The Patron Saint of Rockabilly: Nudie Cohn
Whoever said, “Less is more,” was really bad at math. I’m sorry people, but MORE is MORE! It’s true whether you’re talking about money, cookies or fun décor! Even birds will happily collect shiny objects to incorporate in nest building. Why? Because shiny is so…SHIIIIINY! Well, I like shiny things, too—both figuratively and literally. I think the people who claim that less is more are trying to throw the rest of us off so they can keep all of the good stuff for themselves. So, in keeping with my belief that more is more, today’s post is dedicated to the Rockabilly Style and its patron saint, Nudie Cohn.
I can hear you asking, “What do Rockabilly music and the accompanying style have to do with a Ukrainian immigrant and some of the design inspirations for Stargazer Mercantile?” I’m getting to that!
A Little Bit Hillbilly, a Little Bit Rock and Roll
Rockabilly is typically described as a mixture of Country and Western and old school, Rock and Roll. It started with music and it gradually spilled over into other areas. Urban Diction has a definition of Rockabilly that I pretty much think is sublime: “Rockabilly is not a style; it’s a way of life.”
Modern musicals like “Million Dollar Quartet” have kept that original Rockabilly flair in the public’s consciousness. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins are all prime examples of people who rocked Rockabilly!
Many great performers influenced Rockabilly music, but Western Rockabilly style, with its fringe, conchos and rhinestones owes an eternal debt of gratitude to one man—Nudie Cohn.
Nudie Cohn (whose name was originally Nuta Kotlyarenko) was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1902. That was well before the birth of Rockabilly. At the age of eleven, Nudie’s parents sent Nudie and his brother to the U.S. to make it on their own. (In case you’re wondering, Nudie wasn’t trying to select a provocative moniker for himself; the immigration official at Ellis Island couldn’t spell Nuta!) For Nudie, that meant spending some years as a shoeshine boy and some time in Leavenworth for drug trafficking.
But, in 1932, Nudie married Helen Barbara (“Bobbie”) Kruger and his life took a change for the better. In 1934, Nudie and Bobbie opened a business in Manhattan—Nudies for the Ladies. You have to admit, it has a certain ring to it! And, the name was not without irony since they specialized in custom lingerie and g-strings for showgirls!
The Cohns relocated to California, and in the 40s and Nudie persuaded Western swing musician, Tex Williams to buy him a sewing machine, in exchange for some fancy singing duds! Ah, do you see where this is going? In 1947, Nudie and Bobbie opened “Nudies of Hollywood,” which dealt solely in Western wear.
Nudie is credited as being the first person to decorate clothing with rhinestones. Who knew that the original rhinestone cowboy was a tailor from Ukraine? He was also known for his chain stitch embroidery work and elaborate designs. The Western world ate it up! Nudie was also a brilliant marketer! Why waste money on billboards and advertising? Let the clothing speak for itself! In 1962, he created a flashy little number for Porter Wagoner. The peach suit, which had a wagon wheel motif and enough rhinestones shine like the night sky, was given to Wagoner, free of cost. Yep. F-R-E-E. Nudie gave the suit to Wagoner, knowing that he couldn’t buy publicity like that. His plan worked. The “Nudie Suit” had solidified its place in design history.
Over the years, Nudie dressed such notables as Hank Williams, ZZ Top, George Jones and Glen Campbell. And he was solely responsible for the trademark look that Roy Rogers and Dale Evans wore to public appearances. He created a $10,000 gold lame’ suit for Elvis Presley. Why? Because Nudie, too, believed that MORE is MORE! His designs were not for shrinking violets, but they were enjoyed by the likes of Liberace, Elton John, John Wayne, Gene Autry, Ronald Reagan and Cher. And, it was fitting that Robert Redford was wearing a Nudie Suit when he starred in Electric Cowboy.
Nudie didn’t just design clothing. He was also famous for his over-the-top decoration of automobiles. The interiors of his “Nudie Mobiles” were decorated with rhinestones, silver dollars and often used longhorn steer horns as hood ornaments. He didn’t design the cars. He mostly left that up to Pontiac and Cadillac. But, he did make them unique! Nudie Mobiles could be spotted everywhere from early country music videos to a Monkees’ movie!
When Nudie died in 1981, Dale Evans gave the eulogy at his funeral. It was a sad day because his clients understood that the world had just become a lot less SHINY. He had brought the Rockabilly style to the world. I suspect that without the influence of Nudie Cohn, Las Vegas would just be a desert town filled with people wearing cotton/poly blends and the performers on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry would look like they were shopping at Walmart.
Rockabilly of Ages
When I see something that makes my heart sing, I sort of turn into Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. (My PRECIOUS!) But, unlike Gollum, I want others to share in my joy! In fact, that’s sort of how Stargazer Mercantile started. I had a vision of what I wanted, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. I said to myself, “Well, hmmph, Self! You’re just gonna have to make what you want!” So, I made my first leather pillow. (My PRECIOUS!) I looooooved it! I made more. I looooooved them, too! My friends loved them and wanted me to make some things for them. And, so began Stargazer Mercantile…
And that’s why we do what we do. We go to work each day, feeling just a little bit giddy that we get to create things that will make someone else’s heart sing! We have fun incorporating Rockabilly elements and small tributes to the great Nudie Cohn in our items. And, we hope you agree that Rockabilly is not a style; it’s a way of life, Man! It’s a SHINY way of life!
Have a look-see at some of our favorite Nudie-inspired items!
Happy Trails, y’all!