Old Time Rock 'N' Roll: Rockabilly Reads

By Amanda Pagan, Children's Librarian
June 9, 2020
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL)
The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Hey all you cool cats! Are you ready to rock?

Well get your glad rags on and join us as we take our old records off the shelf to give them a spin!

Rockabilly is a subgenre of rock and roll; the perfect blend of rock, country, and rhythm and blues. The name itself comes from its primary sources: rock and country, or “hillbilly” music as it was referred to at the time. Most early rockabilly musicians came from primarily poor, rural areas of the American south and were thus heavily influenced by the genres that were popular in their hometowns, such as blues and jazz. Black musicians such as Chuck Berry, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Fats Domino were instrumental in the early development of the genre that would later become dominated by white musicians. 

Characterized by a strong rhythm, vocal twangs, and an inescapable need to bop along, rockabilly saw its heyday in the 1950s when it was brought to the mainstream through musicians such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Bill Haley and the Comets, Wanda Jackson, and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Publicity photograph of Elvis Presley

Publicity photograph of Elvis Presley,  The BILLY ROSE THEATRE DIVISION Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, 1950-1955. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 57509347

Early rockabilly drew from the font of blues and jazz in that much of the music appealed to the average working-man type of mindset with songs about working hard, partying harder, fast cars, pretty girls, and even ending up in prison. Johnny Cash made rock and roll history when in 1968 he decided to record a live album at Folsom State Prison in California.

Rebel Without A Cause

Rebel Without a Cause film

Many of these musicians and bands got their start down in Memphis, Tennessee at the famous Sun Records Company where they recorded their first tracks. Most of them then went on to perform at the Grand Ole Opry alongside other country legends of the time. As the years passed, rockabilly eventually developed into its own unique style that was different from mainstream rock and country. 

Musicians and films of the time, such as James Dean’sRebel Without a Cause, inspired the look and overall feel of the rock and roll scene. Rockabilly enthusiasts can easily be spotted thanks to their signature style. The men will often sport blue jeans, white t-shirts, and “greased” up pompadours. Their cars will usually be vintage or vintage-inspired. The women will either embody Donna Reid or Bettie Page with classic retro glamour looks.

The genre may have faded from the mainstream, but it never truly died. New rockabilly bands are still releasing records, and you can often see them perform at vintage car shows or retro-themed conventions such as the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend, which has been an annual convention since 1998. 

The Last Tour of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens

The Day the Music Died by Larry Lehmer

Every year since 1979, the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa has hosted an annual Winter Dance Party, a three-day event celebrating classic 1950s and 1960s rock and roll. The event is held in honor of Buddy Holly (22), J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson  (28), and Ritchie Valens (17); three rock and roll legends who were killed in a plane crash while on their way to a performance on February 3, 1959. The event was referenced in Don McLean’s “American Pie” as “The Day the Music Died”. All three artists managed to release major hits within their short life span. Ritchie Valens was only 17 at the time of his death and was a crossover success between both Spanish and English-speaking audiences with his hits "La Bamba" and "Donna". The Winter Dance Party was the venue that hosted their last performance before their deaths. On top of these annual conventions, modern music streaming services have made past artists more accessible than ever before.

Rock and roll is constantly evolving and continuously pulling influences from other genres. In 2002, Johnny Cash came back into the spotlight when he released his stripped-down cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”. The cover was so successful it even drew praise from the song’s original creator and Ninch Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor. It also introduced a new audience to the incomparable Johnny Cash and other classic rock artists. So why not take some time today to delve into the past and revisit some of your favorite music-makers and discover some new ones? 

Here we have gathered a list of titles that explore the history and history-makers of rockabilly. So grab some pomade, fix your hair, and get ready to have a blast!


Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll

Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll by Colin Escott with Martin Hawkins; [foreword by Peter Guralnick].

Rock 'n' roll was born in Memphis in the tiny storefront recording studio of Sun Records. This is the definitive account of how it happened!

Sam Phillips's credo was: "If you're not doing something different, you're not doing anything." If he had done no more than discover Elvis Presley and produce his first five singles he would still be the godfather of rock 'n' roll. But he did more. Much more. While Elvis was still sitting on the edge of his bed listening to the radio and figuring out guitar chords, Phillips was discovering and recording blues giants like B.B. King, Howling Wolf, and Ike Turner. During the few months that Elvis was with Sun Records, Phillips found Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Soon after, he found Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Charlie Rich. And he did it almost single handedly—from his two-room studio in Memphis, Tennessee. Phillips's story, which Colin Escott tells in beautiful detail, is more than a catalog of hits. Without Sun's philosophy of experimentation, innovation, and genre transcendence, the musical revolution could have never begun.



The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1963 by Ed Ward

Ed Ward covers the first half of the social history of rock & roll in this definitive book. Beginning in the 1920s when blues, country, and black popular music played over the air waves and the first independent record labels were born, this first volume of a two-part series finishes in December 1963, just as an immense sea-change begins to take hold and the Beatles prepare for their first American tour. Ward introduces you to the musicians, DJs, record executives, and producers who were at the forefront of the genre. Sharing story after story of some of the most unforgettable and groundbreaking moments in rock history, Ward reveals how different sounds, harmonies, and trends came together to create the music we all know and love today.

They Called It Rockabilly Before It Was Called Rock and Roll

The Rockabilly Legends: They Called It Rockabilly Long Before They Called It Rock and Roll by Jerry Naylor and Steve Halliday

Celebrates the rebel forefathers who created this raw, driving sound that continues to influence and inspire musicians. This book provides a picture of the times. It features hundreds of original rare and captivating photos, including Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and others.

The Illustrated History

Rockabilly: The Twang Heard 'Round the World: The Illustrated History editor, Michael Dregni; with Greil Marcus ... [et al.]; foreword by Sonny Burgess.

It was the twang heard ’round the world: Rockabilly was born out of country, bluegrass, jazz, and the blues in the 1950s, becoming rock ‘n’ roll and ruling the world. Here’s the story of Elvis Presley’s first Sun records that inspired all. And here’s Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and many more rockabillies from the golden years of 1955—1959, in a book chock full of photos, collectible memorabilia, movie posters, rare records, fashion, and rebel lifestyle. The story continues today, with a rockabilly revival that began with stars, such as the Stray Cats and Robert Gordon, spreading around the globe from Europe to Japan. Today, rockabilly is better than ever, with bands like Rev. Horton Heat and others playing the music and living the life from Memphis to Helsinki to Tokyo. There’s still good rockin’ tonight!

Memoirs and Biographies

 how I survived mascara, miniskirts and madness or my life as a Fabulous Ronette

Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness Or My Life as a Fabulous Ronette by Ronnie Spector and Vince Waldron

Ronnie and Phil Spector made music history with the Ronettes, but as Phil's creative powers began to wane, their marriage soured. He became increasingly reclusive and violent, and Ronnie's life became a constant battle to fend off madness-both his and her own.


Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock 'n' Roll

Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock 'n' Roll by Rick Coleman

This first biography of American icon Fats Domino challenges popular myths about rock 'n' roll history and recreates its New Orleans roots.








Learning the Game

Buddy Holly: Learning the Game by Spencer Leigh

He was 22 years old when he died. Don McLean called that fatal day ‘The Day the Music Died’. But, his music hasn’t died, as he has left us a wonderful legacy. Spencer Leigh’s new biography Buddy Holly: Learning the Game is the most definitive account of Buddy Holly and his career. When it comes to anniversaries, it is inevitable that we remember the giants: Elvis, the Beatles, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, but Buddy Holly’s death enables us to also acknowledge the less well-known musicians who died with him, 17-year-old Ritchie Valens and the outlandish Big Bopper. Spencer Leigh has spoken to musicians, songwriters, friends, fans and many people who have worked with Buddy, and he examines the evidence with the scrutiny of a forensic scientist.

 the autobiography

Chuck Berry: The Autobiography by Chuck Berry

This is the astonishingly candid autobiography of Chuck Berry, the man who created rock'n'roll. It includes a discography and filmography, and details of all of his recording sessions.

The Bill Haley Story

Crazy Man, Crazy: The Bill Haley Story by Bill Haley Jr. and Peter Benjaminson

Bill Haley was the man who brought rock 'n' roll into the mainstream, starting with "Crazy Man, Crazy" that became the first rock 'n' roll song to break the Billboard Top 20 in 1953. His success made him an idol not only in the US but throughout the world, from Canada to the UK, Europe, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and beyond. Culled from interviews with insiders (from ex-wives to the Comets), recorded conversations, official documents, diaries, and more, this book not only charts the happenings of Haley's career but gives insight into the Haley behind the curtain and some of the other trials he faced, from the dark side of the music business to ties with the Mafia.

The Last Tour of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens

The Day the Music Died: The Last Tour of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens by Larry Lehmer

The story of the last tour of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Richie Valens-and the fatal air crash that took their lives. Drawing on new documentary information, the author recreates the often grueling conditions of an early rock and roll tour, and provides new facts about "the day the music died."


A Country Girl's Journey to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Every Night is Saturday Night: A Country Girl's Journey to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Wanda Jackson with Scott B. Bomar

Wanda Jackson's debut single, "You Can't Have My Love," reached the Top 10 while she was still a sixteen-year-old high school student. She hit the road after graduation, playing package shows with Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley, who gave Wanda his ring and asked her to be "his girl." With Presley's encouragement, the Oklahoma native began recording rock music, often releasing singles with country on one side and rock on the other during her decade-and-a-half tenure on Capitol Records. Known for her energetic stage shows and pioneering presence as a female artist, Wanda stormed the charts with a series of hit singles, including "Let's Have a Party," "Right or Wrong," and "In the Middle of a Heartache." With more than 40 albums to her credit, Wanda has proven to be an enduring and genre-defying legend of American music.

Rock 'N' Roll Revolutionaries

Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran: Rock'n'roll Revolutionaries by John Collis

The 1960 tour of the UK by Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran marked a defining moment in British popular culture. Previous visitors such as Bill Haley, Buddy Holly and - very briefly - Jerry Lee Lewis had been treated as variety acts, but now the nation was exposed to raw rock'n'roll by two of the genre's most charismatic artists.

At the Liverpool Empire, the Beatles were inspired by their performances. The first generation of British rock guitarists, such as Joe Brown and Big Jim Sullivan, learned so much simply by sharing a stage with Cochran, the most prodigiously talented musician of the rock'n'roll generation. Between them, the angel and the devil, the good-looking, guitar-toting Cochran and the skinny, demonic, black-leather-clad Vincent, defined the enduring images of rock music.

His Own Story

Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Bragg

Jerry Lee Lewis has lived an extraordinary life. He gave rock and roll its devil's edge with hit records like 'Great Balls of Fire'. His incendiary shows caused riots and boycotts. He ran a decade-long marathon of drugs, drinking, and women, and married his thirteen-year-old second cousin, the third of seven wives. He also nearly met his maker, at least twice. He survived it all to be hailed as one of the greatest music icons. For the very first time, he reveals the truth behind the Last Man Standing of the rock-and-roll era. 


The Life

Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn

In this, the definitive biography of an American legend, Robert Hilburn conveys the unvarnished truth about a musical superstar. Johnny Cash's extraordinary career stretched from his days at Sun Records with Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis to the remarkable creative last hurrah, at age 69, that resulted in the brave, moving "Hurt" video.

The Rise of Elvis Presley

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick

Last Train to Memphis takes us deep inside Elvis' life, exploring his lifelong passion for music of every sort (from blues and gospel to Bing Crosby and Mario Lanza), his compelling affection for his family, and his intimate relationships with girlfriends, mentors, band members, professional associates, and friends. It shows us the loneliness, the trustfulness, the voracious appetite for experience, and above all the unshakable, almost mystical faith that Elvis had in himself and his music. Drawing frequently on Elvis' own words and on the recollections of those closest to him, the book offers an emotional, complex portrait of young Elvis Presley with a depth and dimension that for the first time allow his extraordinary accomplishments to ring true.

The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf

Moanin' At Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman

Howlin' Wolf was a musical giant in every way. He stood six foot three, weighed almost three hundred pounds, wore size sixteen shoes, and poured out his darkest sorrows onstage in a voice like a raging chainsaw. Half a century after his first hits, his sound still terrifies and inspires. Born Chester Burnett in 1910, the Wolf survived a grim childhood and hardscrabble youth as a sharecropper in Mississippi. He began his career playing and singing with the first Delta blues stars for two decades in perilous juke joints. He was present at the birth of rock 'n' roll in Memphis, where Sam Phillips—who also discovered Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis—called Wolf his "greatest discovery." He helped develop the sound of electric blues and vied with rival Muddy Waters for the title of king of Chicago blues. 


 the 50 fiercest female rockers

Rock-and-Roll Woman: The 50 Fiercest Female Rockers by Meredith Ochs

Award-winning radio personality Meredith Ochs takes an insightful look at 50 rock icons who indelibly shook up the music scene, whether solo or in a band. Profiling women from the 1950s to today, and from multiple genres, Ochs tells the dramatic stories behind their journeys to success, their music, and their enduring impact. More than 100 photographs make this a rich volume, and the idols include Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, Stevie Nicks, Heart, Chrissie Hynde, Patti Smith, Joan Jett and the Runaways, the Go-Go’s, Karen O, Sleater-Kinney, Grace Potter, and more.

The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll

Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll by Peter Guralnick

The author of Last Train to Memphis brings us the life of Sam Phillips, the visionary genius who single handedly steered the revolutionary path of Sun Records. The music that Phillips shaped in his tiny Memphis studio, with artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner, and Johnny Cash, introduced a sound that had never been heard before. He brought forth a singular mix of black and white voices unabashedly proclaiming the primacy of the American vernacular tradition while at the same time declaring, once and for all, a new, integrated musical world. With extensive interviews and firsthand personal observations extending over the author's 25-year acquaintance with Phillips, along with wide-ranging interviews with nearly all the legendary Sun Records artists, this book gives us an ardent, intimate, and unrestrained portrait of an American original as compelling in his own right as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Thomas Edison.


The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Gayle F. Wald

Shout, Sister, Shout! is the first biography of this trailblazing performer who influenced scores of popular musicians—from Elvis Presley and Little Richard to Eric Clapton and Etta James. Tharpe was raised in the Pentecostal Church, steeped in the gospel tradition, but she produced music that crossed boundaries, defied classification, and disregarded the social and cultural norms of the age. Blues singer, gospel singer, folk artist, and rock-and-roller, she "went electric" in the late 1930s, captivating both white and black audiences in the North and South, in the U.S. and internationally, with her charisma and skill. Ambitious and relentlessly public, Tharpe even staged her own wedding as a gospel concert in a stadium holding 20,000 people.

For Little Rockers in Training

Rockabilly Goats Gruff

The Rockabilly Goats Gruff by Jeff Crosby

Three billy goats outwit a troll that lives under the bridge they must cross on their way to Nanny Mary's Shimmy Shack.





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