Tag Archives: rockabilly

Million Dollar Quartet

Sun Records

7 Aug , 2012,
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Sun Records

Sun logo

Sun Records

Sun Records—I was about five years old in the early 1970s, when my grandmother first played a Johnny Cash record for me. I think it was “I Walk the Line”, or maybe “Ring of Fire”. I liked the way the rhythm reminded me of a train. I liked Johnny’s voice, and I liked the guitars of Cash and Luther Perkins. My dad had already played some old Elvis records for me, which I also liked. I had rockabilly in my ear from an early age. What I didn’t know at the time was, this sound that I liked was known as the “Sun Sound”. Both Elvis and Johnny Cash started their long careers at the Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, with Sun founder, Sam Phillips acting as music producer, guiding and directing their sound.

Sun Records–Sam Phillips and a Good Idea

Sam Phillips at Sun Records

The Sun Sound began when Phillips launched his record company in early 1952. He named it Sun Records as a sign of his perpetual optimism: it was a new day and a new beginning for Phillips and for music in general. Phillips rented a small space at 706 Union Avenue, in Memphis, for his own all-purpose studio. Sun Records was launched amid a growing number of independent labels, and in only a short time Sun gained the reputation throughout Memphis as a label that treated local musicians with respect and honesty. Phillips provided a non-critical, spontaneous environment that invited and encouraged creativity and vision.

Sam Phillips had a good ear for music. He could tell when something was “good” or merely “good enough”. Phillips was patient and willing to listen to almost anyone who came in off the street to record. In the early 1950s, Memphis was home to a diverse musical landscape–gospel, blues, hillbilly, country, boogie, and western swing were all popular in the South, and were gaining popularity in the rest of the country. Phillips was a businessman who was able to take advantage of this range of talent–and to eventually become wealthy in the process. In one form or another, Sam Phillips found a way for Sun to record all styles and genres of music. Because of the vast pool of talent to draw from locally, there seemed to be no limitations at Sun. Sun Records was already doing well, but the label hadn’t yet found the One to put it on the map

Sun Records–Elvis and the Million Dollar Quartet

Million Dollar Quartet

Then, in 1954, by chance, a young truck driver from Mississippi, named Elvis Presley, came into Sun studios to record a song for his mother. In Elvis, Phillips found an artist who could perform with the excitement, unpredictability and energy of a blues artist but could reach across regional, musical and racial barriers. Elvis helped form the beginnings of the Sun Sound by infusing Country music with R&B. Elvis’s bright star attracted even more ground-breaking talent to the Sun galaxy. Among his Sun contemporaries were Johnny Cash, the “killer” Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. These four soon became known as the Million Dollar Quartet, because of an accidental, impromptu recording session, one Tuesday afternoon in December 1956.

Shortly after those stars were signed at Sun, came Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Bill Justis, Harold Jenkins—later to be known as Conway Twitty–and other equally memorable musical talents. All these artists eventually sold on Pop, R&B, and Country charts and grew to international fame.

Sun Records–Rockabilly to the Masses

Sun Studios2

Rockabilly became the major evolution in the Sun Sound. Lyrically the music was bold; these kids sang about things that the generations of young people before had only thought about, but dared not mention out loud. The music itself was sparse and exciting; and it certainly moved in ways that popular music hadn’t moved before.

In the 1950s, Country music rarely used the drums that were so vital to jazz, blues, and jump bands. In fact, at the time, drums were prohibited on stage at the Grand Ole Opry. But in Rockabilly, drums played a vital role in driving teens across the nation to get behind the Rockabilly movement and the revolutionary Sun Sound. Once again, Sun was able to break new ground, recording music of unparalleled diversity and creativity.  The lasting quality of Sam Phillips’ Sun label is vibrancy that survives to this day. Sun produced sincere, passionate music that has stood for almost 60 years. Sun’s music takes us back to our roots, while it moves us forward. It is music that has reached across race, age and gender boundaries. It reflects the diversity and vision of the talent that recorded on the Sun label, and indeed, American popular culture itself. Sam Phillips didn’t set out to change American music forever, it just happened. Sun Records was a place for locals to make some music, and for Phillips to make some money without having to get a real job. Phillips only wanted to pay his rent, and have fun while doing it.


Sun Records.


Bales of Cocaine

10 Jun , 2011,
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The Reverend Horton Heat.  No, really.  This will be the last word on Texas music for a while.

While I am not generally in favor of the U.S. drug policy, nor of the drug trade itself, I am in favor of really good music.  A few years ago, I heard a song that gave me hope for the future of humanity.

I had just discovered the Reverend Horton Heat, and I was looking to expand my Texas Blues library.  The cd I bought that day on the Pacific Garden Mall in Santa Cruz, CA, in the early 1990s was a compilation record, Holy Roller.  I bought that recording because it had “Where in the hell did you go with my toothbrush?” and because it had another twenty or so tracks on it.

The Reverend Horton Heat–Bales of Cocaine

Of those twenty or so other songs was one titled “Bales of Cocaine”.  It is a rise to riches story where the hero  of the song wants to give something back to the universe.  I like that.   The hero of the song is out in the middle of his field, checking out his dismal crops when a plane flies low over head and drops a few bales of cocaine in his field.  After determining the quality of the product, he drives it to the nearest large city–Dallas, TX–to see if he could unload it.  In the song, he writes “I didn’t have a notion if I could sell it there, but thirty minutes later, I was a millionaire.”

In the song, the hero sells everything he owns in Texas, and goes to South America.  “So now I am a rich man, but I’m still a farmer, too.  But, I sold my farm in Texas, bought a farm down in Peru…”

The last verse of the song finds the hero living the good life as a coca farmer in South America, but he would get bored from time to time, “…and when I get so homesick that I think I’ll go insane, I travel back to Texas in a low-flying plane”, presumably to give a few bales of good fortune to some other poor Texas farmer.  Something about this story makes me fell that all is right in the universe.

So, addiction, South American drug cartels, the failed War on Drugs…for all of it, and I have my faith in humanity restored when I hear stories like the Reverend Horton Heat’s Bales of Cocaine.reverend live

Since the late 1980s, the Reverend Horton Heat has been Jimbo Wallace on upright bass, Patrick “Taz” Bentley on drums and the good Reverend himself, Jim Heath on lead vocals and guitar.

The Reverend Horton Heat–the most popular psychobilly band ever..?

devil lady

It may be silly to say this, but the Reverend Horton Heat is perhaps the most popular psychobilly artist of all time.  The psychobilly genre was pretty much created in the 1980s by bands like the Cramps and especially the Meteors.  The Reverend –as both the three-man band and its guitar-playing frontman were known–built a strong cult following during the ’90s through constant touring, manic showmanship, and a twisted sense of humor. A twisted sense of dark humor was nothing new in the world of psychobilly, of course, and Heat’s music certainly kept the trashy aesthetic of his spiritual forebears. The Reverend’s true innovation was updating the psychobilly sound for the alternative rock era. In his hands, it was something more than retro-obsessed kitsch — it had roaring distorted guitars, it rocked as hard as any punk band, and it didn’t look exclusively to pop culture of the past for its style or subject matter. Most of the Reverend’s lyrics were gonzo celebrations of sex, drugs, booze, and cars, and true to his name, his concerts often featured mock sermons in the style of a rural revivalist preacher. The band’s initial recordings were released by that bastion of indie credibility, Sub Pop, at the height of the grunge craze; after a spell on the major label Interscope, the Reverend Horton Heat returned to the independent world, still a highly profitable draw on the concert circuit.

the Reverend Horton Heat–A Revival of Spirit

If you haven’t attended a “revival of spirit” by the good Reverend yet, and are a fan of both Texas Blues and psychobilly, you owe it to yourself to pick up on some ‘salvation’ at the hands of the Reverend Horton Heat.













end Horton Heat–the most popular psychobilly artist in the world