‘Cat’ has been used as a term in popular music since the Jazz years of the 1920’s. Revered by the ancient Egyptians, cats have a mystique and grace all over their own – no wonder these independent and mysterious animals became such a byword for ‘Cool’ in music from Hep Cats, jazz be-boppers of the ‘40s, and right through into 1950’s Rock’n’Roll.

The word ‘Cat’ has several origins and meanings. It could derive from ‘alligator’, then ‘gator’, finally ‘cat’; it refers first to someone involved in a sort of avant-garde (music, trend). As ‘hepcat’, it comes from African Wouolof and does mean ‘wise man’. Second, it points out , as ‘tom cat’, to someone chasing women, especially in the phrase “tom catting (or simply ‘catting’) around “. One of the best examples is given by 1950 “Catn’ Around” from Cajun fiddler Harry Choates (Macy’s 124) (definitions taken from “The pocket book of American slang”, 1960, or “Talking that talk”, 1986)

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Harry Choates

macy's 124B harry choates catn' around

lew williams

Lew Williams

In 1953-54 what is now calledCat music” was developped in the West Texas, more precisely in the Dallas area. It combined Country music and R&B elements (played by a saxophone, only used before in Western swing), and was active months before Elvis’ rockabilly – who was besides called in Southern states “hillbilly cat” – truth that the term evoked something completely new. The most prominent artist of the genre is the long mysterious Lew Williams,  who cut at least three versions of “Cat Talk” between June 1953 and November 1955. This particular talk included ‘hip’ language, jivey elements, on a mix of jazz and country music. Youngsters were hungry for the new sounds, and the clubs (Sky Club, in Dallas, for one) were advertising “Cat Music” nights as early as March 1954. Indeed other country artists (Hardrock Gunter, Tennessee Ernie Ford, even Bill Haley) had done things with the same pattern (country songs to an R&B beat), but Lew Williams was of the younger generation, and not afraid of singing the lines:

Let’s go the the dance and stomp and stub’

Now they say ‘Dig me doll, let’s go to the belly rub.”

which Lew Chudd (Imperial label owner) didn’t like and rejected at the time he received the demo. Only Dallas’ record engineer Jim Beck had faith in “cat music”, but found no A&R man of the big labels interested: they would say “What is that?” In 1956 however, Williams had changed for more acceptable lyrics, and finally got his song released.     imperial 5394 lew williams

Later on, the terms “Cat” or “Kitty” would have been in use with country artists when they did attempt at rockabilly: Tommy Scott, Bill Mack, Jimmy Murphy, Charlie Adams, Jimmy Selph, Pee Wee King, Jimmie Heap, Sonny Burns or Sid King among others, between 1954 and 1956. Even outside Texas there was Cat music, as far as in Michigan: Forest Rye and “Wild Cat Boogie” (1953). Nevertheless the phrase “Tom cat” was already used during the ‘30s, e.g. by Cliff Carlisle (“A Wild Cat Woman And A Tom Cat Man”, Bluebird, 1936) A traditional song, “Tom Cat Blues”, performed by the Rooftop Singers in 1963, is explicit with the lines:

« Ring Tail Tom is the stuff

rca 6584 pee wee king starday 231 bill mack He’s always running around

All the pussy cats in the neighborhood

Can’t get old Ring Tail Tom down

He’s always running around

Just can’t be satisfied .”

Twenty years after Carlisle, Jimmy Swan’s “Country Cattin’” (MGM, July 1956), with its references to then rockabilly hits, « Blue suede shoes » and « Heartbreak hotel », its classic line « I’m a cool cat on the prowl », stands as one of the best examples of a Hillbilly artist trying his hands at Rock’n’Roll. Solid vocal, steel and piano solo, strong backing. The transition is also apparent with the different takes of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes”, when, in the first ones, he wails before the guitar solo “Go Man Go”, which become in the issued take “Go Cat Go” – a coin phrase for 1956 rockabilly. And the lyrics show the new trend: hip flashy dresses and dancing to the bop.

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The word “cat” must have been pretty common among late ‘50s teenagers, pointing out simply to ‘dude’ or ‘someone’, the sex opposite and complement being ‘kitten’. It included “in” fashion clothes and modern way of life, but no more honky-tonking manners, these felt belonging to the past. “Cat” is perfect example of a word falling into insipidity when used by masses, and the loss of a way of life. Gene Vincent’s

Cat Man’s a-comin’, lookin’ for a girl

Better hide your sister man! (…)

Ah-better watch out ’cause he is in you midst

Ah-better watch out ’cause you’re gonna be kissed” (« Cat Man« , 1956)

would eventually turn into

Well don’t you chain me, or try to train me and you’ll have me eating out of your hand.» (« Wild Cat« , 1959).

The wildcat had been tamed within three years!

Finally, it was only used for ‘cool’ by rockabillies or rockers until the early ‘60s. Names like Carl Perkins (“Put Your Cat’s Clothes On”, mid-1956), Bill Flagg (“Go Cat Go”, 1956), Lynn Pratt (“Tom Cat Boogie”, 1959), Joe Montgomery (“Cool Cat”, 1956), Larry Terry (“Hepcat”, 1961), Walter Brown (“Alley Cat”, 1958) or Gene Criss (“Hep Cat Baby”, 1956). The cats do work hard all week long, and set a date next saturday with their kittens to go dancing with bop clothes (don’t forget “blue suede shoes”!) and have some fun…that’s all. All they want is to be treated well, and won’t change something in their wild manners.

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The word « cat » vanished completely in the early ‘60s, since it pictured a by-gone era, hard hillbilly bop, rockabilly and out-and-out rock’n’roll. However it reappeared worldwide in the late ‘70s neo-rockabilly era, for instance with England’s Crazy Cavan and their most famous anthem “Wildest Cat In Town”, or with America’s Stray Cats and, e.g. “Rock This Town”. But between 1955 and 1985, “cat” was to be reduced to wearing bop clothes, taking care of one’s blazing and crazy hair-do, dancing, listening to loud rockabilly music and sharing Saturday nights with similar fellows and girls. A sort of back rebellion against a rotten felt society. Then the rockabilly cats were parallel to the punk movement, at least in behavior. This is another story!

Credits. The idea of this article came from an English CD « Rockin’ ’50s Cats »; the infos on « cat music » were taken from the Bear Family CD « Lew Williams ».

Lfable 595 dinkinsabel scans from Youtube or ebay. Lyrics of the songs from www.blackcatrockabilly.nl

Words to several « cat » songs

CAT TALK

(Williams)

LEW WILLIAMS (Imperial 5394, 1956)

One – two – three – four

Used to stand on the corner in a big zoot suit

Whistle at the gals, that’s how you do it

Well it’s different now, just ain’t the same now

They holler, man, check that fine brown frame

It’s cat talk (cat talk), yeah cat talk (cat talk)

Well it’s movin’ around a-goin’ from town to town

Now music sends ’em, it’s real groovy

Their lovin’ pit is the drive-in movie

I go fast music, I can’t stand it slow

Hep and holler, well go cat go!

It’s cat talk (cat talk), yeah cat talk (cat talk)

Well I’m a-tellin’ you dad, it’s the best we’ve ever had

They got a-eyes for this, they got a-ears for that

They’re a-hep on this and they really dig that

Crazy man crazy, when a cat sings a song

He’s out of this world, man, he’s real gone

It’s cat talk (cat talk), yeah cat talk (cat talk)

Well it’s a movin’ around, baby, it will get you down

CATTIN’ AROUND (Adams – Delamar)

CHARLIE ADAMS (Columbia 21355, 1955)

Well, I’m a married man, I got a lovin’ wife

But my cattin’ around nearly cost my life

I was a-cattin’ around, yeah cattin’ around

Well, I lost my baby when she caught me cattin’ around

Now, I went honky-tonkin’ to have some fun

My wife came in, she caught me with a blonde

She caught me cattin’ around, yeah cattin’ around

Well, I lost my baby when she caught me cattin’ around

Well, she looked like a tiger when she walked in

I knew right there I had to pay for my sin

For my cattin’ around, yeah cattin’ around

Well, I lost my baby when she caught me cattin’ around

Well, she picked up a bottle and she hit me over the head

Took thirty-three stitches and I thought I was dead

I was a-cattin’ around, yeah cattin’ around

Well, I lost my baby when she caught me cattin’ around

All you married man take my advice

If you’re cattin’ around, you better have nine lives

If you’re cattin’ around, yeah cattin’ around

Well, I lost my baby when she caught me cattin’ around

CATTY TOWN (Dick Glasser – Nick Boldi)

Pee Wee King (Dick Glasser, vocal) (RCA 47-6584, 1956)

Well, I woke up this morning, my head was in a spin

I called up my baby to find out where I been

I said honey-honey, my head’s a blank

It feels like I’ve been hit by a tank

I must have been way down, way down in Catty Town

Ahoo-ahoo-hoo-hoo, way down, way down in Catty Town

Well you go out Fourteen, to do Twenty-Nine

You turn to the left till you see the sign

The sign says ‘zone’ and four miles to go

To the town where the cats really wail and blow

Way down, way down in Catty Town

Ahoo-ahoo-hoo-hoo, way down, way down in Catty Town

Well, they drink that stuff right out of the bottle

They jump in rods and they pull out the throttle

The driver says, honey let’s put the top down

She said, never mind the top, get to Catty Town!

Way down, way down in Catty Town

Ahoo-ahoo-hoo-hoo, way down, way down in Catty Town

Well, if you wanna take your honey

And you don’t know where to go

Where the music is hot and the lights are low

There’s only one place, that you will find

Well, it’s a hopped up shack off Two-Twenty-Nine

Way down, way down in Catty Town

Ahoo-ahoo-hoo-hoo, way down, way down in Catty Town

PUT YOU CAT CLOTHES ON

(C. Perkins)

Carl Perkins (Sun, 1956)

They took my blue suede shoes, down to ol’ Mobile

Got to rockin’ with the rhythm, run ’em over at the hill

Put you cat clothes on

‘Cause tonight we’re gonna really rock it right

Yeah Kitty, put your cat clothes on

‘Cause tonight we’re gonna really bop it right

Well I slicked up myself till I-I looked like a dilly

I run down town to get my female Billy

Put you cat clothes on

‘Cause tonight we’re gonna really rock it right

Yeah Kitty, put your cat clothes on

‘Cause tonight we’re gonna really bop it right

Rock it!

Well my ol’ gal’s slow and easy, but all the hepcats know

When she gets that rockin’ beat

She knocks the polish off her toes

Put you cat clothes on

‘Cause tonight we’re gonna really rock it right

Yeah Kitty, put your cat clothes on

‘Cause tonight we’re gonna really bop it right

Slap cat!

Well now come on cat get with it

Keep your hands off that fruitjar

Do some be-boppin’ rhythm, pick your toenails up tomorrow

Put you catclothes on

‘Cause tonight we’re gonna really rock it right

CAT JUST GOT IN TOWN

(B. Mack)

Bill Mack (Starday 252, 1956)

Well, hey there pal you better hide your gal

‘Cause the cat just got in town

He’s all dressed up like a spick ol’ pup

He’s all set to make the rounds

I saw him just a minute ago

He had his ducktails all pinned down

But I’m a-telling you pal, you better watch your gal

‘Cause the cat just got in town

Let’s go now, bop! (Scat cat, go on home now!)

Well, hey there pal you better hide your gal

‘Cause the cat just got in town

I just got the news, he’s wearing blue suede shoes

He’s got the car-top all turned down

He’s looking for a baby

He’s all set to make the rounds

Well, hey there pal you better watch your gal

‘Cause the cat just got in town

(Now let’s go home!)

Well I saw him in the drugstore

He was lookin’ mighty proud

He was doin’ the bop with every gal who’d stop

While the jukebox is beating loud

He had a pocket full of nickels

He was really laying ’em down

Well, hey there pal you better hide your gal

‘Cause the cat just got in town

Scat cat, go home!

HEP CAT (L. Terry)

Larry Terry (Testa 106, 1961)

Well, I’ve been working hard all week long

It’s Saturday night and I’m goin’ home

To get ready to go out tonight

Well, I’m gonna tell my baby to be ready at eight

Tell her to hurry, ’cause I don’t like to wait

‘Cause I’m a hep cat and I’m steppin’ out tonight

Hep cat, hep-hep-hep-cat, hep cat, hep-hep-hep-cat

Hep cat, hep-hep-hep-cat, hep cat, hep-hep-hep-cat

Well, I’m a hep cat and I’m steppin’ out tonight

Well, I wanna have some fun, get away from it all

Goin’ on the town, gonna have myself a ball

Gonna take my baby to a drive-in show

And we’ll be parkin’ in the moonlight row

‘Cause I’m a hep cat and I’m steppin’ out tonight

Hep cat, hep-hep-hep-cat, hep cat, hep-hep-hep-cat

Hep cat, hep-hep-hep-cat, hep cat, hep-hep-hep-cat

‘Cause I’m a hep cat and I’m steppin’ out tonight

Well, I wanna have some fun, get away from it all

Goin’ on the town, gonna have myself a ball

Gonna take my baby to a drive-in show

And we’ll be parkin’ in the moonlight row

‘Cause I’m a hep cat and I’m steppin’ out tonight

Hep cat, hep-hep-hep-cat, hep cat, hep-hep-hep-cat

Hep cat, hep-hep-hep-cat, hep cat, hep-hep-hep-cat

‘Cause I’m a hep cat and I’m steppin’ out tonight