Was The Original Sound Of Music In Black And White Rockabilly Piano Players Made a Huge Contribution to Rockabilly Music

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Rockabilly Piano Players Made a Huge Contribution to Rockabilly Music

When most modern rockabilly fans think of the genre, they think of a three-piece band: a drummer, a stand-up-slap guitarist, and a singer who plays electric guitar. This is a typical lineup of modern rockabilly. But the piano played a very important role in rockabilly music. Let’s take a look at a few rockabilly acts who made the piano an important part of their sound.

  1. Jerry Lee Lewis: That’s obvious! “The Killer” Jerry Lee is known for his crazy piano sounds and style. Lewis began working as an apprentice at Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service studio and played piano on many early releases for Sun Records (which Phillips owned.) Phillips soon had Lewis make his own recordings, and he did his best. . Lewis played and acted like a wild man and really lit up the piano – at least on one occasion! He was a consummate showman in his style and performance. Lewis set the standard for rock and roll pianists to follow for years to come.
  2. Big Al Downing: Big Al was rare in his childhood. He was a typical rural Oklahoma kid who taught himself to play the piano on an old, semi-functional upright given to his parents. He started playing country music, which is not uncommon for a white musician, but country music was very unusual for black people (in fact, a boy about 14 years old was the first to get noticed). He also took a lot from R&B pianists, and his R&B playing led him to play with Bobby Poe and Poe the Cat. The Poe Cats eventually became rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson’s band, and they toured with her and played on some of her greatest records, including “Let’s Have a Party.” Downing’s piano playing became a big part of Wanda’s sound. Downing continued to play music until his death in 2005, performing with countless artists.
  3. Sonny Burgess and the Pacers: Sonny Burgess and his band The Pacers were one of rockabilly’s wildest acts. In addition to piano, their line-up included trumpets – as far as I know, they were the only rockabilly band to play this instrument! The Pacers’ pianist was Kern Kennedy, who became Phillips’ lead pianist after Jerry Lee impersonated him. Eventually, Kennedy sat in on a meeting with Burgess, and the two became lifelong friends. Kennedy’s style was very similar to that of Lewis and perfectly matched Burgess’s wild act.
  4. Jerry Lee “Smoochie” Smith: Yes; Another pianist named Jerry Lee. Smith became another pianist for Sam Phillips and played on many of Sun’s recordings from 1957 to 1959. His style was similar to that of other Jerry Lees, and the two became known as the innovators of the “push-up piano” of the time. He played on records by Billy Lee Riley, Warren Smith, Ace Cannon, and others, but he was young, naïve, and non-union, so his records lacked popularity. Sometimes it was called Lewis, sometimes it was Jimmy Wilson.
  5. Charlie Rich: Rich is another big name that got his start from Sun Records. He brought more melodic, country piano to his rockabilly records and would certainly become a country music star in the years to come.

The music these guys made with the piano is as rockabilly as the record without the piano. The piano brought a different tone to rockabilly music and these pianists brought a lot of crazy antics to the rockabilly scene!

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