Darrel Higham: Rockabilly Brit
The recent Gretsch Day at Street Sounds in Brooklyn was made particularly special by the headlining appearance of rockabilly guitarist and singer Darrel Higham. While all of the other acts on the day’s roster were based in the New York City area, Darrel came all the way from the UK to entertain the crowd. So how did a native of Bedford, England get involved in a decidedly American style of music like rockabilly?
“It goes back to when I was a child in the mid-’70s,” Darrel replies, “flipping through my mom and dad’s record collection. I discovered an album called Singing To My Baby by a singer and guitarist named Eddie Cochran. It was the only album released during his lifetime. The front cover had two head shots of Eddie, and between them a picture of him holding this beautiful orange guitar—a Gretsch 6120. I fell in love with the guitar. From that moment onwards I grew up wanting to be Eddie Cochran. And thirty-six years later I still have the same feeling.”
Rockabilly was a pioneering style of the 1950s that influenced every genre of rock that came after. But it’s not exactly at the forefront of popular music today in terms of current recordings and radio airplay. Where does Darrel perform, and how much opportunity does he have to be a torchbearer for the style?
“I’ve been playing since I was about fourteen years old,” says Darrel. “I’ve always been able to keep my head above water by playing professionally, which I consider a blessing. I’ve toured the world, and I’ve met some fantastic people through being a musician—and through my love of Eddie Cochran and rockabilly and Gretsch guitars.
“Rockabilly is a form of music that—once it left the southern states of America and spread around the world—had a profound effect on young musicians wherever they heard it. Of course those musicians then had their own interpretations of it. So now there are different styles of rockabilly depending on what countries they’re emanating from. There’s British rockabilly, Japanese rockabilly…German…French, and so on. Everyone plays it the way they hear it.
“The fact is,” Darrel continues, “rockabilly has morphed into something bigger over the years. It’s like any form of music: It goes through phases. Sometimes it modernizes, and then it harks back to its roots and perhaps regresses. Rockabilly is, essentially, a retro music. But when contemporary musicians experiment with it, it can be very progressive. We have guitar players like Brian Setzer, Reverend Horton Heat, and Paul Pigat—who can do such wonderful things with the music. Players from other genres will hear someone like Brian or Paul and think, ‘My goodness, rockabilly is to be taken seriously.’”
How did Darrel connect with the Gretsch company as an artist endorser?
“I bought my first Gretsch guitar in 1989, when I was nineteen years old,” Darrel explains. “I played that on everything I did until it got stolen in the late ’90s. I went through a brief period of not using Gretsch guitars, and then I went back to them—and it just felt like I was home again.
“Starting in 2008 I was working with my wife, Imelda May. We were doing a lot of TV and radio appearances. I was using Gretsch guitars exclusively, and I just felt that with what we were doing I might be able to contribute in some way to the brand. So I wrote to [Gretsch Guitars national sales manager] Joe Carducci. He put me in touch with the Gretsch people in London, and it went from there. I’d already bought a Black Falcon, and I had a 6120 Custom Shop model. So I basically had the guitars I needed, and I was using them on everything I was doing.”
Darrel concludes by saying, “Playing a guitar and being a musician is no different from being an athlete. It’s all about confidence. If you have confidence in the instrument that you’re playing and you feel that you can play to the best of your ability with that instrument…that’s half the battle. It doesn’t matter what stage you’re walking onto; doesn’t matter how many people you’re playing for…ten, twenty, two hundred, two thousand, ten thousand. And I’ve played in front of all of those numbers in my career. As long as I’ve got my 6120 with me, I feel like I can get away with it. I’m armed and dangerous.”