When most modern rockabilly fans think of the genre, the image that comes to mind is probably a three-piece band consisting of a drummer, a standing bassist, and a singer who also plays electric guitar. That’s the typical rockabilly lineup in modern times. But the piano played a fundamental role in rockabilly music from very early on. Let’s take a look at some rockabilly acts that made the piano an important aspect of their sound.
- Jerry lee lewis: This one is obvious! Jerry Lee, “The Killer”, is famous for his crazy antics and piano style. Lewis started out as a session man at Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service studios and played piano on many of the early Sun Records (which was also owned by Phillips) releases. Before long, Phillips gave Lewis a chance to make his own recordings and he made the best of it. . Lewis played and acted like a wild man and really set the piano on fire – literally in at least one case! In his style and his playing, he was the consummate showman. Lewis set the standard for rock and roll pianists for years to come.
- Big takedown: Big Al was a bit weird in his early years. He was a simple Oklahoma country boy who taught himself to play the piano on an old, half-functional upright that someone gave to his parents. He started playing country music, which is not that rare for a white musician, but for a black man (actually, just a boy of about 14 when he started to get noticed) country music was really unusual. He also learned a lot from R&B pianists, and it was his R&B performance that ultimately allowed him to play with Bobby Poe and the Poe Cats. Eventually, the Poe Cats became the Rockabilly Queen band Wanda Jackson and toured extensively with her, as well as playing some of her rockier recordings like “Let’s Have a Party.” Downing’s piano playing became an important part of Wanda’s sound. Downing continued to play music and performed with countless artists until his death in 2005.
- Sonny Burgess and the PacersSonny Burgess and his band The Pacers were one of rockabilly’s wildest acts. In addition to a piano, his training included a trumpet; As far as I know, they were the only rockabilly band featuring that instrument! The Pacers ‘pianist was Kern Kennedy, who became Phillips’ favorite pianist once Jerry Lee hit the big time. Eventually, Kennedy participated in a session with Burgess and the two became lifelong friends. Kennedy’s style was very much like Lewis’s and fit perfectly with the wildness of Burgess’s act.
- Jerry Lee “Smoochy” Smith: Yes; another pianist named Jerry Lee. Smith became another of Sam Phillips’ session pianists and appeared on many Sun recordings from 1957 to 1959. Their style was similar to that of the other Jerry Lee and the two have become known as innovators in the sound of “pumping from piano “of the time. He played on records by Billy Lee Riley, Warren Smith, Ace Cannon and others, although he is often not credited on his recordings because he was young and naive and did not belong to the musicians’ union. Sometimes Lewis was credited and other times the name Jimmy Wilson was used.
- Rich charlie: Rich is another great name that started at Sun Records. He brought a much more melodic and country-sounding piano to his rockabilly recordings, and of course he would become a country music star in later years.
The music these men made with their pianos is as rockabilly as the records that were made without a piano. The piano brought a different dimension to rockabilly music and these pianists brought a lot of crazy antics to the rockabilly stage!