Rockabilly? It's Alive and Kicking, Daddy-O
August 13, 2002
By JON PARELES
New York Times
Survivors from the rockabilly era and their next-generation disciples gathered for the Red
Hot Rockabilly Party at
Damrosch Park on Sunday afternoon to show that their music can still kick. From the 1950's
came Narvel Felts and Jack Scott, two singers who had not performed in New York City for
decades, along with two more frequent visitors, Wanda Jackson and Billy Lee Riley. They
shared the four-hour Lincoln Center Out of Doors concert, with Rosie Flores, the
Persuasions, Lee Rocker (formerly of the Stray Cats) and Rocky and Billy Burnette, the
sons (respectively) of the rockabilly pioneers Johnny and Dorsey Burnette.
The younger musicians, by and large, played rockabilly as a style they respected and doted
on, an idiom of guitar
twangs and vocal yelps salvaged from a bygone era. But Mr. Riley, Ms. Jackson and Mr.
Felts sang their old songs as taunts, crows of triumph, moans of heartbreak and cackles of
lust, barely less immediate than they were when they were recorded. For them, rockabilly
was not just a fond memory but a continuing insurrection.
Their voices still held the moment when rockabilly was at the flash points of American
culture. It was music that
drew power from defying racial boundaries: white hillbilly music ignited by black blues.
It was music of uninhibited sexuality, where, as Mr. Riley sang in his mid-1950's hit,
"My gal is red hot/your gal ain't doodly squat." It was music of reckless
aggression, as when Ms. Jackson sang, "When I start erupting ain't nobody gonna make
me stop" in "Fujiyama Mama"; with its references to the destruction of
Hiroshima, the song became a No. 1 hit in Japan in 1959.
Mr. Riley, born in Arkansas in 1933, was the concert's patriarch, with his upswept hair
now white. He spoke
briefly about contemporaries who are now dead. "We're droppin' one at a time,"
he said, then added, "My time's
coming up - whoa, about 20 years from now." But when he rasped through "Red
Hot" or "Flying Saucer Rock 'n' Roll," making his voice quiver as he jabbed
at the beat, he was ornery and sly. All he had to sing was, "Rock-bop-bop-bop, baby,
ow!" and shake a leg, and he was still a defiant Don Juan.
The concert held nostalgia, too. Both Mr. Felts and Ms. Jackson started their mini-sets
with songs about rockabilly
memories from the days of, as Mr. Felts sang, "the pink and the black, the chicks and
the Daddy-O's." Mr. Felts, who recorded for Sun Records in the 1950's, went on to
become a country hit maker in the 1970's, and he divided his set between his rockabilly
songs and his country hits. He has a wiry tenor voice that, like Roy Orbison's, could open
up to a near-operatic vibrato when he sang ballads; he also leaped into falsetto. And even
his country songs, like "Reconsider Me" and "My Prayer," were rooted
in blues and rhythm-and-blues.
Ms. Jackson also switched between rockabilly and country, going back to songs by Jimmie
Rodgers and Hank Williams, who entangled blues and country before rockabilly, to let loose
her yodel. Her rockabilly songs had a sharp, raspy edge as she sang about mean men and the
sacrifices she'd make for them, and she whooped and growled her rockabilly anthem,
"Let's Have a Party." Mr. Scott's songs, like "Goodbye Baby" and
"The Way I Walk," also seethed with resentment and pride, but he sang them
The Persuasions, the 40-year-old a cappella quintet, recast Elvis Presley songs as
doo-wop, working up some class resentment in "Hound Dog." Rosie Flores sang in a
wry, girlish voice and played pointed guitar solos. Mr. Rocker played bass with the backup
band, the guitarist Jim Weider's Rockabilly Gurus, and revived a Presley swagger when he
sang. With Rocky Burnette singing and Billy Burnette and Mr. Weider trading barbed guitar
lines, the Burnettes turned the finale into good-time music, a party for a rebellion that
succeeded long ago.