Following such an influential and exciting number 1 as Lonnie Donegan’s Cumberland Gap, I guess the only way was down. It had only been a few months since easy listening and novelty record star Guy Mitchell had hit the top spot for the third time with Singing the Blues, and here he was again for the last time with Woody Harris and Eddie V. Deane’s Rock-a-Billy.
Rockabilly, an offshoot of rock’n’roll, began to creep into the vocabulary of press releases and reviews in 1956. It derived from a blurring of the genres of rockn’roll and bluegrass, or, to put it more insultingly, ‘hillbilly’ music, as it was often called at the time. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Bill Haley were all producing rockabilly music, and rising rapidly at the time, so why not spoof the genre? Why indeed…
Singing the Blues had, whether intentionally or not, been a successful bridge of genres by Mitchell, covering both his familiar easy listening style and the new rock’n’roll sound. Despite Tommy Steele being considered the more authentic rocker of the two, Steele wound up sounding way too much like Elvis to take seriously, and so Mitchell’s version holds up better. Rock-a-Billy was a bad choice as a follow-up. Well, it wasn’t at the time, it got to number 1, obviously, but the years haven’t been kind to it. It comes across as mean-spirited and the lyrics to the chorus are as unimaginative as it gets. Get a load of this…
‘Rock-a-billy, rock-a-billy, rock-a-billy, rock
Rock-a-billy, rock-a-billy, rock, rock, rock
Rock-a-billy, rock-a-billy, rock-a-billy, rock
Rock-a-billy, rock-a-billy, rock, rock’
There was a little more lyrical dexterity in your average rockabilly song at the time. Later on, Mitchell urges the listener to ‘wriggle like a trout’ and then spitefully exclaims:
‘Ya know you’re gonna act like a crazy fool,
Who cares? It’s cool’.
Unfortunately for Mitchell and others of his ilk, lots of people were interested in acting like crazy fools, and following this fourth chart-topper (which made him equal with Frankie Laine for most UK number 1s at that point), his career waned, bar his 1959 cover of Ray Price’s Heartaches by the Number, which despite missing the top spot became perhaps his best-known tune.
Mitchell retired in the 70s, but recorded material sporadically after that and occasionally joined the nostalgia circuit. He died of complications from cancer surgery on 1 July 1999, aged 72.
Written by: Woody Harris & Eddie V. Deane
Producer: Mitch Miller
Weeks at number 1: 1 (17-23 May)