It’s difficult for fans of rock and roll to imagine how a rock song could exist without drums. Well, maybe some rock ballads or slower folk-rock tunes could get away with it. But not a driving rock song that makes you want to get up and move to the music. No way, right? Wrong. Enter rockabilly!
It’s true that most rockabilly songs do indeed feature drums. In fact, the drums–particularly the snare drum–have become an integral member of the typical rockabilly combo. But it wasn’t always that way. some of the most famous rockabilly songs didn’t have any drums at all and they still rock as hard as any other tune ever recorded.
Rockabilly evolved out of a combination of several musical styles. The blues, rhythm and blues, gospel, and some elements of jazz all contributed something. And the supplier of the “billy” part of the name: country music (which was often called “hillbilly” music back in the 1940s and early 1950s.) Several artists and bands can probably be pointed to as creating music that sounded an awful lot like rockabilly even as far back as the 1940s. Some of these bands were R&B bands and some where country-oriented bands. It was Elvis who really melded these styles together to make no doubt that this was a new type of music and it came to be called rockabilly.
Elvis had obviously been influenced by all of these musical forms, but it was country music he chose to pursue. Of course, that made perfect sense since he was a white kid and blues-related music was mostly made by black musicians. In the early 1950s, that color difference made a huge difference. Blues and R&B music was “race” music. A white performer would be bucking strong racial currents to be involved in it. And so, Elvis turned to country.
But the other music had become such a part of the young Elvis that it couldn’t be held down long. When he showed up at Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service studios to cut a few country tracks for Phillips’ Sun Records, Sam hired a couple of country musicians (Scotty Moore on electric guitar and Bill Black on string bass) to accompany Elvis in the sessions. Country music didn’t make heavy use of drums at that time and so no drummer was brought in for the session. During a break from recording the scheduled songs, Elvis started camping it up on an old R&B number called, “That’s Alright Mama”. Moore and Black followed his lead and joined in. Phillips knew there was something special about what he was hearing and told the boys to start over from the beginning, this time with the tape running.
The result was an amazing recording of the song which Phillips released on Sun Records under the title “That’s All Right” along with a country number “Blue Moon of Kentucky” done up in the same style. Maybe they didn’t know what to call it at the time, but it was rockabilly through and through. Both recordings are as rockin’ as anything ever recorded and there are no drums on either recording! Instead, Bill Black provided the percussion with the slap-bass style that he’d learned from listening to and watching blues bop and R&B bass players. This slap style has become a hallmark of rockabilly music ever since.
It didn’t take long before Phillips started adding drums to Elvis’ Sun Records recordings, bringing in drummer D.J. Fontana to provide the beat. They all recognized what the drums could bring to an already exciting rockabilly recording and the drums have, of course, become a must-have in rock and roll music. But those early recordings prove that it wasn’t always that way.