Charlie Feathers

Get With It: Essential Recordings (1954-69)


By Bill Meyer

More than 40 years ago four rockabilly performers barnstormed the south, staging nightly cutting contests in sweaty roller rinks, tents, and armories. Some nights the winner was Johnny Cash, others it was Elvis Presley; sometimes both were dust beneath Carl Perkins’s blue suede shoes. The fourth musician was Charlie Feathers, a skinny, pompadoured man from rural Mississippi, and he carried as many of those nights as his Sun Records label mates. But while the other three rocketed to stardom, he descended into obscurity; as Elvis got fat, stoned, rich, and dead, Feathers shared the mike with amateurs at Memphis’s Hilltop Lounge and hustled shuffleboard to pay the bills.

Get With It, a ravishingly packaged double album that pairs a CD of Feathers’s 1950s singles with one devoted to rarities and previously unissued recordings, makes clear that his relative anonymity wasn’t due to a lack of musical talent or self-promotional brass. The accompanying 46-page booklet includes essays by producer Jim Dickinson and southern-music chronicler Peter Guralnick, both of whom give voice to his claims that he pretty much invented rockabilly. Over the years Feathers asserted that he brought Presley to Sun and arranged his early singles, that he prompted Jerry Lee Lewis to adopt his pumping piano technique, and that he was one of only two or three men in the world who knew the secret of slapback, the distinctive reverb effect that defined early rockabilly. (The other two are Presley’s guitarist Scotty Moore and, if Feathers is in a generous mood, Sun boss Sam Phillips.) His recollections tend to give short shrift to other rockabilly pioneers, but he wasn’t entirely blowing smoke; he did cowrite Presley’s longest-charting single for Sun, “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” in 1955. The liner notes to the 1992 collection Uh Huh Honey (Norton) quote Johnny Cash’s recollection that Feathers was behind the controls when Presley cut “Baby Let’s Play House.” And when “Blue Suede Shoes” was first published, it was Feathers’s mug, not Carl Perkins’s, that adorned the folio; in Get With It’s booklet he explains, “Carl was baldheaded so they used my picture instead.”

But despite his documented presence and purported influence at Sun, Feathers never issued a rockabilly record for the label. Phillips thought Feathers’s supremely emotive voice, which was double boiled in the steam of Junior Kimbrough’s country blues (the second disc includes two field recordings of Feathers and Kimbrough jamming together in 1969) and Bill Monroe’s bluegrass, was best suited to honky-tonk laments. Get With It kicks off with “Peepin’ Eyes” (originally issued by Sun’s subsidiary Flip Records) and “Defrost Your Heart” (Sun), a couple of steel-guitar-drenched weepers that prove Phillips knew a good country singer when he heard one.

But Feathers wanted to rock, and in January 1956, the same month “Defrost Your Heart” was released, he recorded some new songs that swapped the steel for swaggering drums and slap bass. First Phillips passed on the demos for “Frankie & Johnny” and “Corrine, Corrina” (which were finally released for the first time domestically on Get With It), then he turned down the novelty tune “Tongue Tied Jill” on the grounds that it “ridiculed the afflicted.” Feathers gave the song to Sun’s crosstown rival, Meteor, which issued it on the back of the spare, peppy “Get With It.”

That song, a virtual recipe for rockabilly, became a hit around Memphis. It also served official notice that patience was not among Feathers’s virtues: “Well you pick the tune / And you slap the bass / I’ll play the rhythm and I’ll set the pace / But we gotta get with it, got no time to waste.” Feathers came into his own as a singer on the churning B side. He pitched his voice lower than on his country records and ended each verse with a quivering, giddy babble of hoots and hiccups, an eruption of raw, libidinous feeling that words couldn’t express. This fabulously goofy vocalese became Feathers’s trademark; he was still using it to good effect on his final album, Charlie Feathers, which Elektra Nonesuch issued in 1991.

In fact Feathers wasn’t mocking his protagonist. He too had a language problem: he could barely read or write. The Sun Studio Web site attributes Feathers’s failure to get ahead in part to his illiteracy (and in part to “his chronic never ending and elaborate fabrications of reality where Feathers himself is credited with all the really great events that took place at Sun”). And Feathers’s brother Lawrence, in an ambiguous quote from Guralnick’s essay, doesn’t exactly contradict this explanation. “I compare his talent to his education. I got to the third grade myself, and Charlie had less than that, ’cause he can’t read or write. I think he’s ten times better than any son of a bitch that went to school; if he was educated, you think how great he would be.”

But there’s a more likely story behind Feathers’s inability to hit the big time: he had to have things exactly his way or no way at all. In 1978 he went to Houston to tape a performance for NBC TV. In a fit of hyperbole another Feathers sibling, Shorty, introduced his brother as “Charlie Feathers–the king of rock ‘n’ roll!” Charlie stopped the taping cold and corrected him: “Goddamn it! I ain’t no king of rock ‘n’ roll–I’m the king of rockabilly!” His discography is a patchwork of singles issued on dead-end labels, including one that only distributed its records to hotel gift shops. On the rare occasions that he did hook up with labels–like Sun or Cincinnati’s King–that had the clout to make him a star, he invariably quit them in fits of pique over financial, promotional, or production differences.

The same lack of temperance that detoured his career made Feathers’s music both disturbing and compelling. The best example is “Jungle Fever,” a single issued by Kay records in June 1960. Over tribal drums and a menacing lead guitar, Feathers opened the song with lines that pressed every racial button within reach: “Darkies creeping through the trees / Jungle fever got ahold of me / Won’t somebody tell me where can my baby be?” The language of the time makes it sound indisputably racist, but in fact Feathers went on to identify with the “darkies.” Before the tune was over, he was up in a tree, weeping with lust and loss, and every white parent who feared that rock ‘n’ roll was pushing children across the country’s racial divide was hoping he’d stay there long enough for someone to fetch the shotgun. Even when he tried, Feathers couldn’t quite play it straight. A month after “Jungle Fever” came out he adopted the pseudonym Charlie Morgan and tried to cash in on the white-bread folk revival with the tearjerker “Dinky John.” He sang with uncharacteristic refinement, backed by a vanilla chorus and a gently plucked banjo, but one wonders what fans of “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” made of his bleak tale about a gun-happy five-year-old whose mother finds him dead beside his father’s smoking firearm.

By 1963 Feathers was what’s known in the business as washed-up, but he kept working–through the 70s, when British rockabilly revivalists held him up as a purist; the 80s, when the Cramps’ Lux Interior made hay with his singing style; and the early 90s, when little labels like Norton and Revenant were the only ones still paying attention. Last Saturday, 21 years after Elvis keeled over on the toilet, Feathers succumbed to complications from a stroke in Memphis’s Saint Francis Hospital. His music was strong stuff–too strong for his time, maybe, but strong enough to reach across the decades and collar you, demanding that you get with it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Charlie Feathers photo uncredited/ album cover.