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Liner notes for Town Hall Party on Bear Family Records|
By Deke Dickerson, October 2004
One of the rarest country music albums ever released on a major label, the Town Hall Party soundtrack LP was always rumored to exist but was rarely if ever seen outside collectors' circles. But here it is, for all to hear: a spotless reissue of the aforementioned rarity, now available in digital format!
A genuine barn-dance country-music show that was televised every Saturday night, Town Hall Party was Los Angeles's equivalent to Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. Many country and rockabilly fans believe that during the 1950s, Town Hall Party was actually better than the Opry. This album certainly makes a case for that argument.
Los Angeles might seem like a strange place for a hotbed of hillbilly and country music, but in the mid-century period there was a resounding demand for it, driven by the large numbers of transplanted Okies and other people of rural backgrounds who migrated west seeking work after World War II. Even stranger still, the south-central suburb of Compton, today known only for its rap artists and gang violence, used to be the central nervous system of hillbilly Los Angeles, and the home of Town Hall Party.
Town Hall Party started in 1951 when country music promoter William B. Wagnon Jr. decided that the West Coast needed a top-notch country music Opry-type show. He put together a cast of musicians and singers for a weekly Saturday night shindig that was originally broadcast on NBC radio, then live on KTTV television beginning around 1952. Los Angeles was home to quite a few country music programs, and Town Hall Party was not the only show of its kind. The Hometown Jamboree in El Monte, the County Barn Dance in Baldwin Park, and Cal's Corral in Long Beach were just a few of the other local Los Angeles country music television shows. However, Town Hall Party was always the biggest and the best, and the only one ever syndicated for national release (Western Ranch Party was the title of the syndicated version).
The Town Hall Band, who backed up all the guest artists, was a crack outfit led by superb multi-instrumentalist Joe Maphis. Maphis was a transplant from Maryland (via Richmond, Virginia, and Cincinnati, Ohio) who played guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and bass (among other instruments!), earning him the nickname "King of the Strings." He and his wife, Rose Lee, were also featured performers on the show and had their own contract with Columbia Records as a vocal duo, in addition to Joe's solo contract as an instrumentalist. The Town Hall Band also included Skeets McDonald on bass (he recorded for Capitol and Columbia as a vocalist -- see Bear Family's excellent Skeets boxed set), Dick Stubbs (later Marian Hall, and even later, Billy Mize) on steel guitar, blind pianist Jimmy Pruett, "Fiddlin'" Kate Warren on fiddle, and Marion "Pee Wee" Adams on drums. This group backed up many of the Town Hall artists on their various recordings, and they are playing on most of the tracks here.
Regularly featured artists on Town Hall Party included the Collins Kids (Larry and Lorrie, who also have a Bear Family boxed set), Freddie Hart, Tex Ritter, Johnny Bond, Tex Carmen, Les "Carrot Top" Anderson, Dortha Wright, and Bobby Charles. As it turns out, all of them but Ritter recorded for Columbia, which made a soundtrack LP like this possible.
Many country music legends appeared as guest artists on the show: Gene Autry, Tex Williams, Ernest Tubb, Johnny Cash, the Sons of the Pioneers, Ray Price, Jimmy Wakely, Ted Daffan, Tommy Duncan, Hank Snow, Hank Thompson, Doye O'Dell, Lefty Frizzell, Wanda Jackson, Patsy Cline, Webb Pierce, Ferlin Husky, and Carl Perkins, among others, plus dozens of lesser-known artists.
Most of the tracks on this album appear to have been recorded specifically for this project, but Columbia did draw from other sources as well. At least two of the tracks by Joe Maphis had already been released as Columbia singles. One song by Tex Ritter was licensed from Capitol Records. "Wait for the Light to Shine" features the entire cast in a group sing-a-long.
Note to collectors: Some of the tracks have not been reissued anywhere else. Freddie Hart's "Lonesome Love" was recorded specifically for this LP and doesn't appear on his recent Bear Family collection. Jinks "Tex" Carman's "Every Minute Seems a Million Years" appears to be the only track he ever recorded for Columbia, and if you're a Tex Carman completist, this track is not found on any of the three Bear Family compilation CDs. The tracks by Dortha Wright, Les "Carrot Top" Anderson, and Bobby Charles were also recorded specifically for this project and have not been reissued anywhere else. The version of "Oklahoma Waltz" by Johnny Bond is a re-cut of his 1947 Columbia hit recording, this time featuring the Town Hall band.
One of the most appealing aspects of the original soundtrack album was the stunning full-color cover showcasing the entire cast in their finest western duds. In addition to showing off the various vibrant Nathan Turk and Nudie outfits, it also featured the great Mosrite custom doubleneck guitars played by Joe Maphis and Larry Collins. One could certainly make the claim, from viewing this album cover, that the West Coast country music scene was every bit as colorful and exciting as the Nashville scene, if not more so! (Interestingly, Fiddlin' Kate Warren was incorrectly listed on the cover as Dortha Wright, who is not in the photograph.)
As great as this soundtrack album was, visually and musically, it sold poorly, probably because its target audience was largely limited to the Southern California region. Original copies are very rare and command collectors' prices, so thankfully we now have this great reissue CD for all to hear. We hope you enjoy it!
Liner notes for Davie Allan and the Arrows' Blues Theme on Sundazed Records|
By Deke Dickerson, January 2005
Some of the most interesting records in the history of rock and roll were the ones that straddled the fence -- with one foot in a preceding era and one foot in a new, uncharted direction. Think about Bill Haley and the Comets making "rock and roll" records in 1953 with a steel guitar and accordion, or for that matter the Beatles' embryonic Liverpool and Hamburg days playing hits from the 1950s with a faster, louder beat that ushered in a new era.
In much the same way, Davie Allan and the Arrows' classic 1967 LP Blues Theme straddled the fence between the earlier surf and twang days of the Ventures on one side and the long-haired biker grunge rock of the late-1960s flower-power generation on the other. Frozen in a classic moment in time, when hippies were on the front page of the newspapers but the general public still wore buzz cuts and bouffants, the fuzz-drenched instrumental rock of Davie Allan and the Arrows must have seemed as dangerous as a gang of outlaw bikers coming over the hill.
"Blues Theme" was a monster hit in the spring of 1967, reaching the Top 5 all around the West Coast and #37 on Billboard. The song had been cut as a quickie for the movie The Wild Angels (Peter Fonda's biker flick that came shortly before Easy Rider) but soon found a life of its own as a hit single and title track for Davie's second long-player.
The history of Davie Allan and his producer/cohort Mike Curb has been well documented in the first installment of this reissue series by Stephen McParland, but we'll touch on the important facts again here. Davie and Mike Curb both attended Grant High School in Van Nuys, a suburb of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. They met in the school choir but discovered that they both had a love for rock and roll; Davie was a wunderkind on the electric guitar and Mike Curb was a piano player and entrepreneur of the highest order. Soon the two began collaborating, which led to a string of great but obscure surf instrumentals released under such names as the Heyburners, Mike Curb and the Curbstones, the Zanies, and many others.
Eventually Curb released "War Path" / "Beyond the Blue" under Davie Allan's name on the Cude label, but it wasn't until "Apache '65" b/w "Blue Guitar" was released in late 1964 on Curb's Sidewalk label that the famous nom de plume "The Arrows Featuring Davie Allan" appeared. Originally the band name was derived as a way to capitalize on the Indian motif of "Apache '65," but the name stuck and would serve Davie for the rest of his career.
The next few years would see Davie Allan and Mike Curb collaborating on a staggering number of records, film soundtracks, and side projects. There were so many sessions (and multiple uses for the same backing tracks, in many cases) that discographers are just now beginning to fully unravel the extent of this highly productive period of creativity.
Davie's first self-credited album (released as The Arrows Featuring Davie Allan) was Apache '65, released on the Tower label in 1965. It was a great collection of clean-sounding surf guitar instrumentals, concentrating heavily on the Indian theme. Some of its tracks ("Tee Pee," "Tomahawk," "Indian Giver") wouldn't pass the PC-censors today.
What followed in the next few years was a near-complete transformation of Davie's sound – and, for that matter, the music business in general. The Beatles hit the American record market like a hurricane, wiping out all surf instrumentals in their path. At the movie theaters, the Beach Party series starring Frankie and Annette was no longer in fashion, and a new breed of films emerged that documented (and exploited) the new juvenile-delinquent-hippie-biker-drug scene on the West Coast. Mike Curb and his crew at Sidewalk Productions were there with their fingers on the pulse of this emerging genre of films, and over the next five years they would produce over twenty soundtrack albums with Davie's musical involvement.
There were in fact eight soundtrack albums issued before Davie's second self-titled LP, Blues Theme, was issued in 1967 on Tower Records. Listening to the soundtrack albums, one can hear Davie and his crew transform from a squeaky-clean surf group into an angry bunch of outlaw malcontents over the course of only two years!
In retrospect, Davie Allan and the Arrows were the only group besides the Ventures to survive the British Invasion and the Hippie Movement and continue producing guitar instrumental music through the late 1960s. Both groups had to adapt to the changing times, and interestingly enough both groups learned to use and love a new electronic gizmo called a fuzztone.
Distorted guitar was nothing new, dating back to the '40s when blues and western swing guitar players had to turn their small amps up all the way to compete with horn sections and drummers. Link Wray is generally credited with being the first to intentionally make a fuzz effect by punching holes in his guitar amp's speakers, creating the overdriven effect heard on his landmark instrumental hit "Rumble." Similarly, Paul Burlison of Johnny Burnette's Rock 'n' Roll Trio had a wildly distorted sound on the influential rockabilly obscurity "Train Kept A-Rollin'," which was caused by an amp malfunctioning from a loose tube.
However, the first fuzztone as we know it today was created accidentally by Nashville engineer Glen Snoddy during a 1961 Marty Robbins session. As Robbins was cutting "Don't Worry," one of the preamps on the recording mixing console began to malfunction and create a unique, fuzzy, distorted tone. Guitarist Grady Martin saw its commercial potential and used the effect on the record, which became a hit. After that artists clamored for the special effect for use on their records until Snoddy built a stand-alone solid-state battery-powered pedal unit and marketed it to Gibson. This unit became the first commercially available fuzz, known as the Maestro Fuzz-Tone.
Soon "fuzz" was the order of the day, with companies like Vox and Fender making their own version of the effect. Perhaps the wildest fuzz of the era, however, was the infamous Mosrite FuzzRite pedal, which created a very compressed, psychedelic-sounding fuzz that was perfect for the new "freakout" music. Both the Ventures (who co-owned Mosrite and had a hugely successful line of Mosrite Ventures model guitars) and Davie Allan used the FuzzRite pedal, and that's the sound you hear all over these recordings.
Davie was still using his surf equipment, namely his Fender Jazzmaster guitar and Fender Concert amp, when he borrowed a Mosrite FuzzRite from a friend for "Blues Theme." After the wild new sound was committed to tape, there was no turning back, and even today Davie Allan carries the title King of the Fuzz Guitar. It's a totally unique sound, one that is instantly recognizable as Davie Allan and nobody else. (It should be noted here that even though Davie and the Arrows are pictured on the cover holding Mosrites -- including Davie's famous doubleneck -- the entire Blues Theme album was recorded with the Fender Jazzmaster and the FuzzRite pedal!!)
The song "Blues Theme" was recorded quickly, in mono only, to meet a production deadline for the movie The Wild Angels, where it was used in Peter Fonda's introductory scene. In fact, the motorcycle sound effects spliced onto the record are actually from Peter Fonda's Harley Davidson! Soon the hit potential of the song was realized, and it was released as a 45, and then as the title track for Davie's second album. Since it was recorded so quickly, however, a stereo version never existed.
The most important thing to remember when approaching the Blues Theme album (or any of Davie's other records from the '60s) is that none of them were planned as albums. They were made up of many sessions, some released as 45-rpm singles (the prevailing format of the day) and some as soundtrack recordings. To make things even more confusing, some tracks were used on soundtrack albums, then new guitar solos (and in some cases, vocals) were overdubbed to create "new" songs. In that light, the Blues Theme album is quite an interesting hodgepodge.
"Blues Theme" was released first as a Tower single, and then subsequently re-released on the album of the same name. "Theme from the Wild Angels" was also released as a single, but not before being used on the Wild Angels soundtrack LP. "King Fuzz" was an instrumental remake of a Harley Hatcher vocal originally called "The Twirl" (and subsequently reused as "Mario's World" on the Albert Peckingpaw's Revenge soundtrack LP). "Theme from the Unknown" was released several times previously under different names ("U.F.O.," "The Dark Alley") before making it to the Blues Theme LP under its original title. "Fuzz Theme" was retitled "The Young World" for the Teenage Rebellion soundtrack LP, then released under its original title on the Blues Theme LP. "Action on the Street" was originally called "Make Love Not War" on the Teenage Rebellion soundtrack LP, then overdubbed with a second solo and renamed for the Blues Theme LP. "William Tell '67" was recorded in 1965 and originally intended for the Apache '65 album, but it lay in the can for two years before being included on Blues Theme. The remainder of the tracks, "Ghost Riders in the Sky," "Theme from Thunderball," and "Sorry 'bout That" (the latter written around Don Adams's catchphrase on the Get Smart television show) were miscellaneous songs that had not been used before. Confused yet? If not, then please note that "Blues Theme" was released (misspelled) as "Blue's Theme" on the 45 credits, but listed as "Blues Theme" on the LP. Got it now? If not, don't worry... The Davie Allan, Mike Curb, and Harley Hatcher discography is a twisted tale that confuses even seasoned researchers of the genre.
The musicians that appeared on the Blues Theme album alongside Davie were Drew Bennett and Larry Brown, with Jared Hendler on keyboards. Wayne "Mickey Mouse" Allwine and Don Manning joined the group soon after when Larry Brown quit playing to concentrate on recording and producing.
One last interesting aspect of the sound and character of the Blues Theme album concerns the studio and recording engineer. All of the Davie Allan recordings were done at American Recording Studios with a young Richie Podolor behind the glass. Podolor was a hotshot producer and engineer who had started making rockabilly records in the late 1950s (under the name Dickie Podolor), then began recording such landmark hits as "Let There Be Drums" by Sandy Nelson. Under another assumed name (Ritchie Allen), Podolor released several dozen of the best surf instrumentals of the day on Imperial Records before finally giving up as an artist and concentrating on running his recording studio. As an engineer and producer he is responsible for many legendary recordings by the Standells, the Chocolate Watch Band, Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly, Alice Cooper, Three Dog Night, and the heavy metal band Alcatrazz (yikes!)!
In short, everything that Podolor touched had a distinctive sound to it. With one of the first Ampex four-track machines in Los Angeles, he had overdubbing capabilities in the mid-1960s that were years out of reach for most other studios. His famous comment was: "Give me a Neumann U47 [microphone] and an Electro-Voice 666 [microphone] and I'll go make a hit!" Given his track record, it would be hard to deny that statement!
Listen to the Blues Theme album and you'll hear the transformation of instrumental music from one era to the next. From the pure Nokie Edwards-styled twangy guitar picking of "Theme from the Unknown" and "Ghost Riders in the Sky" to the far-out psychedelic sounds of "Action on the Street" and that career-defining track "Blues Theme," Davie Allan took the instrumental surf-guitar genre and carved his own niche. That much can never be denied him. Viva la FUZZ!
(With thanks to Davie Allan and Garrett Immel)
Liner notes for Frettin' Fingers: The Lightning Guitar of Jimmy Bryant on Sundazed Records|
By Deke Dickerson, August 2003
Just remember: IT'S ALL IN THE HANDS. Jimmy Bryant could take a hollow log with barbed wire attached and make it sound great. That being said, let's examine some of the equipment that gave him his signature tones.
When Jimmy first moved to Los Angeles in the late '40s, he was playing a hollowbody Gibson Super 400 with a floating DeArmond pickup. This is probably the guitar heard on some of the early session work such as "Wild Card" by Tex Williams.
It wasn't long, however, before Bryant hooked up with Leo Fender, and as early as 1950 or 1951 he became one of the original endorsers of the new Fender Telecaster solidbody guitar. Jimmy had several Broadcasters and Telecasters during the 1950s, including a very early prototype model -- a customized Tele that was hollowed out from the back (the origin of the hollow Telecaster Thinline produced in the '60s -- and a white pickguard model with a custom pickguard that had Jimmy's name emblazoned in rope lettering. Jimmy did not seem to be picky about amps, but mostly he paired the Telecaster with a matching tweed Fender Pro amp that had a fifteen-inch field coil speaker. The Telecaster and the Pro amp appear on virtually all of his classic Capitol recordings.
Except, of course, for the infamous Stratosphere Twin doubleneck guitar that he used on "Stratosphere Boogie" and "Deep Water." This was a bizarre instrument produced in Springfield, Missouri, that had one standard six-string neck and one neck with twelve strings tuned in minor and major thirds -- a totally nonstandard tuning that was intended to enable guitarists to play twin-guitar harmony with just one guitar. The alternate tuning, however, made it so difficult to play that it never caught on. Jimmy Bryant was one of only a couple of guitarists who mastered the unusual code of the Stratosphere Twin.
Jimmy had apparently been promised that the new Fender guitar Leo was working on would be called the Jimmy Bryant model. When it was unveiled in 1954 as the Stratocaster, Jimmy was furious and started feeling generally unhappy with Fender (though there is a picture of him holding a brand new 1958 Jazzmaster). This is a little strange considering that Speedy West went on to become a Fender employee, working as a distributor in Tulsa throughout the '60s.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jimmy began trading guitar endorsements like bubblegum cards. First he went with Rickenbacker, where he played a hollowbody electric model 375F. It's probably the Rickenbacker heard on "Ha-So" and "Tobacco Worm." Jimmy performs "Ha-So" while playing the Rickenbacker in the movie The Skydivers.
After Rickenbacker, Jimmy became an endorser of Magnatone guitars. Magnatone was a Los Angeles company famous for making amps, and Jimmy was indeed the only name artist who ever endorsed Magnatone. Several of their guitar models appear on the album covers for Play Guitar with Jimmy Bryant on Dolton Records and Bryant's Back in Town, Laughing Guitar, Crying Guitar, and We Are Young on Imperial Records.
Never content for long with one maker, Jimmy moved on to Vox, another L.A.-based company (Vox had just been purchased by Thomas Organ, located in the San Fernando Valley, where Jimmy lived). Although Jimmy used Vox guitars for about ten minutes, he is very famously pictured on the cover of the Imperial album Fastest Guitar in the Country next to the George Barris custom car the Voxmobile. The picture was so striking that to this day many people believe the "guitar car" belonged to Jimmy.
Later in the '60s Jimmy was seen with several other makes of guitars, including Mosrite and Guild, but he eventually settled on a Gibson ES-355 for the rest of his career. It's this guitar that we hear on the albums For the Last Time and Jimmy Bryant and Les Paul Suntide Desert Jam.
Fittingly, when a benefit was thrown for Jimmy at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood on August 27, 1979, someone found a Fender Telecaster for him to play, bringing him full circle to where he had begun his solo career almost thirty years earlier. It was a touching moment for a man who meant so much to the development of the electric guitar.
Liner notes for the Freddie Hart boxed set Juke Joint Boogie on Bear Family Records|
By Deke Dickerson, April 2004
Freddie Hart will always be remembered in the annals of Country Music for his runaway 1971 number-one hit "Easy Loving." In fact, most biographies of Freddie begin with that song and detail the many accomplishments that came after that: the eleven number-one hits he penned, the numerous top-forty country hits that lasted until the late 1980s, the many Grand Ole Opry appearances.
But what most biographers fail to mention is that Freddie had one of the longest and most arduous climbs to the top of any country music star in history, having begun his recording career almost twenty years earlier. Dozens of fine and deserving hillbilly, rockabilly and stone country singles and albums were issued before Freddie would have a major hit, a fact that remains like an old bruise with Freddie to this day.
When told that the compilation I was interviewing him for was a collection of his early Capitol and Columbia sides from the 1950s and early 1960s, Freddie's comment was, "Son, I don't believe anybody remembers those records." It took quite a bit of explaining that there were indeed a lot of collectors and fans out there who really liked these recordings, but the pain on Freddie's face told of the struggle and disappointment that those early years must have held for him. Hopefully this compilation will dispel illusions that these records, simply because they were not huge hits, weren't some of the best hillbilly boogie and hard-core country discs to emerge from the West Coast in those formative years.
To understand the roots of Freddie Hart's music, it is imperative to understand the roots of the man himself. His personal story reads like a tale by Faulkner, from its grim Southern Gothic beginnings to its hard-earned chart-topping success story.
Freddie Hart was born Fred Segrest on December 21, 1926, in the small town of Loachapoka, Alabama. The town of Loachapoka is a short drive from Auburn, where wealthy, old-money southern kids go to earn college degrees and train for the good ol' boys' country club. But even though they are close geographically, in culture and class Loachapoka might as well have been on another planet. Loachapoka is an Indian name that means "the place where turtles are killed." The town's largest social event is the annual "Syrup Soppin' Day." To this day it remains a place where the only way to get by is through hard, manual labor.
Freddie grew up as poor as dirt, in a family of ten boys and five girls ("Our outhouse had three holes," he recalls), working in the fields mostly as sharecroppers, picking cotton and doing whatever other kinds of labor they could find to put food on the table. It was a hard life, but Freddie has many good early memories of the family singing and playing music together and listening to the Grand Ole Opry every week on their battery-powered radio. As with many southern families, music played a large role in easing the burdens of everyday life, and Freddie began playing the guitar at the tender age of five, at first using a guitar fashioned from a cigar box and wire from a Model T car.
Freddie admits he was the "black sheep" of the Segrest family, having run away from home at the age of seven. When he was twelve his parents enlisted him in the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). This was a Roosevelt-sponsored program initiated in the Great Depression that took in idle young boys (read: juvenile delinquents whose parents could not control them) to help reforest the land and labor in civil rebuilding projects. Freddie went willingly because "at least in the CCC Camps I'd have enough to eat," something that wasn't guaranteed at home. It was a rough-and-tumble year for the youngster, living in faraway camps for months at a time. If he didn't know how to fight before he went in, he came out a man ready to take on the world.
When Freddie returned from his yearlong stint with the CCC, he found it hard to readjust to farm life. Having never owned a new item of clothing, and tired of threadbare hand-me-downs, Freddie recalls seeing an enlistment poster for the Marines and thinking that he wanted a sharp blue suit, just like the one on the officer in the picture. He was only fourteen years old, but his parents agreed to lie about their son's age in order to help him enlist, just in time for World War II. The great irony is Freddie spent his entire time in the service wearing green battle fatigues, never getting to see himself in the tailored blue suit that had prompted him to enlist.
Freddie shipped out to fight in the Pacific, and he spent three years and five months serving in Guam and Iwo Jima. Although he must have seen some bloody front-line action, Freddie doesn't like talking about it, and he has mostly fond memories of his experiences in the Armed Services. He recalls playing guitar and singing with his fellow enlisted men, playing in front of an audience for the first time, doing gigs at officers' clubs at night. He also used his time in the Pacific to learn martial arts, becoming a black belt in both jujitsu and judo.
Like many young men returning from the war, Freddie came back to Alabama in 1946 and found life there too boring to endure. The next few years found him drifting throughout the South doing every odd job known to man, all the while trying to find opportunities in the music world.
One particular incident appears to have offered Freddie the inner strength to keep his dream alive. In Ken Burke's book Country Music Changed My Life, Freddie relates a particularly gruesome story about being falsely accused of rape in Longview, Texas. At this time Freddie was stocking beers and Cokes and living in a small trailer behind a bar, where they would occasionally bring him in to sing a few songs. After a fourteen-year-old girl was brutally raped and beaten, Freddie was taken in by the local police and subjected to beatings and humiliation that would rival a scene from Cool Hand Luke. He was nearly beaten to death by the corrupt police chief until eventually his innocence was established and he was released.
When the judge released him from jail, Freddie promptly tracked down the police chief at home and beat the hell out of him. Amazingly, this was with the judge's approval! It was Texas in the late 1940s, after all. Flooded with relief after escaping this brush with death, Freddie was reborn with an inner strength that would sustain him through the tough times in his career. Oddly enough, several years later, in the early 1950s, he taught martial arts at the Los Angeles Police Academy, which must have felt like poetic justice.
Determined to make something of himself in country music, Freddie tried breaking into the Nashville establishment. He hitchhiked many times to Nashville, with little success at first. His attempts to find somebody interested in his talents met with complete indifference. But he did eventually encounter someone who would help his songwriting and professional outlook: Hank Williams.
As Freddie relates the story, Hank Williams imparted a secret of successful songwriting that Freddie now refers to as "setting people to music." Hank told him that people related to the common man, and stories of everyday life and living. Though the advice was simple, it was brutally honest, and Freddie took it to heart. He began writing original songs and trying to pitch them to anyone who would listen.
By this time, Freddie had married his second wife, who was from Newport, Arkansas. Through mutual acquaintance he was introduced to Wayne Raney, who lived nearby in Wolf Bayou.
Wayne Raney was a legendary figure throughout the rural South. He was most famous for his country harmonica playing, both on his own records and with the Delmore Brothers. One of the originators of the hillbilly boogie sound, he was at the height of his fame in the late 1940s, having scored big with his signature song "Why Don't You Haul Off and Love Me" in 1949.
Freddie managed to meet with Raney and audition some of his original songs. Raney liked Freddie's songwriting, and in fact he would later record Freddie's "Gone with the Wind This Mornin'" for King Records. At the time, Raney took some of Freddie's songs to Nashville, eventually pitching "Every Little Thing Rolled Into One" to George Morgan.
Freddie worked a string of odd jobs, doing everything from working in the oil fields to being a short-order cook, until fate took him westward. He set out for California but found himself at a Cottonseed oil mill in Phoenix, Arizona. He got laid off due to a strike and things weren't looking good for him, but when he saw that Lefty Frizzell (essential listening: Bear Family's Lefty Frizzell Life's Like Poetry boxed set) was going to be playing at the Riverside Ballroom, he thought it might be a good opportunity to pitch some songs. He knew his old buddy Wayne Raney was good friends with Lefty, having toured as Lefty's harmonica player, and he decided to introduce himself to the nation's top country singing star. (At the time of this show, Lefty had an unprecedented four songs in the top ten.)
Freddie found out that Lefty was staying at the Adams hotel in downtown Phoenix, and so he called up to Lefty's room and dropped Raney's name as a mutual acquaintance. Lefty replied that any friend of Raney's was a friend of his, and invited him up to the room. When Freddie got to the hotel, both Lefty and his booking agent Steve Stebbins were there.
Lefty remembered who Freddie was, informing Freddie that he had wanted to do "Every Little Thing Rolled Into One" but that George Morgan had gotten it first. Lefty asked him to sing a few tunes, and he was impressed with what he heard.
Later that night, after the show, Lefty asked Freddie if he would be interested in going on tour with him, more or less as a "roadie" even though that term hadn't been invented yet. Freddie leapt at the chance and immediately hit the road with Lefty's entourage. Soon Lefty and Freddie were inseparable buddies and Freddie was added to the show, acting as an M.C. but also singing his own songs as well as harmonies with Lefty.
Although Lefty was the top singing star in the nation, he was hell bent on a path of self-destruction, mostly due to his rampant alcoholism. As a result, there were many nights when Freddie was called upon to kill time while Lefty sat backstage drinking coffee and trying to sober up enough to do the show. It was a quick learning experience for Freddie to have to fill so many different roles, and he became a quick study on how to read and finesse an audience.
His experience with Lefty also gave him his first tangible break into the music industry. Lefty's booking agent Steve Stebbins signed Freddie to a five-year booking contract with his Americana company. Lefty took Freddie down to Nudie's and helped him get his first flashy western suit. And last but not least, when Lefty's group relocated to Los Angeles they hooked up with Cliffie Stone and his Hometown Jamboree television show. As a result, Lefty was able to get Freddie a recording contract of his very own with Capitol Records.
Back in those days, signing with a major label like Capitol did not mean what it does today. There were no million-dollar advances, no tour buses, no full-page ads in the trade papers. On June 8, 1953, Freddie was simply allowed to record at the tail end of a Hank Thompson session at the old Capitol studio on Melrose using Hank's band to back him up. Musicians included Billy Gray on guitar and "Pee Wee" Whitewing on steel guitar, both venerable members of the Brazos Valley Boys.
In the space of an hour, Freddie cut four songs, which became his first two singles on Capitol. It is interesting to note that for this first session, Freddie didn't do any of his original songs. The excellent Tommy Collins song "Whole Hog or None" is included here.
By this time, Freddie Segrest had found a new stage name. After going by several names, including Fred Waynard, his new agent Steve Stebbins suggested Freddie Hart, utilizing his grandmother-in-law's maiden name. The name instantly stuck, and his first Capitol record listed Freddie Hart as the artist. He would never have to use another stage name for the rest of his life -- it was a great pseudonym for a country singer.
It was a humble start, but Capitol producer and A&R man Ken Nelson had faith in the young singer. Sales of the first two singles were minimal, but Nelson brought him back in the studio six months later to cut four more songs, this time with Hollywood A-list session musicians and players from Hometown Jamboree.
This session yielded Freddie's next single, "Loose Talk." In addition, two excellent hillbilly boogie songs were recorded but not released at the time: "Juke Joint Boogie" and "Heart Trouble." These two songs appeared in fake stereo on budget cash-in LPs in the 1970s, but we can hear them here for the first time in pure, unadulterated mono, straight from the masters.
"Loose Talk," one of Freddie's compositions, became his first successful record, reaching the lower rungs of the country charts. Carl Smith covered it on Columbia Records and took it all the way to number one in 1955. Freddie's reputation as a hit-making songwriter was now cemented in place.
"Loose Talk" wound up having a life of its own, having been covered over fifty times. It even achieved the unlikely feat of being a top-ten hit twice, when Buck Owens and Rose Maddox covered it in 1961 and took it to number four.
The success of "Loose Talk" gave Freddie a reputation in the country music world that was very similar to the early career of Willie Nelson: It was said that he could write hit songs for other people but couldn't buy a hit with his own recordings. Freddie wrote songs for Porter Wagoner, George Jones, Patsy Cline, Billy Walker, and his old pal Lefty Frizzell among many others, but none of his own recordings made much chart impact. It was a stigma that would haunt Freddie for over a decade, but, as he recalls, it didn't bother him because the mailbox money was showing up every month and songwriters kept clamoring for his tunes.
Freddie did three more sessions for Capitol in 1954 and 1955, which yielded five more unsuccessful singles. Even though they were great West Coast country records ("From Canada to Tennessee" is an excellent example included here), all featuring cream-of-the-crop West Coast sidemen, none of them made the charts.
Ken Nelson, faced with a dilemma but having faith in Freddie, then decided to do what no A&R man has ever done before or since. He had a meeting with Freddie and told him that he just couldn't get a hit for him, as much as he had tried, and as a result he thought that a different approach was needed to get Freddie the hit he was seeking. Nelson then told Freddie that he was going to call up Don Law from Columbia Records and let him have his contract.
There's more! Download the entire liner notes as a Word document.
A technical appreciation for Gene Vincent's recordings, for the boxed set The Road Is Rocky on Bear Family Records|
By Deke Dickerson, 2004
Fans have long admired the technical excellence of Gene Vincent's recordings, especially the Capitol albums from 1956 to 1962. But besides the fact that they are great-sounding records with amazing musicianship, the documentation and details of how these recordings came about have been somewhat shrouded in mystery, and what little has been written about them has been plagued with false facts and inaccurate modern views toward old-school techniques of making records. This addition to the Vincent boxed set is for those who yearn to know more about these recordings, and who thirst for more technical information about how these great rock and roll records were made.
The most important thing about understanding early rock and roll is knowing that all the recordings were done live in the studio, with no overdubs. This means the entire band was playing live in a room with Gene singing at the same time in the same room. Unlike today, where recordings are done one instrument at a time on multitrack recorders and mixed later on, these records were made on an extremely limited time schedule and then mixed on the spot to glorious mono by the producer. The first five Vincent albums were mono only; only the sixth LP, Crazy Times, was issued in both stereo and mono, and the last Capitol LP, Crazy Beat was a UK-only release available in mono only. Understanding this fact makes one realize just how incredibly talented the musicians and recording engineers were -- these are still some of the best-sounding records of all time!
"Mono" has often been understood to mean "low fidelity," and nothing could be farther from the truth. Mono simply means that there is only one channel representing the sound. A popular term in the 1950s was "high fidelity," which meant that the recording was of a high-standard, mono, source. When stereo came into use in the late 1950s it was intended to represent a binaural, three-dimensional, realistic picture of the sound spectrum, much like the human ears hear naturally. In reality, few understood true stereo then or now, but it was a great gimmick for the electronics stores to sell two amplifiers and two speakers with each turntable, thus doubling their profits (shades of today's "latest gimmick" mentality). The term stereo was soon hijacked, however, and a realistic binaural three-dimensional representation was abandoned by most recording engineers (save for a few jazz purists, like Rudy Van Gelder, who continued to record incredible stereo imaging on his LPs for Blue Note) in favor of goofy "ping-pong" stereo effects and gimmicky stereo panning: for example, guitar only in the left speaker, and vocals only in the right speaker. In this regard, many of the transitional records from 1958-66 actually sound much better in mono than they do with these artificial-sounding stereo mixes. Knowing these general facts, one should appreciate that the mono Gene Vincent records represent the very best in 1950s recording quality, and that the term mono in and of itself does not mean anything in terms of fidelity.
Gene's first two albums and his first batch of singles were recorded at the famed Owen Bradley studios in Nashville, Tennessee. The correct name for the studio located at 1804 16th Avenue South was Bradley Film and Recording Studios, not to be confused with Owen Bradley's later Quonset Hut (located in an actual Quonset hut set behind the original studio house) and Bradley's Barn (built in the early 1960s, outside the Nashville city limits, and the only studio of the three that still exists today), which have been incorrectly listed in other liner notes as the studios in which Gene cut his early recordings.
The original 16th Avenue studio was in a two-story house that Owen Bradley had converted into a recording studio by removing the floor from the first story, thus creating a sunken studio with a high ceiling in the basement. There was a long stairway leading down to the recording floor, and behind it were a bathroom and a utility room, the latter of which was converted into a small echo chamber.
1956 recording technology was primitive by today's standards, but much of the equipment that Owen Bradley used was state-of-the-art at the time. In fact, fifty years later, that type of gear is still highly sought out for use in today's digital studios, because those microphones, preamps, compressors, etc. are acknowledged to be some of the finest of their kind ever made.
Bradley used Ampex 300 and 350 tape recorders (a 300 for the master recorder and a 350 for tape echo) along with a custom-made mono mixing console. He didn't switch to his famous three-track recorder and three-buss mixing board until about 1958. The most obvious effect on the Gene Vincent recordings is the liberal amount of slap-back tape echo on Gene's voice and Cliff Gallup's guitar. Bradley and engineer Mort Thomasson's obvious affection for slap-back tape echo can be heard throughout, especially on tracks like "Catman," where the echo on the guitar is louder than the original signal, a great defining effect that has been imitated by rockabilly bands ever since. There is obviously compression and limiting on these tracks, but it is unknown whether or not Bradley had a compressor in his studio or if this was added during the mastering phase. The only other effect Bradley used was reverb, which came from the small echo chamber in the utility room by the stairs. This short, unusual reverb is the distinctive sound heard on Dickie Harrell's snare drum. Bradley used utilitarian RCA 77 and 44 ribbon microphones on the guitar amp and upright bass and rhythm guitar, but he used exotic (for the time -- Bradley was among the first to obtain them in the U.S.) German condenser microphones made by Schoeps and Neumann for the vocals and drums. (It's possible that at this time, Bradley was also using an Altec M-11 condenser microphone for the drums.) It should be noted that some of the promotional photos shot during the first session were set up by Capitol producer Ken Nelson, especially the one showing Gene singing three or four feet away from an RCA microphone with the Capitol logo on the front. Anyone who has ever used an RCA ribbon microphone knows that you wouldn't hear much from a vocal recorded that far away, and anyone with a technical ear can also plainly hear that Gene is singing into a condenser microphone. So beware of false impressions based on the Capitol promotional photos!
When Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps came into Bradley's studio in May of 1956, they were among the first rock and roll acts, but Owen Bradley had previously recorded several early rockabilly sessions for Roy Hall (September '55), Jimmy and Johnny (December '55), Buddy Holly (January '56), Johnny Horton (January '56), Bobby Helms (April '56), and Johnny Carroll (April '56). It was apparently Johnny Carroll's suggestion to Bradley that he use exaggerated amounts of slap-back tape echo, though there was already quite a bit of the slap-back echo in evidence on the January '56 Buddy Holly session (which yielded "Love Me" and "Blue Days, Black Nights"). Engineer Mort Thomasson devised the setup for the slap-back tape echo, which producer Bradley used with glee. He continued using slap-back echo on such rockabilly acts as the Johnny Burnette Trio and many others, helping define the rockabilly sound more than anybody else besides Sam Phillips.
An interesting footnote about the echo: The first session that Gene did at Bradley's was recorded dry (no echo), with tape echo added later to the entire mix (unlike today, they had no post-session mixing capabilities). The original dry tape surfaced recently and is included here, and it's very interesting to hear the difference! By the time Gene and the Blue Caps returned for their next session, Mort Thomasson had devised a more controlled method of utilizing slap-back echo only on certain instruments through the use of a second slap-back echo machine placed directly next to the master recorder (more on this below).
Unlike Sam Phillips, Owen Bradley almost always used his A-team of session musicians, a group of the best players in the world that included Grady Martin and Hank Garland on lead guitars, Harold Bradley (Owen's brother) on rhythm guitar, Bob Moore on bass, and Buddy Harman on drums (among others, but these five men represented the nucleus). They were called to the studio for the first Gene Vincent session, but after hearing the Blue Caps play (especially Cliff Gallup's lead guitar work), Owen Bradley and Capitol producer Ken Nelson agreed that this time, Gene's band should be on the session. It should be noted that not even Johnny Horton and the Johnny Burnette Trio were afforded this courtesy, and their recordings were augmented with studio musicians. In fact, to my knowledge, Owen Bradley never recorded any other rock and roll act without help from the session men.
Using Gene's band was not without problems, however. Harold Bradley recalls that young Dickie Harrell hit the drums so hard, it was the first time they ever needed to use baffles (room dividers) at the studio! In addition, Gene sang quietly, so in order to avoid leakage from the loud drums into Gene's vocal microphone, Bradley kept moving Gene further away from the drums until eventually he was singing behind the staircase, out of view of the rest of the musicians! This is also why on the first session, before they could sort out the baffles, Dickie Harrell used brushes instead of sticks to tone down the volume. It's funny to think about in the context of today's loud rock music, but this was the dawn of rock and roll recording and there was a lot of trial and error.
For many Gene Vincent fans, there are two distinct "sounds" of his recordings: the era with Cliff Gallup on lead guitar, and the era with Johnny Meeks on lead guitar. These two eras also fit neatly into the recording history, since Cliff Gallup recorded only at the Nashville Owen Bradley studio, and Johnny Meeks only recorded at the Hollywood Capitol Tower studio.
Cliff Gallup's sound was defined by several key elements. First and foremost, he was a musician of staggering technical proficiency. He obviously listened to a lot of Les Paul and George Barnes, and he stated in his only interview that he was a fan of Chet Atkins but had a style that was all his own. His jazzy runs complemented Gene's style, not only on the fast songs, but also on the ballads. It is safe to say that Cliff Gallup's lead guitar work has influenced every aspiring rockabilly guitar player since. However, if you've heard him playing live on the Alan Freed show recording, the tone of which was completely different, it is also obvious that the choices of the producers and engineers who recorded him also heavily influenced the sound of Gene's records.
Cliff played a Gretsch Duo-Jet guitar with DeArmond pickups. It was a cheaper imitation of the black Gibson Les Paul Custom Black Beauty, and Cliff bought the guitar to have an instrument similar to that of his idol, Les Paul. The DeArmond pickups in particular gave a distinctive, clear, ringing tone, and they figured heavily into his sound. Cliff later recalled that he played a Standel amp at Bradley's studio, but if studio pictures are to be believed, he was actually playing a Tweed Fender Pro amplifier, which had been modified with a JBL fifteen-inch speaker to replace the stock Jensen. It is possible that Chet Atkins's Standel amp was in Bradley's studio for one or more of the sessions, but the only picture we have of Cliff in the studio plainly shows the tweed Pro with an RCA microphone in front of it. Regardless, the two amps both had JBL fifteen-inch speakers, so at the low volumes involved in studio recording, they probably sounded very similar. Every bit of the tape echo heard on the guitar tracks came from Bradley's control room, utilizing the Ampex tape recorders. This was before the era of stand-alone guitar effects; with the exception of the 1955 Echo-Sonic amp, which had a built in tape echo, external tape echoes were not available until the release of the Ecco-Fonic in 1958. On these recordings, Cliff played dry, directly into the amp, and the echo was applied in the studio's control room.
In order to clear up a few misconceptions about how Bradley used slap-back tape echo, we have to step back into a different era of recording technology. Unlike today, the mixing boards back then did not have "echo sends" for each channel. Echo was achieved by placing a second, separate microphone on each source (in Gene's case, the vocal and the guitar amp) and running those not through the main mixing board, but instead straight into the second Ampex machine, which was set on playback monitoring mode during recording to achieve a slap-back echo effect. The slap-back echo was actually an accident of design; the Ampex machine had three recording heads (erase, record, and play) situated slightly apart from each other, and when monitoring off the playback head during recording (achieved by setting the monitor knob to playback), it was slightly delayed from the real-time signal that was being recorded on the record head. This slap-back effect from the second machine was then fed back into the main mixing board on a separate channel and mixed together with the dry signals from the vocals and guitar, then finally put down on the master tape recorder with a balance of the dry signal and the echo. The reverb on the drums was achieved the same way, with a separate microphone running into the echo chamber, folded back into the mixing board as a separate channel. It was a primitive yet effective way of achieving these effects, and one with unique tonal characteristics, since there were different types of microphones being used for the dry signal and the echo signal. Among the first things that Bradley built into his famous three-track mixing console were echo sends, but before that, all sessions (including the Gene Vincent sessions) were done in the earlier, more primitive way.
One last important factor in Gene's Nashville recordings was the presence of Capitol producer Ken Nelson. Many of the pioneering techniques used during the Gene Vincent sessions -- the choice of material, and ultimately the decision to use Gene's own band -- can be attributed to the enterprising spirit of Ken Nelson. He was truly a father figure for rock and roll and was directly responsible for much of Capitol Records' success in the new genre. The great sound of Gene Vincent's Nashville recordings can largely be attributed to the amazing chemistry between Ken Nelson, Owen Bradley, and engineer Mort Thomasson, not just any one of them.
The year 1957 brought about a complete revamping of Gene's band, and Ken Nelson decided to record them in the newly constructed Capitol Tower recording studios in Hollywood, California.
Previous to recording at the Capitol Tower, Capitol's West Coast acts had been recording at a small studio on Melrose Avenue. The Melrose studio produced great results for smaller jazz and country music bands, but the honchos at Capitol wanted a larger studio for recording big bands and orchestras, so the new facilities at the Tower were rather enormous, with a technical and engineering setup specifically geared toward recording large bands.
As a result, the Capitol Tower never really got a reputation as a great rock and roll studio. Lots of great material was recorded there, from Gene Vincent to Skeets McDonald to Tommy Sands, but the classical and big band approach to making records there never produced truly great rock and roll recordings. Most historians agree that the warm sound of the Capitol Melrose studio lent itself much better to country and rockabilly. For example, compare the sound of "Shotgun Boogie" by Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded at Capitol Melrose with Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant with the later version of the same song recorded at the Capitol Tower with big band accompaniment, and you'll have a rough idea. Wanda Jackson's classic Capitol recordings were done at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood, not the Tower. In fact, the Capitol Tower had such a stodgy reputation that by the 1960s, Capitol's top acts such as the Beach Boys were using other studios because they didn't like recording there.
That said, no classical or jazzbo engineer could hold back the youthful enthusiasm of Gene Vincent and his new group of young and rowdy Blue Caps. Thankfully, some of the wildest rock and roll of the era escaped intact. Tracks like "Lotta Lovin'" and "Dance to the Bop" positively sizzle, with Johnny Meeks's great guitar work taking no back seat to Cliff Gallup, but instead leading the group in a new, original direction.
Johnny Meeks was a country musician who had played in Country Earl's band with Paul Peek back in South Carolina. Like many other country musicians of the era, he made the crossover to rock and roll easily and brought along with him a memorable and unmistakable tone. What is interesting about Johnny Meeks's recordings with Gene Vincent is that he apparently used both a Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins model guitar and a white Fender Stratocaster with little or no difference in the tone on the records! His trademark was a trebly, biting tone with lots of vibrato (whammy bar) crashes. Gene and the Blue Caps were sponsored by Fender Musical Instruments, and during this period they used Fender guitars and amps exclusively. There is one famous picture from the Capitol Tower that shows the entire band, two electric guitars and the electric bass, all plugged into one Fender Twin amplifier, but it's hard to imagine that they actually recorded in this manner!
The Capitol Tower sessions also used electric bass exclusively, and Gene would never use upright bass on record again.
Gene's sessions at the Capitol Tower were done the same way as the Bradley sessions, all recorded live at one time. Capitol used much of the same equipment as Bradley, including Ampex recorders and Neumann and RCA microphones, but the approach was completely different.
The Capitol Tower engineers barely used tape echo, which is the most notable difference between the Nashville and Los Angeles recordings. There were ample amounts of reverb, courtesy of Capitol's huge live echo chamber. However, the long reverberation time of the Capitol chambers did not lend itself well to rock and roll music, as they had been designed for classical and big band music. The Capitol Tower used a lot more compression than Owen Bradley, resulting in a "thick" sound, which sometimes bordered on the unnatural (most notably the saxophones, which ended up sounding like kazoos!). Nevertheless, Gene still recorded great music at the Capitol Tower.
The introduction of stereo recording and multitrack recorders around 1958 or 1959 didn't affect Gene's recording process too much. At most, we can only find evidence of background vocals being overdubbed later, as Gene still preferred to record with a live band and live vocals. Stereo mixes for "Crazy Times" were probably done live on the fly at the same time they were recording the mono mix, with little thought put into it. The sessions were not done on separated multitrack tapes, so it would have been impossible for them to make stereo masters after the fact.
The last phase of Gene's tenure with Capitol in the years 1960 and 1961 saw him recording both at the Capitol Tower and at Abbey Road Studios in England (known at the time as St. Johns Wood EMI Studios, Abbey Road, London), to capitalize on Gene's emerging stardom in Britain.
Great Britain in the early 1960s was a hotbed of musical activity. With their economy stunted in the immediate postwar years, they took a while to catch up to the United States as far as rock and roll was concerned. But when they did, they took off in leaps and bounds, culminating in the success of the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion. Gene Vincent was in England during this time, enjoying huge popularity in the wake of his American slump.
Technology in Britain in the early 1960s was also experiencing significant advances, and Abbey Road was one of the best-equipped studios in the world when Gene recorded there in the early '60s. It was a huge facility with live echo chambers and state-of-the-art equipment; in many ways it was the British counterpart to Owen Bradley's Nashville studio.
Abbey Road used top-quality microphones like Coles STC and Neumann and custom-made mixing boards that were the world's most advanced at the time. The sessions were recorded onto BTR mono reel-to-reel recorders, which were enormous custom-built machines made for the BBC. They also utilized custom compressors and limiters, and like Bradley's studio the only effects they had were tape echo and reverb. It's worth noting that Abbey Road used much of the same equipment that famed British producer Joe Meek used in his Holloway Road studio.
Gene recorded at Abbey Road with large groups like the Norrie Paramor Orchestra and Sounds Unlimited, and with a small combo called the Beat Boys. Both sessions sound great (whether or not you like the songs is a matter of opinion, but the recording fidelity is impressive), demonstrating the expertise of the engineers at Abbey Road.
"Be Bop a Lula '62," with its flute solos, may have been a low point with which to end Gene's Capitol recording career. But Gene's reputation as a top-notch act was partially built on the truly world-class studios that he had the good fortune to record in, and it was also due to the great producers behind the glass. For the rest of his career he would have second-tier contracts with albums hastily recorded at studios such as Olympic in London and Challenge in Los Angeles. Thankfully, his Capitol records stand alone not only as some of the most sonically excellent and technically superior recordings of the era, but also as some of the best rock and roll recordings of all time.
Liner notes for the Glen Glenn collection Glen Rocks on Bear Family Records|
By Deke Dickerson, September 2003
It seems to be etched in stone that rock and roll was invented in Memphis, Tennessee, one summer night in 1954 by a young truck driver named Elvis Presley. Many would have you believe that Memphis was the only city in America where such a convergence of white and black music could occur, and that young Mr. Presley was a genius of the highest order who created rock and roll single-handedly from his own design.
Of course, this notion is false. Just as there were dozens of people at the turn of the century working on the invention of the automobile, the real story behind the invention of rock and roll is a convoluted one, filled with more interesting twists and turns than the Mississippi River.
Our story concerns another very important city at a very important time -- Los Angeles, California, in the 1950s -- and two energetic young musicians who came of age during this exciting time period: Glenn Troutman, aka Glenn Trout, aka Glen Glenn, and his guitar-playing compatriot, Gary Lambert.
Perhaps nowhere in America was there such a diverse melting of cultures as Los Angeles at mid-century. Hillbillies from the South worked side by side with Mexican immigrants, African Americans came from the eastern United States for the multitude of factory jobs, and scores of other cultures converged in Southern California as well.
Along with this vast influx of immigrants came some of the finest music from across the country. Dust Bowl migrants such as the Maddox Brothers and Rose brought rowdy hillbilly and country music from their native Alabama to the West Coast; African American performers such as Louis Jordan, Pee Wee Crayton, and Slim Gaillard brought their rhythm and blues and jazz to Central Avenue in Los Angeles; Jewish music impresarios like Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller produced doo-wop and blues within the black community; and the sounds of Mexico wafted from almost every neighborhood from the San Fernando Valley to San Diego, wherever there were Mexican immigrants.
This was the atmosphere that bred Glenn and his music, and that inspired the guitar playing of Gary Lambert. A richer mixture of musical inspiration could hardly be imagined. While Elvis certainly was the important catalyst in the explosion of rock and roll, the fact is that the seeds had already been planted all across the country, and it was just a matter of time before this new music sprang to life.
Glenn's records rank as some of the finest of the era, and they have stood the test of time as perhaps the best examples of rockabilly to emerge from Los Angeles in the 1950s. Although all of Glenn's singles, demos, and live tracks have been reissued before, in a series of seven vinyl albums and compact discs, this is the first attempt at a comprehensive collection of everything together in one place.
This disc represents all of the original single recordings that Glenn made for ERA and Dore Records in the 1950s and early 1960s as well as several alternate takes, demos, and live recordings. The rest of the alternate takes, demos, and live recordings will be issued next year on a companion disc.
The story of Glen Glenn begins in Joplin, Missouri, where he was born Orin Glenn Troutman on October 24, 1934. Joplin was a small town tucked away in the Ozark Mountains, and country music figured heavily in its heritage (Grand Ole Opry member Porter Wagoner was also from the same area, and is in fact Glenn's cousin by marriage).
Orin was soon being called by his middle name, Glenn, to avoid confusion with his father Orin Orville Troutman, and the name stuck. His parents Louise and Orin had a love for country music and encouraged young Glenn in his musical pursuits from an early age. The family radio was often tuned to station KVOO in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Glenn first heard Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Once Glenn heard Wills he was hooked on country music. Eventually he began tuning in to the Grand Ole Opry and soaking up influences from Roy Acuff to Little Jimmy Dickens, Red Foley, Ernest Tubb, and many other country stars. From a very young age Glenn tried his own hand at singing, often imitating his country music idols.
Fate intervened in 1948 when the Troutman family loaded up the truck and moved westward to San Dimas, California, located about an hour east of Los Angeles. Like thousands of others from the South, Glenn's family came west for the promise of a better life. Little did they know the sorts of opportunities it would open up for the burgeoning musician in their family.
In addition to the country music he knew and loved, Glenn soon found himself listening late at night to a famed Los Angeles disc jockey, Dick "Huggy Boy" Hugg, on a local black radio station that played blues, R&B, and vocal groups. The music he heard would have a profound influence on him.
In 1950 or 1951 Glenn bought a Gibson guitar and then a Martin D-28, and he spent virtually every waking minute teaching himself all the songs he heard on the radio. Eventually he met a kindred spirit in Gary Lambert, a fellow high school student who played hot guitar and was looking for someone to play with.
Gary was from La Verne, a small community just down the road from San Dimas. He had quite a local reputation as a hot picker and impressed nearly everybody who heard him play. His style was half Merle Travis and Chet Atkins thumbpicking, and half Joe Maphis flatpicking, and it was well suited to the material Glenn was interested in at the time. Gary was in a comfortable enough position to afford some of the finest equipment (see sidebar below), and this too bolstered his reputation locally. Gary had a regular square-dance gig, and soon Glenn was joining him on rhythm guitar. After the two got together, they were soon rehearsing an act as a duo. All this excitement caught up with Glenn, and he dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade to pursue music full time.
Glenn and Gary began making the rounds as perpetual hangers-on. Even though they were too young to get into most shows, they would stand outside and listen to the music, soaking it all in. They would often go to the Riverside Rancho near Griffith Park, where the setup enabled them to stand directly outside the club and hear the music. One of their fondest memories involves guitar legend Joe Maphis, who played the Riverside Rancho every Sunday night. Glenn and Gary would go and listen to him from outside every week, and eventually Joe became so taken with the boys that he would come outside and smoke cigarettes during his break and talk to them, offering advice about how to break into the local country music business.
Joe Maphis, if you're unfamiliar with the name, was a hugely influential figure in Los Angeles country music history. He and his wife, Rose Lee, had a honky-tonk hit with Joe's composition "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music)," but it was his guitar playing that left the biggest mark. He was one of the fastest guitar players who ever lived, and he wore the crown "King of the Strings" for his prowess on any stringed instrument: guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, or bass. Starting in 1954 he was the leader of the house band on the popular Town Hall Party television show, where he was watched by everyone from Compton Okies to the Beverly Hills elite. (Be sure and check out Bear Family's collection of Joe's greatest instrumental recordings, Flying Fingers, for insight into this amazing musician.)
Joe told Glenn and Gary about an amateur contest being held on Sundays at the Rancho by a local disc jockey, the "Squeakin' Deacon" from country station KXLA in Pasadena. Every Sunday they would broadcast a live radio show from within the Riverside Rancho. It was a two-hour show, the first hour being the amateur contest, the second hour featuring big-name stars like Joe Maphis and Merle Travis.
Glenn and Gary went down one Sunday and entered the contest and, to their amazement, won the prize the first time out, singing a version of Joe and Rose Lee Maphis's "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke." The prize was a wristwatch, but the real reward was the encouragement it offered the two youngsters. Glenn recalls not being able to sleep for about a week afterwards, he was so excited.
Glenn and Gary, now billed as the Missouri Mountain Boys (even though Glenn was the only one actually from Missouri), made the rounds to all the Los Angeles-area country music shows. They made sure they were always seen, showing up like clockwork at the Town Hall Party in Compton and Cliffie Stone's Hometown Jamboree in El Monte. They knew how to sneak backstage at all these venues, and they befriended many of the artists, including Lefty Frizzell, Gene O'Quin, Merle Travis, the Collins Kids, Johnny Horton. The hundreds of backstage photographs that Glenn began taking at this time are evidence of the sheer number of musicians they were rubbing elbows with.
The pair auditioned for both the Town Hall Party and the Hometown Jamboree, but they didn't find a regular paying gig until they struck pay dirt with the County Barn Dance in Baldwin Park, just down the road from El Monte.
The County Barn Dance was another fixture on the crowded Saturday night roster of live televised country music shows in Los Angeles. It featured an impressive roster that included Les "Carrot Top" Anderson, Skeets McDonald, the White Brothers (Clarence and Roland White, in their pre-Kentucky Colonels and Byrds days), and Gary Lambert's future wife, Jean, who appeared with an act called the Three Country Girls, later renamed the Smith Sisters. The show also had many guest stars each week, and it was here that Glenn and Gary befriended aspiring guitarist Eddie Cochran, who was then half of the Cochran Brothers act. Glenn and Gary appeared regularly on the County Barn Dance throughout the years 1954 and 1955, and they became quite well known throughout the local country music community.
Their association with Eddie Cochran became quite close over the next couple of years. In addition to appearances on the County Barn Dance, Glenn and Gary did a show with the Cochran Brothers during a short stint living in Northern California in 1956 when the Cochran Brothers were doing the same thing. By all accounts Gary Lambert and Eddie Cochran bonded through their love for Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, and other hot pickers (both bought brand new Gretsch guitars around this time), and in fact Gary recorded quite a few home demos of the two of them playing together, which were collected on the Stomper Time CD Eddie Cochran and Gary Lambert. Eddie also loaned out his bass player, Connie "Guybo" Smith, to Glenn and Gary for live shows and recording over the years. Glenn recalls that when Eddie went solo and started having hits, he started hanging with the rock and roll crowd and they didn't see him around their country music shows any more.
It was during 1954 and 1955 that Glenn first began recording. Most of these recordings were primitive home demos done on Gary Lambert's portable recorder. Other early recordings that have survived are from live television and radio performances that were taped by their close friend Glenn Mueller on his reel-to-reel recorder (off the radio or TV).
Perhaps Glenn's most interesting performance from this time period is "That's All Right (Mama)," recorded live on radio station KXLA in January 1955. According to Glenn, he had not yet heard Elvis Presley's Sun Recording of this song, but he had heard country singer Gene O'Quin perform it on the Hometown Jamboree show. It was also around this time that Glenn started trying to incorporate more of the blues and R&B material that he heard on the "Huggy Boy" show into his country music act. Not long after recording "That's All Right (Mama)," Glenn heard Elvis Presley for the first time and soon was performing rock and roll every chance he could get.
Other early performances included on this disc are rollicking live versions of "Jack and Jill Boogie" and "John Henry," both recorded on KXLA in May 1955. These recordings really demonstrate the concept of hillbillies latching on to boogie woogie and rhythm and blues and forging ahead with this new music known as rock and roll. By the time Glenn made his next recording in January 1956, he was moving even more into the rock and roll camp, cutting his own versions of "Baby, Let's Play House" and "Be-Bop-a-Lula," both included here.
Later in 1956 Glenn had an opportunity to go back to Missouri and tour with his cousin Porter Wagoner. Glenn leapt at the chance and soon was making regular appearances on the popular Ozark Jubilee show broadcast out of Springfield, Missouri. Porter was supportive of Glenn's forays into rock and roll, and in fact a great version of Glenn singing "Shake, Rattle and Roll" was recorded live at the Ozark Jubilee in July of 1956 with Porter's band backing him up (they also did a great version of "There She Goes" for the country listeners).
Glenn toured with Porter to the East Coast and throughout the Midwest, logging lots of great road stories and rubbing elbows with just about everybody in the business. Porter was also trying to get Glenn his own recording contract with UA Records, but he couldn't get a deal because the label thought Glenn was stuck between the country and rock and roll markets. This was undoubtedly true, and in fact Glenn has said himself that he was really a country performer doing rock and roll material. Although Glenn had some great experiences with Porter on the road, California was home, and Glenn got homesick for his family and moved back to San Dimas after only a month or so with Porter's group.
In September 1956, Glenn had his first professional recording session at the Garrison Studio in Long Beach, California. This was a four-song demo of excellent country material that Glenn paid for himself and intended to shop around for a record deal. Although the material was excellent and featured top-notch talent such as Ralph Mooney on steel guitar, Glenn failed to get a recording contract with any of the labels he played the demos for. This disc features one of the tunes from this session, "It Rains Rain," a great Pete Stamper composition.
Rejoining the County Barn Dance and reuniting with Gary Lambert, the next major figures to emerge in Glenn's career were the Maddox Brothers and Rose, who were to play a large part in the crucial next phase of his career.
The County Barn Dance had big guest stars every week, from Ray Price to Faron Young, and the Maddox Brothers and Rose were regulars on the show. During this time period, they were perhaps the most popular act on the West Coast, with their wild stage antics and novelty tunes. Fred Maddox (the de facto leader of the group) was particularly smitten with rock and roll music, and he took an instant liking to Glenn and Gary and their brand of rockabilly.
Fred Maddox suggested to Glenn and Gary that they go check out Elvis Presley when he played in San Diego. The show galvanized the two youngsters and reinforced their opinion that they needed to be playing rock and roll instead of country. When they saw all the hundreds of screaming girls, the choice was obvious which direction they'd be taking. Fred took the boys backstage and they struck up a friendship with Elvis, Scotty, Bill, and D.J. They would visit Elvis once more when he came back to the West Coast and stayed at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. In fact, Bill Black would later even play on one of Glenn's demos while visiting with Fred Maddox.
There's more! Download the entire liner notes as a Word document.
A Brief History of Hallmark Guitars, for hallmarkguitars.com|
By Deke Dickerson
The story of Hallmark guitars and its namesake Joe Hall is an interesting, if obscure, tale in the history of the electric guitar.
The story begins in Bakersfield, California, in the late 1950s. Semie Moseley of Mosrite guitars had just moved his operations to Bakersfield after years of struggling in Los Angeles, including stints with Rickenbacker and Bigsby as well as many years on his own building custom-order guitars. Los Angeles hadn't worked out for him, and numerous attempts to turn Mosrite from a custom-order luthier to a full-scale mass-production factory had failed, although he did receive some notoriety from Joe Maphis and Larry Collins (of the Collins Kids) playing his flashy doubleneck guitars on the Town Hall Party television show.
The year 1959 found Semie Moseley and his brother Andy living and working in a tin shed in Oildale, just outside Bakersfield. The guitars that Semie made were different, and original. They weren't copies of Fenders or Gibsons -- Mosrite guitars had many unique features including ultra-slim necks, zero frets, high-output handmade pickups, custom-built aluminum hardware, and body shapes that were a combination of hillbilly flash and the Jetsons.
As Semie struggled to survive, word of this strange guitar maker from Los Angeles began to filter out to the countryside surrounding Bakersfield. Soon kindred spirits made their way out to the tin shed in Oildale, including a young guitar maker named Bill Gruggett and a gospel musician by the name of Joe Hall who wanted a custom guitar. Joe saw one of Semie's custom creations and just about fell over! He had to have one of Semie's guitars.
Joe Hall ordered a guitar from Semie. He traded in his Gibson ES147 and paid $400 in advance for the custom order, a LOT of money in those days. Soon Hall found out a thing or two about Semie Moseley's business practices. Although Semie was nothing short of brilliant when it came to making guitars, when it came to the business end he was an absolute nightmare. Joe waited and waited for the new guitar to be made, and he was losing money from all the gospel gigs he had to pass up.
Joe finally confronted Semie about the lack of a guitar, and, in his persuasive way, soon Semie had Joe working in the Mosrite shop just to speed up the production of his guitar! This led to an association that lasted three or four years. Although Joe says that he didn't receive anything in compensation except the knowledge of how to build a guitar, he has no hard feelings because he feels that he got to study at the side of a master.
In those wild and wooly days of the A-Go-Go 1960s, the guitar-making world was a dangerous field where fortunes could be won or lost on a handshake deal. Joe Hall saw this with his own eyes many times. Joe watched Semie make an agreement with Bob Crooks to make guitars for Standel, a deal that folded after ten units made for the NAMM show (these are the early, primitive models with a single cutaway and a vaguely Telecaster-like shape). Soon thereafter, a chance meeting with Nokie Edwards from the Ventures brought hundreds of thousands of dollars to Semie Moseley, as the Ventures-model Mosrite became a runaway hit. He also witnessed Semie pass at the chance to have had Sears and Roebuck purchase Mosrite for well over a million dollars. Semie told Joe that because his name was on the guitars, he just couldn't sell the brand name away.
Much in the same way that Memphis became a home to aspiring rockers after Elvis's great success, Bakersfield became the home of several guitar makers, all of them chasing after Semie's newfound prosperity. Joe Hall was one of the hopeful, and he pursued several different business deals, which resulted in some interesting off-the-wall guitars.
One of the most notable of these resulted from Joe's association with Bob Crooks and his Standel brand. Bob had been trying unsuccessfully to market a Standel guitar to sell with his Standel amps since Semie Moseley's earlier, failed association. Joe and Bob Crooks collaborated and made a run of Mosrite-inspired double cutaway guitars featuring an aluminum casting that housed the pickups, bridge, and tailpiece. These guitars were advertised in Downbeat magazine in 1965 but were never produced beyond this small run. (At least one of them turned up last year on eBay.) A few of these unfinished Standels wound up being branded as Hallmarks later on, but we're getting ahead of ourselves.
The Standel deal ended when one of Joe's employees broke into his shop and stole the prototypes and all the tooling. Although Joe tried to get Bob Crooks on his side regarding this incident, Bob continued to work with the ex-employee, who unfortunately knew little about guitar making, resulting in another failed launch of the Standel guitar line.
Joe continued to make custom-order guitars during this time, some under the name Sterling, but he was already envisioning the Hallmark brand name and was looking for new and different ideas to launch his Hallmark guitar company. Joe even managed to pull Bill Gruggett away from Mosrite to work for Hallmark. Bill had continued working for Semie Moseley through the glory years, but after Mosrite acquired Dobro in 1966 Gruggett found himself working side-by-side with one of the ex-Dobro managers. Bill did not care for the man's floor expertise and sometimes rude conduct with Mosrite employees, and so when Joe Hall offered him more money, he left to try his luck there.
Gruggett was working on some new ideas of his own, including the new Gruggett Stradette, and Joe hired him to work for the new Hallmark company with the understanding that Gruggett could make his own guitars on his own time. It was while he was at Hallmark that he built the first Gruggett Stradette six-string guitar, which is now on display at the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield (along with several other historical instruments, such as Joe Maphis's second Mosrite doubleneck).
Bob Bogle, bassist for the Ventures, approached Joe with a new guitar design he had come up with after surveying guitar players in Los Angeles to find out what new body shape they wanted. He showed Joe a crude sketch of what would become the Swept-Wing design. The popularity at that time of the Batman TV show has been offered as a theory for the Swept-Wing body shape, but where it came from is really anybody's guess. The Ventures were caught in a bad business deal at that point with their failed Mosrite amplifier line, and Bob Bogle was looking to invest in a new, upstart company. Bogle wanted to call the new company Ovation (!) and would retain fifty percent of the profits in return for his initial investment. Because of his involvement with Mosrite, Bogle was a silent partner, and not even Bill Gruggett knew that Bogle was involved with the company! After the deal with Mosrite turned sour, Bogle relinquished his share and told Joe he didn't want compensation for the original investment. This was really the birth of the Hallmark brand guitar, as Joe took this and ran with it! Bogle had paid for the construction of the first ten Hallmark Swept-Wings, which were to be displayed at the 1967 NAMM show.
Joe took Bogle's crude sketch, streamlined it, and the famous body shape of the Hallmark Swept-Wing was born. Hall, Gruggett, and Don Stanley made a batch of Swept-Wings, as well as a prototype Hallmark model called the Eldorado, which was like a Gibson ES-335 in a very Bakersfield sort of way.
Hallmark had a decent chance at making it. They rented a legit factory space on Derby Street in Arvin (another town near Bakersfield), they got the merchants and folks in the city of Arvin to buy shares in the Hallmark company at $500 per share, they took out full-page ads in the newly created Guitar Player magazine, and they had a batch of nice-looking guitars to take to NAMM in Chicago.
When Joe and Bill Gruggett got to Chicago, they had so little money between them that they slept on top of their display tables because they couldn't afford a hotel room! The pair was convinced that their new, unique designs would take the guitar world by storm, and their financial futures would be secure.
There was only one problem: The NAMM trip was a total failure -- a prelude of things to come. There were several reasons for this. First of all, many young men went to southeast Asia in the late 1960s for the Vietnam conflict, and as a result the used-guitar market was flooded with cheap guitars, making new ones harder and harder to sell. Secondly, the market for unique guitars was overcrowded. A casual look at a 1967 Guitar Player magazine shows not only the Hallmark Swept-Wing, but also many other bizarrely shaped brands and models trying to capture people's attention.
Although Joe Hall says that Hallmark built less than a thousand units, a more realistic figure comes from Bill Gruggett, who seems to think there were maybe thirty or forty Hallmark guitars produced before the whole empire crumbled less than a year after it started. These included hollowbody Swept-Wings, solidbody Swept-Wings, at least one solidbody Swept-Wing bass, and at least one solidbody Swept-Wing doubleneck.
During Hallmark's brief existence, they gave guitars to the Doors, the Grateful Dead, the Mamas and the Papas, the Baja Marimba Band, Jefferson Airplane, and the Association, among others. Before closing they also contributed to the short-lived Epcor brand of guitars.
Joe Hall left the guitar business, went overseas to learn the oil business, and returned to the U.S. to work as a consultant for a petroleum company, which he did until retirement.
Bill Gruggett continued to make guitars on a custom basis in Bakersfield. He made the Stradette model throughout the 1970s and even got back together with Semie Moseley for a brief reunion that resulted in the Mosrite Brass Rail model. He still makes a very limited number of custom guitars, including a beautiful new Pearl White Stradette and a Pearl Black Stradette that were recently sold through the new Hallmark company! Bill also made a Red, White, and Blue Gruggett that was commissioned by Buck Owens's band and presented to Buck as a birthday present this year. It is now the only guitar Buck is seen playing.
The Hallmark Swept-Wing became something of a joke around Bakersfield. Just like their cross-town rival Mosrite, Hallmark declared bankruptcy in 1968 (keep in mind that in 1968, even Fender and Gibson were going through rough times). Unsold Swept-Wings littered the pawnshops on 18th Street and were treated with little or no respect.
Of course, what might be a joke in Bakersfield may be considered high art in Berkeley, and that's exactly what happened. When a Berkeley vintage guitar dealer sold collector Teisco Del Rey a Hallmark Swept-Wing, and when Teisco then featured the guitar on a pullout "Collector's Choice" poster in Guitar World magazine, the modern legend of the Swept-Wing was born.
After being featured in Guitar World, everybody knew what a Hallmark Swept-Wing was, but nobody had ever seen one in person! The legend grew. Coffee-table books talked about the Hallmark Swept-Wing but often got the facts wrong, and the problem was, there just weren't any guitars around! Not only that, but Joe Hall had vanished.
One of the distorted facts involves the "double-branded" Standel/Hallmark guitar, which was prominently featured in Vintage Guitar Classics magazine. Joe Hall denies having anything to do with these guitars and theorizes that the same ex-employee who stole the prototypes may have finished these guitars with the Hallmark name on the headstock, even though they began life as Standel prototypes.
The story might have ended there except for the tireless efforts of Bob Shade from Greenbelt, Maryland. Nobody I can think of would be as well suited to restart Hallmark as Bob, a skilled luthier who had managed to track down four original Swept-Wings. He had studied the Mosrite story and collected rare Mosrites for years. Bob was and still is one of the only people besides Bill Gruggett who you can send your Mosrite to for expert restoration or service. As Bill is building regularly for Hallmark again, he is now referring people to Bob for Mosrite restoration. Bob felt the Swept-Wing was truly a wonderful guitar that had never had a chance, and he threatened to his friends that he was going to bring them back as a modern reissue.
Somehow, Bob tracked down Joe Hall and learned the true story of the Hallmark legend. Bob secured the rights to use the Hallmark name, and Joe gave his blessing for the reissues.
Since last year the new Hallmark company has emerged as a genuine threat to the modern guitar market. The old saying holds true that what goes around comes around, and the once-ridiculed Swept-Wing body shape is now hip again!
Bob Shade has made his business plan a dual one, with custom-order Hallmark guitars made in his Maryland shop and mass-produced Hallmark Swept-Wings (made overseas) available for an incredibly reasonable price. They are all great guitars and have received rave reviews from everybody who has tried one!
The Swept-Wings come in a vintage reissue style, very exact to the original specifications of the legendary Arvin guitars, with vintage Hallmark hardware and Hallmark Hi-Fi pickups to get that Ventures-meets-Maphis Bakersfield sound. There is also a new custom style, with exciting modern finishes and hardware.
A strange saga in the history of the electric guitar, to be sure, but a classic design can't be denied, and the Hallmark Swept-Wing may have finally found its audience almost forty years after the fact!
Liner notes for the Roy Orbison collection Roy Rocks on Bear Family Records|
By Deke Dickerson, February 2006
Historians love to write about how Roy Orbison got started in the music business on the wrong foot, being forced to cut rock and roll until he found his niche with the sort of orchestrated ballads that would cement his place in the hall of fame. While it is true that Orbison himself preferred the softer songs and the pop ballads, and certainly that is where he found his greatest chart success, Roy Orbison's veins pulsed with the blood of a rocker. Although he always denied it, he was great at rocking and left behind some of the best-loved rockabilly tracks of all time. This collection is perhaps the first of its kind, the first to collect all of Orbison's best rockin' material, from the early days at Sun Records and the Norman Petty studios to his short-lived days as an RCA artist in the late 1950s and the few but fertile rockers he cut in his golden days for Monument Records in the early 1960s.
When an artist finds such massive success with a radically different style, as Orbison did with his pop hits in the 1960s, it is easy to write off early efforts with a dismissive wave of the hand. In doing the research for these liner notes I was shocked at how nearly every book or article about Roy Orbison regurgitated the same details about his early rocking period, usually in a few short paragraphs. Had he not gone on to record those massive pop hits, critics would have paid the same attention to his rockabilly sides as they did to the records by Carl Perkins, Billy Lee Riley, Sonny Burgess, Warren Smith, and other Sun Records greats, who have had every minute detail of their 1950s activities researched and obsessed over. The fact of the matter is that Orbison was another teenager in the mid-1950s who traveled to see Elvis Presley play and got swept up in the fury ofwomen, fame, and attention. Orbison admits that his only goal at that time was "a Cadillac and a diamond ring by the age of twenty-one." Whether or not he was teen-idol material mattered not, for deep in his soul Orbison felt the calling of wild bop music known as rock and roll.
Much has also been written about how unlikely a star Roy Orbison was. True, back in the 1950s, as today, looks mattered over talent in the pop business, and Orbison was not exactly an attractive man. Born an albino, he suffered from the eyesight problems of albinism, and in fact in the early days (before he wore glasses on stage) many thought he was blind because he had to be led up to the microphone. But he dyed his hair a deep jet black, bought himself the finest hepcat clothes, equipped himself with top-of-the-line equipment. As a teenager he had a Les Paul Black Beauty guitar, the most expensive solidbody Gibson made, and a Ray Butts Echosonic Amp like Scotty Moore, also the most expensive custom-ordered amplifier one could own at the time. He made up his mind that he was going to be a rock and roll star, looks be damned.
In the music business there has always been a great divide between the gifted and the determined, and Orbison was a gifted vocalist and guitarist determined to overcome the handicap of his looks. His determination paid off, and in fact the stubborn Orbison stuck at it through high and low times in his forty-year stint in the music business. How many artists can say they started off with a hit on their first record, then sank so low as to eat rolled-up balls of cornmeal and water (as Orbison did between his Sun days and the pop hits), found top-forty success and made a million dollars, lost their wife to a motorcycle accident and two sons to a house fire, then wound up getting inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and having a top-ten hit just as they died? The story of Roy Orbison is a story of perseverance and dogged determination more than anything else.
West Texas is precisely the sort of place to breed a determined young man. Hot, dusty, and flat--these are the only good things that can be said about a place like Wink, Texas, where Orbison was raised. Born in 1936 to hardworking parents (his dad, Orbie Lee, was a rigger in the oilfields), he was the classic outcast, a subject that later permeated his hits like "Only the Lonely" and "In Dreams." He had a good head on his shoulders, though, and quickly found that while he wasn't good at football and hard, menial labor, he excelled at drawing and singing. Perhaps the most telling picture of his early years shows him posed in front of a very large blackboard mural. He had created an elaborate Christmas drawing, which apparently was so well received that the entire school was taken to view his creation. The huge mural dwarfs the diminutive Roy, who stands beaming from ear to ear, his eyes barely visible through his thick coke-bottle glasses. He had found that he could use his talents to gain acceptance and praise, even if he didn't fit in with the football players and oil riggers.
Orbison's musical talents surfaced early on as well, and by his teens he was leading a local aggregation called the Wink Westerners, a group that eventually turned into the Teen Kings. The group began by playing all the country and western hits of the day, with Orbison being particularly knocked out by Lefty Frizzell's voice. As was the norm of the day, the group also played pop standards such as "Moonlight Serenade" and "Stardust."
All that would change the day that Elvis Presley blew through West Texas like a hurricane, changing everything in his path. The details of exactly where and when Orbison saw Elvis for the first time are murky, but it's generally accepted that he had heard about the noise Elvis was making in the music world, and in fact his father had told him about seeing a "terrible" Presley show. Orbison made up his mind to see what the fuss was all about and went to see Elvis play, either at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas or at one of the many shows Elvis played across West Texas in 1954 and 1955. It's hard now to imagine a time when such things were so shocking or life changing, but when Orbison recounted seeing Elvis for the first time, he remembered Elvis spitting out his chewing gum on stage, breaking guitar strings, talking "with the coarse diction of a truck driver," rolling around on the stage while singing, and causing a near riot in the crowd by turning the ladies on and ticking the men off. Elvis's music, looks, and attitude represented something that teenagers all over the country could latch onto and call their own.
In no time at all the Wink Westerners were doing their own interpretation of hillbilly bop and looking at getting a piece of the Presley pie. The group made some lineup changes, most notably adding rhythm guitarist Johnny "Peanuts" Wilson, who brought with him a healthy love for the new rock and roll music (and later would cut the classic single "Cast Iron Arm.") After a spell during which Orbison and drummer Billy Pat Ellis went to North Texas State College in Denton, the whole group moved to Odessa, where they all attended junior college together and changed the band's name from the Wink Westerners to the Teen Kings.
It wasn't long before they made their first recording, an acetate demo of a song that Orbison had learned from two students at North Texas State named Wade Moore and Dick Penner. The song was "Ooby Dooby," and although it was a simple song with nonsense lyrics, Orbison had seen Moore and Penner make crowds go crazy with it. The demo session was intended as an audition for Columbia Records. Columbia saw no future with the band, but A&R man Don Law did give "Ooby Dooby" to Sid King and the Five Strings, who released it on Columbia to little fanfare (the early Orbison demos of "Ooby Dooby" and "Hey Miss Fannie" can be found on the Roy Orbison box set on Bear Family, BCD 16423).
Around this time, Roy and the Teen Kings caught the eye of local impresario Weldon Rogers, who agreed to put out a Teen Kings single as soon as they had something recorded. The group then traveled to the other notable studio in the region, Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico, where they recut "Ooby Dooby" and a new flip side, "Tryin' to Get to You," which they had learned from Elvis's live shows (one report has Orbison owning a prerelease acetate of Elvis's version). The two numbers were released on the tiny Je-Wel record label (the name was an acronym that combined the financial backer's daughter's name, Jean, and that of Weldon Rogers, who handled the music and promotional side of the label).
The Je-Wel record took off locally, selling hundreds of copies and catapulting the Teen Kings to regional fame. It made so much noise that another local impresario, Cecil Holifield, notified Sam Phillips of Sun Records that the Je-Wel contract was not legally binding, since Orbison and the other boys were under the age of twenty-one. When Holifield and Sam Phillips threatened legal action against Je-Wel Records, the Teen Kings were released from their contract and given instructions to go immediately to Memphis to record for Sun. In the rapidly moving waters of the day, songs could break overnight and just as easily be forgotten. Phillips knew this and brought the group to Memphis as fast as possible to recut "Ooby Dooby" yet again, capturing the momentum that the Je-Wel record had promised.
When the group arrived, Phillips rushed them into the studio and explored their potential as new rockabilly hitmakers. The group rerecorded "Ooby Dooby" a total of four times, but Phillips felt they hadn't gotten a good version and in fact wound up calling Weldon Rogers seeking to lease the Je-Wel master (after threatening legal action against him only a month earlier!). Weldon offered to sell the Je-Wel master for $1100, but Sam decided to go with the first take the boys had laid down at the Sun Studio instead. For a flip side, the band came up with a new rocker, "Go Go Go," a scorching rockabilly mover that has become a standard in the rockabilly repertoire, though it is usually called "Down the Line," the title that Jerry Lee Lewis gave it when he cut it a year later for the flip side of "Breathless."
One thing that should be pointed out regarding all of the early rockabilly sides by Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings is that Orbison played all the lead guitar parts himself. He was one of the great rockabilly axemen, cutting solos that were as tough sounding and biting as any of his contemporaries. Few realize when they hear that classic intro to "Go Go Go" that it's Roy himself tearing it up on the guitar!
The band also recorded another couple of takes of "Tryin' to Get to You" at that first Sun session, but Sam Phillips chose the two rockers (and picked "Go Go Go" as the flip to ensure his own publishing interests) and rushed "Ooby Dooby" out as Sun 242 as quickly as possible. The single did very well, selling up to two hundred thousand copies by some reports, and Roy Orbison became a star for the first time.
Orbison's tenure at Sun has been rehashed in biographies many times over. According to the artist, he kept trying to get Sam Phillips and his in-house producer "Cowboy" Jack Clement to listen to his ballads, which he felt were his forte. If you believe everything you read, Phillips and Clement forced Orbison to record rock and roll material against his will, while he tried in vain to convince them that he was a ballad singer. According to lore, Orbison eventually gave them a giant "I told you so" by scoring numerous top-ten ballad hits in the early 1960s. Like a lot of music history, it makes for a nice story. But human accounts differ from the recorded material--and also the photographs--from his time at Sun. For one thing, Sam Phillips and Jack Clement were interested in selling records. If ballads were selling in 1956, they would have been pushing Orbison in that direction. But in 1956, rockers were the hot ticket, and all they really cared about was getting another hit record. The "I told you so" part of the story doesn't really jibe, as pop rockers and ballads were much more marketable in the early 1960s, when Orbison had a string of hits with such material. Had he recorded "Oh Pretty Woman" or "Only the Lonely" in 1956, they would undoubtedly have been flops.
Secondly, Orbison's account that he wasn't allowed to record ballad material at Sun simply isn't true. Out of the twenty-eight song titles he recorded at Sun, almost a dozen are ballads. While only two of them were released at the time ("Sweet and Easy to Love" b/w "Devil Doll," Sun 265), the fact is that Phillips and Clement suffered from pill-popping attention deficit disorder, and Orbison simply wouldn't have been allowed the time to record a dozen ballads if they didn't see some promise in them.
Lastly, the biggest flaw in this whole written history is that Orbison and the Teen Kings were simply brilliant at rockabilly material. While Orbison was quick to discount it later in life, all one has to do is study the photographs from 1956 and 1957 to see that these boys were having the time of their lives. Dressed to the nines in hepcat finery, jumping all over the stage "like a bunch of idiots" (quoting Orbison), and touring with their fellow Sun luminaries Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others, these teenagers were living the rock and roll dream and enjoying every minute of it.
Perhaps these excuses and explanations were to cover up the pain of the failed releases that followed the success of "Ooby Dooby." All three follow-ups were undeserved commercial flops. "Rockhouse" b/w "You're My Baby" was released as Sun 251 in the summer of 1956 and sank without a trace. The only logical explanation is that Sun's promotional team was focusing their energies on other artists, as this is one of the great two-sided rockabilly 45s of all time. The top side, "Rockhouse," was a great call-to-arms number that Orbison cowrote with Harold Jenkins (later to become Conway Twitty), and the flip, "You're My Baby," was written by Johnny Cash and originally titled "Little Woolly Booger" (Cash called it the worst thing he'd ever written). They are two of the most savage, flat-out rockabilly sides ever waxed. From Orbison's frantic guitar to the wild drumming, this is a perfect rockabilly record and not deserving of the derision it has suffered from Orbison, Cash, and other historians.
Orbison's third release on Sun also seems to contradict his assertion that he was never allowed to do ballad material there. "Sweet and Easy to Love" b/w "Devil Doll" were released as Sun 265 in late 1956 and both were balladesque. "Sweet and Easy to Love" is a classic rock-a-ballad, with Orbison's sweet vocals riding over a thumping rockabilly backing. "Devil Doll" is as syrupy as anything ever got at Sun, and its commercial failure led producer Jack Clement to push Orbison back in the rock and roll direction for his next record.
The last Orbison Sun release, "Chicken Hearted" b/w "I Like Love," released as Sun 284 in fall 1957, has been characterized even in the Bear Family box set booklet as "a ghastly record." Orbison hated it because he was forced to record songs that other people had written. But why it gets such a bad rap baffles this author, because even though the lyrics are somewhat cornball, the rocking feel on both sides is superb. Recording with the Sun house band (he had gotten into a dispute with the Teen Kings by this time over label billing and money issues), which included both Roland Janes on guitar and Stan Kesler on bass, this session produced a host of great rockers, including the stunning, unissued tracks "Mean Little Mama" and "Problem Child."
After Roy left Sun, he had few good things to say about his experience there. But what cannot be denied is that the rockabilly tracks were some of the best ever cut within the confines of 706 Union. Part of what has marred public opinion of these tracks was the dreadful album release Roy Orbison at the Rockhouse, which Sun hastily released in 1961 after Orbison started having hits on Monument Records. Some of the fantastic unissued tracks from his Sun sessions appeared there for the first time, but they were covered in overdubs of piano and saxophone. It wasn't until the original, undubbed tracks came out in the 1980s that the true power of his rockin' voice and his raw guitar style were revealed.
An interesting side story to the Sun tracks came to light only recently, when it was learned that Orbison had done a session with the Teen Kings at Norman Petty's studio some time in 1957, when he was still contractually obligated to Sun. Two tracks were cut: "An Empty Cup (a Broken Date)," which was pitched as a demo to Buddy Holly, who cut it shortly thereafter, and possibly the most savage rocker that Orbison ever performed, "Cat Called Domino," which he had recorded for Sun a few months earlier with no success in securing a release. Whether or not Orbison recut the song with Norman Petty to pitch to Buddy Holly or someone else is unknown, but what we do know, and are grateful for, is that the original recording survived. This blistering version of "Domino" is the lead-off track on this compilation, with good reason--it's the hardest Orbison ever rocked in his life.
The next phase of Orbison's career was probably the hardest for him to suffer through. Barely a year after having a hit record with "Ooby Dooby," he found himself back in West Texas with virtually no career. The Teen Kings had dissolved and he was stuck at home with a new wife (Claudette) and baby and no way to feed them, much less make the Cadillac payment. If it weren't for his songwriting skills, that might have been the last anyone ever heard of Roy Orbison. Luckily, he placed "Claudette," an ode to his young wife, with the Everly Brothers, who released it as the flip side to "All I Have to Do Is Dream," which became a huge hit.
The association that Orbison had with song publisher Wesley Rose (of the huge publishing empire Acuff-Rose) led him to his next contract, with RCA Records in Nashville. Undoubtedly Orbison hoped that his career would take the same path as Elvis Presley's, jumping from Sun to RCA to world stardom, but it wasn't to be. The RCA sides are a curious footnote in his career--a step in the direction that he would eventually hit with, but not yet fully realized. His RCA ballads are unmemorable and sanitized, and the two singles he recorded for RCA sank even faster than his last few Sun singles. The only redeeming memory of the RCA sessions were the three rockers, which were decent in a late-'50s style with backing from the Nashville A-team studio musicians. We've included all three of them here, from the rockabillyish "Almost Eighteen" to the pop rockers "With the Bug" and "Double Date."
With his publishing mentor Wesley Rose's help, Orbison was then transferred to a new start-up label called Monument, the brainchild of Baltimore record hustler Fred Foster and Nashville A-team bassist Bob Moore. Monument was an upstart new label and dedicated to promoting Orbison, whereas at RCA he had been lost in the shuffle. The new union between Orbison and Monument turned was well timed on several fronts. First, Monument quickly gained strong momentum as their first two releases became moderate hits ("Gotta Travel On" by Billy Grammer and "The Shag (Is Totally Cool)" by Billy Graves). Second, Orbison had recently found a new songwriting partner in Joe Melson, who helped bring about some of the best writing of Roy's career.
The story that ensues could fill an entire book, and in fact there are already several biographies that detail this period in depth. Orbison began having huge top-ten hits with such classics as "Only the Lonely," "Crying," "Running Scared," and "In Dreams." He had finally found the winning combination that would secure his legend. What most accounts conveniently leave out is that while he always talked about leaving the rockers behind and finding success with the ballads, he was actually still recording great rockers well into the mid-1960s. The backing became more "beat" music and less rockabilly, but Orbison could rock with the best acts of the early 1960s, and in fact he toured with and befriended many of the early British beat bands, including the Beatles.
Included on this collection are some of the finest and most pounding uptempo numbers he recorded for Monument: "Uptown," "Dance," "Mean Woman Blues," "What'd I Say," and of course the biggest hit of his career, "Oh Pretty Woman." Shortly after the megasuccess of "Oh Pretty Woman," Roy signed a long-term contract with MGM Records, which seemed like a good career move at the time. He quickly found himself alone and lost in the forest, however, surrounded by hippies, psychedelia, and hard rock music, and was viewed as a curious relic of an earlier era. Misguided releases such as "Southbound Jericho Parkway" that tried to bring his image into the Charles Manson era were flat-out embarrassing. The hits stopped, and he hit the oldies circuit for the better part of the next twenty years.
After the death of his wife Claudette in a motorcycle accident followed by the death of his two eldest sons in a house fire, it is a miracle that Orbison came out on the other side intact, but that is exactly what happened. As with all things iconic, his image and inimitable sound were bound to make a comeback, and indeed after David Lynch used "In Dreams" to surrealistic effect in the 1986 movie Blue Velvet, Orbison found himself in demand once again. He was invited to join two rock supergroups, the Traveling Wilburys (with George Harrison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne) and the Class of '55 (with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins). There was an all-star concert tribute on national television. And most unpredictably of all, Orbison even had one last top-ten hit with "You Got It," which was shipping from the pressing plant just as he suffered a fatal heart attack on December 6, 1988.
In all aspects of his life and career, Roy Orbison was something of an enigma. Though he hailed from an unlikely place with an even more unlikely image, he ultimately became a rock star and legend. Through personal and professional triumphs and tragedies, he nevertheless went out on top. Though he himself would never acknowledge it, Roy Orbison was a great rock and roller.
Liner notes for Shakin' the Blues: Johnny Paycheck aka Donny Young on Bear Family Records|
By Deke Dickerson, March 2006
Much ado has been made of "the early years" of the artist known as Johnny Paycheck. In recent times several excellent compilations of his Little Darlin' label recordings have been made available, which has been a blessing for collectors and new fans alike.
However, everything that has been written about the man born Donald Eugene Lytle seems to suggest that one day in 1964, he emerged perfectly hatched as country superstar Johnny Paycheck. Only a few of the bios mention in passing that he had made a few failed records early on under the guise of Donny Young, and even then only in the shortest words possible, as if this was an unpleasant factoid to be swept under the rug and forgotten.
What these historians seem to forget is that Paycheck (who, despite his numerous pseudonyms, shall be referred to henceforth as Paycheck, even when referencing his earlier self) had spent years making a slew of brilliant honky-tonk, near-rockabilly, and stone country records, some of the best records he would ever make, under that forgotten nom de plume of Donny Young.
The fact that these records did not sell--truthfully, that they could not even be given away--fails to diminish the excitement that they offer when heard with fresh ears some forty-five years down the road. They are great records, great songs, and great productions.
Nashville, then as now, only recognizes financial success, and these records were flops, therefore they must have been terrible records, according to the Nashville standard. Nobody bought Cadillacs from these discs, and the name Donny Young draws a blank stare from all but the most astute music historians. However, their failure was more likely due to the uncontrollable, ornery, drugging and drinking nature of the young man who sang them, and to the lack of promotion on the part of the record labels, than to any lack of musical greatness. The greatness was there, fully intact; it would just take a name change, a smart manager, and the advent of Outlaw Country before the Cadillacs would come, and the respect of the country music establishment with them.
Donald Eugene Lytle was born May 31, 1938, in Greenfield, Ohio, an unlikely place for a future country star to hail from, but not entirely out of character. Outside of Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati, Ohio was one hick town after another, and country music had always been king. The great radio powerhouse WLW broadcast out of Cincinnati, bringing the sounds of country music to towns like Greenfield, and of course WSM and the Grand Ole Opry were well within broadcast range.
The giant record label King was based out of Cincinnati, releasing hundreds of budget country albums, and the Jimmie Skinner Record Shop, also based out of Cincy, distributed millions of those country discs to rural areas such as Greenfield and every other little town in a thousand-mile radius.
When asked about his early years, Paycheck remembered his mother having Hank Williams 78 RPM records in their house and reckoned that Hank was his biggest influence. His mother gave the lad a guitar at the age of six and began entering him in talent contests in the nearby area when he was nine. By thirteen he was working steadily as a professional singer at Paul Angel's Club 28 in Greenfield.
Not content with local stability, Paycheck began drifting early on, hopping a freight train at the age of fifteen and traveling to all the cities in the tri-state area. Wherever he would land, he would get a job as a singer at a local honky-tonk, and he worked at many of the top country nightclubs in Ohio before making the big decision to join the Navy.
It's hard to imagine anyone less suited for the rigors of military life than Johnny Paycheck, and sure enough within a few months he had been court-martialed and put in the brig for fracturing an officer's skull during a brawl. In 1956 he was sentenced to hard time for the offense and began serving it at a military prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
While in the brig, Paycheck attempted to escape so many times that eventually they reduced his sentence, and long before his release date they let him go out of sheer exasperation. After being freed, Paycheck drifted to Florida, Texas, and then finally decided to give it a go as a professional country music singer in Nashville.
After arriving in Nashville, Paycheck was discovered by Buddy Killen, who gave him a job as a songwriter and demo singer for Tree Publishing (still a huge force in Nashville, but now called Sony/ATV Music Publishing). While it was a professional gig in the music business, it was the sort of job where one barely made enough money to rent a hot attic room at a boardinghouse.
Paycheck caught a break, however, when the producer Owen Bradley, who also acted as an A&R man for Decca Records, heard one of his demos and signed him to a recording contract, which must have seemed like a huge break for the struggling young singer. It was, but as it went for Buddy Holly with Decca a few years earlier, simply having releases on the label was no guarantee of success.
Producer Owen Bradley must have believed in the young singer, though, as four singles were released over the next three years, all excellent examples of hard-core honky-tonk and country.
The first release was "It's Been a Long, Long Time for Me" b/w "On This Mountain Top," released as Decca 9-30763 in November of 1958. The topside was written by Paycheck, a great bouncy number reminiscent of the hits Faron Young was having at the time. The flip featured Paycheck's "roaring" buddy Roger Miller on harmony vocals, and Miller was given a cobilling on the label. The record was superb on all accounts, with an impassioned vocal and the full A-team session-man treatment from Owen Bradley. This statement can be echoed time and time again throughout these notes, but it should have been a hit. It was a great record.
Paycheck and Roger Miller were both destined for stardom, but in the studio at that moment in the fall of 1958 they were unknown, two very small fish in a very big pond. It would be years before either one would taste the glory of a hit record. By any standard it was an auspicious debut, but for all intents and purposes, the careers of both men began that night--the start of a long, hard slog for both of them.
The second record, "The Old Man and the River" b/w "Pictures Can't Talk," released as Decca 9-30881 in April of 1959, was yet another two-side artistic success that garnered no sales. Roger Miller's tune on the topside (he was also writing song demos for Tree Music at the same time) was a great Cajun-flavored song with a memorable chorus, and Paycheck's flip was a first-rate weeper that suited his wounded enunciation perfectly.
By this point Paycheck must have been tasting the bitter pill of realization, just as Buddy Holly had a few years earlier: that good product didn't automatically translate into hit records and those elusive Cadillacs.
By the time of the third release, "Shakin' the Blues" b/w "Miracle of Love," Paycheck really hit his stride. This record can only be considered a masterpiece in every respect: songwriting (it was written by none other than Paycheck's boss at this point, George Jones), arrangement, performance, and production. It was a record that had "HIT" written all over it, and yet again it failed to chart.
While "Shakin' the Blues" has seen release on numerous rockabilly compilations, the truth is that it was just hard-driving honky-tonk with a beat. The twin fiddles and steel guitar could have made it a Ray Price session, but Paycheck's frantic vocal separates into something else entirely, something entirely his own. The mold for the later Paycheck hits was cast with this record--edgy, unpredictable, and raw--which certainly would make him a good candidate for rockabilly but actually foreshadowed the Outlaw Country movement that would come some years later.
Ignored by the public and critics alike, as time went on gradually people became aware of "Shakin' the Blues," and now some forty-five years after its release, many collectors and country music aficionados now consider it one of the best records cut in Nashville during the golden era of the late 1950s "Nashville Sound."
The failure of "Shakin' the Blues" must have soured Decca on the marketability of Donny Young, and he was allowed to record no more sessions at Bradley's studio. One more 45 was released in July of 1961, "I Guess I Had It Coming" b/w "Go Ring the Bells" (Decca 9-31283), which was made up of two leftovers from the earlier sessions. The topside was written by Paycheck and dated from the first session in 1958, featuring Roger Miller on harmony vocals once again, though he was not credited on this release. The flip was a ballad by Don Gibson, who was hot as a pistol at the time, but it didn't seem to help Donny Young one bit. Although both were again great songs with a lot going for them, this release seems to have been an afterthought, with no promotion put behind it whatsoever. Decca dropped Paycheck soon thereafter, and he moved back to Ohio.
Collectors rejoice: One unreleased song from the Decca period, "Story Behind the Photograph," has surfaced and is included here for the first time. Also, it should be noted that several Paycheck discographies list a record credited to Jimmy Dallas, "Hurtin' in My Heart" b/w "My Kind of Love" (Decca 9-31133), as actually being Paycheck singing under a pseudonym. This simply isn't the case. Jimmy Dallas was a fairly established country singer from Kansas City who had been making records since the early 1950s, and this Decca release bears no resemblance to Paycheck's style whatsoever, making its inclusion on several Paycheck discographies all the more baffling.
While licking his wounds back in Ohio, Paycheck had the fortune to hook up with a like-minded young singer named Darrell McCall, who was also an Ohio native with a love for hard-core country music. The pair started singing together and discovered that their vocal harmonies meshed perfectly. Soon Paycheck was plotting his return to Nashville, this time as part of a duo, which he christened the Young Brothers (and, indeed, Darrell McCall would be known as Darrell Young around Nashville for a number of years).
As McCall recounts, the pair hit Nashville with something less than a splash, with literally pennies between them. The first night in town, they slept underneath the Main Street bridge before getting a room at Mom Upchurch's boardinghouse, which served as a headquarters for broke musicians looking for work. Roger Miller also lived there, and Paycheck relished being reunited with his old buddy. Between Paycheck, McCall, and Miller, they began setting a standard for rowdy behavior that is the benchmark for country musicians to this day.
Darrell McCall blames most of this on their copious use of uppers, a common party favor during the 1960s. To quote McCall, "You had to take uppers back then, just to keep up with the grueling pace. We started out with what they called Ol' Yellers, which weren't too bad for you, as they had vitamins and nutrients inside. Then we got into White Crosses, Black Mollys, Yellowjackets, and Speckled Birds, which were harsher and harsher forms of speed as time went along. By the time we got around to Speckled Birds, things were getting pretty nuts."
During Paycheck's tenure with Decca Records, he had been hiring himself out as a sideman to help pay the bills. In fact there hadn't been much promotion of Donny Young the solo artist to speak of, save for one aborted tour with Roger Miller and Bill Anderson that had ended with Miller having to pawn his newly purchased portable record player (which he had bought so the trio could listen to their own records while on the road) for gas money home. Paycheck had a reputation as a good bass player and high harmony singer, and he filled that role with Porter Waggoner, Faron Young, Ray Price, and, most notably, George Jones over the next few years.
Darrell McCall remembers that Ray Price had a custom suit made originally for Paycheck, and that due to Paycheck's volatility, both he and Willie Nelson were called on at various times to play bass for Ray Price, simply because they both fit into Paycheck's suit--something that didn't sit too well with McCall due to both Paycheck's and Willie Nelson's extreme body odor!
Faron Young took Paycheck, Roger Miller, and Darrell McCall out as sidemen at various times during this period. Paycheck's yearlong stint with Young proved to be one of his longest uninterrupted road gigs.
Of all of his sideman jobs, it is probably Paycheck's tenure with George Jones that is best remembered. Jones and Paycheck had a long history over a period dating roughly 1959-66: an on-again, off-again relationship that was as stormy as it was productive.
According to Darrell McCall, Paycheck had a nasty habit of getting drunk and fighting with his employers, and George Jones was no pushover himself. Both men were short in height and short in temper. The explosive relationship between the two was tempered by the fact that both men dearly loved each other and would always forgive and forget, only to repeat the exact same scenario the next time around.
Notably, music historians have pointed out that George Jones seemed to absorb Johnny Paycheck's vocal styling during this time frame, a fact Jones has not exactly denied. Many of the inflections, dips to the low registers following by soaring high notes, and other examples of the classic George Jones style seem to have come directly from working with Paycheck during those years. The proof does lie in the chronology of the recordings: Jones's Starday and Mercury output before working with Paycheck demonstrates a completely different mode of singing that is more rooted in the traditional Hank Williams style than anything else. However, once Donny Young (aka Johnny Paycheck) began singing harmonies with Jones, the style so associated with Jones in later years began to take shape. Paycheck, to his credit, only intimated that both men influenced each other during the time they worked together.
In fact it was Jones that got Paycheck his next recording contract, with his own label, Mercury Records. Another two excellent singles were issued under the Donny Young name, presumably backed by the Jones boys (who would also back up Paycheck a few years later on his first hit record, A-11).
"On Second Thought" b/w "One Day a Week" (Mercury 71900) was released in September 1961, only a few months after the last Decca record escaped. It was another great single . . . that yet again failed to chart. Despite Jones's efforts, the name Donny Young seemed doomed to obscurity.
The second Mercury release, "I'd Come Back to Me" b/w "Not Much I Don't" (Mercury 71981, released in June 1962) was a strong foreshadowing of the style that Paycheck would soon be recording for Hilltop and Little Darlin'. Again it made no waves and sank without a trace.
Paycheck had now had two major-label contracts without a lick of success. Continuing to work as a sideman paid the bills, but there were often months where there was no work, and the frustration must have been maddening.
One way to keep a finger in the business and earn some money on the side was by cutting scab, or nonunion, sessions for budget labels around Nashville. During the period of 1960-61 Paycheck, along with Darrell McCall and Roger Miller, would make many soundalike scab recordings for Starday. These were covers of the top hits of the day, which were then sold at a budget price to people who often didn't realize they were being duped by singers attempting to re-create the sound of the original hits.
Darrell McCall recalls that these sessions paid ten dollars each. That must have been demeaning, especially to such talented young men, but it was one way to keep food on the table and get experience in the studio as well.
Paycheck had several of his songs released on a series of Dixie EPs (Dixie was a Starday imprint) with no artist credit, and at least one track released on a budget Starday album was credited to Donny Young. All the tracks he recorded during this time are included here, some making their debut after having remained in the can for forty years.
While these are by no means the best recordings Paycheck ever cut, they are fascinating examples of low-budget early-1960s country music. Paycheck does attempt to sound like the singers he's covering, but his own personality can't be helped, and they sound more like what an actual Johnny Paycheck live show must have sounded like than anything else. Darrell McCall and Roger Miller (as well as George McCormick) can be heard singing vocal harmonies on these tracks, and Paycheck can in turn be heard singing harmonies for songs credited to both McCall and Miller, recorded at these same scab sessions.
It was at the 1962 Nashville Dee-Jay convention that Eddie Crandall, a music hustler associated with Marty Robbins, played a demo tape of songs for the New York-based A&R man Aubrey Mayhew, who worked for Pickwick Records. Although Crandall was attempting to sell the songs on the tape, Mayhew paid Crandall $200 just to know who it was singing on the demos.
Reportedly, Crandall then led Mayhew to the aforementioned Main Street bridge, under which Paycheck was sleeping one off (Mom Upchurch's boardinghouse locked its doors at midnight). Mayhew began managing the singer, at least as well as anyone could manage him, and spent the next couple of years developing him. According to Mayhew, Paycheck was supposed to keep a low profile and write songs, preparing for their big push, but the stipend Mayhew provided actually translated into pouring a lot of money into an endless black hole of parties and pills.
Paycheck ventured westward and spent most of 1962 and 1963 in both Southern California and Las Vegas. In Vegas he worked for Wynn Stewart, who ran the house band at the Nashville Nevada Club. Wynn's bass player at the time was none other than Merle Haggard, and Haggard hit it off with Paycheck right away--another pairing of two rowdy souls schooled in the art of "roaring."
Paycheck loved the West Coast and its country music scene and was a big fan of Buck Owens in particular. According to Darrell McCall, Owens had Paycheck to thank for finally getting him played on the radio in Nashville, which had shut him out up to that point due to his outsider status. Paycheck spent many sleepless nights staying up with Ralph Emery at WSM, and he persuaded Emery to play one of Owens's discs, which helped break Owens into the Nashville establishment. Later on, after being christened Johnny Paycheck, he would cover an obscure Buck Owens album track, "A-11," and turn it into his first breakout hit.
Exactly how Paycheck's last release under the name Donny Young came about is unknown. The Todd label was the brainchild of the Decca A&R man Paul Cohen, who had run it as a sideline business since 1957, releasing everything from rockabilly (Jericho Jones) to surf (Bobby Fuller) and all styles in between. Presumably Paycheck still had some contact with Paul Cohen from the Decca days, or perhaps it was a deal brokered by Aubrey Mayhew, but either way it was a great record that never had a chance.
"Don't You Get Lonesome" b/w "I'm Glad to Have Her Back Again" was released as Todd 1098 in early 1964. If it were possible, it made even less of a splash than the Decca and Mercury singles, vanishing without a trace, and today it remains the rarest of all the Donny Young releases.
Little is known about the Todd record, though both sides are again excellent honky-tonk shuffles. They closely resemble the type of songs that Paycheck would soon become known for on Hilltop and Little Darlin'. Gino King, who played guitar with Little Jimmy Dickens for many years, remembers playing guitar and singing harmony on the Todd disc, but beyond that all session details are unknown.
Another collectors' note: Several discographies list a Donny Young single on American-Canadian (AmCan) as being another Paycheck disc. The record features an obviously different singer and is not included here.
Had it not been for Aubrey Mayhew, the man born Donald Lytle might have continued using the Donny Young stage name indefinitely, perhaps making scads more obscure singles and touring as a sideman with a dozen more big-name stars. As it turned out, Mayhew rechristened Donny Young as Johnny Paycheck after an obscure prizefighter, and he even formed a new Pickwick subsidiary, which he named Hilltop, specifically to release Johnny Paycheck records.
The timing was right this time around. With Paycheck's third release on Hilltop, "A-11," Paycheck finally had a chart hit. During the course of the next few years Paycheck and Mayhew, along with steel guitarist Lloyd Green, would record a slew of highly influential records and set the mold for exactly who and what Johnny Paycheck was supposed to be--dark, brooding, moody, violent--with such milestone recordings as "Pardon Me (I've Got Someone to Kill," "You'll Recover in Time" (about being straightjacketed in a mental ward) and "The Cave" (a song about nuclear destruction), all of which sent influential waves of change throughout the country music community.
The seeds were sown during these years of 1964-69 for what would then be known as Outlaw Country, and no one could fit that bill better than Johnny Paycheck, a man who lived the life he sang about. By the time of his next resurrection in the early 1970s with producer Billy Sherrill, Paycheck was poised for superstardom with such megahits as "She's All I Got" in 1971, and of course his 1977 anthem "Take This Job and Shove It," the song that would forevermore define him.
It was an astounding nineteen years between the day Paycheck first entered a recording studio and his first number-one hit. It's likely that few of the bikers, truckers, and long-haired rebels buying the Paycheck records of the late '70s knew that the gravelly-voiced survivor dated back to a completely different era, when he was a skinny, pompadoured young man with a soaring, high voice, trying to make a name for himself with a name that no one would ever remember: the forgotten alias of Donny Young.
Postscript: Johnny Paycheck died on February 19, 2003, from emphysema and asthma. He is buried in Nashville at Woodlawn Memorial Park in a plot paid for by his old friend George Jones.
Liner notes for the Faron Young collection Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight: Hi-Tone Poppa on Bear Family Records|
By Deke Dickerson, with thanks to Colin Escott, May 2006
When Country Music Hall of Fame singer Faron Young was asked about the rockabilly and rock and roll sides he cut in the 1950s, his answer was simple: "I was not cut out to sing that kind of music," he told David Booth, "but when you drop $400,000 a year, you'll try anything you can. I'd have tried to paint myself black! When I hear any of that stuff today, I turn fourteen flips in the air, I hate it!"
What makes such a statement ironic is that while the teenage-themed pop-a-billy sides he waxed in the late 1950s were forced upon him and bear the authenticity of such, the fact remains that Young's hillbilly boogie songs of the early and mid-1950s, with their braggadocio-laden lyrical content and aggressive boogie-woogie guitar-based sound, were highly influential to the new crop of rockabillies.
Songs such as "Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young," "I'm Gonna Live Some Before I Die," and "If You Ain't Lovin (You Ain't Livin')" preached a lifestyle that was immediately adapted by the first wave of rock and rollers as their own. Almost as importantly, Faron Young lived the kind of life he sang about, a life that would define rock-star behavior--women, pills, booze, and lewdness of the highest order--which would become a mainstay of the four-letter word Rock.
This disc encapsulates but a brief time in Young's long career, but is a perfect one to show how influential he was to the new music known as the big beat, and it is the perfect compilation for those who prefer his up-tempo hillbilly, rockabilly, and rock and roll side. For a better examination of Young's ten years on Capitol Records, check out the excellent Bear Family box set Faron Young: The Early Years 1952-1962 (BCD 15493), which takes you all the way from his early Hank Williams soundalike recordings to his lush countrypolitan hits of the early 1960s. Young also kept recording for Mercury well into the 1970s, with such notable hits as "Wine Me Up" and "It's Four in the Morning."
One thing that can be said of Young's thirty-plus-year recording career is that he always kept up with current trends in music, which goes a long way to explain the recordings on this compilation, which spans nearly every trend in country from the early 1950s through the early '60s.
Young was born on February 25, 1932, in Shreveport, Louisiana, a town that would weigh heavily on the ascent of his musical career. While he seems to have been raised in a typical Depression-era household, he also appears to have been a typical middle-class American child in every other way. He not only completed high school, but also attended college until the show-business bug bit him. Country music seemed unimportant to his early life; he preferred the pop artists of the day such as Patti Page to the rough and rowdy hillbilly music that would eventually become his bread and butter.
What got Faron Young into music was his lifelong need for attention. He began entering amateur contests at a young age, singing pop songs and picking coins off the stage for pay, but appears to have been steered into the country music world when a man offered him five dollars to sing "Jambalaya" instead of the twenty-five cents he was used to receiving for a typical pop request.
Young's quick rise to fame in the country music world can be explained quite simply: He was a good-looking young man in the right place (Shreveport, home of the Louisiana Hayride syndicated radio show) at the right time (the peak of Hank Williams's popularity) with an unquenchable thirst to be somebody. As a detective might characterize it, he had means, motive, and opportunity, of which he took full advantage.
As legend has it, Young had a small bit of experience playing the clubs around Shreveport but had great aspirations even from the start. His first break came when he auditioned songs for local star Webb Pierce. Rather than buying the compositions, Pierce instead liked Young's singing voice and began paying him to warm up his shows and sing in his place when he got too drunk or tired. (This is a time-honored tradition in the country music world. The position is called "front man" and is as ubiquitous as a rapper's posse is in the realm of hip-hop).
Young stayed with Pierce for about a year as his front man, long enough for Pierce to get him on the Louisiana Hayride show and to get Young his first recording contract with the tiny, Philadelphia-based Pacemaker-Gotham label (the same label that Pierce's initial releases were on).
The first release with Young's own vocals was oddly credited to Tillman Franks, who played bass for Pierce and Young. We've included both sides here, and both are great examples of primitive hillbilly boogie: "Hi-Tone Poppa" and "Hot Rod Shotgun Boogie No. 2," which were originally released at Gotham 412.
Young's three releases on Pacemaker-Gotham didn't sell at all outside of the local area, but again luck seemed to be on his side. Capitol Records's A&R man Ken Nelson (a legendary figure responsible for signing the Louvin Brothers, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Gene Vincent, and many others to the label) heard a live broadcast by Pierce and Young as he was driving to Dallas. Knowing that Pierce was signed to Decca but sensing that the other singer might be available, Nelson turned his car around and drove back to Shreveport, where he offered Young a Capitol recording contract on the spot. He would record with Capitol for the next ten years.
Young liked to say that he had a hit with his first record on Capitol, but the truth is that it took three singles before he had his first bona fide hit, "Goin' Steady." "Goin' Steady" was much plagiarism at anything else. Recorded just months before Hank Williams died and hitting its peak on the charts as the nation mourned his passing, the record could have been an unreleased Hank performance, so close was Young's vocal imitation. As Young himself admitted, "Everybody's an imitator when they start, and believe me I had no style at all when I started."
The Hank Williams parallel was based on real-life experience, too. Young holds the dubious distinction of introducing Hank to Billie Jean Jones on a trip to the Grand Ole Opry in the summer of 1952 (where Young was invited to join the cast as a semiregular guest). Billie Jean came to Nashville as Young's date and wound up marrying Hank Williams. She would marry Johnny Horton after Hank's death and became known in the country music world as the Black Widow after Horton's tragic death in 1960. Asked if he had any bitter feelings about losing Billie Jean to Hank, Young would state "I sure am glad ol' Hank took her away from me because she'd have cost me a damn million dollars by now."
"Goin' Steady" was breaking on the charts just as Young got inducted into the Army in November of 1952. He went from making $500 a night to making $87.50 a month, but although it seemed like a career killer at first, eventually he discovered it was another great opportunity. His status as a well-known singer got him the cushiest life a soldier could get. With a fan who was a Third Army general, he was allowed to continue appearing on the Opry, he was able to play small clubs near his army base (in Fort McPherson, Georgia), he could still record new sessions for Capitol, and perhaps best of all he was given the special assignment of recording transcriptions that were sent out to two thousand radio stations a week. It was great publicity he couldn't buy as a civilian--as a soldier he was getting more exposure than ever. Then, as now, a singing soldier dressed in fatigues was a powerful image and country music fans ate it up.
Timed almost perfectly with his release from the Army, his next big hit was the one to define the rest of his 1950s style: "If You Ain't Lovin' (You Ain't Livin')." Written by Bakersfield songsmith (and fellow Capitol recording artist) Tommy Collins, the mixture of hillbilly-boogie musical backing, lyrics about honky-tonk wild living, and Young's plaintive vocals were a magical mixture.
Young would continue this trend with a series of fantastic sides, all of which are included here: "Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young," "I've Got Five Dollars (and It's Saturday Night)," "It's a Great Life if You Don't Weaken (and Who Wants to Be Strong)," and "I'm Gonna Live Some Before I Die," all of which were nearly identical in lyrical content and musical performance. Young was clearly mining a winning formula, with fantastic results.
The strongest criticism that may be leveled on Faron Young's career is that he was willing to do anything, follow any direction, to be successful in the music business. When hillbilly boogie was the fashion, he cut great records such as the ones mentioned above. When pop music appeared to be the new trend, he made horrific records like "The Shrine of Saint Cecilia," which thankfully bombed or we wouldn't speak of him in such glowing terms today!
All of which goes a long way to explain why Young was dragged kicking and screaming into the world of rock and roll. Ken Nelson, the A&R man for Capitol who had signed him, showed him how well singers such as Elvis Presley and Capitol's new star Gene Vincent were selling in comparison to the country roster. Young's fortunes had been dwindling since rock and roll had reared its head, and, in his words, he would rather sing rock and roll than be poor.
His rockabilly sides, most notably "Honey Stop!" and "I Can't Dance," are enjoyable but easily dismissed. The instrumental backing on these and his other forays into rockabilly and rock and roll are simply superb--the Nashville A-team at their rocking best. However, the vocals sound exactly like what they are: a country singer being forced to step into Presley territory and not liking it one bit. At least these sides can still be enjoyed for their musicianship and great sound quality (courtesy of producer Owen Bradley). They are certainly not bad, especially compared with some of the real honest-to-goodness clunkers that Young cut through the years, but you can just tell the man's heart was not in it.
By the late 1950s Young seemed to be back on track. Perhaps rekindled by the chart success of Ray Price, he began recording hard honky-tonk numbers such as "Alone with You" and "That's the Way I Feel." Such records kept an almost rockabillyesque delivery but featured a return to the twin fiddles and steel guitar. Much of the excellent material he recorded around this time came from the members of his road band, which included future superstars Roger Miller on drums and Johnny Paycheck (then known as Donny Young) on bass.
Young also brought along a host of new and inexperienced front men, many of whom would later become stars. From the Wilburn Brothers to Jimmy & Johnny to Gordon Terry and others, he had a knack for picking out young, super talents, and many of these aforementioned stars got their first break touring as Young's front men. Another of his discoveries was a young Texas songwriter by the name of Willie Nelson. Nelson was another knockabout who spent time touring with Young, Ray Price, and others, all the while composing songs that he would pitch to those who would listen and toiling in near obscurity as a writer for Pamper Music in Nashville.
Young was most certainly listening when he heard "Hello Walls," a new Nelson composition from a Pamper Music demo. His firm belief in the song (even as the studio musicians poked fun at it during the recording session, and as Willie tried to sell him the song outright for a few hundred dollars) paid off when it became the biggest hit and defining song of his career.
One part Ray Price shuffle, one part classic Willie Nelson introspection, and one part pop, "Hello Walls" could be considered the definitive example of where Nashville was headed in the early 1960s. Lush orchestration and smooth backing vocals took the place of steel guitars and twin fiddles. The rural edges were sanded off and smoothed down for mass consumption. Young was there and ready to cash in on it, and again he milked this new style for all it was worth, recording several other Willie Nelson compositions in an attempt to score a follow-up hit. He even re-recorded his first hit, "Goin' Steady," with the new uptown country style, and that version is included here. As it happened, he would not have another massive hit until "Wine Me Up" charted in the late 1960s. He switched to the Mercury label in 1962 and spent most of the '60s searching for a new direction before eventually returning to the honky-tonk style that he had started with years before.
Faron Young is most certainly one of the great singers of country music. His place in the Hall of Fame cements that fact. He left behind a vast library of unforgettable music, but in the end it cannot be said that he was an innovator. His desire to be on top of the charts made him a follower, not a leader, but this does not diminish the power of the discography he left us.
Unfortunately, Young's need to be in the spotlight ultimately led to his demise. When he was no longer drawing the crowds, when the phone stopped ringing, and when the records quit charting, he made the decision to take his own life on December 10, 1996. It was a very sad end for one of the greats of country music.
Liner notes for the collection The Ballads of Gene Vincent on Bear Family Records|
By Deke Dickerson, July 2006
Gene Vincent: the ultimate 1950s rocker. Referred to as the Screaming End or the Black Leather Rebel. Certainly Vincent was one of the most iconic of the first wave of rock and rollers, with his tortured facial expressions, classic greasy coif, perfect cat clothes. The brace on his leg was a literal, physical representation of his wild-man status. And yet, from his very first session to his last, Gene Vincent loved to sing ballads. His high, sweet vocal style was perfectly suited to love songs, and he left behind an equally impressive legacy of ballads, never before collected on one disc until now.
I'm sure that countless rockers have brought home their first Gene Vincent record only to discover that nearly half of the songs on the album are ballads. Perhaps they express confusion and consternation at first listen, but over time most fans grow to love Vincent's ballads--when the right mood hits or behind closed doors. This collection contains ballads from throughout his career, from his first session at Capitol in May of 1956 to one of his last sessions in 1969 (he died in 1971). We hope you enjoy it.
Gene Vincent was a straight-up hillbilly boy from the Portsmouth, Virginia, area who grew up listening to country music. The local heroes were a western swing and cowboy act known as the Phelps Brothers, who had a stranglehold on the area from the 1930s well into the 1960s. While the Phelps Brothers played raucous western swing and dance music, they also played a lot of smooth songs--ballads, western campfire songs, even pop hits of the day--and some of this influence must have rubbed off on Vincent in his formative years. It was in fact the Phelps Brothers who spawned two of the most beloved Blue Caps (Vincent's eventual name for his band). Both guitar virtuoso Cliff Gallup and drummer Dickie Harrell played with the act in the years leading up to the formation of the Blue Caps.
The story of how Vincent got signed to Capitol Records has been recounted often--how he won a local talent contest singing Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" and wrote the hit song "Be Bop a Lula" with local DJ "Sheriff Tex" Davis, who got him signed to Capitol Records by being in just the right place at the right time to cash in on the new rock and roll craze. He was literally an overnight sensation, going from local act to the top of the pop charts in less than a few months, and it was enough of a splash to give him a career in music, through good times and lean times, until the end of his life.
The important thing to remember is that given his historical context, Gene Vincent absolutely had to record ballads. Although rock and roll artists were breaking through the charts with some wild and fast numbers, the truth of the matter is that 95 percent of the music business in 1956 was still rooted in the past. Patti Page, Perry Como, Pat Boone, and their ilk were still the most popular artists in America. It was only to be expected that Gene would have to alternate his rockers with ballads. After all, the flip side of Elvis's "Heartbreak Hotel" was a ballad called "I Was the One," a fact that was not lost on anyone when the Blue Caps ventured to Nashville to record their first session in May of 1956.
"I Sure Miss You," the first number on this disc, was recorded at the same session as "Be Bop a Lula," "Woman Love," and "Race with the Devil." What's amazing is that the band that could rock as hard (and with such convincing authority) as it did on those three numbers could then turn around and record such a sweet ballad, with musicianship that was as sophisticated and refined as it was raw and breakneck on the rocking tunes.
At the second session for Capitol, Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps only recorded one rocker, "Crazy Legs," while laying down several ballads at producer Ken Nelson's behest. Nelson freely admitted that he knew little about the new rock and roll sound, and his ideas to have the group cover such standards as "Unchained Melody" and "Up a Lazy River" could have been disastrous if handed to any other young rockabillies of that time. Thankfully, due to the excellence of the Blue Caps and the smooth, tasteful guitar work of Cliff Gallup in particular, these ballads wound up being interesting and memorable when they easily could have been dismal.
We have Ken Nelson to thank for the number of sessions Vincent was allowed to record during his early years. Most groups were relegated to one or two sessions, resulting in a few singles, but on the strength of "Be Bop a Lula" Nelson was already envisioning Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps as an album act in a singles era. One story has Vincent and the Blue Caps raiding the local Norfolk radio station library for 78 rpm records, looking for suitable covers to pad out their albums. Other sources suggest that Ken Nelson handed them many of these songs to learn. At any rate, it was an interesting collection of songs that the group chose to cover. One of the most arcane and disturbing activities of obsessed Gene Vincent fans (such as this author) is the research and debate over which version of these old standards the group must have been listening to when they created their cover version. For instance, "Wedding Bells (Are Breaking Up that Old Gang of Mine)" dates back to 1929, when it was written by Tin Pan Alley songsmiths Sammy Fain, Irving Kahal, and Willie Raskin. The most popular version was by the Four Aces on Decca Records, but it was also recorded by several other groups, including Steve Gibson and the Red Caps, who were a popular black jump blues and vocal harmony group in the early 1950s. One can only assume that it was the popular Four Aces version that Vincent was covering, but the Red Caps moniker (the group formed many years before the Blue Caps) makes one wonder if it was actually the Red Caps version they appropriated. In the same way, "Up A Lazy River" was an old standard written by Hoagy Carmichael and Sidney Arodin in 1931, made into a hit by the Mills Brothers in 1948 and again by Bobby Darin in 1961. However, evidence points to Vincent and the group getting their inspiration from Louis Armstrong's (brand-new at the time) 1956 recording of the song. It is hard to say with certainty because Cliff Gallup's magnificent solo on "Up a Lazy River" was the product of his own inspired original genius.
"Unchained Melody" unfortunately became part of the public consciousness when the Righteous Brothers's blue-eyed soul version was used in the movie Ghost. What most people don't know about this song is that "Unchained Melody" was written in 1936 by Hy Zaret (a pseudonym for William Albert Stirrat) and Alex North, and it was fresh in the American psyche when Vincent and the boys recorded it, since it had been the theme song for the 1955 Hollywood formula picture Unchained.
Since they are not included on this disc, details will be spared on this author's opinions with respect to where the Blue Caps found other cover material. Perhaps if you too become truly obsessed and find yourself scouring old boxes of 78s for yet another version of "Jump Back, Honey, Jump Back" we can compare notes in the future, but for the sake of the normal souls we've already lost, we'll move on.
"Important Words" was another Gene Vincent and "Sheriff Tex" Davis collaboration (at least on paper; the reality is that no one knows if either one actually wrote it), released as the flip side to "Crazy Legs." This was one of the best Elvis-styled ballads Vincent ever recorded, with the actual Jordanaires contributing backing vocals. It was recorded in October 1956 in between the Jordanaires' trips to New York for Elvis's first and second appearances on the Ed Sullivan show in September and late October. Again Cliff Gallup rises to the occasion and plays one of the most memorable solos of his short career.
Sadly, Cliff Gallup had had enough of the touring musician's lifestyle by this last session in October 1956, and he quit the group to lead a quiet family life and play occasional local gigs. Most bands would have been absolutely derailed by the loss of such an important member, but Blue Cap Paul Peek came through when he suggested a guitar player from his band back in South Carolina, a skinny young hillbilly picker by the name of Johnny Meeks. Like Gallup, Meeks had played in country bands and was new to rock and roll music. What he brought to the table was a new style, less sophisticated but more rocking than Cliff Gallup's, with a biting and trebly tone that would dominate Gene Vincent's recordings for the next few years. Meeks was also excellent at coming up with interesting parts to play on lead guitar behind Vincent's ballad material. For instance, "Wear My Ring," from Meeks's first Capitol session in June 1957, was an east coast Brill Building bit of bubblegum written by Bobby Darin and Don Kirschner. In other hands it could have been rotten filler, but Meeks's guitar parts make it a successful recording, interesting from a purely musical standpoint.
Many of the tracks on this collection are from the Johnny Meeks era of the Blue Caps, circa 1957 and 1958. Vincent tackled tons of ballads during this time, in a period when rock and roll was shifting from its primitive wild birth to a teen idol-oriented landscape with more ballads than rockers dominating the charts. It's not hard to see what direction Vincent was attempting to push his career in; he was following the trends and trying to have more hit records. Once again, luckily for us listeners, he made memorable ballads, some of which are equal to his rockers in terms of originality and goose-bump factor. Added to the mix during this era were the harmony backing vocals of the Clapper Boys: Paul Peek (who had started out as a rhythm guitar man) and Tommy "Bubba" Facenda. Their voices blended well with Vincent's and added a new dimension to many of the ballads from this era.
Most of the ballads were new songs pitched to Vincent through Ken Nelson and his interest in the Central Songs Publishing Company, but a few more old standards received the Gene Vincent treatment. "You Belong to Me," a Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart chestnut from the 1940s, was given a superb Elvis-style treatment, with the Clapper Boys providing a lush foundation for Vincent's soaring falsetto. Love or hate the song, Gene's version of "Over the Rainbow" will be remembered by some as his finest ballad moment. His gentle reinterpretation is a world away from his pounders like "Baby Blue," but his vocals are impeccably on the mark. Bernice Bedwell, the Dallas-based author of "Lotta Lovin'," contributed another memorable ballad, "In My Dreams," which was not released as a single but stuck as album filler on the Gene Vincent Rocks and the Blue Caps Roll album. It remains a favorite to Vincent fans and is included here.
Vincent would occasionally record material penned by the various members of the Blue Caps, for instance Johnny Meeks's "Say Mama." Mostly the Blue Caps kept submitting rockers for Gene's consideration, but the exception was talented pianist Clifton Simmons, who came from the same group back in South Carolina that Paul Peek and Johnny Meeks had been plucked from. Simmons wrote several great ballads for Vincent, including "The Night Is so Lonely," and "You Are the One for Me," both included here.
Most fans know that Vincent moved to the Dallas area during 1957 and 1958 and that he used several Dallas area musicians in his band, including "Juvie" Gomez, Max Lipscomb (aka Scotty McKay), and Howard Reed, among others. On a few occasions he even took songs from local Dallas area artists and recorded them. Included here is a very catchy number written by Johnny Carroll (of "Crazy Crazy Lovin'" fame), a great rock-a-ballad called "Maybe," recorded in 1958 and not to be confused with the Chantels' doo-wop hit of the year before.
1958 ended with the Blue Caps all quitting the band and splitting in opposite directions, mostly due to the rigors of the road and Vincent's inability to take directions from his agents and managers. Thus began a gradual state of decline for the now solo, drifting singer, who first moved to Oregon and then Alaska, using pickup bands wherever he landed. Various memories of Gene Vincent during this time paint a dark picture of a falling star with little promise of any future. He was able to cobble together a fairly decent group to record his Crazy Times album, including Johnny Meeks-soundalike guitarist Jerry Lee Merritt and some great Hollywood session musicians, but no tracks from 1959 are included here on this ballads collection.
What happened next probably surprised Gene Vincent more than anyone else. He toured in Britain and discovered that the fans there were rabid for savage rock and roll. He became a black leather-clad idol to a new crop of greasy-haired hooligans who worshipped his earlier recordings. He began a pattern of moving back and forth between the United States, England, and Europe for the rest of his life. Dropped from Capitol USA but signed to Capitol/EMI (based in the UK) thanks to his popularity in England, Gene began recording with British groups such as the Norrie Paramour Orchestra, the Beat Boys, and Sounds Unlimited. The next batch of ballads that we present to you here were recorded in 1960 at Abbey Road Studios in London.
"Weeping Willow," "There I Go Again," "Love of a Man," and "Where Have You Been All My Life" are wonderful examples of pre-Beatles British music production and Vincent's voice is in top form, yet it still seems strange to hear him doing ballads that should have been done by Petula Clark or Gerry and the Pacemakers. What makes it even stranger is that the audience in Britain, which was really going for him during his stay there, truly despised this sort of teenybopper British pop music, which was aimed at young girls in the suburbs rather than the rough, motorcycle-riding Teddy Boys in the inner cities, who began tattooing images of Vincent on their bodies.
Predictably, these records did not sell, and Vincent was dropped from Capitol Records by the end of 1962, just in time for the Beatles (who were rabid Gene Vincent fans) to come in and change the musical landscape completely, making it nearly impossible for the rockers of the 1950s to continue making a living. Amazingly enough, he managed to stay in the business and remain a commodity of small to medium value for the rest of the 1960s. He had a one-off album for Columbia in the UK, from which the ballads "Lavender Blue" and "Someday (You'll Want Me to Want You)" are included here.
Back in the United States he had comeback attempts in 1966 and 1967 for Challenge Records in Hollywood, who arranged for several big-budget sessions with A-team session musicians, resulting in a string of singles that also failed to click. From these recordings (which produced at least one memorable rocker, "Bird Doggin'") came the countryish ballads "Lonely Street" (written by Carl Belew and covered by Dave Rich and Don Gibson in the 1950s) and "Hi-Lili Hi-Lo," both included here.
The last track on this compilation comes from one of Vincent's last sessions, produced by Kim Fowley for Dandelion Records, for yet another album that failed to recapture past glories. "Scarlet Ribbons" is, however, a nice way to end things, with Vincent's pretty voice disguising the pain and failure that was plaguing his life at the time. He would die from a bleeding ulcer two years later.
Gene Vincent will always be remembered for his rock and roll music and for his image as one of the wildest and most tortured singers of the first rock era. We hope, however, that this compilation has shed a bit of light on his other side--the sweet-voiced ballad singer who could put real emotion and feeling into a well-written ballad the same way he could tear the hell out of a nonsense-lyric rocker. There was definitely more to this man than met the eye--a complex blend of city and country, sweet and profane, mysterious yet accessible. We hope you enjoy this other side of Gene Vincent.
Liner notes for the Jack Scott collection Jack Rocks on Bear Family Records|
By Deke Dickerson, July 2006
Rock and roll and its warped cousin, rockabilly, were mostly the property of the southern states in the 1950s, with nearly all the big stars coming from within driving distance of Memphis. It makes sense, however, that the city of Detroit spawned a real, honest-to-goodness rock and roll legend, Mr. Jack Scott of Hazel Park, Michigan.
While Detroit was as far north as any major American city, the population was for the most part made up of hillbillies and black Americans who had moved up from the southern states to work in the automobile industry. From the 1930s until today, this diversity has made Detroit a spawning ground for many interesting musical hybrids: John Lee Hooker, Little Willie John, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters in the R&B field; Casey Clark, Lonnie Barron, and the York Brothers in country-western; the entire Motown Records clan and Atlantic Records superstar Aretha Franklin in soul; and of course a whole slew of gritty rock bands from the MC5 to Iggy and the Stooges to present chart darlings the White Stripes. Even present-day rap-rock star Kid Rock is a Detroit mix of black hip-hop and redneck country influences.
Somewhere in that mix came Jack Scott. He was a Canadian-born Italian, real name Giovanni Dominico Scafone Jr., who was raised in Windsor, Ontario, just over the border and across the bridge from Detroit. At the age of eleven his family moved to Hazel Park, Michigan, a hillbilly (read: white) suburb of Detroit. His father was a musician and played guitar for the kids (Jack was the oldest of seven children), putting a guitar in his hands at the tender age of eight. He loved country music and would strum his guitar around the house and listen to country music on the radio, dreaming big dreams about the Grand Ole Opry and Nashville. During his teenage years, Scott worked a number of odd jobs while continuing to play guitar. He formed a local hillbilly band called the Southern Drifters (an interesting name for a band from Michigan!) at eighteen.
Scott was always obsessed with music. He imitated Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, and many others. His aspirations were fully formed at an early age, and in fact he changed his name from Giovanni Scafone to Jack Scott at the suggestion of local WEXL disc jockey Jack Eirie, who said he might be more successful with a more easily pronounceable, more anglicized name.
When Elvis came along everything changed, and like many other teenagers of the mid-1950s Scott realized he might have some potential with the new sound of rock and roll. The Southern Drifters began working Elvis and Bill Haley songs into their country repertoire. It's doubtful, though, that Scott had any idea that he would soon be at exactly the right place at the right time--a place where a good-looking, greasy-haired Italian kid who played the guitar could be a famous rock and roll musician--but that's exactly what happened.
In early 1957 the group decided one night after a dance to rent some late-night studio time and laid down two tracks, "Baby She's Gone" and "You Can Bet Your Bottom Dollar." "Baby She's Gone" was influenced heavily by Elvis's version of "Money Honey" but has proved to be a classic in its own right, with Scott's original vocal delivery hinting at the style he would make his very own in the upcoming few years. The group consisted of his cousin Dominic on drums, Stan Getz (not the famous jazz musician) on bass, and Dave Rohillier on lead guitar. The fiddle player, Wayne "Arkansas" Sudden, came to the session but didn't play. It is interesting to note that Stan Getz would also play on the other phenomenal Detroit rockabilly masterpiece "Long Blond Hair" b/w "Rock Rock" by Johnny Powers, revealing what a small rock and roll community Detroit had at the time.
The group took their acetate around to all the local record shops, trying to find a label that would release it. One record store man named Carl Thom played the dub for the local ABC-Paramount rack jobber, who then mailed the acetate to New York for the label bigwigs to hear. Like many other labels, ABC-Paramount was keen to get new rock and roll records on the market and leased quite a few regionally recorded tapes for release. They put out "Baby She's Gone" b/w "You Can Bet Your Bottom Dollar" straight from Scott's demo tape, not bothering to do a big studio recut of the tracks, in April 1957 as ABC-Paramount 45-9818. The record was a small local success, but not a hit, so ABC-Paramount tried again with a second release, "Two Timin' Woman" b/w "I Need Your Love" (45-9860) in November 1957. Although "Two Timin' Woman" was another classic rocker, this record sold even less than the first one and Scott was soon dropped from the label.
By early 1958 he had composed two new songs that he felt were hit material. He recorded acetate dubs of the new songs in order to pitch them to record labels. The rocker was a blast of a number about a friend he had who was always getting into trouble. The problem was that it was called "Greaseball," surely an apt title but one that didn't fly with record company executives, who felt it might insult the Mexican-American community. After the record company told him to change the title, Scott went into the studio bathroom and saw that someone had written "Leroy was here" on the wall, and he immediately changed the song title to "Leroy." The flip side was another ballad, entitled "My True Love." Legend has it that Scott wrote it for his first girlfriend. As ballads go, it was the first fully realized number that epitomized the Jack Scott ballad style: a near-dirge tempo with simple, teenage lyrics delivered in a plaintive, drawn-out drawl. This style became a favorite of greasers, teddy boys, and rockers around the globe. Scott would work this ballad style for years (check out the new companion collection to this one, entitled Jack Scott Ballads, for more of these slow grinders).
Although some have stated that "Leroy"/"My True Love" was issued first on the Detroit-based Brill label, this author has never seen a copy to verify its existence. Several Detroit-area record collectors vouch that there was no such release. It is possible that it may have been put out on another acetate dub record with the Brill label, which would explain the confusion.
What is known is that a song plugger from New York, Jack "Lucky" Carle (brother to Frankie Carle, the easy-listening musician), heard the record and took it to Murray Deutch in New York City, who was the general manager of Peer-Southern Music Publishing Company. Deutch contacted Joe Carlton, who purchased the two cuts along with an option on Jack Scott's career for $4800 and soon released "Leroy"/"My True Love" on his own Carlton label in June 1958. Deutch snagged song publishing as his cut on the deal, and Joe "Lucky" Carle assumed a management role in Jack Scott's career. Leroy became an immediate hit, and Scott was suddenly a rock and roll star, although he was still a kid living at home with his parents. After "Leroy" peaked at number twenty-five on the charts, the disc jockeys turned it over and began playing "My True Love," which eventually peaked at number three and became one of the biggest hits of 1958.
Jack Scott had indeed arrived. Unfortunately, due to his multitiered management, publishing, and record label arrangement, he was also soon to learn all about the vagaries of the music business, and how everybody except the artist manages to get a big chunk of the money. He was twenty-two, though, and at the time was just happy to have a record that was played every morning on the radio in his mother's kitchen.
Scott's band had made some adjustments, too, bringing in the talented Al Allen on guitar and George Kazakas on saxophone. Scott also brought in a vocal backing group from across the border, a young group of Canadian singers called the Chantones. The Chantones were from Windsor, Ontario, Scott's original hometown, and they added a unique sound to the Carlton recordings. Their name came from the French phrase nous chantons, which simply means "we sing." Although their influences were strictly white-bread vocal groups such as the Crew Cuts and the Four Freshmen, their harmonies were somewhat ragged, not polished, and with a heavy accent on the bass singer. It was a unique sound, and the Chantones input on the classic Jack Scott rockers cannot be overemphasized.
After the success of "Leroy," Scott was off and running. A series of excellent tracks followed, including "Geraldine," "With Your Love," "Save My Soul," and another classic Jack Scott ballad entitled "Goodbye Baby" (included here), which rose all the way up to number eight on the charts. The next single, "I Never Felt Like This" b/w "Bella," was another great effort that failed to chart, though it was a perfect distillation of all the right elements, with a cool Magnatone vibrato effect on Al Allen's guitar, a memorable melody, and excellent mood backing vocals by the Chantones.
The next release, which only reached number thirty-five at the time, without question became the song that has defined Jack Scott ever since: the greaser classic "The Way I Walk," backed with another good rocker entitled "Midgie." "The Way I Walk" is perhaps the ultimate in greaser bravado, a song that means little to the casual listener but says volumes to the hipster who can relate to such lines as "The way I walk is just the way I walk." Greaser existentialism at its finest, it was a language that could not be understood by the older generation but fully connected with the kids. Jack Scott had his own style--not a frantic, out-of-control way of rocking but instead something that bordered on a slow burn. It was menacing, but like a mean look or a slight gesture rather than a fist to the face. As those who have studied horror films or film noir know, sometimes these implied feelings are more compelling and hold more power than an explosion of violence. Jack Scott's finest moments, such as "The Way I Walk," are perfect examples of this.
Scott recorded several of his new Carlton singles in true stereo, which had just become commercially available in 1958. After Elvis Presley's binaural stereo recordings of 1957 (which were not released until the 1980s), Jack Scott's stereo recordings of 1958 and 1959 were the first stereo recordings to be released by a white rock and roll artist. The only downside to this achievement was that when the stereo version of his first album, simply titled Jack Scott (Carlton LP 12/107) was released, half of the album was remixed in rechanneled fake stereo, taking away from the fact that the other half was indeed breaking new ground.
Scott was drafted in January 1959 and immediately began applying for deferment based on the grounds that he was supporting his parents and siblings. That didn't fly, so he applied for a medical discharge on the grounds of a chronic ulcer. The ulcer freed him from service, and he was out by May 1959.
A feud between Peer-Southern music publishing and Joe Carlton at Carlton Records resulted in Scott being wooed away from Carlton to record for a new American wing of the British label Top Rank. In retrospect, Scott wished he had remained with Joe Carlton, but it was a management decision and he went along with the party line. Scott was just beginning to learn that he was a product, being bought and sold by men in suits on the East Coast, each of them taking a piece of him and leaving Scott with lots of glory but no songwriting, publishing, or performance royalties. It was a classic, sad tale of the music business.
Top Rank entered the game with a fantastic two-sider, "Baby Baby" b/w "What in the World's Come Over You," which both sounded like a continuation of what Scott had been doing over at Carlton. "Baby Baby" was another great rocker in the "Leroy" tradition, but the ballad side, "What in the World's Come Over You," turned out to be the hit and ruled the airwaves in the first few months of 1960. It peaked at number five on the charts.
About this time, Joe Carlton exercised his right to release Jack Scott material. Carlton's buyout stated that he could not release new singles, so Carlton put out a new album sneakily titled What Am I Living For to subliminally capitalize on the success of "What in the World's Come Over You," leasing the four 1957 sides from ABC-Paramount to round out the album as well as a number of singles on a new label he started, Guaranteed. As far as Scott's career was concerned, it was terrible timing to have these other releases clogging up the marketplace when he was putting out new material on Top Rank. Of course, many years after the fact, fans were grateful that such rockers as "Go Wild Little Sadie" and others were released and not left in the vaults.
Really, Scott had little to complain about in 1960, however, as his next release on Top Rank, "Burning Bridges" b/w "Oh Little One," became a number-three hit. "Burning Bridges" became the biggest-selling record of his career.
Top Rank released no less than three Jack Scott albums in less than a year and a half. What in the World's Come Over You was a collection of his hit singles and cool album tracks such as "Good Deal, Lucille." Strangely enough Top Rank released two specially recorded concept albums, I Remember Hank Williams (a collection of midtempo Hank Williams tributes with rather milquetoast production) and a gospel album called The Spirit Moves Me. The latter two are rarely discussed among the greasers that hold Jack Scott near and dear to their hearts.
Again the music business treated Scott like a pawn in a chess game. In 1961 Top Rank Records went out of business and Scott's contract, along with all the old Top Rank masters, were sold to Capitol Records. Scott wanted to investigate other avenues, but the suits in charge of his career were making the decisions for him, which he ultimately regretted, especially the move to Capitol. Whereas the sessions for Carlton and Top Rank had been loose, informal, and creatively controlled by Scott himself, the Capitol sessions were formulaic productions where Scott walked in the studio to find already-finished backing tracks for songs he hadn't written or chosen.
Scott was told time and time again by the people who owned him that these songs were the new "in" sounds, so Scott recorded whatever they put in front of him. The sad thing is that they took away the originality he had brought to the table with his own brand of Detroit rock and roll. The Capitol recordings are far inferior to those he did with ABC-Paramount, Carlton, and Top Rank, though a few good rockers and ballads escaped such as "Grizzly Bear," included here.
More than anything else, the record business was literally changing around Jack Scott, rather than the other way around. To his credit, Scott never really changed his style to suit a new fad or craze--he was always just Jack Scott. When the Beatles took over in 1964, he did what a lot of previous rockers did and began recording pop-influenced country music that was essentially a continuation of what he'd been doing all along.
When his Capitol contract expired in 1963, Scott phoned RCA Records in Nashville and wound up with Chet Atkins himself on the phone. Atkins was coming up to Detroit to do a demonstration for Gretsch Guitars, and he asked Scott to pick him up at the airport and loan him a flattop acoustic guitar for the performance. Scott shuttled Atkins around Detroit and played him a few songs. The next morning, on the way back to the airport, Atkins asked Scott to record for RCA Records, or, more accurately, its Groove subsidiary.
Scott's releases on Groove (and, beginning in 1965, RCA proper), starting with his first single in December 1963 all the way to his last in 1966, were eerily timed with the Beatles' massive takeover of the music industry. That said, Scott kept plugging along, making good records that failed to click with the country music audience. He recorded a few very good 1950s-style rockers at RCA/Groove that must have seemed terribly out of place in the British Invasion marketplace, but today they are enjoyable, if slightly awkward, to listen to. Tracks like "Meo Myo'," "Wiggle On Out," and "Flakey John" are almost like a greaser's last stand, but enjoyable in retrospect. Even Scott states that these records didn't have any "balls" (his word), but for 1965 and 1966 they were great stabs at keeping real rock and roll alive.
Although to the greater record-buying public it must have seemed like Jack Scott was retired from the business after his RCA-Groove contract ended in 1966, he kept releasing singles that didn't connect with the record buying public, first for ABC-Paramount, the label he'd started with in 1957, then Jubilee, then GRT, then one last major-label stand in 1973 and 1974 on Dot Records. These records were all good enough attempts at current country and pop, but there wasn't a song in the bunch that was hit material, and by the mid-1970s Scott was back to playing the local bars around Detroit. He kept demoing new material, thinking the opportunity would arise for a new career, but he had no idea where that opportunity would come from. As it happened, it turned out to be Europe, where a new crop of greasers and teddy boys who had discovered Scott's 1950s classics were clamoring for the man himself to come and make personal appearances and new records. Since then Scott has played local shows around Michigan as Jack Scott the local hero and toured over in Europe several times a year as Jack Scott, rock and roll legend.
This collection of Jack Scott rockers is the first of its kind, focusing on all of his great rocking numbers from 1957 until 1966. It's only one side of Jack Scott, the artist, but the other side can be sampled on the companion volume, Jack Scott Ballads. If you just can't get enough Jack Scott, the massive Bear Family box set remains an attractive option for the completist.
Jack Scott has secured a niche for himself in the history of rock and roll. As he likes to point out, he had more hits than Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran combined. His sound endures to the present day, loved by "greaseballs" the world over. We hope you enjoy this set, because Jack Scott does indeed ROCK!
Liner notes for the Maddox Brothers and Rose collection Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight: Ugly & Slouchy on Bear Family Records|
By Deke Dickerson, May 2006
They were loved by Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley; it would be hard to come up with a musical group more influential than the Maddox Brothers and Rose in the bawdy birthing of rock and roll music in the 1950s.
What is true about the Maddox Brothers and Rose is that their music, a rough and rowdy blend of hillbilly boogie, western songs, and medicine-show hokum, was a powerful spark of inspiration to the first wave of rockabillies and rock and rollers. From their wild stage costumes to their fleet of Cadillacs, the Maddox Brothers and Rose were rock stars before there was such a thing as a rock star. In what has become a most ironic twist of fate, their recording of "The Death Of Rock And Roll" (included here), meant to parody Elvis, has become their most revered recording in rockabilly circles, rightly given credit as an excellent example of the genre!
The compilation presented here is a selection of the Maddox Brothers and Rose's hottest recordings for Columbia Records, from their very first session in January 1952 to the last secular recording the group ever did in August 1957 before Rose went solo and the family assemblage disbanded. For rockabilly and hillbilly boogie fans, this is the ultimate collection to have. If you want a more complete representation of what the Maddox Brothers and Rose were really about, check out the Bear Family box set The Most Colorful Hillbilly Band in America (BCD 15850), a four-CD collection of their entire Columbia legacy. If you are the type of fan who wants to hear absolutely everything, their earlier recordings from the 4-Star label (which many consider their best) and their live radio transcriptions have been expertly reissued by the Arhoolie label. Bear Family has also released an excellent box set, The One Rose (BCD 15743), which contains Rose Maddox's entire solo output from the Capitol years of the late 1950s and 1960s.
The Maddox family saga has been told and retold many times, and it is the stuff of legend. As writer Robert K. Oermann put it, "They didn't have to read John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath; they lived it." The Maddox clan (and, indeed, they were more a clan than family) hailed from the scrubby mountain area of northeastern Alabama, where their father Charlie and mother Lula sharecropped and set up camp near the small town of Boaz (only thirty-nine miles away from Section, Alabama, birthplace of the Louvin brothers, and only seventy miles from Hank Williams's birthplace in Mount Olive West, Alabama). Cliff was the eldest son, born in 1912, followed by the senior sister, Alta, in 1914; Calvin followed in 1915, Fred in 1919, Don in 1922, the littlest sister, Rose, in 1925, and finally baby brother Henry in 1928. The family lived in the poorest imaginable conditions, though it was not atypical for that economically depressed area. They led a hand-to-mouth existence working the land, without the benefit of running water or electricity.
What differentiated this family from the tens of thousands of similar poor, southern families of the era was the matriarch of the Maddox household. Lula Maddox was quite simply unique among her peers, ruling with a dominance that extended not only to managing the financial aspects of the family business, but also to discouraging her children from marrying or leaving the fold. Lula came up with the idea, mostly from reading dime-store novels, that the family should move to a mythic place called California, where gold literally grew on trees, and she held fast to this notion for years until she finally convinced the Maddoxes to venture west in 1933. Predating the enormous Okie migration by several years, the family headed west with $35 that they had made from selling the few possessions they owned. Hitching rides, walking, and chiefly riding in boxcars with hoboes and drifters, the Maddoxes made it to Los Angeles in a few weeks, with days off spent working odd jobs to feed the family sufficiently for the next section of the journey. From there they headed north to satisfy Lula's dream of working what she called the gold fields of Sonora.
What they found instead were more impoverished families like themselves, all looking for the promise of a better life. The Maddoxes were soon living in a Depression-era phenomenon known as the Pipe City of Oakland, a construction area with many large drainage culvert pipes where families set up living quarters within the curved sections of unused pipe. A famous picture from this time was published in the Oakland Tribune on April 11, 1933: a Dust Bowl sepiatone showing the five children with Charlie and Lula and a caption that read "Family Roams U.S. for Work." From here the family settled into a migrant farming lifestyle around their next adopted hometown of Modesto. Now known as "fruit tramps" and wrongly called "Okies" (a derogatory designation on a par with the term "nigger" at that time), they slept in tents on the cold ground while following the fruit picking harvests around central California's San Joaquin valley.
While music had always played a role in their lives (being one of the few free forms of entertainment available to dirt-poor laborers like the Maddoxes) it took the wily mind of middle son Fred Maddox to envision the family as a professional musical outfit. They had little more than a single guitar among them, with no experience playing as a band, when Fred decided the way to escape manual labor was to go professional as a music group. With Lula's help, Fred approached the Rice Furniture Company in Modesto about sponsoring the Maddox Brothers to perform on the local radio station KTRB. Fred was always able to charm his way into any situation, and he sold the owner on sponsoring the group--with one hitch. The owner insisted that the group had to have a female singer. Without missing a lick, Fred promised him that their younger sister, Rose, was the greatest female singer in the history of music, and they got the job. What he had neglected to mention was that Rose was only eleven years old and had done little singing besides some hollering out in the fields and around the campfires!
Nonetheless, the group debuted in 1937 on KTRB and almost immediately found success, receiving more than ten thousand cards and letters within their first week on the air. The Maddox Brothers and Rose formula was cast from the start and changed very little until their breakup in 1957. Their professional persona is easily explained, as the family band was simply an extension of who they were in real life. There was no pretension or any element of a manufactured image. Their authenticity was a distinction that made them extremely popular with common people. The fans knew that this group was just like them--sang for them and about them.
There was one exception, though, that perhaps defines the difference between country music and folk music. While the Maddox Brothers and Rose played simple music for simple people, they knew from the start that their audiences wanted to see a show and to be entertained. You wouldn't see the Maddoxes wearing tattered peasant clothes a la Woody Guthrie and riding in a Model T for folky schtick. Instead they became known as the most colorful hillbilly band in America, wearing the fanciest Western suits ever created, playing the finest, top-of-the-line musical instruments, and driving brand-new, shiny cars. It was a masterful stroke of show business, and the Maddoxes would create a wave of excitement wherever they went.
The group began recording for Bill McCall's 4-Star record label in 1945. McCall was a legendary figure in the record business, most famous for refining techniques of nonpayment and avoiding royalties, which resulted in more than one artist pulling a gun on him (and which continues today, with the 4-Star legacy poorly managed due mostly to fear of royalty lawsuits). The Maddox Brothers and Rose struck a deal with McCall that was fine with the group, largely because it resembled the barter system that they had grown up with as sharecroppers. McCall would give them as many 78 RPM records as they desired, which they could then sell at shows. It cost McCall barely anything to give them free product, and the Maddox Brothers did quite well by selling the records as merchandise.
The group during this period was augmented by several outside musicians, including legendary guitarist Roy Nichols, who was a young teenager when he played with the Maddox Brothers and Rose (and who would go on to fame as a guitarist for Wynn Stewart, the Farmer Boys, and of course most notably Merle Haggard), another well-known California guitarist Gene Breeden, and steel guitar player Bud Duncan. The Maddoxes' musical ability was still somewhat limited, and having these musicians on their records and at their live appearances added fullness to their sound. Eventually, Mama Maddox would decide that having outsiders in the band was a bad idea, and by the early 1950s the band was made up of family members only (though occasionally accompanied in the studio by the likes of Joe Maphis and others).
By the time that the Maddox Brothers and Rose signed with Columbia in January 1952, they had built up their reputation and fame to a point where they were considered the most popular hillbilly act on the West Coast. Although their sound was a lot more primitive than most of Columbia's roster, their popularity couldn't be denied and producer Don Law decided they met the criteria to be on the label. The Columbia material ran the gamut, as did the group's live shows, from pure hillbilly to western group singing tunes, novelty songs, ballads of tragedy, and fiery hillbilly boogie. It was as if they were throwing something against the wall to see what would stick. On this compilation we have chosen to feature most of the uptempo hillbilly and boogie-woogie material, starting with a song from their very first session, "I'll Make Sweet Love To You," which is a great example of what the Maddox Brothers and Rose were really about--pure hillbilly chaos--from the group cutting up and laughing on mic to their ragged-but-right group playing, anchored by Fred's frantic (and quite rockabilly sounding) slap bass.
All the tracks from the early 1950s included here are wonderful examples of the same formula, from their cover of the Carlisles' "No Help Wanted" to one of Rose's first solo recordings, "I'm a Little Red Caboose" (recorded in Nashville with much of Hank Williams's band) and other Rose compositions such as "You Won't Believe This" and "Fountain of Youth." In 1955 the group recorded a session at Jim Beck's studio in Dallas without the aide of any outside musicians, which offers a great glimpse into what they must have sounded like live. "I Gotta Go Get My Baby," "No More Time," and their autobiographical "I've Got Four Big Brothers (To Look After Me)" are all masterpieces. A Rose solo session from February 1955 illustrates what a musical pioneer she was, covering Ruth Brown's "Wild Wild Young Men" and oozing pure rockabilly (with hot licks courtesy of Maddox alumni Roy Nichols on guitar and future guitar-string magnate Ernie Ball on steel guitar). A December 1955 session with Merle Travis on guitar produced the rocking "Hey Little Dreamboat," firmly establishing Rose as the first female to cut rockabilly music.
The brothers' most fondly remembered session came in August 1956 with three of their best numbers, "Ugly And Slouchy," "Paul Bunyan Love," and "The Death of Rock and Roll." "Ugly and Slouchy" is Fred Maddox's finest moment, an ode to the joys of having an unattractive mate because "there's never any fear of her loving someone else." Fred's wild bass slapping dominates all three songs, most notably on the frantic "The Death of Rock and Roll." As previously mentioned, the Maddox Brothers' farce, meant as a parody of rock and roll, has since become their best-loved tune in rockabilly circles, and with good reason--the Maddoxes could rock with the best of them. Rose cut some more great rocking material in Nashville in November 1956 with Joe Maphis from the West Coast tagging along on guitar. That session included another rockabilly killer, the phenomenal "I'll Go Steppin' Too. "
The last Maddox Brothers and Rose sessions took place in the spring and fall of 1957 and again showcased some of their finest moments, including the favorites "Short Life and Its Troubles," "Dig a Hole (In the Cold Cold Ground)," "Stop Whistlin' Wolf," and "Let Me Love You," all considered Maddox Brothers standards today, as well as an odd but groovy cover of Mickey and Sylvia's "Love Is Strange" with nice, bluesy guitar licks courtesy of Billy Strange. Though the Maddox Brothers would do one more session with Rose in February of 1958 (a gospel album that became their only LP release on the label), the writing was on the wall for the group that had been playing together since the late 1930s. Rose had been recording solo sessions for several years, and the brothers had grown tired of living under Mama Maddox's extreme control. When Columbia dropped the group and Rose in 1958, the brothers and their sister went separate ways. Although Cal and Henry would occasionally record and tour with Rose, the family group officially disbanded and never again recorded together. Fred Maddox attempted to keep it going with Henry's wife Lorretta (billed as the Maddox Brothers and Retta), and after the public rejected the new lineup he became a local Los Angeles-area raconteur, opening several clubs (including Fred Maddox's Playhouse in Pomona) and running the Flat-Git-It record label, releasing his own solo recordings as well as other LA-area country acts. Don Maddox enrolled in agricultural college, moved up to Oregon, and quit the music business.
Rose continued her life as a star, with Lula continuing the stranglehold on her daughter, never allowing her to have a personal life (Rose's personal life was full of disastrous relationships, including a marriage and a son, Donnie, that Lula would not allow Rose to raise--a story in itself). The focus was always on the career and the next recording session or concert down the road. Rose was signed to Capitol Records in 1959 and had a very successful run with the label, recording a hit duet with Buck Owens ("Mental Cruelty") in 1961 that brought Owens great notoriety and established him as a true up-and-coming star. In addition, Rose recorded a phenomenal bluegrass album with Bill Monroe that is to this day considered a benchmark of the genre.
Lula died in 1969, collapsing in Rose's arms. Rose continued the only life she had ever known, playing small beer joints and country music halls throughout the country, touring with her son Donnie on bass and guitar. She had grown closer to him in his teenage years, but he died in 1982, another death that broke Rose's heart, prompting a gospel album in tribute to her son, A Beautiful Bouquet. Rose never stopped touring, save for time spent recovering from a heart attack in 1981. This author was fortunate enough to back up Rose at a folk festival in San Diego in 1995, and her voice was as strong and feisty as it was when she was a young girl.
Rose continued to record after her Capitol days for small labels, including Starday, Cathay, Portland, Takoma, and Varrick, until the Maddox Brothers and Rose legacy finally began to receive its due. Arhoolie Records began an excellent series of reissues of early Maddox material as well as several well-received new albums, including 35 Dollars and a Dream, which was nominated for a Grammy in 1996!
Rose died in April 1998, after Fred in 1992, Henry in 1974, and Cal in 1968 (Cliff had died years earlier in 1949). Today Don "Juan" Maddox is the only surviving member of America's Most Colorful Hillbilly Band, still living on the family ranch outside Ashland, Oregon.
This collection is the ultimate collection of the Maddox Brothers and Rose's rockabilly, hillbilly boogie, and "flat-git-it" country recordings. In the words of Billy Miller, if there was any justice in the world, the Maddox Brothers and Rose should have been rich enough to live in a mansion--with Kenny Rogers forced to be their gardener. We hope you enjoy this collection. There will never be another group like the Maddox Brothers and Rose.
Liner notes for the collection Rockin' Bones on Rhino Records|
By Deke Dickerson, May 2006
Rockabilly IS guitar music. While fans and historians can argue about many details regarding rockabilly, one thing can't be denied: The guitar is the vital heartbeat of the music. Add a sax or piano, it becomes rock and roll. Add a fiddle or banjo, it's country music. Without question, the sparse framework of rockabilly music is anchored by the twang of the electric guitar.
When people think of the classic rockabilly band, they imagine a swivel-hipped young singer with a good head of greased-back hair. There is also a doghouse bass player, slapping away with wild abandon, and a drummer in the back playing a simple rhythm. But if you had to imagine the lead guitar man, the most accurate depiction would be an older guy standing behind the singer playing a big jazz box, with a look on his face somewhere between boredom and disdain.
On the vast majority of classic rockabilly recordings, the singer is a young good-looking kid in his teens or early twenties, but the guitar man is five to ten years older, with a long background in country, jazz, or pop. The music known as rockabilly would never have its spark without the youthful energy and wildness of the teenage singer; but it also wouldn't have its foundation or power without the lead guitar man behind him.
Perhaps the mold was cast when Scotty Moore laid down his classic guitar licks on Elvis Presley's first recordings. Moore was several years older than Elvis and had a pure country music background--he did not share the King's interests in rhythm and blues and pop music--but the results were spectacular when Moore attempted to play blues and sped up country licks to Elvis's frantic vocalizing. It was something new, and different, and the mold of rockabilly guitar was set (hear Moore on the two Elvis tracks on this box set: "Baby Let's Play House" and "One Night of Sin").
Cliff Gallup, playing lead guitar for Gene Vincent's Blue Caps, was an older musician who played for western swing bands and as a radio staff guitarist before joining Vincent's band. His guitar playing was essentially equal parts Les Paul, Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith, and George Barnes, but when pushed up to breakneck tempos, it became the epitome of rockabilly guitar playing that all players have tried to emulate since. After being in the group less than a year, Gallup quit the band to lead a quiet family life (he appears on both Gene Vincent tracks on this box set: "Woman Love" and "Cat Man").
In Nashville, studio ace guitarists Grady Martin, Hank Garland, and Chet Atkins played on hundreds of classic rockabilly recording sessions. One could hardly imagine a less likely trio of rock and rollers, as they were all heavily into jazz and years older than the singers they recorded with. Their playing was innovative, however, and exciting, and their guitar solos have also become part of the blueprint of rockabilly (there isn't much Nashville rockabilly on this particular box set, but check out Hank Garland and Grady Martin on Janis Martin's "Bang Bang" and Jimmy Lloyd's "Rocket in My Pocket," both on disc one).
Similarly, on the West Coast older session men such as Joe Maphis and Barney Kessel played on rockabilly records for the likes of Wanda Jackson and Ricky Nelson (hear Maphis's blistering work on "Fujiyama Mama" on disc two). On the East Coast, session men Mickey Baker and George Barnes kept busy with rockabilly acts such as Joe Clay and Janis Martin, lending some of the most memorable guitar solos to the genre. While these were all respected, older country and jazz guitar players who for the most part never considered themselves rock and rollers, their contributions to the canon of rockabilly guitar playing are immeasurable.
As the music grew in popularity, eventually younger proteges such as Eddie Cochran, James Burton, and Larry Collins came into the spotlight. Even though these players were in their teens at the time, they had been playing for years in the styles that their older peers had their roots in (you can hear these guys all over this box set. James Burton's first session, Dale Hawkins's "Suzie Q," is on here along with his great version of "Red Hot" with Bob Luman and his trademark Tele twang on Ricky Nelson's "Believe What You Say." Eddie Cochran's big hit "Summertime Blues" is on disc one, and it is this author's opinion that it's session-man Cochran's hot guitar you hear on the classic tracks "Please Give Me Something" by Bill Allen and "Crazy Little House on the Hill" by Gene LaMarr. Larry Collins is of course featured on "Mercy" with his sister Lorrie on disc three and his own positively manic "Whistle Bait" on disc one.
So where did it all come from? The truth is, there wasn't a radical change from what had been happening in the early 1950s with hillbilly boogie and rhythm and blues to what happened with rockabilly. Hillbilly boogie was a huge phenomenon that happened in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Easily the most obvious predecessor to rockabilly, it was defined by loud electric guitar, and a twelve-bar blues chord pattern, which was not terribly common in country music before that. For an example of hillbilly boogie on this box set, check out Louis Innis and Charlie Gore doing their cover of "Hound Dog," retitled "You Ain't Nothin' but a Female Hound Dog" on disc two.
There is no doubt that Merle Travis, and to a lesser extent Chet Atkins, were huge influences on all rockabilly guitar players. If you listen to "That's All Right, Mama" by Elvis-that's Merle Travis that Scotty Moore is emulating. That thumb-picking style of finger-picking guitar was revolutionary for the time, and Merle Travis was looked up to as if he was the Eddie Van Halen of his day.
Other regional celebrities such as Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith in the Carolinas, Paul Buskirk in Texas, Jimmy Bryant in California, were hugely influential with young country fans who were picking up the guitar for the first time. It seemed like every town had its local hot picker, and they wielded untold influence on hundreds of upcoming rockabilly guitarists.
A lot has been written about the confluence of styles that came together to make rockabilly, and the blues can't be denied. Exciting electric blues players such as T-Bone Walker, Gatemouth Brown, and B. B. King were also huge influences on young guitar players, who heard their sounds while tuning into all-black radio stations, usually from the Deep South. It's important to remember that most of America was as square as a cube during the 1950s. Most white kids couldn't get their hand on a blues record if their life depended on it. But mainstream artists like Les Paul, Al Caiola, and even Lawrence Welk's guitar player Buddy Merrill were seen on television and heard on the radio by whitebread America on a daily basis, playing electric guitar and sneaking in hipster licks among the polkas and waltzes. Les Paul's influence on rockabilly guitar can't be denied--in fact, next to Merle Travis he's probably the single most imitated guitar player on this box set. His dazzling pull-offs, exciting take-off leads, and innovative uses of the electric guitar were electrifying to young musicians coming up in the 1950s.
Part of the charm of rockabilly is the merging of these influences--black and white, city and country, North and South--into something new and exciting. But whereas many white country boys were trying to play like B. B. King, they couldn't quite get it right and were playing it too fast, the result being pure rockabilly. If you listen to the guitar playing throughout this box set, you'll hear the influences, but you'll rarely hear somebody with the technical proficiency to really pull off what they were attempting. This is the essence of rockabilly guitar playing! For example, if you listen to Buddy Holly's early recording of "Down the Line," you'll hear the band trying to play something resembling bluegrass, but with guitar, bass, and drums. The result is pure rockabilly! Similarly, listen to Roy Orbison attempting to play blues licks on "Domino." He doesn't succeed at the blues but creates killer rockabilly in the process.
Besides the musical influences, the other important aspect that defined rockabilly, and rock and roll guitar playing in general, was the rapidly changing landscape of electronic innovation. Just as cars and airplanes changed from older, boxy-looking styles into sleek and futuristic designs in the mid-1950s, so did electric guitars and amplifiers undergo a radical change. The electric guitar was invented in the early 1930s, but the designs were primitive and not readily accepted until the '40s. As the technology evolved, players were able to get more and more volume out of their instruments, and also change from a tone that emulated the acoustic guitar to one that was purely electric--biting and trebly. Blues players experimented with distorted, overdriven tones that were insanely radical to the ears of the time. Country musicians were also some of the first to embrace the new advances in electric guitar technology, including the newly introduced solid-body electric guitars such as the Fender Telecaster and Gibson Les Paul. When rockabilly came along, many of the players were using the most modern technology available at the time--equipment that would take several years to become mainstream!
It wasn't just the guitars and amplifiers that were changing. The technology of recording sound was evolving just as rapidly and played a major part in the evolution of rockabilly music. Recording studio engineers went from primitive disc recording to advanced, high-fidelity recording within a couple years in the early 1950s. Most important to the evolution of rockabilly was when they learned how to make tape echo using their tape recorders. The twang of the electric guitar, and the Merle Travis style in particular, lent itself perfectly to the slap-back sound of tape echo. In fact, if there is one piece of technology intrinsically linked with rockabilly, it is tape echo. Sam Phillips had just learned how to make tape echo at Sun Studios when Elvis Presley walked in the door, and it's hard to imagine those Sun Records without the wash of tape echo. Owen Bradley had just learned how to make tape echo in Nashville when Gene Vincent, Johnny Carroll, and Jimmy and Johnny arrived to take their first stabs at the big beat. The tape echo on the guitar tone of Gene Vincent's guitarist Cliff Gallup literally defines his sound (listen to "Cat Man" on this set, and you'll hear that the echo is actually louder than the original signal!). If he had recorded there just a year earlier, his tone would have been dry and without effects. By the late 1950s and early '60s recording studios were using more than just simple tape echo, and turned more toward reverb as the effect of choice. In turn, guitar amp manufacturers began offering built-in reverb, and the sounds began evolving into something different. Thus the sound of the tape echo on the electric guitar will forever be linked with those years in the mid-1950s when rockabilly existed in its purest and most natural form.
In fact, it was precisely this rapidly changing landscape of music and technology that left rockabilly behind just a few years after its birth. Almost as if they were preserved in a time capsule, the sounds and images of 1950s rockabilly music and guitar playing exist within the grooves of the tunes on this box set as an era (and sound) frozen permanently in history. The playing styles and guitar tones of 1950s rockabilly have become legendary. Rather than fading into history, young players have taken the mantle to preserve this sound into future generations. Rockabilly guitar will never die!
Liner notes for the collection A Man Like Me: The Early Years of Roger Miller on Bear Family Records|
By Deke Dickerson, with special thanks to Darrell McCall, March 2006
As a youngster, this author was introduced to country music through his grandmother, who was a real, honest-to-goodness gray-haired granny widow living up in the hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She had one of those big ol' console stereos, ordered from Sears, and one of her favorite record albums was a compilation of older country hits. I would sit and listen intently for hours, but one song by one artist in particular truly perplexed my fragile young psyche. The song was "You Don't Want My Love (In the Summertime)" and whenever the singer would start scatting the solo, sounding completely incoherent, going into a falsetto punctuated by sounds resembling Donald Duck, I just didn't know what to think.
"That's Roger Miller," my granny explained with a chuckle. "He's CRAZY!"
Roger Miller was the most unlikely of country music super stars. Although he led the sort of extreme wild-man existence that no grandmother could ever comprehend, he somehow was able to charm the pants off the entire nation with his immense wit and original song style. Miller could have made it on any one of his talents-songwriter, comedian, singer, entertainer, actor-but his hyperactive creativity couldn't be tempered until he had excelled in all of his pursuits. By the mid-1960s Miller was hot as a pistol, with an NBC television special, his own regular TV show, a mantel full of Grammy awards, and a string of huge hits including "Chug-a-Lug," "Dang Me," "Engine Engine #9," and of course his career-defining hit "King of the Road."
It took less than ten years for Miller to come from nowhere and arrive at the top of the hill. As with others who have achieved monumental success, the story of how he got there was an interesting one. Until now, not much attention has been paid to Roger Miller's early recordings. This collection attempts to rectify the situation, gathering together all of his early sides from his very first session in 1957 up to the time he signed with RCA-Victor in 1960.
Though Miller could lay claim to being a Texan, having been born in Fort Worth on January 2, 1936, his father, Jean Miller, died when he was only a year old, and his mother Laudene had to farm her three boys out to Jean's family. Roger went to Erick, Oklahoma, to live with his Uncle Elmer and Aunt Armelia Miller, and today Erick proudly proclaims itself the home of Roger Miller, even hosting a Roger Miller museum downtown!
Miller remembered his upbringing in small-town Oklahoma as "so dull you could watch the colors run." Between working in the fields, walking three miles to school, and feeling lonely and cut off from his mother's love, life was hard for him. Nonetheless, he exhibited a bright mind from an early age, making up songs on his long walk to school. His loneliness and isolation helped fuel his creative drive. "We were dirt poor," he once told an interviewer. "What I'd do is sit around and get warm by crawling inside myself and make up stuff. . . . I was one of those kids that never had much to say and when I did it was wrong. I always wanted attention, always was reaching and grabbing for attention."
Release eventually came in the form of his cousin Melva's husband, Sheb Wooley (yes, the same Sheb Wooley who later had a huge hit with "Purple People Eater" in 1958 and a string of hits under the pseudonym Ben Colder in the 1960s). Wooley was fifteen years older than Miller and was a powerful mentor to the young miscreant, encouraging him to take up music as a creative outlet. Wooley was the first one in the family to make a dent in the music business, making records for Bullet in 1945 and MGM beginning in 1950. He moved to California in the mid-'50s, and in addition to making records he also worked as an actor in countless low-budget westerns and television shows. It must have seemed terribly exciting to the young Miller, stuck in the Dust Bowl of the Oklahoma prairie.
Miller spent countless hours listening to the radio, from the Grand Ole Opry to the Light Crust Doughboys, daydreaming about Wooley's exciting life out in California. Soaking up influences from what he heard, he eventually declared Bob Wills and Hank Williams to be his favorite artists. When Wooley came back to Oklahoma to visit, he helped Miller by showing him chords on the guitar, and he bought him his first fiddle. Eventually wanderlust got the best of Miller, and he began traveling as far as he could run away, getting odd jobs during the day and listening to music at the honky-tonks by night. His desire to become part of the professional music world led him to steal a guitar in Texas, which he reckoned was the only way he would ever be able to own one.
After he was caught (or turned himself in, depending on which story you believe), the judge gave him the option of jail or joining the army. Though he was only seventeen at the time, he chose the latter and was immediately shipped off to the conflict in Korea. According to Miller, "My education was Korea, clash of '52." By the time he arrived at Fort McPherson in Atlanta, Georgia, to finish his stint in the army, his talents as a musician had become known and he joined his first band, the Circle A Wranglers, on fiddle. The Circle A Wranglers were an armed services outfit that already had one famous alumnus--Faron Young--who later would be one of Miller's first professional employers.
Bolstered by this experience, Miller headed straight for Nashville after his release from the army. The first thing he did when he hit town was to walk right into Chet Atkins's office and announce that he was a songwriter. Atkins handed him his guitar and asked him to play something, at which point Miller became completely overwhelmed that he was in Chet Atkins's office playing Chet Atkins's very guitar. According to Miller, "I was so nervous, people thought I was wavin'!" Although he flubbed the audition, Atkins told him to work on his songs and come back to see him when he had it together.
Undaunted, Miller got a job as a bellhop at the Andrew Jackson Hotel in downtown Nashville. He was so eager to sing his songs to anyone who would listen that he became known as the Singing Bellhop, a tag that would stick with him for years. "It had more dignity than washing dishes," he would say later. The job put him in the thick of the bustling downtown music activity, and indeed his Singing Bellhop shtick served to get him noticed. He caught his first break when Minnie Pearl offered him a job as fiddle player in her touring road band.
After that ended, his next opportunity came when he met George Jones at a late-night session on WSM. Miller played Jones some of his songs, and Jones was sufficiently impressed to recommend him to Don Pierce and Pappy Daily of Starday Records, the label that Jones was recording for at the time. Miller auditioned for Pierce and Daily at the Andrew Jackson Hotel, and they agreed to record him at their studio, Gold Star, in Houston. Miller rode from Nashville to Texas with Jones, and on the way they wrote songs together, including "Tall, Tall Trees," which Jones recorded soon thereafter, and "Happy Child," which was recorded by future sausage magnate Jimmy Dean (it was the first of Miller's compositions to be committed to wax).
Gold Star Studios in Houston (no relation to the Los Angeles-based Gold Star, but rather a Texas independent still in business today as Sugar Hill Studios) was at the time an extremely primitive recording studio situated in a corrugated tin barn. Lined with egg cartons and equipped with the most basic of monaural equipment, it was nonetheless a hit-making institution. George Jones had recorded all of his earliest hits there, including "Why Baby Why" and "Window Up Above." It had also been host to countless rockabilly and country obscurities. Unfortunately, Roger Miller's debut single would fall into the latter category.
"Poor Little John" b/w "My Pillow" was released as Mercury-Starday 71212 in fall 1957. "Poor Little John" was a great Cajun-meets-rockabilly uptempo number, and "My Pillow" (sometimes listed only as "Pillow") was a superb country weeper; both were written by Miller. The same session produced "You're Forgetting Me" and "Can't Stop Loving You," two more Miller originals that were released as Starday 356, but copies are so rare that this author didn't believe it existed until recently, when a legitimate one surfaced. Both singles were re-released in the mid-'60s to cash in on Miller's success, but original copies of both are exceedingly rare.
The Starday discs went nowhere, and though Miller continued to pen tunes for George Jones and several other Starday artists, he became discouraged with the music business. When his first wife, Barbara, announced that she was pregnant, Miller decided to get a day job to support his new family and moved to Amarillo to join the fire department. While this move today sounds like the plot of a sitcom (Roger Miller as a fireman?), he worked at the fire department during the day and continued playing music in the honky-tonks around Amarillo by night. With predictably comical results, he was soon relieved of his fireman duties around the same time that he was introduced to Ray Price at a local show.
The two kept in contact, and a few months later Miller was hired to replace Van Howard as Price's front man (a relatively thankless job that involved warming up the crowd to begin the show and also singing vocal harmonies with Price) in the Cherokee Cowboys. Miller and his wife moved back to Nashville, where he toured with Price and continued writing songs, including "Invitation to the Blues," which was recorded by both his boss and Rex Allen. Price's version became a number-three hit, and Roger Miller suddenly found himself not a struggling songwriter but a successful one. Grand Ole Opry bassist Buddy Killen signed Miller to a songwriting deal with Tree Publishing (still in business today as Sony/ATV publishing). Tree was a veritable gold mine of unknown talent that also employedfuture stars Johnny Paycheck (then known as Donny Young) and Bill Anderson as well as many other future notables. Miller wrote many hits during his tenure at Tree, including "Half a Mind" for Ernest Tubb, "That's the Way I Feel" for Faron Young, and "Home" and "Billy Bayou" for Jim Reeves.
While he was establishing himself as a proven writer of hits, he also earned a well-deserved reputation as a loose cannon, and Buddy Killen was always after him to make a finished song out of the hundreds of brilliant scraps he left in his wake. Bill Anderson recalls, "Ernest Tubb wrote the last verse of 'Half a Mind' because Buddy couldn't get Roger to sit down and finish it. Roger was the most talented, and least disciplined, person that you could imagine. It was his personality. Roger was the closest thing to a genius I think I've ever known." Buddy Killen adds, "The songwriters in Nashville would follow him around and pick up his droppings because everything he said was a potential song. He spoke in songs."
Another of Miller's peers, Darrell McCall, said of his old friend, "Roger had what I call a double-barreled brain. He just thought differently than everybody else. If you rode along with him in a car, he'd be thinking of something from the back end forwards, for instance one of my favorite Roger quotes: 'I went to a fight last night and a dance broke out.' He just had a really unique way of looking at the world."
Miller became fast friends with Donny Young, aka Johnny Paycheck, and the two became infamous "roaring" buddies, staying up all night on a combination of uppers and pure nervous energy. Both managed to get signed to Decca as artists around the same time, with Miller contributing vocal harmonies to Paycheck's first single, "On This Mountain Top," recorded in September 1958. Paycheck sang harmonies on Miller's "A Man Like Me" b/w "The Wrong Kind of Girl," recorded three months later and released as Decca 9-30838. Both were excellent songwriting efforts by Miller. "A Man Like Me" stands the test of time as one of the finest honky-tonk records ever made, with superb production by Owen Bradley and his A-team session musicians. The flip was another brilliant weeper. Sadly, though Miller clearly poured his heart and soul into this record, it sank without a trace.
Six months later, on June 30, 1959, Miller again returned to Owen Bradley's studio, where he cut "Sweet Ramona" and "Jason Fleming," which were released as Decca 9-30953. "Sweet Ramona" was an attempt at a country pop hit, whereas "Jason Fleming" was as close as he ever got to rock and roll. The session logs for "Jason Fleming" say it was recorded between midnight and 2:30 a.m., which echoes the loose, party atmosphere of the record. The Bradley studio was really swinging that night, and session drummer Buddy Harman plays some of the best snare fills of his career on this one. Overall it's a marvelous record, one of the most infectious Miller ever cut, a solid gas from the first note to the last. While it's usually easy to say forty-plus years later that it "should have been a hit," the sad fact is that it's truly hard to figure out why "Jason Fleming" didn't click. It strongly foreshadows the sort of carefree, good-natured songs that Miller would take to the charts just a few years later, but when it was released in late 1959 it didn't make a dent. Miller (just like his buddy Donny Young) was soon dropped as a Decca recording artist.
One reason for this alarming lack of success may have been that although Miller was a well-known songwriter around Nashville, he was still very much an unknown as a performer and didn't tour much under his own name. One story has Miller, Donny Young, and Bill Anderson setting out on their lone solo tour, only to end with Miller having to pawn his new portable record player (purchased so that the trio could listen to their own songs while on the road) for gas money home.
Back in Nashville, Miller had the dubious distinction of being a successful songwriter who had somehow managed to spend all of his royalties and was back to being broke. 1959 and 1960 were lean and somewhat desperate times, and like his buddies Donny Young and Darrell McCall he found himself taking on scab (nonunion) sessions, recording soundalike versions of current hits down at Starday (which had by this point established its own low-rent studio in Nashville) for ten bucks a pop. No doubt Miller needed the money, but those ten-dollar sessions came back to bite him a few years later. At the time a few of the songs were released on a couple of obscure, budget, top-hits-of-the-day discs with anonymous artist billing, but in 1965, after Miller was a real honest-to-goodness star, Starday issued everything they could dig up (save for one unreleased track, included here, "Hot Rod Lincoln") on a cash-in LP called Wild Child Roger Miller: Madcap Sensation of Country Music (Starday SLP 318). No doubt fans of his recordings for RCA and Smash--big-budget, high fidelity, current-sounding discs--were in for a shock when they bought the Starday LP. Made to look like it was his most recent album, Wild Child was a collection of some of the most primitively recorded stuff any country star had ever done, and most of it was covers of songs that had been hits years before by other artists! While it was a great relic for collectors, one can only imagine that Miller must have been less than thrilled when it was released.
During the lean years of the late 1950s, Darrell McCall remembers, "If it hadn't been for Ray Price, Faron Young, and George Jones, we'd have all starved to death." One way to stay afloat was to sign on as a sideman with an established act. Faron Young recalled seeing Miller hanging out one day at Tootsie's Orchard Lounge, seemingly depressed. When Young asked him why he was so down, he replied it was because he didn't have a job. Young then asked if he was a drummer. "No, but when do you need one?" was Miller's reply. "Monday," replied Young. "Well," Miller responded, "Monday, I'm a drummer!" Young sent Miller to pick up a set of drums, and he toured as Young's drummer for over a year.
Faron Young also employed Miller's old buddies Donny Young and Darrell McCall, who had both carved a niche in the Nashville scene as excellent harmony singers and utility musicians. Their wild times on the road are legendary. McCall summarizes what it was like to tour with Young and all the boys together in a cramped station wagon: "I remember we crossed over into Mexico, and on the way back, Faron had to tell the border guard 'AMERICAN!' as we drove back over the border. Well, a short time later the same day, Roger and Donny were under a blanket in the back seat, smoking pot, and there was some kind of road construction going on. Faron, thinking it might be a police checkpoint, yelled at the two to stop what they were doing, and in something resembling a scene from a Cheech and Chong movie, Roger came out from underneath the blanket in a huge cloud of smoke, just in time to roll down his window and exclaim 'AMERICAN!' at the flagman just as we passed by."
It was during Miller's tenure with Faron Young that he signed his next record deal, with RCA-Victor. His success with songs he wrote for Jim Reeves brought him back to Chet Atkins's office, where he had flubbed his audition many years before. He had a new song that Buddy Killen was hot on, called "You Don't Want My Love." Killen suggested to Atkins that Miller should cut it himself, and in one of the least-corporate moves of his career, Atkins agreed.
Commonly known as "In the Summertime," "You Don't Want My Love" was released when Miller was still touring with Faron Young. Darrell McCall reveals that Young was intensely jealous of others' ambitions and told Miller many times he didn't have what it took to be a star in his own right. When Young played at Carnegie Hall weeks after "You Don't Want My Love" was released, he poked fun of his drummer to the audience and told him to come up and sing his new hit record, thinking he was setting Miller up for failure. "Roger got up there to the microphone and said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I am the king fool,'" Darrell McCall remembers, "and when he sang 'You Don't Want My Love,' the place just went absolutely nuts for him. That night was the turning point. After that night, there was no doubt--Roger Miller was a star."
Miller went on to have an incredibly successful run in the business. He had dozens of hits, won several Grammy awards, had his own NBC television show, and eventually became a Tony award-winning composer for Broadway plays. After he died in 1992, he was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. That much of the story is well known to Miller's fans. Hopefully this release will shed some much-needed light on the early days and the lean years of one of the most brilliant men in the country music business, Roger Miller.
Liner notes for the collection Bonnie Owens: Queen of the Coast on Bear Family Records|
By Deke Dickerson, April 2007
Bonnie Owens, a fine country singer and songwriter in her own right, will forever go down in history as the woman who was married to both Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Although this association alone would get her mentioned in the Country Music Who's Who, it is also true that as a solo performer Bonnie Owens recorded an impressive body of work, enough material to make up the box set that you are now holding. Whether or not she would have been more or less famous had her life not been intertwined with two of country music's biggest giants is a mystery, and even though she never had any huge hits to her name, Bonnie Owens is still known today as one of the genre's finest underrated female singers.
Bonnie Owens was a woman everyone liked; not one person has anything bad to say about her. Over and over again, that sentiment was echoed by every single person interviewed for this box set, not only Merle Haggard and her sons with Buck Owens, Buddy and Mike, but also people that Bonnie met only in passing.
Bonnie would ultimately find her greatest success as Merle Haggard's harmony and duet singer, a job she would keep long after her marriage with Merle had ended. It was this professional role that most country music fans and historians will forever associate with her, but on her own she left behind an impressive discography of singles and albums that place her as one of the most important female artists of the West Coast brand of country music that came to be known as the Bakersfield sound.
This box set represents everything that Owens ever recorded as a solo artist in her golden era of 1953 to 1971, from her first single on the tiny Mar-Vel label, through one-offs on small labels like X, Del-Fi, Pike, and fine early efforts for the Tally label of Bakersfield, to her six albums that she recorded for Capitol Records. When added to the incredible volume of work that she recorded with Merle Haggard during their forty-year association, it becomes apparent that Bonnie was one of the most recorded female singers in country music history.
So why didn't she become a star? It's hard to pinpoint exactly why it never happened for her. If you ask the key players in the Bonnie Owens saga, a complex picture emerges, with no clear answers.
Merle Haggard: "I have no doubt that my success overshadowed Bonnie--it had to. Bonnie would be the last one to bring that up. She never complained. We were married and she was happy to tour and sing and write with me."
Fuzzy Owen: "There are a lot of great singers who never made it big. I think Bonnie's problem was that she never had that song, that one hit song that would have made her."
Ken Nelson: "Bonnie's problem was that she was timid--she was just too darn shy."
Michael Owens: "Mom had the talent to be a recording star, but she just didn't have the cold heart and the cutthroat attitude that it takes to make it."
We'll never know the real reason why Bonnie didn't make it big on her own, but the fact remains that she was one of the finest female country singers of all time. The recordings on this box set attest to this fact.
PART ONE: THE EARLY YEARS
Bonnie was born Bonnie Maureen Campbell on October 1, 1929, in Oklahoma City, the fourth of six girls and two boys in a typical Depression-era family. Like many families of the day, they worked the land as sharecroppers and did lots of other odd jobs to make ends meet. The family moved to Blanchard, Oklahoma, when Bonnie was just a baby, and that is the town that Bonnie usually cited as her hometown. In those Dust Bowl hard times, the family also moved around to Middleburg and Tuttle, Oklahoma, and eventually migrated to Gilbert, Arizona, near Phoenix.
Bonnie's father, Wallace Campbell, was a jack of all trades and worked many different jobs, including stints as an iceman and then as a carpenter at the nearby Williams Air Force Base. Wallace played fiddle, piano, and harmonica, and he sang; he loved music and he fostered the musical abilities of all the kids in the family. Although he never played professionally, Wallace was by all accounts Bonnie's first musical inspiration.
From a very young age, Bonnie was always singing. Her sister Betty recounts that as a little girl, Bonnie talked endlessly about wanting to be a singer. She was fond of yodelers like Patsy Montana, and she practiced yodeling constantly. An early family memory of Bonnie is of her singing while standing on bales of hay in their barn, using a broomstick as a microphone. A typical rural family, the Campbells listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the weekends, and country music singers were the centers of their musical universe. Bonnie's sister Loretta remembers that "there was always music around us; we were surrounded by music."
Bonnie was so sure about her future as a singer that she attempted to drop out of school in the seventh grade. Her father talked her into returning, which she did, even though it meant starting over and repeating the seventh grade. Bonnie's lack of interest in school was so intense that she failed the eighth grade, which suited her just fine, as the setback landed her in the same grade as her sister Betty, who was two years younger. Betty remembers that one of the only things Bonnie liked about school was the orchestra, where she played both the trombone and French horn. She also sang in some of the school assemblies. Ultimately, their schooling mattered little because both Bonnie and Betty would drop out of high school in their junior years.
Bonnie's father suffered the first of many heart attacks in the late 1940s, and on doctor's orders to go to a milder climate, he moved the family to the Oakland/Alameda area (near San Francisco) in 1949. He died in 1958, after years of bad health. Bonnie, meanwhile, stayed in Arizona because she had fallen in love with a man named Buck Owens.
PART TWO: ENTER ALVIS "BUCK" OWENS JR.
Years before the hit records, decades before his Hee Haw television stardom, Alvis "Buck" Owens Jr. was just another hardscrabble hillbilly kid in love with music, with a head full of what seemed at the time like unreasonable dreams of stardom. He was six weeks older than Bonnie (Buck's birthdate was August 12, 1929) and born in Sherman, Texas, but living in Mesa, Arizona, since 1937. Buck could pick a hot guitar, and he wasn't a bad singer either. He worked picking oranges during the day and played music on the weekends with a duet act known as Buck and Britt (featuring Buck's friend Theryl Ray Britten as Britt). The pair had a fifteen-minute radio show on KTYL in Mesa, which made them famous, at least to their friends and family members.
Bonnie met Buck at the Mazona Roller Rink in Mesa around 1945, when she was just fifteen or sixteen years old. Bonnie's sister Betty recounts that the two girls would take the bus into Mesa to go roller skating, which in their teenage years was their only form of socializing. Buck knew Bonnie from school, but at first Buck's romantic interest was directed toward Betty. One day Bonnie turned up unannounced at the Buck and Britt radio show. When Buck asked her why she was there, Bonnie replied that she was there to sing. Before that day Buck didn't even know Bonnie had any desire to be a singer, and soon he began dating Bonnie.
Bonnie was included in Buck's next musical endeavor, a local combo headed by gas station owner "Mac" MacAtee called Mac's Skillet Lickers. The group was a typical hillbilly act of the day, with Buck playing steel guitar and Bonnie contributing vocals where needed. It was the first real professional band either of them had been in, and it gave both of them invaluable experience.
Mac's Skillet Lickers are rumored to have recorded, either radio station acetates or an actual 78 rpm record release, but nothing has turned up, even after a search through Buck Owens's music vault. At the time of this writing, there is nothing to document what the band sounded like, although a good guess would be the Maddox Brothers and Rose, then one of the biggest acts on the West Coast. Rose Maddox was one of the most popular and influential female country music singers in those years. Far from the demure, submissive female singers who were popular in the Southern states, Rose was a brash-voiced honky-tonk queen who could hold her own around a group of rowdy boys and whose loud nasal drawl could cut through a band of electrified instruments and a set of drums. She influenced an entire generation of female country singers who owed less and less to the old school of Kitty Wells and Patsy Montana and more to the rowdy rhythm and blues singers of the post-World War II era such as Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker.
In the late 1940s the Maddox Brothers and Rose also featured a new teenage guitar sensation by the name of Roy Nichols. Though young and fairly inexperienced, Nichols could dash off hot jazzy licks in the style of Jimmy Bryant and Junior Barnard. His presence with the Maddox Brothers and Rose was positively electrifying to a new generation of young guitar players, after the days of Gene Autry strumming open chords on an acoustic guitar, at the dawn of a new world where electric guitars could bring jazz into country music.
One memorable night, the Maddox Brothers and Rose, featuring Roy Nichols, played a local dance in Chandler, Arizona. In the audience were a teenage Buck Owens and Bonnie Campbell. In an interview with Robert Price published in the Bakersfield Californian, Bonnie remembered, "I never took my eyes off Rose Maddox--and Buck never took his eyes off of Roy Nichols." Roy Nichols, of course, would eventually wind up being Merle Haggard's guitar player for more than twenty years and is the lead guitarist on most of the tracks in this box set.
Buck married the four-months-pregnant Bonnie in January 1948, and soon they had two baby boys, Alan Edgar "Buddy" Owens, born in May 1948, and Michael Lynn Owens, born in March 1950. In interviews Bonnie would always say that her boys were her proudest accomplishment.
The marriage had its problems from the beginning. The young couple struggled to make ends meet, and soon after Michael was born it became obvious the union was not going to last. Bonnie moved to the Bakersfield area, where Buck's aunt and uncle, Vernon and Lucille Ellington, had offered to help take care of the boys. Buck followed soon after, with his parents in tow. Amazingly, Buck and Bonnie had an amicable parting and remained friends. They wanted to give their two boys the best possible upbringing and worked together to share responsibility for their care. For the time being they were separated, but they remained married since neither of them could afford a divorce.
PART THREE: BAKERSFIELD
Bakersfield is the place in California where a country person can feel right at home. Miles away physically and culturally from Los Angeles and San Francisco, it was a destination for Okies and other migrant workers. With its oilfields, cotton fields, and other agricultural industries, work was plentiful, if not financially rewarding. Many of the farm workers lived in labor camps, tent cities, and other temporary housing that allowed them to follow the crops by the season.
With the influx of hillbillies, Mexicans, African Americans, Native Americans, and Chinese into the region, a new "crop" of music came into being that was as much a melting pot as the other facets of this new society. There was country music, to be sure, but it was a different kind of country music. Loud, electrified, and exciting, new acts such as Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Spade Cooley's Orchestra, and the aforementioned Maddox Brothers and Rose brought a completely different style to the region. It was a strong foreshadowing of what would ultimately be called rock 'n' roll, but in the late 1940s and early 1950s it was simply called hillbilly music.
Bakersfield developed a lively music scene centered in the rough dives and juke joints frequented by these new workers. Places like the Lucky Spot, the Clover Club, the Barrelhouse, and the Blackboard Cafe had live music seven nights a week. Big shows would come touring through town at places like the Rainbow Gardens and the Pumpkin Center Barn Dance.
Bonnie Owens found herself working as a carhop at a hamburger drive-in located at the intersection of Union and Truxton. Buck's aunt Lucille cared for the boys during the day while Bonnie worked. Bonnie was already known around town for her singing talent, having already done a guest spot or two at the Blackboard Cafe and the Clover Club. Buck, in the meantime, had become lead guitarist for Bill Woods and his Orange Blossom Playboys, who played six nights a week at the Blackboard Cafe.
One day Thurman Billings, owner of the Clover Club, stopped with his wife at the drive-in asked if Bonnie would be interested in working at the Clover Club as a cocktail waitress. He also mentioned that anytime she wanted to sing at the club, she would be welcome. Bonnie's sister, Betty, was already a waitress there, so Bonnie accepted the offer.
Bonnie became known as the singing waitress, a nickname that stuck for years. When she worked a shift, several times a night the house band would get Bonnie up to sing. It was great experience for her professional singing career, but terrible for her waitressing job--she lost tips every time she got up on the bandstand.
The challenge of being a single mother in the early 1950s was fraught with huge obstacles for Bonnie, but she never let anything stop her from taking care of her boys, or from pursuing her musical career. Buddy and Michael remember that they literally had dozens of babysitters who took care of them while their mother worked at night. Bonnie never had a car, and the family constantly moved from place to place. It was a hand-to-mouth existence, yet Buddy and Michael remember that whatever they lacked in money, Bonnie and their relatives made up in love and devotion for the two young boys.
It was while working at the Clover Club that Bonnie met a young steel guitar player by the name of "Fuzzy" Owen who had just returned from the Army.
There's more! Download the entire liner notes as a Word document.
Liner notes for the collection Hag - The Capitol Recordings 1968-1976 (Concepts, Live, and the Strangers) on Bear Family Records|
By Deke Dickerson, July 2007
One thing that cannot be said about Merle Haggard--the man has never been afraid to try something new. In a career that has spanned forty number-one hits, nearly a hundred albums, induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and just about every award imaginable, Merle has never seemed content to rest on his laurels.
Most of country music's great artists are glorified one-trick ponies, making album after album of same-sounding material. In examining the recorded output of Merle Haggard, it becomes apparent that this was never the case for him. With an energy that bordered on the pathological, Merle Haggard seemed intent on doing it all.
Merle Haggard was the first country music star to realize that with great fame and fortune came great opportunities to realize his own personal dreams and ambitions. In today's world, where rock stars' whims are indulged as a matter of fact, this may not seem like such a revelation. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, Merle Haggard was bringing new rock-style sensibilities to the country music world.
Other stars had recorded tribute albums, or live albums, or gospel albums, of course. But whereas most stars would take half an afternoon to record their gospel album, Merle Haggard took the power that came with his newfound stardom and insisted that Capitol Records record four different live recording sessions at four different churches, and released a double live album of gospel field recordings worthy of inclusion in the Library of Congress.
Every special project that Merle Haggard took on during this time was this way--done with the ferocity of a man intent on proving something to the world. The Jimmie Rodgers tribute album was a double album recorded at the low point of Rodgers's fame and visibility. The Bob Wills tribute album was put together with Wills's help and advice, reuniting old members of the Texas Playboys. The live albums, all ambitious projects, were done on the road in Muskogee, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. Haggard's excellent band, the Strangers, were allowed to record five albums of their own instrumentals and vocals.
This box set collects all the special projects that Merle Haggard and the Strangers tackled during his stay at Capitol Records. While some may view this third Haggard box set as an optional purchase, the truth is that to understand the artist known as Merle Haggard, this box set may in fact be the most essential. Beyond the massive hit singles and gold albums, this box shows Merle Haggard at his creative best, a man at the height of his powers.
SAME TRAIN, A DIFFERENT TIME
"Merle Haggard is the Jimmie Rodgers of our time."
--Hugh Cherry, in the liner notes of Same Train, A Different Time
"When I was a boy, I guess those songs that Jimmie Rodgers sang about ridin' them trains and seein' those different places sort of inspired me. And when I got old enough to go, I went and caught me a train myself."
--Merle Haggard to Dale Vinicur in the Untamed Hawk box set liner notes
The United States of America had changed radically in the six years since Merle Haggard had begun making records. By 1968, the Beatles had come in from England to become the biggest-selling music act in the world; the civil rights movement had changed the racial landscape of the country; the Vietnam War had torn the nation in half; and even the staid world of country music had changed radically, with new psychedelic sounds, go-go drum beats, and socially charged lyrics. Merle Haggard, coming off a streak of hit records, saw the timing as no problem to do a double-album tribute to one of his heroes, Jimmie Rodgers.
Jimmie Rodgers, a popular singer who died in 1933 of tuberculosis, was known as the Singing Brakeman and was one of the key figures in the commercial birth of country music. His recordings for RCA Victor were among the first successful country music records ever produced. The body of work that Rodgers left behind, from 1927 until his death in 1933, was hugely influential--singers from Gene Autry to Hank Snow to Ernest Tubb to Lefty Frizzell all got their start merely imitating Jimmie Rodgers to the best of their ability. When the Country Music Hall of Fame was established in 1961, Jimmie Rodgers was one of the first to be inducted.
And yet, by 1968, Jimmie Rodgers was a forgotten figure to the general public, a discarded curiosity, a Victrola-era anachronism. His influence had been absorbed and recycled so many times that few remembered it was Rodgers who had successfully brought the blues from Southern black culture into the folk melodies of white culture. Rodgers's songs of a bygone era, with their subject matter of hobos and trains, were without a doubt as unhip as one could conceive in 1968.
Tributes to Jimmie Rodgers were certainly nothing new, even though Rodgers's influence had waned considerably between the 1950s and 1960s. Two of Ernest Tubb's first releases in the late 1930s were Rodgers tributes. Lefty Frizzell released a tribute album to Rodgers in 1951, and Hank Snow released another similar album in 1953. It was, in fact, the Frizzell tribute album, reissued in the late 1950s as a budget-priced repackage, which first exposed Merle Haggard to the music of Jimmie Rodgers.
Merle remembers: "Lefty introduced me to Jimmie Rodgers. Then, when I got all the Jimmie Rodgers stuff, I seen that Lefty hadn't pumped the well dry, there was still a lot of stuff there. So, I thought that the job hadn't been completed, that Lefty had started something that I'd finish."
Merle had already recorded one of Rodgers's songs, "My Rough And Rowdy Ways," in August 1966, and as he was about to record a second, "California Blues," in August 1968, he was approached by broadcast legend Hugh Cherry with the concept of recording a whole album tribute to Rodgers.
Cherry, a Kentucky native and Rodgers fan, had seen Rodgers live in person as a youth and was, at the time, living in California and working for Dick Clark Productions. Cherry talked Merle and producer Ken Nelson into the concept of a Jimmie Rodgers tribute album with spoken narratives that Cherry would write. The concept was received with enthusiasm by Merle, and surprisingly, met with approval from Ken Nelson as well.
Ken Nelson: "I liked the idea. Jimmie Rodgers was a big name artist!"
Nelson's quote is revealing. Ken Nelson was born in 1911 and was a young adult when Jimmie Rodgers died. Undoubtedly, a younger producer would not have approved of the choice to do a Rodgers tribute in 1968 --it could very well have been career suicide for a hot young artist like Haggard --but Nelson, nearing sixty years old and out of touch with how much the market had changed, let the unlikely idea slip past the Capitol Records bean counters and go into production, as a double album, no less.
Merle: "There was a conversation that I heard about, between Ernest Tubb and another singer, and they were trying to get a dozen Jimmie Rodgers songs that they liked. And they couldn't narrow it down to less than fifty. I heard about this conversation, and I said, you know, there's some of these songs that I can do better than Lefty did, and some I know I can't do as good, but I think there needs to be more than just eight or ten, I think there needs to be as many as I can do."
Merle had learned that his father (who died when Merle was just nine years old) was a huge Jimmie Rodgers fan, and the fact that his hero Lefty Frizzell had recorded a tribute album cemented Rodgers's lofty status in Merle's mind. Never mind the fact that most artists would have been worried about their standing in the charts, jukebox plays, and units sold at this stage in their career. This was the first time that Merle Haggard's unflinching artistic vision was revealed to the public --commercial viability be damned, Haggard was going to do what he wanted to, and what he wanted to do was a tribute album to Jimmie Rodgers.
While many had paid tribute to Jimmie Rodgers the singer over the years, few had recognized the genius of his songwriting ability within the fairly simple context of his twelve-bar blues and waltzes. Merle remembers seeing the songwriter credits on these records, written in tiny letters beneath the song titles, and realized that it took a great deal of living to come up with songs like these.
Merle, to author Charles K. Wolfe: "You know, Jimmie Rodgers rode freight trains and then wrote about it. And at a very early age, I did see the necessity to write your own songs."
One of Merle Haggard's great attributes as a performer is his believability. People believe Merle's songs about prison because Merle spent time in prison. People believe Merle's songs about riding trains because Merle actually rode trains. Merle recognized from Jimmie Rodgers's songwriting that writing about things you know was an important element of believability. If there is one unifying thread between Rodgers and Haggard, it is this idea of having lived the songs that you sing, and the air of believability that both men exuded when they sang the songs they had written.
The recording of "Same Train, a Different Time" took place over seven recording sessions between August 1968 and March 1969. The sessions were an interesting mix of authentic acoustic performances and current sounds with electric guitars and drums. Somehow Haggard made the mixture of old and new successful, a feat that few, if any, of his peers could have accomplished.
"California Blues" (also known as "Blue Yodel #4") was recorded as part of another session on August 26, 1968. The song had been revived by Webb Pierce and Lefty Frizzell in the early 1950s, but lay dormant and forgotten until Haggard recut it at this session some fifteen years later. The song was a natural choice for Haggard, with its lyrical content about the Okie migration to the West Coast. The results were deemed successful, and the plan for a full Rodgers tribute crept forward, as Merle carefully chose the songs he wanted to record.
The first dedicated session of Rodgers material was held on September 26, 1968, after the Strangers had spent the earlier part of the day recording several tracks for their first instrumental album. The group reconvened after a lunch break and recorded the first three Jimmie Rodgers songs for the album: "Train Whistle Blues," "Travelin' Blues," and "Why Should I Be Lonely."
It's interesting to hear how Merle and the Strangers put these songs together. On "Train Whistle Blues" and "Travelin' Blues," Norm Hamlet plays an acoustic Dobro instead of the electric pedal steel guitar, certainly a hallmark of the old-timey sound, but drummer Eddie Burris plays a syncopated bass drum through the choruses, a staple of 1960s country. It shouldn't work, especially with songs that dated from the 1920s, but it does.
On "Why Should I Be Lonely," Hamlet is back on the electric pedal steel guitar, but session man James Burton plays his Mosrite Californian electric Dobro, an instrument he had taken to playing on many sessions that year (that's Burton and the Mosrite Dobro on the intro of "Mama Tried"), and on the Rodgers material, it lends an authentic feel.
The next time Haggard came into the studio was November 5, 1968. Only two Rodgers numbers came from the session that day, "Peach Pickin' Time Down in Georgia" and "Hobo's Meditation." "Peach Pickin' Time" featured Roy Nichols and James Burton trading off some great solos, with Nichols playing an acoustic guitar very much in the style of Django Reinhardt, and Burton playing his Mosrite Dobro.
The next day was spent recording two non-Rodgers songs, but on November 7 the Jimmie Rodgers tribute resumed in earnest. In a short three hours the group recorded five songs: "Mother, the Queen of My Heart," "My Carolina Sunshine Gal," "Nobody Knows But Me," "Blue Yodel #6," and "No Hard Times."
This session was the most traditional of all the Rodgers tribute sessions. Eddie Burris contributes a few 1960s-era drumbeats, but for the most part these songs were all done with acoustic instruments, very much in the style of Jimmie Rodgers's original recordings.
There was another non-Rodgers session in December 1968 (which resulted in "Every Fool Has a Rainbow," "Hungry Eyes," and "Silver Wings"), but on January 22, 1969, Merle and the Strangers once again gathered at the Capitol Tower to work on the Jimmie Rodgers project.
This time around, the proceedings were not so reverential to the old-time sound. The first song done at this session, a reworking of the old murder ballad "Frankie and Johnny," begins with a strummed acoustic guitar, as many of the other Rodgers songs do, but is interrupted by the classic biting treble of James Burton's electric Fender Telecaster guitar, signaling that this was going to be different. Indeed it was, but with glorious results.
Merle: "You go listen to 'Frankie And Johnny,' you'll hear two of the best guitarists in the world, Roy Nichols and James Burton, playing against each other, each one trying to outdo the other."
James Burton: "I never tried to out-play another guitar player. When I play with other guitar players, I try to complement the other players, not compete."
Also tackled that day were "Miss the Mississippi and You," "Jimmie's Texas Blues," and the only song that was recorded but not released at the time, "Jimmie the Kid." The latter would make its debut on Bear Family's original CD reissue of Same Train, a Different Time but lay unreleased for more than two decades. (We have also included two more Jimmie Rodgers songs, "Mississippi Delta Blues" and "Gamblin' Polka Dot Blues," which were recorded in 1972 and released on the Roots of My Raising LP in 1976. Although they were recorded later, they fit right in with the rest of the Rodgers tribute material.)
Once again the group reassembled the next day in the studio to lay down another batch of Rodgers songs. Like the previous day, the arrangements were more contemporary than traditional, beginning with the old Rodgers classic "Waiting for a Train," which was done with a style that emulated some of Haggard's most recent hits.
"Down the Old Road to Home" was the lone song on the album done with just Merle's voice and a single acoustic guitar. The spare arrangement only serves to highlight the lonesome feeling that the lyrics convey. Jimmie Rodgers's "Last Blue Yodel (Women Make a Fool Out of Me)" has one of Roy Nichols's wildest solos ever committed to tape, a flurry of notes on the acoustic guitar that illustrate his mighty prowess. "My Old Pal" is another one of Rodgers's famous waltz ballads that Merle really sings his heart out on. The last song recorded on this day was "Hobo Bill's Last Ride," which Merle would record again on his "Live" in Muskogee concert album a few months later.
There's more! Download the entire liner notes as a Word document.
Merle Haggard and "Okie from Muskogee" (from the liner notes for the collection Hag - The Capitol Recordings 1968-1976 (Concepts, Live, and the Strangers) on Bear Family Records|
By Deke Dickerson, July 2007
Merle Haggard, for all his successes and hit records up to the fall of 1969, was just another country music star. A very successful country star, but just another star nonetheless. One song was to change all that and turn Merle Haggard into a household name--a simple little ditty called "Okie from Muskogee."
Merle: "'Okie from Muskogee' is the song that changed my life."
We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don't take our trips on LSD
We don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street
We like livin' right, and bein' free
We don't make a party out of lovin'
We like holdin' hands and pitchin' woo
We don't let our hair grow long and shaggy
Like the hippies out in San Francisco do
I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee
A place where even squares can have a ball
We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse
And white lightnin' is still the biggest thrill of all
Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear
Beads and Roman sandals won't be seen
Football's still the roughest thing on campus
And the kids here still respect the college dean
I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee
A place where even squares can have a ball
We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse
And white lightnin' is still the biggest thrill of all
We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse
In Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA
--Merle Haggard (and Eddie Burris), "Okie from Muskogee"
Merle had written the song in the summer of 1969 and began playing it live shortly thereafter. Everyone who heard it knew that it was a monster hit waiting to happen. According to steel guitarist Norm Hamlet, "The first time we played it, the audience just went crazy. We knew it was going to be huge."
There couldn't have been a better time to launch a song like "Okie from Muskogee" on the American public. The country was embroiled in divisive politics and was going through difficult cultural changes like no other time in its history.
The United States was, at the time, mired in a war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia that polarized the country. There were those who felt that America's presence in Vietnam was an important battle of right versus wrong--that preventing the spread of Communism in far-flung locales was tantamount to preserving democracy at home. There were just as many others who felt that the Vietnam War was an exercise in futility, a confusing jungle conflict where enemy and ally were often one and the same. The people who opposed the war felt that the real reason the nation was in Vietnam was to fill the coffers of the defense industry, and that the hundreds of boys coming home in body bags every month was too high a price to pay.
For a nation that, at the time, thought of itself as invincible, the Vietnam War pitted a generation of veterans against young idealists, and most significantly for our discussion here, it seemed to pit rural people who considered themselves diehard patriots against city people who felt that the war was wrong, no matter what the government was saying. No one was happy with what was going on in Vietnam.
Merle: "It was like this. I'd just got out of prison, and I say that like 'so what.' Well, it was a big deal, I'd just got out of the joint, and I had my whole life before me, and I was scared, and I was on parole, and I walked into this condition in America that was like no time in history."
In the midst of all this social and political change, three assassinations rocked the nation, coinciding with the ascent of Merle Haggard's career from his earliest records to the release of "Okie from Muskogee." President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in November 1963. His brother, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, was assassinated in June 1968, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, making the decade one of the bloodiest in the nation's history.
Merle: "If you look back on it now, it was a sad time for America. People were misinformed . . . and the government was lying to us. It was a time of deception. And yet I felt sure that those long haired hippies did not know any more about freedom than I did. Now if they'd been over to Vietnam, and come back, and had on a Vietnam jacket, and they had something to say, I'd listen to 'em. But they hadn't. None of 'em had been anywhere. They hadn't been to prison . . . they hadn't been to Vietnam . . . and I found it really disturbing that they were against the American war.
"Whatever America was doing, for me at that time, I felt confident that it was the right thing. Well, the hippies didn't believe in the war. I didn't know why they didn't believe in it, and I didn't understand it, and it irritated me that somebody who'd walk around pissing their pants and looking up in the air with their mouth open . . . at the time, I thought it was caused by marijuana. Well, we know that isn't the case. So I went on to have a different philosophy."
As an ex-convict, Merle felt that hippies and left-wing radicals were demeaning the fabric of the country, a country that had given him a second chance and forgiven him for his crimes. Merle insisted in an interview with this author that he was dead serious when he wrote "Okie from Muskogee" and other politically charged numbers like "Fightin' Side of Me." But as time went on, Merle began to take an educated and unbiased look at his political views and personal beliefs.
Merle: "I was dumb as a rock, you know, I thought that the government told us the truth, and I thought that marijuana made you walk around with your mouth open. So when you write a song from that limited understanding, and have it become a hit, I was really in a whirlwind of change in America, and in my own way of thinking.
"'Okie from Muskogee' came off the wall, written in about ten minutes, and it came off the back side of my brain, and my heart. Because I was disturbed about young America. See, I was easing into my thirties, at that time, so I was pretty much out of here as far as the young people were concerned, and they were young kids that I was irritated with, and they were doing things that I thought were un-American. Well, it wasn't un-American, they were smarter than me! Kids are always smarter than the old folks . . . they see through our bigotry and our hypocrisy. And I had a great lesson in life to learn, that they were already aware of.
"I believe history has proven them right. The Vietnam War was a hoax, the reason we went to war was a lie. . . . Maybe Communism was a threat, but that wasn't why we were there."
In the music world, massive changes had taken place during the 1960s. The decade had begun innocently enough, with all genres of music, from pop to country, essentially carrying on the innocent themes of the 1950s. When the Beatles came over from England in 1964, it was as if everything changed overnight. Suddenly music wasn't about escape, release, and endless good times--it was now expected to be a harbinger of social change. With the turbulent times affecting everybody in the nation, it wasn't long before the previously staid world of country music was affected by the same sort of social awareness that the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and others had brought into the world of rock.
It was a much different scenario in the country music world than it was in the rock and roll world, however. For the country western market, right-wing Republican was the norm, and few were willing to speak up for the liberal side of things, even if they felt differently. President Richard Nixon appeared on stage at the Grand Ol' Opry, playing the piano and laughing with Roy Acuff. Records like "Ballad of Two Brothers" by Autry Inman and "Hello Vietnam" by Johnny Wright pulled on patriotic heartstrings and rallied support for the Vietnam War. In the deep South, "under the counter" records on the Reb-Rebel label were huge underground sellers, with records like "Nigger Hatin' Me" by "Johnny Rebel," "Cowboys and Niggers" by "James Crow," and "A Victim of the Big Mess (Called the Great Society)" by the "Son of Mississippi." These were essentially Southern country music "protest" records, the racist redneck equivalent of Country Joe McDonald strumming an acoustic guitar at Woodstock and talking about peace and love. The country music establishment had its own political views, and they weren't about the peace and love bit one iota.
Johnny Cash was virtually the only country singer to speak for left-wing issues during this period, which didn't exactly go over well with the country record-buying public. Cash tackled the treatment of American Indians, spoke up for prisoners, and recorded with Bob Dylan, all of which endeared him to hippies and left-wing liberals but hurt him for years with conservatives.
When Merle performs "Okie from Muskogee" now, he plays it off like a joke, and he has said in interviews over the years that it was a parody, or written from the perspective of his father, or only half-serious. It wasn't. "Okie from Muskogee" was a statement, and, at least in fall 1969, Merle meant every word of it.
Merle: "I felt the opposite side of the knife. . . . I knew that I was standing up for something that was probably gonna cost me half my audience. It's strange, all those people that were fans, people in the business, I didn't even realize it at the time [but] we were really accepted in the rock and roll field. . . . We had songs in the pop charts. You know, Dean Martin was cuttin' my records, and things like that. "Okie from Muskogee" took a big bite out of that because these people thought I was really down on marijuana, and that I was really as square as that song, and man . . . they dropped me like a hot potato."
When "Okie from Muskogee" was released on August 15, 1969, it shot straight to the top of the country charts and to number forty-one on the pop charts. The song was a blockbuster in every sense of the word, and the best-known song Merle would ever release. People went wild when he performed it. There was little doubt that he would be performing "Okie from Muskogee" for the rest of his career.
The song was so popular that Merle included it on all three of his live albums, including the phenomenally successful Live in Muskogee album. In 1969 the Academy of Country Music (ACM) named it single of the year and song of the year. Live in Muskogee was album of the year, and Merle was voted top male vocalist. The following year, the CMA awards gave "Okie from Muskogee" their own song of the year award and Live in Muskogee album of the year, and Merle was voted both entertainer of the year and male vocalist of the year. "Okie from Muskogee" was so popular that Capitol re-released the single in 1972, using a live version taken from the live Philadelphia album. It was, quite simply, a phenomenon.
Incensed liberals immediately began pigeonholing Merle Haggard as a puppet of the right-wing conservative movement, feelings which were intensified by follow-up songs like "Fightin' Side of Me," the Vietnam POW anthem "I Wonder if They'll Ever Think of Me," and Merle's performance for President Richard Nixon in 1973. Nearly a decade later Merle performed at a Ronald Reagan fundraiser, further fueling the fire. Parodies of "Okie from Muskogee" from the liberal point of view were written and recorded, such as "Asshole from El Paso" by Kinky Friedman and "Hippie from Olema #5" by the Youngbloods.
What many of the unhappy hippies didn't realize was that Merle Haggard was nobody's puppet. Merle may not have cared for the far left wing, but he also didn't like neoconservatives. Alabama governor and independent right wing presidential candidate George Wallace asked Merle to endorse his 1972 bid for the White House, but Merle refused. Ex-Klansman-turned-politico David Duke asked Merle to do a private party, and Merle told him, in a colorful way, what he could do with his offer. Merle also discovered his own love of marijuana, stating in a 1974 Michigan newspaper interview "Muskogee is the only place I don't smoke it."
No one got to hear the song "Somewhere in Between," either. Merle wrote the song in 1970 and recorded it twice, once in 1970 and again in 1971, but it has never seen the light of day until now. A song guaranteed to make neither side happy, it speaks Merle Haggard's state of mind better than any press release ever did. While both the left-leaning hippies and the far-right rednecks wanted Merle to be something they had defined based on their own prejudices, Merle wasn't about to be defined by anyone but himself. "Somewhere in Between" would have probably made the hippies madder and angered Merle's core audience if it had been released at the time of its recording, but it would have shed a little light on the complex personality of Merle Haggard.
There's a certain class of people who might venture out too far
There's the common man who's satisfied with things the way they are
There's the acid-taking dopies with their minds eat up inside
But it takes all kinds to make the world so wide
I stand looking at the left wing, and I turn towards the right
And either side don't look too good, examined under light
That's just freedom of opinion, and their legal right to choose
That's one right I hope we never lose
I stand somewhere in between divided wings
The liberal left, the narrow right, and the young of 17
And I'm not too old to understand the young who disagree
And it leaves me standing somewhere in between
We analyze the trouble that reflect the current times
While we're searching with a question weighing heavy on our minds
And I haven't heard an answer that'll change things overnight
And that's one thing I know for sure is right
And I stand somewhere in between divided wings
The liberal left, the narrow right, and the young of 17
And I'm not too old to understand the young who disagree
And it leaves me standing somewhere in between
It leaves me standing somewhere in between
--Merle Haggard, "Somewhere in Between" (revised lyrics, 1971)
In 1990 Merle released "Me and Crippled Soldiers," an anti-flag-burning song, on his Blue Jungle album. More recently Merle has released a song called "America First," which has the line "Let's get out of Iraq, and get back on track," and he has spoken up for blacklisted liberal pariahs the Dixie Chicks. Merle also has infuriated his conservative fan base with "Hillary," a song that endorses Hillary Clinton for president in 2008. Haggard is a man who clearly doesn't have a problem speaking his mind.
Liberals and conservatives alike should take another look at Merle Haggard. Merle may be a country boy without much formal education, but unlike many of his supporters and detractors who have doctorates or are in positions of power, Merle has listened to both sides, formed an opinion, spoken his mind, listened and learned more over the years, and (unafraid to contradict his own earlier positions) spoken his mind again--with fairness, regardless of whether anyone wanted to listen. In anyone's book, this is the definition of an intelligent man.
Merle: "What went on in the evolution of America and the evolution of Merle Haggard is not what people would have expected."
"Meet the Strangers," an essay originally written for the liner notes for the collection Hag - The Capitol Recordings 1968-1976 (Concepts, Live, and the Strangers) on Bear Family Records|
By Deke Dickerson, July 2007
An extraordinary number of musicians have passed through the ranks of the Strangers through the years. Here we have attempted to list the players who actually toured with the band during the Capitol years as well as important session players. It is by no means complete, but rather a rough guide to the musicians who supported Merle Haggard from the beginning of his career until he left Capitol Records in 1976.
ROY NICHOLS (lead guitar, 1963-87)
One of the finest guitar players ever to walk the earth, Roy Ernest Nichols, was born in Chandler, Arizona, in 1932. After moving to Fresno, California, as a young boy, Nichols took up the guitar and by the age of 16 was proficient enough to play on a local radio show hosted by DJ Barney Lee, where Nichols's prowess on the strings was heard by Fred Maddox, bass player and leader of the Maddox Brothers and Rose. Maddox offered the youngster a job and Nichols began what would be a lifelong career in music.
Nichols's job with the Maddox Brothers and Rose didn't last long (he was fired by mother Lula Maddox for sneaking out of his hotel room at night, a strict no-no in the Maddox family code of conduct). In his short stint with the band, however, he recorded some phenomenal solos that show his influences to range far beyond the country radio hits of the day. Many of his great live radio transcriptions are readily available on the Arhoolie label and well worth seeking out.
Nichols's style was twangy yet jazzy, and he claimed Django Reinhardt as his major influence. He also was clearly influenced by Bob Wills's bluesy jazz guitarist Junior Barnard, who played with Wills in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Wills was touring and living in California. It's quite likely that Nichols absorbed quite a bit from seeing Barnard playing in person.
Nichols played with many local San Joaquin Valley acts, but his next major touring job was with Lefty Frizzell, who by the time Roy joined the band in 1954 was a huge star but already hitting a downward arc due to his extreme drinking problem. In fact, when a young Merle Haggard asked Nichols with stars in his eyes what it was like working for Lefty, Nichols famously replied, "Not worth a shit!" While this statement is undoubtedly true, Nichols was a huge Lefty fan and in the liner notes to the Frizzell's 1969-76 studio years box set, Workin' Man Blues (BCD 16749), you will read that Nichols was nearly inconsolable after Frizzell's death in 1975.
Nichols found considerable work as a sideman and recorded a few sides with the Farmer Boys for Capitol Records in Hollywood. His flashy solo on the Farmer Boys' 1955 recording of "Charming Betsy" is one of the fastest country guitar solos ever recorded, and in fact may equal or outdo anything that Jimmy Bryant ever recorded--a weighty achievement, since no one could touch Bryant at the time.
After his stint with Frizzell, Nichols joined the Cousin Herb Henson's Trading Post television show in Bakersfield, where he remained lead guitarist until Henson died in 1963 of an aneurism. During that time Nichols rubbed shoulders and played with everyone from local Bakersfield stalwarts Buck and Bonnie Owens to Billy Mize and Cliff Crofford as well as nearly every artist who toured through Bakersfield and appeared on the show.
Nichols took other jobs to supplement his income, and in 1961 he began a long association with honky-tonk legend Wynn Stewart. Nichols performed with Stewart at his Nashville Nevada Club in Las Vegas for several years, where he famously asked the visiting Merle Haggard to get up and play a few songs on Stewart's intermission (a chance meeting that resulted in Merle's first break, playing bass with Wynn Stewart and using Stewart's composition "Sing a Sad Song" as his first hit record).
Nichols would record and tour with quite a few acts in the early 1960s. Between 1961 and 1964 he recorded quite a few sides with Rose Maddox (many of which also featured future Stranger Norm Hamlet on steel guitar), including the entirety of her Big Bouquet of Roses LP, the Alone With You LP, and several single releases.
In 1961, possibly through the Maddox connection (Rose Maddox joined the Johnny Cash road show in 1961), Nichols toured with Johnny Cash and was the lead guitarist on Cash's hit "Tennessee Flat-Top Box," recorded at Radio Recorders in Hollywood. Nichols recorded many sessions (some with Merle Haggard on rhythm guitar!) for Bakersfield stalwart Tommy Collins between 1960 and 1964, also for Capitol Records. Collins's sessions were literally a breeding ground for young Bakersfield talent, giving valuable early studio experience to Buck Owens, Lewis Talley, Fuzzy Owen, Nichols, and others.
Nichols also recorded with Wynn Stewart extensively between 1962 and 1965, though he does not appear on either of Stewart's big hits, "Wishful Thinking" from 1961 (right before Nichols began recording with Stewart), and "It's Such a Pretty World Today" from 1966 (right after Nichols left to tour with Haggard full time). Nonetheless, Nichols contributed some wonderful solos to many of Stewart's records, such as "Donna on My Mind," "Halfway in Love," and "Take It or Leave It" (which can be found on the highly recommended Bear Family Wynn Stewart box set, BCD 15886).
Roy Nichols is famous for his use of the Fender Telecaster guitar, a guitar that he (as well as James Burton) used to create the trebly, biting "twang" that defines 1960s country. Roy also had a custom-made Mosrite doubleneck guitar with his name on it that he used quite a bit in the early 1960s. In fact, Haggard remembers that when he sat in with Wynn Stewart's band for the first time at the Nashville Nevada Club in Las Vegas, Roy Nichols handed him his rather large and unwieldy Mosrite doubleneck to play--and Roy had taken the top neck off the guitar in an attempt to cut down the weight! As legend has it (and proof of Nichols's eccentric character), Nichols got so disgusted with the doubleneck's size and weight that he left it behind in a bus station. When the guitar surfaced many years later with a guitar dealer, who tried to return it, Nichols replied that he didn't want it--that he had left it at the bus station for a reason!
Capitol Records recorded a live album in September 1963 at the Bakersfield Civic Auditorium in honor of the tenth anniversary of Cousin Herb Henson's Trading Post, released under the inappropriate title Country Music Hootenanny (a title Capitol A&R man Ken Nelson fought against and lost). Nichols was the lead guitarist in the house band, appearing on tracks behind such acts as Glen Campbell, Roy Clark, Rose Maddox, Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, and Merle Travis. The album also represents the only track ever released under Roy Nichols's name, a virtuosic instrumental version of the old-timey standard "Silver Bell," incorrectly listed on the cover as "Silver Bells."
The Bakersfield Civic Auditorium show was memorable not only because of the album recorded that night, but also because it was where Ken Nelson first approached Merle Haggard about recording for Capitol Records. Merle turned Nelson down flat, declaring his loyalty to Fuzzy Owen and Lewis Talley of Tally Records, who had just started releasing Merle Haggard singles a short time earlier. But Nelson persevered, and within a year and a half Merle Haggard was recording for Capitol with Fuzzy Owen as his manager and Roy Nichols as his first call session guitar player. When Merle put together his road band in 1966, now known as the Strangers, Roy Nichols was the lead guitar player. It was a legendary association that would last for twenty-two years.
The partnership was not without its ups and downs, however. In the early stages of Merle's career, Nichols took work with other, better-paying artists when Haggard's bookings were down (which is why Phil Baugh played on "Swingin' Doors"--Nichols was working a well-paying gig up in the Lake Tahoe area and couldn't make the session). As time went on, Nichols's copious alcohol and drug abuse got so bad that it couldn't be ignored. In 1976 Nichols had a reaction to a mystery drug he took in Europe that was so severe, he essentially lost his ability to play the guitar and had to learn the instrument again from the ground up. Although Nichols did continue to play, he never fully recovered from this incident, which led to him leaving the Strangers in 1987.
Nichols retired from playing, with his poor health being a major factor. He did appear in the PBS documentary The Bakersfield Sound, playing guitar behind Fred and Rose Maddox, and he appeared live for one last star-studded night of legendary Bakersfield musicians at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood in 1992. In 1996 he suffered a major stroke and was confined to a wheelchair, and on July 3, 2001, he died--an event sadly unreported in most newspapers and the media, largely due to Chet Atkins's death only days before.
RALPH MOONEY (steel guitar, 1963-67)
One of the most legendary steel guitar players of all time, Ralph Mooney, was born in 1928 in Duncan, Oklahoma, but moved to California as a teenager in the 1940s. He began playing steel guitar after hearing Leon McAuliffe of Bob Wills's Texas Playboys. Based around Los Angeles in the 1950s, Mooney had an easily recognizable bent-single-note style on the pedal steel that made him a very in-demand player. He became the in-house steel guitarist for Capitol Records, where he cut a staggering array of sessions.
Wynn brought Ralph Mooney to that first Capitol session to augment Nelson's session men. In an interview with Colin Escott, Mooney remembered: "Ken Nelson just about taught me how to play on sessions. I had been recording with Skeets [McDonald], but Ken was like a conductor in the control room. He'd been a professional musician, and he'd tell me when to bring it up and bring it down. And it was Wynn who really invented my sound on steel guitar. He wanted a different sound. I was using the [pedal steel guitar] by then, and we were doing a Cajun number. I was trying different things, then I hit that rolling sound, and he said, 'That's it! Stick with that!'"
In 1955 Mooney wrote the hit "Crazy Arms," which became a sizable hit for both Ray Price and Jerry Lee Lewis. His pedal steel began to be heard on records by Wanda Jackson, Skeets McDonald, Wynn Stewart, Rose Maddox, the Collins Kids, and especially Buck Owens; his style on Buck's early hits became part of the signature Buck Owens sound. Mooney's association with Haggard began in 1963, when he played on the "Sing a Sad Song" session for Tally Records, which was essentially the Wynn Stewart Nashville Nevada Club house band backing Haggard. Mooney then played on all of Merle's early hits, including "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," "Swingin' Doors," "The Bottle Let Me Down," and many other tracks in the 1965-67 period.
Ralph Mooney's tenure as a full-time member of the Strangers was short-lived, however. The band really only assembled and began touring in 1966, and by 1967 Mooney was gone after an incident where he tried to steal the bus and drive it home in the middle of a cross-country tour. Mooney was sent home, Fuzzy Owen (himself a more-than-competent steel guitarist) finished the tour, and the search was on for a permanent replacement.
Mooney released an album with James Burton, Corn Pickin' and Slick Slidin', for Capitol Records in 1968. He found a permanent job with the Waylon Jennings organization in 1970 and stayed until his semiretirement in 1992. Today "Moon" lives in rural Texas and steps out occasionally to play and record.
NORM HAMLET (steel guitar, 1967-present)
Norm Hamlet hails from Farmersville, California, a small town off Highway 99 between Bakersfield and Fresno. After seeing Roy Acuff with "Bashful" Brother Oswald (on Dobro) at a fair appearance, Hamlet became interested in what was then known as Hawaiian-style guitar. Eventually Hamlet got a Rickenbacker electric steel guitar and began playing in local informal country bands. When he found out that neighboring Visalia actually had a school-sponsored country music band, he transferred there and made learning steel guitar a top priority. The school band (which also had guitarist Gene Breeden on guitar and future Capitol singing star Jean Shepard) backed up Capitol recording artist Skeets McDonald (see Bear Family box set BCD 15937) on a tour of the Pacific Northwest, and the music bug was firmly planted.
Highly influenced by western swing music, the high-school-aged Hamlet would make frequent trips to Fresno to see Billy Jack Wills's band, with Vance Terry on steel and Tiny Moore on electric mandolin. Both players used custom-made, top-of-the-line instruments made by Paul Bigsby in Los Angeles, and when Terry informed Hamlet that the waiting list for a Bigsby steel guitar was a year long, Hamlet put a down payment on his own Bigsby steel the following week. Originally Hamlet's Bigsby steel was a non-pedal model, but after Bud Isaacs's pedal work on Webb Pierce's "Slowly" changed the way the instrument was played, Hamlet returned the instrument to Bigsby to be retrofitted with pedals.
After stints with Billy (aka "Hill-Billy") Barton and a few other local acts, Hamlet got his first taste of the big time as a session player with the Farmer Boys, who hailed from his hometown of Farmersville. The Farmer Boys were cutting great hillbilly and novelty records for Capitol down in Hollywood, and Hamlet accompanied them to their last session for Capitol in February 1957, which resulted in the phenomenal "Flash, Crash and Thunder" / "Someone To Love" single. Hamlet's solo in the former was an early showcase of the new pedal steel technology and a strong forerunner of the new Bakersfield sound, dominated by the pedal steel.
Hamlet was playing locally around the Visalia-Farmersville area with a group called the Desert Stars, fronted by Gene Breeden, a talented guitarist that Norm had known since the Visalia high school band days. The group cut a single for Crest Records under the Desert Stars name, "Ridin' the Frets" / "What I Like Most Of All," the former a great guitar and steel instrumental in the style of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant.
Hamlet's next trip into the recording studio was with Rose Maddox, who had recently signed to Capitol Records following the breakup of the Maddox Brothers and Rose act. Hamlet recorded the entirety of the Big Bouquet of Roses LP along with the great "Down Down Down" single and several other tracks released only on 45s. These sessions are also significant because of the guitarist who sat next to Hamlet in the studio--none other than Roy Nichols, who would play a big role in Hamlet's career a few years later, when Haggard's Strangers needed a full-time dependable replacement for the departed Ralph Mooney. While this marked the first time the two had recorded together, they had actually known each other since the Farmer Boys days, when Nichols had played on some of their earlier recordings.
Hamlet spent the early 1960s working for Dave Stogner, a popular western swing fiddle player who had a television show in Fresno and then Bakersfield. The job was so lucrative, in fact, that when Merle Haggard first approached Hamlet about joining the Strangers, Hamlet turned down the job because Haggard wasn't paying well enough or playing often enough to convince him to quit Stogner's band.
By 1967, when Ralph Mooney left the Strangers (following the famous incident where Mooney tried to drive the bus home one night in the middle of a tour), Haggard had established himself enough to convince Hamlet to join up. Hamlet joined the Strangers in fall 1967, and his first recording session with Haggard was the huge hit "Sing Me Back Home." Hamlet played on every session and every hit record after that date, up until the time of this writing, which makes him the longest-running Stranger and, next to Fuzzy Owen, the person longest associated with Haggard's organization.
There's more! Download the entire liner notes as a Word document to read about:
"Fuzzy" Owen (steel guitar, various times 1962-66)
Phil Baugh (guitar, 1966)
James Burton (guitar, 1966-69)
Glen Campbell (guitar, banjo, vocals, 1966-68)
Bobby Wayne (guitar, 1970-73)
Lewis Talley (rhythm guitar, 1962-69)
Billy Mize, "Red" Simpson, and Tommy Collins (rhythm guitar, 1964-69)
Al Bruno (guitar, 1970-71)
Jody Payne (guitar, 1971)
Marcia Nichols (guitar, 1972-73)
Eldon Shamblin (guitar, 1970 and intermittently through the 1970s and 1980s)
Ronnie Reno (guitar, mandolin, vocals, 1973-82)
Hollis De Laughter aka Red Lane (guitar, 1970, 1972, 1973)
Dave Kirby (guitar, 1973-76)
Jerry Ward (aka Howard Lowe) (bass, 1965-69)
Bob Morris (bass, 1965, 1968)
Leon Copeland (bass, 1967, 1969)
Chuck Berghofer (bass, 1969)
Gene Price (bass, 1969, guitar, 1970)
Dennis Hromek (bass, 1970-73)
Johnny Meeks (bass, 1973-74)
James Tittle (bass, 1974-76)
Helen "Peaches" Price (drums, 1963-66)
Jim Gordon (drums, 1966, 1969)
Eddie Burris (drums, 1967-69)
Tommy Ash (drums, 1969)
Ronnie Tutt (drums, 1969)
Biff Adam (drums, 1970-present)
George French Jr. (piano, 1963-70)
Glen D. Hardin (piano, 1969-70)
Earl Poole Ball (piano, 1970)
Hargus "Pig" Robbins (piano, 1971-75)
Billy Liebert (piano, 1971-72)
Bill Woods (piano, fiddle, 1972)
Mark Yeary (piano, 1973-92)
Gordon Terry (fiddle, 1970 and intermittently through the 1970s and 1980s)
Johnny Gimble (fiddle, 1970s)
Tiny Moore (mandolin, 1973-76 and intermittently through the 1980s)
Don Markham (saxophone, horns, 1974-present)
The Dixieland Express (horn section, 1973)
Liner notes for the Carl Smith collection Gonna Shake This Shack on Bear Family Records|
By Deke Dickerson, November 2009
Of all the country music stars from the "Golden Era" of the 1950s and 1960s, no star has faded from the public consciousness more than the great Carl Smith. Although he possessed a fine voice, rugged good looks, a string of huge hits under his belt-not to mention his induction in the Country Music Hall Of Fame, Carl Smith is largely forgotten today. This compilation seeks to rectify that situation.
Perhaps it is the insatiable demand for drama and tragedy that has led to the general public adulation for outlaws like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Johnny Paycheck. In the case of Carl Smith, retiring to a 500-acre ranch south of Nashville does not make for juicy gossip, and may begin to explain why Smith is such an obscure figure today.
Carl Smith was born near Maynardsville, Tennessee, on March 15, 1927. Growing up on the family farm, Smith was the youngest of eight children. Credit must be given to the determination of Smith's parents, Dock and Ina Monroe Smith--the first seven children were girls, but they wanted a boy.
Another Maynardsville resident was Roy Acuff, who began making noise on Knoxville radio in the mid-1930s. Another future star, Chet Atkins, came from nearby Lutrell, and was also beginning to make a name for himself (playing with Bill Carlisle) over Knoxville radio. Young Carl Smith grew up listening to these men, and by the time he was ten years old, he got his first guitar. After taking guitar instruction through an outfit called "Beale's Guitar Courses," Smith was smitten with a desire to play music.
Even today, it would be unusual for a 13-year-old boy to take the bus by himself to go perform on the radio every week, but that's exactly what the driven young Carl Smith did, gathering more experience any place he could. Carl did so as much as he could throughout his high school years, before enlisting in the Navy.
Carl hoped that he could get into the Special Services entertaining the troops, but the Navy felt he could do a better job supervising a mess hall. Carl spent most of his stint in the Navy making trips to and from the Philippines on a transport ship named the USS Admiral Sims.
Upon his return to Tennessee, Carl returned to his radio work, and soon began working with the most popular act in Knoxville of the day, Molly O'Day and her Cumberland Mountain Folks. Carl built up lots of experience with O'Day, playing rhythm guitar, upright bass, and singing.
After O'Day and her husband gave up music to run a family grocery for a time, Carl spent a year plagued with failure and self-doubt. The year of 1947 was spent returning to the family farm and planting tobacco, then traveling carpetbagger-style to Asheville, North Carolina; Wilmington, North Carolina; and Augusta, Georgia before returning once again to the family farm in Maynardsville. Despite a December, 1947 recording date in Nashville with Molly O'Day, things looked bleak during this time for Carl Smith.
Mid-1948 found O'Day and her group coming out of their short retirement, and they asked Carl to rejoin the group, an offer he eagerly accepted. Carl also began working with future Hee Haw star Archie Campbell's group around the same time. It was a good time to be working in Knoxville, as the town was a hotbed of talent at the time. The Louvin Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, Maybelle Carter and The Carter Family and many others worked the Knoxville radio circuit around this time, and all of them knew Carl and were impressed with his budding talent.
Knoxville eventually became enough of a hotbed to send Nashville talent scouts calling, and it was through a series of small, steady steps that a dobro player named Speedy Krise and an A&R man named Troy Martin played crucial roles in Carl's big career break.
George "Speedy" Krise was the dobro player in Archie Campbells's band, and was also a budding songwriter with a few minor hits under his belt. Speedy could write a good song, but he couldn't sing his own songs well enough to pitch them to major artists. As a result, Speedy hired Carl to sing on the demo acetate records of his songs.
Troy Martin was an A&R man who represented the Peer-Southern publishing concern, and who had formed an alliance with Don Law of Columbia Records to scout the hottest radio areas of the country looking for new talent.
Martin came to Knoxville and was sufficiently impressed with Carl's voice that he took some of Krise's song-plugging acetates back to Nashville with the intent of getting Carl a Columbia recording contract.
Don Law liked what he heard on the acetates, but told Martin that he would sign Carl only if WSM would hire the singer to appear on the radio. Jack Stapp, the Grand Ol' Opry manager, auditioned Carl and liked what he heard as well, but told Martin he would only hire Carl if he were signed to Columbia. A stand-off ensued, and Carl returned to the family farm in Maynardsville. This might have been the end of Carl's career, but eventually Stapp relented and hired Carl for a morning show on WSM. As a result of this, Don Law signed Carl to a Columbia deal on May 5, 1950.
It was only five days after Carl signed with Columbia before he was at the Castle Studio in Nashville recording his first session for the label. The studio musicians Carl recorded with were some of the musicians he had recently been playing with on WSM. You couldn't get better musicians at the time--on guitar was future studio ace Grady Martin, and steel guitar was handled by Billy Robinson, both of which had recently recorded with and toured with Red Foley. Second guitar duties fell to Jabbo Arrington, who would soon join 'Little' Jimmy Dickens Country Boys, and the bass man was Opry stalwart Ernie Newton. From the very first session Carl Smith ever recorded, he only worked with the absolute cream of the crop musicians, a standard he would keep until his retirement.
Carl had two sessions in 1950, resulting in three unsuccessful singles (none included here) before hitting paydirt on his third session.
"Let's Live A Little," a song written by a little-known Peer-Southern staff writer named Ruth Coletharp, released as a single with Hank Williams' "There's Nothing As Sweet As My Baby," became Carl's first hit, peaking at #3 on the Billboard charts and selling over 200,000 singles-an impressive figure in the country market in those halcyon days.
We've included a more rockin' re-recording of "Let's Live A Little" on this compilation, dating from 1958. The original is typical early 1950s country with no drums, but the version we've included here holds more appeal to the rockabilly and boppin' hillbilly audience of the Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight series.
Once Carl was out of the gate, he was almost unstoppable. The hits kept coming, and Carl toured relentlessly (at first as an opening act for such stars of the day as Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb). Opry talent director Jim Denny managed Carl's career, and he kept him working at a maniacal pace, which suited Carl just fine.
Carl Smith's greatest years were between 1950 and 1955, where he racked up an impressive thirteen Top 10 hits. Some of these included the Number 1 hits "Don't Just Stand There," "Loose Talk," "Are You Teasing Me" (written by Ira & Charlie Louvin) and his career song "Hey, Joe." Other smashes for Carl included "Back Up, Buddy," "Our Honeymoon," and "Ten Thousand Drums."
We've included a few of the hits on this disc. As far as the compilation you're holding in your hands, however, the typical fan of vintage honky-tonk and rockabilly finds some of Carl Smith's more obscure songs and forgotten album tracks much more interesting than many of his middle-of-the-road hits.
Beginning in 1951, Carl had assembled a crack road band, which he named the Tunesmiths. The Tunesmiths consisted of the excellent guitar and steel guitar combination of Sammy Pruett (recently 'furloughed' from Hank Williams' Drifting Cowboys) on guitar and Johnny Siebert on steel guitar. Taking a cue from Opry musicians Grady Martin and Billy Robinson, both of who had custom-made Paul Bigsby instruments, Pruett and Siebert both ordered Bigsby guitars as well (Pruett playing an Epiphone archtop guitar with Bigsby pickups). Shortly thereafter Carl Smith would also sport a Martin acoustic guitar with a Bigsby custom neck with his name inlaid on the fretboard. Paul Bigsby's instruments were custom built on a limited basis out of his shop in Downey, California, and in the early 1950's, if you played a Bigsby instrument, you had truly "made it" in the country music business.
The Tunesmiths also contained the excellent rhythm guitarist Velma Williams-Smith (one of Chet Atkins' favorite rhythm guitarists, Chet would use her on hundreds of recording sessions over the years), Roy "Junior" Huskey on upright bass (one of the best bass players in Nashville, and an old Knoxville friend of Carl's), fiddler extraordinaire Dale Potter, and future Nashville studio superstar Buddy Harman on drums.
Together, the Tunesmiths backed Carl on his ballads and waltzes and mid-tempo numbers, but like 'Little' Jimmy Dickens group 'The Country Boys,' the Tunesmiths truly excelled at uptempo western swing and prototypical rockabilly numbers. In particular, "Go Boy Go" from 1954 is one of those classic records caught in a particular time warp--a bona fide rockabilly record made before Elvis recorded "That's All Right, Mama," made by musicians who would undoubtedly refute any charge that they had ever played a hand in the birth of Rock and Roll.
Also included here from the fertile 1950-55 period are such classics as "Trademark" (written by Carl's friend Porter Wagoner), "Dog-Gone It (Baby I'm In Love)," "Lovin' Is Livin'," "Oh Stop!," "More Than Anything Else," "I Don't Believe I Will," "Baby I'm Ready," "Don't Tease Me," "I Just Don't Care Anymore," and a duet of "Time's a Wastin'" with June Carter.
The husband-wife team of Johnny Cash and June Carter is now so burned into the public consciousness that few remember June Carter's first marriage was to another famous country singer-Carl Smith. Carl had met Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family during his Knoxville radio days, and struck up a relationship with June Carter that developed into a serious relationship when Carl and June joined the Opry at the same time in 1950. By June 1952 the pair were wed.
Carl and June had a daughter, Rebecca Carlene Smith, born in 1955. In later years Rebecca Smith would change her name professionally to Carlene Carter. Carlene (often erroneously believed to be one of Johnny Cash's daughters) adopted the name as her stage persona, and from the late 1970s through the early 1990s had a successful country music career of her own.
Carl Smith has always been known around Nashville as a shrewd businessman, and in 1954 he partnered with Jim Denny, Webb Pierce, and Troy Martin to form the Cedarwood/Driftwood publishing company, which blossomed and became one of the biggest and most powerful concerns in Nashville. The money was huge, and Carl soon bought a 500-acre farm in Franklin, Tennessee, where he raised Black Angus cattle.
In fact, by 1956 Carl Smith was earning so much money through recordings, personal appearances and his publishing company that he could afford to quit the Opry; a notoriously low-paying gig that requires members to reserve Saturday nights for the Opry (generally the best paying night of the week).
Carl envisioned himself as a film star. For a short time, he moved to Hollywood and made two movies, The Badge Of Marshal Brennan and Buffalo Guns. Although he possessed the Marlboro Man looks of a Western film leading man, the film business never panned out for him beyond those two features.
In 1957, Carl joined the Philip Morris Roadshow, a touring country music cavalcade that had big promotional dollars behind it courtesy of the tobacco conglomerate that sponsored it. Carl joined a large cast of singers as the headlining star and stayed on the Roadshow for two years.
During this time, Carl's marriage to June Carter had fallen apart. It was on the Roadshow that Carl met another female singing star, the then up-and-coming Goldie Hill. Carl and Goldie fell madly in love, and were married. The pair became one of Nashville's most enduring couples, and stayed married until Goldie's death in 2005.
After Carl's departure from the Grand Ol' Opry in 1956, like many of his peers he flirted with rockabilly for a brief period (his 1958 re-recording of "If Teardrops Were Pennies," in particular, is an under-appreciated rockabilly classic, and we've also included near-rockabilly numbers like "No Trespassing," "Happy Street," "A Love Was Born," and even Carl's recording of the Eddie Cochran classic "Cut Across Shorty"), and even tried out material leaning in the direction of his label-mate Ray Price ("Lonely Girl" and Carl's version of "San Antonio Rose," both included here, exhibit a heavy Ray Price influence from Price's late 1950s era).
As the music moved from the bouncy hillbilly of the Hank Williams era to a harder honky-tonk sound of the late 1950s, Carl Smith tried to change with the times, with varied results. Typical Nashville efforts of the era such as "That's The Way I Like You The Best," "I Won't Be Mad," "Why, Why," "Mr. Lost," "Take It Like A Man," "Be Good To Her," "It's All My Heartache," and "Goodnight, Mr. Sun" were all good, solid efforts, but Carl seemed to be copying others, not leading the pack.
That statement, in a nutshell, sums up the remaining years of Carl Smith's career. The man stayed busy--he signed on to Red Foley's successful Ozark Jubilee (later Jubilee U.S.A.) nationally syndicated television show in 1959, became a regular on the ABC-TV network show Five Star Jubilee, and beginning in 1964, had a hugely successful Canadian television show, Carl Smith's Country Music Hall, that ran for a staggering 190 episodes. He continued recording singles and albums for Columbia Records until 1974, and sporadically for Hickory and Gusto since then. During the 1960s and 1970s, he continued to rack up chart hits, though the sales figures and chart positions would never match up to his 1950s heyday. While he kept recording, after 1959's "Ten Thousand Drums," which peaked at #5, only the most astute Carl Smith obsessive could name any of the minor hit records that followed, save for his last top 10 appearance in 1967 with a cover of the western song "Deep Water."
Carl Smith is one of those rare characters in country music that made enough money and satisfied his ego enough to retire from the business a happy and contented man. Carl semi-retired in 1974 but officially called it quits in 1977. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2003, but even that couldn't coax Carl out of retirement for a show. Since 1977 Carl Smith sightings around Nashville have been in non-music related activities, such as he and Goldie's prize-winning show horse business in the 1970s and 1980s.
This self-imposed musical retirement may be the reason that Carl Smith, one of the greatest stars Country Music has ever known, is so forgotten today. This compilation of excellent uptempo hillbilly, honky-tonk stompers and country-flavored rockabilly seeks to jog a few memories and rectify that situation.
Jim Cooprider from Record Collector News|
By Deke Dickerson
If you ever find yourself at the Pasadena Swap Meet looking through records, he's not hard to spot. Jim Cooprider is always there, carrying his trusty wooden record box, lacquered with rare record labels on the side.
The first few times I saw Jim Cooprider, I have to confess, I thought he must be completely insane. He wasn't much for socializing with other collectors, at least while he was scouting for records. In fact he is usually found not auditioning records on a player, but instead doing something odd with them, like holding it up to an inch in front of his face, or holding it up to his ear while thumping it with his fingers. More often than not, he would talk to himself, saying things in a mysterious code that only a precious few could decipher:
"This is a Camden, New Jersey pressing."
"This is the 1933 reissue, not the 1927 original."
"Hairline crack . . . looks fixable."
Such uninvited utterances will scare off the timid. More than once I saw a visiting Japanese collector scouring Northern Soul 45s back away from Jim as he muttered to himself, fearing that he must be one of those crazy Americans they've read about.
It wasn't until I met Jim's daughter Yvonne that I got to know him a little better. Once I got to know him, and understand where he's coming from, I realized that Jim Cooprider understands records the way that lifelong farmers understand weather and soil conditions, or the way that an experienced surgeon realizes the interplay between all the body's delicate internal systems. In short, I've never met a man who was in tune with the physical, emotional, and spiritual properties of records like Jim Cooprider.
When I say records, I mean records. A visit to Jim Cooprider's house will find records of all kinds--33, 45, 78, and undoubtedly 16 and 80 rpm oddities, piled in every corner of every nook and cranny in the residence. That was how I eventually became friends with Jim Cooprider--for if you let him know that you love records too, you've made a friend for life.
Most of us record collectors, even the nerdiest ones among us, focus on the music contained in the grooves, and the condition of the record--for instance, if the scratches on the record impair the pleasure of listening to the musical performance contained within. Jim Cooprider loves music, don't doubt that for a second (he is happy to espouse the virtues of 1920s jazz, or 1950s doo-wop, or obscure rockabilly gems), but Jim is the only person I've ever met who goes far beyond those simple boundaries.
Jim has handled so many records in his life that he can immediately tell what kind of pressing it is, and usually what pressing plant produced it, and whether or not the disc can be repaired if broken, warped or scratched. Amateurs such as myself know records to be made of different materials (vinyl for LPs and 45s, styrene for budget 45s, shellac for 78s), but Jim can reveal things about a record that few would realize or understand.
In this sense, Jim is the "Record Whisperer," one of my favorite titles for him. Innately, he understands the physical properties of a record as if it were an external manifestation of one of his own vital organs.
Early on, I learned that Jim was famous for his offer to un-warp any record for a dollar. Dealers would bring in stacks of valuable records that had edge warps, dish warps, storage warps, and Jim would tell them just by looking at the disc what sort of result he would be able to achieve.
Later, when I was able to go to his home, I got to view this process firsthand, which was as astonishing as any demonstration I've ever witnessed. Jim has a method, perfected over decades, of fixing warped records that involves heating in his home oven to a particular temperature, removing the disc from the oven, placing it on a flat piece of heavy glass, and doing a form of rain dance around the disc, bouncing the floor just enough to make the pliable heated record slowly settle to flattened, un-warped perfection.
I've taken records to Jim that friends of mine deemed unrepairable. It doesn't matter to Jim if the disc is a golden oldie from the thrift store, or a thousand dollar rockabilly record, if he can fix it, he'll fix it for a buck.
One of the other tricks in Jim's trick bag is his method of fixing broken or cracked records. Generally, if a record is broken in two it can't be repaired to be unnoticeable, but rare discs can be repaired with a number of different chemical compounds on the edges, to get the record fused back together enough to be playable once again. I remember Jim rattling off a list of the chemicals that he uses to fuse records back together again (Methyl-Ethyl-Ketone, or MEK, was one of them-in fact MEK is one of the things Jim will often talk about in front of unsuspecting passers-by), all of which exhibited a certain chemical property relating to the particular chemical compound of the record itself.
In addition to his wizardly ways of working with records, Jim also likes to disc jockey wherever he is welcome. One of my favorite memories of Jim was seeing him DJ using 78-rpm records exclusively at a local venue featuring swing music. Of course, the selections Jim brought were all completely appropriate for the evening, and seeing them played on a 78 player with the CD jukebox in the background was a delightful juxtaposition of images.
The man has been collecting records for so long, that he's able to expound on virtually any subject, so long as it relates to records. Unlike most of the "record snobs" I know, Jim is happy to talk about anything from banjo records to classical collections to rock and roll, all with his particular slant on why a certain release was better, be it the performance, mastering, pressing, or packaging.
One of the other things I dearly love about Jim is that while he does pay differing amounts for records, and has sold records that are valuable, one thing you'll never hear Jim Cooprider go on about is a record's collectible value. For myself, it's a breath of fresh air, having been bored to tears listening to collectors talk about how much their collection is worth. For Jim, it truly is about the love of records.
With a house full of records, and decades of collecting behind him, it's easy to wonder why Jim Cooprider still shows up early at the record swap meet. Does he need any more records? The answer is unequivocally no. It's obviously an addiction, and an obsession that most of us reading this magazine share. However, none of us compare in sheer exhaustive record collecting extremism the way that Jim Cooprider does as a way of life. I love that about the guy. Sometimes, when I'm feeling too lazy to get up for the PCC Swap Meet, I think to myself--Jim's out there, I need to get up out of bed. If I ever feel a twitch of reality and start thinking I have enough records, I think about Jim and I realize--you can never, ever have too many records.
Jim Cooprider is really one of the great American characters that make this country so damn interesting. The next time you see him at the swap meet awkwardly holding records right up to his eye, remember--there's an Albert Einstein level of genius at work there. There are secrets he knows that you and I will never know.
As generations go by, there seems to be less and less importance on collecting. I remember growing up in the 1970s that every block had a group of obsessed collectors--the guy who collected vintage model trains, the guy who collected glass telephone pole insulators, and the guy who collected old records. I loved those guys, and their passion, and the level of interest in things that most would find mundane. I wanted to be like them (and I guess I am).
Things like the mp3 player and the recordable CD have changed all that. Kids today seem unimpressed by a wall of vinyl, showing that their iPod contains more songs on it than thousands of heavy record albums. Kids today also seem to have an attention span that is so short, they can't be bothered to play individual records such as 45 or 78 singles--it's too much trouble.
As such, we may see these intrinsic American characters like Jim Cooprider eventually disappear from the landscape of America. I, for one, will rue that day. Our world is richer for having them. Jim Cooprider is our "record whisperer," and we should all thank him for it.
Liner notes for the Johnny Horton collection Gonna Shake This Shack on Bear Family Records|
By Deke Dickerson, March 2009
Johnny Horton remains as beloved today as he was during his heyday of the late 1950s. Almost 50 years after his death, Horton's brand of down-home honky-tonk storytelling has become a familiar thread in America's musical quilt.
The bizarre aspect of Johnny Horton's fame and longevity is just how different his rise to fame was compared to other country music legends of that era, or even the stars of today. It is safe to say that Johnny Horton is the only country music legend who was born in Los Angeles, never touched alcohol, was completely bald and wore an ill-fitting hairpiece, and had a strange obsession with spiritualism and dying violently. Moreover, Johnny Horton had spent ten years clawing and scratching, making dozens of records in as many different styles, before he finally hit upon the style that made him so remembered today. As quickly as he became famous, a cruel twist of fate took him in a violent car wreck, just as his career finally reached the grand successes he had dreamed of for so long.
Despite Horton's unusual personal story, what we're left with fifty years later is the voice-a voice so calm and reassuring, it's hard to connect the Johnny Horton we know with the troubled Johnny Horton who walked the earth. One thing cannot be denied, however, the voice of Johnny Horton appealed to millions of people, and continues to appeal decades after his death. This compilation puts together a playlist of some of Johnny's best uptempo hillbilly, honky-tonk and rockabilly music. It is not a greatest hits compilation, if you're looking for "Battle of New Orleans" there are many collections of Horton's biggest chart records readily available. If you're looking for some of the best hillbilly boogie and proto-rockabilly Johnny Horton material of the 1950s, prepare to 'Shake This Shack Tonight.'
John LeGale Horton was born on April 30, 1925 in East Los Angeles, California, to parents John Sr. (aka "Lolly") and Ella Horton. The Hortons life was typical of many Depression-era families in the West. The family followed work--any kind of work--anywhere they could find it. Johnny Horton's first 10 years were spent ricocheting from California to Texas, with John Sr. working as a laborer on various fruit picking and public works projects wherever he could find a job. About the only place that the Hortons stayed put for more than a year at a time was Tyler, Texas, and Johnny would later claim Tyler as his hometown, even though he had only spent a few formative years there as a child.
Johnny's young adult life was spent on various endeavors with his brother Frank. The pair worked in the mailroom at Selznick movie studios in Los Angeles, and moved to Seattle to study geology at a university. The latter only lasted a short time, and after picking fruit in California, Johnny went to Alaska for a season's work in construction. Upon his return from Alaska, Johnny entered a talent show at the Reo Palm Isle in Longview, Texas, and won an ashtray on a pedestal for his performance.
This last somewhat dubious achievement is apparently what set young Johnny Horton on the path to be a professional singer. Members of his family were surprised at his choice, most of his closest friends and family didn't even know he sang. What Horton did possess was a character trait found in most successful musicians--an overwhelming desire to avoid a regular day job.
When Horton landed back in Southern California, he bought himself some Western clothes and began entering talent contests on a regular basis. It was at one of these talent shows that Horton caught the attention of Fabor Robinson, a local character who would eventually be responsible for a dozen record labels and many hit records. At this point in 1950, however, Robinson was just getting into the business and was looking for aspiring singers to record for the Cormac label, a tiny garage label financed by Corydon Blodgett and Les McWain (the "Cor" and the "Mac" in Cormac).
Los Angeles area singer and television host Sammy Masters remembers driving Johnny Horton to the small studio in Santa Ana in the Orange County region of Southern California, where they each cut their debut record on the same day. The conditions couldn't have been more primitive, with just a couple microphones set up for the singer and band to record live to a mono tape recorder. Both men had their careers launched that day, but both Sammy Masters Cormac disc and Johnny Horton's debut disappeared without a trace after the first stack of 78s sold off the stage.
The Cormac label folded as soon as it started, and Fabor Robinson obtained the rights to Horton's masters with the express purpose of re-releasing them on his newly formed Abbott label, a labeled formed with the bankrolling of drug store owner Sid Abbott, and distributed by Bill McCall's 4-Star empire in Pasadena.
Throughout 1951 and 1952 Horton recorded 16 sides for Abbott, which were originally released as singles that must have flopped dramatically, based on their rarity today. The recordings themselves would wind up being released several different times after Horton's hits started coming, overdubbed at least twice by different labels to 'dress up' the primitive recordings. Some of the overdubbed versions are dreadful, yet some of them are more enjoyable than the earlier undubbed versions. On this compilation, we have included the original undubbed versions of "Shadows of the Old Bayou," "On the Banks of the Beautiful Nile," and "Smokey Joe's Barbecue," and the overdubbed versions of "Talk, Gobbler, Talk," "It's A Long Rocky Road," and "In My Home in Shelby County." In addition, we've included the excellent unreleased cover of Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Shotgun Boogie" from this Abbott period.
Horton's last four sides for Abbott in 1952 were duets with an obscure singer on the Abbott roster named William "Hill-Billy" Barton. Barton was best known as a songwriter, and in fact wrote the hit song "A Dear John Letter," which he sold to Bakersfield stalwarts Fuzzy Owen and Louis Talley before it became a monster hit for Ferlin Husky and Jean Shepard. The two sides we've included here, "Bawlin' Baby" and "Rhythm in My Baby's Walk," are excellent examples of the type of proto-rockabilly that would come to typify the Johnny Horton honky-tonk sound over the next few years.
Fabor Robinson worked out a deal to get Horton on the Louisiana Hayride, and the newly married Horton moved to Shreveport, where he began appearing on the weekly show in the summer of 1952. Robinson also secured Horton his first major recording contract, with the new country-and-western branch of Mercury Records based in Nashville.
Horton recorded a passel of discs for Mercury over the next three years, some of which were extraordinary, and some of which were downright abysmal. Thankfully we've spared you the histrionics of such dogs as "A Child's Side of Life" on this collection and concentrated on such solid hillbilly boppers as the excellent "First Train Headin' South," a truly fine record never fully given its due.
Horton found his first taste of success on the 'Louisiana Hayride,' and his star ascended on the weekly radio broadcast despite the fact that his Mercury Records sold poorly. In retrospect, it is hard to ascertain why such excellent records as "The Train with a Rhumba Beat," "Tennessee Jive," "The Devil Made a Masterpiece," "You You You," "Broken Hearted Gypsy," "Move Down the Line," "No True Love," "Ridin' the Sunshine Special," "Hey Sweet Thing," "S.S. Lureline," "Two Red Lips and Warm Red Wine," "Ha Ha and Moonface," "Big Wheels Rollin'," and "You Don't Move Me Baby Anymore" didn't become hits, but we've included them all here in an attempt to rectify this injustice.
One possible explanation for Johnny's lack of success for Mercury is the lack of an individual style on any of the recordings. Though the abovementioned Mercury titles are appreciated by fans today, the fact is that musically they were all over the map, and the duds we've left off this compilation were even more so.
The three years that Horton spent traveling the South and making records for Mercury were spent under Fabor Robinson's tight management, with little financial reward and no hits to show for it. The strain ended Horton's first marriage, but Johnny Horton pulled a hat trick for bald men everywhere when he snagged Hank Williams' bombshell widow Billie Jean shortly after Hank's death at the end of 1952. By September 1953 Johnny and Billie Jean were married and Horton had ended his relationship with Fabor Robinson. Horton continued his label relationship with Mercury until the contract ran out in 1955, with some fine records under his belt, but no hits to show for it.
This juncture might have been the end of Johnny Horton's singing career. No one would fault Horton for quitting at this point, he had certainly given show business a fair try, and the chances that a bald thirty-year old never-was could hit the big time were slim to none. Thankfully Horton found the strength to ask local Shreveport impresario Tillman Franks to manage him, knocking on Franks' door one evening out of the blue. Horton had no where else to turn at this point--Tillman replied that he didn't really care for the way that Johnny sang, and Horton replied he would sing any way that Tillman wanted. It was the start of Johnny Horton's second act, and a fruitful relationship between Franks and Horton that would last until both crashed in the car that ended Horton's life.
The details of how Johnny Horton began recording for Columbia Records are ridiculous, but they make for a great show business story. Tillman Franks managed to get a bottom-of-the-barrel deal with Columbia Records in Nashville by giving up half of the publishing on each session to Gene Autry's publishing company Golden West, and half the publishing to Webb Pierce's and Jim Denny's Cedarwood publishing firm. Both parties had taken publishing on Horton in exchange for recommending him to the label. If that injustice weren't enough, the royalty rate promised to Horton was so low that he probably would have made more money as a mechanic. Still, it was a recording contract, and the records would be made at the strictly big-time Owen Bradley Studios in Nashville, Tennessee. Johnny Horton's only other alternative was a day job, so he took the offer, as inglorious as it was.
Johnny and Tillman had two Aces up their sleeve before they arrived at the studio in Nashville to record their first session. The first Ace was a song called "Honky Tonk Man," written by a hopeful named Howard Hausey aka "Howard Crockett," who pitched the song to Johnny backstage at the Louisiana Hayride. Johnny and Tillman loved the song and knew it had hit potential, and in fact it was the first song that they recorded for Columbia.
The second Ace that Johnny and Tillman brought to the studio was a musician who would give their sparse trio a hit sound. By studying session sheets it can be revealed that Elvis Presley was recording his first RCA session in Nashville on January 11, 1956. Presley recorded until 7 pm that evening, at which point Tillman Franks brought Elvis' bass player Bill Black over to Owen Bradley's studio for a session beginning at 8 pm, where Black's slap bass prowess can be heard on "Honky Tonk Man" and the others recorded that evening. Tillman and Johnny knew Bill Black from Elvis's many appearances at the Hayride, and it seems that they had made a deal to spirit Bill Black away for the evening to help out Johnny's first Columbia session.
As with all moments of greatness, what transpired in the studio that day was a combination of many things that equaled a sum greater than its individual parts. Tillman and Johnny had the drive and the hunger, Johnny had the voice, Howard Hausey had supplied the song, Bill Black's slapping bass added an element of sound that Tillman could not, and the glue that held it all together was the highly-stylized and steady lead guitar of session man (and de facto producer) Grady Martin.
Grady Martin was Nashville's top session guitarist for decades. While there were undoubtedly other guitarists that could out-flash Grady, or venture off into jazz or blues, the fact was that Grady Martin could listen to a singer demo a song and come up with the individual licks that would turn that song into a hit. Other guitarists in Nashville could come close, but none had that hit-making ability that Grady innately possessed.
It's hard to imagine Johnny Horton's magical Columbia records like "Honky Tonk Man," "I'm Coming Home," "One Woman Man," or any of the others without that signature guitar sound Grady Martin supplied. Almost immediately, Grady realized that Johnny Horton's voice and a lead guitar treatment with a heavy emphasis on the bass strings was a winning combination. No noodling or needless improvisation was required--musically, Grady and Johnny Horton gelled like beans and cornbread, and "Honky Tonk Man" became the smash hit that Johnny and Tillman had been praying for.
"Honky Tonk Man" started a string of songs over the next two years that have stood the test of time for country and rockabilly fans. Johnny Horton's style on songs like "Take Me Like I Am," "She Knows Why," "You're My Baby," and "I'll Do It Everytime," all included here, is as unique and distinctive as his friend Johnny Cash's was. Johnny Horton's style wasn't rock and roll, but it was darn close at times, with songs like "Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor" featuring Grady Martin playing lead guitar lines that sounded like rock and roll to country ears.
Johnny Horton's honky-tonk streamlined productions in 1956 and 1957 left a body of work forever worshipped by rockabilly and country fans, but the reality was that by 1958 Horton was broke again, and the well ran dry for his latest string of hitless Columbia singles. For some quick cash, Horton cut an album for the fledgling SESAC publishing and recording firm in Nashville with his road band, including Tommy Tomlinson on guitar (a fine guitarist in his own right, he was forced to play rhythm guitar on the Columbia sides and learn Grady Martin's leads for Johnny's personal appearances). We have included "Seven Come Eleven" and "Out in New Mexico" from the SESAC recordings on this disc.
Johnny and Billie Jean had a way of going through money even before it was made, and the lean times after the initial flush of "Honky Tonk Man" found Johnny, Billie Jean and Tillman engaging in a number of petty scams and cons to stay above water. Such hijinks as selling tickets to a fake benefit for crippled children and gambling rent money on overnight pinball marathons were almost everyday occurrences during this time.
The "Honky Tonk Man" formula had been a hit-making sound, but by 1958 the newest trend was for folk music, and songs with historical subjects and lyrical content. It might be difficult for rockabillies to stomach the thought, but The Kingston Trio's "Tom Dooley" was one of the most popular songs in America in the late 1950s. Johnny was still cutting fun honky-tonk, like "Mister Moonlight" from 1958 included here, but the hit streak appeared to be at a standstill until Tillman and Johnny found another goldmine by mining the folk music boom.
It is still somewhat of a mystery how Johnny and Tillman struck on their next hit formula, but they came up with a song called "When It's Springtime In Alaska, It's Forty Below," which proved popular at shows and pointed the direction of the folk trend for them.
"When It's Springtime" proved to be an even bigger hit than "Honky Tonk Man," and in vaunted show business tradition, Johnny and Tillman set out to milk the historical song formula for all it was worth. When Porter Wagoner's steel guitarist Don Warden pitched a song that he owned publishing on to Johnny and Tillman backstage somewhere on tour, Johnny was mildly interested and Tillman was unimpressed. The song was an obscure number by an even more obscure folk singer from Arkansas named Jimmy Driftwood-"The Battle of New Orleans."
Not long after Warden pitched the song, Tillman heard the song on a late night radio show and then dreamt about Johnny recording it. Johnny became passionate about the song, and brought Jimmy Driftwood to appear on the 'Louisiana Hayride' and spend a weekend rewriting the lyrics to fit within the realm of a radio-friendly pop song.
The result was Johnny Horton's signature song, and his biggest career hit. The drum introduction and stomping tempo was Grady Martin's idea, and undoubtedly contributed to the songs crossover appeal to the singalong "Tom Dooley" crowd. "The Battle of New Orleans" was an outright smash, finishing 1959 as the year's second most popular song, propelling Johnny Horton to household name status.
The record buying public couldn't get enough Johnny Horton history-themed discs after "New Orleans." More hits followed throughout 1959 and 1960, including "North to Alaska," "Johnny Reb," and "Sink the Bismarck." These memorable songs were padded on albums with such stinkers as "Young Abe Lincoln" and "O'Leary's Cow." None of these historical songs are included on this compilation, but it's important to know that the biggest successes of Johnny Horton's career came with these historical "folk" numbers.
Throughout Johnny Horton's career, he harbored a fascination with spiritualism and the supernatural, and in particular he began having premonitions that a drunk driver would kill him in a violent car accident. Johnny Horton and his close fishing pal Johnny Cash shared this belief in the great unknown, and there are legendary stories of the pair hypnotizing each other or trying to reach Hank Williams' spirit at a séance. These comical stories are tempered by the fact that Horton was so sure he would die in a car accident that he began practicing driving his car into a ditch, preparing for the inevitable, hoping to cheat death.
The eerie legend of Johnny Horton's death is supported by a number of undeniable facts. Johnny Horton was married to Hank Williams's widow Billie Jean at the time of his death; both Johnny Horton and Hank Williams would perform the last performances of their careers at the Skyline Club in Austin, Texas. Some of Johnny's old band members claimed that they and Johnny Horton were driving through Milano, Texas, at the beginning of 1953 when Hank Williams's death was announced on the radio. Nearly eight years later Horton's tragic car accident occurred on the same stretch of highway near Milano.
Johnny upset his wife and his relatives with his talk of an early death, spiritualism, and premonitions. Undoubtedly, most of them merely thought he was crazy, or just occupying his brain with morbid thoughts. All of this conjecture would prove moot when the car carrying Johnny, Tillman Franks, and Tommy Tomlinson entered a bridge overpass in the early morning of November 5, 1960. A drunk driver named James E. Davis careened off the sides of the bridge overpass, and sliced apart the car carrying the musicians. James E. Davis escaped with a broken rib, but Tommy Tomlinson lost a leg, Tillman Franks suffered head lacerations, and the great honky-tonk singing star Johnny Horton lay dead on a lonesome stretch of Texas highway.
Ironically, as with Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, and Jim Reeves, Johnny Horton's fame and fortune multiplied exponentially after his tragic death. "North to Alaska," which had only been released a short time before the accident, went to the top of the charts, and rushed-to-market Johnny Horton cash-in albums sold like hotcakes. Though he would not be around to enjoy it, Johnny Horton had become what he always wanted--a timeless, beloved, and legendary country star.
After Horton's death, the vaults were raided, and unreleased songs would continue to be released for years to come. A stash of home recorded demos turned up, and several of these were overdubbed by the Nashville A-Team and released on album.
Although Johnny Horton's personal life was filled with huge successes, hard times, and a tragic early death, 50 years later we are left with the voice--that magical voice that has calmed and soothed and entertained millions over the years. Magic like that can't be manufactured--something that today's flash in the pan singers should take note of.
We hope you have enjoyed this compilation of Johnny Horton's best hillbilly boogie and proto-rockabilly material. If this is your introduction to the music of Johnny Horton, we would like to recommend the two excellent Johnny Horton box sets on Bear Family (The Early Years BFX 15289 and The Columbia Years BFX 15470), an exhaustive but completely rewarding look at Johnny Horton's career from start to finish. You can trust this author when he states that one Johnny Horton compilation simply isn't enough.
Tiny Moore's 1962 Bigsby Mandolin from Vintage Guitar magazine|
By Deke Dickerson
This author recently contributed--in the form of research, photography, and detective work--to the newly released book The Story of Paul Bigsby: Father of the Modern Solidbody Electric Guitar (written by Andy Babiuk, Hal Leonard publishing). The book was a mammoth undertaking, with myself and several members of the secret society known as the "Bigsby Brain Trust" attempting to unravel the mysteries of the Paul Bigsby story.
When the book finally came out, I received many emails asking why Tiny Moore's historic Bigsby electric mandolin wasn't featured more prominently in the book (there is a single postage-stamp-sized photo of Tiny from a 1980s album cover). The answer was simple: We didn't know where Tiny's mandolin was!
Before the book was published, I had made some inquiries to try and find out the whereabouts of Tiny's mandolin, with no success. Of course, after the book came out, several people pointed me in the right direction. The mandolin had been in safekeeping for Tiny's family in the hands of Skip Maggiora of Skip's Music in Sacramento, an institution in the California Capitol City. The mandolin is now part of Skip's personal collection, along with historic instruments used by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and other Western Swing legends.
Luckily, Skip turned out to be a very accommodating guy, and thanks to him we can now give some well-deserved publicity to both the story of Tiny Moore, the electric mandolin virtuoso, and Tiny Moore's 1952 Bigsby electric mandolin, one of the most important instruments Paul Bigsby ever made.
Billie "Tiny" Moore was born in Energy, Texas on May 12, 1920, to a musical family. As a baby, Tiny's mother gave piano lessons and brought Tiny along in a buggy as she taught. As with many Texas families, nearly everybody in the Moore clan played an instrument, and it wasn't long before Tiny was taking violin lessons and learning how to play the "fiddle."
As a high schooler, Tiny played fiddle and guitar in a group called the Clod Hoppers. When the family moved to Port Arthur, Texas, he played with another group that included future jazz guitar legend Jimmy Wyble, and later with a different group that included future jazz guitar legend Herb Ellis. Tiny also ventured into Cajun country, across the border to Louisiana, playing with groups like Happy Fats's Rayne-Bo Ramblers. It was during this time that Billie Moore, due to his large size and stature, would earn the nickname he would carry the rest of his life: Tiny. For those unfamiliar with country culture, giant guys always got the comical nickname Tiny, and for young Tiny Moore, it stuck.
Tiny's story really begins in early 1930s Texas, where a new hybrid style of music called Western Swing was starting to take root. Western Swing was essentially jazz music, and big band-style pop music, interpreted by country musicians. One important difference between Western Swing musicians and traditional jazz or country musicians was that the Western Swing players took right away to electrified instruments and loud drummers, a necessity in the loud dancehalls where Western Swing was popular.
Important electric musicians in those early days included Bob Dunn, the steel guitarist for Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies, an extremely influential steel guitarist who was the first to record with an amplified instrument; and his colleague Leo Raley, who played electric mandolin in Cliff Bruner's Texas Wanderers in that band's formation following the death of Milton Brown in 1936.
Leo Raley saw no virtue in the traditional acoustic mandolin. Raley added a homemade pickup to his Martin A-style, and played lead electric jazz mandolin, a role that the instrument had never taken before (it should be noted that the first commercially available electric mandolins, from Gibson and Vega, debuted the same year--1936--that Raley began playing his Martin with the homemade pickup). Raley didn't play the chordal style so associated with the polite parlor mandolin, and he didn't play like a Bluegrass boy--Raley instead reinvented the mandolin as a little brother to the electric guitar.
Leo Raley started a small movement in Southeast Texas when he began using the electric mandolin as a lead instrument for western swing. Raley was not a virtuoso soloist, but those who followed Raley's example were. These included players such as Johnny Gimble, who went on to play fiddle and mandolin for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys; Paul Buskirk, the Houston-area virtuoso who played mandolin and guitar for everybody from Tex Ritter to Willie Nelson (Buskirk didn't really play like Raley, coming from a West Virginia background, but undoubtedly Raley's use of amplification influenced him); and young Tiny Moore, who decided after seeing Raley to concentrate on lead electric mandolin as his main instrument.
The first electric mandolin Tiny played was a custom-made instrument by his friend Raymond Jones. As Tiny progressed, he eventually bought a brand new Gibson EM-150 electric mandolin, strung up with only four strings.
As World War II began, Tiny concentrated on learning the mandolin, and after being drafted in 1943, Tiny served a two-year stint in the military working as a radio operator in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The time spent in the Dakotas must have been good for woodshedding, for when Tiny returned to Port Arthur in 1945, he was a monster player, with the "Tiny Moore style" fully formed.
In 1945 and 1946 Tiny played with legendary honky-tonk piano player Moon Mullican and his band the Showboys. It was by far the most professional gig he had worked thus far, and gave Tiny a hint of what might be possible, if he was lucky enough to catch a break.
That break came for Tiny in the most unlikely manner possible. Tiny had made plans to move to Oklahoma with a drummer friend in search of work, when the pair happened to drive past a late night diner in Beaumont, Texas, and saw Bob Wills's tour bus parked in the lot. Bob Wills, lead vocalist Tommy Duncan, and Bob's brother Billy Jack Wills were in the restaurant eating sandwiches after a performance at Beaumont's Pleasure Pier, and Tiny wanted to meet them. Tiny struck up a conversation with Wills, and it wasn't long before Wills asked him to get his mandolin from his car and play a little for them. Tiny was hired on the spot, got on the tour bus the next morning and became a featured member of Bob Wills's Texas Playboys for the next four years.
Bob Wills had been performing Western Swing music since the early 1930s, first as a member of the Light Crust Doughboys (a corporate sponsored hot fiddle band that also included the other major architect of Western Swing, Milton Brown), and beginning in 1933 with his own band the Texas Playboys. The late 1930s incarnation of the band was a large orchestra with brass and woodwind sections, however after losing most of his players to the draft in World War II, Wills restructured the Playboys after the war to be a smaller, electrified combo with the emphasis on hot string players. The late 1940s lineups of the Texas Playboys included incredible musicians like Junior Barnard on bluesy, distorted electric guitar; Herb Remington playing incredibly adventurous steel guitar, and fellow Texan Johnny Gimble on fiddle and mandolin. Together with Tiny's hot electric mandolin, the group worked up incredible two, three, and four-part harmony leads that Western Swing scholars are still trying to pick apart today.
In the late 1940s Wills owned a dancehall called Wills Point in Sacramento, California, but by 1950 had moved the Texas Playboys home base from Sacramento to Oklahoma City. After several years of hard touring, Tiny was beginning to tire of the road, and when Wills offered Tiny a position to manage Wills Point and stay off the road, Tiny jumped at the chance.
Bob Wills had three brothers, all of whom had their own bands. Many of the famous Texas Playboys came up through the ranks of Luke Wills, Johnny Lee Wills, or Billy Jack Wills' various combos. Although the various Wills bands were essentially "farm teams" for big brother Bob's star attraction, Billy Jack Wills and his Western Swing Band became something altogether different when Tiny Moore put together a new group for Billy Jack to front the house band at Wills Point.
The two CDs of material that Billy Jack Wills and his band record in the early to mid-1950s reveal that there was something truly magical going on in the group dynamic, much more so than in Bob's band at the same time. Billy Jack Wills was 21 years younger than older brother Bob, and as such, the music was geared to a younger audience. Tiny, along with young virtuoso steel guitarist Vance Terry, guitarist Kenny Lowery, trumpeter Dick McComb and fiddler/bassist Cotton Roberts, created a hot dance band that filled the gap somewhere between Western Swing and the new rock and roll style of Bill Haley and the Comets. The playing was off the Richter scale, with Tiny trading insanely hot solos and breathtaking twin harmony leads with Vance Terry.
Vance Terry, wanting an instrument like other top steel players like Joaquin Murphey, Speedy West, and Noel Boggs, ordered a custom-made Bigsby triple-neck steel guitar in 1951. A Bigsby steel guitar was something only the top professionals could afford at the time, as Paul Bigsby built each instrument by hand, with a waiting list a year long to buy his instruments. Bigsby's handcrafted instruments also cost two to three times more than a comparable Gibson or Fender.
Tiny Moore followed Vance Terry's example and went to visit Paul Bigsby. Tiny ordered a Bigsby electric mandolin for himself, to replace and update his 10-year-old Gibson EM-150. While Tiny has erroneously been credited with receiving the first solidbody electric mandolin, the truth is that Bigsby made his first electric mandolin (unless an earlier example surfaces) for Paul Buskirk in 1950, which was a 10-string mandolin strung in five courses (not to mention the fact that Bigsby instruments made after early 1949 aren't true "solidbodies," they are neck-through-body instruments with hollow wings). Bigsby also made several other mandolins around the same time, including electric mandolins for Eschol Cosby and Al Giddings, and a re-necked Kay acoustic mandolin for Nudie Cohn, the Rodeo Tailor, among others.
Tiny originally placed an order with Bigsby for a four-string electric mandolin. The story of how Tiny's mandolin wound up being a five-string is an interesting sidebar in the Bigsby saga.
After Paul Buskirk had his 10-string mandolin made in 1950, he brought it back to Houston, where a local mandolin player named Scotty Broyles saw the instrument and noted that Buskirk added a fifth pair of strings, tuned to a low C below the standard mandolin tuning of G-D-A-E.
A short time later Scotty Broyles went into the Navy and found himself stationed in San Diego at the Naval Base on North Island. San Diego had a tremendous country music and western swing scene in the early 1950s, centered at the Bostonia Ballroom east of San Diego in El Cajon. Here Scotty saw just about every top country music star of the day in person, and took color slide photographs whenever he could (in fact, several of Scotty's beautiful color slides were included in the Bigsby book, including the only known color photograph of Merle Travis holding his 1948 Bigsby electric guitar).
Scotty befriended another country music fan on the Naval base, a musician and amateur guitar builder named Jim Harvey. Beginning around 1951, Jim Harvey built guitars, steel guitars, and mandolins in his La Jolla garage workshop, all showing a heavy Bigsby influence--neck-through-body construction, birdseye maple bodies with natural finish, aluminum nuts and bridges, etc. Soon Harvey agreed to build Scotty a five-string electric mandolin, based on the Buskirk 10-string idea but with five single strings.
Jim Harvey's earliest creations had DeArmond floating pickups, as they were the only commercially available pickup at that time (it might be hard to imagine, but 60 years ago guitar manufacturers wouldn't sell their pickups or parts as separate accessory items). Jim Harvey was aware of Paul Bigsby's pickups, and he decided to drive up to Downey to meet Bigsby in person and ask to purchase pickups for use on his own Jim Harvey instruments.
Scotty Broyles tells the story: "Jim asked Paul if he would sell him a pickup, and Paul said he'd have to see his work, and if it was good enough, he might consider it. Jim went out to his car and got the guitar he was working on, and Bigsby spent about ten minutes slowly looking it over. Finally, without saying anything, Paul walked over to a cabinet mounted on the wall, pulls out a pickup, comes back over to Jim and tells him the pickups are $50, and they're the same price if he takes the pickup by itself or leaves the instrument to have him install it."
Jim Harvey would go on to make a dozen or so instruments, about half of which used Bigsby pickups, including Scotty's electric five-string mandolin.
Scotty recalls how Tiny Moore became associated with the five-string electric mandolin: "Jim Harvey had taken my unfinished mandolin up there to Paul Bigsby to have a five-string pickup installed. Well, it was sitting around Bigsby's shop for a few weeks while he installed the pickup, and about that time, Tiny Moore came and visited Bigsby to see how his new electric mandolin was coming. Tiny had ordered a four-string mandolin, but when he saw my Harvey five-string mandolin lying there, he changed his mind and told Paul right then and there his had to be a five-string too. Paul was mad, because he was just about done with Tiny's instrument! Eventually Tiny got his way, and that's the reason Tiny's Bigsby had five strings instead of four, was because he saw mine in the shop."
Tiny's Bigsby mandolin was finished on September 3, 1952, and we know that because the serial number stamped in the body near the mandolin's tailpiece reads 9352. Paul Bigsby didn't leave us much information on the creation of his instruments, but we do know (because he told many of his clients) that the serial numbers represented the date of completion.
Tiny Moore's Bigsby, although now weathered and showing the signs of decades of hard work on the road, is a magnificent example of Paul Bigsby's work. One of the hallmarks of Bigsby instruments is the graceful slope where the neck joins the body. All genuine Bigsbys have this slope that seamlessly fades the back of the neck into the neck/body joint (and it's easy to spot a forgery when they lack this feature), and the one on Tiny Moore's mandolin is perhaps the most graceful example of the neck-to-body fade this author has ever seen. The binding, inlay and construction are tight and expertly done. At some point Tiny replaced the early Klusons with replacement tuners, and moved the rear strap hook from the tail area to the top of the instrument, but other than that, the instrument is in remarkably original condition (astute Tiny Moore fans may note that the instrument had a few sets of different volume and tone knobs over its lifetime of use, but the ones on it now are the originals that Skip found inside the instrument's case).
Tiny's instrument has a couple of unique features, despite the fact that all Bigsby instruments are unique. A feature not found on any other Bigsby instrument is the master volume control located above the bridge, with the tone control by the pickup switch, suited to Tiny's ergonomic preference. The bridge saddle is straight across at a slight angle, which all of Bigsby's mandolins and the upper mandolin neck of Grady Martin's doubleneck guitar have in common, unlike the typical compensated Bigsby bridge saddle found on the larger instruments. The mandolin's top and back are made of figured curly maple, unlike the birdseye maple used on most, but not all, Bigsby instruments. The mandolin utilizes the standard mandolin scale length of 13 7/8 inches. With its neck-through-body design (with hollow wings) style of construction, the instrument is also light as a feather, as most Bigsbys are.
When Tiny received his Bigsby mandolin in the fall of 1952, he used the instrument extensively with Billy Jack Wills's band, and also on several Bob Wills recording sessions in 1955. If you search out the Billy Jack Wills CD's (not available on iTunes, but the CDs are easily found on eBay), you can hear Tiny's Bigsby in all its glory, and it really is a magnificent sounding instrument. With Tiny mixing Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian guitar licks into his mandolin playing, Tiny probably influenced more guitar players than mandolin players.
Tiny was so good, in fact, that he received offers from huge stars of the day such as Red Foley to go on the road and leave the Sacramento gig behind. Tiny refused the offers, though they would have meant a huge pay raise.
Bob Wills wound up drafting most of the Billy Jack Wills band into the Texas Playboys touring band in 1955, and after Wills Point closed in Sacramento, Tiny rejoined Bob Wills's band for a short time before quitting the road once again, choosing to remain in his adopted hometown of Sacramento.
From 1956 to 1961 Tiny played locally and appeared on local children's television as Ranger Roy, a character he invented for a kid's show with a monkey as his sidekick (Skip recalls: "Tiny had a real nice old Gibson flat-top acoustic guitar, but it got covered in monkey bites and claw marks during his 'Ranger Roy' phase!"). When that gig ended, Tiny founded the Tiny Moore Music Center in Sacramento, selling instruments and giving lessons--where a young Skip Maggiora also taught and sometimes would run the studio when Tiny was on the road.
In the 1970s, Tiny collaborated with Jay Roberts to make the Roberts Tiny Moore Model electric mandolin, very loosely modeled after Tiny's Bigsby. They were sold directly out of Tiny's music store, and not many of them were produced. Today they are quite collectible, though the Roberts are not Bigsby copies--they are different in nearly every way except the basic appearance.
Tiny had a great second career when Merle Haggard came calling in 1970 to do a Texas Playboys reunion album. Haggard was obsessed with the music of Bob Wills and is directly responsible for bringing Wills's name out of fading obscurity back into the limelight. Tiny played both mandolin and fiddle, and did so well with Merle's band (The Strangers) that he became a regular member of the touring and recording band. Tiny would continue to play with Merle Haggard on and off throughout the 1970s and 1980s, eventually ending the Haggard gig when Merle insisted his entire band relocate to the Redding, California, area--Tiny declared he was staying in Sacramento and handed in his resignation.
In the last few years of his life, Tiny recorded a few new albums, mostly straight jazz albums by himself and with fellow mandolin virtuoso Jethro Burns. One of those albums, Tiny Moore Music, shows the aging, but still agile, master of the instrument holding his battle-scared Bigsby mandolin on the cover.
Tiny Moore died on December 15, 1987, while playing a gig at Cactus Pete's in Jackpot, Nevada. Until the day he died, Tiny was still playing great, rocking his little electric mandolin like the mighty instrument it was.
Skip Maggiora founded Skip's Music in Sacramento in 1973, and Skip's is now an institution around the area. Tiny's three most important mandolins--the Gibson EM-150, Tiny's personal Roberts mandolin, and of course, the legendary 1952 Bigsby mandolin--are now treasured centerpieces of Skip's personal instrument collection.
While this instrument was sadly overlooked in the recent Bigsby book, I'm proud to tell Tiny's story here in these pages. Thanks to Skip, we're able to get a better look at this incredibly historic and important Bigsby instrument.
(Thanks to Skip Maggiora, Andrew Brown, Chris Lucker, and Scotty Broyles. The author is interested in hearing from readers with Tiny Moore stories, or from anybody with a Bigsby story to tell.)
The Story of Letritia Kandle, Female Electric Guitar Pioneer, and the Magnificent "Grand Letar" from Vintage Guitar magazine|
By Deke Dickerson, November 2009
When you run down the list of early electric guitar innovators, an all-male group comes to mind. Les Paul, Alvino Rey, Charlie Christian, Merle Travis, and the like--there isn't a female on the list. This is the story of a woman named Letritia Kandle who, although virtually unknown until now, deserves to be on that short list of those who pioneered the electrified instrument back in the 1930s.
The list of innovations contained within Letritia's 1937 "Grand Letar" console steel guitar is impressive--the first guitar amplifier with two speakers, the first console steel guitar (first steel guitar that was not a "lap" steel), the first steel guitar with more than two necks, a series of tuning advancements that predated the modern pedal steel guitar, and perhaps most incredibly, a built-in moving light show with lighted front, sides and fretboards. You read it right, a built-in light show--in 1937!
This story is really about two people. Firstly, Letritia Kandle, the musician and steel guitar pioneer who is the subject of this article, and secondly, Paul Warnik, the tireless researcher and steel guitar historian who recently uncovered Letritia's amazing story.
Paul Warnik is a Chicago-area steel guitar collector who has seen just about everything over the years. However, one image always haunted him--a photo from the National guitar chapter in Tom Wheeler's book American Guitars. The photo caption in Wheeler's book merely said "Teacher Letritia Kandle poses with National's Grand Letar Console Steel." A photo shows a pretty young woman from decades past posing in front of a large multi-neck steel guitar. The steel guitar was highly unusual, certainly no standard National instrument, and with no other information given, Paul filed the image away in his mind.
Information on Letritia Kandle was nonexistent, and years went by with no clues. When Paul purchased a National lap steel at a vintage guitar show in the early 1990s, it had a signed receipt from Letritia Kandle's guitar studio with a Chicago address, which told him that she was from the Chicago area, but Paul assumed that she must have passed away. More years went by, and finally in 2007 Paul met one of Letritia's former students at a steel guitar convention in Illinois, who informed Paul that Mrs. Kandle is still alive and living in the Chicago suburbs! This person was able to put Paul in touch with Letritia, who had been quietly living her life under her married name since she gave up music in the 1950s.
When Paul finally got in touch with Letritia at her home, the real story began to unfold. Letritia's story had been unfairly relegated to the dustbins of history. However, thanks to her incredible memory, and the amazing photos and press clippings of the era that survive, her story can now be told.
Letritia Kandle was born in Chicago in November 7, 1915, the only child of Charles and Alma Kandle. In her early years, Letritia was a very typical young lady of the era. She took piano lessons, but when she was 13 years old, she saw Warner Baxter play the Spanish guitar in the film The Cisco Kid. This film made such an impression that immediately Letritia wanted to play the guitar instead of the piano. Her instructor advised her that the Hawaiian (also known as "steel") guitar was becoming popular, and helped Letritia get started on the acoustic Hawaiian guitar.
Letritia's father was always supportive of his daughter's efforts, and after demonstrating she was serious about the Hawaiian guitar, she had top-of-the-line instruments for her musical endeavors. Her early acoustic instruments included a Weissenborn Koa guitar, and a National Style 2 (and later, a top of the line Style 4) Resophonic Hawaiian guitar. When Letritia saw an old turn-of-the-century double-neck harp guitar (possibly made the by Chicago maker Almcrantz) hanging in a second-hand shop, she asked her father to buy it for her and help her convert it from a harp guitar to a Hawaiian raised-nut instrument with a standard neck and a 12-string neck capable of different tunings.
At the Chicago World's Fair in 1933, Hawaiian music and culture was all the rage. There, Letritia met George Kealoha Gilman, who mentored her in Hawaiian lore--speaking the Hawaiian language, Hula dancing, and making leis and grass skirts. The following year, in 1934, Letritia formed an all-girl ensemble known as the Kohala Girls. The Kohala Girls specialized in Hawaiian music, and had matching National Resophonic guitars.
Unlike many young musicians, Letritia was continually thinking of ways to not only improve her own musicianship, but ways to improve the steel guitar itself. After a few years of playing with the Kohala Girls, during which time electric lap steels and double-neck lap steels began to come on the scene, Letritia had a vision for a brand new revolutionary instrument.
Letritia wrote the story herself of how the National Grand Letar console steel guitar came to be, for a series of articles in Music Studio News. Here, directly from the source, is how this incredible instrument came into being:
"Have you ever indulged in dreaming? If you have, you know that there are primarily two different kinds--one where the dreamer tries to escape from the reality of living, and one where the dreamer sets a mental goal for himself, and then tries by hard, honest endeavor to reach it in reality. The second type of dreamer is responsible for many of the advancements of our Modern way of life.
"And so while waiting for an appointment on one of the upper floors of a tall office building in Chicago, the idea for a 26-string guitar was born. It was summer and through the large window facing the West from where I was sitting, the sun, like a huge ball of fire, surrounded by a myriad of colors, sky blue, pink, yellow, purple, and green was dropping by the horizon, there appeared an instrument seemingly blown of glass. I kept looking at the sky, when the crisp friendly voice of the receptionist called my mind back to this world. In those few moments of daydreaming, I knew what I wanted.
"A guitar that would enable me to stand while playing it, one that would sound full, like an organ, and yet produce tones like a vibraharp--one with not less than 26 strings, for complete harmony, and one that would change colors as the different tones were produced. When I arrived home, later that evening, I told my father of the dream. Although my dad is an engineer and not a musician, he offered to help build the 'dream instrument' for me, if I would help.
"The problems we encountered were many, each one had to be dealt with separately--a metal had to be chosen for the casting, that would not expand or contract when in contact with heat--sizes of strings, electronics, etc. until finally after many days, weeks, and months of labor, emerged a finished instrument.
"Now that the instrument was finished a name for it had to be selected, so, from my first name, Letritia, we took the first three letters, and from the word guitar we chose the last two letters. With this combination, the 'dream instrument' became the GRAND LETAR!!!"
During the first part of 1937, after Letritia had this vision of her dream instrument, her father worked on constructing the Grand Letar to his daughter's specifications. The instrument was a large console, with the top part of the steel guitar made of a poured aluminum casting. The sides and "console" were made of wood and covered with a chrome-plated steel wrap. This was the first time that a steel guitar was not held in the lap, so it was a radical construction for the time. Additionally, no steel guitar had ever had more than two necks on it before this one. Letritia's Grand Letar appeared to have four necks on it, three six-string necks and one eight string neck, but in reality it had three six-string necks and two four-string necks on it (more on that later).
Letritia's father built the console of the steel guitar, then went to see Louis Dopyera at National Guitars. Letritia had been playing National Resophonics with the Kohala Girls, and already knew the Dopyera family at National. Mr. Kandle brought the basic body of the Grand Letar to National, where they installed pickups and an internal 20-watt National amplifier with two 12-inch Lansing (JBL) field coil speakers. This built-in amplifier happens to hold the distinction of being the first guitar amplifier to use two speakers--a full 10 years before Leo Fender made the Dual Professional, and 20-odd years before Leo began offering the Twin with JBL speakers as an option! Letritia's Grand Letar with the dual speaker setup was a veritable Marshall stack in its day.
The coup de grace of the Grand Letar was the built in light show, which is so complex that it's difficult to describe. Letritia and her father worked on an idea that utilized Mr. Kandle's engineering know-how to realize Letritia's vision. The fretboards, sides, and front of the steel guitar were etched glass that displayed lights that shone from within the guitar. The front panel of the Grand Letar was originally a rising sun motif, which came from Letritia's initial vision of the instrument. Unfortunately, due to World War II and the Japanese Invasion of Pearl Harbor, Letritia was eventually forced to change the rising sun motif to an art deco motif with musical notes.
Inside the steel guitar was a 1930's vision of the future--an extensive network of 120 bulbs in four colors that flashed and changed colors as a large motor in the base of the Grand Letar engaged electrical contacts on a large flywheel. On the rear panel of the Grand Letar, a control panel with four rheostats and 12 toggle switches was used to control the brightness and other aspects of the internal "light show."
When the Grand Letar was finished, National built a road case to transport the instrument. Because of all the etched glass, the instrument could not be transported unless it was secured in the custom-built road case. Unbelievably, the Grand Letar was 265 pounds by itself, and 400 pounds in the road case!
Letritia was playing with the well-known Big Band leader Paul Whiteman during this time, and it was actually Paul Whiteman who came up with the name "Grand Letar." Letritia played the Grand Letar with Whiteman during a residency at the Drake Hotel in Chicago during 1937.
After the instrument was completed, National was eager to have Letritia demonstrate the Grand Letar at the 1937 National Music Trade Convention in New York, the NAMM show of that era. All the major musical instrument manufacturers displayed their products at the convention, and many of the great names in music performed as demonstrators for the various companies. National signed an endorsement deal with Letritia in July, and agreed to transport the instrument to New York and provide her room and board in exchange for Letritia demonstrating the instrument at the National booth.
While demonstrating the Grand Letar at the New York trade convention, a very interesting thing happened. Letritia looked up while performing at the trade show to see none other than her idol, Alvino Rey, watching her demonstrate the remarkable new instrument. Letritia idolized Alvino Rey, who was one of the country's greatest steel guitar players and bandleaders. Before the song was over, Alvino had quickly left the room, and Letritia never did meet him in person. Letritia was crushed, but more than likely the reality was that Alvino's mind was blown at what he saw.
Whatever Alvino thought when he saw Letritia performing on the Grand Letar, the fact was she had predated him on a major evolutionary step of the steel guitar. While Gibson guitars had built many experimental steel guitars based on Alvino's ideas, the Grand Letar was a huge step beyond anything that Gibson had ever conceived of up to then.
What is interesting about this happenstance is that within two years, Alvino Rey and Gibson guitars came out with the Console Grande steel guitar, which was Gibson's first multi-neck console steel guitar. Alvino's exquisite Console Grande steel influenced many later players and instrument makers, but the evidence points to Alvino getting the idea after seeing Letritia demonstrating the Grand Letar at this 1937 trade convention.
The dates of Letritia's innovations can be verified through national press articles about her new instrument. The Music Trades,/i> ran an article about Letritia and the Grand Letar in their September 1937 issue. Down Beat,,/i> the highly regarded jazz magazine, also ran an article in October 1937. The dates are important because during the mad rush of stringed instrument innovation during the 1930s, it is often difficult to prove who "got there first." The articles written in 1937 prove that Letritia was indeed there first with her impressive list of innovations.
One of the ideas that Letritia had for the multi-neck arrangement of the Grand Letar was the tuning of the necks. Until the Grand Letar, lap steels and double-neck lap steels were usually tuned with one or two standard tunings, such as the low bass A tuning for Hawaiian playing or the C6 tuning for jazz. Letritia envisioned being able to cover all harmonic and chordal bases using a playing style that necessitated switching back and forth between the necks many times during each song. The basic ideas that Letritia came up for chord inversions were later utilized by pedal steel players, with their pedals achieving the same result as Letritia's idea of switching between necks.
The first neck on the Grand Letar was tuned to an A-major (high bass) tuning, A-C#-E-A-C#-E. The second neck was tuned to an E7 with the standard old-school E7 tuning, B-E-D-G#-B-E. The third neck was an A minor tuning which could also make C6th inversions. Lastly, the fourth neck, which was an eight-string, was arranged in two small clusters, with four strings for each. One was tuned to an augmented chord, F-A-C#-F, and one was tuned to a diminished chord, F#-A-C-E.
The Grand Letar proved to be very unwieldy to transport, so it was mostly used for big engagements and residencies. In 1939 Letritia and her father came up with a more portable instrument, which was essentially like the Grand Letar without the built in amplifier and light show. This new instrument was called the "Small Letar." Most notably, Letritia added a seventh string to each of the standard necks, with one interesting variation on the E7 neck--she added a high F# string on the top of the E7 neck, which when played turned it into an E9 chord, predating the now-standard Nashville E9 tuning by 20 years!
There were several inquiries to National in regards to manufacturing and selling Grand Letar consoles, but the excessive cost and weight prevented another from being made. National promoted Letritia's involvement with the company by picturing her in the 1940 catalog holding a National Princess lap steel.
In 1941, Letritia became the featured soloist of the 50-piece Chicago Plectrophonic Orchestra, which featured Letritia playing classical numbers such as "Blue Danube Waltz" as well as other pop and Hawaiian numbers. When her mentor, conductor Jack Lundin, passed away in 1943, Letritia took over as conductor of the Orchestra.
The decade of the 1940s found Letritia teaching hundreds of students at her guitar studio in downtown Chicago. She was featured in Who's Who of Music, and also acted as a judge in many talent competitions (shades of American Idol). Letritia made the cover of the prestigious B.M.G. magazine, and wrote articles for Music Studio News and others.
Letritia continued her interest in advancing the steel guitar. In the late 1940s she endorsed the new Harlin Brothers Kalina Multi-Kord steel guitar, one of the early attempts at a pedal steel guitar.
In 1955 Letritia married Walter Lay, the former string bassist for the Chicago Plectrophonic Orchestra. After that, both Walter and Letritia went to work for Letritia's father, who had begun a business that manufactured earth-boring equipment. Letritia essentially retired from music at this point, choosing to concentrate on raising a family.
Letritia's story and her early innovations could easily have been forgotten and relegated to obscurity. Since she never made any recordings (beyond a few radio transcriptions which have yet to surface), or pursued fame beyond her own musical endeavors, she never entered the public consciousness the way that Les Paul or Alvino Rey did.
Luckily, Letritia and her husband Walter retained all of their old magazines and publicity photos documenting Letritia's music career. Best of all, the magnificent Grand Letar lay in its road case, completely untouched, underneath the basement stairwell, for nearly 55 years.
When collector Paul Warnik finally tracked down Letritia in 2007, he was not only blown away by the fact that Letritia was still alive and well (with great memory for detail), but that Letritia and her husband Walter had kept all her instruments and documentation of her music career.
After forging a friendship with Letritia and Walter, and making inquiries about the Grand Letar under the stairwell, Letritia surprised Paul by making arrangements for him to become the caretaker for all of her instruments (sadly, Walter, Letritia's husband of more than 53 years, passed away on December 15, 2008).
The Grand Letar had to be brought up the stairs in its road case, with a crew of piano movers hired to remove it from its half-century cold storage. When Paul began to restore the Grand Letar, it was essentially in good shape, but needed restoration of the amplifier and the light show. Jeff Mikols, Southside Chicago's amp wizard, rebuilt the amplifier section. The electrical wiring for the light show and field coil speakers was restored by Sue Haslam, a technician at Peterson Strobe Tuners in the Chicago suburb of Alsip, Illinois.
When the Grand Letar's restoration was finished in September 2008, the instrument was transported to Saint Louis. There it was featured at the Peterson Strobe Tuner booth at the International Steel Guitar Convention, where the Grand Letar was demonstrated in public for the first time in 55 years.
Now that Letritia Kandle's story is coming out, and the Grand Letar is back in action, the 94-year old electric guitar innovator remains nonplussed. In her words, "All I ever tried to do was elevate the steel guitar into a more versatile instrument that was capable of playing other styles of music, like modern and classical . . . not just Hawaiian music."
Letritia's modest statement belies the fact that her accomplishments deserve a great deal of recognition. This article serves to set the record straight--70 years too late, but better late than never. We all owe a debt of thanks to the early electric guitar innovators--people like Les Paul, Alvino Rey, Charlie Christian--and Letritia Kandle.
(Special thanks to Letritia Kandle, Paul Warnik, T. C. Furlong, Sue Haslam, John Norris, Jeff Mikols, and Kay Koster.)
Tough Old Men and Birdseye Maple: The Jim Harvey Story from Fretboard Journal|
By Deke Dickerson, November 2009
There was a time in this country when hardy souls ate red meat and gulped whole milk and built their own houses and played music in the parlor when the day's work was done. One of these men, a career Navy man named Walter James "Jim" Harvey, built musical instruments in Southern California nearly sixty years ago. Several other tough Navy men and flashy hillbilly entertainers played the instruments that Jim Harvey built. This is their story, and we soft, 90-pound weaklings of today deserve their scorn. Despite this, I urge you to keep reading.
Guitar history is full of stories that have become legend. If you have a cursory interest in vintage guitars, these stories are heard so many times that they are absorbed into a common vernacular of guitar geekdom. John D'Angelico, an old-world Italian craftsman, makes the world's finest archtops in a small, uncomplicated workshop in New York. Lloyd Loar, a master archtop builder for Gibson, abandons the company to build his innovative yet ill-received Vivi-Tone electrics. Paul Bigsby, a motorcycle racer, machinist, and friend of Merle Travis, builds the first modern electric solidbody guitar in a Downey garage, setting the stage for the electric guitar boom that would engulf the world in the decades to follow.
All of these stories are fascinating, and yet if one digs a little deeper, there are always more stories, hidden behind layers of time and obscurity. To this author, these forgotten and neglected stories are equally as interesting, perhaps greater in their sense of curious discovery. Willy Wilkanowski and his unique violin-constructed archtop guitars offer a Polish immigrant's alternative universe to D'Angelico's Italian glamour. Paul Tutmarc, a musical inventor of the isolated Pacific Northwest, ultimately had superior ideas and implementation with his Audiovox brand than his better-known peer Lloyd Loar in their similar quest for electric amplification.
Undeniably, when Paul Bigsby made his beautifully handcrafted instruments and namesake vibrato, he earned his place in history. Paul Bigsby's story deserves all accolades, but likewise Jim Harvey's story has been unfairly relegated to the vault of obscurity. His story deserves to be told.
Certified guitar obsessives can certainly relate to the statement that the more obsessed one becomes with guitars over a period of time, all things eventually float to the surface. And so it is that over the last seventeen years I have seen tiny pieces of the Harvey guitar mystery come to light. This article is a biographical piece on Jim Harvey's guitars, but it's also about how these guitars, and these men, affected my own life.
Seventeen years ago, the first time I heard about Harvey guitars, the name was completely new to me. I heard about an older gentleman taking a custom-made doubleneck labeled "Harvey" to various music stores and record stores in San Diego, looking for a buyer. Assuming it must be the work of Harvey Thomas (the luthier from Washington state), I tried to find the man with the guitar.
In the pre-Internet, pre-cell phone days, attempting to find information on a brand like Harvey guitars was like wearing a blindfold and wandering in the desert looking for Biblical scrolls. There were no references to Harvey anywhere in any guitar book. I called Lou Curtiss of Folk Arts Rare Records in San Diego, and he knew the man selling the guitar quite well, revealing his name as John Goertz. Goertz had an unlisted phone number and was said to usually come by the store on Tuesdays. I told Curtiss to have Goertz call me the next time he came into the store.
When the man returned, he had just sold the guitar to a San Diego lawyer and collector named Tom Sims. I knew Sims from record dealings, and we were on a friendly basis. Sims let me come over and see the guitar. I had my first, fleeting Jim Harvey moment that day.
The guitar was absolutely amazing. You could see a heavy Bigsby influence, with a blonde birdseye maple finish with walnut accents. It was obviously meant to emulate a Gretsch Duo-Jet, with a baby Duo-Jet eight-string mandolin coming off of the top of the guitar. Like a real Duo-Jet, the guitar had DeArmond pickups (with two four-pole DeArmonds on the mando neck), Gretsch knobs, and a Bigsby vibrato. The headstocks resembled musical notes. The playability was excellent. The headstocks read HARVEY.
Who the heck was this guy? This guitar was too well made and too professionally finished to be made by another backyard hillbilly luthier. Harvey didn't fit in. Typically, the backyard guys made guitars with hacksaw marks, misaligned pickups robbed from a Kay or Harmony, bowed necks that played with the comfort and accuracy of a musical corn cob. Whoever this Harvey guy was, he was very, very good.
I was disappointed I had missed my opportunity to buy this instrument. I wrote Tom Sims perhaps the most heartfelt letter of my entire life (sorry Mom), asking--pleading--for him to sell the guitar to me. Sims said no, but he sold me John Goertz's mint Magnatone 280 amplifier as a consolation prize. I was heartbroken and defeated by Sims's refusal to sell the guitar, but it would take 15 years to learn two of life's most valuable lessons: Good things come to those who wait, and you can't have all the pretty girls in the world.
It's a good time to throw in another well-used old adage--the Lord works in mysterious ways. Though I was hurt by the fact that Tom Sims wouldn't sell the guitar to me, 15 years later it was his ownership of the guitar that ultimately helped find Jim Harvey's family, which led to the publication of this story.
The Harvey doubleneck, still owned by Sims, has been on display at the NAMM Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, California, for the last few years. It was at the museum that Harvey family members saw the guitar and told the then-museum director Dan Del Fiorentino that they were related to the man who built the instrument on display. Dan contacted me, and a few emails later, I was in touch with Jim Harvey's oldest son, Howard Harvey.
Howard had a wealth of information, and he and his brother Walter had each kept one of their dad's guitars. In addition, Howard's wife Flower had put together a very nice scrapbook of dozens of photos showing the history of Jim Harvey and his musical instruments.
Seeing the photos for the first time confirmed what I had suspected: Jim Harvey was every bit the unknown Guitar Yoda I had imagined he would be. Although Jim had been dead for almost 30 years, these photos brought him to life. He seemed like a great guy. I wish I could have known him.
Jim Harvey was born March 12, 1922, in Onida, South Dakota. In 1926 George and Elizabeth Harvey moved their family to Pacific Beach, California, a residential area in the northern part of San Diego. George Harvey built the family's house in their newly adopted hometown on a fresh plot of virgin California soil.
Southern California in the 1920s and 1930s must have seemed like paradise to a young emigre from South Dakota. Opportunities abounded that never would have existed on the plains. Southern California was rapidly becoming a country music mecca, from the Dust Bowl migration that brought a massive influx of hillbillies into the region.
A vintage photo, labeled "Winners--Dugdale's Amatures [sic] of Pac. Beach" couldn't better illustrate the dichotomy of Southern California during the 1930s. Standing to one side were Jim and Kenny Harvey, holding banjo and fiddle, dressed in hillbilly finery, their dark indigo Levis perfectly cuffed above polished cowboy boots. They weren't Okies, but they certainly looked the part. Next to the Harvey brothers, there is a pair of attractive young women dressed in Hawaiian garb, leis around their necks, one holding a ukulele, showing the influence Hawaiian culture had on Southern California. On the right side of the photo, two cute teenage girls smiled and showed their legs. Two girls for every boy--California must have been heaven to these young farm boys from South Dakota.
Another photo shows Jim Harvey as a teenager posing in the driveway of his home, with a lemon tree in the background. Typical of that time, it was important to Jim to show his newfound affluence by posing for a shot in his best western clothes. In the photo, he is holding his Gibson archtop guitar, with his Martin mandolin, Gibson tenor banjo and upright bass placed around him. The most revealing detail of this photo--a custom pickguard on his Gibson archtop emblazoned with "JIMMY"--shows the burgeoning influence of customization on hillbilly guitar culture (a style that began with Jimmie Rodgers, the "Singing Brakeman," inlaying his name on the fretboard of his Martin in the late 1920s). The customized guitar bug had bitten Jim Harvey.
Jim Harvey, above all else, was a Navy man, and a family man. He enlisted in 1939 and did his 20-year stint. When Jim became a chief petty officer and moved off base, he bought a home in La Jolla, another San Diego suburb just north of Pacific Beach. He married Hilda in 1941, and had three children--Howard, Barbara, and Walter Junior.
Jim's father worked as a carpenter, then a cabinetmaker, and it was through his father that Jim learned how to work with wood. Later, in the Navy, Jim became a Chief Metalsmith, and gained experience with all kinds of different metals. This background (much like Paul Bigsby's experience as a machinist and motorcycle mechanic) explains how Jim Harvey was able to make instruments in his garage that had such a professional aura. Howard Harvey remembers that his dad used a Shop-Smith, one of those ancient machines that used a single motor to drive five or six power tools mounted on a single rail, for just about everything in the instrument-making process. With only simple tools, Jim Harvey's experience and perfectionism is what enabled him to make instruments of such high caliber.
Jim eventually became a member of FASRON #691 based on North Island in San Diego. Music played a large part in his life, and he would often go to the Bostonia Ballroom, where all the stars of the day appeared. The Bostonia was in El Cajon, a dusty town adjunct to San Diego where the Okies preferred to live.
It was at the Bostonia Ballroom, around 1950, that Jim Harvey first saw Paul Bigsby's instruments. A particularly telling set of black and white snapshots, taken by Jim at the Bostonia, show his obsession with guitars. There were shots of Joaquin Murphy bent over his tripleneck Bigsby steel guitar, and more importantly, Merle Travis playing his groundbreaking Bigsby electric solidbody guitar. To a musician used to seeing hollowbody guitars and lap steels, most of which were made back East in places like Kalamazoo or Chicago, seeing a beautifully made solidbody guitar crafted in a Southern California garage must have been as radical as seeing a cell phone for the first time.
As much as the photos can tell us, the first musical instrument that Jim Harvey built was a simple doubleneck steel guitar, made around 1950 in the garage of his La Jolla home. The guitar was roughly patterned after a Bigsby steel guitar, but photos tell us that it was fairly primitive. Nonetheless, it appeared to inspire a passion in Jim Harvey, who now knew he could build a guitar, if he put his mind to it.
The first standard guitar Jim made was his own personal instrument. The body shape was an interesting one, with the large silhouette of an archtop guitar, and the thin neck-through-body, flat top and back construction of a Bigsby electric guitar. It was quite obvious that Jim had taken most of his inspiration from Paul Bigsby, with copious use of birdseye maple throughout, aluminum nut and bridge, and strap hooks instead of strap buttons. Most importantly, the guitar had a Bigsby pickup in the treble position, with one switch and three knobs, just like Merle Travis's Bigsby solidbody guitar. Regardless of the inspiration, Harvey's creation was remarkably original in all respects. It was no mere Bigsby copy.
Most unusually, Jim's personal guitar featured photographs of his wife Hilda and his two children at the time, Howard and Barbara, inlaid in the markers of the fretboard. Perhaps if there are any readers out there who are spending too much time with their guitars and getting grief from their wives, this example of Jim Harvey's should be followed--inlay her photograph in the fretboard!
Jim began building his guitar in 1951, and it was finished by early 1952. During that time, Jim Harvey began working on another instrument--a five-string electric mandolin made for another one of his Navy friends, William "Scotty" Broyles.
Like a lot of men in the armed services, physical fitness was extremely important to Jim Harvey. He constantly lifted weights, ran, and swam laps at the pool. It was at the swimming pool that Jim Harvey and Scotty Broyles struck up a friendship based on their mutual love of hillbilly music.
Scotty Broyles was and is a man small in stature, but tough as nails. Like most Texans, he is very friendly and outgoing, but his hard stance assures you that if there were to be a problem, he could still take care of business. Scotty was an electric mandolin player who came from the same Texas electric mandolin tradition as Tiny Moore, Johnny Gimble, and Paul Buskirk.
I got to know Scotty a few years ago, and made the long drive to visit him and his wife Betty in isolated Ridgecrest, California, on the edge of the China Lake naval weapons desert testing facility. Scotty let me sleep in until 6 a.m., and he did what seemed like a thousand pushups while I tried to clear my head with my first cup of coffee. These old navy guys are tough.
Scotty amazed and delighted me with a collection of color slides that he had taken in the early and mid-1950s. You don't often get to see crisp, color shots of legends, and the images brought these people to life in a way I didn't dream was possible.
There was a color slide of Merle Travis holding his Bigsby solidbody--the only known color photograph of Merle holding that guitar. There were amazing photos of Hank Thompson, Homer and Jethro, Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, Lefty Frizzell, Joaquin Murphy, and a hundred others, all dressed in incredibly ornate and vividly colored Western suits. Even the audience members at these shows were dressed in dazzlingly colored Hawaiian shirts and perfectly cuffed slacks. No wonder these 80-year-old guys think this country is going to hell in a handbasket--after viewing these slides, then going to the supermarket and seeing everyone in sweatpants, I would have to agree.
Scotty still has his 1952 Jim Harvey mandolin, and he wanted to pick with me. I awkwardly tried to accompany him on old rags and polkas that I had never played before. In our first get-together, we didn't have a whole lot of musical middle ground, but I was and still am eager to learn the secret musical language that these 80-year-old men speak with ease. Scotty is still a great mandolin player and I had a ball getting to know him. I liked him so much that I never got around to asking him about selling his mandolin. Here was a man still happily playing the instrument he'd had custom made almost sixty years earlier. I just wanted to see him play it some more.
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Author's note: If anyone knows the current whereabouts of any other Jim Harvey instruments, we'd love to know about them.
(Special thanks to Howard and Flower Harvey, Derek Harvey, Walter Harvey Jr., Barbara Harvey, Rob and Marilyn Tuvell, Scotty and Betty Broyles, Tom Sims, Tatiana Sizonenko, Dave Westerbeke, Jay Rosen, Andrew Brown, Huey Wilkinson, Garrett Immel, Steve Soest, Don Mare, Dan Del Fiorentino . . . and Jim Harvey.)