The music style known as rockabilly dates back to the 1950s. The blend of country and R&B predates rock & roll. It’s often thought of as a historical novelty, along with pompadour haircuts and hot rods. But the energetic, fast music is seeing a small resurgence in Southern California.
The label most closely associated with modern rockabilly in California is Wild Records, based in Altadena, a suburb of Los Angeles.
“We are a very unusual record label,” said Reb Kennedy, the label’s founder. “Because the people who do know us, and the fan base worldwide, they call us the Wild Family. Now, it sounds ridiculous. It sounds corny. But it actually runs that way.”
His musicians attest to Kennedy’s generosity. Omar Romero, head studio engineer and singer for Omar and the Stringpoppers, opened his own barber shop after Kennedy fronted him the money to get it started.
“He’s always been there for everybody, helping them out with whatever they need,” Romero said. “Whether it’s money, support in any way. Some people are like, ‘Hey Reb, I can’t pay my rent, man,’ and he’s like, ‘Ok, here’s two months rent, pay me when you can.’ Just like that.”
Other musicians say Kennedy has bailed them out of jail, talked them through bad breakups, and fed them when they couldn’t afford to eat. Marlene Perez, the singer for The Rhythm Shakers, said that after her car broke down, Kennedy offered to lend her his spare car for as long she needed.
Kennedy said the way he runs the label has a lot to do with his first career. His little sister was born with Down’s syndrome, and as a teenager he volunteered at schools for children with special needs. He received his master’s degree in early childhood education, worked as a teacher and later managed London’s most expensive kindergarten. He moved to San Francisco with the plan to open his own kindergarten. But he got derailed, becoming a successful music promoter for rockabilly legends.
It was on a visit to Los Angeles that he discovered the band Luis and the Wild Teens. It was the first band he signed to Wild Records.
“They were a ramshackle unit, not the best players, and I’m being very kind,” Kennedy said. “The enthusiasm and the energy on stage though blew me away. I’d never seen anything like it.”
Fans of the label and its bands flock to see the musicians perform, in venues ranging from a Mexican restaurant in Burbank located next to horse stables, to a swap meet in Santa Fe Springs. The fans wear leather jackets and rolled up jeans, imitating the fashion of the 1950s. And like the fans, most of the musicians are Hispanic. Wild Records has gained the reputation of being a “Mexican rockabilly” label. Kennedy doesn’t see it that way.
“I never had any intention of starting a Mexican rock ‘n’ roll label,” he said. “Oddly, what happened was, in Los Angeles, the talent pool is coming from young Hispanic guys, and girls.”
The Wild Records recording studio is a one-room shack in Kennedy’s backyard. There are no windows or air conditioning, and the albums are often recorded in one hot, sweaty day-long session, then mixed, mastered, and sent to the manufacturer within a week. The albums have an intense, punk edge to them.
“We tell the artists when we’re recording, we’re going to capture the best you have today. Not forever. Today. It only reflects on what they did that day. So that being the case, we want to get it out when it’s fresh. Fresh to the artist, fresh to us,” Kennedy said. “We want to capture the energy, we want to put it in the bottle, and then we want to release it.”
While there’s a strong rockabilly scene in the area, it hasn’t gotten a lot of attention from critics. A new documentary, Los Wild Ones, aims to bring it out from the underground. Meanwhile, the Wild Records bands go on tour to Europe, Japan and other parts of the world, and sell out huge venues.
“For a lot of them, the opportunity to travel the world and sort of show the world what’s going on here has been something that I don’t think they’d ever be able to experience without people like Reb and Wild Records,” said longtime rockabilly fan Moi Ramirez.
Andrew Iniguez, a 19-year-old who plays upright bass with Omar and the Stringpoppers, grew up in Santa Ana, in Orange County. He said music was a way to escape gang activity.
“The reason I joined a band is because, as a Mexican in an environment where we grew up with gangs and violence, we see music as a getaway,” Iniguez said.
Kennedy is realistic about the possibilities of mainstream success. He tells his artists not to expect to make a living in music, although he thinks some have a shot – like Gizzelle, a young addition to the label who delivers a powerful blend of gospel and soul.
“He’s seen me grow up on the label, and he’s seen everything I’ve been through pretty much,” Gizzelle said. “Honestly, I’d have to say I went from being this young, divorced mother, to joining Wild Records and Reb’s gotten me the opportunity to travel almost everywhere in Europe.”
By next year, Kennedy hopes to phase out CD production all together, releasing only vinyl and digital downloads. It’s a sign that Wild Records has one foot firmly in the past, and the other in the future.