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Rockabilly makes it viva Las Vegas

By Jon Johnson, June 2001

Page 3...

"The second year we were there we ended up in the dance hall with a table in front of the stage and (Blue Caps drummer) Dickie Harrell, Mack Stevens and a few other guys were there and did kind of an impromptu thing, 'cause the stage was behind us and the boys were getting antsy. So after that happened I asked Tom if I could put something together within his show."

"It's hectic. I don't get a chance to enjoy the show and I never get upstairs (to the main ballroom) at all, but that's fine. We've had some good luck in getting some pretty good names." This year's Rockabilly Hall of Fame stage included a 30th anniversary celebration of Rollin' Rock Records, the feisty west coast label that has at various times released records by the Blasters, Charlie Feathers, Ray Campi, Johnny Carroll, and the Rockabilly Rebels, which featured future X guitarist Billy Zoom.

Austin singer/songwriter Teri Joyce is perhaps best known in rockabilly circles for having written Mart' Brom's "Blue Tattoo" plus songs cut by Roger Wallace and Ted Roddy. With her own country album in the can and scheduled for release in July, she accompanied Mart' and Bobby Brom to this year's VLV.

Asked about groups she's seen that have impressed her, Joyce says she particularly liked Vicky Tafoya, a California-based singer whose set at the Saturday car show (hosted by the L.A.-based Shifters car club) was a hit with many who saw it.

"She made me cry," says Joyce. "I was not expecting that. We went to the car show, and we were passing by the stage, and I heard some singing that sounded like a Ruth Brown kind of thing. It sounded like a record. I stood there and listened to a couple of songs. And maybe it was the sun in my eye, but I teared up. Big Sandy also said that she made him cry, so I feel vindicated."

Favorite moments abound: the power of Mart' Brom's voice and the virtuosity of her backing band, the Barnshakers, the two show-stopping duets between Big Sandy and Vicky Tafoya during Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys' set, the Flea Bops' revved-up brand of Johnny Burnette-influenced rockabilly, the youthful energy of Cave Catt Sammy, the showmanship of the Cadillacs, or seeing Wanda Jackson - her voice sounding pretty much as it did 40 years ago - backed by the Fly-Rite Boys, who also did the honors for Marvin Rainwater. Not to be outdone is Kay Wheeler on the Rockabilly Hall of Fame stage, reprising her dance sequence from the cult 1957 movie, "Rock, Baby, Rock It."

Though the movie - a longtime favorite with rockabilly fans partly due to a memorable performance from the late Johnny Carroll - was filmed when she was just 16, Wheeler is still in impossibly good shape and remains instantly recognizable; still dressed in black and dancing barefoot just as she did 45 years ago.

The steady growth of VLV over the past four years suggests that rockabilly is a growth industry, at least in the U.S. compared to Europe.

Asked how big he thinks rockabilly could eventually become, Ingram replies, "I think it will level off eventually. It's not going to get bigger unless someone gets in the charts. But that's not always a good thing, because you get this massive rush of people who are into it for five minutes, then disappear."

If one criticism can be leveled at VLV it's that the musicianship ranges from good to excellent, the clothes are immaculate, and the bands have the sound down pat. But, with the exception of a few acts like Jack Baymoore and the Bandits, there's not enough evidence of the wildness and reckless abandon that made acts like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis the bane of parents, teachers, and politicians 45 years ago.

Rockabilly is often regarded by its fans as the punk rock of its day, but it's hard to imagine a preacher declaring "Rock and roll has got...to...go!" and smashing records based on much of what happens at VLV. Smoking and drinking aside, for the most part it looks a lot like the "good clean fun" that the kids in the Alan Freed movies always claimed it was in the first place. In the early years of the 21st century it's hard to picture anyone getting too worked up over rockabilly while the likes of Marilyn Manson are around. In short, where's the danger?

During the evening of Easter Sunday word starts getting out of the death of Ramones vocalist Joey Ramone earlier in the day, resulting in a lot of stunned looks, particularly from those in their '20's and '30's who came out of the punk rock scene and grew up listening to the band.

It's an interesting moment, and one that's clearly had an impact on Boston's Racketeers, the last of the weekend's regularly scheduled bands to hit the stage. With rhythm guitarist Jon Porth and bassist Spike Katz bouncing around the ballroom's stage like pinballs, here is some of the wildness that one sees in old film clips from the '50's. And when drummer/vocalist Dana Stewart dedicates a song to Blue Caps guitarist Paul Peek, who had died a few days earlier, and Porth dedicates another song to Joey Ramone (complete with a "Hey! Ho! Let's Go!" chant added for the occasion), the band - consciously or otherwise - places itself squarely in the middle of two rock 'n' roll traditions.

And the audience reacts, as fans climb onto the stage and are ejected by increasingly perturbed security personnel. Though an ugly confrontation between the band and members of the security staff looks increasingly likely as the set wears on, the Racketeers finish up before things get too out of control, though not before spraying nattily attired emcee Del Villareal with beer on their way off the stage.

And for a few brief minutes rock 'n' roll seems dangerous again.

Photo of The Racketeers by Katy Flock

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