Feathers was born in Mississippi in 1932, of Irish and Cherokee descent. Having started out as a session musician at Sun Studios, he eventually recorded a string of rockabilly singles on Sun Records, Flip, Holiday Inn, Meteor and King Records in the 1950s. (His best-known recordings were on Meteor and King). It has been said, (mainly by himself, admittedly), that his hiccuping vocal style was a direct influence on other contemporary vocalists, (although Buddy Holly would probably have disputed that claim). Feathers indeed talked big, and appeared to resent the fact that he was not more widely recognised as a rockabilly pioneer. He said of Buddy Holly, for example, that, “Buddy Holly would listen to me and he wanted to get on Sun, man. Then he went to Clovis, New Mexico and did `Peggy Sue’. A lot of people say we sound alike, but he heard me do the hiccup, so who copied who?” He once claimed also that he, “brought Elvis to Sun Records in 1953, man. Not only did I get him there, but I got him doing rockabilly. Bill Monroe had done `Blue Moon of Kentucky’ but I showed Elvis how to do it his way, so I arranged that record. I didn’t play on it but I was at the controls.” A bordering-on-scathing obituary of Feathers by The Independent upon his death in 1998 after a stroke-induced coma, compared his jealousy of Elvis’ success to that of Salieri’s jealousy of Mozart in the 18th Century, and that Feathers had grossly over-emphasised his role as an artist of influence. As they put it, “he [Feathers] was in Memphis at the crucial time, even if no one took much notice of him.” (Ouch).
Few of Feathers’ records were released in the UK, and none of his songs were picked up by the British beat groups of the early 1960s. He had been the victim of poor management, but was also reputed to be very difficult to work with. Sam Phillips of Sun Records, for example, claimed that Feathers could have been a major star were it not for his fractious personality. It is undoubtedly the case, however, that Feathers was a direct influence on a later generation of musicians. Having been pretty much ignored until the 1970s, some neo-rockabilly fans in the UK rediscovered, (or should that be “discovered”?) him, creating a demand for his records. He became something of a cult hero of the rockabilly genre. The late lamented Lux Interior of the wonderful Cramps claimed, for example, that Feathers was an influence on his vocal style, and the band recorded cover versions of some of his songs. Other fans include Tav Falco’s Panther Burns. The Can’t Hardly Stand It track, with its slightly menacing feel, and slower in tempo than a typical Feathers song, was recorded in 1956, and showcases his vocal style beautifully. One could easily imagine that the song had actually been penned and performed by The Cramps, and indeed, they recorded a cover version of it. It is startling, therefore, just how influential he actually turned out to be on a newer generation of performers, and this must be set against the unkind views of The Independent, and others. Eventually, there was a recognition of his pioneering contribution to the rockabilly genre when he was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Leave a Reply