The 17th Rockabilly Rave is nearly upon us with a line-up that is going to be difficult to surpass. It seems its mastermind, Jerry Chatabox, has done it again.
As the tape finally whirrs to a standstill, after a seemingly marathon discussion concerning (almost) all things rockabilly, and with FLW beginning to show early signs of breaking into a feverish sweat due to the mammoth transcription that now lies ahead, Chatabox by name and chatterbox by nature could not be a more suitable means of describing the extremely engaging and affable Mr Jerry Chatabox. It is occasions like these that the job of a journalist is made relatively easy as the aptly given moniker for the, it is safe to say, saviour and new king of the rockabilly world literally reels off reams of detailed anecdotes and historical landmarks that puts the Encyclopaedia of Popular Music to shame. More importantly, however, this almost continual drip-feed of compelling narratives makes for the perfect interview as FLW is swept along by the fascinating accounts literally spewing forth only to interrupt our host, once in a while, with a fresh line of enquiry.
With the honour of being granted access to Chatabox Towers during a relatively quiet period before the levee breaks of multiple tasks that must be carried out before the main event of the Rockabilly Rave, FLW was keen to learn of the reasons that guided Jerry Chatabox, in the first place, to the genre of rockabilly music.
“I was DJing at the Camden Workers when a big hairy man was standing over me and saying, ‘You’re playing a very rare Bunker Hill record!’ and I said something along the lines of, ‘What do you know about it, hairy?!’ and thinking you’ve got the wrong f****** haircut. Then someone whispered in my ear, ‘Jerry, that’s Robert Plant’ and I said, ‘Who the f*** is Robert Plant!’ Luckily, he found that quite funny and we actually had some good conversations about rockabilly because Robert Plant, from Led Zeppelin, is a big rockabilly fan. I think he liked the idea that I didn’t know who he was or didn’t care even when I did know because none of that world matters to me. The musicians I want to meet are the Ronnie Dawson’s of this world. So Robert Plant, fantastic guy and apparently huge success with his band [tongue firmly in cheek] and I really like him, but it actually means nothing to me as rockabilly is my life. I don’t have any other records, and I don’t want any either, if I did I would buy them. So it doesn’t matter to me whether the mainstream population are ever going to like rockabilly or not because it matters about the passion of the people, who do like it, as that means more to me.”
Passion for rockabilly music is the key reference point here, as this is something Jerry Chatabox possesses in droves having worked as a rockin’ DJ from a relatively young age, when he should have been burying his head in a world of academia instead, to literally being fervently excited when discovery of a new rockabilly artist was in motion that resulted in numerous trips to his brother’s newspaper stand or the local library to get a peek into this fascinating world of 1950s rockabilly.
“My brother used to run a newspaper stand,” explains Jerry, “and so all the newspapers used to be stacked up. On the cover of one of these massive piles of [music] newspapers was a young man with neat hair and glasses; big thick black glasses, this clean-cut kid! And yet, every other picture in the NME or Melody Maker was of longhaired and beardy [musicians] and here was this guy looking totally different and wearing a jumper! You know, everyone else was wearing leather jackets and this guy wore a jumper!” he continues reiterating his surprise at the sartorial choices of this particular artist. “So I had to cut out the photo and find out who this guy was as in those days you had to look everything up as there no internet and Google; you looked in books and went to the library and asked if they knew who Buddy Holly was [laughing] as I remember asking in my local library this very question. Funnily enough, the elderly lady behind the counter did know about Buddy Holly.”
It is interesting that Buddy Holly’s name has cropped up again, not from this very discussion but from a previous FLW interview whereby the former virtuoso was cited as the beginning of a love affair with rockabilly music by another artist. Despite the main influence of Buddy Holly, there were other artists who also helped create this obsessive streak for all things rockabilly in the life of Jerry Chatabox, with none other than Elvis himself leading the charge.
“When I was about 13 years old and glam rock was on the television in the mid-seventies, I heard on a news programme, a very boring news programme, the Elvis Presley track ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ in the background, and it sounded like it had been recorded in a toilet! It sounded weird and like nothing I had heard before and I just wanted to know what it was and what it was about. I think a lot of people get into music in the same way, they hear something that’s been a popular record such as Elvis Presley, and you buy the record and see the name Arthur Crudup on the label and [think] who the hell is Arthur Crudup? Then you realise he was the one who recorded the record originally. I think a lot of people have got into rockabilly that way, but people who are a bit younger might have first heard the Stray Cats because they were very popular with television appearances and radio play. And then they’ll have heard Stray Cats’ records and [think] where did they get their inspiration from, and then they look back and find original rockabilly [songs]. Of course, Stray Cats, some of their riffs are surprisingly like the riffs on Lew Williams’s records and you realise they’re heavily influenced!”
Such recording methods are, of course, not uncommon even today. A means of tapping into what has gone before was not exclusive to artists of the 50s, merely a continuation of various influences playing their part in helping to shape the next generations of rock ‘n’ roll artists and movements. Without a trail of history in terms of blues, rhythm & blues, hillbilly bop, western swing et al we would not have the rockabilly gems of the 50s or, for that matter, the rockabilly revivals of the 70s onwards. If borrowing various elements of a particular genre of music was outlawed from the beginning, then the following narrative from Mr Chatabox concerning our rockabilly heritage would, more than likely, never seen the light of day…what a terrible thought!
“The Johnny Burnette 10″ Coral recordings, which is almost like a religious experience for the rockabilly faithful, details them actually going to the recording studio, after driving all night and only stopping at a drugstore to pick up some R&B records to listen in their hotel room, and then ripping these records off the next day. You know, ‘Please Don’t Leave Me’ is an old R&B classic and they applied the rockabilly touches within 24 hours and we now revere it as one of the biggest rockabilly records ever, which is a fantastic story because that’s how music does evolve as everybody takes influences from everybody else. I’m sure in the 60s, The Beatles were all talking about Carl Perkins and Carl Perkins talking about his influences with R&B. But as a fan of rockabilly, I think you get into it through well-known stuff, and then a lot of people delve into it deeper.”
Considering such passionate (there’s that word again) revelations regarding former influential and bible-esque status of the aforementioned Johnny Burnette & the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio’s Coral recordings, rockabilly still attracts such a fervent following because its passions run much deeper than simply the music alone, as there are various other strands of this genre that attract equal billing. In addition, it is that feeling of being part of a scene or movement or part of gang as a means of expressing yourself with others of a common identity; something of which Jerry Chatabox is more than familiar with as he explains.
“A lot of people have this experience, and I think it’s important to say as I’ve heard it thousands of times over the years, and a young kid said it to me recently, ‘Jerry I’ve been drifting around for a few years and I’m 23 years old now, didn’t really like anything and didn’t know what I was about, but I went to a rockabilly club and there are people like me and I’ve discovered where I belong’. We all know that it’s not 1955 and we’ve all got flatscreen TVs and microwaves, etc, but people in the rockin’ scene also know that there is something deeper within this absolute passion for old music, clothes and cars and when they discover the scene, they realise that there are a lot of other people who feel the same way and it feels like a homecoming. There’s another belief that when you’re in the rockin’ scene it never leaves you as it’s in here, in your heart, and even though people often leave the scene for a while due to moving or they have kids, settle down or whatever, by and large you always see them come back as the scene really never leaves them.”
Without question, the rockabilly scene has never departed Jerry Chatabox because if it had, then there would be no Rockabilly Rave to speak of today. It is safe to assume that rockabilly has been the one constant in Jerry’s life, due to bringing meaning to his very existence but also, once this passion had developed over the years considerably, a need to express this passion on a greater level due to certain things not being completely right when it came to rockabilly music being given the full attention it rightfully deserves.
“We started to discover people like Sonny Fisher with ‘Pink & Black’ and some fantastic rockin’ tunes,” explains Jerry, “he was alive and well and a carpet fitter in Georgia or somewhere, so we found him and decided to give him a call to see if he would come over and perform live. It turned out that he had only one lung and hadn’t played in thirteen or fourteen years, but we were adamant that we wanted to see these artists and they couldn’t understand why until they came over and received the reaction they got. There were various other groups in England doing the very same thing in that first wave of promoters who booked rockabilly artists and it was very, very exciting. I remember Lew Williams saying to me, ‘Jerry, if I come over and play your show in England, will anybody even know my records?’ I informed Lew that we’d been listening to his records constantly for thirty years, even mentioning the backing band probably knowing his records better than him, which I was right about as they did!” he finishes laughing.
Do you remember any of the original 50s artists’ reactions once they had performed at the Rockabilly Rave for the first time?
“During the 5th Rockabilly Rave, I remember Lew Williams looking at the audience and there were people singing the words to ‘Cat Talk’ and he had tears in his eyes. Also, I remember Billy Lee Riley telling me that he had played to more people at the Rockabilly Rave than he had ever played to anyone in America during his early career. There were more people interested now than there ever were in the 50s or in America at any time. America has recently caught up, but thirty years ago the rockabilly revival, if you want to call it that, was happening in the UK and Europe and it was vast and is still pretty big now. There is some good stuff happening in America now, but it was funny that the home of rockabilly, with the most records and bands, was all being played in the UK and Europe.”
With the wheels well and truly in motion for the arrival of many an American artist from the 50s era, integrated with various up-and-coming rockabilly artists from the UK and Europe, the Rockabilly Rave was taking shape and providing a steadily recognised platform from other festivalgoers that this was the place to be if you wanted to witness a genuine fraction of 1950s rockabilly music and culture. In fact, due to the success of those early Rockabilly Raves where numbers were in their hundreds, it is more likely to be in the thousands today as the Rave weekender, as it is affectionately known, has literally grown from strength to strength. Despite growing numbers of attendees, this level of success is something that does not concern Jerry Chatabox because the Rockabilly Rave experience is about quality over quantity. More notably, however, this passionate drive to maintain a certain level of perfection stems from the very first Rave experience; something of which Jerry has not forgotten as he elaborates further.
“I remember it very well as it was absolutely nerve-wracking. I worry about every show, as I’m involved in various other festivals, and they’re all very big shows, but the Rave is my baby and my passion. Therefore, people say to me that I can’t possibly get nervous or worry about that show [Rockabilly Rave] now, but it is probably the show that I most worry about in my life. Of course I worry about it because if I didn’t worry about it, I think that I’d be one of those promoters who just do it on a numbers basis. I care about putting on the very best rockabilly show in the world, and the day that I can’t do that, I’ll stop. The thing that makes rockabillies come back again and again is because they have grown up with me on the scene and actually know that I am just a rockabilly. People have often thanked me for putting on the Rockabilly Rave, but I always comment that it’s very special that people turn up because without them there is no Rockabilly Rave. I’m glad to say that with the Rockabilly Rave, everyone likes to be involved and it’s one of the friendliest and funniest gigs that I go to, and if I didn’t run it, I would pay to go and see it.”
Do you believe that the lure of a financial incentive at the end of a large retro festival is a reason for any promoter to get involved?
“Nobody does it for the money,” is the immediate reply concerning the economics of festival weekenders, “as you soon realise once you’re in the scene you do it because you have a passion for it, as there is no other reason to do it!” he continues laughing. “I often say that if you want to be a promoter with a million pounds in the bank, you have to start with two million because you’re going to need it!”
FLW presumes, therefore, that in order to be a good and successful promoter, one has to be experienced at multi-tasking considering the precarious nature of the financial considerations as well as those of the artists involved each year?
“Harvey Goldsmith said, ‘Being a promoter is like betting your house on the 3:30 at Kempton each weekend’ and that’s what it feels like being a rockabilly promoter because it can go wrong at any minute, and probably will!” states Jerry. “Our catchphrase is, ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ I think the mark of a good promoter is not all the planning and the knowledge, even though you need all those things of course, but a good promoter is the guy who when everything does go wrong on the day, and it will, you have a solution and you get round it and the show does go on. Whether that’s an ash cloud shutting down airports and half your musicians are stuck in the wrong countries or whether an outbreak of foot and mouth disease and people can’t even get to your site, you have to deal with it and you have to be tough enough to deal with it.”
Has the on-going financial recession created any problems for the Rave this year?
“It’s been difficult these last few years on the rockin’ scene,” admits Jerry honestly, “and rockabillies often don’t have the highest paid jobs in the world as their passion is music and clothes. We hear in the office that people have lost their jobs and haven’t worked for months but they’re still hoping to come to the Rave because it’s like oxygen to them. It’s comments like that, that make you want to carry on as our crowd are as passionate as we are about it or they certainly wouldn’t be coming for four days of pure rockabilly. We know that they’re nuts, but they’re nuts like us. So I think that’s part of the success as we are under no illusion that we’re slightly wrong in the head about it!” continues Jerry laughing. “An American visitor came over, who was a singer, and said, ‘Hey Jerry, it’s rockabilly land!” and it is, as you don’t see the outside world or hear an outside radio. Suddenly, on Monday morning, people are jumping back into the ordinary drabness of day-to-day life after they’ve been in this fantastic, colourful 1950s glamorous world of haircuts and clothes. People always get depressed by going back into the normal world [post Rave], and they write in asking for the gates to be opened again because they want another four days!”
Setting passionate reasons aside for one moment in terms of Jerry’s involvement and the rockabilly masses pledging their allegiance to the Rave, FLW wants to get down to the nitty-gritty of the actual Rave itself by establishing an insight into the preparation that is required to run such a weekender as the Rockabilly Rave every year.
“The inspiration for the Rockabilly Rave was Carl Perkins, as I am a huge Carl Perkins fan, and I’d DJ’d for a show he was playing at the Forum in London and it was an absolutely great time, especially meeting him,” explains Jerry enthusiastically. “I wanted to do a pure rockabilly show as there was very little in the way of weekenders in 1996 when I first started the Rave. I think at the first Rockabilly Rave we had 432 people attend and everybody loved it as it was like rockabilly heaven. It has grown [since] and at the peak of the Rave we had about 3000 people coming, which was great, and they now come from all over the world, and it just does what it says on the tin, as it’s all about rockabilly.”
How long does it take to prepare for each Rockabilly Rave?
“It is a year’s work,” answers Jerry, “there is no getting round it. I think some people think you turn up on the day, and it’s like a gig whereby you’ve made a couple of calls and everybody is there! What I seem to spend most of my life doing is getting through the red tape of risk assessments, work permits and special visas and flights, travel and security – everything that goes to make up a big festival.”
Would you say that the red tape issues or travel arrangements are the hardest difficulties to overcome when organising the Rave?
“I think whether you’re dealing with a band that contains a prima donna or a band that you know are all going to be too drunk to play if you put them on late in the evening, I think between those actual musical things, every bit of it is thought out, and every bit is detail and it all takes time whether that is work permits or letters of invitation, that’s what running a good event is about. Anyone could walk in and make a few calls and hope that some bands turn up but have a terrible PA, no proper crowd flow or control, anybody could do a gig but it’s whether you do it well, and if you do it well, people will come back.”
Will there be any new additions to this year’s Rockabilly Rave?
“This year we’ve introduced the fashion show for the first time. The whole thing is a fashion show, but the main thing has been about vintage fashion and people who are very much on the scene and wearing a lot of vintage clothes. There is a finite resource when it comes to vintage clothing because obviously it will all wear out eventually. There have been a lot new companies setting up and starting reproduction of retro clothing. It started off not too well but one of the good things of mainstream people getting into it is bigger markets and more people to sell to and more qualified people doing reproductive clothing. So reproductive clothing is obviously the way forward for the scene in years to come because vintage clothing will be too expensive to buy and certainly too expensive to wear out. So we’re doing a fashion show with Bettina Scarlett, who is a young fashion student, and this will be her second fashion show amongst the 50s faithful at the Rave.”
This will be FLWs very first experience of the Rockabilly Rave, therefore can you provide an indication of what to expect? (Jerry is laughing before even answering!)
“People come to drink and dance all night and we’ve never had any trouble,” answers Jerry. “What I like most about the scene is there’s absolutely no trouble. People do dress up and look fabulous; you can expect Hollywood glamour and a couple of thousand people living a lifestyle that is simply their style. The Rave has the biggest vintage and retro market in Europe with everything from vinyl to clothes and other accessories. There is a vinyl junkies club where they all go and sit in the pub and basically sniff a lot of vinyl records that are probably too expensive to be out of a bank vault!”
As the light outside begins to diminish somewhat along with FLWs’ stock of tapes due to Jerry doing what he does best but on an equal par with organising the Rave itself (i.e. chatter), the end is almost in sight. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the remaining remarks regarding the Rockabilly Rave raises the issue of passion once more, without actually mentioning it, as Jerry Chatabox reflects on not only his favourite Rave experience but one in which was also marked with great sadness.
“I suppose the standout moment was Ronnie Dawson’s last show at the sixth Rockabilly Rave. He had cancelled the year before. We did a Write to Ronnie campaign and all wished him well; he had throat cancer. He told me that he’d like to come and perform, and we were a relatively new festival at the time but he’d heard about the Rave and liked what we were doing and there were bigger festivals in the world, not necessarily rockabilly festivals but big country festivals and places where Ronnie could play and earn a lot more money than if he came to the Rave. I told him that I’d love him to come over and he said, ‘I’d love to come and play the Rockabilly Rave’, which was very nice! So he came for the show, and I wrote a lot about it afterwards in the following year’s programme. When I saw him at the rehearsal and the hotel beforehand, I wasn’t sure he was well enough to play a show, and I felt terribly guilty that I’d asked somebody who was clearly very ill but he seemed determined to do it. When Ronnie got up on stage, he gave possibly the performance of his life [tears in his eyes for the second time as Jerry alluded to this story prior to the actual interview]. We certainly all felt it; 2000 people crammed in that ballroom at the Rave and it was the most emotional night I’ve witnessed in terms of music. He gave an absolute powerhouse and commanding performance, and I don’t think anybody on the rockin’ scene will ever forget it. That for me marked the Rockabilly Rave on the map because we had made it at that point.”
FLW confesses to Mr Chatabox about our surprise at seeing photographs of Ronnie Dawson during the early part of his career, and his unusual appearance, considering the period in time, with his peroxide hair and very androgynous features.
“But that was the thing,” replies Jerry with equal amounts of enthusiasm as FLW expressed concerning this observation, “Sonny Burgess with his dyed red hair and people think that punk rock created all the crazy stuff, well they were doing it in the 50s! People think that Suzi Quatro in her leather trousers in the 70s was a big deal but actually Charline Arthur in the early 50s went on stage dressed in a man’s cowboy suit and got booed and heckled because you were supposed to look like Doris Day, but she didn’t as she looked like a guy and slid across the floor like a punk rocker and belted out rockabilly songs This was ground-breaking stuff as without those pioneers, those unsung heroes, there wouldn’t be a Suzi Quatro or the punk rockers all dying their hair red because they had this model to go on. It was the rawness, the unpackaged rawness and that is the rockabilly spirit.”
It is exactly at this precise moment the FLW tape recorder screams for a lifeline as it’s in danger of severe overload due to the length of discussion that has just taken place but one in which FLW has enjoyed immensely with one of the true saviours of rockabilly music and the reason for its continued existence with his genius idea of introducing the Rockabilly Rave to the world. For that reason alone, we salute you Jerry Chatabox because without doubt you have enriched the lives of many music obsessives and festivalgoers and given more than enough reasons to those who remain passionate about music that we are not alone. This interview would not be complete, however, without giving Jerry Chatabox the final few thoughts of the day and yes, you guessed it, passion is the key to everything, and rightly so.
“I wouldn’t say I have any kind of philosophy other than you’re only here for a short time, so follow your passion because if you don’t you will surely regret it. I’m quite sure I could’ve had a safer job in a bank, for example, or one that paid more money over the years, but I have absolutely no regrets about my life. Ronnie Dawson said when he died at 63, ‘Don’t feel sorry for me because I’ve had a wonderful life and I’ve enjoyed my life’ and I feel exactly the same way as I don’t regret a moment of it and I would do it all again.”
Suddenly, on Monday morning, people are jumping back into the ordinary drabness of day-to-day life after they've been in this fantastic, colourful 1950s glamorous world of haircuts and clothes."
FLW - From the Tapes
During his time in the music business, Jerry Chatabox has had the privilege of working with, and meeting some of the most influential musicians. Here are a couple of brief anecdotes concerning such experiences.
“I worked for five years with Paul McCartney; I was his DJ on his Buddy Holly week events. I said to Paul McCartney’s manager, as Paul is a huge rockabilly fan as he owns all the rights to Buddy Holly’s music and material and I think he owns Bill Black’s bass [Elvis Presley] , ‘Does he know that I only play rockabilly?’ But I was reassured that he knew that and just wanted rockabilly. Of course, I realised through my ignorance that Paul McCartney is a big rockabilly fan, and I loved the fact that he loves rockabilly, and if you want a famous singer-songwriter, then they don’t come much more famous than that, and he’s a rockabilly fan.”
“There have been plenty of amusing incidents for me at the Rockabilly Rave. For example, Jack Earl’s up on stage for his rehearsal, and he’s like a god in my eyes, and he asked me for his guitar and…er…I had forgotten Jack Earls’ guitar! The star of the show and I’ve forgotten the acoustic guitar for Jack Earls. So I ran to the apartments, and of course they’re all full of musicians, and the third door I banged on there was a German band with a guy playing a very nice acoustic and I asked to borrow the guitar. When I mentioned who the guitar was for, he ran to the stage with it himself!”