Jason D. Williams
When Jason D. Williams sits down at the piano and pounds the keys—with his fingers, and elbows and boots—hollering about hillbillies, holy rollers, and drinking sweet wine, he declares that the 60-year-old tradition of rockabilly is alive and kicking. Rockabilly’s heyday was ephemeral, but as the precursor to rock ’n’ roll, its legacy was profound. Having learned from some of the music’s founding artists, Williams has now taken his place among today’s leading proponents of the rockabilly sound and swagger.
In the mid-1950s, young musicians from small southern towns combined the sounds of blues, gospel, and hillbilly music into a combustible mixture called rockabilly, marked by suggestive and audacious vocals that were sung—no, almost shouted—over aggressive guitar leads and wild boogie piano. With swiveling hips and outrageous stage antics, these groundbreaking artists shocked, rocked, and changed American music forever.
Jason D. Williams was born in El Dorado, Arkansas, in 1959, at the end of rockabilly’s golden era. He started playing piano at age two, and at 16 quit high school to join rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef’s band on the road. From LaBeef he learned hundreds of songs from blues, gospel, country, R&B, and beyond, and how they could be transmuted into revved-up rockabilly.
Williams then got a gig at Mallard’s, a bar in Memphis’s legendary Peabody Hotel named after the ducks that parade in daily for a dip in the lobby fountain. Memphis, Tennessee, of course, was rockabilly’s epicenter—where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison recorded for Sam Phillips’s Sun Records. And it was in Sun Studio, surrounded by the same perforated white acoustic tiles, that Williams recorded two of his six solo albums. The significance of the famous recording studio, and the musical legacy he carries forward, is palpable for Williams. “The first thing that pops into my mind is the rawness of those guys when they walked in here before me,” he explains. “You feel everything still. I feel a sense of respect.”
Though clearly influenced by Jerry Lee Lewis, Williams’s inspirations and appreciation for rockabilly’s roots run deeper. “I got some of my energetic moves from Jerry Lee,” he says, “and he’s one of our greatest entertainers. I don’t mind the comparison … because I’d mimic the way people were playing more than what they were playing. I’d watch Hee Haw and see Moon Mullican put his foot up on the piano, so I’d do that. Of course, once you do that, the comparisons to Jerry Lee come right in. But truly, it was Moon Mullican who did that first.” Now it is Williams who keeps the flame of rockabilly’s irrepressible spirit.