- HARDROCK GUNTER -
A CONVERSATION WITH HARDROCK GUNTER PART 2 (OF 2)
Recorded at his home, fall 2008
This is the second part of an interview with Hardrock Gunter. Hardrock's first record on Bama Records, ''Birmingham Bounce'', was recorded in 1950 and has been mentioned at possibly the first rock and roll song. (Red Foley later recorded it and it became a number 1 song.) Hardrock followed that up with "Gonna Rock And Roll, Gonna Dance All Night" (also in 1950), possibly the first recording that used the phrase "rock and roll" in a musical context. Hardrock singed on the Sun Records label before Elvis Presley and is known as a pioneer of the Rockabilly sound.
SIDNEY LOUIS GUNTER - Hardrock Gunter was born in Birmingham, Alabama on February 27, 1927. He attended Robinson School, Barrett, Central Park and Woodland High Schools between 1930 and 1939, returning to Woodland in 1943 shortly before entering the armed services. Prior to entering the Army Gunter had amassed a variety of experience working in sales and entertaining over WAPI, Birmingham (1939-40) as part of the Golden River Boys, which featured himself and Happy Wilson. By this point, Gunter had already acquired his nickname which did not refer to his 'hardrockin' style but rather to his head which remained impervious to a clout from a car trunk lid.
Happy Wilson had departed for the service at the outbreak of war. Gunter gigged around locally before his own stint in the Army. After discharge in 1945 Gunter and Wilson reformed the Golden River Boys, and worked as a unit until 1948. From that point Gunter worked as a solo but continued to book the Golden River Boys. He also had a steady gig as a childrens' entertainer on the television affiliate of WAPI (which has been variously reported as WAFM-TV and WABT-TV). Manipulating a puppet named 'Ernest Tubb', Gunter would work it to one of Tubb's records thereby engendering some good taste in the wee ones of Birmingham, Alabama.
Hardrock Gunter made his recording debut in 1950 for the newly-formed Bama label. Both label and artist never saw a hit as large again. Gunter's "Birmingham Bounce" was an astounding success and was covered by artists as diverse as Red Foley, major country music star, it rose to number 1 on the country charts, and Amos Milburn. In fact, the Foley version easily eclipsed Gunter's original by virtue of Decca's superior distribution. Bama soon found that a major hit was more a curse than a blessing and issued two more Gunter 78s before leasing some other titles to Jim Bulleit. The problems at Bama allowed Gunter to sign with Decca in January 1951. (The second Bama disc and the Bullet singles were issued after he signed with Decca).
Gunter's entertainment career was interrupted by the Korean War. He was called up again and served until November 1952. While on leave Gunter would resume his promotional activities and ensured that the trade papers always cited his impressive rank of 1st Lieutenant. Nevertheless, military decorations could not compensate for an endless round of PA's and Gunter found his career back in the basement when he was demobbed for the last time.
An old publishing friend, Nat Tannen of Tannen Music, suggested that Gunter contact the Wheeling, West Virginia Jamboree and that initial contact landed Gunter a steady gig on the show from 1952(*) until 1953. From that point he moved to WJLD in Birmingham, Alabama, before moving back to WWVA in 1954 for a ten year stint.
The recording scene was not so bright. Decca had not picked up his renewal at the end of the first term and after one or two abortive sessions with MGM in 1953 Gunter found himself label-less. The short stay at WJLD had given him one valuable contact, though. Programme director Jim Connally was Sam Phillips' brother-in-law and Connally knew of Phillips' ambition to enter the country market, so he suggested that Gunter and Phillips get together. Gunter could not spare the time to come to Memphis and recorded his single in Birmingham. Sam Phillips mailed the session cheques in February 1954 suggesting that the session had been held late in 1953 or early 1954. However, the coupling of "Gonna Dance All Night" and "Fallen Angel" did not revive Gunter's career, nor do much for the flagging fortunes of Sun Records.
Hardrock Gunter moved on to King Records for one session at the tail end of 1954 but King also refused to pick up their option. Gunter had moved to the morning slot on WWVA at the time he signed with King. In this way he met Bobby Durham, an old time fiddler who also worked at the station and on the Jamboree. Gunter recorded the wonderful "Jukebox Help Me Find My Baby" in the WWVA studios early in 1956 just as Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins were changing the face of country music. Durham and Bob Tuston then dubbed in the rhythm track. Gunter later claimed that the song was about drug usage (presumably by virtue of the line "some monkey's got my baby..."), but if this is to be believed, it marked Gunter's first and last venture into the murky world of 'double entendre'.
In any event, Hardrock Gunter and Durham (the latter had contributed the flip side, "Fiddle Bop"), found themselves with an eminently saleable master that was languishing unnecessarily on the Cross Country label.
Of course, the years between the release of Gunter's Sun record and the Cross-Country venture had been very good to Sam Phillips and after Bill Randle at WERE, Cleveland, started playing the record, Gunter contacted Phillips about a lease deal. Phillips agreed and "Jukebox Help Me Find My Baby" appeared on Sun in September 1956 horn of 20 seconds of prime bass thumping. Despite the incredible prestige of Sun Records in the fall of 1956, Gunter's little opus died.
To his credit, Hardrock Gunter did not give up. He recorded consistently for years for country labels great and small, although mostly small. He started a business, the Gunter Music and Insurance Agency based in St. Clairsville, Ohio and continued his musical activities in the face of changing times (for example the "Hillbilly Twist", (Starday 581).
Hardrock Gunter was not a significant performer in the history of Sun Records, not least because he never actually went to Memphis to record. However, nothing can detract from the primitive drive of "Jukebox Help Me Find My Baby" and it is doubtful whether Sam Phillips himself could have done a better job. Gunter was a journeyman. A hardworking artist who always gave the audience their moneysworth with jokes, music and little which for his own records.
Gunter's significance to Elvis Presley's music was in his ability to incorporate a black boogie woogie piano style into his music. It was the feeling and direction of Gunter's music that prompted Elvis Presley to unwittingly incorporate a rock sound in his country tunes. In sum, it was the ability to switch from country to rhythm and blues music that distinguished Gunter's style. it provided the bridge that Elvis Presley needed to infuse traditional country songs with an rhythm and blues feeling. On March 15, 2013, Hardrock Gunter died of complications of a pneumonia at the age of 88.
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