The Virginia Historical Society Salutes Rockabilly
A exhibit opening Saturday at The Virginia Historical Society provides a fascinating look at the state’s contributions to the rock music of the 1950s.
Virginia Rocks, the History of Rockabilly in the Commonwealth, is a traveling exhibition organized by the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum of Ferrum College featuring more than sixty artists and bands.
Levengood: The very active Virginia-based musical performers who were in this just very brief window, this kind of high period of Rockabilly between about 1956 and 1960.
Paul Levengood, President and CEO of the Historical Society:
Levengood: Evidence in this exhibition really suggests how vibrant this scene was in Virginia and I think we're kind of staking our claim as a state to being an important center of this. And, of course Virginia did produce some very well known rockabilly people, including Gene Vincent and his backing band, The Blue Caps. Went on to have a lot of national success, but, maybe even beyond the United States, he had a greater impact. The Beatles were huge Gene Vincent fans.
Vincent was from Portsmouth. Janis Martin, from Halifax County, was also nationally known. She was the female Elvis.
Levengood: It was a song writer in Danville who had written a song and wanted her to sing the song so he could send his song to RCA to see if they wanted to buy the song. Well, they didn't like the song, but they loved her voice. And, so Janis Martin got an RCA recording contract when she was 14 or so years old.
Visitors, he said, will see how Elvis Presley’s That’s Alright caught the ear and the imagination of Virginia teenagers. Among them a group from Richmond, The Rock a Teens. They called a local disc jockey for help. He wasn’t impressed with them at first.
Duboy: They played the most mundane, boring take-off of Tommy Dorsey's Boogie in a rock style. And I was just shaking my head.
But Jess Duboy worked with them on the arrangement and their style.
(OK, can't you think of anything?)
Duboy: Play it again, I said. So, I'm sitting there with a microphone in front of me that used to broadcast the radio on and they're playing it again. So, I started going 'whoo whoo whoo whoo whoo.'
He went with them to record the song in a little studio in Salem.
Duboy: And, so, here comes Whoo Whoo climbing up the charts. It got up to number six on the Billboard and has become kind of a cult thing, being in the movie Kill Bill and being on the Vonage commercials.
Country singers also sang some rockabilly, including Patsy Cline, Roy Clark and teenagers Jerry and Wayne Newton. Society Curator Bill Rasmussen noted that the exhibition includes recordings and instruments, clothing the artist’s wore.
Rasmussen: Well that was all part of the performance, of the show on stage. Some of us remember the hair styles and the clothing of that period and the pink and black coloring that was in style.
There’s a jukebox and rare film of performances.
Rasmussen: That's the real treasure, that it shows these Virginia rockabilly artists who we were too young to see. So we get a chance finally to see them live and some of this footage hasn't been seen by hardly anyone in a long time.
There’s a detailed guide to the exhibit and a two CD set available with 60 performances by Virginia’s rockabilly stars.