‘King-Federal Rockabillys’ (09/21/78)

In the mid-fifties, in the wake of such Sun 45s as Elvis’ “Baby, Let’s Play House” and Carl Perkins’ “Boppin’ the Blues,” scores of singers and labels attached themselves to the imperviously Southern, often rather crazed version of white-boy’s blues called rockabilly. An unprecedented flow of reissues has appeared recently to document the music: more than twenty albums on the Charly label, all devoted to the kings and cloak holders of Sun Records (it has just been announced that the original studio in Memphis will be restored as a city monument), plus compilations of rare, forgotten or never-known masters from the vaults of Decca, Mercury, CBS, MGM, Capitol, Hickory and the like. King-Federal Rockabillys is the first of the latter sort to be released in the U.S.A. (the rest, like the Charly series, are pressings from England or Europe, where the rockabilly cult has been fierce for twenty years), and it may be the best of them.

The reason is simple: unlike virtually every other “Hillbilly Rock” or “Raving Rockabilly” set, the fourteen cuts here, good and bad, actually are rockabilly. What one finds elsewhere is mostly hysterically confused country music—the numbing attempts of scared C&W singers to stave off forced retirement with hopeless cries of “Rog, rog, rog, c’mon, everybody rog!” The only performer on King-Federal Rockabillys who fits that description is Hank Mizell, whose “Jungle Rock,” a hideously flat imitation of Warren Smith’s “Ubangi Stomp,” shows him up as a fraud. The rest at least try to mean what they say.Which brings us to the limits of rockabilly: a lot of good bands, and very few distinctive singers. King, based in Cincinnati, was an important rockabilly label mainly because it recorded Charlie Feathers; and Charlie Feathers (a Mississippian who earlier cut country songs for Sun and eccentric rockabilly for the small Memphis label, Meteor) is important because he recorded “One Hand Loose.” It’s far and away the best track on King-Federal Rockabillys, combining passionate commands from Feathers to the guitarist, the guitarist’s blazing, equally passionate answers, and a lyric that on the surface is about doing the bop and just beneath the surface is about freedom. Oddly, the performance has lost drive in remastering: it lacks the density of the original 45, and it also seems to have been slowed down. Still, after hearing Feathers shout “Satisfied!” as he closes out his one moment of glory, you may want to build him an altar (in England, some already have).

Nothing else here comes close: not Feathers’ three good addi­tional tunes nor the five by Mac Curtis, whose claim to fame is “Grandaddy’s Rockin’,” a clumsy chase after Carl Perkins. (Curtis has recorded recently—and poorly—for Rollin’ Rock; Feathers’ current albums on Bar­relhouse are a little better.) Curtis, profoundly sexless, sings as if his primary concern is not to convey emotion but to get through his songs without making a complete fool of himself. His band offers a lot of pleasure: light, snapping guitar playing, loose slapped bass and a jumping rhythm. Among the other singers, Bob and Lucille, with “Eeny Meeny Miney Mo,” stand out: this is the stuff everyone was reaching for—wild, absurd and tough.There was never very much real rockabilly. Perhaps eighty percent of the best of it appeared on Sun; the rest was widely, thinly scat­tered. (Strangely, of non-Sun rockabilly records, perhaps the most perfect—made by Junior Thompson and Wayne McGin­nis for Meteor, and by Sonny Fisher for Starday—have never been reissued.) The style, finally, was more seductive than anything else: it sounded right, and the impulse to join in was overwhelming. But though anyone could imi­tate the style, almost no one could live up to it. King-Federal Rock­abillys is a definitive illustration of how one man, once, did live up to it, and how others tried, and failed.

Rolling Stone, September 21, 1978

One thought on “‘King-Federal Rockabillys’ (09/21/78)

  1. Not much to say about this post other than 37 year old wisdom stands the test of time. And thankfully much of this material is out there in higher quality. I more wanted to say thanks for the site (which I have just stumbled upon) and I hope you keep reprinting these old gems. Contemporary opinions are highly relevant to current scholarship.

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