A hybrid of country music and rhythm and blues, 1950s rockabilly is loud, raucous, and rebellious. Rockabilly music, recognized as one of the earliest iterations of what we now know as rock and roll, is responsible for launching the careers of musicians including Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Now, decades after the genre’s midcentury heyday, a vibrant scene for rockabilly musicians and fans thrives in the Latinx metropolis of Los Angeles. While the genre is dominated by white people outside Los Angeles, within greater LA, Latinas, Latinos, and Latinx peoples make up the critical mass of the Rockabilly scene.
Despite the eponymous name, LA’s contemporary Rockabilly scene embraces a broad range of roots music, including not just rockabilly but also jump blues, western swing, and others. While all the tracks cited here are excellent, the following playlist is best thought of as an audio companion to Razabilly: Transforming Sights, Sounds, and History in the Los Angeles Latina/o Rockabilly Scene rather than a “best of” compilation. As such, each track was selected to provide particular insight into the scene and the sensibilities of its Latina/o/x participants.
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“Power of the 45,” pts. 1 and 2
Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys
There is no better way to kick off this playlist than with the ambassador of Southern California roots rock himself: Big Sandy. A fixture of the contemporary international Rockabilly scene for well over thirty years, Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys draw on a broad family tree of musical lineages. Featured on their 2006 album, Turntable Matinee, “Power of the 45” pays homage to those lineages and legacies as enduring capsules of joy and memory shared among friends and family. Pay close attention to the band and artist names dropped as the music fades out at the end of part 2, including, among others, rockabilly legends Sleepy Labeef and pioneers of the Chicano Eastside sound Thee Midniters. Stick around after that and you will be treated to a hidden acoustic rendition of their composition “Spanish Dagger.”
“The Hippy Hippy Shake”
While Richie Valens is remembered as the quintessential Latino 1950s rocker, he was only one of several Latino rock and roll musicians on the national stage in those formative years. Chan Romero, a Mexican American teenager from Montana, was recruited by Bob Keane to be Richie’s heir after Valens tragically lost his life in 1959. With their growling guitars, relative obscurity, and the cultural resonance of the lead singer, songs by Romero, especially “My Little Ruby” (1960), are tailor made for the Latina/o/x Rockabilly scene of Los Angeles. Released in 1959, Romero’s signature tune, “The Hippy Hippy Shake,” would later be covered by the Beatles in their 1963 performance on the BBC.
“Dance in the Rain”
Luis and the Wildfires
Helmed by Reb Kennedy, Wild Records has been taking the international Rockabilly scene by storm since the 2000s, introducing a global audience to young Los Angeles musicians and performers, many of whom are Latina or Latino. Raised in the San Fernando Valley, Luis Arriaga brings an unbridled energy to his music, providing a sight to behold on stage and a sound to be enveloped by on tracks such as 2010’s “Dance in the Rain.” Speaking to the broad retro tastes embraced in the Los Angeles scene, the Arriaga turns to a hypnotic post-rockabilly sound to craft an organized chaos.
Los Teen Tops
As demographics continue to shift in contemporary Los Angeles, migrants bring legacies of popular music from their nations of origin. A cover of “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “La Plaga” (1959), by Los Teens Tops, typifies an archive of 1950s rockabilly tunes interpreted by Latin American artists in the 1960s. This soundscape formed a familiar musical terrain that appealed to first- and second-generation immigrant youth from Mexico and Central America discovering the Rockabilly scene in the 1990s and 2000s.
“‘Til the Well Runs Dry”
With a big brash sound, “Till the Well Runs Dry” is a vocal- and horn-driven number that begs listeners to dance. Given decades of solidarity and interethnic cultural exchange, it is little surprise that African American jump blues from the 1940s and 1950s dominates the playlists of many DJs in the Los Angeles Latina/o Rockabilly scene. In the 1950s Carr was signed to Specialty Records, a Los Angeles–based record label that launched the careers of musical icons including Little Richard and Sam Cooke.
“Boy with the Angel Eyes”
Vicky Tafoya and The Big Beat
Drawing on the soulful legacy of Chicano lowrider oldies, “Boy with the Angel Eyes,” like other, similar songs, is a sharp departure from the hiccupping, guitar-driven sounds of rockabilly. Nevertheless, that cultural and emotional connection keeps the Inland Empire’s Vicky Tafoya ever-present in the Los Angeles scene. Often adorned in zoot suit slacks and crowned with an elaborate 1940s hairstyle, Tafoya draws on rich elements of Chicanx cultural memory in her performances, covering fan favorites such as “Angel Baby” alongside her original material.
“How Low Do You Feel?”
Substitute teacher by day, rock star by night, Ray Campi enjoyed a career that represents the longevity of the rockabilly revival in Los Angeles. An original 1950s performer, Campi was rediscovered by Ronny Weiser (Rollin’ Rock Records) in the 1970s and continued to perform rockabilly until his passing in March 2021. With its foot-stomping call-and-response structure and taunting guitar riffs, “How Low Do You Feel” (1979) is a classic of the Rollin’ Rock era of Los Angeles rockabilly.
Epitomizing the Latina/o/x transformation of the Los Angeles Rockabilly scene in the early 2000s, the Moonlight Cruisers, Pachuco Jose y Los Diamantes, and other such bands peppered their performances with straight-ahead cumbia tunes. Cumbia, a working-class musical genre originating in Columbia and expanding to other parts of Latin America, is simply the go-to party music for many Latinas/os in the Los Angeles area. Listen closely, however, and you will hear the distinctly rockabillyesque picking of Al Martinez behind the lyrical delivery.
Representative of possible new and divergent directions that retro-Chicanx music can take in (post-) COVID-era Los Angeles, Thee Lakesiders’ “Parachute” (2018) is a melancholic rumination invoking intense feelings of loss and yearning. The duo’s pachuco/a aesthetics synchronize with their self-conscious interpellation of cultural memory and resistance in the postindustrial landscape of LA. Available as a 45 rpm disc, their latest work, “Can’t Fool Me Twice/Show Me Love,” was released in May 2021.