By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Get With It: Essential Recordings (1954-69)
CHARLIE FEATHERS HOLDS an equivocal place in rock history. Some, including the artist himself, claim that Feathers taught Elvis the moves that made him King, showed Jerry Lee the piano stylings that made him a Killer, and acted as Sam Phillips's sidekick during Feathers's brief span recording at Sun Studios in the mid-'50s. Detractors tend to dismiss the singer as a disgruntled failure, still bitter that he never got a smash record all his own. They argue that he merely demo-ed the one Presley hit that he's credited with co-writing ("I Forgot to Remember to Forget"), and went on to surf the rock zeitgeist like some kind of greaser Zelig. While a middle ground between these two exaggerated arguments would seem the most logical answer, we're never likely to discover the complete truth.
To a certain extent, Feathers's records speak for themselves.This double-CD set of his early singles and unreleased tracks paints a broad picture of an artist capable of shifting his style to suit the times without forsaking his personal flair. The story begins in 1955 with some Hank Williams-style hillbilly songs recorded at Sun. These numbers, especially the gut-wrenching "I've Been Deceived," spring to life with Feathers's blues-derived wobble, a vocal tic that would remain a staple throughout his career. "He could have been the George Jones of his day," Phillips claims in the liner notes, apparently in a momentary lapse of logic; Jones's and Feathers's days were, after all, virtually simultaneous.
But for all the whitey soul displayed in the early numbers, it wasn't until Feathers adopted full-on rockabilly with the tune "Get With It" that his work truly blossomed. Reborn as a rocker, Feathers dove fiercely into his vocals with exaggerated Buddy Holly hiccups, Elvis snarls, and an ineffable something he called "fillin'" that was all his own. Following this swift progression from country to rockabilly is fascinating, and it can function as an inroad to rock's origins even for the least astute listener.
But such analysis gets deeper and more complicated when one considers Feathers's background in the blues: While growing up in Mississippi he was taught guitar by the invaluable Junior Kimbrough, who surfaces here dueting with Feathers at the bluesman's home in 1969. These two numbers--both buried in the set's CD of unissued tracks--rank among the collection's most interesting, with Kimbrough's haunting moan playing off Feathers's steady guitar and occasional vocal encouragement (Kimbrough: "Yeeeaaaaaahhhhhh"; Feathers: "Awl right, I know it is!"). Their blues is a little country, a little folk, a little rockabilly, and very rock 'n' roll. This hardly makes Charlie Feathers the music's forgotten godfather. But it does argue that his life and work were the stuff of great rock 'n' roll. And nobody can quarrel with that.