Record Player Plays Old Albums Fine But Not New Ones 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 rockabilly fans today think of the genre, the image of a three-piece band consisting of a drummer, a slap bassist, and a singer who also plays electric guitar probably comes to mind. This is typical rockabilly nowadays. But the piano played a key role in rockabilly music from the beginning. Let’s take a look at a few rockabilly artists who made the piano an important aspect of their sound.

  1. Jerry Lee Lewis: It’s obvious! Jerry Lee, “The Killer”, is known for his crazy antics and piano style. Lewis started out as a session man at Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service studio and played piano on many of the early releases on Sun Records (which Phillips also owned). Phillips soon gave Lewis a shot at his own records, and he did his best. . Lewis played and acted like a wild man and actually set the piano on fire – literally on one occasion! He was a consummate showman in his style and playing. Lewis set a standard for rock and roll pianists to follow for years to come.
  2. The great Al Downing: Big Al was a rarity in his early years. He was a simple country boy from Oklahoma who taught himself to play the piano on an old, semi-functional piano that someone had given his parents. He started playing country music, which is not that unusual for a white musician, but for a black man (actually a boy of 14 when he first started to get attention), country music was really unusual. He also picked up a lot from R&B pianists, and it was his R&B playing that eventually landed him a gig with Bobby Poe and the Poe Cats. The Poe Cats eventually became rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson’s band, and they toured extensively with her and played on some of her hottest records, such as “Let’s Have a Party.” Downing’s piano playing became a big part of Wanda’s sound. Downing continued to make music and played with countless artists until his death in 2005.
  3. Sonny Burgess and the Pacers: Sonny Burgess and his band The Pacers were some of the wildest acts in rockabilly. As well as piano, they included a trumpet – as far as I know they were the only rockabilly band to feature this instrument! The Pacers’ pianist was Kern Kennedy, who became Phillips’ pianist after Jerry Lee had great success. Kennedy eventually sat in on a session with Burgess, and the two became lifelong friends. Kennedy’s style was very similar to that of Lewis and perfectly matched the savagery of Burgess’ actions.
  4. Jerry Lee “Smoochie” Smith: Yes; another pianist named Jerry Lee. Smith became another session pianist for Sam Phillips and appeared on many of Sun’s recordings from 1957 to 1959. His style was similar to that of another Jerry Lee, and they both became known as innovators in the “pump piano” sound 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 records because he was young and naïve and did not belong to a musicians’ union. Sometimes attributed to Lewis, other times used the name Jimmy Wilson.
  5. Charlie Rich: Rich is another big name that started with Sun Records. He brought a much more melodic and country piano sound to his rockabilly records and would certainly continue to be a star of country music in the years to come.

The music these men made on the piano is as rockabilly as the records made without a piano. The piano brought another dimension to rockabilly music, and these pianists brought many crazy antics to the rockabilly scene!

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