MALCOLM YELVINGTON - Born September 14, 1918 to Frank Yelvington and Sarah Edwards, in Covington, Tennessee, and growing up with the hit sounds of Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams, started singing in the late 1930s, Malcolm was able to move his band through hillbilly to honky
tonk to a kind of laid-back rockabilly. Yelvinton's songwriting partner and chief collaborator was singer, guitarist and pianist, Reece Fleming, the only man who recorded for Sun Records who had a genuine Memphis-based
As half of the duo Fleming
and Townsend, Reece had first recorded with Raspers Townsend for Victor in May 1930 and went on to see releases on Victor, Bluebird, ARC and Decca. Mostly they made vocal and yodelling duets
with Fleming on guitar and Townsend on harmonica. Drawing on blues and hillbilly traditions, they often used a salacious approach - "I'll Tell You About Woman" and "Bad Reputations"
- but were capable of good, original country music like "She's Just That Kind" and "Blue And Lonesome".
After the war he joined Reece Fleming's Tennesseans, playing schoolhouse dates around Covington. One of the key figures in the Memphis music scene in
1952 through 1955. Yelvington's Star Rhythm Boys employed a growling rockabilly sound and secured a daily gig on a local radio station. With a honky-tonk piano (Frank Tolley), electric guitars (Gordon
Mashburn and Jake Ryles), steel guitar (Reece Fleming), and acoustic bass guitar (Miles Wimm), the Star Rhythm Boys were Memphis most innovative sound.
Yelvington's musical direction on "Gonna Have Myself A Ball", "Drinkin' Wine Spidee-O-Dee" (SUN
211), was an old rhythm and blues tune made famous by Sticks McGhee in 1949. At some point in the winter of 1953-54, the Star Rhythm Boys guitarist, Gordon Mashburn learned that there was a record company in Memphis
that had just issued a disc by another local group, the Ripley Cotton Choppers. "We went down to see Sam", recalls Yelvington. "He asked us what type of music we played and we said, 'Country'.
He said he wasn't interest, so I asked him what he wanted. He said, 'I don't know, but I'll know when I hear it'. Gordon said, 'Mr. Phillips, that means you'll have to listen to every single person who
comes in off the street'. Sam said, 'I intent to'".
and his group eventually persuaded Phillips to take a listen. "We couldn't come up with anything that Sam wanted", recalled Yelvington. "I wanted something like Hank Williams or Moon Mullican,
but Sam kept saying no. Then I decided to try "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee". Sam poked his head around the door and said, 'Where did you get that from?'. I said, 'Man, we've been playing that
every week for a long time".
In 1955 Yelvington sidestepped his
Sun contract and recorded pseudonymously as Mac Sales and Jack for Meteor Records in Memphis "A Gal Named Joe", with equally poor response. The following year, Yelvington returned to Sun Records
with a rockabilly novelty, "Rockin' With My Baby" (SUN 246). Sounding a little uncomfortable with the brisk tempo - and slurring the lyrics because he had removed his dentures - Yelvington
nevertheless turned out a very creditable piece of the new music. Other cuts on Sun and Meteor are, "Trumpet", "Mr. Blues", "First And Last Love", "Goodby Marie", "It's Me Baby" and "Yakety Yak"
provided some of the most interesting moments in Memphis rockabilly history.
Yelvington's sides on Sun and Meteor are some of the finest cuts in rockabilly history.
Talking about his Sun days, Malcolm's recollections in August 1971 to Martin Hawkins
and Colin Escott were as follow: "I guess I can say I started in recording at the same time as Elvis. That's something isn't it! He got his first record out in the summer of 1954 and I got mine
in the fall. The problem was that when I got mine out rock and roll was getting going pretty good and mine were mostly country and western, but we picked an rhythm and blues song to do, though
we did it more oarless country style. It sold a few - I can't remember exactly - around Memphis. If you got one of 'em you got more'n I got. That one was "Drinkin' Wine".
"Drinkin' Wine" was a song that we had done for dances years before I ever recorded it. I could
sing it in my sleep. The way we got onto doing it, we were down in the studio one day and we were going through some material that we had, and we couldn't come up with anything that Sam would
like. He was after rhythm and blues or something with a solid beat to it, and I said to the boys 'let's try "Drinkin' Wine" we don't even have to rehearse that', we were playing it at dances
every week anyhow. So he was sitting back in the control room there and my lead man he took off on it. We had lead, piano and steel and I started singing, and Sam poked his head round the door and said,
'where'd you get that?', and I told him, 'Man, we been doing that thing for a long time'. It was first done by a feller the name of Sticks McGhee, and then I think I was the first white artist
ever to record it. And then Sam said, 'let's cut that, it sounds good'. So we cut it and it took about six or seven hours to get it like he wanted. He was most particular. He went out and
got some boys to sing in the background. And the group was Reece Fleming, he's dead now, he played piano on et and Myles Winn, we called him "Red", played steel, and Jack Ryles on bass,
Gordon Mashburn on lead and me on rhythm. We didn't have drums on.
1961 Yelvington finally gave up his club dates to concentrate on his day job, his bowling, and family life. In 1988, Malcolm Yelvington toured to England and Holland, where several thousand
fans gathered to hear him play the old songs. Yelvington was one of a very few musicians to encourage Elvis Presley to continue his guest for a musical career. Many times Yelvington urged
the roughs and the less-talented musicians to leave Elvis Presley to his music. This was partially due to Malcolm Yelvington's respect for Elvis Presley, but the lanky rockabilly artist also
performed a similar type of music.
Yelvington recorded his signature
song after Elvis Presley finished cutting Sun Record number 210, "I Don't Care If The Sun Don't Shine". The previous year, Elvis Presley listened to "Drinkin' Wine Spodee-O-Dee" many times
in local clubs. "Elvis stood out in the crowd, but he never talked to me", Yelvington recalled. "He was a fine singer. The boy was always looking for a piano player. He liked our man and that's
why he hung out around us". Yelvington also re-emphasized that he had never played with Elvis Presley. "I understand there's a book that says that, but it's not true".
During his last years, Malcolm Yelvington lead tours at the re-born Sun studio
in Memphis, most Saturdays and greet the tourists. He'd tell his stories, and they were good ones because he really had been there. In 1997, aged 79, he released his first full-length album. Malcolm Yelvington died at Memphis Baptist
Hospital on February 21, 2001, press reports variously blaming cancer, heart failure, or pneumonia but in truth it was all three. His funeral service in Bartlett, Tennessee, included recordings
of Malcolm's Christian songs, and was attended by his five children, eleven grandchildren as well as friends and fellow musicians.
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