July 15th, 2008 | Interviews

Michael Hsiung

Glen Glenn wrote arguably the first rockbilly song named after a girl and won over Robert Plant even though Robert Plant plays heavy metal. He speaks now to Daiana Feuer.

I hear you have room full of memorabilia. Do you have a prized possession?
I have sort of a museum. I got one whole big section of nothing but pictures. Wife won’t let me have the whole house. I got one wall. That’s my joy room. I got pictures of me and Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Carl Perkins, Elvis. I know all those people. If you see me playing, I’m still playing the same guitar. The Glen Glenn, I’ve had it since 1953. It’s a Martin. I fixed it up but I’ve still got the same guitar. But I guess one of the best things I got…you’ve heard of Wanda Jackson?
A child will be named after her.
She’s a sweet gal. She’s the queen of rockabilly. You know, you got a lot of young female rockabilly singers out there now, which we didn’t have in the ‘50s. From the ‘50s I’d have to say it was Janis Martin and Wanda Jackson. They were about the same time I was playing. Janis made some great records, she did. Two years ago in Wisconsin—they have a big festival. Everybody plays. So the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, they gave me the Lifetime Achievement Award. It was the first time they done that and it went to me. And they gave Wanda the first one for a female. You might want to go to my page on the Rockabilly Hall of Fame web site. Go to my pictures page. They might want me and Elvis on the cover of this thing.
Does the new rockabilly stay true to its roots?
I think they’re doing a good job. It’s bigger now than it was in the ‘50s. Look at L.A. All over the world. They always ask me. I’m from the ‘50s, right? I always tell ‘em they don’t sound like we did in the 50s. But it’d be hard to sound like we did. A lot of them, the young rockabillys play more like the Stray Cats. The Stray Cats was one of the first, real heavy. They powdered us up a little bit. They don’t sound exactly like Buddy Holly, me, or Sonny Burgess, or Billy Lee Riley or the old timers. But that’s because we were cuttin’ in the ‘50s!
Though actually short-lived—just that bit of the ’50s—what part does rockabilly play in music history? Can you break it down?
When I started there was just two kinds of music. There was country music. And there was pop music. Then there was blues music, but they wouldn’t play them. They’d only play them at nighttime, back then. The pop music was Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and that type of music.
Ballady stuff?
Yeah, that was pop, and the girl singers were Doris Day and those artists. Then you had country singers like Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, and that’s all you really had. Rockabilly is part of country music, you know. I was a country singer. Most all of us were. Rockabilly is a country singer that sings a little bit of the blues. You almost have to be a country singer to be a rockabilly singer. We put the blues music with country, and got rockabilly. Without rockabilly, you wouldn’t have no rock and roll. Me, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent. Then Elvis got on the boat and he changed everything. In 1956, he had all the hits. There was hardly no pop or country music for a year—there was only Elvis. After that came the rockers from England. Like the Beatles. Then came Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan and all of those. ‘Everybody’s Movin’’ has been sung by everybody except Paul McCartney. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Neil Young. Bob Dylan had me open his show! At the Palladium. Dylan loves my music. All those guys was influenced by the ‘50s. Gene Vincent ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula.’ They did a lot more stuff to it, then they changed the name to rock and roll. I’m not crazy about some of that stuff…
But you got to start somewhere. What’s different about California rockabilly from the kinds out of the South?
Maybe me, the Collins Kids, Ricky Nelson and Eddie Cochran—we’re probably the only California rockabilly. Most of your rockabillys came from Memphis, from the Sun label. Then you got your Texas, like Ray Campi and Mac Curtis. But there was no rockabilly out here. Memphis guys was influenced by the South and the blues pretty heavy. They had that drawl, ‘How y’all, we gon’ do rock-abillay.’ The Texas guys had the drawl too. Me and Eddie had a different sound.
I really like that song ‘Blue Jeans and a Boys Shirt.’
Yeah, I wrote that song about the girls. The girls dressed like the boys. They would wear those blue jeans. And they’d wear those shirts, like the rockabillys. Of course I would always say they looked a lot better than we did in them. That’s why I wrote the song.
‘Girls,’ like always, was a popular song-writing topic.
You know, are you single and everything? You’re a young gal? Thinking of your name, Paul Anka had a song called ‘Diana’ that came after mine. One of the first girl songs of the ‘50s was a song of mine called ‘Kathleen.’ Then Buddy Holly came out with ‘Peggy Sue,’ Richie Valens had ‘Donna,’ then Dion and the Belmonts had ‘Runaround Sue.’ But the first girl song, by a girl’s name, was my record “Kathleen.”
Was Kathleen a real girl?
A friend of mine, Wally Lewis, wrote the song. I think it was a girlfriend of his. I know Donna was Richie Valens’ girlfriend. ‘Peggy Sue’ was a friend of Buddy Holly. Not his girlfriend but a friend of his. ‘Kathleen’ is about you—it’s about a young gal. ‘You box playing baby/Bobby socks or maybe/All these things and then some more/She’s the one that I adore/Kathleen, oh my baby, she’s Kathleen.’
What about ‘Laurie Ann?’
Wally wrote that song for me too. That was a big song for me but ‘Kathleen’ was the first of its kind. And ‘Laurie Ann’’s a love song. ‘My Laurie Ann, speak to me sweet and gentle/Oh Laurie Ann/Say something sooo…’ They’re two different types of songs. ‘Kathleen’ is more about the ‘50s.
Can you paint a picture of the ‘50s?
The ‘50s was a great time. The ‘50s were the days of Ozzie and Harriet and Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley. You could leave your house open at night. You didn’t have all the crime you have today. It was just a happy time.
How was living in California back then?
You didn’t have a lot of people here in Southern California. Now we got like 10 million people. Where I live in Ontario, there was no one here in those days. We were out in the country. We didn’t have freeways. If I wanted to go to Los Angeles, which I did a lot of times, down to Hollywood, it’d take me all day to get down there. I had to take surface streets. You might have to stay all night in Hollywood and come back the next day. It was new out here in California. All the people from Arkansas and Oklahoma was coming out here to get jobs. It was a good time. People were friendly. Like Happy Days.
Speaking of TV, you were on some of those first local television Dance Party shows? Can you describe what that’s about?
I was on television in 1954 here in California. They only had 5 stations then. In those days you had big dances where you could draw maybe 1,500 people. We did the TV show about 7 or 8 o clock every Saturday night. And then after the show we would play until about 12 o’clock midnight. Kids could come and you could bring your family to these shows. We don’t have that no more. I don’t think there’ll ever be a time like the ‘50s.
What was the party like?
Say you wanted a beer or something, you had to go to another room. You couldn’t drink a beer in the big showroom. Oh, it was a great party, you know. All the guys were young then. I’m 73 now, I was only 19 or 20, and we were just kids trying to do this new kind of music that came out. That was fun in the ‘50s. We didn’t take drugs like they do today. Some of these rock bands, they get high. They got tattoos all over their bodies. I ain’t got no tattoos. I don’t disagree with them. I love the young rockabillys. They’re keeping our music alive. But they don’t look like we did. They comb their hair differently, you know.
Well, there’s the punk influence. A lot has transpired in the last 60 years.
It’s more of a punk thing, yeah. They call them psychobilly. But I love those guys. They keep us alive. They’re all good. They’re all friends of mine. Big Sandy’s one of my best friends. I just did a duet with Sandy for his next record. One of my songs, called ‘My Eyes Are Open But Nobody’s Home.’
So rockabilly took a snooze, then after 30 years working in a missile factory, you came back to music in the 80s?
It was really 1977. Rockabilly started coming back real heavy. But I didn’t go to Europe until 1987. Man, when I went to Europe, it was everywhere. I had never been over there, see. They sent me over and I played about five countries. And it was sold out. When I played in London, you’ve heard of Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin? He came to my show, and he’s heavy metal! That’s not my kind of music. And he came backstage and got an autograph from me. And I was like, ‘No kiddin’? You like my music? You’re heavy metal!’
You got to start somewhere.
And they started from us. Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, and Elvis. Elvis is the king. He still is.
Have you been to Graceland?
Yeah. It’s really fun. In fact they got my name down there. I can go any time I want and go in free. I’m on a list. I don’t go there often, but I could. Look up Honeymoon House. That’s where Elvis got married to Priscilla, in Palm Springs. I do a show on the anniversary of their marriage every May. They got married May the 1st and we do a show right at the house, right by the pool. We’ve done it for 8 years straight. I call that the Graceland of the Pacific. You have to realize, the ‘50s music is still here, right? The ‘60s is almost gone and the ‘70s are gone…and the ‘80s and ‘90s, well…and then there’s the music you’re listening to today. But the ‘50s are still here. The ‘50s is the most famous decade we’ve ever had. Of music, anyway. That’s the days of Elvis. It was the fun days. Ricky Nelson. Lucille Ball. They had all those good shows. These shows on TV today is all about sex. They didn’t have that. It was just fun little shows. The Andy Griffith Show. Ozzy and Harriet. I’ll tell you another thing. When you go see movies today, most of the songs you’ll find are from the ‘50s, not the ‘60s, not the ‘70s. Me and my wife just went and saw that new movie you know, about Indiana Jones? What do they do? They start it off with an Elvis Presley song. And later they play ‘Rock around the Clock’ with Bill Haley. One of my songs, ‘One Cup of Coffee and a Cigarette,’ that’s in the movie Road Racers. You know Peter Arquette and Salma Hayak? They go to a jukebox and they put the quarter in and they start playing ‘One Cup of Coffee and a Cigarette.’ I think the ‘50s gets more songs of their sangers than any generation. —They made a movie about a time machine, the kid goes way back in time, what was it?
Back to the Future?
Wasn’t that a great movie? He goes back there and starts playing like Chuck Berry and everyone’s lookin’ at him like he’s crazy. What’s he doing on stage?
Why do you think music has such a significant presence in people’s lives? Why’s it so important?
Music is the only thing that’s international. Music is all over the world. Other things are not. I know that Elvis Presley is more famous than anyone who walked this earth. I always say he’s more famous than anybody but Jesus. I go to countries they don’t know who our president is. I don’t know who the president of Spain is right now. But everywhere you go they know Elvis Presley. Also, our music. What’s music mean to me? That’s my whole life, is music. Ever since I was a little kid. I wanted to be like Hank Williams.