STUDIO SESSION FOR THE RIPLEY COTTON CHOPPERS
AT THE MEMPHIS RECORDING SERVICE FOR SUN RECORDS 1953
 
SUN RECORDING STUDIO
706 UNION AVENUE, MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE
SUN SESSION: SATURDAY JULY 11, 1953
SESSION HOURS: UNKNOWN
PRODUCER AND RECORDING ENGINEER - SAM C. PHILLIPS
 
"In 1953, after my Sun label really got started", says Sam Phillips, "I would record some country music but I was always still looking for somebody with a little different sound. I felt that there was the basis of a particular style to be found here in Memphis''.
 
''The Ripley Cotton Choppers came from a little town north of Memphis. They were the first country musicians I issued on the Sun label. They were a damn fine country band. I had some nice cuts on them, but Sun was very much geared to the blues market at that time and we were never able to promote them".
 
"Silver Bell"/"Blues Waltz" (Sun 190) by the Ripley Cotton Choppers remains one of the rarest records Sam Phillips ever recorded. After two years of releasing nothing but black music, Sam Phillips had decided to broaden his base of operations. In July 1953, he scheduled the first recording session with the Ripley Cotton Choppers, and later that year released Sun's first country record. It had "Hillbilly" stamped on the promo copies so that country disc jockey’s would take a second look and maybe listen.
 
Raymond Kerby also recalls Phillips' conduct in the studio. "He kept trying to get us to do something we never did understand. He wanted us to play and sing more like a colored man. He kept saying if he could just find him a white boy who...".
 
Phillips was fairly insistent about this but the Cotton Choppers were never able to cross that maggie line. Nevertheless, the title of the very first country record that Sam Phillips released on Sun still had the word "blues" in it.
 
An ironic footnote to Phillips' quest is that a year or so before their Sun audition, the Choppers had recorded a rough demo of an original song called "Paint Slinger Blues". It was a simple 12-bar blues written by Kerby, his brother James, and his uncle, Jesse Frost. It was composed spontaneously as the three men sat around after a hard day's work.
 
Raymond Kerby still had his paint splattered overalls on when the line "I'm an old paint slinger and I sling my paint all day" came into being. Because they never took the song seriously, the Choppers never even auditioned the song for Phillips. As an old acetate shows, "Paint Slinger Blues" comes surprisingly close to the sound and style that Sam Phillips was looking for. Kerby confides that most of his group was not overly impressed with Sam Phillips' operation. "Half of us figured we were wasting our time. We figured Sun Records wasn't big enough. They'll never do anything for anybody".
 
The Ripley Cotton Choppers came to Sun's attention because Hoyt Wooten, Sam Phillips' old boss at WREC told Ernest Underwood about Sam Phillips. Underwood was the only member of the Choppers who had also played with the original group, and he and Wooten were old friends. A phone call was made and Ernest Underwood and Raymond Kerby drove down to meet Sam Phillips.
 
When this 78rpm was finally released, it never appeared on 45rpm, Phillips told Kerby, "Now don't quit if this record don't make it. You too good a guitar player". By virtually any yardstick SUN 190 did not make it. It certainly got lots of local action and seems to have been on every jukebox between Memphis and Ripley.  Kerby recalls, "We never did see any royalties on it. But you could turn the radio on, sometimes ten or twelve different stations would be playing it at the same time. Bob Neal had a show on WMPS. He used "Silver Bell" as his opening and closing theme".
 
 "SILVER BELL"* - B.M.I. - 2:14
Composer: - Edward Madden-Percy Wenrich
Publisher: - Redwood Music Limited
Matrix number: - U 83 - Master
The title spelled as ''Silver Bells'' on the record label.
Recorded: - July 11, 1953
Released: - September 1953
First appearance: - Sun Records (S) 78rpm standard single SUN 190-B mono
SILVER BELL / BLUES WALTZ
Reissued: - 1994 Bear Family Records (CD) 500/200rpm BCD 15801-2-2 mono
THE SUN SINGLES COLLECTION - VOLUME 1
 
As a vocal outing during the late forties, "Sugarfoot Rag" became a benchmark hit for Red Foley. It was equally effective as an instrumental by its creator, guitarist Hank Garland, and in time to come several other catchy workouts would follow its thrust. Taking their cue from Bob Wills, the rustic-sounding Ripley Cotton  Choppers (famous around Shelby County for their regular radio broadcast) homed in on their neat equivalent, "Silver Bell", for what amounted to an exploratory Sun one-off.
 
The song itself, composed by vaudevillian Percy Wenrich in 1910, was already a minor standard when the Choppers took it to Sam Phillips. The record is really a showcase for the guitar of Bill Webb who is backed by guitarists Raymond and James Kerby and the driving bass of Pete Wiseman. The back-country charm of the record, one of Sun's rarest releases, compensates for some technical flaws, not the least of which is Webb's slightly out-of-tune instrument. You'd think this wouldn't stand a prayer in the country music world of the 1950s, but in 1955, Chet Atkins and Hank Snow took ''Silver Bell'' to the country charts. The label of Sun 190 states ''Silver Bells'', which is the old Christmas standard).
"BLUES WALTZ"** - B.M.I. - 2:52
Composer: - Mrs. R.M. Lawrence
Publisher: - Redwood Music Limited
Matrix number: - U 84 - Master
Recorded: - July 11, 1953
Released: - September 1953
First appearance: - Sun Records (S) 78rpm standard single SUN 190-A mono
BLUES WALTZ / SILVER BELL
Reissued: - 1994 Bear Family Records (CD) 500/200rpm BCD 15801-2-1 mono
THE SUN SINGLES COLLECTION - VOLUME 1
 
This side, "Blues Waltz", it features twin guitar work by Raymond Kerby and Bill Webb who played lead. This first country release was hardly typical of Memphis country in the 1950s. Rather, this side harks back beyond the era of the honky tonk to a time when country music was performed at church socials and family gatherings. Only the electric guitar dates it to the 1950s rather than the 1920s or 1930s. This track features Ernest Underwood and Jesse Frost in a vocal duet backed by guitars, bass, and James Haggard's mandolin (an instrument that was not over-represented at 706 Union). 
 
The original 78rpm credited the composition to Mrs. R.M. Lawrence, a resident of Ripley, Tennessee.  This record was already doomed to obscurity by virtue of the fact it was twenty years out of date on the day of release but Phillips' lack of experience in marketing country music banished it to a distribution network that barely exceeded the Ripley City limits.
 
The primary meeting went well and a formal audition was set up. That went well also and the group's first session was arranged. It produced "Blues Waltz", the vocal side of the Choppers' release. As Raymond Kerby recalls, Phillips had them repeat the song over and over again until he was satisfied with it. "Blues Waltz"  featured a harmony vocal by Ernest Underwood and Jesse Frost, now both dead. James Haggard's madoline, the only time this instrument appears on an issued Sun record, is prominently featured.
"ROSES AND SUNSHINE"**/*** - B.M.I. - 2:46
Composer: -  Mrs. R.M. Lawrence
Publisher: - Copyright Control
Matrix number: - None -  Not Originally Issued
Recorded: - July 11, 1953
Released: - 1984
First appearance: - Redita Records (LP) 33rpm RLP 126-1-4 mono
COTTON CHOPPER COUNTRY
Reissued: - November 1986 Bear Family Records (LP) 33rpm BFX 15211-2-16 mono
THE SUN COUNTRY YEARS 1950 - 1959
Reissued: - February 15, 2013 Bear Family Records (CD) 500/200rpm BCD 17311-1-34 mono
THE SUN COUNTRY BOX 1950 - 1959
 
With a strong female lead, this ''Roses And Sunshine'', a previously unissued song allows us a glimpse of what the Carter Family might have sounded like with an electric guitar. Vocal honours were shared by Jesse Frost and the Ripley heartbreaker, Jettie Cox. The song was a loose adaption of ''Down In The Valley'', itself set to a much earlier tune, ''The Happy Home Waltz''. Indeed, it includes bits of ''Down In The Valley'' (''Roses love sunshine, violets love dew...'' etc.). Tapes of the session have long since disappeared and only a single acetate, stored away by Raymond Kerby, has preserved the moment. 
 
The session which lasted all night, also produced two unreleased vocal sides called "Roses And Sunshine" and "Pretty Baby". "Roses And Sunshine" features a vocal duet which includes Jettie Cox. This track still exists today on a well-worn acetate. Nothing is known about "Pretty Baby". The acetate is been lost.
"PRETTY BABY" - B.M.I.
Composer: - Unknown
Publisher: - Copyright Control
Matrix number: - None - Sun Unissued
Recorded: - July 11, 1953
 
The historical importance of this record cannot be overlooked. It is the first country record issued by Sam Phillips on his fledgling label. It was, to say the least, a curious choice. Their lone Sun single released on September 1953, was probably never distributed more than 100 miles from where it was recorded.  It remains one of the rarest Sun releases and one of the least typical of anything bearing the Sun logo.
 
Despite its title, the record contains not a trace of the blues, although an unissued home recording from 1952 of "Paint Slinger Blues" suggests that the Cotton Choppers did have at least a passing acquaintance with the blues.  Sam Phillips and The Ripley Cotton Choppers caught each other's eye at just the right moment in time. Within the next two years, Sam Phillips virtually abandon blues and traditional country music for Elvis Presley and the first generation of rockabillies and The Ripley Cotton Choppers would cease to be a group.
 
Because the Cotton Choppers came to Sun and were one of the first country groups Phillips recorded, they received a historic offer. Sam Phillips was looking for a backup band to work with his new discovery: a vocalist whom Phillips was sure would put the company on the map and make everybody rich. After their final session, late into the night, Sam Phillips came out of the control room and sat down with the Choppers for one of his patented 'heart to heart' talks. He made his offer: there were no guarantees, but he liked Kerby's picking and thought everybody might benefit from the merger. Were they interested?
 
It was late that night and Kerby asked if they could think on it a bit. "Sure", said Phillips, "take your time". The sun had already come up by the time the Choppers got back to Ripley, and they had already made up their minds.
 
The Ripley Cotton Choppers decided not to back up Elvis Presley. He was an unknown, and it would have meant dropping their present vocalist, Kerby's uncle Jesse Frost. In this casual moment, Raymond Kerby passed up his chance at immortality which, as we all know, fell into the nimble fingers of Scotty Moore.
 
Kerby's memories of Sam Phillips are borne out by information that has since come to light. "He was always saying 'These people in Memphis are making fun of me. They think if you don't play popular music, you ain't playing music. But I'm going to show 'em'".
 
Name (Or. No. Of Instruments)
Ernest Underwood - Vocal**/** Fiddle***
Jesse Frost - Vocal**/***
Jettie Cox - Vocal**
Raymond Kerby - Guitar
James Kerby - Guitar
Bill Webb - Guitar
James Wiseman - Bass**/***
Pete Wiseman - Bass*
James Haggard - Mandolin**/**
 
The Choppers did little touring, virtually all of it confined to within 50 miles of Memphis. Kerby recalls playing on a bill with Carl Perkins at the Jackson Armory in 1954. They may have smiled 'hello' backstage, but really never made contact. The last contact Kerby with Sam Phillips was in early 1955. He had run out of copies of his record and called Phillips to buy some more. Kerby still has the shipping box that held a dozen 78rpms. It is postmarked January 10, 1955.
 
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