Uniquely Detroit: Rockabilly's roots

DETROIT – The studio walls of United Sound Systems in Detroit are meant to quell any echo in the air, but even they couldn’t stop the sound of laughter that came from a group of men one July afternoon who were sifting through a stack of black and white pictures.

I watched in reverence as they passed the pictures back and forth between their worn, but still agile, fingers.

Their memories may be decades old, but their happiness was new with every glance at the pompadour hair styles and references to "Saturday Night Jamboree."

Armed with drawls and guitars, these men were part of Detroit’s earliest rockabilly music scene: Johnny Powers, Jimmy Kirkland and David Rowe Rohelier.

“Back in the early '40s through the mid-'50s, Country music was pretty popular in Detroit,” said Craig “Bones” Maki, author of a book that recounts the genre’s roots in the Motor City. “There was a lot of important music being made before Motown in Detroit.”

What is rockabilly?

“If you really want to get a quick definition of it, it's country players playing blues but doing it with a little bit of jump and energy,” said Maki.

He explained that southerners moving north for factory work brought both their labor and their musical flairs.

“There was so much communication and travel between the South and Detroit, people moving back and forth, visiting friends and what not, that the music scene in Detroit was very up to date with what was going on elsewhere.” Maki “So when Elvis broke out on Sun Records, they were being played up here on jukeboxes. Rockabilly came in pretty early in Detroit.”

For the musicians, it was all about having a good time.

“It was certainly musical and vibrant back then. There was a band in every bar,” said Kirkland, who is now 80 years old. “It didn’t make a difference where you went, you could find music.”

Every type of music was popular in the '50s – whether it was Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Miles Davis, James Brown or Jackie Wilson.

But it was Detroit’s rockabilly musicians who really tuned ears in appreciating a blend of all of them into one unique sound.

“Once we started talking to people, we really found out that there was much more of a colorful scene here. A lot of the young fellas, especially in the early '50s who got into the Country music scene, eventually moved into rock and roll when Elvis started getting popular,” Maki said.

Powers, now 76, was born in Utica.

“I got involved with music because my dad’s side of the family were a bunch of musicians. They played a lot of Polka music. I’m Polish. I recorded my first record here in Detroit on Fortune Records. I paid $100 to record the record,” Powers said.

Powers given name is john Leon Joseph Pavlik, but he took the stage name “Johnny Powers” when the co-owner of Fortune Records saw him eating a “PowerHouse” candy bar.

“The Woodward cruise really started with guys like me,” Powers said.  “We used to drive around to restaurants, take our instruments out and play out of the car. We had a convertible. The guy would be flipping a lot of burgers and we’d move to the next restaurant and they would follow us to the next one. So we would go up and down these things, Woodward and buzz Gratiot.”

Powers recorded a global hit, “Long Blond Hair” on Fox Records in Detroit. But the recording studio closed, shuttering the song with it. He then signed with Sun Records and became the first while male singer to sign with Motown Records.

“First of all, to be signed with Sun Records was something everybody wanted,” Powers said.

Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash were just some of the big-name musicians signed to Sun.

 “Just to be around those people was phenomenal, and same with Motown - two historic places that will probably never happen again,” Powers said.  “Marvin Gaye was a dear friend. Stevie Wonder, I used to pick him up at his home and drive him around. He used to hide my guitar and stuff. I used to say, ‘Stevie, stop that.’ And Diana Ross. I knew them all. It was a family. A family scene at Motown.”

Both Powers and Kirkland are in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

 “I didn’t set the world on fire, but I had fun,” he said. “It’s good memories. You feel like you’ve done something in life because of being involved in the music in those days. It was just a fun time.”

Maki said it took him 20 years of research and 10 years of writing, plus help from co-author Keith Cady, to finish his book, “Detroit County Music : Mountaineers, cowboys and Rockabillies.”

The book is available through the University of Michigan Press.

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