"LAND OF THE ROCKING SUN: WHEN MEMPHIS' ROCKABILLY GODS INVADED THE NORTHWEST"
ONCE UPON A TIME – long before the Northwest region was established as one of the world’s great rock ‘n’ roll incubators – locals actually had to “import” genuine rockers for entertainment and inspiration. And one of the great “exporters” of new sounds in the 1950’s was Memphis, Tennessee, home of the ground-breaking Memphis Recording Services. That studio – and its associated Sun Records label – gave birth to the new hillbilly rock, or rockabilly, music pioneered by the likes of Elvis “That’s Alright Mama” Presley, Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins, Roy “Go! Go! Go!” Orbison, and Jerry Lee “Great Balls of Fire” Lewis -- all of whom made a direct impact on young rock ‘n’ roll fans (and musicians) by touring and bringing their new brand of music out to the backwaters of the Pacific Northwest.
Now, the Sun stars were not the first, or only, rockabilly cats to roll through this region – Bill “Rock Around The Clock” Haley & His Comets blazed through in 1956 and ‘57 doing shows at various grange halls and roadhouses. Buddy “Rave On” Holly & the Crickets performed here around ’58 as did Gene “Be Bop A Lula.” Vincent and the Blue Caps. (Incidentally: Vincent actually liked the area so well that he moved here, lived locally, married – and between ‘58 and ‘60, even assembled a new band comprised of Northwest boys.) And too, Eddie “C’mon Everybody” Cochran (along with Ritchie “La Bamba” Valens) came up from Los Angeles to play a couple local dates in 1959.
But of the Sun luminaries, Elvis Presley was the first to play locally. Elvis’ trio made their first tour swing through the region in 1957, playing just five dates (Spokane, Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, and Vancouver, BC). Roy Orbison, on the other hand, discovered that he could work this market for weeks on end by performing at skating rinks, grange halls, armories, ballrooms, and community centers in every 2-bit town on the map and so his tours were extensive and he spent numerous weeks performing here. It was a similar situation with Jerry Lee Lewis whose rampage through the Northwest began with a few scheduled dates and was expanded as his legend spread.
Of course part of Lewis’ legend was as that of a wildman whose shows were riotous – known for wrecking pianos from coast to coast, Lewis always kicked piano stools across the stage, sometimes shoved pianos off stages into crash heaps -- and, at least once, even set a piano aflame.
Well, the lucky local combo that got hired to open for Lewis’ band on the Northwest leg of his ’58 tour was Centralia Washington’s Clayton Watson & Silhouettes. Watson, now age 62, recently recalled how much he admired Lewis’ menacing onstage demeanor: “It wasn’t something you were used to [at that time]. I mean: Little Richard (who I saw a lot) had that same sort of wild abandon – but not that sense of danger. Little Richard’s band was tight and well-rehearsed, [but] with Jerry Lee Lewis you didn’t feel like anything was rehearsed. Anything could happen here. He carried on a lot.” Watson vividly recalls other crazy nights like the dance where a brawl erupted onstage and somebody “got knocked through the bass drum…it took ‘em a while to clear that.” Then there was the night they played the Cottonwoods hall outside of Albany, Oregon and “Afterwards we went out to eat. Later he and his band came in and sat down a couple booths over. Then a guy came over and unplugged the jukebox and Jerry Lee went and plugged it back in – it was playing his records I think – and told him to leave it alone. [Laughter] so, they were really gettin’ into it…they was wrasslin’ all over the place!”
Partially due to the exposure they received on that tour, the Silhouettes, who were once billed as “The First Rock and Roll Band in the State,” soon became known as a sort of “A-team” and were subsequently hired to perform with visiting rockabilly stars like Buddy Knox, Jimmy Bowen, and Dorsey Burnette.
But of all the rockabillies, Lewis was easily the most outrageous, and his shows the most volatile. Here’s a revealing little tale from those days: Around 1959 Lewis was booked to perform at Seattle’s fabled Parker’s Ballroom which had hosted dances since the Big Band glory days of the 1930s. Then in the late-‘50s Dick Parker and his wife began dabbling in the new field of rock ‘n’ roll sock hops and teen dances. There were plenty of memorable nights during those years including the legendary time when teen idol Bobby Darin sang his hits there (supported by Seattle’s hometown heroes, the Frantics). Then too, Olympia’s doo-wop hit-makers, the Fleetwoods, made one of their very few Seattle performances at the ballroom. And so, Parker’s was becoming established as a cool north end outpost for early rock ‘n’ roll fans and things were going just swell. Swell, that is, until “The Killer” rolled into town.
That fateful night Lewis reportedly provided a typical rafter-shaking performance of all his hits like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” So far so good. But then, after masterfully working the crowd to a thoroughly frenzied fever pitch, Lewis ratcheted things up yet another notch by applying one of his patented stage tricks – jumping atop the piano.
Well, that was the final straw for Mrs. Parker. Rightfully concerned that the rockabilly hellion was scuffing up the ballroom’s new instrument with his street shoes, she reportedly stormed the stage mid-song and scolded the star down from his perch. Whether or not the entire show was stopped cold isn’t certain, but what is known is that the Parkers made the firm decision that rock ‘n’ roll shows would no longer be welcome at their venue. This was a disappointing turn of events for many fans who had come to rely on Parker’s as a mainstay of their weekend agendas. But the management was firm in their resolve, and it seems that the ban lasted for about a full year and a half.
That’s when Parker agreed to hear a pitch from a nice young fresh-faced fellow named Jim Valley who was a leader of a fairly new local band called The Viceroys. Valley explained that his band – who had honed their act playing mainly “functions” at the Seattle Tennis Club, the Washington Athletic Club and other stops on the local “society circuit” – really wanted to perform at the ballroom and would do everything they could to keep things safe and sane. For unknown reasons, the Parkers caved, the Viceroys played (jumping up on the piano nary a time) and once again the grand old hall was back in the rock ‘n’ roll biz.
But by then the rockabilly trend was winding down. And even though the music of those seminal Sun pioneers had inspired a generation of local rockabillies and rockabelles (including Bobby Wayne & the Warriors, Darryl Britt & the Blue Jeans, Johnny Clark & the Four Playboys, the Volk Brothers, Jerry Merritt & the Pacers, Vinnie Duman & the Rhythmaires, Ray Gentry, the Maddy Brothers, Sheree Scott, Benny Cliff, Leon Mach, and Leon Smith & the Orbit Rockers) the main thrust of Northwest Rock would rely more on straight R&B elements rather than hillbilly rock.
However, as we all know, the Sun influence – and rockabilly itself – did not die back then. It did, however, hibernate for a number of years while the Surf Rock, British Invasion, Garage Rock, Folk Rock, and Acid Rock trends emerged sequentially. And then around the time that Punk Rock and then New Wave came to fore in the late-‘70s/early ‘80s rockabilly awoke once again and discovered a revived audience. Perhaps the first Northwest band who donned the then-requisite mile-high pompadours and matching hep threads was the Magnetics. After that a whole series of rockabilly bands rose up including: the 88's, the Hurricanes, the Razorbacks, the Alley Gators, the Jackals (later: the Flapjacks), and the Rockabilly Hell 5. In recent years a number of bands that draw the alt.country/Americana/ rockabilly crowds to area nightclubs includes the Picketts, the Souvenirs, and the Dusty 45’s.
Though the Sun stars were nothing less than rock ‘n’ roll “Johnny Appleseeds” – sowing the idea that rockin’ and rollin’ was not only fun, but also eminently doable – the fruit of their efforts went much further than scoring hit records. The Sun sound served as blueprint for teenaged musicians all around the world, and here in the Northwest helped ignite the rock ‘n’ roll scene that continues to inspire a whole lotta shakin’ in area nightclubs and concert halls.
[Note: a version of this essay was originally published by Feedback Magazine in June 2001]