How many people over the years flipped through the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (originally published in the late seventies), saw the photo above and wondered "Who the hell is this?"? It's the photo that opens the book, and it's a classic shot, no doubt. Surely rockabilly fiends would know the name. Alas, there were very few rockabilly fiends when the book first came out, let alone compilations of obscure rockabilly artists, or Wikipedia, or the internet. You'd be patting yourself on the back because you knew who Gene Vincent was, then you'd see this, and just go, "aw, fuck". A caption was added in later editions. It read "Ersel Hickey, the personification of early rock & roll style".
What about Hickey? If you're like a lot of people, who read the whole book but failed to go back later and connect the dots not connected by the editors (Hickey isn't even listed in the lengthy index), here's the short version: His dad died when he was four, and after his mom suffered a nervous breakdown, she was put in a mental institution. He was shuffled around in foster homes until he was fifteen, when he went on the carnival circuit with his sister Chickey Evans, an exotic dancer. After his sister bailed, he continued with the carnival for a while, then ended up in a home for troubled kids. Fast forward to 1954, he hears Elvis, and becomes a rocker. Just three years later, he meets Phil Everly who tells him he should write his own songs. He goes home, and that night wrote "Bluebirds Over the Mountain", which charted at 75. (It was covered a year later by Richie Valens, and in 1969 by the Beach Boys.) That same year, he posed for that iconic photo. You should really check the lengthy bio at the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll is still in print, in an edition that looks to have been last updated at the end of the nineties. Regardless, there's a bunch of good timeless reading in that book. Go to this page, you can preview it. Check out the table of contents, it's on page seven, three pages past the photo of Hickey. The list of contributors is a who's who of rock eggheads: Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Greg Shaw, Jim Miller, Peter Gurlanick, Robert Christgau, David Fricke; you get the idea. If your knowledge of earlier rock 'n' roll is limited, this book is a good place to start.
~ NOTE: ALL MEDIA IS HOSTED BY THE BLOGS & SITES NAMED BELOW ~Listen:
Ersel Hickey - Bluebirds Over the Mountain mp3 at Rocky 52 1958
Ersel Hickey - You Never Can Tell mp3 at Rocky 52 Nice pickin' on this one
Ersel Hickey - You're No Good mp3 at Rocky 52 His first 45, 1955
Ersel Hickey - Hangin' Around mp3 at Rocky 52 1958 "Bluebird" flip
Ersel Hickey - Two more at Rocky 52
Richie Valens - Bluebirds Over the Mountain (streaming) at YouTube
Beach Boys - Bluebirds Over the Mountain (streaming) at YouTube