Rockabilly pioneer Charlie Feathers was born Charles Arthur Feathers in June 1932 in the hill country near Holly Springs, around 50 miles southeast of Memphis, and experienced his two major musical influences by the age of nine when he picked up blues licks from guitarist Junior Kimbrough and saw bluegrass great Bill Monroe perform.
“Rockabilly comes from cotton-patch blues and bluegrass music,” Feathers once said. “Ain’t nothing else exciting left”.
The son of tenant farmers from rural northwest Mississippi, Feathers was there at the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll. He left school in his teens to work with his father on the oil pipelines in Illinois and Texas, where he first played honkytonks and juke joints.
By 1950 he had settled in Memphis, working as a truck driver and at a box factory. At the same time, 27-year-old radio engineer Sam Phillips opened his studio at 706 Union Avenue, where his Memphis Recording Service recorded a mixture of local bluesmen for R&B labels such as Chess, as well as private waxings of weddings and birthday greetings such as the one Elvis Presley would record two years later.
Feathers started hanging out at the studio at the suggestion of blues shouter Howlin’ Wolf, who recorded there, and when Phillips started Sun in 1952, Feathers found his niche as a busy session musician.
His unique “bluegrass rock” style was key in getting Elvis started. Yet unlike his famous Sun Records label mates Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison, he remained an obscure local performer before finding surprise mainstream acceptance 20 years later.
After cutting several tunes that Sam Phillips refused to release, Feathers moved across town to Sun’s rival, Les Bihari’s Meteor label, who paired Tongue Tied Jill with Get With It for a 1956 release.
Get With It was the first disc Feathers cut in the style for which he would become legendary, his energetic vocals whipping up a storm to the country-rock backing of henchmen Jerry Huffman and Jody Chastain on guitar and bass.
But the greater triumph was Tongue Tied Jill, a racy rockabilly story featuring the stuttering vocal idiosyncracy for which Feathers would become famous.
Feathers really hit his stride in August 1956 with the rollicking rockabilly pairing of One Hand Loose and Bottle To The Baby, which he cut at Sid Nathan’s King Records in Cincinnati, Ohio.
He recorded several more tunes for King but, despite their defining rockabilly sound, the records sold poorly and Feathers’ talent remained unrecognised.
His devotion to rockabilly remained undiminished even as the genre lost popularity. Over the years, Feathers recorded for many independent labels and performed mostly in small Southern clubs and in Europe.
In 1991 he finally reached a wider audience with his major-label debut, on Elektra’s American Explorer series. And Feathers’ beautiful early singles – his voice pure and his band simple – were compiled on the Revenant CD Get With It: Essential Recordings (1954 – 69).
Later confined to a wheelchair by diabetes and the loss of a lung (neither of which stopped him performing), Feathers died in Memphis on 29 August 1998 of complications following a stroke. He was 66.