great artists employed rockabilly to varying degrees, including such varied entries as Creedence Clearwater Revival, Queen, Neil Young and the Clash.

Listening to the 101 tracks on "Bones," it's easy to see why rockabilly continues to attract a lively cult following. The records are mostly characterized by a twangy electric guitar, a feverish bass-and-drum interaction and lots of rebellious teen attitude in the vocal.

Small wonders abound, starting just two tracks into Disc 1 with the Elvis-inspired vocal mannerisms of Billy Eldridge on "Let's Go Baby," which was released in 1958. And you can just imagine how many times a young Ronnie Allen must have listened to Eddie Cochran before recording "Juvenile Delinquent" in 1959.

And my favorite discovery may be Vince Taylor's smashing 1959 version of "Brand New Cadillac," which the Clash recorded for their "London Calling" album. Remarkably, it's every bit as spirited as the Clash's version.

Various Artists

"That'll Flat ... Git It!, Vol. 23: Rockabilly From the Vaults of Columbia," "That'll Flat ... Git It!, Vol. 24: Rockabilly From the Vaults of Roulette"

(Bear Family)

This series of single-disc albums shows how "Rockin' Bones" just scratches the surface of rockabilly. Each of the previous 22 entries from the German reissue label contains about 30 early rockabilly tracks, which means the number of tunes in "Git It!" is past 700. Each album is built around the rockabilly releases of a single record label.

Volume 23 features many future country stars trying to jump on the rock bandwagon. They include Marty Robbins, Johnny Horton, Billy "Crash" Craddock, Billy Walker and Mel Tillis.

The most rewarding thing about Volume 24 in the series, which is devoted to records released by the Roulette family of labels, is hearing a 15-year-old Johnny Rivers trying his best, on such songs as "Baby Come Back" and "Long, Long Walk," to sound just like Elvis. For more information on the series, check out www.bearfamily.de or www.ccmusic.com.

Backtracking, a biweekly feature, highlights CD reissues with special attention to artists or albums deserving greater attention than they received originally.

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