Alphabetical Order by the last name of the Artist
Artists S - T - U
- Sargent, Lou -
- Scott Jr., James
- Scott, Ray -
- Self, Mack -
- Seratt, Howard -
- Shokunbi, Doctor Samuel -
- Simmons, Gene -
- Sisk, Shirley -
- Skipper, Macy ''Skip'' -
- Slim Rhodes Band, The -
- Smith, Mack Allen -
- Smith, Ray -
- Smith, Tang -
- Smith, Warren -
- Snow, Eddie -
- Southern Jubilees, The -
- Spiritual Stars, The -
- Steele, Gene -
- Stewart, Danny -
- Stewart, William -
- Stidham, Arbee -
- Stinit, Dane -
- Stokes, Houston -
- Strength, Texas Bill -
- Stuart, Jeb -
- Suggs, Brad -
- Taylor, Vernon (1) -
- Taylor, Vernon (2) -
- Teen Kings, The -
- Tennessee Three, The -
- Thomas, Lafayette Jerl -
- Thomas, Rufus -
- Thompson, Hayden -
- Tolleson, John -
- Townsell Sisters, The -
- Turner, Bonnie -
- Turner, Ike -
- Turner, Jesse Lee -
SARGENT, LOU - was Luther Steinberg, scion of a prominent music family. From the Beale Street barrelhouses to the Stax era, the Steinbergs were present. Milton Steinberg was a pianist at Pee Wee's Saloon from around 1910 until the 1950s and had four sons who became musicians (Luther, Wilbur, Morris, and Lewie) as well as a daughter, Nan, who sang with Fats Waller and various swing bands. Luther played trumpet, while Wilbur and Lewie both played bass. Their last name was honestly come by, it seems.
Either Milton of his father was the product of a union between a Beale Street pawnbroker and an African American woman, although the brothers were reportedly brought up in the Catholic faith. Luther and Wilbur led the first African American band on television in the mid-South. Either Sam Phillips or Chess Records changed Luther's name to Lou Sargent and Wilbur's to Les Mitchell.
Luther McCallum Steinberg, Sr.
The pseudonym Lou Sargent was coined by Chess Records for "Ridin' The
Boogie", the sole release for a band nominally fronted by trumpet-player Luther Steinberg, but which was effectively Phineas Newborn Jr's band (whom Jackie Brenston would annex following his split with Ike Turner). However, the Lou Sargent name has generally become associated with Steinberg, whose brother Wilbur played the bass on the session and sung lead on the flip-side "She Really Treats Me Wrong".
Luther Steinber and His Trumpet & His Orchestra featuring Luther (left), Lewie (2nd from left), and Wilbur (standing in front of mic boom).
Luther later married WDIA on-air personality and black socialite Martha Jean Jones, and Left Memphis to work for Lionel Hampton, as did Morris, who later worked with B.B. King, Willie Mitchell, and other bands. Wilbur, who sings on ''She Really Treats Me Wrong'', became a bassist at Stax and Hi Records (he's reportedly on Ace Cannon's signature hit, ''Tuff'' and Rufus & Carla Thomas's ''Cause I Love You''). Lewie also became a bassist at Stax, playing on Booker T's ''Green Onion''. As the sole surviving brother, Lewie was on-hand to acknowledge the debt that Memphis music owed the Steinbergs when they were accorded a Brass Note on Beale Street's Walk of Fame in November 2010. Luther's wife, Martha Jean the Queen, became a radio legend in Detroit (her station's call-letters, WQBH, was, she said, an acronym for Queen Broadcast Here), and on the occasion of her death in February 2000, it was noted by Billboard that Luther Steinberg had died on February 15, 2004, age of 72. Both died back in Memphis. Luther and Martha Jean's daughter, Dianne Steinberg Lewis, sang back-up for Rod Stewart, Peter Frampton, and others, and has recorded quite prolifically. (CE)
SCOTT JR., JAMES - Born in Adabina, Mississippi in January 1913 (or 1923) into a musical family, and appears to have gone to school with John Lee Hooker. With that background it was hardly surprising that he took to music, playing at house parties with men like Luther Taylor and Cripple Crowder. The Blues Rockers were formed in 1948 and essentially retained the same basic line-up for several years, although the young Snooky Pryor was an early member. The handful of titles they cut at 706 Union were not released at the time, although Scott claimed that the instrumental "Scott's Boogie" was given a radio broadcast - possibly to test local audience reaction.
He next recorded for Modern Records, backing Boyd Gilmore, although his slide guitar intro on "All In My Dreams" was overdubbed with an earlier Elmore James lick. Around 1956 Scott moved up to Chicago where he worked in a factory by day and continued playing parties and clubs by night, and he eventually became a full-time musician again in the late 1970s, working clubs like Sheila's Lounge and Elsewhere, and touring with men like Hip Lankchain and Mojo Elem. He died in Chicago on July 18, 1983, a year after touring Europe for the first (and only) time.
Collector Records CLCD 4412
SCOTT, RAY - Born as Harold Raymond Scott on March 26, 1929 in Bicknell, Indiana. Though his heart was closer to the country music than to rock and roll, Ray Scott's place in rock and roll history is assured as the writer of "Flying Saucers Rock And Roll" and the performer, composer of "Boppin' Wigwam Willie" and "You Drive Me Crazy".
Ray Scott was a somewhat reclusive character, whose musical career began around 1953, when he started writing songs. In an interview with Now Dig This (issue 143, February 1995), Scott recalled how he came to write "Flying Saucers Rock And Roll". Standing outside his car at a drive-in movie, Ray saw an UFO flying in 1952.
"It was very high and I found out later that it was seen 300 miles to the South and 350 miles North at the same time I saw it. It was all lit up and it was shaped like a cigar. It was travelling at a speed unknown at that time, I'd been in the Navy and nobody had anything flying that fast back then. It disappeared in the East in what seemed like 30/40 seconds. I never reported it, but I read about it in the papers the next day."
Ray Scott wrote the song in 1956 and the next year it was recorded by Billy Riley (Sun 260). A genuine rockabilly anthem. From Indiana, Ray settled in Memphis in the mid-1950s and sent several demos to Sam Phillips. One of his compositions, "Tonight Will Be The Last Night", was recorded by Warren Smith in 1956, though it was not released until the 1970s, the golden decade for rockabilly archaeology. Ray's demo of this song can be heard on "That'll Flat Git It, Vol. 17" (Bear Family BCD 16405), after lingering in the Sun vaults for 45 years.
Another well-known composition by Ray is "You're The One That Done It", Thomas Wayne's first record for Fernwood Records in 1958, also released on Mercury. Lattie Moore recorded "100,000 Women Can't Be Wrong", which he co-wrote with Ray Scott. So much for Ray Scott as a songwriter. In 1957, he made his first recording as a singer. Issued on Marshall Ellis's Erwin label, "Bopping Wig Wam Willie" came out in August 1957. A fine slab of rock and roll,
which has been reissued on many compilations.
The backing was supplied by Roland Janes (guitar), Marvin Pepper (bass), Jimmy Wilson (piano), Jimmy Van Eaton (drums) and Ray's own guitar. Probably the same session men accompanied him on the fast moving "You Drive Me Crazy" (Satellite 104), an excellent rocker, released in late 1958. Satellite was then a tiny label that would later develop into the mighty Stax Records.
Scott next appeared on another local Memphis label, Stomper Time, with his own version of the song that Warren Smith had picked up, though the title was now slightly different, "Tonite Will Be The Last Time". The flip was "Boy Meets Girl", which was also recorded by Dale Hawkins (first issued on the 1998 Ace CD "Rock 'n' Roll Tornado"). Writing credit for "Boy Meets Girl" goes to Scott on his Stomper Time single, to Hawkins on the Ace CD and to Ray Scott and Eddie Bond in the BMI database.
A second Erwin release followed in 1960, "The Train's Done Gone", but that was more or less Ray's swansong as a rocker. He founded his own record company, RCT Records, for which he recorded country songs, but this only ran for a few years. Disillusioned, Ray retired from the entertainment business around 1971 and started running his own taxi company. Cees Klop managed to release an entire LP of Ray Scott recordings in 1986, "Mr. You Drive Me Crazy" (White Label 8913, 17 tracks). This set included several unissued Sun demos by Scott. An expanded CD version was issued in 1993 ("You Drive Me Crazy", Collector CD 4412, 24 tracks). Ray Scott died on October 17, 1999 in Indiana, of a heart attack at the aged of 70.
SELF, MACK - Born as Wiley Laverne ''Mack'' Self in Helena, Arkansas on May 22, 1930 and started out playing music sometime in the 1940s. He involved in playing the guitar as a kid because he loved country music. Like a lot of people, Mack listening to the radio shows, the Grand Ole Opry, hearing Hank Williams, Roy Acuff and Ernest Tub that influenced him to make music. Mack Self started playing music professionally in 1945 at the age of fifteen with the band the David Jackson and the Arkansas Cotton Choppers, also playing with Conway Twitty in the 1940s.
Self had a radio program every Thursday night on radio KFFA, Helena. "David was the leader and he sang too", recalled Mack Self. "The other singers were myself and Harold Jenkins.
On steel guitar we had "Buttermilk" John Hughey, with Rusty Hornbee on fiddle and Joe Bragdan on bass. We played mostly country music. When hank Williams was big, his music was mostly what we played. later on, we would play some rock too". "After awhile we began to notice this thing called rock and roll. The Sun people would all play through Helena and we noticed the fuss, though it was small scale to start off. I met Elvis Presley for the first time about a month after he had his first record out. I bought him a coke in Helena and he told me a little about the way things were going for him. I knew Carl Perkins before he had any hits. I knew Warren Smith, Billy Riley and Roy Orbison, all before I was at Sun myself. I knew Burgess slightly. I did a show here in Helena with Johnny cash, around 1955 probably".
In 1952, Mack Self started a radio show on KXJK, Forrest City, Arkansas and sing with the band called Johnny Farmer and the Farm Hands. That time, Self wrote a song called "Easy To Love" and sing it on his radio program. The station had such a good response to it that the manager, Hal Webber, told him sang his song to record. "We made a tape of it", recalled Mack Self, "in the later part of 1955 in the KXJK studio. Johnny Farmer took the tapes to Memphis. First of all Johnny carried the tape to Bill Cantrell. Then in July 1956, Johnny carried the tape over to Sam Phillips. Sam liked my voice and songs and he set up an audition in August. Sam worked with me one year, then he hired Jack Clement as Artist and Repertoire man after that".
BCD 16519 AH
After his stint at Sun Records, Mack Self and his bassplayer, Jimmy Evans go way back to the David Jackson Band. Around 1960, Mack Self moved to M.E. Ellis' Zone label and has recorded for a number of small, independent labels since, including a number of selfproduced projects. He also recorded at the American Sound studios in Memphis. Songs like, "Mexican Limbo", "You Put These Tears In My Eyes" with Sonny baker on hot guitar, Jimmy Evans on bass and Herbert Pyron on drums, with Chips Moman as producer, were selling records for Self. His best selling record, "Four Walls Of Memories" for the Zone label, sold more than 40,000 copies in 1965.
Later in 1976, Mack Self recorded for Sabor Records. Songs like "Good Time Song" and "Between Tomorrow And Yesterday" were smash hits and got good play on secondary stations and it was a Country Hit Pick in Record World.
Mack Self long ago came to terms with his failure to break into the big time, but like a lot of other hopefuls he still writes a song now and again. His memories are also tinged with just a little bitterness. Sun Records' releasing policy was to put out four or five discs at one time, mixing known artists with unknown artists. The idea was that the publicity given to the name artist would rub off on the others.
The other side of the coin, though was that the well known artist in the batch would grab the airplay and Sun's limited promotional resources. Mack Self had the misfortune of appearing on Sun when Jerry Lee was hot, and on Phillips International when Charlie Rich and Carl Mann were the emerging sellers.
Mack's summary of these events is a memorable one: "At Sun Records, the stars' pink Cadillacs would be parked up front on Union Street. Out back would be the beatup Fords and pickup trucks and country boys trying to make it".
Mack Self was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 1998. As Mack, himself, would tell you, that probably has as much to do with his association with the legendary Sun label as it does any strong leaning on his part toward pure rockabilly. Strictly speaking, Mack never was a rocker. At least not in the sense that Sun label-mates Billy Riley and Sonny Burgess were. Riley and Burgess, by the way, shared more than a label affiliation with mack; all three men from Arkansas.
The similarities, however, pretty much stop at the state line. Unlike Riley and Burgess, Mack Self was and is pure country. Sun label owner Sam Phillips, to his enormous credit, allowed Mack to be just what he was.
Three of the four tracks issued by Mack on the original Sun and Phillips International labels were unabashed country songs during the period when Sun was dominated by southern wildmen. The releases adjacent to Mack's "Easy To Love" (SUN 273) include Ray Harris's "Greenback Dollar" (SUN 277) came along two months later, and Jerry Lee's "Great Balls Of Fire" (SUN 281) barely a month after that. The same was true of Mack's "Mad At You", issued on Phillips International 3548.
Adjoining releases on the label included Charlie Rich's "Rebound", Carl Mann's "Rockin' Love" and Sonny Burgess' "Sadie's Back In Town". All in all, Mack's "pure as country water" offerings were surrounded by some pretty hard-edged rockin' company.
For all his back-country charm, Mack Self remains beloved by rockabilly fans and collectors. This is pretty easy to understand. Years of Sun archaeology has unearthed undeniable rockabilly gems by Mack like "Vibrate" and "Lovin' Memories". Although they were never released during the 1950s, these tracks provide strong credentials for Mack's Hall of Fame status. At a personal level, Mack Self is a man who, as Johnny Cash sang, "was there when it happened". Self's sessions included players like Roland Janes, Stan Kesler, Jimmy Van Eaton, Johnny Bernero, W.S. ''Fluke'' Holland, Billy Riley and Martin Willis. The Man in the control room hitting the record button was either Jack Clement or Sam Phillips. The bottom line is that Mack's name appears on nearly a dozen tape boxes full of songs recorded at what he calls "that little ole rinky drink studio" in Memphis. He's the real deal. In fact, it's good to remind ourselves that Sam Phillips autitioned both Mack Self and Harold Jenkins (aka Conway Twitty) - and Arkansas running buddy of Mack's - at just about the same time. Phillips passed on Twitty and decided to work with Mack.
Mack Self and his wife Hazel are approaching 50 years of marriage. They have ten grandchildren and one great grandson. That doesn't include the children and grandchildren from his first marriage. Mack can barely keep track of all his progengy and readily turns to Hazel for the details. "That's a mess of them", he gleefully concludes. "You see why I have that studio out back".
Mack Self had gone back to 706 Union Avenue for the filming of a documentary on the 50th Anniversary of Sun Records. Standing there taking in the scene, Mack spotted Sam Phillips. He went over to Billy Swan, another guest at the filming, to confirm Sam's identity. "I walked up to him and said, 'Sam, how you doing?' He looked at me and had no idea who I was. I said, Mack Self'. He said, 'Well I'll be dogged' and gave me a big hug. I wanted to hit him. I guess that's what I should have done. But I know that none of that stuff would have ever happened it it hadn't been for him".
That observation may be true, and Mack also knows that he was among the more fortunate country boys who never made it big. He saw his name on two of those original Sun (and Phillips International) labels. All told, the eight or nine titles he recorded multiple takes of during Sun's Golden Era have benefited from 30 years of musical archaelogy. Every time he picks up his custom-made guitar with "Easy To Love" inlaid on the neck, he knows he's a somebody. Like many Sun alumni, Mack has experienced the attention and respect of people he never expected to meet. Today the grandchildren of people who first enjoyed his records know his name. His reputation is assured. This recordings of Dun and his post-Sun recordings by Arkansas' own Mack Self shows why.
Self gave up the music business in 1963, and established a heating, air and sheet metal business in Helena, Arkansas. He returned to undertake occasional performances after 1992, with his Silver Dollar Band, and was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 1993. On Tuesday June 14, 2011, Mack Self died at the age of 81. (MH)
From left: Red Caudel - Lead Guitar, Harmony Vocals; Travis Burkett - Bass Guitar, Harmony Vocals; Howard Seratt - Lead Vocals; Harmonica, Rhythm Guitar; Keith Clayton - Lead Guitar, Harmony Vocals
SERATT, HOWARD - Born in Manila, Arkansas on March 9, 1922. His father came from Tennessee and he
moved to north-east Arkansas and built up an 80 acre cotton farm with his mother, whose family came
from there. Howard Seratts' parents had six sons and eight daughters. At the age of eight year old,
Howard Seratt contracted polio and then he have walked with crutches. "My father gave me my own
horse, a strawberry roan, which helped me to get around real well. By the time I went to school I had
become a good rider".
"I don't remember too much of that time, except we were quite happy. The Little River
flowed on one edge of our farm so we had good fishing and a fine summer swimming hole.
When I was still pretty young I used to play in the water near the bank of the river where
my feet could touch the bottom. One day I got careless and felt in, but believe me I
learned to swim real fast! Since then swimming became my second favourite pastime after
When Howard Seratt was fifteen year old, his father sold the farm and the family moved to
Hornerville, Missouri near Poplar Bluff. By this time, he began to play the harmonica. After
a time Howard Seratt developed this into an interest in the guitar. It was in the Poplar
Bluff times that Howard Seratt make his interest in touring country music groups like Slim
Rhodes and the Log Cabin Mountaineers. His first public musical appearance were he
playing the harmonica was with Slim Rhodes' Mountaineers, with Slim, Speck, Dusty, and
Back then, the sort of music he played was the type influenced by Ernest Tubb and Lonnie
Glosson, the harmonica player. Seratt was playing around Poplar Bluff with the Wilburn
Family for a while, and through the 1940s he was met Ted Henderson and the Loc Cabin
Boys. Around 1943 he joined in Blytheville, Arkansas and playing on radio station KLCN.
"On KLCN we were not only hillbilly group. The most popular ones would have been Pappy
Steward and his family, Ronald Howard and the Hillbillies, and the Wilburn Family
featuring Teddy and Doyle. Over in Memphis, I would hear other country musicians. People
like Bob McKnight, Eddie Hill, the Caradine Boys, The Swift Jewel Boys, the Delmore
Brothers and so on. Slim Rhodes was a fixture on Memphis radio into the 1950s.
"But I moved around a lot. From the day I met Slim Rhodes and the Wilburns, certainly for
fifteen years or more, until 1955 when I moved to Florida, I was always off playing music.
From Arkansas to Missouri, to Michigan, to Chicago and back again. I was never in one
place long enough to call it home".
"I was at my eldest brother's place in a little town called Farmersville, California in 1948.
My brother, Kenny Seratt's father, was a preacher and pastoring a church there. It was
while I was there that I made my decision for Jesus Christ and I've only been playing and
singing country gospel music ever since".
"Around 1952, I was singing in a church in Marianna, Arkansas when I met Larry Parker. He
was a disc jockey in Forrest City and he did a little personal performance too. After a
while Larry got the idea of putting out some records. So he made himself a little label he
called St. Francis. There was only one record made on that label, "Make Room In The
Lifeboat For Me" backed with "Jesus Means All To Me". We go to Memphis and made the
record at the Sun studio there. Sam Phillips did the engineering. It would have been 1953.
"Later, we went back and did another record and Sam Phillips liked it so well he decided
he would put it out on Sun. It was called "Troublesome Waters" backed with "I Must Be
Saved". Neither record did any good in sales, but I got a lot of radio play in the mid-west
and the south".
"During the time these records were out, I was playing some shows with Larry Parker but
we didn't do too much. Most of my playing and singing since 1948 has been in church,
doing evangelical work. I don't even know what happened to Larry Parker. The last time I
heard or saw from him was January 1955. I played two shows for him, on January 12, in
Clarksdale, Mississippi, and January 13 in Helena, Arkansas. On the shows there was
myself, Jim Ed and Maxine Brown, and Elvis Presley. So I guess you could say I bowed out
of professional performing in good company".
That same month, January 1955, Howard Seratt left Memphis to settle in West Palm Beach, Florida. He had met married his wife Miriam there in 1952, and they decided to go back permanently. They had two daughters and Howard Seratt gave up music and records and took up watchmaking as a regular career. In 1964 he moved to California. He reports that he still loves country music and plays for his own interest with a country gospel group. He omitted to mention that he had at some point in the early 1950s played harmonica with guitarist Bill porter on an instrumental recording of ''Jesus Hold My Hand'', released on the Broadcast Record Club label from Cleveland, Tennessee, apparently a custom label where musicians paid to have their music preserved on disc for personel use or for sale at musical events. His harmonica tone and style is as unmistakable on BRC 11012 as it was on the custom tapes he made with friends at his church in California in the 1970s. One friend, Buddy McPeters, said, ''he was such a kind gentle soul with a heart of gold. He always had a good story to tell and unusually something very funny. I saw him about a week before he died and I asked him how he was and he reared his head back like he always did and smiled real big and than said, ''Well sir, I'll tell you...' then he proceeded to tell me what all had been going on. The Thursday morning he died his sister took him to his doctor for his quartely check-up. He sat on the examination table and after the doctor asked him how he had been, he reared this head back and smiled and said, 'Well sir, I'll tell you...'. Those were the last words he ever spoke in this world. He fell dead right there in the exam room right in the front of his sister, the doctor and his nurse. The man at the funeral home told us he couldn't get the smile off of his face''. Howard Seratt died in Hemet, Riverside, California on March 23, 1989. (MH)
SHOKUNBI, ''DOCTOR'' SAMUEL – Among the previously unheard audio (above) is an advertisement that Sam Phillips wrote and performed for a patent medicine manufacturer, Dr. Samuel Shokunbi. In June 1950, Phillips let himself get suckered in by the herbalist and con-man, going so far as commending Shokunbi to his brother-in-law, Jim Connolly at WJLB in Birmingham, Alabama. Shokunbi's product was the tree of Life General Tonic, Asthma Aid, and Hair Growing Aid. Although Shokunbi claimed that he was a Nigerian who had studied at Oxford and Heidelberg, there's evidence that he was born in Chicago in 1896 and his professional qualifications were limited to a Swedish massage course. Shokunbi's portions made him thousands of dollars a month in the mid-South, and came from a book by an English herbalist, Dr. Culpepper, who died in 1940. To place this in context, WDIA owned a piece of another patent medicine, Pep-ti-Kon (with the emphasis on the 'con'), and the most famous patent medicine of them all, Hadacol, was at the peak of its popularity in 1950 and 1951. Hadacol's manufacturer, Dudley LeBlanc, staged touring shows, the Hadacol Caravans, with stars like Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Bob Hope, and Milton Berle.
In November 1950, some five months after Phillips produced the radio spot, Shokunbi, who’d already served time for fraud, was handed what was then the severest first conviction sentence under Food & Drug Administration laws, a nine-year prison term. Newspaper reports made fun of him and those who bought the nostrums common within the African American community, like John the Conqueroot. Those same reports mentioned the tribal scars on his cheeks, and joked that his products were tinctures of dried newt's liver.
In 1966, Shokunbi was arrested again, this time in Chicago. At that point, he was the Reverent Shokunbi and he was calling himself a metaphysician. A police search of his premises revealed patent drugs and zodiac stamps. Shokunbi claimed that he was a minister of the Universal Spiritual Union. His case was dismissed, and the next time he was mentioned was at the time of his death in Los Angeles in 1986. (CE)
SIMMONS, GENE - As a performer, he is a one-hit-wonder. Better one hit than no hit, of course, and Simmons managed to keep at least a toehold in music even when he was working in construction. That persistence paid off in 1993 when his song, he was the co-writer, "Indian Outlaw" became a number 1 country hit for Tim McCraw. Originally from Tupelo, Mississippi in 1933, Gene knew someone who was Elvis' third cousin and met Elvis when Elvis came to see his grandma in early 1954.
Gene was already a local hero on WELO staring in 1947, and helped line up a schoolhouse date for Elvis Presley in 1954 or 1955. Elvis told Gene about Sun Records, and Gene went to audition some country songs.
Sam Phillips told Gene to wrap his fiddle and mandolin around the tree, and told him to come back when he'd learned something new, and the date on the tape box suggest that Gene recorded his first rockabilly sides, a year earlier than previously thought.
Once again, Sam Phillips was onto something with Gene, but didn't persist long enough to see it pay off. Gene Simmons went several more times to Sun Records, and eventually recorded a single around 1957. Sam Phillips held it back until June 1958, but by then it was a couple of years out of date and sank without a trace. It was probably around 1957 or 1958 when Gene Simmons went back to Sun with "Peroxied Blonde", a song that survives only as a tape fragment.
Simmons ended up in Nashville in 1964 and breaking through with "Haunted House", and he too the hit jackpot, making him another Sun Records alumnus who isn't ready for the rocking chair and carpet slippers just yet.
In 1993, Gene Simmons returned to the charts as a songwriter when his "Indian Outlaw" became a number 1 country hit for Tim NcGraw.
Gene Simmons died on August 28, 2006 at the North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo, Mississippi after a long illness. Associated Press wire service and appeared in newspapers all over the U.S. and overseas. The AP story stressed his connection to Elvis and his 1964 hit "Haunted House". Gene's sister Agnes, who was Carls's first guitar teacher, also died in the summer of 2006.
SISK, SHIRLEY - Grew up in Memphis as Ernestine Brooks. Shirley Ruth Sisk was at Sun Records before, during and after Elvis Presley. The reason is simple. Sam Phillips liked her. Born in Memphis in 1926, she started playing guitar she had picked up on a dump, and, lacking the 60 cents for strings, strung it up with clothes wire. She switched to piano and organ and begin writing songs. She was met Dewey Phillips around 1950 and worked with Sam Phillips doing some records for home folks. In 1952 Shirley with her sister-in-law, Judy Dismukes to cut on February 8, 1952 at the Memphis Recording Service "Let Me Count The Curls" with ''Mean Old Memphis'' on the b-side as an private record. Sam Phillips successfully pitched "Let Me Count The Curls" to music publisher Acuff-Rose, and later pitched Shirley's version to Chess Records, but Chess was the last place on earth it belonged.
Shirley had married a man named Shirley Sisk, and then Shirley and Shirley had a daughter named... Shirley. Anyone asking for Shirley was likely to get three faces at the door. Shirley (the husband) didn't like Shirley (the wife) hanging out with all those degenerate musicians, but Shirley (the husband) was a truck driver so he wasn't always around. When he wasn't, Shirley would head down to Sun. "I'd go there on the sly", she says. "I used to go in day after day, but Sam wouldn't come in 'til late. He'd sleep all day. I was waiting there with Elvis Presley one time. He was waiting on Sam to pick up some money to go buy a car. There was a black woman up from New Orleans too and Stan Kesler, and we went into the studio and had a jam session 'till Sam arrived. My husband held me back. He was afraid I was gonna get independent, I guess. One time I played at the Municipal Auditorium when he was out of town, and went over so well they invited me back and announced it on the radio. My husband heard about it on the radio and came home and said, 'You'll never believe it, there's another Shirley Sisk in Memphis'".
Sirley Sisk was still hanging out at Sun in the 1960s, playing organ on sessions, including some Jerry Lee Lewis singles. "I had to join the Union for that", she says. "Sam told me, 'I can find better organists than you any day of the week, but they haven't got what you've got'. Then we cut the Memphis Belles singles for Phillips and the single that came out on Sun". Shirley Sisk eventually divorced Shirley, but never picked up her recording career. As far as she can remember, she never cut another record, and she joined her family's longstanding involvement with the United Methodist Church in Memphis.
SKIPPER, MACY ''SKIP''
- An obscure rockabilly singer, born in St. Louis, Missouri on September 2, 1920,
and became a big player on the Memphis music scene for several decades, starting with the Swift Jewel
Cowboys. The Cowboys consisted of Pee Wee Wamble on trumpet, Jose Cortez on fiddle, Kokomo Crocker
on accordion, Slim Hall on guitar, and Macy (then known as Cactus Pete') on bass. Jim Sanders and Bill
Thompson were the vocalists.
In 1943, Macy Skipper married Marie "Sally Carter" Ehrett, who had sung with Gene Austin (the originator
of "My Blue Heaven"), and they moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee in 1943. They began performing together
in Memphis around 1951.
In 1956, Skipper and his band cut three tracks for Sun Records, including an earlier version of "The Slow Rock A
nd Roll." The band consisted of Skipper on vocals and bass, Sun studio musician Brad Suggs on lead guitar,
Nelson Grilli on sax, Melton McNatt on piano, and Slick Grissom on drums. Since Sam Phillips showed no
interest to release anything from that session, and after failing to secure a release on Sun Records in 1956, he
recorded for a start-up label, ''Quick Sand Love''\''Who Put The Squeeze On Eloise'' (Light 2020) for Light
Records, owned by a local theatre owner, M.A. Lightman. After Light Records, Skipper recorded an
instrumental single ''Goofin' Off''\''Night Rock''(Stax 117) for Stax Records, in 1960, and the Stax
correspondence file reveals that they tried to lease it to RCA without success.
From that point, Skipper worked society functions, country clubs and the like, all the while holdings down a
day job as a government equipment inspector, right up until his death on April 17, 2001.
SLIM RHODES BAND, THE - Originally from Arkansas, James K. Rhodes formed a group called
the Log Cabin Mountaineers in Poplar Bluff, Missouri in 1936. At the core of the group were
James' Three Sound, Ethmer Cletus "Slim" Rhodes, vocalist and guitarist; Hilburn "Dusty"
Rhodes, vocalist and fiddle player; and Gilbert "Speck" Rhodes, bass player and comedian.
The early group was completed by Dusty's wife, Bea, a singer.
Slim was the oldest of the sons, born in 1913 in Pocahontas, Arkansas and the leader of the
group. Working the Missouri - Arkansas border, the Log Cabin Mountaineers drew upon the
sounds of western swing emanating from Texas and the south west, together with the
musical traditions of the Ozark mountains.
From the outset, though, the band was also a
localized purveyor of prevailing country music trends. Particularly after Slim gained a
regular radio show on KWOC in Poplar Bluff in 1938, he came to reconeise the value of
balancing his natural feel for western swing with a responsiveness to public demand. two
decades later, Slim Rhodes' Memphis recordings would form a chronological illustration of
changing musical times in Memphis, from western swing to hillbilly to rock and roll.
The Rhodes band continued to operate as the Log Cabin Mountaineers during the early
part of the 1940s, appearing not only on KWOC but on KLCN, Blytheville, Arkansas and
KARK in Little Rock, Arkansas. Then, in 1944, the band joined WMC in Memphis and
commenced a noontime country music show that ran almost daily until Slim's death
following a fall at his home in March 1966. For the latter half of this 22 year residency, the
Rhodes Show also appeared on WMC TV and provided a platform for many aspiring local
musicians. This experience came in useful when Speck later joined the nationally
networked Porter Wagoner TV show out of Nashville in the 1970s and 1980s.
By the time they moved to Memphis, the Log Cabin Mountaineers had obtained the
sponsorship of a flour company. They worked on WMC as the Mother's Best Mountaineers.
Their popularity increased through the 1940s to the point in 1950 when they were a
natural target for Sam Phillips with his newly opened recording enterprise.
Facing competition from a newer generation of rockabilly combos, Slim Rhodes found himself dropped from the Sun label in the late 1950s but he was still in demand promoting local bakery products and he made a promotional disc, ''Don't Say Bread, Say Hart's'', on the Hart's label. He recorded on his own Rhodes label briefly, and in the early 1960s he recorded for the Corton Town Jubelee label, mainly as a spin-off showcase for his radio and TV show that featured a number of fine local musicians down the years, including most of the Sun Records artists. The Slim Rhodes show came to an abrupt halt in March 1966 when Slim died following a fall at his home. W
ithin a year, Dusty formed a new Rhodes show based around his wife, Dot, and their children. Their daughters Donna and Sandra also sang as backup singers on countless sessions at Hi Records with Al Green and others and Sandra, as Sandy Rhodes, pursued a solo career with Fantasy Records for a time. Speck Rhodes died in 2000 and Dusty in 2005. They were survived by Bea Rhodes but today Brad Suggs, who lives in retirement in Florida, is the last surviving member of the classic Rhodes band from the Gilt-Edge and Sun era. (MH)
SMITH, MACK ALLEN - was born on October 20, 1938 in Carroll County, Mississippi; about a hundred miles south of Memphis. His parents ran a grocery store in Carrollton and in his early years Mack Allen lived out in the country with his grandparents in a log house with no electricity. It was his cousin, Shel Smith, - of the duo Narmour and Smith who made records in Memphis and Atlanta in 1928 and 1929 -who inspired him musically. He told me: "In the 1920s, Shel Smith and Will Narmour wrote and recorded the 'Carroll County Blues and played fiddle and guitar at little country dances. Then a record company in New York (Okeh Records) bought their song and it's become a standard around the Mississippi Delta. The Delta is just flat farmland growing cotton and beans. Where I live in Greenwood, at the foot of the Carroll County hills, is the beginning of the Delta''.
''I have my own 'Delta Sound that is a mixture of Memphis rockabilly, some country, and a little bit of New Orleans, and of course the cottonpatch blues that derives from the black pickers and singers. I guess my first influence was blues singer Mississippi John Hurt, When 1 was nine or ten I'd get John to meet me behind the store and I'd listen to him pick and sing the blues. You could say I was raised on blues: B.B. King's from Indianola. right near where I live, and Howlin' Wolf and Big Boy Crudup. who wrote Elvis's first song, were all around back then. Blues is a way of life, it's in people's blood."
It was almost inevitable that Mack Allen would take to the rockabilly sound of Elvis Presley and Sun Records. He remembers the impact of Presley's first record: "Man, when I heard that thing it splattered me all over the kitchen. I guess my main influence since 1954 would have to be Presley." Mack formed a rock `n' roll band and had already played local shows with Roy Orbison, Sonny Burgess, Charlie Feathers and Warren Smith when he went into the Marines and was posted to California for two years. By the time he came back in 1959, the first flush of Sun rock and roll was over but Mack Allen went along to Sun Records in Memphis anyway. He recorded four songs in the studio at 706 Union Avenue, produced by Ernie Barton, and pianist David Lee Cox sang on another one. It is one of Mack's greatest regrets that his Sun session was never issued at the time. He thinks it's one of his best and certainly there is a vibrancy to his vocals and a powerful performance by his new band, The Flames. All five of those tracks are in this CD.
Mack Allen and the Flames had to wait for their first record release until 1962 when they recorded for a jukebox dealer in Greenwood named Dominic Fretesi, whose main claim to fame was the recording of James Gilreath's big hit, 'Little Band Of Gold'. Mack says of his first record: "It was cut at Hi studios in Memphis. It was an old Muddy Waters tune, 'I Got My Mojo Workin", and on the other side was a song I wrote called 'I'm A Lover'. 'Mojo' hit the top ten out in Houston and in Memphis."
This disc, and a second, the bluesy rocker 'Hobo Man', were on the Vee Eight label. Today they stand up as inspired down-home southern rock and roll.
Through the 60's Mack continued to make his own style of rocking delta sounds. Between 1963 and 1965 he was on Statue records covering popular favourites like Such A Night and Only Make Believe' and engaging hybrid material like Rag Mama'. These recordings were made at the emerging Fame Studio of Rick Hall in Muscle Shoals, Alabama were recordings for Mariteen and Cynthia Records.
Then came several years of recordings at Lyn-Lou studios in Memphis in partnership with producer Larry Rogers, for Delta Sound and other labels owned by Mack himself. The Lyn-Lou sessions continued with the rocking blues theme but also made an increasing number of country records. Stand-out recordings from that period include “Mean Old Frisco', “Dog Tired Of Cattin' Around”, “Tulsa Time” and “'I'm Not Drunking”.
And talking of drinking Mack Allen and the Flames maintained a heavy schedule playing night clubs. He developed a lifestyle he later fictionalised in a book, Honky Tonk Addict”.Through most of the 70's he owned his own Town and Country Nightclub in Greenwood.
In 1977 Mack Allen wrote and recorded a country song called 'If I Could Only Get One Hit'. It was covered on Plantation Records by James O Gwynn, a man who'd had his hits twenty years earlier. Unfortunately Mack's own hits never came.
By the mid-70's Mack Allen was on Ace records in Jackson and he ended his recording career with Memphis sessions for Grape and QMC Records, the latter produced by Quinton Claunch. Mack made a number of unreleased recordings in the 80s and '90s including songs, he wrote himself. As a writer Mack has also penned a novel, some children's stories and an autobiography, 'Looking Back One Last Time. The autobiography coves not only Mack s music, but his day jobs as an accountant, video store owner, government auditor and insurance agent, his marriage to Lois in 1960 and the fact that he's now a great grandparent It tells bow he hung up his rock' n' roll shoes and quit performing in 1984 so he could be around to see his son's football games, and how he fought cancer for much of the last ten years.
So, there's a lot more to the Mack Allen Smith story than these recordings but it's these records that are his legacy to music fans. Music reviewer Alan Cackett once wrote of Mack Allen that, "He turns the clock back with his band and he comes on strongly with sonic of the best country rock singing I've heard. His voice has mobility, emotion, and above all, drive, which most others lack." You'll hear all of those qualities in his recordings.
SMITH, RAY - Many artists failed to get on Sun Records, some were lucky enough to get a recording session and a release, however not many had the opportunity of having two stabs at the cherry. One such was Ray Smith who came to Sun early in 1958 recorded a dozen sides or so went on the Judd label and had a national hit with "Rockin' Little Angel" and subsequently returned to Sun in 1961 to record a further couple of singles.
Born to seventh child of a seventh son, Raymond Eugene was destined to be one of the wild men of rock and roll. He was born in Melber, a suburb of Paducah, Kentucky on October 30, 1934, and by the age of 6 was standing up in front of his class to sing "You Are My Sunshine".
After a series of jobs, Ray enlisted in the US Air Force in 1952 and was stationed for 19 months in Metz, France. He served a four year stint from 1956 to 1960 did a further four years reserve duty. It was a period of his life that he looked back on fondly, for the Air Force was instrumental in developing his singing career. On the direct orders of a sergeant he performed at a base concert, and won the talent contest which encouraged him to pursue this singing business further. Whilst stationed at the forces with Lee Standerford and Slim Whitman's brother Armand who played steel.
Upon his discharge from active service in June 1956, Ray Smith returned home and formed the Rock And Roll Boys, (The band consisted of the following members, Henry Stevens, Raymond Jones, Dean Perkins, and James Webb), having been converted from country music to rock and roll through hearing Elvis Presley in France. Raymond Jones on lead guitar and James Wedd on bass, both hailed from Bardwell, Kentucky, whilst steel player Dean Perkins was from Mayfield, Kentucky. From slightly further afield came drummer Henry Stevens, namely Metropolis, Illinois. It was in that self same town that the boys made their radio debut on WMOK. Further radio engagements followed in Benton, Paducah, Mayfield, Louisville all in Kentucky and eventually Newport, Arkansas. The Ray Smith also took television under the sponsorship of Beardsley Chevrolet on WPSD Channel 6 out of Paducah, and all told the weekly show ran for two-and-a- half years, Charlie Terrell who had previously managed
Onie Wheeler, saw Ray's show and offered his services as manager, an offer that was initially turned down by Ray Smith, but eventually Terrell's persistence paid off and he took on the management role in Ray's career. Within three days of so doing he had a recording contract arranged for ray Smith with Sun Records.
After three singles for Sun without a hit, Ray switched allegiances to Sam's brother Judd who took him to Nashville and backed by the likes of Hank Garland he recorded a Jimmie Rogers song entitled "Rockin' Little Baby" changing the 'baby' to 'angel'. Not much happened at first but after some dive months it fairly flew up the national charts opening up new and exciting doors all over the place; American Bandstand, Dick Clark Caravan, headline tours nationwide, the fullfilment of Ray's wildest dreams. However, fame is a fickle mistress, and her favours are only bestowed on those who can continue producing the hits. In Ray's case the well ran dry fairly quickly with "Put Your Arms Around Me Honey" giving him his second top 100 hit ( a modest number 91) and also the last.
For a while he was able to bask in the glory of being a national star. He toured in his own customised coach complete with 'running maids and hot water', rubbing shoulders with the likes of Jack Scott, Brenda Lee, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Robin Luke and Bobby Day.
He returned to Sun in 1961, recording four sides in Nashville which were not enhanced by having a female chorus overdubbed on them, but they were much better than some of the material that was appearing on the label by this time. Thereafter Ray label-hopped extensively recording on infinity, Vee-Jay, Warner Bros, BC, Tollie, Celebrity Circle and Diamond. Sadly the hits failed to materialise, a crushing blow to a man who sought and lusted for fame as avidly as Ray Smith.
Around 1966 disillusioned by his failure to maintain star status and tired of all the extensive touring, he headed north to Detroit, turned left and settled in Burlington, Ontario. He continued performing in Canada until 1972 when he returned to Nashville to cut some country material for the Cinamon label and scored in the country charts with "A Tilted Cup Of Love". The resurgence of interest in the Sun label and rockabilly in general in the mid to late 1970s resulted in Ray Smiths coming over to perform in England and Europe, and in some small way reliving the star status that once had been his. That this was only a microcosmic reflection of what once had been may possibly have contributed to his untimely demise, for on November 29, 1979, in circumstances that retain an element of mystery, Ray Smith shot himself at his home.
SMITH, TANG - Walter ''Tang'' Smith was an obscure trombonist who recorded very little for Sam Phillips.. or anyone; in fact, the recordings that he made in Sam Phillips' studio for Jim Bullet's J-B Records are his only known solo recordings, as far as we can tell. It's hard to know if the backing group was his, or if it was assembled for the day; most likely, the latter. Saxophonist James Luper was a lifelong Memphian who began his career with Tuff Green and later joined Willie Mitchell's combo. Jewell Briscoe played sax with Phineas Newborn, Sr.'s band and worked on several other Sun sessions. Drummer L.T. Lewis, originally from Louisiana, remained a fixture on the Memphis scene for decades after marring a local dancer. In the 1980s, he was performing with Big Lucky Carter, Mose Vinson, and Fred Ford. As David Evans wrote, ''My enduring memory is him standing on the street corner outside the studio during the break, dapper in his three-piece suit, smoking a joint. He was well up in his eighties at the time and still playing great drums. He could play anything from low-down country blues to big band jazz, always with exquisite taste''. Pianist Harry Gibson was another member of Tuff Green's Rocketeers, and a small band derived from it, The Rocks Trio, in which he played vibes. Researcher Steve LaVere asserts that he's the Daddy-o Gibson who recorded for Checker in 1956.
It seems as if Smith made his first recordings in 1949 for Bullet as part of Tuff Green's orchestra, suggesting that he might have been a Memphian. Besides that he recorded for Billy ''Red'' Love and also played on Howlin' Wolf's notorious "Oh Red". It is believed that he learned to play the trombone at the Booker T Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee, with its strong brass band tradition being the most likely.
His nickname ''Tang'', an abbreviation of "poontang", probably referred to his proclivity for female company. Beyond that, Walter Smith has eluded us, and the commonness of his name probably ensures that he will continue to do so. (CE)
SMITH, WARREN - Smith was born in Humphreys County, Mississippi near Yazoo City on February 7, 1933, as his birth date, although hospital records would indicate that he lopped a year off his age. His parents, Ioda and Willie Warren Smith, divorced when he was young; his mother stayed in the Louise -Greenwood area and his father went to Lexington, Mississippi to work as a truck driver. Smith was brought up by his grandparents near the toen of Louise,
Mississippi, where they farmed and operated a small country store. After a spell as a machinist, Smith went into the Air Force in 1950. Stationed in San Antonio, Texas he took up the guitar to while away the evenings. By the time of his discharge, Smith was fairly determined to make a career out of music.
It certainly represented a more attractive option than most of the others open to a poor white Mississippi boy with little formal education. With music on his mind, Warren Smith headed for the bright of Memphis and the brighter lights of West Memphis, Arkansas.
Soon after he arrived, Warren Smith went to the Cotton Club. Stan Kesler, who was playing in a band norminally led by Clyde Leoppard remembered Smith's arrival: "Warren came in and auditioned for us. I saw a lot of potential and brought him over to Sam Phillips together with the rest of the Snearly Ranch Boys. Sam thought he was real good too and asked me to work up some material. I'd already written "I'd Rather Be Safe Than Sorry" when Sam called and said that Johnny Cash had brought in "Rock And Roll Ruby". We went over and recorded with Warren and it was supposed to be a co-op deal because we'd discovered him and supported him".
Stan Kesler refutes the story propagated by Smith in his last years that he was discovered by Johnny Cash and Sam Phillips at the Cotton Club, although it is entirely possible that Cash and Phillips visited the club to see Smith perform after he had already been signed a contract and he was already a star on the Sun label.
In 1957 Warren Smith married Doris Gannon from Holly Grove, Arkansas. They had met the preceding year in Memphis where she was working as a telephone operator. When he drove by, resplendant in his white suit, she thought he was Elvis Presley and was surprised to learn that the performer of "Rock And Roll Ruby" was not black, as she had surmised. At that time, Smith was living in the Holiday Towers apartment block although he and Doris, when Smith career was quit at Sun Records, eventually moved back to his mother's house in Greenwood, Mississippi. From there, Smith and his family went to Jackson, Mississippi before finally deciding to try their luck in California when the Sun contract expired. The band had gone their separate ways and Warren was working as a single around Jackson when he moved. They settled in Sherman Oaks, near Johnny Cash who moved to Van Nuys a few moths earlier.
Smith cut three singles for the new Warner Brothers label. But not until he aligned himself with the newly formed country division of Liberty Records in 1960 did Warren Smith find both a style with which he could sell records and a company willing to make a sustained commitment to him. Between 1960 and 1964 he scored a series of hits in the country charts that were refreshingly free of the choruses and overproduction that were beginning to plague Nashville.
Surprisingly, Sam Phillips did not reach back into the vaults after Smith started scoring consistently with Liberty. He had mixed feelings about his protege: "He was probably the best pure singer for country music I've ever heard", he remembers. "He had a pure country voice and an innate feel for a country ballad. With that music he was as good as anyone I've heard before or since. 'So Long I'm Gone" was just a wonderful country record".
"Warren had a lot of emotional problems, though. I don't think he ever got on dope or anything, but he was the kind of character that needed to be loved a lot. He needed recognition more than the average person... A lot of people didn't like Warren, and he perceived that. And if they didn't, in essence it was his fault in a lot of cases. He was a difficult personality, but just interesting enough that I liked him a whole lot".
Sam Phillips was apparently unaware of Smith's problems with prescription drugs, a dependency that would come to hamper his career in the years ahead. But Warren's contemporaries agree that Sam Phillips assessment of his psyche is accurate. Unfortunately for Warren Smith, his affiliation with Sun never resulted in the kind of success he had envisioned for himself. His rancor subsided for a while when it seemed as though the country music world was falling into his lap, but it eventually resurfaced as Smith pondered the inexplicable loss of success.
Warren Smith entered a sad personal and professional downslide. There were a few more short-lived label affiliations, a jail term for stealing drugs, and a succession of mundane day jobs. When the rockabilly revival craze hit Europe in the late 1970s, Warren Smith was called upon to tour overseas and record again in the rockabilly style, but he couldn't harness the reflected glory from his Sun years to build a new career. Warren Smith died in Longview, Texas, on January 30, 1980, of a heart attack.
Warren Smith was not a major influence upon Elvis Presley, but his style and energetic rockabilly records were a subtle reminder to Elvis Presley that he would have to continue his rockabilly direction with a high degree of professionalism.
"I came out of the Air Force in 1950", recalled Warren Smith, "and moved to Memphis where I worked in some of the bars around town for a while. I heard that Clyde Leophard was looking for entertainers so I went and auditioned for him and was hired. Clyde put me to work at a place called the Cotton Club in West Memphis, Arkansas. I ended up working there for over a year. Anyhow, one night Sam Phillips and Johnny Cash came in, I think Carl Perkins had told them that there was a singer over at the Cotton Club they might be interested in. Anyhow, I was playing straight country music then and I hadn't any releases on the market at the time. Sam and Johnny invited me back to their table, and Johnny said he had a song called "Rock And Roll Ruby". "He asked me to come over to the Sam Phillips studio, and give it a try. I think that was a Sunday night if I'm not mistaken. Well I was over there bright and early in the morning. I mean, I was there before they were even open! Well, I waited around for a while and finally Sam, Johnny and Carl Perkins along with a couple other musicians came in the studio. I was nervous as heck! You know how that goes! I mean Elvis Presley had been at Sun, and Sun was a heck of a good label at that particular time", recalled Warren.
"Johnny brought out "Rock and Roll Rubby" and gave me an idea how he wanted it done, and just like magic all the boys started clickin together, so I fell into it and started singing along with the band. Yea, we worked it up prety good! Well, when we finished they said come on back tomorrow and we'll cut it. I decided on Clyde Leoppards bunch of guys to accompany me, as I had been working with them a year or so and we all knew each other pretty well. We got to the studio the next day, cut the record and it came off a pretty good sized rock hit.
"Rock And Roll Ruby" started hitting in the South pretty good then and Bob Neal who was Elvis' manager, booked me for personal appearances, so I had to get a band together to travel with. Well, Marcus Van Story happened to be one of the guys I chose. He's a great bass man and he stayed with me the duration that I was on Sun Records, five years. I got Al Hopson and a few others and we were all set. That reminds me, there was a story going around about who actually wrote "Rock And Roll Ruby". Well, I found out a little later on that Johnny Cash bought it from George Jones! I bumped into George after I left Sun and was cutting records for Liberty, so naturally I started traveling with the country group. Yea, I was booked on shows with I guess everybody who was on the Grand Old Opry at one time or another. Anyway, I bumped into George when we were playing down in Texas, we were on his bus and he said that he wrote "Rock And Roll Ruby" and sold it for $40,00. I said Aww come on now, and he said, 'No I really did!'. Well, as time went on I began to talk to other people and they said George wrote it and Johnny bought it from him. That's what I heard! I wasn't there so I can't say for sure, but that's what I heard".
In April 1977, Warren Smith arrived in Britain to play a rockabilly show with Jack Scott, Charlie Feathers and Buddy Knox. Smith was completely overcome by the reception he received and was invited back the following November with fellow Sun artist Ray Smith. Again, the shows went well and a rejuvenated Smith was scheduled to return in April 1981.
Unfortunately this tour never materialised as on the last day of January
30, 1981, Smith was admitted to hospital in Longview, Texas with chest pains. Before the
day was over, he suffered a massive heart attack and died. He was 47. (CE)
SNOW, EDDIE - Pianist and vocalist Eddie Snow was born on March 9, 1921 in Corona, Tennessee, just north of Memphis. His father, Jim Snow, ran a juke joint there, and Eddie reportedly grew up in the city. He picked up piano from his mother, Alberta Sheffield Snow, and said he was influenced by the pianists he saw in his father's juke, including Walter Davis, Roosevelt Sykes, and in particular Memphis Slim.
He told Brian Baumgartner, ''I remember Slim coming down the river by boat. He would get off and you could recognize him 'cause he had one shoe that had a loose sole. He had those long fingers and they grey patch of hair. In fact his father was a piano player too, and he played for my daddy before I was born''.
When Snow's father died in 1936, Eddie started work as a farm laborer but he played piano in the weekends. ''I would play two nights a week. They would pay two dollars a night and that's from sunset to sunrise''.
Later in the 1940s, Snow worked farms in other towns and played piano further afield. He said he picket cotton with Elmore James near Birdsong, Arkansas and met Willie Love and Robert Lockwood at his brother's juke joint. In 1949 he drifted to Osceola, Arkansas, where he was picking cotton. He teamed up at M.C. Reeder's T99 Club and other venues with Elven Parr's In The Groove Boys, playing regularly on KOSE in the mornings for Hadacol. He recalled meeting B.B. King in Birdsong and appearing with both King and Joe Hill Louis on radio WDIA. For a time in 1951, Snow worked in Indianapolis before moving to Cairo, Illinois with his new wife, Emma, who sang duets with him. The In The Groove Boys also relocated there. Snow and the group returned to Memphis for their unissued 1952 session for Sam Phillips.
Steve Adelman, who's been Eddie Snow's drummer for five years, said the
people who have been in Snow's bands read like a "Who's Who" on the jazz and blues scene, people like Son Seals and Big Twist. Snow used to bring current Snowflakes' organist Wayne Carter up on stage as a guest in Memphis back in the 1950s.
In 1954, Eddie Snow came back to Sun without Parr at an unspecified date. He recorded at least two sessions at Sun as leader, and the latter occasion, he finally saw a record release in his name. He said of the July 1955 session, ''Sam Phillips would push you. He made me mad that time when we were doing ''Bring Your Love Back Home'', and I did that holler that he liked. The last time we did it I said I wasn't going to do it anymore. 'You[re going to have to do it'! He knew what he was doing, but he was strict''. The day of the session Eddie remembered Elvis Presley hanging around the studio, and that could have been the case because Presley was recording what would be his last Sun single in July 1955. Later in life, Snow told his kids (of whom there were ten) that Elvis Presley wanted to do one of his songs, ''Bring Your Love Back Home To Me'', but he wouldn't him. Sam Phillips was foisting other blues songs he published upon Presley, so he was probably more in favour of Elvis covering Snow's song than Snow.
At the time, Snow's sound was straight out of Ray Charles and then-contemporary rhythm and blues. The stop-rhythms and sax voicings were, as his son Oscar says, way different from the old blues guys. Floyd Murphy replaced Elven Parr on Snow's later sessions and Murphy apparently approached Don Robey at Duke Records when it was clear the Sun disc was not going to be a hit. Snow turned down Robey after a discussion about money and continued to play locally in Cairo into the mid-1960s while holding down construction jobs.
Snow moved to Rockford, Illinois and then Springfield where he became a welder. He retired from music in 1967 for the best part of 20 years until, later in life, his son persuaded him to take another stab at the music business. He played with Floyd Murphy at the 1992 Chicago Blues Festival and there were a couple of offers to go overseas, but Snow opted to remain close to home with his local band, the Snowflakes. His song, ''Ain't That Right'', played in the Johnny Cash bio-pic ''Walk The Line'', but Snow wasn't around to appreciate the moment. Eddie Snow died in Memorial Medical Center, Springfield on November 21, 1998. (CE) (MH)
SOUTHERN JUBILEES, THE – Their personnel at the time of their December 1951 sessions at the Memphis Recording Services was Lavorne Smith and Jose Lee, who both sang lead, Dan Taylor, tenor, James Sanders, baritone, and Eddie Henderson, bass. Dan Taylor not only sang tenor, he also arranged all the material the Southern Jubilees recorded. Born in 1927, he had started singing by the age of ten. In 1944 he joined the Southern Gospel Singers. This group had started in 1937 as the Southern Harmony Boys. The one constant between 1937 and 1944 was their manager Floyd Wiley. A short while after Taylor joined, he changed their name to the Southern Jubilees. He felt that a lot of church people thought the idea of singing the gospel was blasphemous. Taylor reflected ''Baptist people have hangups. At least I call them hangups. It was just a name. So we changed it to the Jubilees. It wasn't going to be a hangup then''. The name was later changed to the Singing Southern Jubilees as there was a group in Chicago, at the time, also calling themselves the Southern Jubilees.
Although Taylor joined in 1944, he did not become the instructor of the group until 1949. ''They really hadn't gotten down to studying music. At that time there hadn't been anybody in the group who really had taking voice training. I went to something like a voice training school''. This voice training school was simply private lessons from Gus Miller. There is a long tradition in Memphis of quartet trainers and Gus Miller was one of the best. Taylor studied with him from 1947-1949. He learned ''...different major and minor chords and how to use the voice. We were singing in the quartet style at the time and each of the four voices had a different purpose. Like the bass and the tenor carry the sound in the tune, and the baritone singer does just what it says, carries the tone of it. The second tenor singer, which we call a lead singer, puts the melody to it''. Taylor recalls, ''We did a lot of different arrangements on other folks' songs. Then I changed the lyrics or something on it. We still do that now. Most of my training has been singing and arranging and putting different lyrics to a song that is already there. We go to songbooks and get them out''.
In the 1940s, recording was not as important for a gospel quartet as it later became. Instead, the better groups did a lot of radio work besides their live programs. The only Memphis quartet to record before the late 1940s was the I.C. Glee Quartet, sponsored by and drawn from the Memphis staff of the Illinois Central Railroad, who recorded first in 1928.
The Jubilees' first chance to record came in 1951 with Sam Phillips. According to Taylor, Phillips asked WDIA to recommend some quartets to him. The Jubilees were doing weekly live broadcasts on the station. Although Taylor remembered ''three or four sessions'', Phillips' log book only indicates a single session. The others may have been auditions. Although Taylor arranged all the material for the session, he could not recall the composer of any titles except ''Forgive Me Lord'' which was written by manager Floyd Wiley. Taylor did not know why the material was not issued at the time, as he never heard from Sam Phillips after the actual session. The Southern Jubilees remained a fulltime quartet on the road until 1955. They had a chance to record for Don Robey in 1952 but Taylor did not like Robey's two-year contract with a five year option. ''He just hold you till you go crazy''. In the 1960s, the Singing Southern Jubilees recorded two singles for Aquarius Records from Mobile, Alabama and later in the 1960s one single appeared on the Memphis Designer label. In August 1983, the group's first album, after 39 years, was finally released. It was simply called Southern Jubilees and was on the Sendus label. (RB)
SPIRITUAL STARS, THE - There have been several gospel groups with this name but the identity of the
Spiritual Stars who saw one disc issued on Chess records in 1951 has escaped us. The master numbers of ''I'll
Search Heaven'' and ''Good Religion'' are close to those of the Evangelist Gospel Singers. If the debate about
who recorded them and when is resolved in favor of Phillips then that will likely confirm the time and place
of the Stars recordings too. (MH)
STEELE, GENE - Born in Kennedy, Alabama on October 22, 1908. He was widely known by Memphis resident as "The Singing Salesman", and had a long running show over WMC, and also WREC. An article in Memphis Commercial Appeal also referred to him as the "Kingpin Of The Hillbillies".
More recently Gene Steele was also remembered for his work as the track announcer at the Southland Greyhound Track in West Memphis. Gene's radio show became something of an institution in Memphis during the 1950s and many of Sun's artists were visiting performers.
Gene Steele's singing was widely heard locally, both in personal appearances and on the radio. He was obviously as comfortable with a love song as he was singing the praises of a 1954 DeSoto. In fact, there were times when Gene's singing commercials received as much air time in Memphis as the latest Top 10 hits. Strangely he made no records that were commercially released other than a 1939 session for Vocalion.
Gene Steele's broadcast typically appeared at 8:30 a.m. and contained four songs interspersed with cheery banter and commercials. He was usually sponsored by Automobile Sales, a Chrysler dealership on Union Avenue, or by the King Cotton sausage company. His backup group was knows as the "King Cotton Revelers" on sausage days and reverted to the "Dixie Revelers" when the auto dealer paid the bills. During the mid-1950s, the announcer introduced Gene as a singer of 'hill, western and folk songs'. In actually, the group performed a curious mixture of contemporary country and pop hits (e.g. Marty Robbins "Pretty Words"; Jo Stafford's "Make Love To Me", western swing style instrumentals, often led by pedal steeliest John Hughey, and old time material, occasionally sung in harmony with Jack Pennington, such as "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" or "Down The Trail Of Broken Hearts"). Each broadcast was signed on and off with Gene's theme song, "Floating Down The River To Cotton Town".
Gene Steele died in West Memphis on January 8, 1984. He never lived to see the commercial release of the two long forgotten titles on this session recorded for Sam Phillips nearly 43 years ago.
STEWART, DANNY – Is a household name in Memphis – and not on the strength of his solitary Phillips International single which sank without a trace in the early months of 1959. He was the former president of Dan Stewart Realtors and his name can still be seen in front yards throughout Memphis, even though he sold the company in 1997 and retired to Atlanta.
At one point, he had over 120 agents reporting to him. In 1958, Stewart, newly arrived in Memphis from his native Jackson, Tennessee, gigged around town with a band that included Richard Paige. They worked as backup musicians for Dickey Lee and the Daydreamers and played their own gigs. Bill Justis invited them to audition at Sun but, by the time Sam Phillips decided that they had some potential, Justis had quit and it was Ernie Barton who engineered the session.
The swamp-poppy ''Somewhere Along The Line'' was seen as the A-side and ''I'll Change My Ways'' was a song that Stewart concocted in the studio. But it was the split-tempo ''I'll Change My Ways'' with that grabbed some airplay in Memphis and parts of Texas. Some, but not much.
Soon after his sole Phillips International single disappeared from view, Stewart married and phased out the band. He worked as a disc jockey and moved into television (Channel 4 in Dallas and Channel 13 in Memphis) before starting his real estate business in 1974. And from that modest beginning sprang a very different kind of success story.
''Oh God, man, it's been a long time'', he said when asked about his recording career. ''I remember that I was in awe of the people that Sam Phillips and Ernie Barton assembled. Charlie Rich worked on ''I'll Change My Ways''. He played a piano solo on one cut that was terrific. I mean that man was carried away. At the end of his solo he let out this yell then he slumped over the piano. He'd been hitting the bottle pretty heavy. Later that night we got Jerry Smoochy Smith in to work on the session. Basically, the record went nowhere''. His re-collections of the session musicians doesn't jive with the personnel that Sam Phillips filed with the AFM, but that's not to say that there weren't two sessions or that the session file is necessarily correct. It certainly sound like Rich on ''I'll Change My Ways''.
The self-satisfied look that Stewart projects in photos of him that appear in social media is that of a selfmade man. It exudes little of the disappointment that would inevitably have been his had he stayed with music.
STEWART, WILLIAM (TALKING BOY)
- Years ago, it was assumed that the William Stewart who
recorded unamplified blues at Sun was the same guy who played unamplified acoustic guitar with the
Prisonaires. Even Sam Phillips claimed to remember Stewart playing cottonpatch blues. This, we're certain
now, is not the case. For one thing, the guitarist with the Prisonaires was a harmonically sophisticated player;
Talking Boy Stewart was most assuredly not. And a newly-discovered note in the tape box dates the session
1951 when the Prisonaires were securely confined elsewhere. That said, we know very little of William
talking Boy Stewart. These were, as far as we know his only recordings, and he sounds as if he came up from
points South without listening to much of what happened in blues after about 1929. (CE)
STIDHAM, ARBEE - was an American blues singer and multi-instrumentalist, most successful in the late 1940s and 1950s. Born on February 9, 1917 in Devalls Bluff, Arkansas, was a child musical prodigy who came by his talent honestly, he could play the clarinet, alto sax and harmonica and formed a band called The Southern Syncopaters before he hit his teens which backed Bessie Smith on tour in 1930-31, and played on radio and in clubs in Arkansas and Memphis, Tennessee, as his father Luddie performed with the Jimmie Lunceford orchestra while an uncle, at one time, headed the famous Memphis Jug Band. By 1945 he had relocated to Chicago where, after working in Lucky Millinder's orchestra, Stidham eventually came into contact with Lester Melrose who, in 1947, got him a contract with one of the giants of the industry, RCA Victor.
Photo Raeburn Flerlage
That, you would think, would lead, if not necessarily to a long, successful
recording career, then at least to a modest string of hits, considering their ability to promote their artists - unlike some smaller independent labels. And it certainly looked that way when ''My Heart Belongs To You'' rocketed to number 1 Most Played Juke Box Race Records - a forerunner of what is now known as the rhythm and blues charts - in the summer of 1948 b/w ''I Found Out For Myself'' on RCA Victor 20-2572. But that was to be it insofar as a hit record was concerned as the next RCA release, ''In Love With You'' b/w ''I Don't Know How To Cry'' (RCA Victor 20-2767) failed to even dent the lower regions of those same charts.
Nothing else he turned out would work either, and that included recording for a multitude of companies through the 1950s, a period where he was injured in a car accident, the results of which left him unable to play the sax. So, with the guidance of rhythm and blues legend Big Bill Broonzy, he turned to the guitar with equal dexterity. Output in that decade included three singles for Morty and Bob Shad's ''Sittin' In With'' label in New York City in 1951 ''Nothing Seems Right'' b/w ''Sixty Minutes To Wait'' on (Sittin' In With'' 596), ''Feelin' Blue And Low'' b/w ''I've Got News For You Baby'' on (Sittin' In With 606), and ''Bad Dream Blues'' b/w ''Why Did I Fall In Love With You?'' on (Sittin' In With 617), two for the Checker subsidiary of Chess Records belonging to Leonard and Phil Chess in 1953 ''Someone To Tell My Troubles To'' b/w ''Mr. Commissioner'' on (Checker 751), and ''Don't Set Your Cap For Me'' b/w ''I Don't Play'' on (Checker 778), and one as a vocalist with the Lefty Banks Band on States label in 1957 ''I Stayed Away Too Long'' b/w ''Look Me Straight In The Eye'' on (States 164).
By 1951 and 1952 Arbee Stidham recorded an unissued sessions at Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service on Union Avenue and in 1964 on May 25, 1965 at Sun's Madison Avenue studio in Memphis where he rerecorded his earlier version of '' My Heart Belongs To You'' a song which he revives to a new soul and beat and bars line.
There may also have been a release or two by Eli Toscana and Joe Brown's Abco Records in Chicago in 1956. In terms of albums, Arbee had one for Prestige Records' Bluesville label in 1960 titled ''Tired Of Waiting For You'', and a couple more for Folkways and Mainstream, right into the early 1970s, and also made many music festival appearances nationwide and internationally, while also lecturing on the Blues at Cleveland State University, and appeared in the film The Bluesman in 1973. Arbee Stidham died on April 26, 1988 in Cook County, Illinois, at the age of 71.
Dane Stinit in front of Graceland, 1962.
STINIT, DANE - Born Daniel Stinnett in 1938 on farm near Owensboro, Kentucky. Dane Stinit arrived on the music scene ten years too late. In 1956 he might have stood a chance with his Sun singles "Don't Knock What You Don't Understand" and "That Muddy Ole River", but not in 1966, the year in which he recorded them. Dane Stinnett (his real name) was born on a farm near Owensboro in Kentucky. After finishing high school in 1956, he saw that the job prospects in Owensboro were slender. He had some relations in Gary, Indiana, where he got a job with LTV Steel. He would stay with LTV for 31 years, and eventually settled in Lake Station, Indiana, a community almost entirely populated by transplanted southerners. Dane had played in a little local group in Owensboro, but had no real musical ambitions.
On a trip back home in 1965 he was discovered at a party and was brought to the Sun studio by Bettye Berger (Ivory Joe Hunter's manager) to cut a custom session of Johnny Cash covers. Putting it mildly, Stinit's style owes a considerable debt to Johnny Cash. As it happened, Sam Phillips walked in the studio during the session, took over the controls from Stan Kesler and was impressed enough to sign the singer to Sun.
On January 29, 1966, Phillips brought Dane back into the studio to cut a session in the Johnny Cash mould, complete with boom-chicka- boom backing. For six years after Cash's departure to Columbia, Phillips had been releasing Johnny Cash singles from the Sun vaults, but he was now staring at the bottom of the barrel and possibly thought he could recreate the Cash magic with Stinit. Or maybe it was just nostalgia. "Don't Knock What You Don't Understand"/"Always On the Go" was released in May 1966 (Sun 402). It sold well enough for Stinit to be invited back on November 29, 1966, for a second session. This time Sam Phillips had decided to let him sound more like himself than Johnny Cash. Seven titles were recorded this time, of which only two were released at the time: "That Muddy Ole River (Near Memphis, Tennessee)"/"Sweet Country Girl" (Sun 405, issued in February 1967).
"That Muddy Ole River" (written by Gene Simmons and Bettye Berger) is an excellent record from the second half of the 1960s. For a 1966 recording, it is commendably under produced. No strings, no chorus, just guitar (Reggie Young), bass, drums and piano. "Sweet Country Girl" (co-written by B.B. Cunningham) is also a competent country record. But, unsurprisingly, there were few takers.
The November 29, 1966 session was the last time that Sam Phillips took the controls as president of Sun Records. "Most everybody had left the label", recalled Stinit. "I got the feeling they wasn't going to be in the business much longer". That feeling was correct. Only two more singles would be released on Sun after "Muddy Ole River", including a gospel single that had already been recorded in May 1962. In 1969 Phillips sold the Sun company to Shelby Singleton.
Stinnett (as he returned to calling himself) never recorded again. After taking early retirement from the steel mill, he formed a band to play for homesick southerners in Indiana, but, even with the security afforded by his pension, he never thought of turning professional. In 1988, Bear Family released the complete Sun recordings by Stinit (15 tracks, 12 different songs), on vinyl (BFX 15337). The music has held up remarkably well and especially for Johnny Cash fans, there is a lot to enjoy.
HOUSTON, STOKES - Although virtually the "house drummer" at 706 Union Avenue between 1953-1954, usually working with bassist Kenneth Banks, Stokes remains an elusive, obscure figure. He was believed to have been in his early twenties at the time of these recordings, but seems to have vanished soon after, perhaps inducted into the US Army for service in Korea. None of the solo sides he recorded for Sam Phillips were released until the 1970s.
It seems likely that Houston Stokes was born in Alabama on July 19, 1924. His father was from Alabama and his mother from Arkansas. By the time of the 1930 census, he was living at 404 Manassas Avenue in Memphis with two of his siblings.
They were all living with an uncle, William Dooley. The next fixed point is October 14, 1948 when Stokes married a woman named Sarah Fanion. It's unclear how he came to be associated with Sun Records, but he worked as a session drummer for Sam Phillips, even playing on one or two hillbilly sessions, and in 1953 and early 1954, Houston Stokes was virtually the house drummer of Sun Records. According to photographer Ernest Withers, Stokes went to Chicago to work as a community organizer with the Reverent Jesse Jackson. In November 1970, Rufus Thomas reported to Steve LaVere that Houston Stokes was in Kansas City, while Mose Vinson said he was in Missouri and Evans Bradshaw, St. said he was around Nashville. In any event, his departure from music was abrupt, and it seems likely that Houston Stokes died in Chicago on November 29, 1995. (CE) (MH)
STRENGTH, TEXAS BILL – Born on August 28, 1928, Houston, Texas and t he earliest mention we've found of "Texas" Bill Strength was in the May 1946 issue of National Hillbilly News in a brief write up by long-time Ernest Tubb Fan Club President, Norma Winton. At that time, he had just finished working at KFEQ in St. Joseph, Missouri. His popularity was such over KFEQ that he was being sponsored over 17 other radio stations at that time. Ms. Barthel tells the readers that Bill's radio performing career started at a station in Houston, Texas - KTHT - back in 1944. She mentions he had been at a few other stations since that time and had moved to KSOO in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. A 1949 article tells us that Bill was just 16 then and had won an amateur contest at the Joy Theatre.
A representative from KTHT happened to be present and decided to give Bill his first radio job. In remembering that episode, Bill was quoted, "My Mother thought for sure I was dying, and I can't say what the old man said''.
In those early days, Texas Bill was also writing tunes such as "There's Always Two to Blame", "I'm Lonely Since You've Gone" and "You've Left Me Behind" were several of the tunes Ms. Barthel tells the readers he had written up to that point and "...many more''.
During this part of his career, Texas Bill got to meet his hero so to speak, Ernest Tubb during one of Ernest's personal appearances. In fact, Norma Barthel mentions he was quite good about promoting Ernest and his records and even mentions that he was a "...young fellow with a voice that sounds remarkably like Ernest Tubb, especially when singing one of Ernest's songs''.
In the latter part of 1946, Floy Case reported in her column that he had a six piece western band and doing personal appearance in the Missouri and Kansas area. She noted that Bill was "...doing all right for himself in this hillbilly biz." She also mentions that he had penned a couple of new tunes, "The Rose of My Heart" and "Who's Gonna Love Me Now".
Norma wrote of Texas Bill again in the July 1946 issue of National Hillbilly News in two of her columns - one was "Just Driftin'" where she notes that he was working in Colorado and making personal appearances throughout the area. In her "Radio Programs and Cowboys" column in the same issue, she provides a snippet of the type of tunes he was singing back then. She mentions that Texas Bill had presented her with a special recording, that became a treasured memento to her. He recorder her favorite tune at the time, "Yesterday's Tears"
and then followed that up with several of his own song writing efforts, "Please Don't Ever Forget Me" and "Louisiana Lou". But he may have been longing for his southern roots as Norma notes he was talking about the cold weather and how hard it was for a southern boy to cope with it. While he may have complained about it, he was doing well at the time and was the envy of Norma being able to work there for she was a native of the state.
But by the end of 1946, his career had taken him to Memphis, Tennessee, based on a letter to the editors of National Hillbilly News that listed his PO Box as being in Memphis. In fact, the January 1947 issue reports in Arlie Kinkade's column, "This, That 'n the Other" that he was working at WHHD.
Interestingly, we found another article in the December 1946 issue of Mountain Broadcast and Prairie Recorder by one of country music's earliest journalists, Floy Case, who tells readers that Norma Winton, president of Ernest Tubb's Fan Club and publisher of the newsletter, Melody Trails, had started her own band and it was called, the "Melody Trail Riders". The "...singing emcee..." Ms. Case tells us was Texas Bill Strength, who she described as "...a young fellow who seems to be going places in a hurry." Bill and the group were playing dates in the eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas areas.
In January of 1947, Ms. Case wrote that Bill was one fellow that "...gets around", going from Texas to South Dakota and Colorado. She mentions she had known he was working as part of Norma Winton's band, the Melody Trail Riders out of Ft. Smith, Arkansas but had since formed his own band, the "Ranch Ramblers" and was working regularly at the Rainbow Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee. She, like many of the columnists back then who also dabbled in song writing, then segues into mentioning that Bill had been plugging a song she had written with Jimmie Davis, "I'm Beginning to Forget You" that had also been recorded by Ernest Tubb. A 1952 article mentions that in 1947, Bill toured with several large road shows then and did stints at KMYR in Denver, KSOO in Sioux Falls, KMA in Shenandoah, Iowa and KRLD in Dallas, Texas.
A 1951 article in Cowboy Songs magazine tells us that Bill had gone back to Houston and had a daily program over radio station KATL. In addition to his disc jockey chores, he immersed himself with personal appearances in the Houston area. Around that time, Foremost Dairies offered Bill a fifteen month contract with a new 5,000 watt station, KLEE. However, the contract did not deter his night club work which included the Houston Hoedown Club along with a nightly broadcast over station KNUZ, another Houston station.
September of 1949 found Bill in Birmingham, Alabama doing daily radio programs at WRBC, which was a bit of a network of 37 stations throughout Alabama. In late 1949, Bill's career had taken him back to Houston, Texas. Tex Moon wrote in his "Southwestern Round-Up" column for National Hillbilly News that Bill was one of the mainstays at a new venue in Houston where it was said, "The Best Bands of All Come to Hillbilly Hall" along with others such as Floyd Tillman, Hank Lockwood, Leon Payne, Benny Leaders, Pete Hunter, the Texas Cowboys, Woody Carter and others.
In 1950, Bill's career took another turn, this time as part of the staff for the labor organization, CIO on January 15, 1950. During that time, he was doing radio transcriptions with George Baldanzi, then Executive VP of the Textile Workers Union of America and National Director of the CIO Organizing Committee. The transcriptions were aired over 126 stations. At that time, the CIO had over 6.5 million members, so Texas Bill and his record label, 4-Star Records, took advantage of that and created a slogan for Bill, "...the Boy with 6
and a half million sponsors''.
The 1951 Cowboy Songs article notes that Bill was such a hit with his CIO bit that he logged over 57,000 miles of traveling on tours, personal appearances as well as visiting those in hospitals and institutions as well as hi attendance at union meetings and conventions for the CIO. Impressively, it was said that he entertained upwards of a quarter million people at each of those conventions. Like many artists, Bill shared the stage with many of the mainstays of country music in that era. But Bill also got to entertain some well-known political figures of the era due to his work with the CIO, including Vice President Alben Barkley, Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota; Congressman Christopher of Missouri and Maurice Tobin, Secretary of Labor.
Some of the more well known venues he appeared at were the Palmer House in Chicago, the "world's largest auditorium" in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the Hotel Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah; the National Training School for Boys, Washington, DC; the Hudson Manor in Tampa, Florida and also KWKH's Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport.
By 1951, he had appeared five times on WSM's Grand Ole Opry, appearing with his friend Ernest Tubb.
In 1951, he was living in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and two children. He had made several appearances over WAGA-TV in Atlanta.
A June 1954 article mentions that Bill had a daily show from 11:00am to 12:45pm over radio station WEAS in Decatur, Georgia. In another summer 1954 article in Country Song Roundup's Fifth Anniversary Issue which featured spotlights on disc jockeys from around the country, they offered the reader a couple of quotes attributed to Texas Bill that give us perhaps some insight into music and his career: "...I have taken it for granted that it is the only business that I should be in. Within these ten years, I have been associated with many types of people who tell a story. Some tell their story in a speech, others in books, and yet, there are people who can better tell a story in song. ... and I guess that's why I've been inspired to since my boyhood, to tell my story in a song''.
''In addition to music being a part of my daily life, I think it is one of the most gratifying things that could ever happen to an artist. Why? Because when I make other people happy with a song, either on a show date or by playing records on my D.J. shows, I feel that I am reaching my goal, I'm living Country Music!"
Around 1953 or so, Bill was doing his recordings on Capitol Records. He was being featured over station KEYD (later known as KEVE) out of Minneapolis, MN and did personal appearances across the country.
In 1956, he was doing tour dates in the Kentucky and Ohio areas, appearing with such acts as The Carlisles, Ferlin Husky, Martha Carson among others.
A May 1956 article appears to be promoting his efforts with Capitol Records at the time along with the inauguration of the new country music programming at KEYD. The station's staff at that time also included another country singer, Johnny "T" (Johnny Talley). The article also mentions that Bill's wardrobe for his personal appearances was valued at over $3,200.
A May 1956 article mentions that Bill had appeared on the Midwestern Hayride over WLW in Cincinnati, Ohio as well as on programs hosted by such stars as Pee Wee King and Red Foley (the Ozark Jubilee). That same article told readers that in a voters poll, Bill ranked number 50 out of over 1,800 disc jockeys nationwide.
The December 1956 issue of Country & Western Jamboree included the results of various fan polls they had taken. One result was that Texas Bill Strength finishing number three behind such other disc jockey legends as T. Tommy Cutrer and Don Larkin as "Favorite Local Radio Disc Jockey". That list also included other legends that would be in the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame, Randy Blake and Bill Mack.
He appeared on the cover of the June 1954 issue of Cowboy Songs, as one of three artists featured in the issue. In May 1956, he was the featured artist on the cover of Cowboy Songs. Country & Western Jamboree magazine featured him on the cover of their July 1956 issue but only devoted a few short paragraphs to Bill inside but did at least mention he was the number one rated Disc Jockey in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area.
In 1990, Texas Bill Strength was elected to the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame.
In August of 1973, Texas Bill Strength was asleep in a car while driving with a friend on a promotional tour. Their car left the road and flipped several times. Texas Bill was paralyzed from the waist down and later slipped into a coma. He passed away in October 1, 1973.
STUART, JEB - (or Stewart) was born as Charles Jones on June 2, 1945 in Memphis, Tennessee, he grew up idolising Billy Eckstine, Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, and Little Richard, and left Memphis to study at the Chicago Conservatory of Music under Frank Lavere, one of the writers of Cole's hit ''Pretend''. His early doo-wop tracks for Wing under his real name Charles Jones sadly isn’t one of them.
Back in Memphis, Stuart landed a gig at the Southern Club, and hired Isaac Hayes as his piano player. They were eventually displaced by Sam the Sham, but moved on to several other local venues. Hayes, incidentally, claims to have played piano and arranged one of Stuart's Phillips singles (although the Union logs tell a different story, as they often do).
It was Rufus Thomas who suggested that Stuart contact Sam Phillips. Stuart was auditioned by Charles Underwood, who was sufficiently impressed to call Phillips down from the executive suite. Phillips liked what he heard. Stuart and Underwood co-wrote ''Take A Chance'', and, given the choice of signing with Phillips International or Sun, Stuart opted for Phillips because of its uptown image.
And neither are any of his singles for Philips International which are lightweight and rather forgettable. ''All For Love'' is a doo-wop influenced soul ballad of some merit, but rather spoiled by an intrusive background chorus. ''A Whole Lot Of Tears'', however, is a celebrated deep soul classic with Stuart crying and sobbing his heart out over a solid accompaniment featuring some lovely guitar runs and fills, and withdrawn horns. The Bingo release is another very good one with Stuart double tracking his vocal over a hammered slow 12/8 beat. Three of his four King sides are pretty mediocre to be honest, but ''Don’t Want To Leave You Darling'' is in a different league. A plodding ballad with a lovely Memphis feel, it features one of Stuart's very best vocal tracks. Highly recommended.
Stuart's first release after relocating to Florida is another one to search out. ''Dreamer's Hall Of Fame'' is another class slowie, and Stuart really gives of his best, especially at the final 30 seconds. Electrifying stuff. Even better though is ''Can’t Count The Days'' when his hoarse tone really delivers the goods. The melody is better too, as are the background singers who are far less forward in the mix. It’s not surprising that this garnered a release on the larger Kent label. In this company the much sought after Big Score 45 suffers rather badly.
His initial 45 for his own Great American label continued this fine trend. ''Please Give Me Another Chance''is one of his greatest records. A completely unrestrained last minute as the song reaches its climax is merely the icing on the cake of a gritty, committed vocal. The slightly uncoordinated backing of rhythm, horns and chorus only add to the disc’s air of improvised agony. Superb.
Jeb Stuart continued into the 1970s and 1980s on his new Esquire International label, and ''A Long Time Comin Down'' is a very creditable slab of mid paced country soul, with good horn support. In 1982 Esquire International Records released 7inch entitled "Baby Let’s Get Together Tonight'' / You Better Believe It Baby". ''Somebody’s Gotta Win'' is a worthwhile, melodic ballad as well but in these later days nobody wanted to hear a singer screaming his passion, and Stuart’s vocals are well restrained.
Brad Suggs, circa 1971
SUGGS, BRAD - Luther Bradley "Pee Wee" Suggs (also known as L.B. and Junior) was born in North Carolina, about 18 miles outside of Raleigh. "I came from a really large family. There was twelve of us. My daddy was a railroad man. He died when I was only six years old. Most of those nicknames refer to the fact that I was pretty small as a kid. i didn't weight too much until I was about eighteen".
Suggs' first professional affiliation was the Loden family. Sonny Loden (later known to the world as Sonny James) sang and played fiddle with the family group. "We all worked the Carolina Barn dance, along with people like Chet Atkins and Johnnie and jack.
Around 1950, Sonny and I came to Memphis. He wanted me to go on the road with him, but I was married and had family obligations, so I chose not to. It was a tough choice. Sonny was like a brother to Me".
Instead, Brad Suggs went to work with the Slim Rhodes band, once again joining a family group of musicians. "Slim's whole family came from Poplar Bluff, Missouri. I played with them when I first got to Memphis until I went into the Army. They were going to ship me over to Korea, but I already had two brothers who had died in the war, so they wouldn't do it. I stayed Stateside. When I got out I went back to work for Slim. He was a wonderful guy to work for. I was very fortunate to have been part of both those family groups".
Brad Suggs played guitar with the Rhodes band on all their Sun recordings, appearing as a featured vocalist on three of them in 1955 and 1956. In fact, Suggs recalls traveling to Nashville with the Rhodes band to perform "Don't Believe" (SUN 216) on the Ernest Tubb Midnite Jamboree. Like fellow Sun alumni Charlie Feathers, Little Milton, Rufus Thomas, Jimmy Haggett, and Malcolm Yelvington, Suggs also made a brief trip across town to record a rockabilly single for Lester Bihari's Meteor label. But Suggs' true home territory was 706 Union Avenue.
"I hung around Sun a lot in those days. One thing led to another and I started doing studio work. I was on a lot of Sun recordings. Played sessions with Jerry Lee, Warren Smith... That's me on "Ubangi Stomp". I spent some long days back then. I begin to work for Sears and I'd often put in a full day there, grab a quick supper, and head out to the studio. It seems I hardly slept at all between the work and playing".
In 1959, Brad Suggs began to function for Sun in the semi-official capacity of producer and bandleader, in much the same role as the recently-departed Bill Justis. Five singles were issued under his name on the Phillips International label. "It was hard to record at Sun if you were more than a two or three-piece group. It was so small. We used to have to leave the door open sometimes to get a good sound. When we moved to the new studio on Madison Avenue, things got even worse. That place was just awful at first. If Sam could have gotten the sound out of that studio that the guys in Nashville were getting, a lot of those early records might have been big hits. I remember writing this tune, "Cheaters Never Win" for Bobbie-Jean Barton, Ernie's wife. I originally wanted Nat Cole to record it, but I thought we got a pretty good arrangement in the end. We used strings from the Memphis Symphony on the session. But we had so much trouble recording it because of the studio problems that in the end the record (SUN 342) just died. I think if we had recorded it in Nashville, it might have stood a chance.
Brad Suggs, his wife Retha and daughter, Rebecca, circa 1957
To get good musicians to record with you in Memphis, you had to know somebody. There were good people out there, but you had to know them. I wasn't like Nashville where you just called the Union. It had to be done through personal contacts in Memphis".
Like most musicians who recorded for Sun Records, Brad Suggs recalls the informality of recording sessions. "A lot of what we did was hatched completely by accident. We'd get through a regular session and I'd be fooling around with a tune I was working on and everyone would start playing and the next thing you know we'd be having another session".
Although many have known him simply as the guy who works at Sears, Brad Suggs can boast many accomplishments. He backed up Elvis Presley during the King's Memphis concert on February 25, 1961 at the Ellis Auditorium. This and his Hawaiian benefit on Pearl Harbor, a few weeks later would be Elvis Presley's last live performance until July 1969.
"He had just gotten out of the Army, and this was his return to Memphis. It was a very big event, I got the job from Scotty Moore. Scotty and I were very good friends. I remember going out to Elvis' place to rehearse. The Jordanaires were there, also Floyd Cramer. That was quite a show".
Brad Suggs has also worked with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, along way from his days with the Slim Rhodes band. In the early 1970s, he also did some big band work on the country club circuit with the Macy Skipper orchestra, backing up such visiting luminaries as Dinah Shore. Brad Suggs' career, while filled with accomplishments, is not without regrets. Some of them are simply financial. "Sam Phillips tried to talk me into buying into Holiday Inn when he did. I wish I'd had some money to follow his advice back then. It certainly would have made a difference!".
There were other types of choices, however. "I made a lot of decisions in favor of my family. I know they were the right choices, but its hard not to think about what might have been, about all the lost opportunities. Not going on the road with Sonny James back around 1950, and later Jack Clement and I were going to go to Chicago to do studio work. Or maybe to Nashville. We talked about all that. I know people like Hank garland, Chet Atkins. I'd probably still be playing it if I'd made those moves".
Instead, Brad Suggs chose a course that allowed him to combine family, steady day work on Sears, and music. While undeniably placing a ceiling on what he could accomplish musically, it also provided him with a supportive family network (a wife, three daughters, 7 grandchildren) and personal stability that is all too rare among his former musical colleagues. He reflects, "At my age today, when I want to call someone from the old days, I have to stop and think, 'Is this guy still alive?'. Too often, the answer is 'No'". Brad Suggs is still living in retirememt in Florida.
TAYLOR, VERNON (1) - Born as Walton Alderton on November 9, 1937, near Sandy Spring, Maryland. Vernon Taylor was born into a Baptist farming family, the youngest of four children. In 1948, the family moved to Spencerville, Maryland, where Vernon spent most of his teenage years and learned to play the guitar. His exposure to music was principally through country music on the radio. He mentions Hank Williams and Eddy Arnold as his principal influences. At the age of fifteen he formed his first band (The Nighthawks) with two high school classmates. They performed mostly hillbilly music at local clubs and parties, just for the experience and exposure. By 1956 they were a five- piece band called Vernon Taylor and the Southerners, who played at record hops on Friday nights and had their own radio show at 5:30 on a Saturday morning.
From 1957-1960 they were the stars of an hourlong Saturday night TV show on WTTG channel 5 out of Washington, D.C. The show was hosted by Don Owens, a deejay from Arlington, Virginia, who became their manager, and, through his contacts with Mac Wiseman, got Vernon signed to Dot Records in 1957. Backed by some of Nashville's premier session men, Vernon recorded four tracks on July 5, 1957, which came out on two singles. "Losing Game"/ "I've Got the Blues" (Dot 15632) was issued in August 1957 and received plenty of promotion, which led to a lot of personal appearances (notably with Patsy Cline and Marty Robbins) and even a spot on American Band- stand, but it sold poorly. The second Dot single, released in January 1958, coupled Vernon's self-penned "Why Must You Leave Me" with the Don Owens composition "Satisfaction Guaranteed" (with Floyd Cramer on honky-tonk piano). When this didn't sell either, Dot did not wish to retain him. (Vernon's manager Don Owens was a friend of Jack Clement, and he was an excellent manager, writing out everything Vernon was to do while on tour for the record Sun had cut for him, including where he had motel reservations, telling him what time his wake-up call should be, and providing pat answers to questions disk jockeys might ask when interviewing him. For example, Vernon was always supposed to compliment other artists' recordings if asked).
But it wasn't long before Taylor could sign a new recording contract. Sam Phillips of Sun Records had seen him on American Bandstand and snapped him up. On October 27, 1958 Vernon recorded the single "Today Is A Blue Day"/"Breeze" (Sun 310). The A-side was a Jack Clement composition which owed more than a little to Don Gibson's "Blue Blue Day". "Breeze" was a number 12 country hit from 1948 by Cowboy Copas, who rerecorded the song in 1957 for Dot. Billboard (November 24, 1958) included Vernon's single among the "Spotlight winners of the week"; the reviewer called him a "fine new artist with a refreshingly disctinctive style". It didn't help sales much, though. The third track from the first Sun session was "Your Lovin' Man", which wasn't released until 1975, on a French Sun single (601).
According to Adam Komorowski, a fourth side was cut, called "Blue Day Tomorrow", and it was presented under that title on the CD "Essential Sun Rockabillies, Vol. 4" (Charly CPCD 8236, 1996). However, this turns out to be "What Would I Do Without You" (see below). A second Sun single (325), laid down on August 15, 1959, was not quite as good as the first one. "Mystery Train" is marred by the obtrusive and superfluous saxophone of Martin Willis. Sometimes less is more. "Sweet and Easy To Love", written and previously recorded by Roy Orbison, is not an easy song to sing and Vernon has obvious trouble keeping time. This single was also released in the UK, on London HLS 9025, unlike the first Sun 45. It must be added, though, that "Today Is A Blue Day"/"Breeze" had been scheduled for release on London HLS 8905, but no less than seven London singles were mysteriously withdrawn in July 1959 (8894, 8896, 8897, 8900, 8905, 8907, 8909). There was one more session, probably in late 1959 or early 1960, at the Fernwood studio, produced by Jack Clement. It seems that these recordings were still made under the Sun contract, though they were not recorded at the Sun studio, as the backing was supplied by Roland Janes, Billy Riley, Charlie Rich and Jimmy Van Eaton. The four songs, "All They Wanna Do Is Stroll", "Dinah Lee" (same song as Charlie Rich's "Donna Lee"), "What Would I Do Without You" and a new version of "Today Is A Blue Day", were eventually issued in 1995 on the Eagle CD mentioned below, including several alternate versions.
In 1960 Vernon decided that a family life was more important than the hectic lifestyle of a full-time musician. He made a career in the printing business and didn't return to performing until 1989, when Billy Poore persuaded him to appear at a benefit concert for Charlie Feathers in his native state of Maryland, Baltimore. Gradually he started working on a comeback career, which brought him to Europe in 1995, 2000 and 2001, and led to new recordings in his old rockabilly style, "Daddy's Rockin'" on the Run Wild label, 1999, and "Now And Then", self-produced, 2000, with Dave Moore as arranger and lead guitarist. At this time of writing (October 2010) Vernon is still active in music.
TAYLOR, VERNON WALTON ALDERTON (2) - Trimmed his lordly name down when he became the host of his own TV show in Washington D.C. Country star Mac Wiseman then entered the frame and helped set up a session at Dot Records in Nashville, although neither of his subsequent releases fared well.
Vernon Taylor was born on November 9, 1937 near Sandy when that area of Montgomery County was still rural. His parents were a Baptist farming family, and Taylor grew up listening to hillbilly and gospel music. He was the youngest of four children. His fondest memories as a young lad were family get togethers when his parents, brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins would sit around singing hymns. Some nights he'd listen to the radio while playing his guitar.
Hillbilly artists like Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams were a great influence on him as were cowboys singers like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. In the 1950s he would listen to small radio under the bedclothes. “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”by Elvis Presley was a song that really inspired him.
At fifteen he hooked up with two high school friends and they formed a group called “The Nighthawks”. They practiced hard three nights a week for a year and got occasional bookings at local sock hops which kept their enthusiasm going. By the time Vernon was a senior in high school, they worked shows throughout Maryland and Virginia. This led to their own 5:30a.m. Radio show.
“My generation grew up- in the best of times. We were innocent by comparison. New music was opening up to a white audience that had never been exposed to it before. I remember the first time I heard Elvis on Don Owens' show on WARL-AM; I thought it was the wildest thing I'd ever heard. My friends and I put together a little band, we entered some contests and won them The term 'rockabilly' hadn't been invented yet. We just called it rock and
roll”, recalled Vernon Taylor.
Curley Smith and his Blue Mountain Boys were playing a local dance. Vernon asked Curley if he would mind if The Nighthawks performed a few numbers during one of the breaks. They went over real big with the crowd which to Curley hiring The Nighthawks and letting his band go. The crowds increased as they became popular with the younger set. On his nights off Vernon would go where Jimmy Dean and the Texas Wildcats were performing and Jimmy would have him do a few tunes. Curley had a job offer in Arkansas, but Vernon and the guys decided they wanted to stay local. They continued to play the same gig until 1957.
By 1956, Vernon Taylor and The Nighthawks had landed a weekly gig at the Beltsville fire hall. It was there they were discovered by Owens, who hired them as the house band for his new show, The Don Owens TV Jamboree, which was broadcast on Washington WTTG every Saturday night. Taylor's group stayed with the show for three years, sharing the stage with everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Les Paul and Mary Ford to Webb Pierce to Patsy Cline.
Taylor's own shot at stardom came in 1957 when bluegrass legend Mac Weisman visited Washington D.C. As an A&R man for Dot Records, home of the Dell-Vikings and Pat Boone. Wiseman signed Taylor and put him in a Nashville studio with such Presley veterans as Floyd Cramer, Hank Garland, and The Jordanaires. The result included two singles, I've Got The Blues”and “Why Must You Leave Me”, which did well in some markets but never caught on nationally, despite Taylor's appearance on Dick Clark's , American Bandstand.
Vernon got frequent spots on most of the TV sock hops up and down the east Coast, the Mid- West and the Sough. While doing shows with many big names in country and rockabilly music, Vernon was signed by Sam Phillips to Sun Records. Wanting to get the rich Memphis sound in his music, Vernon's recording sessions were produced by Jack Clement and Sam Phillips.
''Sam Phillips saw me on Dick Clark's show and sent Sun Records producer Jack Clement out to Washington to check me out:, recalled Vernon Taylor. “Jack liked me, and when I come off a promotion tour for Dot he picket me up at the Memphis bus station. There was a lot of electricity in Memphis in those days, and Sun Studio was the center of it. People were popping in and out all the time”.
''Sam was still a good ol''southern boy, he wasn't a big conversationalist. He was an advocate of, 'Let's roll the tapes and see what happen, maybe something spontaneous will occur. Charlie Rich played piano on couple of those songs, and he gave me a song called, “Dinah Lee”. After recording, we'd hang out in Taylor's, next the studio, and we'd party at night. It was a great time”.
Vernon Taylor with his manager Don Owens, 1957
Vernon Taylor cut two Sun singles, “Today Is A Blue Day”in 1958, and “a version of “Mystery Train”in 1959 with Coasters-style saxophone added. Neither went anywhere, and things began to wind down for Taylor. Most of the country and rockabilly musicians from D.C. Were moving to Nashville by the early 1960s, but Taylor decided he wanted to stay in Maryland and raise a family. He entered the printing business and eventually moved to Myersville in Frederick County. His musical activity dwindled down to the occasional weekend gig and eventually stopped altogether.
A few years later Vernon retired from a full time music career but continued performing on weekends throughout the 1960s. No one was more surprised than Taylor when music journalist Joe Sasfy called him up in 1987. Sasfy asked Taylor if he knew that “Your Lovin' Man”, an outtake from his Sun session, had been released in France and had become a sensation in European rockabilly circles. No, he didn't know, in fact, he barely remembered the song. Wheels were put in motion and Taylor agreed to play a benefit show for ailing rockabilly legend Charlie Feathers at the Severna Park Elks Club in 1989.
After a long retirement from the music business, Vernon Taylor is back performing. In May 12, of 1995 he was the headliner for Friday Night at The Great “Hemsby Rock And Roll Festival”in Great Britain. In the fall of 1995 on the German label, Eagle Records, releasing all of Taylor's Dot and Sun singles plus various demos and outtakes as the 29-song CD, “There's Only One.. Your Lovin'' Man”. The photos of the square-jawed young Taylor with the sandy pompadour explain part of his appeal as do the handful of songs that which with a jumpy rockabilly energy.
Over the past three years Vernon Taylor has appeared on shows with Narvel Felts, Dickey Lee, Ray Peterson, Sleepy LaBeef, Vicky Bird and Ronnie Dove. The fall of 1997 was spent with Taylor concentrating on a promo video and frequent guest appearances in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Today, Vernon Taylor is still in Myersville, Maryland and occasionally giving interviews to the local press about his days in rock and roll.
The Teen Kings first Sun publicity shot. From left: Billy Pat Ellis, Roy Orbison, James Morrow, Johnny ''Peanuts'' Wilson, Jack Kennelly.
TEEN KINGS, THE – roots go back to 1948, two years after Roy Orbison's family moved to Wink, Texas, when the 12-year-old Orbison began playing guitar with a friend and schoolmate named James Morrow. The following year, the two put together a quintet, Morrow on electric mandolin, Orbison on lead guitar, Charles "Slob" Evans on upright bass, Richard "Head" West at the piano, and Billy Pat "Spider" Ellis on drums. At a teacher's suggestion, they christened themselves the Wink Westerners, and they played school dances and other small local events.
Within two years, they were good enough to get some radio appearances, and by 1953 they had their own sponsored show on KERB once each week. The ink Westerners played country and western, and their repertory included lots of instrumentals, among them "In the Mood" and "Little Brown Jug''.
They were popular at local dances, presenting a lively show that the kids appreciated, and at the center of it was Roy Orbison, who was not only a strong singer but a talented lead guitarist. He didn't yet have the operatic depth to his singing that would make him internationally famous a decade later, but he could wail out a ballad or rip through a dance number like nobody's business. The group's radio show, as was the case with most performers in those days, was barely a break-even affair financially, but it served well as a promotional medium to get them the performing gigs. They also appeared on the KERB Jamboree with other local bands, again doing country & western material. The group was good enough to impress their high school principal, who got them a performance at a Lion's Club convention in Chicago. By 1954, they were also backing up players like Slim Whitman. Orbison and Ellis attended North Texas State College in Denton, and the group held together during this period, sufficiently long enough to discover rock and roll by the end of 1954. Around that time, they'd even added "Shake, Rattle & Roll" to their repertory.
It was while at North Texas State that Orbison first encountered a fellow fraternity member, Wade Lee Moore, who had co-authored a song called "The Ooby Dooby" with Dick Penner. The Wink Westerners later auditioned for Columbia Records using the latter song, to no avail.
Following a brief hiatus, the Wink Westerners resumed their activities during the summer of
1955, and managed to get an appearance on a television show on KMID-TV in Midland, TX, doing country songs but also covering what was becoming increasingly familiar rock and roll material, including the current hit "Rock Around the Clock" by an ex-Western swing band, and "That's All Right" by that Elvis Presley fellow out of Memphis, and Moore and Penner's "Ooby Dooby''.
As the radio show had been, the television appearances were used mostly to promote the
band's live appearances. The band had gotten very good, and doubly so in the context of
local performing groups. Although he was no Scotty Moore (who could play anything),
Orbison had become a formidable lead guitarist and singer, and the band matched him. The
kids were also starting to dance more enthusiastically to rhythm and blues songs (what were c
alled "rhythm numbers" in those days), and the group was performing more Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Big Joe Turner than Hank Williams.
A change in name was called for, and the Wink Westerners became the Teen Kings. The group had a few lineup shifts, Orbison himself had to teach Evans' successor on bass, Jack Kennelly, how to play the instrument, but kept playing and hoping for a break.
Texas in those days was filled with hundreds, perhaps thousands of small bands that were evolving out of country music and into rock and roll. Buddy Holly was just getting into the music seriously around that time, and a lot of veteran country players were busy adapting their styles to the new music, or trying to. The Teen Kings were young enough that it wasn't a stretch, and the results were natural.
Their break came with help from the father of a woman that James Morrow was dating. Having heard the group's radio broadcasts, and seen some shows and television spots, he arranged for a recording session at Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico, which yielded a pair of songs, "Tryin' To Get To You," which had been a single by an rhythm and blues vocal group called the Eagles, and had been covered (but not yet released) by Elvis Presley, and "Ooby Dooby''.
They were issued on two sides of a single (45 and 78 rpm) in early 1956 on the Je-Wel label. The songs were played by a record store owner friend of the and in Odessa, Texas, over the telephone to Sam Phillips of Sun Records. By the end of March, the band was under contract to Sun and playing gigs with Johnny Cash. The Sun single of "Ooby Dooby" had a different B-side,"Go! Go! Go!" Ironically, the original B-side of Je-Wel, "Tryin' To Get To You," went through a bizarre odyssey of its own, Weldon Rogers had also recorded the song, and the Teen Kings' version was sent to Lew Chudd at Imperial Records by mistake, along with Rogers' rendition and the song "So Long, Good Luck, And Goodbye", the Teen Kings' version accidentally ended up on the B-side of the latter single by Rogers, and was "lost" and forgotten in the Imperial catalog for the next 36 years, until it was licensed for inclusion on Sony Music Special Products' 1991 box set The Legendary Roy Orbison.
The Teen Kings' "Ooby Dooby" (which already credited Orbison more than the rest of the
group) peaked at number 59 nationally, and their next single, "You're My Baby" b/w "Rockhouse'', again credited to Orbison and the Teen Kings, failed to chart nationally. Sam Phillips' strategy was becoming clear, he'd pegged Orbison for stardom, and the other group members came to resent this, not only in the billing on their records but, ultimately, the structure of the recording sessions. The end came when they turned up for a recording session and saw that Phillips had booked in additional musicians to work with Orbison. His success at Sun ended with "Ooby Dooby," and it would take another half-decade for another label and producer, Fred Foster (ironically, the producer of the Eagles' original version of "Tryin' To Get To You") at Monument Records, to help Orbison achieve the level of success that Phillips saw in his potential. The Teen Kings only left behind a handful of Sun and Je-Wel tracks, but in 1995, a group of 16 live recordings from KOSA-TV in Odessa in 1956 were unearthed and released for the first time by Rollercoaster Records. Featuring the last incarnation of the band, it's a special body of work for a variety of reasons, presenting Orbison at the peak of his early rockabilly period, and also a rare chance to hear live-in-the studio performances by an early Sun act, with no producer getting in between the artists and their music, or the public and appreciating it.
During the rehearsals for "Devil Doll" and "Sweet And Easy", Roy Orbison split with the Teen Kings. "It happened right in the studio", recalled Sam Phillips. "They had some difficulty among themselves, and the band broke up then and there. Really it was nothing more than their being extremely young" "We had a commonwealth drawn up", assert James Morrow, "in which the royalties would be split equally five ways. At first the group was to be called 'The Teen Kings', but Sam Phillips and Bob Neal wanted it as 'Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings'. Bob also did not want an equal five-way split of royalties, and evidently Roy didn't want it either. We hadn't actually signed anything, and that was where the disagreement arose. Jack, Billy Pat, Peanuts, and I went back to West Texas and formed another group for a few months".
The band ultimately split, but Orbison stayed in Memphis and asked his 16-year-old girlfriend, Claudette Frady, to join him. They stayed in Phillips' home, where they slept in separate rooms; in the studio Orbison concentrated on the mechanics of recording. Sam Phillips remembered being much more impressed with Orbison's mastery of the guitar than his voice. Sun Records producer Jack Clement told Orbison after hearing it that he would never make it as a ballad singer.
Billy Pat Ellis remembered that Roy and Sam Phillips had gone to Taylor's restaurant next door to the studio when the Teen Kings decided to load up and head back to Texas. Phillips remembered sitting in his little office when Roy came in looking like death. ''They were racking up their drums and walked out'', he said. Jack Kennelly took over the Cadillac and looked out of his window one day to see it being repo'd. Orbison was in the middle of recording his third single, ''Sweet And Easy To Love''/''Devil Doll''. ''Orbison's band walked out on him, so Sam called me and J.M. van Eaton to come work at the session'', remembered Stan Kesler. It was the first time he'd played bass on a session.
Most of the surviving Teen Kings now admit that the only reason anyone has any interest in the group is because of Roy Orbison, but that was less apparent to them in 1956. Only two Teen Kings stayed in the music business; Jack Kennelly became a studio owner in Alburquerque, New Mexico, and Peanuts Wilson became a songwriter. Just five feet tall, he was dubbed ''Peanuts'' to avoid confusion with Jackie Wilson. He moved to Nashville and cowrote C.W. McCall's big hit, ''Roses For Mama'', and Kenny Rogers ''Love The World Away''. He also worked as a songplugger for Fred Foster's Combine Music until his death in September 1980 at the age of 44.
TENNESSEE THREE, THE
The Tennessee Three: (from left) Marshall Grant, W.S. ''Fluke'' Holland, and Luther Perkins.
LUTHER MONROE PERKINS
- Was an American country music guitarist and a member of the Tennessee
Two and later Tennessee Three, the backup band for singer Johnny Cash. Perkins was an iconic figure in
what would become known as rockabilly music. His creatively simple, sparsely-embellished, rhythmic use of
Fender Esquire, Jazzmaster and Jaguar guitars is credited for creating Cash's signature "boom-chicka-boom"
Perkins was born in Memphis, Tennessee on January 8, 1928 and the son of a Baptist preacher. He grew up
in Como, Mississippi, and taught himself to play rhythm guitar.
Perkins started his career in 1953 as a
mechanic at Hoehn Chevrolet Automobile Sales Company in Memphis. He specialized in electrical systems
and radio repairs. Roy Cash, Sr., older brother of Johnny Cash, was service manager at the dealership. At the
time, the younger Cash was stationed in Germany with the US Air Force. At Automobile Sales, Perkins met
co-workers Marshall Grant and A.W. ''Red'' Kernodle. Grant, Kernodle and Perkins began bringing their
guitars to work, and would play together when repair business was slow.
When Johnny Cash moved to Memphis after returning from Germany in 1954, Roy Cash introduced him to
Grant, Kernodle and Perkins. The four began to get together in the evenings at Perkins's or Grant's home and
play songs. It was during this time that they decided to form a band, with Grant acquiring a string bass,
Kernodle a six-string steel guitar, and Perkins buying a somewhat-abused Fender Esquire electric guitar from
the O.K. Houck Piano Co. in Memphis. The guitar had been modified by a previous owner, and the volume
and tone controls did not work.
Since he could not control the volume of the single-pickup instrument, Perkins began the practice of muting
the three bass strings (E, A and D) with the heel of his right hand, much in the style of Merle Travis, and
scratching a rhythm pattern (as heard on Sun Records recordings prior to 1958). This pattern developed into
a more defined, varying 1/8-8/5/8-8 picking (with random syncopation) on later Sun recordings and for the
rest of Perkins’ career.
In late 1954, when Cash got an audition with producer Sam Phillips at Sun Records, he brought Perkins,
Grant and Kernodle along to back him instrumentally. The experience made Kernodle nervous, and he ended
up leaving before the session was over, with Perkins and Grant providing the instrumentation. Perkins, as a
member of the Tennessee Two (later, the Tennessee Three, with the addition of drummer W.S. "Fluke"
Holland), toured with Cash and appeared on most of his recordings. He was well known for his laconic,
focused demeanor on stage. He was often the target of jokes by Cash, who would make comments such as
"Luther's been dead for years, but he just doesn't know it".
Luther Perkins was married twice. He and his first wife, Birdie, separated while they were living in southern
California in 1959. Perkins had three daughters from this marriage: Linda, Vicki and Claudia. He later
married Margie Higgins; they had one daughter, Kathy. Margie Perkins Beaver still appears at Johnny Cash
Luther Perkins was a close friend of singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson. At the time of his death, he was
planning to open his own music publishing company and give Kristofferson his first break. Perkins’ younger
brother, Thomas, was a successful rock and roll singer in the 1950s and 1960s, under the name of Thomas
Wayne who later scored a hit with "Tragedy". In his autobiography, Johnny Cash wrote that Perkins was
mildly addicted to amphetamines. They started taking drugs together in the late 1950s.
During the early morning hours of August 3, 1968, Perkins returned from fishing on Old Hickory Lake to his
newly constructed home on Riverwood Drive in Hendersonville, Tennessee. He apparently went to sleep in
the living room while holding a lit cigarette. His daughter awoke around 6:00am to find the living room in
flames and Perkins collapsed near the door. An emergency crew rushed Perkins to Vanderbilt University
Hospital, where he was kept in intensive care until finally succumbing on Monday, August 5, 1968. Luther's
grave is near the graves of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash at Hendersonville Memorial Park in
Hendersonville, Tennessee. Luther Perkins was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
In 1980, Perkins's daughters from his first marriage filed suit against Johnny Cash for embezzling funds that
were to have provided retirement income for Perkins. This lawsuit was filed coincidentally with actions
taken by the other founding Tennessee Three member, Marshall Grant, against Cash for wrongfully firing
Grant and embezzlement of Grant's retirement funds. Both lawsuits were eventually settled out-of-court.
In ''Walk The Line'', the 2005 biopic of Johnny Cash, Perkins is portrayed by Dan John Miller. Perkins's future
death is alluded to in the film in a bus scene where Cash (played by Joaquin Phoenix) walks past a sleeping
Perkins. Perkins is depicted as asleep with his cigarette still burning in his mouth. Cash stubs it out in the
ashtray in front of him which references Perkins's eventual death.
MARSHALL GARNETT GRANT
- Was the upright bassist and electric bassist of singer Johnny Cash's
original backing duo, the Tennessee Two, in which Grant and electric guitarist Luther Perkins played. The
group became known as The Tennessee Three in 1960, with the addition of drummer W. S. ''Fluke'' Holland.
Grant also served as road manager for Johnny Cash and his touring show company.
Grant was born on May 5, 1928 and raised in Bessemer City, North Carolina. He was one of twelve children
born of Willie Leander (1888–1968) and Mary Elizabeth (Simmonds) Grant. His siblings are Wade (1910–
1985), Olson (1912–1993), Burlas (1914–1915), Vernal (1916–1971), Eulean (b:1918), Hershall (b:1921),
Doris (1923–2006), Odell (b:1925), Ed (b:1931), Norma Jean (b:1935) and Aubrey Grant (b:1937).
Grant married Etta May Dickerson on November 9, 1946. They had one son, Randall. Grant and his wife
settled in Memphis, Tennessee in 1947. Grant worked as an mechanic; first for Wagner Brake Service, then
C.M. Booth Motor Company, and later, Automobile Sales Company in Memphis. It was during this time that
he met fellow Automobile Sales employees Luther Perkins and Roy Cash, Sr., older brother of Johnny Cash.
When the younger Cash returned to Memphis after serving in the U.S. Air Force, Grant, Perkins and Cash
began playing together as three rhythm guitarists, along with another Automobile Sales co-worker and steel
guitar player, A.W. "Red" Kernodle. Grant was a self-taught musician, and learned to play the bass after the
group collectively decided that Grant should switch to playing bass, and that Perkins would play lead guitar.
Grant was an important part of the trademark ''boom-chicka-boom'' sound of Johnny Cash that would change
the sound of country music. He recorded with Cash from 1954 until 1980. Grant also voluntarily took on the
responsibilities of road manager for Cash's touring show. During his career with Cash, Grant played
Epiphone upright basses and electric basses by Fender, Epiphone and Micro-Frets. On the album cover for
Johnny Cash At San Quentin, Grant's Epiphone Newport bass is famously featured in the foreground. In the
early 1970s, he endorsed Micro-Frets instruments and Sunn amplifiers.
Cash's recurring drug problems eventually led to issues that resulted in Grant being fired by Cash. It was at
this time that Grant discovered that Cash had embezzled retirement funds set aside for Grant and the late
In 1980, Grant filed suit against Cash for wrongful dismissal and for embezzlement of retirement funds. A
lawsuit against Cash for slander was also considered. In coincidental action, Luther Perkins' daughters from
his first marriage filed suit against Cash for embezzlement of retirement funds. Both lawsuits were
eventually settled out-of-court. Despite the bitter legal battles, the two men later reconciled. Grant contends
that he was probably Cash's closest and most trusted friend; indeed, he played a critical role in helping Cash
along when Cash's drug problems threatened his career and his life. Grant made a final appearance onstage
with Cash in 1999 as an original member of The Tennessee Two.
Following his career with Johnny Cash, Grant managed the Statler Brothers until their retirement in 2002. He
last lived in Hernando, Mississippi, with his wife. Grant's autobiographical book ''I Was There When It
Happened: My Life With Johnny Cash'' (co-authored by Chris Zar) was published in October, 2006. It is a
behind-the-scenes story of their beginnings and rise to fame. He "laid down his bass for the last time" at the
Brooks Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, in August, 2010.
For many years, Marshall Grant owned and raced outboard powerboats. His teams included notable drivers
such as Dick Pond, Charlie Bailey and Billy Seebold. Often, members of the Johnny Cash band would work
in Grant's pit crews.Marshall Grant is played by Larry Bagby in the 2005 film, Walk the Line
Marshall Grant died at the age of 83 on August 7, 2011 while in Jonesboro, Arkansas attending a festival to
restore the childhood home of Johnny Cash.
W.S. ''FLUKE'' HOLLAND
- Born on April 22, 1935, in Saltillo, Tennessee, is a drummer who worked
extensively with numerous rock and roll musicians, beginning with Carl Perkins, but became well known as
the drummer in singer Johnny Cash's succession of backing bands: The Tennessee Three, The Great Eighties
Eight, and The Johnny Cash Show Band. Holland played drums on the 1955 Sun Records recording of "Blue
Suede Shoes" by Perkins, the song's writer and original performer.
Holland earned the nickname ''Fluke'' while working at a filling station. He would use "fluke" as a slang term
to replace other nouns. For example, "look at that car'', became "look at that fluke''. The owner of the station
began calling Holland "Fluke" and the nickname stuck. A common, yet understandable, misconception is that
Holland earned the nickname "Fluke" because of his improbable entry into the music industry. At the time he
made his first recording for Sun Records, he had played the drums just once before. A major break came with
his performance on Perkins' recording of "Blue Suede Shoes". In the months to follow, Holland pioneered
the use of drums in rock and roll music, well before Elvis Presley began touring with a drummer.
Holland went on to perform on the famous "Million Dollar Quartet" session that featured Elvis Presley, Jerry
Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. Holland's contribution to rock and roll has been recognized by
several respected drummers, including Ringo Starr of The Beatles, as being a major influence in their
careers. In 1960, Holland joined Johnny Cash as a touring and recording artist and is heard on many of
Cash's famous songs, including "Ring Of Fire''. It is reported that Johnny Cash said to him, "I want you to
work with me on every show I play for as long as I'm in the business'', which ended up being the case.
Holland appeared with the Carl Perkins band in the 1957 rock and roll movie Jamboree, performing "Glad
Today, W.S. ''Fluke'' Holland heads up the "Ultimate Johnny Cash Tribute Show" with Cash tribute artist
Frank Hamilton & The New Tennessee Three. The tribute tours nationally and recently released their first
CD entitled, "One More Time''. Holland's contribution to rock and roll and the signature sound of Johnny
Cash's Tennessee Three has earned him recognition the world over as a true American music pioneer.
W.S. ''Fluke'' Holland still lives in Jackson, Tennessee and continues to influence musicians and music artists
internationally. Holland was portrayed by Clay Steakley in the 2005 movie Walk the Line. Holland appeared
on The History Channel show Pawn Stars on an episode titled "Cold Hard Cash" where he and a friend were
selling Johnny Cash's 1970 Rolls-Royce.
THOMAS, LAFAYETTE JERL - Nicknamed ''The Thing'', his two prefix initials effectively hid the identity of Lafayette Jerl Thomas from researchers until after his death in San Francisco in May 1977. L.J. was the nephew of Jesse ''Babyface'' Thomas, a guitarist now well into his 1980s (who first recorded way back in 1929)and the family was from Shreveport, Louisiana. L.J. (the J was reckoned to stand for Jerl, but he was recorded in the 1930s census as Lafayette James) was born in Herrison County, Texas, just west of Shreveport, on June 13, 1928. His mother's name is worthy of mention: Essie May Booty. The family left Shreveport, Louisiana for San Francisco, California around 1945, and out in Oakland he first started playing a steel National guitar, at the age of fourteen.
Although underage, he gigged with various local bands, playing in small clubs, and made his recording debut as a sideman for Bob Geddins and Jimmy Wilson in 1948. He recorded for Sam Phillips when still only 19 - although quite how and why he was in Memphis in October 1951 isn't known. At the time, he was touring with Jimmy McCracklin, so it's possible that the tour stopped in Memphis long enough for Thomas to record.
Upon his return to the West Coast he teamed up with Jimmy Wilson, with whom he eventually recorded "Tin Pan Alley" for Alladdin Records, a top 10 rhythm and blues record in 1953. His career made further progress when he joined Jimmy McCracklin's band, Thomas played on hits like "The Walk", and he also cut solo singles for Modern, Trilyte, and Chess Records, but he was essentially footloose, and eventually wound up in New York where he cut further solo sides for Savoy Records.
Despite his prodigious talent he was never quite able to make the final breakthrough, and seems to have enjoyed very little financial reward from his musical career, he spent the last seven years of his life working on an assembly line in a rubber hose plant.
Lafayette Jerl Thomas died from a heart attack in Brisbane, California on May 20, 1977 at the age of 48. (CE)
THOMAS, RUFUS - Rufus Thomas was always quick to make sure that you knew he was a city man first and foremost. In one of his earliest in-depth interviews he told Peter Guralnick, "I was born in Mississippi just below Collierville, about five miles from the Tennessee line in a little place called Cayce: its not on anybody's map. That was March 26 1917, (though his social security records say March 27), but I grew up in Memphis. I been here since I was a year old. I don't know anything about country life, to tell you the truth''.
Rufus Jr. was the youngest child of Rufus and Rachel Thomas, coming up behind his sisters Elizabeth, Willie, Eva, and Dorothy and his brother Morris. He did admit that he mould sometimes go with his mother to visit relatives in the country and that he even picket a little cotton there as a teenager.
''But that was not a life I wanted to know'', he told forcely some seventy years later. "No, I was always a city boy, there was always something going, on there for me to take an interest in. My father worked in several different production plants around Memphis and my mother worked in domestic, but they both had other interests. My father was musical, where I got that side from, and my mother was a church woman''. He told Peter Guralnick his mother had, "what we call mother wit, that deep seated intelligence that you don't get out of books. That was how I came up''.
Taking his parents' music and wit as inspiration, Rufus soon emerged as someone to remember from the crowd. His father played harmonica and did a little country dancing, and it was the latter that appealed to Rufus. He made his performing debut on stage at the Grand Theater on Beale Street in an elementary school play - hopping on stage like a frog. By the age of ten, he was struck by the tap-dancing ability of a schoolmate, Edward Martin, and he soon started copying and then surpassing his friend. He told researcher Rob Bowman: "I don't know where the drive came from. All I know is that I wanted to be a tap dancer. So I continued to work, at it, mixing what I had seen with some steps of my own. During those days there was no such thing as dancing schools for blacks''.
In the ninth grade, Rufus moved to Booker T. Washington High School, and he told about his meeting with his mentor, Nat D. Williams: "He was a professor, history teacher, at High School there, and I was involved with him in one thing or another since the first of the 1930s. After he was my teacher in school, he was my teacher on the stage and later on he was my teacher in radio. He was the first black disc jockey in the mid-South and the emcee at the amateur shows on Beale Street in the Palace Theater. Nat Williams was an unusual man, and a good mentor for the young Rufus. Williams had been to University in Nashville at Tennessee A&I and had worked in New York before he returned to Memphis to teach at Booker T. Washington. There he became involved with Maurice Hulbert in producing a high school show known as the BTW Ballet - it had started out in the 1920s as a highbrow performance put on to raise money for the newly-formed black high school, and did literally put on ballet performances.
Within a few years the Ballet had broadened its range, with song and tap dance and comedy, and Williams decided he could accommodate Rufus's homegrown dancing talent. Rufus told John Floyd that this ''was when things really began happening for me. I had learned the craft, and the first rehearsal at school Nat D. said to me, What's your name, you want to be in the Ballet?' and I said 'yeah'. He said let me see your smile, so I had a funny little grin on my face. and he said, 'you got it. I was put into the musical vaudeville shows, which was a minstrel show''. Rufus later reflected with disc jockey and writer, Louis Cantor, on the difference in his black version of the vaudeville minstrel shows, where he appeared complete with burnt cork on the face and painted lips. ''With folks would put on white put on red lips to protest. or at least I like to think it was to protest'', he rationalized.
Nevertheless Rufus remained proud of the Ballets. which by his day had moved from the school premises into the Palace Theater and then to the Ellis Auditorium downtown. He joked ''the old Ballet was sophisticated and pretty. We had no sophistication and we were ugly but we had some kinda show''.
Rufus was soon voted the most talented youngster in his school. He told John Floyd: ''I used to wear the big pants and the big shoes, and the big tie that would hang almost to the floor. I was hot stuff I was so sharp I could stick up in concrete''. On account of being such a 'character' Nat Williams chose Rufus to help him with comedy routines. ''He chose me out of a bunch of kids to work with him. Nat was the straight man and I was the comic''.
In 1934, Rufus's entertainment career was interrupted when he went to Nashville to attend college at Tennessee State, probably at the urging of Nat Williams. It didn't work out because Rufus was soon homesick. He told: ''I didn't stay there because from the start I was troubled. I'd never been that far away from Memphis, and I went back home in 1935. Then I started working all around the city as a tap dancer and I would do some scat singing and comic songs like Louis Armstrong or Fats Waller. I would do everything there was to do really, whatever came under the name of entertainment''.
It was in 1935 that Rufus first appeared in the Amateur Night shows at the Palace Theater on Beale Street with Nat Williams, developing the comedy routines they had started as part of the school Ballets. Rufus also worked there with Johnny Dowdie as a dance team that had also started in the Ballets. "We were dancing up and down steps, doing wings and all that fancy stuff, but it was mostly flash'', Rufus told Louis Cantor.
The following year Rufus and Johnny joined a touring show known as the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, traveling from May to October all through Mississippi, Arkansas, and parts of Louisiana. The Rabbit Foot Company was a long running minstrel and variety troupe that toured as a tent show between the 1900s and the 1940s. It was originally owned and managed by Pat Chappelle, a black performer, when the company had a brass band and traveled in its own private railroad car. The company was purchased by white carnival owner, F.S. Wolcott, (later celebrated in a song by the Band) who was in control when Rufus and Johnny were with the company. Rufus remembered: "The show would open with the band. Then there was the chorus line, and the comic would come right behind that. Then maybe a singer the chorus line, the tap dancers and the comic''.
For a time in 1937, Rufus was back in Nashville, working with Johnny Dowdie at Kyles night club. Apart from the dance duo, Rufus also earned money by waiting tables for white diners. ''I was what you'd call a singing waiter", he said, also describing both the potential and the problems in this role: "During that time the white fellow was quite boastful, if he was out with his woman... but he'd pay well, At the end of the night. I had the money, and that what I was working for so you ask yourself who's the fool?".
Then in 1938 Rufus was lured back to the tent shows, this time with a company called Royal American Shows that advertised itself as the ''Most Beautiful Show On Earth''. It was basically a type of carnival, known as a Midway, owned by Carl Sedlmayr and the Velare Brothers, touring State fairs and festivals across Minnesota, Oklahoma. Kansas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and western Canada. It seems that Rufus just worked in the Southern states closest to home. He confirmed to Peter Guralnick, "It was an all-white show, but Leon Claxton had the black part and they called it 'Harlem In Havana. It was a tent show under a big tent, that was the time when they had an aisle right down the centre and blacks sat on one side, whites on the other'. At twelve o clock wed have a parade you understand, to bring the people to let the people know. It was a different town every day and at night you stayed in people's homes because there were no hotels at all for blacks at that time. Then in the morning you catch the bus and you're off to another town''. He added: ''I wouldn't have traded the world for that foundation. Even with all the racism, all the hold backs, all those things, it was still quite likeable, people were having fun. We didn't make a lot of money but we had a damn good time''.
Back in Memphis by 1940, Rufus developed a different vaudeville comedy and dance show with another partner, Robert Counts, who was known as Bones'. Rufus and Bones played at the Cotton Club in West Memphis, the Brown Derby club, and particularly the Elks Club at 401 Beale. Rufus was still dancing but he was increasingly developing as a comedian, emcee and even a singer. He said, ''It was hard. I was working on stage before there were microphones; you really had to have some kind of a voice''.
He told John Floyd that he took up singing on the back of song writing. ''I was working in a comedy team at the Elks Club on Beale. There was a blues singer there by the name of Georgia Dickerson. and I used to write blues for her every week, and she'd sing them. But she left town and that left space in the show, so I thought I'm going to try to take up that space. That's all there was to it. I sang a song by Lonnie Johnson called ''Jelly Roll Baker''. Then I learned other songs and I did a few love songs like ''For Sentimental Reasons'' and I even did ''Stardust''. But my voice then was beginning to turn and I couldn't sing anything sweet with all that gravel in it''.
It was apparently at the Harlem Theater on Florida Street that Rufus first sang something sweet to a girl named Cornelius Lorene Wilson, whom he married in November 1940. The Reverend C. L. Franklin, father of Aretha Franklin, conducted the ceremony and it marked the start of a more stable phase of life for Rufus, and the end of his vaudeville days. He took a job at the American Finishing Company, a textiles firm, and he maintained a day job there alongside all his entertainment roles until 1963. He operated the boiler plant among other things, and on a slow day would use the rhythms the boiler pipes sometimes generated to help develop ideas for songs.
Elvis Presley entertains Vaneese Thomas, then 3, who called him her ''boyfriend''.
The new Thomas family lived in the Foote Homes Housing Project in Memphis, where Rufus soon had fatherly duties to add to his life. His son Marvell was born in 1942, his daughter Carla in 1943 and youngest daughter Vaneese in 1959.
Nevertheless, Rufus continued to ply his trade as an entertainer, working not only at the Harlem Theater but at the, Hyde Park Theater in north Memphis near Chelsea Avenue, the Savo Theater on North Thomas, and the Handy Theater on Park Avenue.
On Wednesday nights, Rufus was the emcee at the Palace Theater on Beale Street. This was amateur night, where he had graduated from being a dancer to becoming also a comic foil for the emcee, Nat Williams, to now add to his roles that of the emcee himself. He kept the comedy, and was always sharply dressed, continuing the theme he had started in school, and developing catchphrases like ''Ain't I'm clean?" or "Oh I feel so unnecessary".
He described to Peter Guralnick the shape of the show and the scale of the talent. "First they had the movies and then the amateur, which was the bottom hour, and then it was back to the movies. I reached back and got a friend of mine, his name was Robert Counts, they called him Bones, and we were together for eleven consecutive years at the Palace Theater every Wednesday night. We were making five dollars a night and you had the Al Jackson band and they were only making 25 dollars and they had a big band too. The show was only a nickel then, but the place was packed''.
He told Beale Street historians Margaret McKee and Fred Chisenhall: ''At that time we had contestants come up to perform, and then after everybody performed they'd all come back on stage and the audience would applaud for first prize. They used to have $5, $3, and $2 but they cut that out and later everybody who came up on stage would get a dollar. B. B. King used to come with holes in his shoes, his guitar all patched up, just to get that dollar''. Guitarist Calvin Newborn has recalled being presented with five dollars by Rufus on Palace amateur night for playing a piano duet with his brother, Phineas on ''Hey Bop A Re Bop''.
In 1950, Rufus left the Palace because he couldn't get the money he felt he was entitled to for his emcee role and comedy dance routines. Four decades later it still pained him to explain to Peter Guralnick: "I wanted more, but I couldn't get Bones to go ask for it with me. So the man got with Bones and asked him if he would work with someone else, and I got fired''.
However, Rufus was soon running a Saturday midnight amateur show at the Handy Theater. He was by now a well-known name in black Memphis, and he was fast becoming associated with the good time Saturday nights for which Beale Street was famous. He said, "Beale Street was the black man's haven. They'd come into town and forget all their worries and woes''.
Rufus's daughter, Carla Thomas, had clear memories of those days. She told 'Soul And Jazz Record' in 1974: "Growing up in Memphis in the early 1950s held much excitement for me because of my musical environment. Even though I was a young girl at the time, no one could outdo me when I did the Hambone. Bo Diddley came to Memphis often and he laughed about it. My father had everyone in the Foote Homes project doing that routine. My father has been a hard worker all his life. Many times he worked three and four jobs to support our family, traveling with different musicians to parts of Arkansas and Mississippi or wherever they could get a job, along with working in a textile mill and later as a disc jockey. My brother and myself would be anxiously waiting for him to come home to give us accounts of his travels. He told us how country folks loved the blues, drank the booze, and we learned a lot about life from daddy''.
Carla had a clear picture of Rufus's work closer to home, too: "I was at the Palace Theater often because my mother always took my brother and me to see daddy who was usually the emcee. Daddy danced so well that he eventually got barred from competition: that's how he got to be emcee. I laughed until I cried at the jokes he shared with his team partner Bones, of Rufus and Bones. It seemed to me then that to be associated with Beale Street was to be associated with creativity, strength and pride. That's why many blacks, especially on the weekends, would congregate up and down Beale Street to feel the pulse of life it had to offer''.
It's easy to overplay the extent to which Beale was buzzing. In August 1950, ''Ebony'' magazine ran a feature about 'The New Beale Street''', emphasizing the rise of black owned business and the real or hoped for gentrification of the street. ''Beale is but a ghost of the boisterious, blustering thorefare of yesterday, ''Ebony'', reported. ''It's sweet men and easy riders are gone; its gambling dens and nite spots are shut down. A new Beale Street is arising as a symbol of the new, enterprising, forward looking Southern Negro of today, looking forward to the day when Negro business will dominate the street''. It reported, ''by midnite these days the street is virtually deserted in contrast to the old days when the nite spots operated all night''.
In December, on the same theme, 'Billboard' reported a speech at Booker T. Washington High School by W. C. Handy, 77-year-old bandleader and composer of the ''Beale Street Blues'' and ''Memphis Blues''. Handy thought, "In the days when I was here, everything in the Negro community centers around three or four blocks on Beale. There were theaters, drug stores and saloons. Everybody put on his best to be seen on Beale: it was a promenade. Now there are many Negro communities in the city and Beale has lost its charms. (It has) the character of an avenue of commerce, filled pawnshops, cheap cafes and second-hand stores where the tourist can find no lure''. Handy felt the same thing had happened in New York on Lenox Avenue and in Harlem, Handy, who had him created a successful business in the North, felt that "a certain race pride has gone by the boards. To many Negroes are trying to live white, and it's not good''. There may have been a generations element in this because, to the Thomas family, the,scene was still buzzing, and Rufus was as integral part of it.
For people like Rufus Thomas, and Nat Williams, the pride was still very much there, too, and I started to take other forms as well, not least through the efforts of radio WDIA, the first station to cater to black America in the South.
WDIA opened in June 1947 as the sixth station in town, and one of the least important. At first, it purveyed classical, popular and hillbilly music, alongside the news. Bert Ferguson, who co-owned the station with John Pepper, knew that Nat Williams was a communicator, someone who could inform as well as entertain. With low ratings, WDIA figured that through Nat they could try to gain listeners among the black community, which made up nearly half the local population. Williams started in October 1948 with a show called 'Tan Town Jamboree' and he quickly got a very positive response. Within a few years, WDIA moved to an all-black format and was being promoted as the 'Mother Station Of The Negro'. Besides Williams, WDIA recruited other local personalities from the schools and theaters of Memphis, including Gatemouth Moore, Maurice Hulbert, Theo Wade, Willa Monroe, Martha Jean Steinberg, Robert Thomas, Ford Nelson, A. C. 'Moohah' Williams - and, in September 1950,
Rufus started at WDIA announcing two hour-long record shows, 'House Of Happiness' and 'Special Delivery'. At first, it seems that he tried to sound upmarket, smooth and articulate, like the announcers he heard on WREC broadcasting from posh venues like the Peabody Hotel. In fact, his own rasp of a voice was much more suited to selling records and sponsored goods to his home-town audience, and station manager David James Mattis counseled him about retaining the sort of hip rapport that he had with theater and night club crowds. "Once I became just Rufus, man, I started getting sharp and everything. My delivery stepped up, and there I was, a personality", he told a radio colleague, Louis Cantor. So much so that Mattis later described Rufus as ''the best black entertainer I ever saw in my life''.
In 1951, Rufus inherited the 'Sepia Swing Club' from B. B. King when King went on the road on the back of his burgeoning recording career. 'Sepia Swing Club' was on at 3pm. Rufus had already worked a 6.30 to 2.30 shift American Textile and he used to catch the streetcar to the radio station, often leaping into his chair at or just beyond the opening of the show, ready to take off "like a late freight" as he put it. After a while he would get a ride in his friend's car and then from 1954 he traveled in his own automobile. His opening patter remained the same though: "Come in the club, we're ready and right/ Got records and jive, no fuss no fight/ This is Rufus Thomas of Sepia Swing/ Gonna try to make you laugh and sing''.
In June 1954, WDIA increased its signal power significantly to 50,000 watts, covering not just the Memphis area but the entire South. This was a big success with sponsors, and it cemented the station's place in the local black community. According to Rufus, ''I don't care what - if it was said on WDIA, that was it. They would argue you down. They'd say, I heard it on WDIA, and that was it''. By this time, Rufus had another Saturday morning show, 'Boogie For Breakfast', and he was on with the 'Hoot 'N' Holler' show every night from 9.30 to 11pm starting the party with "I'm young and loose and full of juice/ We're all feeling gay though we ain't got a dollar/ So let's all get together and hoot 'n' holler''. Dora Todd, a teacher at Washington High said: "Most folks in the 1950s may not have been able to tell you who the mayor or governor was, but they sure knew the names of Nat Williams and Rufus Thomas''. One of the additional reasons folks knew Rufus in the 1950s was that he had just broadened his entertainment portfolio and emerged as a major name in the world of rhythm and blues recordings.
By the end of the 1940s, Rufus Thomas had spent several years singing in Memphis night spots with a number of good local bands; those of Bill Harvey, Al Jackson, Bill Fort and Tuff Green. He hadn't seen this as his main forte but it was a developing part of his gamplan as an entertainer. He said, "My models were Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, and a fellow named Gatemouth Moore, Dwight Moore out of Memphis. They were all good entertainers, very very versatile''.
Gatemouth Moore had recently been a successful recording artist before returning to Memphis to work over WDIA, and he was one of the reasons why Rufus started to think about making records himself. He recalled: "I was working in a club as a singer, and it was something I wanted to do. It was a chance. I just wanted to be on record. I never thought of getting rich. I just wanted to be known, be a recording artist''. The opportunity presented itself one day around Christmas, 1949, in the form of a visit from
Jesse and Louise Erickson ran Louise's Record Shop at 3313 Oakland Avenue in south Dallas. Erickson was a regional record distributor who started issuing records on his Talent and Star Talent label to showcase local artists. He issued many hillbilly recordings, made in his local area, before launching out with a short-lived blues series in 1950, comprising of recordings largely made on location.
Country artist Boots Bourquin said: "Jesse and Louise did a lot of advertising on the radio, and he wholesaled and retailed records. That was a pretty big thing because all them stars had records in there and they would come by and meet him. It was a gathering place for musicians, all those guys that was trying to get a start in country music. He was a real nice guy, a real big guy, six foot four and weighed 250''.
Rufus was singing at the Club Tropicana, also known as Johnny Curry's Club, on Thomas Street on the north side of Memphis when Jesse Erickson walked through the door tarrying a bulky recording machine and a microphone. According to Rufus, he just introduced himself and asked if he could set up and record the band for his label. Rufus had never heard of the Talent label, but he did want to be on records, so he agreed. It is likely that Erickson had made some prior arrangement to be there, but if so the details remain undiscovered. Rufus recalled a little of the session: "They'd put this big heavy needle down, and when you'd be singing you could see the needle cutting into that acetate, just digging those grooves right around there."
The label of Rufus's record stated at the top that it was in the 'Folk Series,' but at the side indicated in smaller print that it was in fact part of the 'Blues And Rhythm Series'. The disc was listed in 'Billboard' among the 'New Rhythm & Blues Releases' for the week of 25 February 1950, and ''I'm So Worried'' was also reviewed, although the opinion was mixed, and indeed a little Harsh on the band: "Thomas shows first class style on a slow blues, but the combo work is amateurish behind him''.
If Rufus was disappointed at the lack of a second release on Star Talent, then his sorrow should d have been short-lived. Within six months, he was back on record again. However, this time he was disguised on the record label as 'Mr. Swing' and he may not even have known about his release on Nashville's Bullet label. If he did know at the time, he seemed to have forgotten about it through most of his career and only acknowledged it nearly fifty years after the event. When we played him the disc in 1999 he appeared, saying, ''Hey that is me. I had forgotten all about those songs, but you know, that really is me''. He seemed to have no recollection of the matter being raised with him three years earlier by Dave Clarke of ''Blues And Rhythm'' magazine – but he undergone a bypass operation in-between times.
The release of ''Beer Bottle Boogie'' and ''Gonna Bring My Baby Back'' on Bullet 327 came about in similar 'on location' circumstances to those surrounding the Star Talent episode. The songs were apparently recorded sometime around 9 to 11 June 1950 when the Lionel Hampton orchestra was playing at the Handy Theater in Memphis, and when Rufus Thomas sang with a smaller band drawn from Hampton's musicians. The band was credited to Hampton's saxophonist and songwriter, Bobby Plafer, and the deal was apparently set up between Overton Gong, then head of Bullet Records, Robert Henry, the manager of the Handy Theater, and Bert Ferguson of WDIA who had"the previous year been instrumental in sending B. B. King's first recordings to Bullet.
''Beer Bottle Boogie has, a strong boogie piano opening from Milt Buckner, whose trademark grunting can be clearly heard on these recordings. Rufus tells how he got higher than a kite, then all hipped-up, then burned at poker - the recipe for getting the beer bottle boogie way down deep inside. Then the classy band really comes into its own with a fabulous sax solo while the other players interject and swirl all around it. Rufus said: ''I do remember that ''Beer Bottle'' song, and that is a good band, a quality band on there. I, think so''. Incidentally, Marilyn Scott recorded a ''Beer Bottle Boogie'' on Regent in September 1950; it appears to be a different song altogether, but Mr. Swing may have inspired the title. ''Gonna Bring My Baby Back'' is a swinging mid-pace item driven by the piano towards a smooth tenor solo that builds up while the band riffs effectively. Rufus tells a familiar tale about his baby leaving but he's gonna find her, and he tells it with some vocal style. 'Billboard' listed the disc among the New Rhythm & Blues Releases of July 22, 1950, where Mr. Swing lined up alongside ''Mr. Cadillac'' and his The R D Boogie, Louis Jordan's ''Blue Light Boogie'', Gatemouth Brown's ''Boogie Rambler'', and Ray Charles' ''The Ego Song'', among others.
One disc it should have sat alongside was ''Phillips Sent Me'', Bullet 329 by Jerome Richardson, Lionel Hampton's young saxophone prodigy, fronting the same Bobby Plater band that had backed Rufus. The disc possibly included vocals by Hampton's vocalist Betty Carter but this is uncertain because a copy of the record has not been located. What is clear is that the tune was inspired by Memphis disc jockey, Dewey Phillips, whose catchphrase was to tell radio listeners to 'say that Phillips sent ya" when entering a store. A year later, in July 1951, 'Billboard' reported that "Dewey Phillips'' advice to his WHBQ listeners to tell merchants 'Phillips sent me' has become a by-word in Memphis and his show is being considered for coast to coast broadcast over the Mutual network. Newest twist is that he's to be immortalized in song, with Joe Liggins and his Honeydrippers planning to record a ditty entitled ''Phillips Sent Me''. It is possible that there had been some copyright, wrangling over the song and a threatened legal restraint that led to Bullet pulling the disc from sale in 1950. Either way, it is a fascinating, and frustrating, side issue to what was already a confused picture surrounding Rufus's second, cording venture.
By the time Rufus realized that his Bullet disc existed but was not going to be a big seller and that Bullet Records was making no noises about recording Mr. Swing again - he also started to realize that there was an emerging recording opportunity right on his doorstep. In fact, Memphis radio announcer and producer Sam Phillips had first opened the doors of his Memphis Recording Service on Union Avenue pretty much at the same time Rufus was recording for Star Talent. By the early part of 1951, Phillips had already sold rhythm and blues and blues recordings to out of town record companies like RPM and Chess and was gait hing something of a reputation on the back of recordings of B.B. King, Rosco Gordon and others. ''Rocket 88'' by Jackie Brenston was top of the Rhythm And Blues Charts when Rufus started to think about going along to Union Avenue. He told Peter Guralnick: ''Everyone was just going up there, and I found out about it, so I went, too. You could come right off the street and go in there''.
When Rufus entered 706 Union Avenue, the first person he encountered was Marion Keisker, Sam first, and at that time only, assistant. She arranged for him to visit when Sam would be there, and Phillips was pleased to have a go at recording one of the rising stars of Beale Street and Memphis radio. Marion recorded Rufus's address in her files as 440 Vance, and later changed this to 1376 Kerr when the Thomas family moved. She set up setup a recording session for sometime in May or June 1951, and Sam Philips started to make a deal with Leonard Chess for the output of the session to be leased to Chess records in Chicago.
As far as is known, the first title Phillips recorded was ''Night Workin' Blues'', a song Rufus had been singing for some years, although it was credited to Marty Witzel. It opens with a swinging riff from the band and Herman Green and Richard Sanders both feature throughout on tenor and baritone sax. Pianist Billy Love swoops around the tune and keeps a solid rhythm section going. The music is more rhythm than blues but Rufus forcefully gets across his tale of woe about coming off the night shift to find he's getting no attention at home. ''I try to make her happy/But my life is misery'' and the solution seems to be to "let this all night working go''. We may never hoe biographical the song was, and the same goes for the next song Rufus recorded, ''Why Did You Deegee''. It's about a man who didn't believe his gal would leave him and it's about as close to recognized blue structure as Rufus gets. A slower pace is set here by drummer Houston Stokes and is emphasized by prominent use of cymbals, while Rufus really opens up his vocal chords and sells his story of heartbreak, punctured by sax riffs, jazzy guitar figures from an unidentified guitarist, and more prominent interventions from Billy Love.
''Night Workin' Blues'' and ''Why Did You Deegee'' were issued as Chess 1466 in the midsummer of 1951, and at the end of July it was noted in Sam Phillips' logbook that he paid Rufus an advance on sales of fifty dollars.
A third song had been made at the session and the master of ''Crazy About You Baby'' was sent to Chess at the same time as the masters for Chess 1466, Crazy was a pounding protorocker of the ''Rocket 88'' style that had gained Sam Phillips a massive rhythm and blues hit not long before. It is Billy Love pounding piano this time, rather than Ike Turner, and Rufus reeling off the honking vocals rather than Jackie Brenston. Saxophonists Green and Sanders do as good if not better a job than the Turner/Brenston band, and all the pieces were in place for a hit. Unfortunately, Rufus was a few months too late with this one despite it being a considerably good record - and his song was about a girl rather than a car. Mistake.
Sales of ''Night Workin' Blues'' must have been sufficient to encourage Phillips and Chess to plan a second release, and in October 1951 Rufus was back in Phillips' studio recording a song called ''No More Dogging Around''. It was the first of many he would record over the years with Dog in the title, though this time he was talking about being led a dance by his woman rather than promoting dance steps. The same band as before sets up a stomping rhythm and Herman Green takes a flowing sax solo. Rufus follows the catchy riff, his voice rising and falling as he sets out how he intends to get out from under. It is evident that Rufus knew exactly what he wanted his bands to do, and overall the sound on this disc is one that can,be heard for Sun, Meteor and Stax.
Marion Keisker logged that the master of ''No More Dogging Around'' was mailed to Chess on October 5, and that Chess "already have ''Crazy About You'' and the ''Xmas Song". The latter, whatever it was, has not been found, and it was ''Crazy About'' that was issued along with ''No More Dogging Around'' on Chess 1492. The record gathered some steady but not spectacular sales through the spring of 1952.
By early 1952, several of Sam Phillips' recording artists were caught up in commercial and legal arguments between the companies who took recordings from him - principally Chess in Chicago and Modern/RPM in Hollywood. Companies not unreasonably wanted exclusivity on the bestselling singers. One of these was Rosco Gordon who had registered hits with RPM but who would also appear shortly on Chess and then, for good measure, on the Duke label.
On 23 January 1952 Rosco Gordon made a session for Chess at Phillips' studio that included an engaging bar room song called ''Decorate The Counter''. However, by February 15 wrangling between the various companies had seen Gordon's contract signed over to Modern/RPM Records and two days later most of the recordings from the January session were passed to Modern. ''Decorate The Counter''was not one of them because Chess had expressed an interest in the song. Sam Phillips apparently held it back as the prototype for someone else to record. That someone was Rufus Thomas, and so we had tuned an extended version of the earliest of Rosco's versions of the song.
Rosco Gordon made another version of the song - one that has more often been issued and so is not included here - that contained a number of vocal asides and tricks and had a generally anarchic aura. It was that version Rufus faithfully reproduced when he went into the studio on April 21, 1952. There is little wonder that the difference between the two men's versions of this good time Saturday night song was not wide since Rufus used Willie Wilkes, Richard Sanders and John Murray Daley on the session – the,.same band as Rosco. Rufus calls ''What you say Richard'' as Richard Sanders is about to take his solo, as had Rosco. Only Rosco himself is missing, replaced by Billy Love on piano. Rufus's vocals are slightly more prominent and assured than Rosco's even though it is not his own song. ''Decorate The Counter';'was apparently written by or in the name of Robert Henry, who managed the Handy Theater and booked Rufus and Rosco there along with other local talent and all the big bands of the day. He was also the first manager of B. B. King, and one of the real enduring characters of Beale Street, right up to his death in 1978. He ran a pool hall and store there for years and liked to tell people that if they wanted to get served, they'd better decorate the counter, put their money down.
According to Marion Keisker's session logs, Rufus recorded four other songs at the ''Decorate'' session. One of these was the intriguing ''Beale Street Bound'', a recording that has not apparently survived. Of the three we do have, the song that was chosen for release along with ''Decorate The Counter'' was ''Juanita'', an impassioned ballad complete with mock crying and a style that found fevour in the early 1950s and was exemplified in hits like Tommy Brown's ''Weepin' And Cryin'' on Dot Records which was the number one rhythm and blues hit of December 1951. If anyone was going to be able to carry off this histrionic style, then Rufus Thomas - the entertainer - was probably the man. No doubt his performance of ''Juanita'' went down a storm in live performance, but this is a very slow song and although Richard Sanders contributes a moving baritone sax solo, the performance drag a little on record. It was left to Chuck Willis -with a different song -to take ''Juanita'' into the top ten and rhythm and blues history four years later.
The day after the session, the Phillips studio airmailed dubs of ''Decorate The Counter'' and ''Juanita'' to Chess Records, and twelve days later masters were "sent to Shaw (probably meaning Billy Shaw's New York based Shaw Artists Corporation). Marion Keisker logged that copies were sent to influential disc jockeys on June 16, including Gene Nobles at WLAC in Nashville, and that payments at musicians union scale were made to the session musicians directly by Chess. The record was released as Chess 1517 at the start of July.
Two final songs from the session remained unissued at the time. The first was ''Married Woman'', which is presented here in two alternative takes. It is a thumping blues about Rufus sitting around trying to drink his blues away. His baby's leaving - ''she was a married woman" - and how loving a married woman will do you no earthly good. The first version contains a storming sax solo by Willie Wilkes, and the second is similar except that Rufus adds some slurred speech at the start to emphasize the depth of his plight. The last title to be recorded at the session was also a moral tale - of temperance, abstinence and fidelity - told to a mid-paced rhythm and blues stomp. This time the solo is taken by Richard Sanders on baritone sax, and you can just imagine Rufus the entertainer delivering the lyrics of ''I'm Off That Stuff'' with a twinkle in his eye.
It would be eleven months before Rufus was back at Phillips' Memphis Recording Service studio, and this time the output would be on a hometown record label. Billboard reported on March 14, 1953: "Sun Record Label launched In Memphis - a new indie rhythm earl blues label headed by Jim Bulleit and Sam Phillips. The Sun label plans to give even opportunity to untried artists to prove their talents, whether they play a broomstick or the finest jazz sax in the world''. Phillips had in fact toyed with his Sun label throughout 1952 and he had tried and failed with the country blues and nightclub saxophone instrumentals. Now he had a new partner in – Jim Bulleit, an experienced record man from Nashville who knew how to sell records - and a new style to sell in the form of a novelty rhythm and blues song about a ''Bear Cat''. Phillips figured that the song was just right for the extrovert gravel voiced Rufus Thomas.
As a disc jockey on WDIA, Rufus would have been one of the first to be aware of the sales potential of a new record called ''Hound Dog'', issued by Peacock Records out of Texas and sung by Willie Mae 'Big Mama' Thornton. Big Mama was from Montgomery, Alabama but had been based in Houston for several years when she joined the local Peacock label in 1951. In the late summer of 1952 she was on tour on the West Coast with the Johnny Otis band when Otis arranged to record her along with several other singers and ship the masters back to Peacock. The session featured songs by a new, young songwriting team, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who had been asked to write something for the fearsomely built Big Mama, whom Leiber later told.
Rolling Stone' looked like the biggest, baddest, saltyist chick you would ever see. The writers came up with the classic line, "You ain't nothing but a hound dog'', for Thornton to snarl out as an admonishment to those would-be suitors who were more interested in home comforts than in her. She knows, ''you ain't no real cool cat''. With its loping rhythm, cutting blues guitar solos, unusual story line and occasional yelps and howls, ''Hound Dog'' soon registered as a juke box favourite when it was issued in early March 1953. By the end of the month, it was on the Rhythm And Blues Charts and it stayed at number one for seven weeks that spring.
It would have been in character for Rufus to have the idea parody the lyric on his radio show and to invent his own fearsome big cat to rival Big Mama's dog, and indeed people have spoken about hearing him do that on the radio. But in fact it was someone else who had the idea and who wrote the song. Rufus just told: ''No, I didn't write that song. Someone else wrote that''. He wouldn't say who it was but the discussion was in the context of his relationship with Phillips. The composition was registered under Sam Phillips' name and Sam did talk in years about working up songs with Rufus, though he never made much claim to have written ''Bear Cat'' outright. Maybe he did, or his wife Becky who helped him with songs in the 1950s did, or perhaps they took the idea from someone else? Either way, Sam was keen that Sun should record the song immediately, and that to increase the fun it would be made clear on the record label that this was the 'answer to ''Hound Dog'' and that the singer going head to head with the Big Mama was Rufus 'Hound Dog' Thomas Jnr.
Original 78rpm Sun 181 ''Bear Cat'' answer to Peacock's ''Hound Dog''.
''Bear Cat'' was recorded on March 8, 1953. There were just three musicians, Joe Hill Louis playing a long, hot and cutting guitar solo, bassist Tuff Green slapping the bass to make the sound of two men, and drummer Houston Stokes propelling the small band along. Together they made a powerful sound, but what really made the record was the overpowering vocal performance that, from opening spoken intro, was recorded so hot by Sam Phillips that it almost leapt from the grooves. actor within Rufus the entertainer came to the fore as he sang, almost making the hound dog and bear cat come alive.
In complete contrast, Rufus also recorded a blues ballad, ''Walking In The Rain'', which underlined how good a mood singer he could be. His song is carried along by more strikingly good guitar work from Joe Hill Louis, while drums and bass are relegated to the background along with so, rhythm that Rufus kept on piano while singing. As good as ''Walking In The Rain'' was in its way, it was the other side that Sam Phillips wanted to get on the market. It is registered in his logbooks that he paid the three musicians fifteen dollars each and sent the master discs to Shaw for manufacturing the very same day they were recorded.
It is clear that Sun 181 was a serious rush-release. Within two weeks, 'Billboard was able to report: "The so-called answer record craze is still going strong in the rhythm and blues field. This week a new diskery came out with an answer to Peacock's smash waxing of ''Hound Dog'' with thrush Willie Mae Thornton. ''Hound Dog'' was released only about three weeks ago and has turned out to be one of the fastest breaking hits in recent years. It has already popped into the best selling rhythm and blues charts. The answer to ''Hound Dog'' comes from Sun Records, Memphis. Tenn, diskery, a wild thing called ''Bear Cat'' sung by Rufus Thomas Jnr. It used to be that the answers to hits usually waited until the hit had started on the downward trail. but today the answers are ready a few days after records start moving upwards. This has led some to remark that the diskeries soon may be bringing out the answers before the originals are even released''.
It wasn't long before ''Bear Cat'' became a test case. In 'Billboard' of March 28, 1953 it was reported song publishers were seeking legal action: "In an effort to combat what has become a rampant practice by small labels - the rushing out of answers which are similar in melody and/or theme to ditties which have become smash hits - many pubbers are now retaining attorneys. Common active, of course is to regard the answer as an original. Currently publishers are putting up a the to protect their originals from unauthorized or infringing answers." Don Robey of Peacock Records was ever the pragmatist, though, and told Billboard he had notified the Harry Fox publishing agency "to issue Sun a license on ''Bear Cat'' in order that Robey might collect a royalty''.
The following week, Billboard reported that Stan Lewis of Stan's Record Shop in Shreveport, Louisiana was the focus of much attention by independent labels, whose bosses were queueing to pitch him their goodies. These included, ''Jim Bulleit of the new Sun label, who arrived to chase Willie Mae Thornton’s ''Hound Dog'' with his punchy new answer ''Bearcat'' by Rufus Thomas''. Bulleit had been hard on the case, achieving some seriously good publicity for the new label and for ''Bear Cat'' even before the disc hit the stores. ''Bear Cat'' was the Billboard Buy Of The Week on 11 April: ''The answer to ''Hound Dog'' broke loose this week with fury. Hit a number of territorial charts and also is registering strongly in Chicago and around Nashville''. It reached the national rhythm and blues charts on April 18, 1953, stayed for eight weeks in the top ten and number three.
By May, according to Billboard, "Word has it that Rufus Thomas Jnr., who waxed the smash ''Bear Cat'' for Sun Records, is turning down many a one-fighter so he can remain mike side at his WDIA deejay post''. Nevertheless, Rufus did form a touring band of sorts, called the Bearcats. He said, "I worked all over Memphis. We had four or five pieces in the band most times. We did a lot of work after I had ''Bear Cat'''out."
Meantime Sam Phillips was still handling the fallout of his success. Don Robey's Lion Publishing Company had sued Sun for infringing the copyright on ''Hound Dog'' and the U. S. Court had ruled that Sun had indeed perpetrated an infringement BMI denied Sun clearanc disc until Sun agreed to pay two cents per record on all discs sold to Lion Music. Robey wrote to Phillips on 8 July, thanking him "kindly for your co-operation in this matter''. He had written Phillips earlier, in April, pointing out the need for Sun to pay him, and hoping, ''this will not causy any unfriendly relations, but please remember that I have to pay when I intrude upon the rights of others, and certainly must protect my own rights''. The nature of the independent record business was such that by July, Lion itself was in court defending the contention of Syd Nathan Records in Cincinnati that he had an interest in the song ''Hound Dog'' and should have a fifty per cent share of its success.
By April 1954, a year further on, Billboard had decided that ''Answers (Are) Not The Answer: The year 1953 saw an important precedent set in regard to answer tunes. Since the ''Hound Dog'' decision, few diskeries have attempted to answer smash hits by other companies by use same tune with different lyrics''. Follow up They might have stopped to think about Rufus's own follow up disc, ''Tiger Man'', where he attempted to plagiarise his own hit, ''Bear Cat''. He had moved on feline world, or rather, his session guitarist, Joe Hill Louis, had, turning his attention to the king jungle.
Louis had been the session guitarist on ''Bear Cat'' and its success naturally spurred him to think up a new angle on the song. He probably saw his new song as a hit for himself, making two recordings of ''Tiger Man'' around May 1953, a demo with unknown piano and drums and a more finished version with Albert Williams playing piano and Walter Horton on harmonica along with an unknown drummer. Louis carries the first version on guitar and sings in a restrained manner. He breaks out much more on the second version where his vocal is more to the fore while the others carry the instrumental lead. Louis's second version is included here for comparison with the tour de force Rufus recorded just a few weeks later.
The Sun recording files show that Rufus Thomas went into the studio to cut ''Tiger Man'' on the last day of June. Houston Stokes remained on drums, but Rufus did not have Joe Hill Louis along since Floyd Murphy is listed as guitarist, and indeed is audibly present. Whether Louis was unavailable or whether he had been cut out of being the featured artist on his own song we can only guess. Certainly, he found that when Rufus's recording was released, half the composing credit went to Sam Phillips' wife under her maiden name of Burns. There were three other musicians new to Rufus's sessions but who were stalwarts of Phillips' blues recording sessions: James Wheeler on tenor sax, Bill Johnson on piano and Kenneth Banks on bass. A slightly bigger band, but Sun was still operating on a budget and it was logged that the session men were paid just ten dollars each on the day.
As on ''Bear Cat'', the band contributed well to the mayhem Rufus created on ''Tiger Man'', but it was again the vocal that took most of a listeners attention. Compared to Joe Hill Louis's own very good blues vocals on his versions, Rufus now added the 'performance' factor to the song – from the Tarzan calls at the start to the hoarsely shouted lyrics and the Tarzan outro - taking it to a sphere Louis could not match for bower and mischief. Floyd Murphy plays some fine fills and takes a flowing solo of the kind on Junior Parker's contemporary Sun recordings. Marion Keisker noted that the master of ''Tiger Man'' was ''cut 4 on the second tape" and so Rufus may have made any number of attempts of the tune.
The only other song recorded at the session was ''Save That Money'', a slow blues with jazzy guitar from Murphy and a smooth saxophone figure throughout by James Wheeler. Rufus again shows a good straight singer he could be, really opening out to shout the pain of the lyric that remembered the Depression era ''when times were hard". Perhaps this was not the message people wanted to twenty years later. Certainly, the reviewer for Billboard was unimpressed, saying of the title: ''It's good advice, but not a noteworthy record". Actually, it was a rather good one but destined to be lost in the shadow of ''Bear Cat'' and ''Tiger Man''.
''Tiger Man'' with ''Save That Money'' was issued at the end of September 1953 as Sun 188, once the sales of ''Bear Cat'' started to diminish and on the back of some publicity for Rufus in the trade press that August and September: "Rufus Thomas of Sun Records" was, on the 'Cool Train' show on WDIA every Saturday, and "Nat Williams and Rufus Thomas join together for three hours each Saturday as conductor and engineer of this popular streamliner''.
Despite his continuing high profile locally, Rufus's ''Tiger Man'' was not the national rhythm and blues smash that Sun might have expected. Billboard called it a novelty blues whose "lyric does not make n sense, but will get some attention because of its weird quality''. It sold well but it did not dent the charts. By the time it was released, Sun was handling a major hit with ''Just Walkin' In The Rain'' by the Prisonaires vocal group, and it may be that Rufus's disc didn't quite get the extra promotion otherwise would have had. The tiger had a second lease on life years later when recorded by Presley, but by then Joe Hill Louis was no longer around to collect his writer's royalties.
Surprisingly, perhaps, there were to be no more Rufus Thomas records on Sun. Less surprisingly, maybe in the light of comments that Rufus made to interviewers in later years. He told Peter Guralnick, "Me and Sam Phillips ... we were tighter than the nuts on the Brooklyn Bridge – then. Of course he was like all the folk at that time. You know how if blacks had something and didn't no way to exploit it and the white dudes would pick it up and do something about it, they'd just beat out of all of it, that's all. Well, that was him, that as Sam Phillips. Oh man, I guess I lot of it too, like most black folk''. Talking to John Floyd in the 1990s, Rufus was even more to the point, saying: "Sam Phillips was an arrogant bastard. He is today. Back then he had a big car, a Bentley, end he'd boast about the money he made that got him this car. I said, 'Yeah, but if it hadn't been for me, he wouldn't have had that car'. I made the first record for him that got a hit''. The truth, as usual, was multifaceted, and Sam was more likely scuffling at that time than driving a Bentley. Certainly, correspondence between Sam and his brother Jud makes it very clear how close to bankruptcy Sun Records was until Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash started to make hits in 1956.
Years later, during a European tour, Rufus once told writer Roger St Pierre, rather dismissively: "Yeh, Sun was a blues label when it set out and we did ''Bear Cat'' which was a big smash ... I cut a number of things for Sun, though I can't ever remember signing a contract''. In fact, in Sun's books Marion Keisker logged the fact that Rufus signed his contract with Sun on 13 March 1953. He was paid on five occasions between March 23, and June 27, in advance royalties on ''Bear Cat'', totaling 275 dollars. He received three advance checks on ''Tiger Man'' between August 1953 and February 1954, some 480 dollars, but after that the contract, and the record of payment, runs out.
Not long after ''Tiger Man'' came out, Rufus was as usual deeply involved in radio WDIA's showpiece event of the year. Billboard of November 7, announced plans for the station's "Fifth Annual Goodwill Revue for Handicapped Negro Children (which) will present one of the strongest spiritual and rhythm and blues talent line-ups ever. A crowd of up to 60,000 (probably a typo for 6000 is expected to fill the Ellis Auditorium on December 4, to see B.B. King, Lloyd Price, Muddy Waters, Eddie Boyd, Little Walter, Helen Thompson, the Soul Stirrers, and WDIA personalities Alex Bradford, the Caravans, Rufus Thomas, Moohah the Spirit of Memphis Quartet, the Southern Wonders and Al Jackson's band. All the artists are giving their time in order to raise money for the charity. And their diskeries - Specialty, Chess, United and Starmaker - are defraying their expenses''.
Interestingly, Sun was not mentioned. This may be an omission or it may have reflected a dispute betty Rufus and Sun. Even, perhaps, that Rufus was planning to record for a new label being set up in Semi WDIA had become known as ''The Goodwill Station'' because of its charitable and community based work but it was also known as the 'Starmaker' station because singers like B.B. King and Rufus himself started there, and a new Starmaker Records label was announced in November in Billboard as "the new label of David James Mattis, who started Duke Records last year. Talent with the label includes Danny Day and Moohah, with records cut by those artists already being shipped out to the jocks and to stores. The label is affiliated with radio station WDIA''. Mattis had set up Duke in July 1952 and had see immediate success with Memphis based singers including Johnny Ace, Rosco Gordon, and Bobby Bland, but Duke was soon taken over by Peacock Records in Texas. As it turned out, Starmaker did last long enough either to still be there at the end of Rufus's Sun contract in March 1954.
One of the Starmaker discs featured Rufus's fellow WDIA disc jockey and announcer, A. C. Moohah' Williams, who had the ''Wheelin'' On Beale show. Williams was still a biology teacher at Manassas High School when he started at WDIA in 1949, but he soon became the first full time black employee of the station working on promotion and organization of events as well as hosting shows. He set up the Teen Town Singers group that changed personnel each year to include the best talent from all seven of the local black High Schools. We have included his recordings, because it features a band of musicians led by tenor saxophonist Bill Fort that often worked with Rufus Thomas, and because it adds another chapter to the 'Answer' song saga in Memphis.
Moohah's comical song ''All Shook Out'' seems to have been the 'Answer' to Faye Adams' number one rhythm and blues hit ''Shake A Hand'' on Herald. Adams' disc had entered the charts that August and stayed for five months. In their response, Moohah and Mattis had clearly taken the blueprint from ''Bear Cat'', perhaps hoping that Starmaker could be launched into serious competition with Sun. The song may also have had secondary reference to the glad-handing that went on during the annual WDIA Goodwill Revue.
''All Shook Out'' and its other side, ''Candy'', were both driving rhythm and blues honkers in the tradition of Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown and other blues shouters. ''All Shook Out'' opens deceptively slowly but soon stomps along in support of Moohah's nonsense lyric about the perils of hand shaking. There is a storming sax solo midway by Bill Fort and his tight band propels the whole performance with piano and drums to the fore. Actually the song was not Moohah's but was written by David James Mattis, as was the flipside. On the record, ''Candy'' is about the girl who sweet-talks Moohah out of his mind. but David James said he originally wrote the song about his dog.
Moohah's recordings were issued on Starmaker 501 among the new rhythm and blues releases at the end of November, just in time for the Goodwill Revue. There was also a Starmaker 502 which contained two blues ballads by Memphis band singer Dick Cole recording under the name Danny Day. ''You Scare Me'' and ''Wishing'', issued at the same time. There was also one gospel release by Bessie Griffin, '' Too Close To Heaven'', Starmaker 101, but these three seem to be all that the label issued. David James told researcher George Moonoogian that the label failed because a WDIA secretary was too zealous in chasing up debts and threatened all his distributor contacts with legal action. Mattis was not the only one to try to get into the rhythm and blues record business in Memphis in the middle 1950s. B.B. King had the Blues Boy Kingdom label and there was another short-lived label called Tan Town Records that issued recordings by the popular Spirit of Memphis Quartet and others.
Rufus Thomas spent 1954 and most of the next two years entrenched in his radio work and personal appearances and he did not record again until the end of 1956. He retained some kind of a national profile, being featured in the trade press occasionally. He was mentioned as part of the publicity for the 1954 and 1955 Goodwill Revues but he had no record to promote at a Revue until 1956 when he joined Meteor Records, owned by Lester Bihari and situated in a black neighbourhood of Memphis.
Little is known about the short-lived Meteor episode and only two titles have survived from the session or sessions Rufus made at their rudimentary studio on Chelsea Avenue. Nevertheless Meteor 5039, which coupled ''The Easy Livin' Plan'' and ''I'm Steady Holding On'' is a mighty record. As far as people can remember the band was basically the musicians who played with Rufus regularly around Memphis, billed usually as the Bearcats. They included tenor saxophonists Evelyn Young, who had been on the Star Talent disc, and Harvey Simmons, along with a rhythm section of Lewis Steinberg on bass and Jeff Greyer on drums. The band sets up a storming shuffle as Rufus delivers a clever lyric about how to live life on the ''The Easy Livin' Plan''. The almost chanted list of the teachers, preachers, and the gambling men, the chauffeurs, stenographer girls, and Alabama bound sisters in the corner, all living life to the full, is an unforgettable moment in rhythm and blues lyricism. In contrast the slower paced ''I'm Steady Holding On'' is at once both a boastful and plaintive blues. Rufus told Peter Guralnick. ''I wrote one of the first songs that Bobby Bland ever sung: 'I got a new kind of loving that other men cant catch on/While they losing out I'm steady holding on'. It was a good tune. Bobby sang it on the Amateur Show and won first prize''.
Jim Stewart was a bank teller and part-time country fiddle player when he set up Satellite Records in Memphis in 1958 with his sister, Estelle Axton. They started with country music and then had an rhythm and blues group record by the Vel Tones that Rufus played on WDIA in 1959. Then on day in the spring of 1960, Rufus turned up at Stewart's new studio on McLemore Avenue pitching a song written by his daughter, Carla. ''Cause I Love You'' was recorded as a duet by Rufus and Carla and it became a small hit on Satellite 102 that summer. Carla's song ''Gee Whiz'' became a top ten rhythm and blues and popular hit the following year, by when the label had become Stax Records.
''The Dog'' Stax 130
In January 1963 Stax released Rufus Thomas singing ''The Dog'', a dance tune he'd worked up after watching a girl dancing at a show in Millington. Tennessee. The song made number 22 in the rhythm and blues charts and was followed the next year by ''Walking The Dog'', a number five rhythm and blues hit that also made the popular top ten in November 1963. It had taken ten years, but the entertaining man with the animal songs was back - and bigger than ever.
Rufus had other hits at Stax, but often said he didn't really fit into their operation. ''I wasn't happy with the material they kept coming up with. They are great guys but they can't write or produce the song I need.
The MGs are incredibly talented musicians but they have their style and they tended to imprint it loo heavily on my recordings''. Nevertheless, in 1970 he had another number five rhythm and blues hit with another improvised dance tune, this time made up at a club in Covington, Tennessee, titled ''Do The Funky Chicken''. Then at the start of 1971 Rufus registered his first number one rhythm and blues hit with ''Do The Push And Pull''. It was followed with the almost as successful number two hit ''The Breakdown''. He continued to register smaller hits well into the 1970s, twenty-five years after he had started his recording career, and to make well-received CD albums for many years after that.
On the back of his1960s hits, Rufus started to take his entertaining show out of Memphis, including to Europe. In December 1964 he was playing the Flamingo Club in London and the Kilburn State Ballroom , safe in the knowledge that he had a radio job to go back to. He credits WDIAs program director, David James Mattis, for this: ''He let me go out on Saturdays and Friday nights and make air told me to go, and when I came back I would always have my job there waiting for me. I could go on tour, and when I came back I knew everything was all right. Without David James just probably I would never have gotten where I got''.
Rufus played increasingly to white and mixed audiences and, despite his deep roots in Beale Street and his sceticism about the way black artists were disadvantaged. he genuinely was happy to tell Peter Guralnick: ''College audiences are the greatest audiences in the world. I must have played every fraternity house there was in the South. When we played Ole Miss they'd send the girls home at midnight, and then we'd tell nasty jokes and all that stuff. Oh man, we used to have some good times down there in Oxford''. He told Neil Slaven in 1996, ''When I'm onstage and I look out there at that audience, I don't see colour. I see people packet in a place, there to see me. There is not a greater satisfaction in the world''. However, he added, ''There is no telling how far I could have gone, had I been a white boy. I've always said that. I'm not bitter, I want you to know, but it does bother you''.
(Left to Right) Rufus, Carla, Vaneese & Marvell Thomas gathered at the Overton Park Shell to perform before about 5,000 fans at an Arts In The Parks presentation on July 17, 1973.
Rufus continued on Memphis radio with WDIA, then WLOK, and then WDIA again into the 1990s. He became the keeper of the blues flame, but he was open to other music. "I played it all on my show. My family and I were raised on the Grand Ole Opry. Every Saturday night we'd run home to catch the Opry on the radio. So you can understand why I played Elvis Presley and I was the only black jock in the city that was playing the Beatles and Rolling Stones when they came out''.
Rufus appeared in various movies, from ''Wattstax'' in 1973 to ''Great Balls Of Fire'' in 1989 and ''Only The Strong Survive'', a D. A. Pennebaker film about rhythm and blues musicians. Pennebaker said: ''You knew he was an old person, but he acted like a 16 year old. He was always full of funny takes on things and he always gave the impression he was a goofball. But when he talked about the music, you realized he knew a lot''.
''His pipes remain as convincing as the rusty hinges on an old barn door, said a reviewer when Rufus appeared in London in 1986, and those pipes continued to make make records. After Stax, Rufus was with u number of labels including Alligator in the 1980s and High Stacks in the 1990s.
At age 81, in 1998, Rufus had triple bypass heart surgery and was fitted with a pacemaker. His publicist at High Stacks Records said: ''When he went back in for tests before Christmas, he was so full of energy that hospitalizing him was like putting a rabbit in a box. The other patients have the benefit of his great smile and his constant jokes."
Rufus continued to contribute to life and music in Memphis for another three years, enjoying his loves of baseball, ice cream, and black music, and embodying the philosophies he had dispensed to interviewers over the years. He had told Neil Slaven, "You stop when you get old - and who's old? I've been to the school of hard knocks for all these years and that's where it comes from - Sidewalk University''. He told Louis Cantor, ''I've always worked several jobs to try to make ends meet. And every time I think I've got my ends to meet, somebody comes up and moves the ends''. Talking of his music, he told Roger St. Pierr: "My stuff has got to be simple, direct. I figure that if you can whistle, dance, sing, , hum, pop your fingers, it's just got to be a bigger hit.'
Thinking about his life as a black entertainer whose career developed beyond what he might have imagined , but at the same time feeling constricted by his colour, Rufus conceded. "I've gained quite a bit of popularity, and when I die people are going to know about me. This is fine. But they could know about me a little better. I know I make good music. Good music that everybody likes."
Around Thanksgiving time in 2001, Rufus Thomas was hospitalized again and he died on 15 December in St Francis Hospital in Memphis, aged 84. National newspapers marked the passing of the self-dubbed "World's Oldest Teenager," and the 'New York Times' called Rufus ''the jovial patriarch of Memphis soul", Towards the end of his life, Rufus had become the official ''Ambassador To Beale Street''. Stax biographies talked about his flawless timing and innate skill in connecting to all people, his dedication to the craft of entertaining, his ability to put people at ease, and how he helped others. Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist spoke about Rufus as an ambassador of unity: "He taught us not to see the world in black or white but in shades of blues''. Memphis renamed Hernando Street as Rufus Thomas Boulevard, and he had his own car parking space near the site of the old Palace Theater. City mayor Willie Herenton described how he got the space: ''I had lunch with Rufus at a local cafe. And you know he had an ego, and he came to me and said, you the mayor; well I need a parking space'. So we got him his space''.
Rufus no doubt enjoyed the mischief of making the mayor jump through hoops. ''You gotta have fun in life'', he once said. "Music to me is fun. You see me and you'll see how much fun I have with it. More, I'll bet, than anybody else''. (MH)
THOMPSON, HAYDEN - Thompson was born twenty-five miles north of Tupelo, Mississippi, the town of Booneville, on March 5, 1938 in a little area called Wheeler. Baxter Thompson, was a farmer who also worked at various other jobs and his mother, Thelma, worked in a clothing business. She sang some country gospel and played harmonica, while Baxter was a guitarist. They both encouraged Hayden and gave him a guitar when he was five years old.
Armed with his guitar and his mother's encouragement, the eight or nine year old Hayden entered various contests on local shows and radio. His mother encouraged him to sing gospel and his first radio performance was singing a gospel song on WBIP in Booneville, with the threat that he wouldn't be able to go fishing next day unless he did it right.
Soon, young Hayden became firmly involved in the country music scene of the day, and formed his first band, the Southern Melody Boys, were managed by a local promoter and disc jockey, Charles Bolton, who put on stage shows and radio shows in and around Booneville, and who offered the band a step up from the schools, churches, and low scale gigs they could find for themselves.
In 1955 Hayden Thompson and the Southern Melody Boys recorded for the small Von label in Booneville (on which Johnny Burnette also made his debut), that had grown out of the musical promotions at Von Theater. Hayden's recording session was held not in Booneville but at the radio studio of WERH in Hamilton, Alabama. The recording engineer at the station was local disc jockey, recording artist and songwriter, Edgar Clayton, a long-time mainstay of the Alabama music business.
The recording were "Act Like You Love Me" and "I Feel The Blues Coming On", both in the typical hillbilly style that predominated in the years during and just after the heyday of Hank Williams. They feature steel guitar and fiddle solos and are underpinned by a muted walking guitar pattern on the bass strings similar to that played by Quinton Claunch on contemporary country recordings by other mid-South performers such as Bud Deckelman on Meteor and Carl Perkins on Sun. Claunch was like radio jockey and recording engineer. Edgar Clayton, a former member of the Blue Seal Pals who performed in a similar style on Mississippi radio and then on WSM in Nashville s few years before.
Charles Bolton continued to book the Southern Melody Boys in the local area throughout 1955, and Hayden continued to build up the rocking element in their performances, adding the music of Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Fats Domino, and Bill Haley to the band's stone country repertoire. They continued to hold down their regular spots in their hometown.
After Thompson graduated in 1956, the group hit the road. "We bought a trailer", he recalled, "and we carried the movie Rock Around The Clock" in that trailer together with out instruments. We'd go into a town, do a show, they'd play the movie, and then we'd do another show. It cost the punters fifty cents or a dollar. We did that until late 1956".
After only a few months on the road, however, Thompson's band decided to call it quits. "I wanted to play rock and roll, but most of the guys in the group said rock and roll would never last, and they wanted to stick with country music. The final straw came when two of them got married. They wanted to stay home and had no dreams of doing anything more in music than they had already done".
Yet Thompson had no intention of abandoning his dreams, Hayden formed a new, more rocking band called the Dixie Jazzliners, presumably named in connection with the Dixieland Jamboree show and Bolton's Dixie Talent through whom they were booked.
Quite how the jazz element figured, no-one remembers, least of all Hayden, but it may have been a compromise by a promoter who wanted to recognise that this was new-sounding music but was shy of calling it rock and roll in case it didn't last, it was the movie package tour that eventually took Hayden Thompson to Memphis and to Sun Records, and he found temporary salvation with the Billy Riley band. "I'd met them before my group broke up. I had been in and out of Sun quite a lot, and I found that Riley and I worked good together. We'd do a finale in which he'd do a Little Richard impersonation and I'd do Elvis Presley. We were making seventy or eighty dollars a week, which was good money for guys without hits".
Thompson hoped to improve the situation when he went to Sun in September 1956 with the nucleus of the Riley band behind him. They cut the old Junior Parker song "Love My Baby", with the newly arrived Jerry lee Lewis strengthening the rhythm track. Once recorded, the single was held back for one year; finally, in 1957 it was issued in the first batch of Phillips International releases. Wide-eyed in Babylon, Hayden Thompson was ready for the acclaim that would surely follow. The portents seemed excellent: "I went by the studio and Jack Clement was there. We left and went to pick up Jack's wife and went to a drive-in movie. I listened to Dewey Phillips on WHBQ rather than the movie, Dewey played my record. After the movie, we went back to the studio. Sam was still there. He invited us back to his place to spend the night. We got there about two in the morning. Sam called his wife on the intercom and she came down and fixed breakfast for us. He put "Love My Baby" on the turntable and spun it over and over. I was thinking to myself, 'This is really something'".
Thompson had fallen prey to the premier illusion of the record business. The industry gives everyone the equivalent of Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame; virtually anyone who puts a record out gets at least one good review, a slot on a playlist, or a word of encouragement from one on whom Fortune has smiled. The problem lies in the capriciousness of the market; the following week there is a new crop of records, a new set of reviews, a new set of playlists.
Last week's Best Bet is next week's unreturned phone call. It was Bill Justis' "Raunchy" that was the surprise hit from the first batch of singles on Phillips International. As Phillips probably knew, "Love My Baby" was too primitive for the ever more sophisticated teenage market. Hayden Thompson went back to the studio, but never got another shot on Sun. Disillusioned, he headed north to Chicago in 1958.
Thompson's best chance came with a series of uptown country singles he recorded for Kapp Records in the mid-1960s. The Kapp singles secured him a guest appearance on the Grand Ole Opry that seemed for a moment to be the long-awaited harbinger of fame. But Thompson could never quite capitalize on his opportunities. He still records occasionally, but, as the title of a recent song he cut, "The Boy From Tupelo", suggests, he has never quite found a satisfactory answer to the question, Why Elvis and not Me?.
A decade on, and Hayden is still touring Europe, still hanging in there, in fact still very much appreciated and in demand, and he's still making records. He recorded a CD in 2005 recreating the Rockabilly Rhythm for the St George label back home, but his latest new recording was made with a band in Finland and Hayden is proud that at his age the CD has "had the best reviews I've had in my career". He recorded "$16.88" on the CD and he's very aware that he wrote the song over forty years ago.
Back home in Wheeling, Illinois, Hayden Thompson lives with his wife, Georgia, and is still promoting his music to anyone who is interested. He is a friendly, self-aware, and quietly humorous person, very proud of his own music, pleased to be acknowledged as a keeper of the flame of early rock and roll, but still frustrated that his career didn't take off in the days when it really mattered to him.
A 1960 ad for a John Tolleson, who performed in the Fayetteville area throughout the late 1950s and early
In 1954 Fayetteville, Arkansas, became home base for an area icon that may be the most distinguished of the
rock pioneers of Northwest Arkansas.
Almost anybody that does a little bit of research into local rock history
will recognize the name of John Tolleson. Tolleson spoke about his early musical background and the events
that led to his stint in the Bob Donathan Orchestra in the fall of 1955 continuing through 1956.
''Greenwood is my hometown'', Tolleson said. ''I came to Fayetteville in the fall of 1954 as a 17-year-old
freshman at the university. I grew up playing classical music on the piano and played trombone in the band
when Greenwood finally started one my senior year. I always liked entertaining people. As the popularity of
rock and roll grew and that of the dance band music of the previous era seemed to vanish overnight, I sang
quite a few rock and roll novelty” numbers with Donathan all through 1956.
''I started my own group in February 1957. It was a rock and roll band without question and my musician
friends thought I had lost my mind. They all were musical snobs and hated rock and roll, even the ones
playing in my band! What I liked most about being in a rock and roll band was the fresh, energetic sound and
the great fun it brought to the dancing crowd''.
In a humble manner, John Tolleson expressed how fortunate he felt to have the opportunity to cover so much
ground in his eight years leading a rock and roll band, especially since he didn’t feel like he and his band had
much of a recording career. They played primarily college dances and later on played clubs as filler gigs
playing in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas, New Jersey and
''We went to Canada in the summers of 1958 and 1959'', Tolleson said. ''Conway Twitty had arranged it for
our group and for Ronnie Hawkins. We followed Conway at The Brass Rail in London, Ontario. Ronnie
followed us two or three weeks later. He stayed and went on to become a great musical hero in Canada''.
Tolleson listed his early influences as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino and Carl Perkins. He
maintains that he still loves their music today. Tolleson’s original rock and roll band, simply called John
Tolleson and His Bunch, was Tolleson on piano and vocals; Bob Donathan (Tolleson’s former bandleader
and boss) on tenor sax; Teddy Souter on lead guitar; Bill Rath on rhythm guitar; and Bud Jones on drums.
''Membership in the band changed quite a bit in 1957, 1958 and early 1959'', Tolleson said. ''I'd be hard
pressed to name everyone, but we had some excellent players, especially in the groups I took to Canada in
the summers of 1958 and 1959'', he said.
Tolleson named quite a who’s who list of musicians who played with his group in its early years including
drummers Johnny Sallis, Jack Nance and Tommy Markham. Nance and Markham both played in Twitty’s
bands. Another excellent musician in Tolleson’s band during the summer Canada tours was guitarist Larry
Morton, who continued a successful musical career with Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass.
In the fall of 1959, Tolleson returned to further his education at the Universaty of Arkansas, and continued
with his ever-popular band based out of Fayetteville. The lineup at that time included Tolleson, Charles
Conine on drums, Chalky Dearien on guitar and Troy Brand on sax and tambourine. In late 1960 Ken Clark
joined the group playing bass guitar. Once again Dearien, Brand and Clark were together in the same band.
In 1961, Mike Davis replaced Charles Conine on drums, and in late 1963 or early 1964 Richard Gibson
joined, playing additional keyboards. The addition of Gibson and his coverage of both the organ parts and
bass pedal enabled the rest of the band to switch off on other instruments, with Tolleson and Dearien on
trombones and Clark on trumpet. This provided a variety to the overall sound for which Tolleson has fond
memories. Tolleson said that Gibson provided great acoustic guitar and vocal parts and would sometimes
team up with Clark and Dearien for an acoustic set of folk music. Tolleson answered a question about his
''Over the eight years, one would have to be ''Black And Blue'', the old Fats Waller song we did with a rock
flavor. From 1959 on, undoubtedly it was ''Tennessee Stud'', a country folk song written by Jimmy
Driftwood''. John Tolleson retired from rock and roll when he finished his education at the University of
Arkansas and became an executive for Baldwin Piano Corporation.
''Our final performance was in May 1965, at the senior prom for Northwest Classen High School in
Oklahoma City'', Tolleson said. ''When I gave up the band in 1965 to continue a career in the corporate
world, I figured the move to Cincinnati was a good way to avoid the rock and roll ''stigma''. When I returned
to Northwest Arkansas in 1998, I was quite surprised when people expressed fond memories of our group
and the time period it represented. The name recognition has been nice and not a stigma to be overcome. By
the way, the Cate Brothers were just coming along when we quit. Obviously, they were and are great and
have been very influential. I never got to hear them until 1995''.
At least one source suggests that John Tolleson was confined for a wheelchair. And when John Tolleson died
in 1997, he never had had the thrill of seeing his name on a yellow Sun label.
On stage at the Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, Tennessee, 1960.
TOWNSEL SISTERS, THE - Carolyn, Eloise and Lana Townsel grew up on a farm in Lake Village, southeast Arkansas. Lana recalls: "We had a childhood like most kids don't have. We were singing together as far back as I can remember. I can even picture one time we were appearing somewhere and Eloise was asleep on mama's lap and had to be woken up so we could go on stage. She was probably about three years old, so that makes me and Carolyn about four and five''.
''I was eight years old the first time I realized I could sing harmony. Daddy told me one day it was time to listen 'real close' so I could learn to harmonize''.
''The song he had me listen to was called "Midnight". I was scared to death but I wanted to please Daddy. I walked down the road to the mail box and sang a little as I walked. By the time I got back to the house I asked Eloise, who was 7, to sing "Midnight". Then we went to Daddy and asked him if this is what he meant. We were so afraid it wouldn't be right but he got up and said. 'Do it again, Lana Earle. You'te a little bit flat'. I was so relieved".
Carolyn adds: "there was lots of music in our house. Our dad played every kind of instrument. He bought me an 485 guitar when I was 11 years old. By then we were doing local events, Lions Club things, and all of that. We were really a populair group. We sang everything from pop to country to gospel".
"Daddy took us everywhere we went", remembers Lana. "I can picture us driving down the road in his old Ford. There was no air conditioning and it was very hot. We'd have the windows rolled down but we were all ducking behind the seats so our hair wouldn't get messed up before the show. And our mother was very proud of us, too. She made our clothes so we could be dressed alike. She would sit up all night and sew with a pattern she had cut out of paper and material she had gotten from sears".
Carolyn continues: "As we got better and better, we started doing television shows. By then I was about 15 and my daddy bought a Martin guitar for me. That was a serious commitment, and I still have the guitar. Channell 7 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas - we sang there pretty regularly. We also appeared on KVSA, the radio station in Dermott, Arkansas. We used to appear on the air with different local bands. More and more we would sing in places outside the state. We'd travel around to different little towns and play at different events. We also traveled down to Monroe, Louisiana several times and appeared on the TV station there. We did a lot around our local tri-state area. We appeared on the Louisiana Hayride several times, also. We didn't have a recording contract or anything at that point but my dad knew a few people and we were pretty well known".
At some point, word of the Sister's popularity reached local songwriter and promoter Floyd Huddleston. Carolyn recalls: "He had heard about us and he came out to the farm to hear us sing. I guess he liked what he heard and he signed us up. Floyd took us under his wing when we were so young. He was very kind to us and very helpful. Floyd had written hundreds of songs, and we started singing some of the songs he had written. We were probably 13, 14 1nd 15 years old then".
Two of the Sister's recordings were released around 1956 on the Shy label owned by Huddleston. Sky 702 features "Telephonin' Blues" and "It's Over, I'm Through". Lana continues: "After that, Floyd hooked up with a man from Memphis named Burl Olswanger. He had a music store there". Lana remembers going over to Sun. "Roy Orbison was leaning up against the wall outside. WQe got to talking to him. Everybody we met back then, we wanted them to give us their autograph. We always did it in threes, so today we have three Roy Orbison signatures".
Carolyn recalls: "I wrote "The Whole Night Through". I can remember sitting on the porch and writing it. My dad kept encouracing me to try to write. I think that was the only original song we ever recorded. Before that we had cut Floyd Huddleston's stuff and later on we had people like Felice and Boudleaux Bryant writing for us, so there was no point. I don't even have a copy of our records today. I do have some tapes of our songs - not the actual 45s".
Throughout 1958 and 1959, the Townsel Sisters continued to perform, appearing at shows with Charlie Rich in Oxford and Columbus, Mississippi and working a number of dates in Memphis and Arkansas with the Bill Black Combo. Some time in late 1959, the Townsels traveled to Nashville. They appeared on a Grand Ole Opry talent contest and were victorious. This led directly to a recording contract with Hickory Records (the label affiliated with Acuff-Rose Publishing) and a subsequent appearance on the Opry.
Backstage at the Louisiana Hayride, Shreveport, Louisiana, May 25, 1957.
On February 4, 1960, the Townsel Sisters recorded four sides for Hickory Records, all of which were released on two singles (Hickory 1117 and 1125). In 1960, the Townsel Sisters appeared in the book "Who's Who In Country Music". How did the career of the Townsel Sisters come to an end? Carolyn recalls: "We were going to college at the same time all of this music was going on. One of my sisters, Lana, met this guy and that was the end of it. We were starting to get some serious offers. I remember that Faron Young's manager wanted to handle us. There was going to be traveling and all kinds of things''.
''My dad was an old country guy and he knew we were just young girls. He didn't want for us to do that right then. Just didn't think it was a good idea. This was around 1962. He told us, 'You girls will be happier marrying and having families'. So that was it".
Lana confirms all of this. "Yes, I was the one that broke us up by getting married. And the funny thing is now, 40 years later, I'm the one that wants to get back on stage. Actually, all of us got married within two years of each other. And all of us had two children - a boy and a girl. My husband died in 1990 and now that I have more free time on my hands, the music has become important again".
Reflecting on more than a half a century of cultural change since the Townsel Sisters made their debut, Lana concludes, "If you want to really know what we were like, go see the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou". That scene with the three little girls standing on a stage in rural Mississippi or somewhere? That could have been us".
Bonnie & Ike Turner ''Looking For My Baby'' RPM 362
TURNER, BONNIE - For years, ''Bonnie'' Marion Turner was little more than a name on the label of an obscure RPM record, on an old tape box in the Sun vaults, and in the hazy memories of members of Ike Turner's Kings Of Rhythm. As far as any of them could remember, the girl known as Bonnie was around the Turner band in Clarksdale, Mississippi playing piano and singing with them by or before 1952, and gone by 1954. She had been Ike's wife, although -no-one was sure they ever legally married, including, he said, Ike himself. Ike said she was replaced by another wife, Alice, and then by pianist and wife, Anna Mae Wilson, from Greenville. Some musicians had confused the two pianists in their memories, thinking Bonnie was called Annie Mae something, maybe Bowens.
The composer credit on the RPM 362 disc was Baron, so maybe that was it. They all agreed that Bonnie was one of several girl singers who appeared with Ike's Kings Of Rhythm in the days Annie Mae Bullock, who became known first as ''Little Ann'' and then as Tina Turner.
Ike Turner had many wives down the years, some with paperwork to prove it and many without. Ike told several interviewers he had 13 of them. In his autobiography he said he married Edna Dean Stewart from Ruleville when he was a teenager in the mid-1940s (local records show they married on April 10, 1948 and that Ike had added four years to his age) and then Rosa Lee sane in West Memphis a few years later. Before and after Rosa he kept house with Velma Gamble (also known as Velma Dishman) in Yazoo City and Etta Mae Menfield, known as ''Snow'', in West Memphis, after which he said: ''I went back to Mississippi, and that's where Bonnie came in''. Ike never mentioned Bonnie's full name and was always coy about her details, saying only that she came from the Clarksdale area of Mississippi, and preferring to talk about her impact on his music. He told Cilla Huggins he started to switch from piano to guitar when he met Bonnie: ''... rhythm and blues guitar players was very scare in those days... I had Willie Kizart playing (1951) and then I met this girl Bonnie. So she played piano, I played piano... then I started living with Bonnie, as my woman, because she had a house of her own in Clarksdale, and we started living together. And she could really play piano, man, and I had to try to - it was a thing with me, staying ahead of her on piano.. so I just started learning how to play guitar and I switched over''. Ike also described how, ''she could read music and everything, and sight read. And then she sing too, and would sing all the Ruth Brown stuff''. As far as marriage, he wasn't telling, saying to one interviewer, ''I don't know if I ever married Bonnie or not, no I really don't''.
The fact is, he did marry Bonnie and there are marriage and divorce records to prove it. Researcher Bill Greensmiths spoke to Ike's second wife, Velma, who ''was on and off'' with Ike for a couple of years and lived with him in Yazoo City, Clarksdale, and West Memphis, marrying him on September 19, 1950 (when he only added one year to his age) having already had his child over a year earlier. Velma remembered seeing Bonnie in Clarksdale and that Bonnie was still at school when she first saw her. Bonnie had been playing piano in church, encouraged by her church-going family, and Velma was surprised when she later managed to ''get out to play the blues''. Velma remembered when the RPM record was released around August 1952 by Bonnie and Ike Turner. She also said: ''They called her Bonnie, but I don't think that was her name''. It wasn’t. Although Baron and Bowens gad seemed good options, there was also the composer credit ''Lee'' on a disc by ''Mary Sue'' on Modern. The singer on Modern was clearly the same person as Bonnie on the RPM disc, and so Lee was an option too. Then Bill Greensmith produced a marriage certificate showing that Ike Turner (who added no years to his real age this time) married Marion Louis Lee, aged 18, in Clarksdale on September 24, 1952. With that knowledge, researcher Martin Hawkins to match Marion to other legal documents and to Sun's payment records. The 1940 census shows a Marion Louise Lee born in Clarksdale in 1935 and living with the family of her aunt, Mary Johnson. She would have been 18 at the time Marion married Ike, so there was a good chance that Marion and Mary were one and the same. That chance became more certain when blues researcher Jim O'Neal produced a birth record held by the Mississippi Department of Health for Marian (with an 'a') Louise Lee in Coahoma County. Her mother was Robbie Lee Johnson, her father was 'not listed'. Robbie Lee was the daughter of Mary S. Johnson and Grant Johnson of 1215 Lyon Street and, according to the 1940 census, was just 14 years old when Marion/Mary was born. So it seems that although Mary Johnson told the census officer she was Marion's aunt, she was actually her grandmother.
Bonnie Turner was still Marion Lee when she made her first recordings with Ike's band in the spring or summer of 1952. Getting out to play the blues, she appeared on two discs, Modern 880, ''Everybody's Talking'' and ''Love Is A Gamble'', and RPM 362, ''Looking For My Baby'' and ''My Heart Belongs To You''. The Modern disc was reviewed in Billboard on August 23 and the RPM a week later on August 30. On Modern, she was billed as 'Mary Sue' and on RPM as 'Bonnie and Ike Turner'. That same month saw the release of B.B. King's bit hit ''You Know I Love You'' and Houston Boines'''Monkey Motion'', both of which were part of packages of ''field'' recordings Ike Turner helped put together for the Bihari family who owned Modern and RPM. The Biharis employed Ike to record and scout talent throughout 1952 and he was involved in a number of sessions at different venues across the South and in Memphis at the YMCA building. The likelihood is that Bonnie travelled with Ike to Memphis to record her sides at a makeshift studio at the home of bandleader Tuff green sometime in the spring or early summer of 1952.
Producer Joe Bihari remembered Bonnie as Ike's girlfriend and described her as ''a nice young girl'' but with only ''fair'' voice (when asked in August 2012 by John Broven). Joe felt he recorded her in Memphis. He also remembered that he set Ike up with a new Buick car so that he could travel widely to scout talent and keep in tough with the Modern/RPM operation in California. Joe remembered Ike driving the Buick all the way to Los Angeles with Bonnie and that he arranged accommodation for them in Hobart Street. However, Ike couldn't settle and they left within a month.
Ike Turner is not known to have recorded at 706 Union Avenue for two years following his summer 1951 disagreement with Sam Phillips over the crediting and payment for ''Rocket 88''. He reappeared at Sun in July and August 1953. Sam's recording log for August 2 shows that Ike and the Kings of Rhythm recorded that day with the Kings vocalist Johnny O'Neal, and that the pianist was Bonnie. However, when it came time to pay the band, checks had to be made out in real names, not nicknames. Sun's payment ledger for that day shows that Bonnie received check #188 for $7.50 made payable to Marion Turner. It is interesting that one of the songs O'Neal recorded that day was ''Johnny's Dream'' in which he talks to two other characters, the Devil, played by Ike and a girl he calls Mary. At some point, possibly also on or around August 2, a tape was made featuring Bonnie as vocalist. The session was not logged nor paid for but Bonnie recorded at least three titles, including another version of ''Love Is A Gamble''. It is possible that Bonnie's session predated the Modern recording of the song, but unlikely because Ike was tied to the Biharis. Ike was known for wheeling and dealing and very often pitched a song to another company after it had been recorded and released elsewhere. Then, too, Ike said, ''Bonnie used to sing ''Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean'' by Ruth Brown, she used to sing that real good''. Brown's disc was a hit through the spring and early summer 1953. The pile of Memphis Recording Service acetate dubs that sat in a store room for many years once included an acetate of an unnamed female vocalist singing ''Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean'', so while that could have been anybody it just might have been Bonnie too.
According to several musicians, and to Velma Gamble, Bonnie had left the Turner band by the end of 1953 or early 1954. It seems that Ike and his band had played a residency in at least two clubs in Florida for two or three years in a row. Ike said ''Earl Hooker was the one that carried me to Florida for the first time. Earl, Bonnie and I went to Sarasota and played at Simpson's bar''. There was a disagreement about money, ''… so the owner fired him (Earl) and Bonnie and I started to playing there''. Drummer Willie Sims agreed and remembered the bar was owned by Johnny Simpson. Sims said the Turner band originally went to Florida ''the first of 1952'' but if so must have been just before or just after the ran a recording session in Greenville at the and of January. Turner played at another club in Bradenton, run by Buddy May, and it was a trip there toward the end of 1953 when the singer and pianist Billy Emerson joined the band some weeks after he had left the Army in September. Emerson said Ike fell ill in Sarasota and arrangements were made for Emerson to finish out Ike's commitments there and bring the band back up to Clarksdale. At the same time, ''Ike's pianist and girlfriend had left him'', said Emerson, and Ike had gone home to Clarksdale. Ike's illness has been described by his band members as some kind of mental breakdown. Eugene Fox confirmed that Bonnie was in Clarksdale in 1953 but was gone by February 1954 when he recorded ''Sinner's Dream'' for Checker and ''The Dream'' for RPM with Ike and his new girl, Anna Mae Wilson, playing vocal parts. (Both these dreams were versions of the song ''Johnny's Dream'' that Ike and Bonnie had made with Johnny O'Neal for Sun). Ike confirmed that Bonnie had left him in Sarasota. He told Juke Blues magazine, ''We went to Florida and she was in the beauty shop, and she start going with this woman's brother that own the beauty shop and then she disappeared. I never saw her anymore''. Other versions described by band members indicate that Anna Mae Wilson was the cause of the breakup and of Ike's illness and Ike himself described how he married another woman, Alice Bell, Johnny O'Neal's girlfriend, soon after Bonnie left. Either way, the Florida Divorce Index for 1955 confirms that the marriage of Isiah Turner and Marion Lee ended in the Sarasota courts that year.
So, what of Bonnie's career after 1955? Ike Turner told Cilla Huggins, ''She's in Chicago now. I found an old book of mine and her number's in there''. He also told Bill Greensmith that Bonnie went to Chicago, but in his autobiography Ike said Bonnie went to new York. Researcher Jim O'Neal had been told about Bonnie in the 1970s by Clarksdale resident C.V. Veal, who said she was in Chicago according to a mutual friend and that she had run a restaurant on the South Side at one point. Asked again in August 2012, Veal said he had heard no more about her. So far, research has failed to produce a death certificate for Marion Louise Lee let alone any details of her later life or, less likely, career in music. So Bonnie Turner may still be out there somewhere with a story to tell. (MH)
TURNER, IKE – Ike Turner's former wife, Tina, ensured that his name will forever be a synonym for wifebeater. No none could read her 1986 autobiography, ''I, Tina'', and come away with much admiration for Ike. In the movie version, when she kicked him in the groin, audiences cheered. Compounding the ignominy, when he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 he couldn't attend because he was in jail on cocaine possession charges. Irony of ironies, Phil Spector accepted on his behalf. In 1999, Ike took his own stab at autobiography, ''Takin' Back My Name'', though it was only published in England. But before Ike Turner died, he'd half-way rehabilitated himself, despite another stint in jail, because it was becoming apparent that he was a pioneer, and like most pioneers, he had the arrows in his back to prove it.
If ''Rocket 88'' wasn't the first rock and roll record, it heralded some kind of new day. And Ike's guitar playing, dubbed the piss-shiver guitar by one writer, was spacey for its place and time. Music aside, he became on of the first African American artists to take charge of the business and of the music business: producing, managing, booking, and playing. Oh, and of course he made Annie Mae Bullock into Tina Turner.
Of all the renderings of his true name, it seems that Izear Wister Turner was the son of a preacher and seamstress and his name given to Ike Turner upon his birth in Clarksdale, Mississippi on November 5, 1931. He said his parents were Creoles, and insisted that his father died from injuries sustained during a racist beating. Even before his tenth birthday, he was looking for ways to make money. "I sold scrap iron, did odd jobs, any hustle I could think of to have a few extra quarters in my pocket". One day, when he was a kid, he passed by a house on Yazoo Street, Clarksdale, and saw Pinetop Perkins ''whuppin' the piano to death. It put a burn in my mind''. Getting Perkins to show him how to play, he was soon backing Sonny Boy and Robert Nighthawk when they were in town. It became clear that music - allied to the instinct of the born hustler - would be the most important thing in his life. As the leader of the Kings Of Rhythm, he was open to any suggestion that would earn money and secure a modicum of fame: its a trait he retains to this day. Ike hear all the good music on offer around Clarksdale, and began his career playing piano for Robert Nighthawk. He launched his own group, and one night in Chambers, Mississippi he saw cars lined up and a sign that said ''B.B. King''. Turner already knew King. By his account, he'd brought B.B. To his house in Clarksdale when B.B. Was scuffling, and given him some shoes. Now he saw B.B. On the bandstand, and envisioned his own future.
A few weeks or months later, B.B. Saw Turner's Kings of Rhythm and told them to go to Memphis. B.B. Said he'd get the guy at the recording company, Sam Phillips, to call. In other accounts, B.B. Said that he set up an audition for Ike. ''We were in Johnny Dougan's Chrysler'', said Turner, ''all seven or eight of us and instruments too. Someone said that we needed some original material if we were going to record. All we new were jukebox covers. So on the way up there we tried to write some songs''. By Turner's account, they arrived with ''Rocket 88'' half written and finished it in the studio. Turner and the Kings of Rhythm recorded four original songs, two issued under the name of Kings' saxophonist, Jackie Brenston, and two under Turner's name.
In the wake of ''Rocket 88'', dissension set in between the Kings of Rhythm, and between Sam Phillips and the Bihari brothers at RPM-Modern Records, who felt that they'd been zoomed out of a hit. The Biharis stopped taking masters from Phillips, and Joe Bihari came to Memphis to record B.B. King. At the session that yielded ''3 O’clock Blues'' and ''You Know I Love You'', Turner replaced Phineas Newborn on piano, and Bihari liked what he heard. ''He said, 'Hey, is there any more talent around here like you'?. I said, 'Yeah, lots of it'. I told him there were musicians all over Mississippi. He went outdoors to talk to me. He bought a car, a green '49 Buick so I could drive all over Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Florida and find talent. Then he'd come down with portable equipment and record''. The Biharis paid Turner one hundred bucks a week in salary and another hundred and twenty-five in expenses. The deal didn't yield another ''Rocket 88'', and by 1953 Turner was working with Sun, placing Little Milton and Billy The Kid Emerson with the label.
Ike married several times in Mississippi and Arkansas, once to a piano player named Bonnie, prompting Ike to switch to guitar. Possibly, he was also married to another female pianist, Anna Mae Wilson, and they were together in 1954 when Ike took up his sister's suggestion that he move to St. Louis. Within a few months, the Kings of Rhythm ruled the local club scene. Ike kept them disciplined and well groomed. Club owners liked him because he always turned up sober and on time, and drew huge crowds. His records weren't hits, but he had a new Cadillac, and by his count, thirty-two women had given him the keys to their apartments. Always a slick operator, he sidestepped recording contracts like he sidestepped marriages. And all this happened before a woman named Alline Bullock suggested that Ike listen to her little sister, Annie Mae.
Near the end of his life, Ike Turner enjoyed a minor career renaissance. In 2001, he released his first Ike Turner & the Kings Of Rhythm album in many years. Titled ''Here And Now'', it was nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album of the Year Award at the W.C. Handy Blues Awards. His next record, ''Risin' With The Blues'', won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album. On Wednesday, December 12, 2007, Ike Turner died of a cocaine overdose in his San Marcos, California, home, aged 76. As writer Jimmy Thomas said, if you get to be 76 what's the point of hanging on? To save yourself for those great years between 90 and 100? (CE)
TURNER, JESSE LEE – Turner's career is surprisingly undocumented for someone with a Top 20 hit. If he's still in Galveston, he hasn't strayed far from home. He was born 1938 in Addicks, Texas, and grew up in Boling, which is more a crossroad than a town. Jesse Lee Turner had a strong rock and roll voice, with an Elvis-like quiver. Unfortunately, this side of Turner can be heard on only a few of his discs. He had the misfortune that his only hit was a novelty number and that fact kept haunting him for the rest of his recording career. A cousin of Nashville session musician and RCA artist Floyd Robinson, he somehow hired on as Jerry Lee Lewis' driver in 1957. He was certainly driving for Jerry Lee on the day of the Homecoming in Ferriday, Louisiana. Jerry Lee was late, so Jesse Lee and Jerry's sister, Frankie Jean, sang some duets.
He recorded "Put Me Down" as a demo for Sun Records (now available on at least six different CD compilations). It was written by Jerry Lee's guitarist Roland Janes, and Jerry Lee was sufficiently impressed to record the song himself, for his first album. Turner's career as a recording artist zoomed into orbit with his first real release. Roland says that he remembers playing the song for Jesse Lee in the touring sedan, but he's pretty sure Jerry Lee cut it first. Jesse Lee probably quit Jerry's retinue after the debacle in England.
At a time when witch doctors, purple people eaters and chipmunks were all over the charts, a song about another alien from outer space, "The Little Space Girl" looked like a good commercial bet. The record was produced in Texas by Dewey Groom (a veteran country singer who set himself up as a music entrepreneur after coming off the road in 1958) and leased to Carlton Records. "The Little Space Girl", featuring the Chipmunk-like voice of Paul Belin, a Texas deejay, was written by Jesse Lee's cousin Floyd Robinson, though Turner was inadvertently credited as the writer. It came out in December 1958 and was picked by Billboard as a "Spotlight winner of the week". By February 1959, it had reached number 20 on the Billboard charts. However, those who flipped the record over and played "Shake Baby Shake" (based on Hank Ballard's "Sexy Ways") knew immediately where Turner's musical loyalty lay. It is his best rocker. Fortunately, Jesse Lee had the good taste to record the follow-up, "Baby Please Don't Tease" was another Roland Janes song in the same style as "Shake Baby Shake". It was a song that was supposed to go on the flip of Jerry Lee's ''High School Confidential'', but Jack Clement seemed Pee Wee Maddux out of half of ''Fools Like Me'' and went with that instead. I failed to sell, though, and Carlton Records let him go.
Turner then started label-hopping, cutting mostly one-off singles for Fraternity, Imperial, Top Rank ("Do I Worry", one of his finest), ''Jaro'' (as Jesse and the Road Runners), ''Sudden'' and ''GNP Crescendo'' between 1959 and 1962. Most of these were novelties and many of the songs were written by or with Floyd Robinson, who had his own Top 20 hit in the summer of 1959 with "Makin' Love" on RCA. Quite acceptable was Turner's version of "Shotgun Boogie", but it was stacked away on the B-side of "The Ballad of Billie Sol Estes" (1962) and got lost in the shuffle. A further 45 appeared on the obscure Hollywood-based DeVille label in 1965.
Turner resurfaced in 1978. A half-page feature in Billboard was headlined. ''Jesse Turner Returns to Music via Motion Pictures''. It mentioned a movie, ''Smokey And The Good Time Outlaws'', co-starred Slim Pickens along with Johnny Paycheck, Mickey Gilley and Johnny Russell and for which he'd written four of the eight songs for the movie. ''After 'Space Girl' I went to California and Tuner told billboard, ''he recorded duets with his cousin Floyd Robinson for MCA and Music Man and then, with his good looks, began an acting career, starring in several TV series and B-movies''.
Back in Texas to make it in the business. Apparently, he bought stakes in a cattle ranch, an airport, and several oil wells, and worked as a crop duster. ''I'd done all the business I wanted to do'', continued Turner, ''and decided that I really wanted to make movies''. He was last heard of, in 2002, as an evangelist in Galveston, Texas. In the rock and roll history books, Jesse Lee Turner is no more than a one-hit wonder. He definitely had innate rockabilly ability. Unfortunately, his novelty recordings sold better than his attempts at unadulterated rock 'n' roll.
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