Rockabilly star Imelda May talks about her top five guitar-toting influences in American music
With a tone and intensity rooted in iconic '50s artists that shaped the stateside rock 'n' roll landscape, Dublin, Ireland-born Imelda May’s career is fostered by paying homage to legends like Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash and, more importantly, furthering rockabilly’s cross-pollination into New Orleans jazz, delta blues and amp-splitting punk aggression. After gaining major spotlight and chart success with 2008's "Love Tattoo," the sound of the howling 37-year-old has turned into an express ticket to festival appearances, headlining gigs and TV appearances all over Europe and North America.
On Monday, as she sat in the green room awaiting her turn to take the stage on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," May spoke to Pop & Hiss about the top five artists whom she says helped shape the soulful, rockabilly hybrid sound that reaches its latest peak with her forthcoming album, “Mayhem,” scheduled for release Tuesday in the U.S., which she’ll be celebrating with a show at the El Rey.
Elvis Presley. It’s only proper that May's list of influences would start with the King. Like so many others all over the world, she remembers being constantly surrounded by Elvis Presley in her native Ireland as it blared on the radio at home in Dublin. The first song she ever learned to play on the guitar were “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and eventually devoured his entire early catalog. But it wasn’t until she actually tried performing his songs live on the local club circuit that she realized how great he really was.
“With great artists like Elvis, sometimes the songs weren’t the greatest thing about him,” May said. “When I tried to perform some of the songs I noticed some of the tunes weren’t all that brilliant, but it was the performance that sold them.”
Gene Vincent. Though he may not have been as popular as Presley, Gene Vincent’s pioneering style and spirit led to the birth of rockabilly. Leader of seminal '50s band the Blue Caps, the Norfolk, Va., native made quite an impression on May, who discovered songs like “Be-Bop-A-Lula” and “I Love Crazy Legs” by stealing cassettes from her brother’s bedroom when she was 13 years old.
“When I heard the Blue Caps screaming in the background on the Gene Vincent albums, it kind of thrilled me and scared me at the same time,” May said.
She also counts Vincent’s guitarist Cliff Gallup as one of the top five greatest axe men of all time. “ And Vincent himself had such charisma and was kind of a mystical character for me.”
Eddie Cochran. Another in a long line of fresh-faced '50s icons who died too soon, Eddie Cochran’s profound influence on rock 'n' roll as the voice of teen frustration in the late '50s and early '60s effected everyone from the Beatles and the Who to modern day rockabilly and honky tonk purveyors like Tiger Army and Jack White.
“The more I listened to Eddie Cochran, the more I realized what a genius he was and how talented he was and I often think he’s underrated,” May said.
“I personally think he wrote the first punk rock song ever,” said May, who references the rowdy 1959 single “Somethin’ Else.”
Rife with loud drums and wailing guitar, the song is a bit of a departure from his most famous hits like “Summertime Blues.” “You can hear the things that the Ramones would have gotten inspiration. Matt Bowlin, Jimi Hendrix were also huge Cochran fans.”
Johnny Burnette. Though she’d always been familiar with Johnny Burnette’s quivering baritone in songs like “Dreamin’” and “You’re Sixteen”, it wasn’t until her friendship with Burnette’s son Rocky—a famous rockabilly singer rooted in the '80s—that she took a renewed, deep interest in the prolific Memphis-born singer.
She remembers hearing stories about Rocky’s childhood, his dad’s passion for music and a lifestyle where frequent visits by rock 'n' roll heroes like Gene Vincent were commonplace. Upon rediscovering his music, May’s appreciation for the stripped-down bravado of Burnette’s songwriting began to wheedle its way into her own music.
“When you hear his work with the Johnny Burnette Trio, there’s a rawness about it that really grabs you,” May said. “That song ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’' is so animalistic, it just puts you in a trance.”
Wanda Jackson. A lifelong idol to those seeking fierce, female inspiration in the rockabilly world, Wanda Jackson’s raucous vocals served as a blueprint for May’s reckless abandon and howling vocals.
“She’s a bit of an idol of mine, she broke a lot of ground for me in terms of female acts from that era,” May said.
Around that time, lots of the songs from female artists were either pretty and sorrowful or upbeat. “And then Wanda came out and started singing like a guy. She didn’t sound like a guy but she screeched with the best of them," said May, who got the chance to share the stage with Jackson in London and offered to be her mini-me for the evening. Thankfully, she agreed. “She’s also got a great laugh,” May said.
Imelda May performs Tuesday (album release party) with Luis and the Wildfires at the El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd.(323) 936-6400, www.theelrey.com Doors open at 7 p.m. $20. All ages.
Photo: Irish singer Imelda May performs on the main stage on July 3 during the Hop Farm music festival in Paddock Wood, Kent. Credit: AFP / Getty Images