When most modern fans of rockabilly think about the genre, the image that comes to mind is probably a three-piece band which consists of a drummer, a stand-up slap bassist, and a singer who also plays electric lead guitar. That’s the typical rockabilly lineup in modern times. But the piano played a pivotal role in rockabilly music from very early on. Let’s take a look at a few rockabilly acts that made piano an important aspect of their sound.
- Jerry Lee Lewis: This one’s obvious! Jerry Lee, “The Killer”, is famous for his crazy piano antics and style. Lewis started out as a session man at Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service studios and played piano on many early releases on Sun Records (which Phillips also owned.) Before long Phillips gave Lewis a shot at his own recordings and he made the best of it. Lewis played and acted like a wild man and really set the piano on fire–literally in at least one case! In his style and playing he was the consummate showman. Lewis set the standard for rock and roll piano players to follow for years to come.
- Big Al Downing: Big Al was a bit of a rarity in his early years. He was a simple country boy from Oklahoma who taught himself to play piano on an old, half-functional upright that someone gave his parents. He began playing country music, which isn’t so rare for a white musician, but for a black man (actually, just a young boy of about 14 when he first started getting noticed) country music was unusual indeed. He also picked up a lot from R&B piano players and it was his R&B playing that eventually landed him a gig playing with Bobby Poe and the Poe Cats. Eventually the Poe Cats became Rockabilly Queen Wanda Jackson’s band and they toured extensively with her as well as playing on some of her most rocking recordings like “Let’s Have a Party”. Downing’s piano playing became a big part of Wanda’s sound. Downing continued playing music and played with countless artists right up to his death in 2005.
- Sonny Burgess & the Pacers: Sonny Burgess and his band The Pacers were one of the wildest acts in rockabilly. In addition to a piano, their lineup included a trumpet–as far as I know, they were the only rockabilly band to feature that instrument! The Pacers’ pianist was Kern Kennedy who became Phillips’ go-to pianist once Jerry Lee hit the big time. Eventually Kennedy sat in on a session with Burgess and the two became life-long friends. Kennedy’s style was much like Lewis’ and fit the wildness of Burgess’ act perfectly.
- Jerry Lee “Smoochy” Smith: Yep; another piano player named Jerry Lee. Smith became another of Sam Phillips’ session piano players and appeared on many Sun recordings from 1957 to 1959. His style was similar to the other Jerry Lee and the two have become known as innovators in the “pumping piano” sound of the day. He played on records by Billy Lee Riley, Warren Smith, Ace Cannon and others although he’s often not credited on his recordings because he was young and naive and didn’t belong to the musicians’ union. Sometimes Lewis was credited and other times the name Jimmy Wilson was used.
- Charlie Rich: Rich is another huge name that had his start at Sun Records. He brought a much more melodic and country sounding piano to his rockabilly recordings and of course would go on to be a country music star in later years.
The music that these men made with their pianos is every bit as rockabilly as records that were made without piano. The piano brought a different dimension to rockabilly music and these pianists brought lots of crazy antics to the rockabilly stage!