Liner notes for Freddie Hart, Juke Joint Boogie, Bear Family Records
Originally published in 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.
“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.
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.
This sort of humanitarian business move was not only unheard of in those days, but today it would be grounds for dismissal for an A&R man to just give away an artist’s contract to another label! Ken Nelson, however, was firmly in the old school and he cared about Freddie Hart’s career. Everything was done as Nelson promised, and Freddie began 1956 as a Columbia recording artist.
Columbia Records made more sense for Freddie at this stage in the game. He had recently become a regular cast member on the weekly television show Town Hall Party, which was the most popular Grand Ole Opry–type show in Los Angeles (see Bear Family’s excellent series of Town Hall Party DVDs documenting this show). Just about everybody who was on Town Hall Party recorded for Columbia, including his buddy Lefty Frizzell, the Collins Kids, Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, and Johnny Bond. In addition, important country artists like Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton, and Marty Robbins would also soon be joining the label, so it must have felt like coming home for Freddie when he joined this esteemed roster.
Chasing that elusive hit (and this being the beginning of 1956, when Elvis Presley’s Memphis Bop was all the rage), Freddie’s first session for Columbia was his lone attempt at rockabilly music. Don Law took him into Radio Recorders in Los Angeles with an excellent band, which included Merle Travis on guitar and Noel Boggs on steel guitar, and goosed the country boy into the Presley mold with two numbers: “Dig Boy Dig” and “Snatch It and Grab It.” Freddie disparages these sides now as being “awful things,” but for those who like rockabilly, this was great rockabilly!
Freddie does a remarkable job with these two numbers, as uncomfortable as he was with the genre, singing his own hipster lyrics to a rocking beat with a soulful feel that many teenage singers could not touch. To this day, Freddie is blissfully unaware that there are hundreds of European record collectors who rate these as two of the best rockabilly sides ever recorded, and that there are dozens of modern bands covering these songs at rockabilly festivals throughout the world!
Cult status aside, these two singles did nothing when released, and Don Law abandoned the rockabilly concept for Freddie’s next session six months later. Returning to straight country music, Freddie’s next release was another song destined to become a standard, but again not a hit for him: “Drink Up and Go Home.”
This classic barroom tale is another song of Freddie’s that has taken on a life of its own. Inspired by the blind Town Hall Party pianist Jimmy Pruitt (“There stands a blind man / A man that can’t see, yet he’s not complaining, why should you and me”), it is one of the classics of honky-tonk songwriting. Although it never became a chart-topping hit, it has been covered numerous times, including Jimmy Martin’s version on Decca (which introduced the song to the bluegrass crowd, where it remains an oft-covered standard) and versions by Johnny Bond, Sleepy LaBeef, Carl Perkins, Jimmy Lee Fautheree, and even much later by the Grateful Dead!
Freddie’s version was a modest hit, but disappeared from the charts before it could make too much noise. However, Don Law saw that Freddie had the talent and songwriting skills, and he continued to cut sessions with him, hoping that the right combination would click.
During the next couple of years Freddie had some good exposure, especially in the Los Angeles area. One person who watched him on the Town Hall Party show was William Bendix, a legendary character actor in over one hundred films (The Babe Ruth Story, Wake Island, etc.). Bendix had recently started filming the television version of a successful radio show called The Life of Riley, and he asked Freddie to appear on the show as Otis Yonder, a hillbilly-stooge-type character.
Freddie appeared on the show as a stereotypical hillbilly (“They told me to act as dumb as I could,” Freddie recalls), but he was featured at the end of the show singing an original of his called “Dance and Sing.” Because of union regulations, Freddie was not allowed to play guitar, so he improvised and “scratched” out the song on a broomstick that was lying around the set!
This song, along with three others, was recorded at Freddie’s last West Coast recording session, but for some reason none of the songs were ever released. “Dance and Sing” with full-band backup is heard here for the first time. There is a live tape of the Collins Kids performing “Dance and Sing” on Town Hall Party (as a full-blown rockabilly tune), so it’s unknown why this song never saw the light of day.
Still trying to find the right combination for Freddie, and frustrated with the lack of success with the Los Angeles recordings (none of the other West Coast Columbia artists had been able to record a hit in L.A., either), Don Law began cutting his sessions in Nashville at Owen Bradley’s studio.
It certainly was not the fault of the singer or the song. While Columbia had a talent roster second to none, Don Law (and his hirsute partner in Artists Repertoire, Mitch Miller) made some incredibly poor decisions with their country roster. Lefty Frizzell’s magnificent rural voice was cloaked in strings and choruses; Johnny Cash’s ragged Sun rhythm was slicked up for opuses about the Grand Canyon; the Collins Kids, who were capable of first class rock and roll, were forced to record ridiculous kiddie fodder; and Freddie Hart had some very strange things done on his records, such as the odd-sounding overdubbed piano and banjo on “Drink Up and Go Home,” which reduced it from a heartfelt drinking ballad to something resembling a Joe “Fingers” Carr Dixieland novelty.
Of course, some of these strange ideas resulted in massive hits, such as Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans.” But for the most part there was a lot of great country talent being steered in the wrong direction at Columbia Records during that time period.
The move to Nashville at least recognized that what he was doing so far wasn’t working, and Don Law had the sense to bring Freddie to Owen Bradley, whose studio was cranking out more hits than everyone else put together. Here Freddie would remain for many years, doing all of his sessions with the Nashville A-team, including Grady Martin and Hank Garland on guitars, Pete Drake on steel guitar, Bob Moore on bass, Harold Bradley on rhythm guitar, and Buddy Harman on drums (among others).
Freddie got along well with the Nashville bunch and eventually moved there once Town Hall Party went off the air in 1961. He recalls that Grady Martin and Buddy Harman used to joke about Freddie’s claim to be an expert in the martial arts, and one day Grady lunged at Freddie exclaiming “What’re ya gonna do now?” Freddie, being careful with his portly friend, simply picked up Grady as if he weighed nothing, flipped him over his head, and then caught him before he could hit the ground, calmly proving to everyone that he could back up his words with action if so called upon (Freddie likes to point out, however, that he is a lover, not a fighter).
Some minor hits were recorded, including “Extra,” “I’m No Angel,” and a cover of Bobby Helms’s “Fraulein” (not included here), but none made a real dent in the charts until the prison ode “The Wall” finally gave him the hit he was looking for in early 1959.
“The Wall,” penned by a young Harlan Howard, was a big success, and Freddie was perched on the edge of stardom. The irony must have been hard on Freddie to finally have a hit with a song he didn’t write, after all the hits he had written for other people. But he says he was just grateful to have a big hit record, after six years of trying.
In typical fashion, the next session was an attempt to cash in on the prison theme of “The Wall,” with another Harlan Howard tune entitled “Chain Gang.” The song was a minor success (and later covered by such groups as Blood, Sweat and Tears), but nowhere near as big a success as “The Wall” had been. The next session after that fared much better, with another Harlan Howard song “The Key’s in the Mailbox” becoming almost as big a hit as “The Wall” had been.
Although Freddie had the original version of “The Key’s in the Mailbox,” it was another song that was covered by a slew of other artists, including Buck Owens (who had a hit with it in 1961), Ernest Tubb, Barbara Mandrell, and even Frankie Yankovic, the polka king! It remains a honky-tonk standard to this day.
Freddie’s successful series of singles on Columbia were enough to warrant a 1962 album, The Spirited Freddie Hart, which was a collection of his hit Columbia singles along with a new recut of “Loose Talk.” Sadly, his tenure at Columbia was about to end.
Freddie was recording brilliant country shuffles throughout the early 1960s, including “The Key’s in the Mailbox,” “Lyin’ Again,” and “My Last Dime,” which could rival any Ray Price record, but the mood around Nashville was changing rapidly. The countrypolitan sound was taking over, and hard-core country shuffles were giving way to more polished production values in an attempt to find a more mainstream sound. Again, the Columbia A&R staff pushed Freddie into a direction that would yield no more hits for the label. After a few novelty singles like “Mary Anne (Fare Thee Well My Own True Love)” and “I’ll Hit It with a Stick” flopped, Freddie was dropped from the label after six years of hits and misses.
Freddie would go label hopping for the remainder of the 1960s. First he went to Fred Foster’s Monument label for two singles in 1963. After that he signed with Kapp Records and producer Paul Cohen for a successful run of moderate hits, including his well-remembered “Hank Williams Guitar.” In the late 1960s Freddie resigned with Capitol Records, the label he started with fifteen years earlier.
This is the part of the story that Freddie savors. After nearly twenty years of singing, touring, writing, and recording without much success, most people in the country music business had written off Freddie Hart as a has-been. Then a disc jockey started playing an album cut called “Easy Loving” from his final Capitol LP. The rest, as they say, is history.
Freddie may not like this CD when it comes out. Listening to this collection of obscure, unreleased, unsuccessful songs may not bring him any joy at all. We may not understand, not having lived through those lean years, that these songs may only bring memories of sorrow and pain to a country boy who finally made something of himself.
But knowing this story, I feel, only makes these wonderful songs sound even better. I hope you agree.
The author would like to thank Ken Burke, Don Bradley, Daniel Cooper (author of Lefty Frizzell: Country Music’s Greatest Singer), and most of all, Freddie Hart.