The True King of Rockabilly

Who is the Rockabilly all-time King ? Some claim the title for Elvis Presley, based on his early years. Carl Perkins actually gave himself that title back in the 1960s. But as far as I’m concerned, the King was the one who stayed truer to the authentic style and who cut the greatest rockabilly records of all time. And many, many rockabilly hep cats share my view.

His name was Charlie Feathers and on 16th May I organised a tribute concert here in Moscow at the prestigious Esse Jazz Cafe, to commemorate the rockabilly legend. I arranged for the Raw Cats to perform for us. I began the event with my rock’n’roll dance class. The Raw Cats gave us a tremendous performance. I’ve written about them in an earlier column of “Russia’n’Roll”, in particular their leader and vocalist / keyboard player, the Russian rockin’ icon Valery Setkin: They really are a brilliant rock’n’roll band. Some of the photos you can see were taken at the concert.

Feathers was a real “Southern Boy”. He was born in Mississippi in 1932 and as a rockabilly artist his greatest periods were during the times he recorded for the Sun and then the King Record labels. Those of you who really know your rock’n’roll history will recall the legendary status and contribution to rock’n’roll of the man who ran the Sun record label, Sam Phillips. Phillips played a key role in the early careers of the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, to name but a few. But although he signed up Feathers to his record label, he didn’t rate him much. He was happy to see him move to another label. Phillips claimed afterwards that Feathers should have stuck to pure Country music and would have been a big star. But Phillips misjudgement in this case has gotta rank as one of the few glaring errors in his otherwise uncanny and unique ability to find and nurture rock’n’roll genius !

Amazingly, when he began his musical career Feathers was almost illiterate and could hardly read or write. But his performances on stage and above all the quality of his music, were sensational. His style, especially his singing voice, can best be described as theatrical, hiccup-styled, energetic and charismatic. Have a listen for example on youtube to numbers like “Bottle to the Baby”, “One Hand Loose” and “Everybody’s Loving My Baby” and you’ll see what I mean. These 3 songs of Feathers, along with others, rank as some of the greatest in rock’n’roll history. They’re awesome.

He won acclaim amongst devotees of rockabilly, both during his greatest period of performing in the 1950s and then subsequently. But here’s the thing. Unlike Elvis and others like Carl Perkins, Charlie stayed true to the pure, unadulterated rockabilly style. So while these others earned greater fortune and fame by going more “mainstream”, his sticking to his “roots” meant he didn’t get the popularity and success he always felt he deserved. And indeed he did deserve it.

In fact to say that he believed he should have had more recognition is putting it mildly. He deeply resented the fact that stars like Presley and Perkins were getting the acclaim he felt he had earned. He knew Elvis well during their days together at Sun Records. As far as Charlie was concerned, Elvis’ only great days musically were his early ones singing and performing rockabilly style numbers while at Sun Records.

It is also an understatement to say that Charlie was a difficult man to get along with. The stories are legion of him arguing and making enemies with music writers, booking agents, promoters, producers, music and record company executives, you name it ! In addition, he was no saint: He had a string of convictions for illegal gambling activities.

Feathers was born into a poor Southern family. As a result his education suffered, hence the reason for his illiteracy. As a very young man, he had to work long hours at hard labour jobs, such as picking cotton or laying oil pipes. He was typical of many of the truly great rock’n’rollers of the 1950s, such as Elvis, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, in that they too came from poor backgrounds. There really is a class element to this: Contrast their upbringings with those of the 1960s pop superstars. The likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came from middle class families. Despite the “anti-establishment” image they tried to portray, these 60s groups were basically a bunch of middle class trendy lefties. Of course not every 50s rock’n’roll megastar had poor origins and not every 60s pop icon came from a well-to-do background, but certainly the majority did; which basically means there was generally something more honest and less hypocritical about the 50s rockers than those that came later.

And here’s where it gets personal for me. In 1977 I saw the Great Man live in concert in London ! It was an unforgettable event for me and also a revelation. The concert was at the Rainbow Theatre in London and the main reason I decided to go was to see Crazy Cavan, who were also on the bill. I remember being disappointed that the only ticket I could get was for a cheap seat right at the back in the upper tier, not only because of the inferior location but also because I’d been hoping maybe I could’ve got to do some jive dancing during the event in the lower tier ! But my lasting impression from that concert, which included other rockin’ icons such as Jack Scott, was Feathers. He was fantastic and still had that rockabilly magic touch. He also had a bit to say for himself in between songs and his comments were immensely interesting; predictably they were also laced with resentment that he hadn’t been given more acknowledgement during his career and he again expressed disappointment at the way Elvis’ career developed after his Sun Records days.

Charlie has become a hero to devotees of rockabilly music, not only because of the brilliance of his music but also because unlike so many others he stayed true to the original authentic rockabilly sound. By the late 1980s his health had rapidly deteriorated. He developed a very severe form of diabetes and for the last decade of his life, although he continued to perform and make records, didn’t fully recover. He died in 1998 of a stroke-induced coma. And despite his difficult personality which made him constantly complain about his being “under-valued” as a rockin’ icon, he was indeed right in thinking he deserved even more acclaim and legendary status than he got. Here’s to you, Charlie; the King of Rockabilly !

Richard Hume