These days, 69-year-old Kenny Coates appears to be a mannerly country gentleman.
Yet beneath that polite exterior crouches an original rock 'n' roll wild man.
In the late 1950s, Coates fronted a rockabilly band called The Dazzlers - named for a Bill Haley & the Comets' song, "Razzle Dazzle." His group won fans across central Virginia, played on local television programs, opened for greats like Jerry Lee Lewis and eventually traveled to Nashville to record."We were one of the first rock 'n' roll bands in the Lynchburg area that got any recognition," said the energetic, white-haired man who speaks with a lilting Virginia accent. "In those days, I don't think anybody could touch us."
The band's impact was brief, lasting from about 1957 to 1961. It made only a handful of obscure recordings which today are known only to rockabilly collectors and historians.
But in recent months, Coates - now a Smithfield resident - has bopped back into the rock spotlight.
A 50-year-old photo of him, legs spread wide and leaning back in mid-howl, adorns the cover of a new collection of early rock 'n' roll recordings made by Virginians. The two-disc set "Virginia Rocks! The History of Rockabilly in the Commonwealth" was assembled under the auspices of the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum of Ferrum College, which is also presenting a companion exhibit on Virginia rockabilly.
Included on the "Virginia Rocks!" collection - alongside cuts by Gene Vincent, Janis Martin, Roy Clark and Patsy Cline - are a pair of Dazzlers tunes, "Gee Whiz" and "Somethin' Baby." The band is also featured in the museum exhibit. What's more, the Dazzlers are reuniting to perform next weekend at Ferrum College's Blue Ridge Folklife Festival.
Remarkably, all the original Dazzlers are living and ready to rock. Even though their musical connections subsided for many years, they remained friends.
"There were no arguments the whole time we were together ...We're just like brothers," Coates said. "And we figured one of these days we would get back together, and here we are."
The Ferrum gig won't be the band's first reunion. That happened in October of 2002 when the group's hometown of Brookneal invited The Dazzlers to play for the town's 200th birthday celebration.
"The Dazzlers - still with all their original musicians - performed on the beds of two flatbed trucks before a crowd of 5,000," explains the liner notes to "Virginia Rocks!" "It was a triumphant moment for a group of musical hometown heroes."
Music writer Don Harrison, who co-wrote the set's liner notes, said the story of The Dazzlers torpedoes one myth about the original rock 'n' roll revolution.
"There are so many cliches about rock 'n' roll and one of them is that small towns must have hated it, must have tried to ban it. But The Dazzlers turn that on its head," Harrison said. "They were asked to play all these benefits." For example, in 1958 the band played a series of Lynchburg sock hops to raise money to buy Brookville High School football uniforms.
"Instead of crying 'Danger! Danger!' folks were encouraging it," Harrison said. "It wasn't just the old cliche of the establishment coming down on rebellious rock 'n' roll. I find that fascinating."
Thinking back, Coates said his parents would have preferred he played country music, but they weren't frightened or offended by his emergence as a rock 'n' roll animal.
"They never really objected to me playing rock 'n' roll," he said. "In fact, they were proud that we were popular."
Still, after the rockabilly craze faded and a trip to Nashville failed to make him a star, his parents encouraged him to get a steady job.
Coates left The Dazzlers in 1961 to take a position at the Newport News shipyard, where he worked until retiring in 1999.
"Sometimes I regret it," Coates said, thinking back on the fleeting glories of his rock 'n' roll days. "Then again, the shipyard stabilized me a little bit. I wound up with a good job at the shipyard, so I ain't complaining. But I've always loved music."
Coates never completely left singing, playing and songwriting behind. He's penned 100 or more songs - a few of which have been recorded by bluegrass bands. He's always been eager to pick up a guitar and sing at a party or bluegrass jam session.
With the release of "Virginia Rocks!" and attention surrounding the museum exhibit, there's been talk of touring in Europe, where the love of American rockabilly still burns brightly.
"If we go to England, that's fine," Coates said. "But somebody's going to put some money in the pocket."
Overall, though, the excitement has rekindled the old rocker's imagination about what might have been.
"If we would have stuck with it and had the right kind of management, there's no telling what we could have done," Coates said.
THE 2-CD SET
What: "Virginia Rocks! The History of Rockabilly in the Commonwealth" is a collection of 61 songs recorded by Virginians in the years 1952 to 1966. Included are obscure, previously unreleased tracks by little-known artists as well as tunes by charting acts such as Gene Vincent & The Blue Caps, Roy Clark, Patsy Cline, Link Wray and Janis Martin. Two songs by The Dazzlers, "Gee Whiz" and "Somethin' Baby," are included.
Price: The set is available by mail order from The Blue Ridge Institute. Cost is $25 plus $6 shipping and handling.
More information: Call 540-365-4416 or blueridgeinstitute.orgCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun