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Top 11 Covers of Rockabilly Songs
“That rockabilly sound wasn’t as simple as I thought it was.”
- “Train Kept A-Rollin'” by Johnny Burnette, the Yardbirds and Jeff Beck and Steven Tyler
“Train Kept A-Rollin'” was first released in 1951 as a jump blues composition by Tiny Bradshaw. The Johnny Burnette Trio made it a rockabilly hit in 1956. The tune featured one of the earliest examples of a distorted guitar solo. Guitarist Paul Burlison said he discovered the effect when a tube was dislodged after dropping his amplifier.
The Yardbirds, with lead guitarist Jeff Beck, recorded their version in 1965. After Jimmy Page joined the group, the song was re-recorded as “Stroll On” for the film Blow-Up. Aerosmith made the song a staple of classic rock radio when they released their take in 1974 for their second album, Get Your Wings. Steven Tyler, Joe Perry and Tom Hamilton had the song in common before they joined Aerosmith.
Beck and Tyler performed “Train Kept A-Rollin'” at Beck’s 50th-anniversary concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 2017. “It sure was a great night for me,” Beck told Rolling Stone. “Fantastic venue with a long musical history, a song that runs through my veins and a singer who has sung it for over 40 years. I am blessed.”
“The Train Kept A-Rollin'” by the Johnny Burnette Trio
“Stroll On” by the Yardbirds (from Blow-Up)
“Train Kept A-Rollin'” by Jeff Beck and Steven Tyler
- “That’ll Be the Day” by the Crickets and Linda Ronstadt
Buddy Holly’s 1957 hit, “That’ll Be the Day,” was recorded with his band, the Crickets. The song is credited to the Crickets because Holly had previously recorded the song for Decca Records. When Holly moved to Brunswick Records, Decca prohibited him from releasing any songs he’d previously recorded with them.
In an interview with Esoteria-Land, Crickets drummer Jerry Allison explained how he and Holly wrote the tune. “Buddy and I were sitting around just practicing. He was playing the guitar and I was playing the drums. He said we ought to write a song, because we never wrote one together before. We saw the John Wayne movie, The Searchers, a few days before that. John Wayne said ‘That’ll be the day’ about five times in that movie. It was a catchy saying in the film. And when Buddy said let’s write a song–I said, ‘That’ll be the day!’ and he said, ‘That’s a good idea.'”
Linda Ronstadt had a Top Twenty hit with song, released on her 1976 LP Hasten Down the Wind.
“That’ll Be the Day” by the Crickets
“That’ll Be the Day” by Linda Ronstadt
- “Hello Mary Lou” by the Sparks, Ricky Nelson and Led Zeppelin
When “Hello Mary Lou” became a Top Ten hit for Rick (then Ricky) Nelson in 1961, the song was credited to Gene Pitney. But a publishing company, Champion Music, noticed that the song sounded a lot like “Merry, Merry Lou,” recorded by the Sparks in 1957. Champion sued and Pitney thereafter shared writing credits with Sparks pianist Cayet Mangiaracina. “I was concentrating on the rhythm and the melody,” Mangiaracina said in a 2011 interview. “And I just said, ‘I’ll use this girl’s name, Merry Lou, it rhymed with “What would you do?” It took me a couple of hours to write the thing. I presented it to the group and they used it a couple of times.
“The Sparks won a Battle of the Bands contest in 1957. They won a trip to New York to record two songs for Decca Records. ‘Merry, Merry Lou’ was one of them. The record producer liked ‘Merry Merry Lou,’ so they put it out on Decca Records and it just clicked. It was a real hit in New Orleans. Later that year, Bill Haley & His Comets recorded ‘Merry, Merry Lou.’ Then I found out that Sam Cooke also recorded it.”
Mangiaracina left the Sparks to attend college and became a Dominican priest. “Hello Mary Lou” was part of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” medley performed in the early 1970s.
“Merry, Merry Lou” by the Sparks
“Hello Mary Lou” Ricky Nelson
“Hello Mary Lou” by Led Zeppelin
- “Be-Bop-A-Lula” by Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps, John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Like many songs of the era, there are a few versions of how “Be-Bop-A-Lula” was written. In Complete UK Hit Singles 1952-2004, Gene Vincent recalled that he wrote the song with Donald Graves. Vincent and Graves were recovering in the naval hospital in Portsmouth, Va. “I come in dead drunk and stumble over the bed. And me and Don Graves were looking at this bloody book; it was called Little Lulu. And I said, ‘Hell, man, it’s “Be-Bop-a-Lulu.” And he said, ‘Yeah, man, swinging.’ And we wrote this song.”
John Lennon and Paul McCartney were influenced by the tune. It was part of the Beatles’ set early in their career. Lennon recorded “Be-Bop-A-Lula” for his 1975 LP Rock ‘N’ Roll. McCartney’s Unplugged (The Official Bootleg) includes an acoustic take on the rockabilly classic.
“‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ was the very first record I bought,” McCartney recalled in an interview for the End the Silence campaign, which helps children in orphanages around the world. “I saved up all my pocket money and I went down to the city center in Liverpool, there was a little shop called Currys and it was really an electrical goods store but in the back, there was a little record booth and I knew I could get the record there.”
“Be-Bop-A-Lula” by Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps
“Be-Bop-A-Lula” byJohn Lennon
“Be-Bop-A-Lula” by Paul McCartney
- “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins and Jimi Hendrix
“Blue Suede Shoes” is one of the first rockabilly tunes, a hit for its writer, Carl Perkins, in 1956. Perkins explained in LOLA Clips that a country music star provided the inspiration for the song during a Louisiana Hayride tour. “I was playing in shows with Johnny Cash. John said to me one night in Parkin, Ark., he said, ‘Carl, why don’t you write you a song about blue suede shoes?’ ‘John, I don’t know nothin’ about blue suede shoes. What about them?’ He said, ‘Well, the guys in the army are getting dressed up. Standing in the chow line, somebody will say, ‘Don’t step on my blue suedes.’ But it really didn’t stir up anything until about two weeks after that. I was playing in Jackson and I heard it the second time.
“There was a boy and girl dancing right in front of the bandstand and she stepped on his shoes. And he said, ‘Hey, don’t step on my suedes!’ And he was serious.”
Released in early 1956, the song was climbing up the charts when Perkins and his band were in a serious car crash. Elvis Presley recorded his version later that year and asked that it not be released as a single until Perkins’ original had cooled off. Jimi Hendrix recorded “Blue Suede Shoes” in New York in February 1970 backed by Buddy Miles and Juma Sultan.
“Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins
“Blue Suede Shoes” by Jimi Hendrix
- “Ooby Dooby” by Roy Orbison and Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Ooby Dooby” was written by Dick Penner and Wade Moore, schoolmates of Roy Orbison at North Texas State College. Orbison performed the song with his band, the Teen Kings, in the mid-1950s. In an interview in Sabotage Times, Orbison explained how he came to record the song for Sam Phillips and Sun Records.
“Oh, I just loved everything about the label. Everything about it was unique, right down to the Sun logo. There was just so much talent there. Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash … See, I’d met Cash on a radio show and it was he who suggested I approach Sam Phillips at Sun. When I got to see Sam he wasn’t too impressed that Johnny Cash had sent me along. He said something like, ‘Cash doesn’t run my record company.’ So I was almost straight out of the door. But I persuaded him to give a listen and he offered me a deal. We released ‘Ooby Dooby’ and it sold 200,000.”
“Ooby Dooby” was recorded by Creedence Clearwater Revival for their 1970 album Cosmo’s Factory.
“Ooby Dooby” by Roy Orbison
“Ooby Dooby” by John Fogerty
- “Shake, Rattle and Roll” by Big Joe Turner, Bill Haley & His Comets and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
When black artists of the 1950s scored a hit on the R&B charts, white performers often swiftly recorded cover versions that undermined the originals’ success on the pop charts. That’s what happened in 1954 when Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” was covered by Bill Haley & His Comets. Haley cleaned up some of Turner’s more sexually suggestive lyrics and recorded his rockabilly version on June 7, 1954, the week Turner’s version reached No. 1 on the R&B charts.
Turner recorded “Shake, Rattle and Roll” at a night session in the Atlantic Records’ offices. The office furniture was pushed against the walls to make room for the top R&B session players in New York City. Record executives Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler and the song’s writer, Jesse Stone, sang backup vocals.
Bruce Springsteen has performed “Shake, Rattle and Roll” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in concert.
“Shake, Rattle and Roll” by Big Joe Turner
“Shake, Rattle and Roll” by Bill Haley & His Comets
“Shake, Rattle and Roll” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
- “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” by Big Maybelle, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elton John
“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” was written by Dave Williams and rockabilly pianist Roy Hall and first recorded by R&B singer Big Maybelle in 1955. That year, Jerry Lee Lewis played at Hall’s club, the Musicians’ Hideaway, where he heard Hall perform the song. Lewis recorded the best-known version for Sun Records.
Sun engineer Jack Clement told Sound on Sound that Lewis was laboring to record Clement’s “It’ll Be Me” in February 1957 when Lewis got a lucky break.
“It just wasn’t jiving at that time,” Clement said, “so I went into the studio and said, ‘Why don’t we get off this for a while and do something else?’ That’s when Jerry’s bass player [J.W. Brown], who was also his first cousin and would soon become his father‑in‑law, said, ‘Hey, Jerry, do that thing we’ve been doing on the road which everybody likes so much.’ Jerry said, ‘OK,’ so I turned the tape machine on and he did ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ in one take. No dry run, nothing. That was the first time I ever heard it.”
Elton John recorded “Whole Lotta Shakin'” in 2001 for the Good Rockin’ Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records compilation.
“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” by Big Maybelle
“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” by Jerry Lee Lewis
“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” by Elton John
- “Red Hot” by Billy Lee Riley & the Little Green Men and Robert Gordon with Link Wray
“Red Hot” was first recorded by Billy “The Kid” Emerson in 1955. Billy Lee Riley & the Little Green Men had the most success with the song in 1957. Like Emerson, Riley recorded the song for Sam Phillips at Sun Studio. Riley says the song underperformed on the charts because of Phillips.
“He didn’t promote it–he sabotaged the record,” Riley said in Rockabilly Central. “He dropped my record for ‘Great Balls of Fire.’ That’s why I had my greatest disagreement with him. Of course, we still worked together after that, but it never was the same. But yeah, he had deliberately quit selling my record — right in front of me, with me standing there listening to him — he canceled my record. So when he did that, I lost respect for him. He just forgot everybody except Jerry Lee Lewis.
“Alan Freed told me that ‘Red Hot’ was going to be a Top Five record. He told me, ‘This is a hit record, man. If ever I saw a hit record–this is it.'”
Robert Gordon released his version with guitar legend Link Wray in 1977.
“Red Hot” by Billy Lee Riley & the Little Green Men
“Red Hot” by Robert Gordon with Link Wray
- “Not Fade Away” by the Crickets and the Rolling Stones
It is easy to see how Buddy Holly and the Crickets’ “Not Fade Away” was largely overlooked when it was released in 1957. Holly had released “Peggy Sue,” the first hit under his own name, a month before. And “Not Fade Away” was the B-side of the Crickets’ hit “Oh, Boy.” “Not Fade Away” incorporates the Bo Diddley Beat, the infectious rhythm that has been attributed to everything from Afro-Cuban clave music to “shave and a haircut, two bits.”
“Not Fade Away” was the Stones’ first single released in the US. The 1964 tune only reached No. 44 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart but it was a Top Ten hit in the UK. Mick Jagger gave the song a bluesy treatment, losing the hiccup inflections that were a Holly trademark. It was not until “Time Is on My Side,” released later in 1964, and 1965’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” that the Stones were able to rival the Beatles in the singles market.
“Not Fade Away” by the Crickets
“Not Fade Away” by the Rolling Stones
- “Mystery Train” by Junior Parker, Elvis Presley and The Band
“Mystery Train” was another tune recorded at Sun Records in Memphis, where so many rockabilly classics were born. Blues singer Junior Parker wrote and in 1953 recorded “Mystery Train” at Sun with producer Sam Phillips. Though never a success for Parker as a single, the song became a country hit when recorded at Sun by Elvis Presley in 1955.
RCA re-released “Mystery Train” in 1955 when it acquired Presley’s contract and it was a repeat hit on the country charts. One of the song’s mysteries is its title; “Mystery Train” is never mentioned in the lyrics.
The Band recorded “Mystery Train” for their 1973 Moondog Matinee LP. The group performed the tune with Paul Butterfield in the 1976 concert film The Last Waltz.
“Mystery Train” by Junior Parker
“Mystery Train” by Elvis Presley
“Mystery Train” by The Band and Paul Butterfield