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  • January 17th, 2020


By Joel M. Vance


Recently while surfing channels on television I stumbled— tripped and fell face forward is more like it— into a movie the likes of which I have never seen and, if I’m lucky, never will see again. It was a Western, I think, called “The Fastest Guitar Alive” starring, improbably, Roy Orbison.


While Roy Orbison is one of the greatest singers in history and a personal favorite, I never quite equated him with John Wayne when it comes to horse operas or, for that matter, even with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, a couple of other guitar slinging and singing ersatz cowboys. I lasted about 30 seconds with Cowboy Roy, watching the bad guy (predictably wearing a black hat) sneak up on a scantily clad young lady who was doing something in the bushes—this being a family type movie, I think she was getting ready to bathe in a nearby stream. The bad guy had evil intentions and when she spied him, she screamed like Fay Wray encountering King Kong for the first time.


Cowboy Roy was propped up against a tree, singing and playing his guitar when he heard what I suppose was his lady love threatened with ravage by Black Bart. Roy leaped to his feet, clutching the guitar by the neck as if it were a dead goose, and raced to the rescue. What was he going to do? Maybe beat the bad guy to death with his guitar, although that seems like more of a terrible fate for the musical instrument than it does for a bad actor (in deed as well as in acting prowess)., But our hero had a secret weapon which you ain’t gonna see in most movies. The bad guy dropped the imperiled damsel at which point Cowboy Roy slung the guitar neck forward and shot the hat off Black Bart with a gun concealed in the guitar neck!


I think it is entirely possible that this movie contributed to the fatal heart attack that Roy Orbison suffered some years later. It certainly didn’t do anything for my mental health, but it did spark my thinking about the origins—musical, not acting— of Orbison and his musical peers.


I’m fairly confident that that awful movie was the end of Roy Orbison’s cinematic career except for his ethereal voice singing the title song about “pretty woman” in the movie of the same name starring the delectable Julia Roberts. Another singing cowboy, Tex Ritter, also contributed a title song to a movie, “High Noon” starring the equally delectable Grace Kelly. Tex starred in many oaters and his voice was about 4 octaves lower than Orbison’s, but they both headed for musical fame in different directions—Orbison to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Ritter to the Country Music Hall of Fame.


As far as I know and hope, the Fastest Guitar was Roy Orbison’s only foray into the world of cinema, unlike his Sun Record stablemate, Elvis Presley, who made a whole covey of teen heartthrob schlock movies (more than 30). Even Johnny Cash, another Sun alumnus tiptoed in the cinematic waters not as dreadfully as Cowboy Roy, but working on it. Sun records! Created by the eccentric and erratic Sam Phillips, the tiny Memphis, Tennessee, recording studio spawned more musical geniuses than any other major record company ever.  In addition to Elvis, Sam Phillips corralled Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, BB King, and Johnny Cash as well as a host of other midrange rockabilly, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll artists.


Where  Sam Phillips and Sun Records is concerned I get a mental picture of a lion who, after an arduous hunt, has managed to kill his very own wildebeest only to have a band of hyenas and other scavengers, dart in and grab the juiciest pieces of Simba’s evening meal. That’s what the major record companies did to Sam. first, RCA Victor, paid him $45,000 for all rights to Elvis which, given the eventual earning power of the Pelvis was pennies. Johnny Cash went to Columbia and has sold an estimated 90 million records since. Both of them continue to make more money dead, than Phillips did when he was alive. Today Elvis alive and dead, has sold an estimated one billion records, making him the best-selling solo artist of all time.


Those are just two of the legendary musical artists who Phillips let get away and who made more money for other labels than Phillips ever could’ve imagined when he signed them for pennies. He had under contract the legendary Million-Dollar Quartet consisting of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins (the latter of whom was born in a shack, so poor that he couldn’t have afforded even a worn-out pair of blue suede shoes until he and Elvis both scored mega-hits with the song).


It has been 68 years since Philips first opened the doors of Sun Studios, inviting would be superstars to come and record. He didn’t talent scout— the many musical legends who recorded for him were walk ins, including Elvis who merely wanted to make a record for his mama. But Phillips heard something special in the North Mississippi hillbilly and when he heard Elvis and pick up musicians guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer Bill Black fooling around with “That’s All Right, Mama”, a song which black artist Arthur Crudup had recorded in 1946 and had made popular in rhythm and blues circles, he got the trio to record what would become Elvis’s first megahit.


I was browsing in a Montgomery, Alabama, used record store in 1956 when I spotted a Sun record by Elvis. It was off a jukebox, but not heavily played and in good condition. I knew who Elvis was—I had heard him on the radio from the Shreveport, Louisiana, Jamboree, a minor league Grand Ol’ Opry which had spawned many a country music star. And I liked Elvis. So I bought the record for a few cents and, some years later, sold it for $350. It was Elvis’s first record and so little thought of that someone had pasted the B-side label on both sides, but had scratched out the wrong title and had handwritten in the correct name. Maybe Sam Phillips himself. At that time, Sun Records was such a tiny operation that it amounted to Phillips and a secretary.


That was a 78 RPM record, a format long since superseded by LPs, compact discs, and digital downloads—but to a collector of Presleyana, I suspect it now would be worth far more than what I thought at the time was a humongous windfall. At the time in my penurious young adult years, $350 was equivalent to Little Orphan Annie hooking up with Daddy Warbucks (and I have always wondered how daddy made his bucks—from the sound of it he might’ve been a munitions mogul selling weapons of war worldwide, a real role model for the moppet).


Sam Phillips continued to acquire billion-dollar talent and often frittered it away for the next 19 years. In 1959 he increased the size of the original tiny studio and in 1963 he (having invested in the Holiday Inn Hotel chain) started Holiday Inn records and then in 1969 sold Sun records to a fellow named Shelby Singleton. The sun, you might say set on Sun records but it rose again in 1985 when Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash reunited for a recording session titled “class of 55.” And then in 1987 the original Sun Records reopened as “Sun Studio,” which was as much a tourist destination as it was a business enterprise.


Rockabilly, under the new Sun label became a distant memory, superseded by artists like U2, Def Leppard, Bonnie Raitt and Ringo Starr, the latter being symbolic of the British invasion that largely spelled doom for those old-time rock billies. Since, there have been sporadic attempts to revive rockabilly, recorded at the modern Sun Studio. But, lacking a mad scientist in charge (would that be Doc or Sam?), and a DeLorean capable of hitting 88 mph in a lightning storm, the old magic remains just that—old.


The rockabilly icons are all gone now save one who seems to be eternal—but then they all thought that when they were riding high. The Million-Dollar Quartet is down to one now—Jerry Lee Lewis, the Killer, who still can pound out an increasingly feeble version of “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On” and who hobbles on stage like the old man he is.


Just recently another giant of rockabilly who never received any of the accolades that the million-dollar gang, the Sam Phillips refugees, the darlings of 1950s teenagers got. Sleepy La Beef died at 85, still rocking in up to 200 performances a year, but unknown except to a few like me who refuse to let go of our deep-seated love for the roots of rock ‘n’ roll. I wanted to see Sleepy in performance ever since the first time I heard him on a record. He reached deep down into what apparently was a cavernous chest to belt out in a near basso profundo voice legendary songs from the vaults of early rock ‘n’ roll. Call it rockabilly which is what the critics came up with to describe music that was a combination of rock and hillbilly music. It wasn’t Fats Domino or Ray Charles but it was the white version of black music fused with up-tempo country. Sam Phillips said that if he could find a white singer who sounded black he could make a millon dollars. He thought he had that singer in Elvis, but it was RCA that made the million. Some listeners swore that Elvis was black when they first heard him until they saw him on various television shows (Milton Berle, the Dorsey Brothers, Steve Allen, and finally, reluctantly, Ed Sullivan).


Not only did Sam Philips pioneer rockabilly; he was the producer of what is credited as the first rock ‘n’ roll song ever “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brentson, recorded early in March, 1951. It was recorded at Memphis Recording Service, the precursor of Sun Records. But the first record that I would consider rockabilly, at least at least the first one I remember hearing, was “Maybelline” by Chuck Berry, who recorded the song in 1955. Berry died at 90 in 2017. He has been called “the father of rock ‘n’ roll.” He recorded his landmark on Chess records, not, Sun” which, by 1955, was well past the heyday of rockabilly. And he holds the distinction of being the only black rockabilly artist among an otherwise white group of rednecks. Perhaps in heaven he and Jackie Brentson can have a dragstrip race between Brentson’s Rocket 88 and Chuck’s V-8 Ford.


But…. Rockabilly historians generally credit Elvis’s “That’s All Right, Mama” as the first true rockabilly song. Berry actually swiped the music for “Maybelline” from the Western swing song “Ida Red” a staple of the repertoire of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Maybe we should give Wills the title of the first rockabilly?


Roots rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly line up almost exactly with my high school and college years. By 1960, the heyday of both had come and gone. The British invasion led by the Beatles took over and screaming guitars and screaming vocalists displaced the thumping pianos of Fats, little Richard, and Jerry Lee. In the ensuing years there were occasional flashbacks, but not many.  Woodstock, in 1969, is mostly remembered for Jimi Hendrix’s show stopping performance of the “Star-Spangled Banner” along with many other performances by artists contemporary to the time—but a welcome (to me anyway) interruption was by Sha Na Na who probably confused the bulk of the half-million or so kids in attendance by bopping to ”At The Hop”.


It’s a sort of symbolic passing of the torch, or perhaps more appropriately an extinguishing of the torch. The recent passing of perhaps the last true rockabilly Sleepy la Beef, and a few days later the passing of the lyricist and leader of the modern rock group Rush Neil Peart exemplifies the truth that time moves on and there’s not a thing we can do about it.


When Marty McFly rode a DeLorean back to 1955 in the 1985 movie “Back to the Future”, it was to the tunes of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and the Penguins‘ “Earth Angel.” Jerry Lee became a fallen angel of rockabilly when he married his 13-year-old cousin, but he reinvented himself as a country singer with a definite rockabilly beat and even today sings what could be the anthem for that lost era “Who’s Gonna Play This Old Piano When I’m Gone?”


Who, indeed?


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