Detroit was bustling from a Lions game that just let out, but inside the city’s U Detroit Cafe was a gritty, soulful voice – much like an amalgam of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin. Except her name is Rio Scafone, and she and her band – known collectively as Rio and the Rockabilly Revival – were making their debut this past weekend.
Even in a red polka-dotted dress, looking like Bettie Page, Scafone was pure rock ‘n’ roll and out to say that no, this – the rockabilly genre – doesn’t need to be a man’s world.
“Traditionally women steered clear of this type of music,” Scafone says. “It takes a really strong and passionate woman to sing rockabilly.”
And that she is.
“Ladies, get the attitudes going,” Rio revved before going into “The Way I Walk,” which she delivered so fiercely there didn’t need to be a pep talk; her contagious swagger was enough to get them going.
“There’s nothing like the feedback and exchange of energy,” she says. “It’s a high you can’t even imagine – there’s nothing sweeter.”
“Big, Bad, Handsome Man,” a high-energy tune that brought couples out to the dance floor to do some fancy ’50s foot work, was another favorite.
“Save my soul,” she sang – and there were few people in the bar who caught the rock ‘n’ roll holy ghost, taking them into another world far away from the cafe on Randolph.
Though she’s done theater work and starred in shows like “Detroit 187” and HBO’s “Hung,” Scafone was clearly born to sing “rockabilly,” one of the earliest styles of rock ‘n’ roll music rooted in rock and country with soul and folk influences. After all, it runs in the family – her uncle, Jack Scott, is one of the genre’s pioneers. “I’ve been singing since I was six. I’ve been at this for a long time,” she says proudly.
After several years of living on both coasts and traveling, she’s landed back in her native Detroit, by way of Royal Oak, where her uncle began it all. “I originally came back to reconnect with some of my family and in doing so met my husband,” she says. “I’m very proud to be from Detroit and have my family from here.”
Rio and the Rockabilly Revival are still preserving that raw sound that she grew up listening to – one that’s gone to the wayside in the midst of technological advancements. And staying true to the authentic sound of the 1940s and 1950s is certainly important to Rio. “We don’t use help of any kind,” she says. “Our harmonies are very complicated and it’s important that they are tight. If they aren’t dead-on, we shouldn’t be doing this.”
Which is why Scafone made sure each of her bandmates could before they grouped.
“It’s not for the weak of heart,” she says. “You either bring it or go home. The whole point is to do it old-school, the way they did it in the 1950s. There’s no Auto-Tune here.”
Rio and the Rockabilly revival also includes singers Trish Shandor and Kim Maes, guitarist Jarod Thompson, saxophone player Jumpin’ Jack Johnson and Brian Harris on drums.
Scafone and her husband Sean Eric Harris, the band’s bassist and artistic director, met via social networking after Rio ended a long-term relationship. “Oddly enough, we met on MySpace after I ended a 15-year relationship with a woman who’s my best friend,” she candidly shares. Yes, Scafone’s not just a pretty voice – she’s a proud part of the LGBT community, even if she’s not keen on labels.
“Labels are dangerous,” she says. “They make it easier to understand an artist and who they are. I have been called ‘The Female Elvis’ and I don’t mind that label. But I don’t think being bi, straight or gay should have any bearing on music.”
And it didn’t last weekend in Detroit, even as they took a break from rocking out mid-set so that the band’s ladies could come off stage and slow-dance with some adoring fans.
Once the show was over, the band settled into the upstairs greenroom, relaxing on black leather couches surrounded by music paraphernalia. They goofed around a bit and finished each other’s sentences like they’ve been together longer than three months – but they haven’t.
The chemistry was evident to Fenton radio station WCXI when Rio and her band recently performed in-studio. “They told us after the performance that there was magic in the air,” she says.
Some artists don’t even have that camaraderie after decades in the business, but Rio and the Rockabilly have more than that: undeniable musicianship, perfect harmonies and contagious energy.
Just ask the three folks in the back who were so moved by the music they caught the “spirit.”
“We try to bring a Pentecostal spirit to our show,” says Sean, “which is funny because none of us are Pentecostal.”