Courtesy by Wanda Vanzant Feathers
CHARLIE FEATHERS - The Robert Johnson of rockabilly and a prince in his own cotton patch, Feathers has enormous respect for the sound that Sam Phillips achieved in his old studio (in fact, he even goes so far to take credit for the sound). In an interview he once said that going from Sun to Meteor and King was like going from a Cadillac to a Chevrolet. Feathers had a sound in his head and Sam Phillips stood the greatest chance of capturing it. The stunning quality of "Peeping Eyes", "I've Been Deceived" and "Defrost Your Heart" attest to the special magic of Charlie Feathers at 706 Union. It was a chemistry that he rarely, if ever recaptured.
Feathers' hillbilly credentials were certainly come by honestly. Charlie Feathers was born Charles Arthur Lindberg, June 12, 1932, just outside Blackjack, nearly Holly Springs, Mississippi, in that stretch of country between Stayden and Hudsonvilly. His family were sharecroppers and their culture was a predictable mishmash of the usual elements - church, Grand Ole Opry and, in Charlie's case, occasional forays in the direction of the local Rossville Colored Picnic. He had a predilection for black music, the raw sounds of the delta country and, like Hank Williams and so many other good old boys he learn the rudiments of guitar from a blues man, in his case, Junior Kimbrough who remained a lifelong friend. Before coming to Memphis, Charlie Feathers had left Mississippi on his seventeen, working on a pipeline from Cairo, Illinois, all the way down to Texas, playing juke joints as he went.
Eventually he fetched up and then moved to Memphis in 1950 and promptly got married, and worked in a box factory before he contracted spinal meningitis and spent the greater part of a year in hospital. "I felt OK but they kept me in hospital the longest time. I had a guitar in there and that's when I started to write a few songs. I was just drawing on the music I had heard growing up. Down there you could walk through the streets or down the road on a weekend night and you'd walk upon a coloured group or a guy with a guitar. That's the music I was familiar with. I also liked bluegrass. Bill Monroe came to town once while he was traveling with a tent. I loved his music but I couldn't play bluegrass".
From the point when Charlie Feathers left hospital, the story becomes a little confused. He claims that he worked for Sam Phillips as far back as 1950 hauling portable tape recorders. Phillips does not share that recollection. One fact is certain, though, Feathers had been hanging around 706 Union a long time when he was finally paired with Bill Cantrell and Quinton Claunch. However, according to Feathers, he was not merely present at the creation of rock and roll, he was an integral part of it.
"Even though I was doing rockabilly, Sam had Elvis recording it. For a while it looked as though rockabilly was selling and then it slacked off a little and Sam said that he wanted to record me doing country. I always liked country music but I couldn't feel it like I could feel rock and roll. I think I was worth more to Sam to arrange the music. I could hear people. I worked with Johnny Cash before we recorded him. We got this slapback. People think it's the bass but it's the tape delay. People in Nashville couldn't compete with the sound. There ain't a sound today can compete with it when it's done right. I could probably have done better elsewhere but those places didn't have the Sun sound".
According to Feathers, he hung out with Elvis Presley in a local park and awakened him to the possibility of goosing up country music, showing him guitar runs and vocal inflection. Then he cut a demo of "Blue Moon Of Kentucky" with Scotty Moore - Moore has no knowledge of it - and joined Presley in the Sun Studio during July 1954 to record the finished product and kick start a career. If you believe Feathers he did the same thing for Presley's waxing of "Good Rockin' Tonight" and then sometime in 1955 he wheeled our boy into a West Helena radio station to cut "some tough goddamn stuff". Perhaps Feathers really did remember a long lost session in West Helena.
Everybody agrees that Feathers recorded a lot of material at 706 Union Avenue that was never released. Evidence shows that most of it was probably recorded-over. Feathers claims that Sam Phillips planned a third single and even went as far circulating dubs but there are no notes in the files to corroborate this assertion. Stan Kesler used Feathers to make demos of at least two songs, "I Forgot To Remember To Forget" and "We're Getting Closer To Being Apart". Once again, though Feathers' version is at variance with everyone else's account.
"Some boys around here had "Daydreamin" and Sam didn't think too much of the song so they took it to Meteor Records. The next time they come by they had "I've Been Deceived" and Sam wanted me to record it. I went out to their house and listened to the song and Stan Kesler dropped by. He had a song called "You Believe Everyone But Me" and asked me if I would get Elvis to do it. I said that the song didn't do much for me and later that night he said he had a song called "I Forgot To Remember To Forget". I liked that idea. The title. Next morning, I got up real early and went out to Kesler's house and we finished the song. We put it on tape and I took it down. Sam didn't like it but Elvis did. He wasn't singing it right at first. They cut it about fifteen times and couldn't get the bridge right. We went out for lunch and while we were driving around I was explaining to him in the car hot it should be done. After we come back, we cut it one time and that was it", recalled Charlie Feathers.
Stan Kesler recalled he wrote the song in its entirely and only gave Feathers 50% because he sang the demo. He also remembered playing the song to Elvis Presley on a quarter track tape machine. Phillips did not have a quarter track machine so Kesler had to bring up his own tape deck and set it up in the lobby to play the demo.
The end of Feathers' association with Sun is clouded in even more mystery. He appears to have cut a demo session early in 1956 to preview his new rockabilly material for Phillips. In the fall of 1958 Feathers left Sun Records, he was determined to pursue his antic disposition with archetypal rockabilly like "Tongue Tied Jill" (Meteor 5032), a song so unhinged that Sam Phillips missed the humor and took offense. Immediately after this sole flirtation with Lester Bihari's Memphis-based label, Feathers looked elsewhere. Between June 1956 and January 1957 he recorded in Cincinnati and Nashville for Syd Nathan's King label. In the process he was able to bring his amusing and unintentionally liberated "Bottle To The Baby" to fruition and cut timeless classics like "One Hand Loose" (King 4997) where he could finally indulge all his stuttering, whooping trademarks with manic glee.
"Me and Jody Chastain and Jerry Huffman wrote "Tongue Tied Jill" and some other material. We took the demo to Sam but he thought "Tongue Tied Jill" was making fun of the afflicted. My contract was up about that time and he hadn't mailed me a renewal notice or anything so I went to King. The place I had cut the demo of "Tongue Tied Jill" asked if they could have it. I thought 'Why not?'. After Sam didn't like it, I thought the song might not be any good but it broke real big here. We cut it on one mike. Because we were at King, we didn't even get a contract for it", recalled Feathers.
Charlie Feathers' career after he left Sun had been fairly well documented. He was racing cars and playing the local honky tonks for many years before he started a late blooming career as a perpetuator of his own mythology. Most of his shows had a stunning intensity that often nonplussed the local bar crawlers who had come to the cool dark place for a little slow dancing and a night of serious drinking. "You gotta feel the people when you get out", asserted Feathers. "If you know ahead of time what you're gonna play then you're giving the people second hand stuff. It'd be like turning a jukebox on. You'd know what you're about to get. A show shouldn't be that way. The talent comes out when e person don't know what he's gonna do. He just does it. A musician plays his best when he doesn't know what he's playing". In 1985 British television viewers were able to get a look at Charlie Feathers resplendent in a Hawaiian sport shirt and lank greasy hair. Sitting in his garden, he played a tortuous version of "Blue Moon Of Kentucky" with such agonized intensity that his voice alone could have stripped paint off the wall. The truth is that when Charlie Feathers settles down to play, the bullshit comes to an abrupt halt. The man is a genuine original with an awesome talent.
Feathers ploughed his own furrow over five decades of recording, seldom leaving Memphis and evolving in the most natural way. Unwavering and genuine courtesy was the real measure of a man who was frequently misunderstood. An illiterate field hand who had in all innocence sung about "darkies creeping through the trees" on "Jungle Fever" (Kay Records 1001) in 1958, he was still genially asking after "nigras" on a visit to cosmopolitan London in 1977. There was no disrespect implied. He was simply using the only word he knew for black people. And on the very same evening the stood up and brought Mississippi into a London room with an eerie, heartfelt testament to the blues as he treated us to a rendition of "That's All Right" which totally eclipsed Crudup and Presley.
Unflinching and unique Charlie Feathers worked through everything life threw at him. Diabetes, loss of a lung, even being confined to a wheelchair didn't end his passion for performing. When he died of a stroke on August 29, 1998, he left a formidable artistic legacy for his coterie of devotees. But for one serendipitous moment Feathers finally went global in 2004 when another maverick, Quentin Tarantino, included "Can't Hardly Stand It" on the soundtrack to "Kill Bill 2".