Charlie Feathers: the King of rockabilly

Posted by Miriam On December - 27 - 20125,326 views

Early this year I’ve reviewed a CD by Mike Badger and the Shady Trio. Well, Mike is a fan of Charlie Feathers and he wrote a piece on Charlie Feathers, to introduce new Rockers to his impressive repertoire. So I would like to thank Mike for his contribution to our site.Charlie+Feathers
‘ You should be able to record the sweat of a man’

-Charlie Feathers 

I first came across Charlie Feathers on one of those excellent Rockabilly comps you’d pick up in the back of Probe Records in Liverpool in the mid eighties, I know which one it was because I still treasure it to this day- King Federal Rockabillys was its name and sidled up with Mac Curtis, it contains some of Charlie’s greatest cuts from a considerable repertoire :  

One Hand Loose- Bottle to the Baby-Everybody’s Lovin’ My Baby and Nobody’s Woman.

Nobody swung like Charlie Feathers! nobody extolled the rock rhythm like him. His infectious, frenetic guitar hand and expressive voice was like nothing I’d heard before or since, an individual, “ It’s all about the feeling” he said. Indeed only Johnny Burnette’s Rock n Roll Trio comes close to the ferocity and total commitment to the Rockabilly cause. (these were tough guys!) 

Born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in June 1932, Charlie Arthur Feathers  started his musical career as a session musician in Sun Records in Memphis TN, after a stint on the Texas pipeline with his father in the early fifties. His main claim to fame ,I suppose, is writing I Forgot to Remember to Forget for the young up and coming star Elvis Presley, it is said Sam Phillips wasn’t too enamored with Charlie as a singer, he does have a singular voice with a very distinctive character, his singing style and lyrical content has been dismissed at times as gimmickry. However it cannot be denied that his influence was great in and around Sun Records,  claims that he helped arrange  That’s Alright and Blue Moon of Kentucky for Elvis (along with Baby Let’s Play House for my money) plus recording Good Rockin’ Tonight before him are grand statements indeed, although when someone with the integrity and honesty of Johnny Cash (another Sun artist at the time) singles Charlie Feathers out as not only being there at the time but assisting in the development of this new incendiary sound, it really does appear to be true! Let’s face it it’s probably more common than we care to realize, we get spoon fed history, people are whitewashed out of the picture all too often. But history is not just written by the victors- but also the survivors and that was Charlie Feathers.  

Oh baby baby baby bbbbbb baby…… 

He was/is the King of Rockabilly, not something I say lightly, although his country sides such as Defrost Your Heart (Sun) and I’ve Been Deceived are executed with a deft knowledge, sympathy and understanding, it’s Charlie the Rockabilly Cat that will stamp out his unique place in history. To quote Lux Interior :
 “He baby talks, chirps, hiccups, moans and gasps his way through a song- ’til it becomes a little world all of it’s own- a crazy magician.”

Charlie eventually left Sun Records whilst waiting for Sam Phillips to make up his mind on a new cut titled Corrine Corrina.(Hear this track cut from the only acetate on All Tore Up-Zu Zazz Z2008). It was probably with regret that Charlie took these steps as he obviously was grateful to Sam Phillips  for a great time at Sun. Charlie had come up with Tongue Tied Jill and could not refuse the offer to record for Meteor – this in turn led to a deal with King Records from Cincinnati. Not long after the Charlie Feathers Trio toured with the likes of Jerry lee Lewis, Warren Smith, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. Several other small label affiliations followed through the late fifties and into the sixties but lack of management, luck and literacy, arrested the career development of this dynamic talent. It took a good twenty years,until the mid seventies in fact, before  he really got the respect and recognition on a more global scale  that had eluded him.   There used to be a Rockabilly night in Liverpool in the Mayflower Pub near to the Pier Head on Sunday Nights in the mid eighties, and it was there I heard quite possibly the strangest, hardest most dynamic slice of rhythm I had heard in my life, I went up to the DJ and asked/shouted over the next track ‘who the fuck was that?’ He pointed to the label of the seven inch record ,I read: ‘That Certain Female’ Charlie Feathers (very probably also bought in Probe Records!). This track I later found out was recorded not in the classic heyday of fifties Rockabilly but in 1974!!! for Rockin’ Ronnie Weisser’s Rollin’ Rock Label – Rockin’ Ronnie was a man also committed to the The Cause – hitting out at ‘the record mafia’- Damn Right!. Originally there to record She Set Me Free at the Las Angeles label, Ronnie said he liked it but did he have anything a little more like One Hand Loose, Charlie grabbed the double bass and a few minutes later had  slapped out a staggering slice of history. Stunning to think a cool twenty years after he had started he could still show how ingrained his  true sound was. That Certain Female also benefits  from being produced by a recording technology that had evolved into a bigger sound- a rare thing indeed- authentic performance with sound clarity and depth. 

In the only televised interview I’ve seen with Charlie Feathers he was immediate in stating his influence of seeing and hearing the black musicians ‘up and down the Mississippi’ -whilst no Liberal, (he was born and raised in a completely segregated society)- something must be said for his total acknowledgement of the black influence in his sound. He lived and breathed his music, his music was his life and he certainly gave credit to what had initially inspired him where it was due and without reservation. 

In 1978 Charlie accompanied now by his son Bubba on guitar and bass supremo Pee Wee Truitt, flew to Houston Texas to record a half hour TV Show called ‘Little Old Show’ – When introduced by his brother Shorty as: ‘Charlie Feathers- The King of Rock n Roll ‘ Charlie haltered the proceedings by hollering on camera ‘Goddamit!- I aint no king of Rock n Roll- I’m the King of Rockabilly!’ and I for one would go along with that- all day! 

In the 1980’s Charlie recorded for the excellent French Label New Rose, cutting New Jungle Fever followed by Honky Tonk Man, fellow stable mates included The Cramps, The Gun Club, Roky Erickson and Johnny Thunders. This was some what of a renaissance for him and gave him the opportunity to pay homage to some classic tunes by his old contemporaries before his health began to fail. 

 More recently That Certain Female was featured on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol 1 and I Can’t Hardly Stand it on Vol 2. In addition One Hand Loose and Defrost Your Heart have appeared on Bob Dylan’s excellent Themed Radio Hour programs- Not before time too that this dynamic, true King of Rockabilly, is recognized for being a real driving force in a music that is currently enjoying a resurgence in the new Millennium. 

Charlie died in Memphis, Aug 1998 from a stroke related to diabetes. 

Mike Badger

 The Essential Charlie Feathers Top Ten Cuts:

  1.One Hand Loose (King 4997)- ‘Give me one hand loose and I’ll be satisfied’– He can’t really be saying what I think he’s saying can he? – Not in 1956! or was it a dance with a thumb in the belt loop and the other hand swinging by his side?- probably both! 

2. Bottle to the Baby (King 4997)- ‘Back in the days at the foot of the hill – we got our juice from a liquor still’- Give the bottle to the baby. Bop bop bop. 

3. I Can’t Hardly Stand it (All Tore Up- Zu Zazz Z2008)
One of the great Charlie Feathers takes -a hard twang, a hauntingly brilliant, slow plea to his other half. 

4.That Certain Female (Norton ED-225) Dynamic is not the word-More peaks and troughs than the Appalachian Mountain range, it pulls you up and pushes you down and pulls you back up again.- You won’t hear this on Radio 2. 

5.Everybody’s Lovein’ My Baby (K 4091) A classic King cut from the vault. An amazing introduction to one of Charlie’s true trail blazers!……….’ Kiss my baby and it don’t seem right- too many people been holding her tight!’ 

6. Tongue Tied Jill (Norton ED-225) Stutterin’ Cindy’s  half sister. Surely the weirdest damn lyrical phrase that’s ever been committed to tape, messed up verbal dexterity- Boy she send me! 

7.Frankie and Johnny take 2 (ZZ1001)The legendary 1956 sessions. A standard given the Feathers treatment -ie. Heavy on the rhythm, with some classic shooting vocals.
‘She shot her man’ 

8.Jungle Fever (Rose 117) Originally recorded in Memphis in 1958 this New Jungle Fever (1987) gets seriously low down swamp rock – with funky instrumental breakout-Polk Salad Annie almost.

9.Uh Huh Honey (Norton Ed-225) Another one of Charlie’s trade mark word play motifs,in parts you could say he sings like a frog – not like Carl Mann but like his own self! 

10.Gone Gone Gone (CR 30161) A great take of the Carl Perkins classic. Also features on the indispensable: Uh Huh Honey on Norton –No home should be without one, available on Vinyl and with extra tracks on CD- highly recommended! 

For more on Charlie Feathers:

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