The original rockabilly music wave really didn’t last that long. The genre exploded to the top of the charts after Elvis hit the scene in 1954. By 1956 the charts were burning with great rockabilly songs. 57 and 58 saw some wonderful rockabilly activity, but things where definitely starting to change by 59. By 1960, rockabilly had pretty much waned and rockabilly artists had either faded from the business or moved on to a more developed style of rock. But that wasn’t the end of the rockabilly story.
By 62 the first waves of the British invasion were starting to build into a real movement in America. When The Beatles hit American soil, few fans remembered what rockabilly even was. Yet these British bands nurtured the seeds of rockabilly music because they had all been so influenced and inspired by their American rock and roll heroes. They had taken rockabilly, integrated its style, and added other elements to create a new type of rock and roll. Just as the early rockabilly cats had combined blues, country, rhythm and blues, and gospel to for a new style.
During the 1960s rock music was developing quickly. Experimentation (with both music and mind-altering drugs) was resulting in music that was taking countless different directions. By the end of the decade, much of rock and roll bore little identifiable resemblance to rockabilly. For most people, rockabilly was dead and gone–a museum piece worthy just from a historical perspective. That is, if they even knew what rockabilly music was, which most people no longer did.
Then something remarkable happened. Just as Elvis had caused the rockabilly scene to explode back in 1954, the King stirred the pot again with his astonishing return to his early rebel form in his 1968 comeback TV special. A black-leather-clad Elvis sat on stage with four or five other musicians including his original guitar player Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana and they ripped through some of his most memorable early material including “That’s All Right,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and others. The King looked and sounded great and the show reminded people what rockabilly was and where rock and roll had started.
This inspired other acts to revisit rockabilly and a revival was born. It remained quiet for several years, but by the mid 1970s more and more musicians were becoming increasingly disgusted by where rock and roll ended up and seemed to be headed. The punk rock scene started forming and at the same time a true rockabilly revival was brewing.
Dave Edmuds and Nick Lowe with their band Rockpile started getting noticed with some great rockabilly-influenced records and the rockabilly scene started heating up in Europe. Americans too were getting back to their roots. Robert Gordon was doing straight-out rockabilly and having a bit of success while bands like The Blasters were using rockabilly influence heavily to form a new “roots rock” sound.
When the Stray Cats left their home in New York to try the rockabilly scene they’d heard was happening in London, they were noticed by Dave Edmunds who became a true believer and helped them get signed. The Cats had great success in Europe and eventually hit American shores and rocketed to the top of the American charts.
Rockabilly was definitely back. It was the same…but different. The Stray Cats brought more musical influence into the genre including punk and especially jazz as guitarist Brian Setzer had been heavily influenced by the jazz players he saw as he was growing up and developing his playing.
Although no rockabilly act has topped the American charts since the Stray Cats did so in the early to mid 80s, the music had been successfully revived and it has never faded away since. There are strong rockabilly scenes all around the world and rockabilly festivals abound. The pure joy of rockabilly music had all but been forgotten during the 1960s, but something that good could never be held down long. Once new life was infused into the old art form, it thrived once again. And now there are so many fans who’ve rediscovered the music along with those that are discovering it for the first time, that the music will live on forever.