Jack Scott was the first white rock 'n' roller to bust out of the Motor City. His single, "Leroy," dropped in 1958 and sold more than 1 million copies. The Windsor-born Canadian-American is in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and he's a legend the world over among rockabilly cognoscenti. The triangle-faced singer with the bushy eyebrows and girl-magnet snarl is often credited for originating the genre.
He was born Giovanni Dominico Scafone Jr., and his childhood was split between Windsor and Hazel Park and, as a result, Detroiters and Canadians claim him.
Scott's niece is Rio Scafone. The mother, actress and, most significantly, singer, is striking and sexy.
She's standing behind the stage at the Orchid nightclub in Ferndale an hour before showtime, ready in red-and-white polka-dot, flower in her hair, blood-red lipstick. The venue's already filling up with a decidedly mixed crowd; elderly folk mingle with some of Ferndale's multihued transvestites, punks rub shoulders with the conventionally dressed, all to see Rio & the Rockabilly Revival, Scafone's very rehearsed, yet incredibly primal, rockabilly show.
"We have over 100 years of experience on stage combined, so it's a real tight, tuned band," Scafone says of her group, which has been together for nine months. "The response that we've gotten in such a short amount of time is amazing but I'm enjoying it."
You only have to see Scafone perform for a minute to know — she has that look in her eye, as if all she is doing is all that matters at that very moment. The live show exhilarates.
Whole thing starts with a video of preachers condemning rock 'n' roll and Christian DJs smashing rock records. Then Scafone's on stage, twisting, gyrating and owning every inch like some sort of possessed, evangelical-satanic dervish. It's at once nostalgic performance art, killer show band and a rock 'n' roll wonder.
Scafone's a living argument in favor of the idea that rock 'n' roll is in the genes. In some ways, at least on cursory glance, Scafone's conventional in a womanly, Italian-American way, brimming with sensuality and, as she says, a fiery temper if she doesn't get her perfectionist way.
But that tie to music is impossible to not recognize.
"My earliest memories are of singing with Uncle Jack down in my grandmother's basement. He lived at my grandmother's, and for years and years we would just sing. That's all I knew. Uncle Jack and my huge Italian family. Music was always a part of it — pasta, meatballs and music. It wasn't like it was particularly cool back then. It was just Uncle Jack. We were raised on all kinds of stuff, from Johnny Cash and rock 'n' roll. I wouldn't say I was a fan, it was just what we did."
What's funny is Scafone only recently connected with her rockabilly roots for performance. Before that, she was singing pop.
"I've been a lifelong vocalist, and I've had record deal offers for different kind of music like pop. The last one was Warner Bros. They wanted a lot of pop-fluff type stuff, and that just wasn't me. At the same time, I've been a professional actress, so I've done movies, television and all of that. I would take time off from music to do acting, then I would come back, and I would go back and forth."
Rio has appeared in some notable shot-in-Detroit shows and movies. "I was in Hung, Detroit 187 — I was a recurring character before it was unfortunately canceled. I've done Hallmark movies, commercials, Gran Torino, Whip It — lots of stuff," Scafone says. "It's my profession, but it's hard to do both at the same time. So I've taken a step back from the acting and come back to the music. I knew that I wanted to start something in town and rockabilly was a natural fit.
"What I love about it is the simplicity," she continues. "It's raw, and it's about the human experience. It's not very produced. You go on that stage and whatever it is, it is. It's all about the emotional side of it, and bringing that out — the grittiness and rawness. People really respond. I see it from all walks."
It's the kind of grittiness and rawness that doesn't exactly mirror the venues in which she performs — this Detroiter says her show's better suited to the nightclubs than the dive bars of Corktown and Hamtramck. "We do things a little bit differently because we're a show. We don't come in and play three hours. We come in and say, this is how much you pay to have us here. If you pay for it, we play an hour-and-a-half to an hour-and-45 minutes, and you get the full show."
Scafone has an EP available, The Midnight Rebel Sessions, though it was recorded as a demo and released pretty much by accident. "I wanted to get an idea for myself about what I wanted to change, what direction I wanted to go in," Scafone says. "We recorded on a single mic in my house. Ridiculous equipment. You can probably hear my dog bark if you listen hard enough. We shared it with a filtered group of people on Facebook, just to get feedback. I didn't know how people would respond, and they responded really well. Now, it's getting play on rockabilly radio everywhere, including in the U.K. It's on CD Baby and iTunes. But I have a lot of fans in the U.K., and that's really important because it's kind of the holy land for rockabilly. They take it really seriously. At first, I was so pissed that the demo got out. I was sick to my stomach, because I'm a perfectionist. When I found out that it had gone beyond what I thought, it wasn't pretty for me.
When I finally started to look into what it was that people liked, it was because it was raw, and it wasn't overproduced."
Scafone's bass player Sean Eric Harris walks in and ties a bow around the conversation: "Imelda May does rockabilly, but by the end of her show she's not a sweaty mess. We all are. We know that a higher level is expected of us simply because of where we were born and our connections to the old school through Jack."
Rio & the Rockabilly Revival's The Midnight Rebel Sessions is out now. For more information, see facebook.com/riorockabillyrevival.