Then one day in the summer of 1954, the band was putting some western-swing titles on tape for Phillips when this happened: "Sam was getting quite a few artists coming in, and the way
he ran his studio you went when he said to come, that's if you were interested in getting a record out and doing anything in music'', Yelvington remembered.
happened that this time it was in the middle of the week, daytime, when all of us was supposed to be working. We all took off from our jobs and went. We were going through some material that we had, but we couldn't come up with anything that Sam wanted to
record. I would have preferred something like Hank Williams or Moon Mullican, but Sam said 'No, that kind of music is already available'. He wanted rhythm and blues or something with a solid beat to it. So then I decided to try ''Drinkin' Wine Spodee-Odee'',
because that was a song we had done for dances years before and I could sing it in my sleep. I said to the boys that we play it every week so we don't need to rehearse it. Gordon Mashburn took off on it, and soon Sam poked his head round the control room door
and asked, 'Where'd you get that one?' I said, 'Man, we've been playing that every week for a long time. It's a blues record by a feller name of Stick McGhee'. Sam said, 'Let's cut that. That 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, along with my friend Charles Yoakum from Covington. The group on the record was Reece Fleming, who played piano on it, Miles Winn played steel, Joke Ryles
was on bass, Gordon Mashburn on lead, and me on rhythm. We didn't have drums on it. At that time I was not yet living here in Memphis and all the rest of the boys still lived back in Covington. I moved to Memphis just after the recording and I was here by
November when the record came out''.
Almost immediately, Sam Phillips played our a similar scene with the young Elvis Presley who also transformed an older blues song
into a new Sun record that summer. The release of ''Drinking Wine'' was delayed several months, but Yelvington was adamant: "Our 'Drinking Wine' was cut and ready to go by the time Elvis' first record was made''.
The Star Rhythm Boys eventually saw their disc issued on 10 November 1954. Drinking Wine sold to a local market and was not heavily promoted due to the efforts Phillips was putting behind Presley. The flipside of the disc was
''Just Rolling Along'', a song Reece Fleming had written years earlier and which the Tennesseans had used as a show opener and signature tune. It was closer to Yelvington's day-to-day style, and it sounds like the sort of thing recorded in pre-War Texas.
Up to this point, Fleming had been the Star Rhythm Boys' main songwriter and musical director, but he took less of a role in the band through 1955 and 1956 as the band gradually broke up.
He did remain involved in recordings while the band, eager to record more of their large repertoire, pressed Sam Phillips for a second Sun release. Early in 1955 they cut master versions of ''Yakety Yak'', a band favourite written by Fleming and guitarist
Mashburn, with a clever lyric, and the atmospheric ''Blues In The Bottom Of My Shoes'', which Fleming had adapted from one of his 1930s recordings. Sam Phillips remained preoccupied with Presley, though, and the second Star Rhythm Boys disc never materialised.
Eventually the waiting became too much and the enthusiastic band, now without steel player Miles Winn and known as the Warmed Over Four, engineered themselves an invitation to record ''Yakety
Yak'' for a rival label. Meteor Records was owned by Lester Bihari and based on Chelsea Avenue in the black part of Memphis. The disc appeared in the summer of 1955 under the name Mac and Jake and the Esquire Trio, on one side, and Mac Sales and the trio on
the other. Sales was Malcolm's middle name, and its connotations amused Bihari who decided to use it on the label to sidestep any argument Sam Phillips may have had about holding a contract on Yelvington. The Meteor disc sold steadily on a local basis but
Meteor's distribution system was geared mainly to rhythm & blues. It was a really excellent honky-tonk country record, and deserved a for better fate.
Early in 1956,
with Presley making a big splash on RCA and with Sun and Carl Perkins breaking through in a big way with sales of ''Blue Suede Shoes'', the Yelvington band decided to take a more focused tilt at the emerging rock and roll market. They got together in a house
in Ripley owned by the mother of their friend, Russell Crawford, and gathered round Russell's tape recorder and one microphone. They demoed ''Rockin' With My Baby'' and ''It's Me Baby'' to take down to Sam Phillips to try out one more time for that elusive
second Sun release. Phillips was impressed with Yelvington's song Rockin', with its references to popular song titles, and with the bluesy feeling of Fleming's ''It's Me Baby'', and that spring Phillips recut the songs as Sun 246 along with ''Gonna Have Myself
A Ball'', a song that used the catchphrases of several local disc jockeys.
Up to now, Malcolm Yelvington had been in the habit of placing paper between his guitar strings
to deaden the sound and produce a drum effect. The Sun 246 session was the first time that the band used a drummer, but Yelvington did not remember who he was. Evidence from Sun's files indicates that it was Billy Weir. Certainly the drums underlined the shift
in thinking towards the new rocking music. So did the change in Gordon Mashburn's lead guitar style. Mashburn had been a classy and hot guitarist all along, but now he was clearly trying to take on board the style of another Tipton County neighbour, Carl Perkins.
Yelvington told me: "My boys had sat in with his band some nights and Carl was very unusual with a style all his own. He picked guitar very clean, one note at a time, no chords, like a blues guitarist''. The trade paper, 'Billboard,' described Yelvington as
a talented rockabilly and his song as a 'jumper' while it found the swinging, bluesy flipside "a good enough warble." The disc made healthy local sales but it was not the big hit Yelvington longed for.
Gradually, the original band was breaking up as its members found other pressures more important than pursuing the recording dream. Frank Tolley replaced the Flemings on piano, and Reece Fleming dropped out of the band completely.
He died during the 1960s. However, in 1957, Malcolm Yelvington was back at Sun hustling for another release. He made at least two sessions that year, now working not with Sam Phillips but with Bill Justis, a new producer Phillips had taken on. Justis was a
trained musician who saw the future for a smoother kind or rock and roll than Phillips had. He encouraged Malcolm to use a different band and a different musical formula.
a session in July 1957, which produced three songs, Yelvington brought in Frank Tolley on piano and Bubba Winn on guitar, brother of the departed steel player, Miles. Justis augmented this group with members of Phillips' studio bands. For a second session
in October that year, which produced two more songs, the hesitant Bubba Winn was apparently replaced by Sun's star session guitarist, Roland Janes, and the guitarist's spacey, ringing sound comes to the fore. It is just possible that Gordon Mashburn was back
on this session, but the union payments went to Janes.
The songs Yelvington cut in 1957 were mostly upbeat ballads written by Louie Moore, a young man from Alabama, who
turned up at the Sun studio with a file full of good unpublished songs. The first session worked up three rockaballads, ''Mr. Blues'', ''Did I Ask You To Stay'', and ''First And Last Love''. A brooding, reflective mood was created on this session but none
of the songs was quite developed to final release standard. Yelvington became particularly enthusiastic about ''Mr. Blues'', but its progress was blocked by Bill Justis, who persuaded Phillips that this was not the song to go with. Maybe Justis preferred songs
he had some commercial interest in, or maybe it was the lack of an authoritative guitar solo that made the difference. In any case, Yelvington's contract expired before the matter could be resolved and Phillips decided to drop Malcolm in favour of his younger
artists. This was despite the July session producing wonderful takes of two memorable Louie Moore songs, the clever ''It's My Trumpet (I'm Going To Blow It)'', and ''Goodbye Marie'', where Yelvington really sings his heart out.
"I didn't try to imitate Elvis," Yelvington declared defiantly. "That's the one thing I didn't do that all the younger guys came in and did. I had been playing music my way for years. I couldn't have done it
if I'd wanted to. I wanted to be on Sun Records. I was trying to do something upbeat that would be new to Sam Phillips. I called it boogie-woogie. Later, they called it rockabilly."
Yelvington started to accept that he wasn't going to be a recording star: "Carl Perkins was the big artist at Sun in 1956. That style was very successful for him. Then in 1957, the big artist at Sun was Jerry Lee Lewis. First time I saw him, I was down at
the studio one day and Sam wasn't cutting anything, he was just listening to Lewis. As soon as I saw Lewis singing and playing piano the way he was and carrying on and going up and down the keyboard, right then I knew my days as a recording artist were numbered."
Malcolm Yelvington continued to play his music through the later 1950s at Memphis area clubs like the Wayside Inn, the Wagon Wheel, and the Gay Duck. As he moved into the 1960s, the opportunities
started to dry up for his band and he eventually quit in 1961 to concentrate on his regular job as a welder, on his developing passion for ten-pin bowling, and on his family of five. Just before he gave up, he had been working on a song called ''Disappointed''
- written years before by Reece Fleming - that was recorded in a local studio but not released. When first met him, he joked that the title summed up his career
It was in the frying heat of the west Tennessee August of 1971 that Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins went to Malcolm Yelvington's house on Creston in Memphis. When we'd finished talking about his career in music
he got out his 1948 Martin acoustic, sat on his sofa, and played all his songs. It was wonderful. ''Drinkin' Wine'', ''Rockin' With My Baby'', ''It's Me Baby'', and the rest. We were straight out of University, writing our first book, and here was a genuine
legend of Sun Records playing a concert directly for us. He sounded the some as on his records, and as he wormed up his voice became stronger and more fervent. He kept the rhythm strongly, like a one-man western-swing band. He played ''Yakety Yak'', ''A Gal
Named Jo'', and then he went into unknown territory - ''Blues In The Bottom Of My Shoes'', ''It's My Trumpet (I'm Going To Blow It)'', songs we'd never heard. They could have been hits, he explained, if events had turned out differently. If Sam Phillips hadn't
dropped him in favour of promoting the music of younger men, and if his great cut on ''Trumpet'' had actually been issued.
Then he changed the subject. He hadn't played
his music for almost a decade, he said, but he was ready to make a come-back. He'd get a stage suit and a hat or a wig and he'd be there, if any promoter wanted to employ him. We smiled, reassuringly, nervously. Weren't quite sure what to say to this living
legend, this obviously deluded old guy (he was only 53 but we were 21) sitting there sweating and smoking and playing guitar in his old white tee shirt, with his thinning hair and lined face. We knew he was great. We'd just heard it. But we knew that the music
we liked was very far off the mainstream. We didn't know any promoters, and we didn't think there was much call in the pop music world of 1971 for the likes of Malcolm Yelvington. That moment has often haunted me. I really wish we had known how to do something
for him, but we didn't.
There is a happy post script to the Yelvington story, though. While he was apparently out of music, in fact Malcolm kept his hand in all along,
in gospel music. He joined a group called the Carpenter's Crew at his local church, and even made some cassettes of their performances in 1993. He was also in a gospel group called the Dempsey's with Jimmy Van Eaton and Mark Bell.
Then, in 1988, six months before his seventieth birthday, on the back of a decade of Sun reissues, he was invited to play some rockabilly revival shows in England and Holland. These were performed with Dave Travis's
fine band to great acclaim from European fans of the Sun sound, most of whom were young enough to be Malcolm's grandchildren. The music was captured by Collector Records in Holland and issued three years later on the CD, ''A Tennessee Saturday Night''. The
disc enabled Malcolm to record Disappointed, at last.
This kick-started something of a Yelvington revival, and when the old Sun Records studio was revamped and opened
to tourists, Malcolm took his turn with others at showing people round, hanging out, and generally being revered. He continued to play special revival shows and local events. For instance, in July 1998, when he appeared at the Lauderdale County Tomato Festival,
headlining with blues singer Little Milton, another veteran of Sun and Meteor Records.
That year saw a Malcolm Yelvington CD album, '''There's A Little Life Left In This
Old Boy Yet'', appear on Freedonia Records. It was recorded in the old Sun studio and included a country song, ''One Rose'', that Yelvington had been performing since his days at the Gem Theater in 1943, a proper studio performance of ''Disappointed'', a number
of Yelvington's own songs and favourites, and some new songs written especially by Billy Swan and Billy Lee Riley.
Singer Billy Swan, of ''I Can Help'' fame, said: "Malcolm
Yelvington was one of the sweetest, kindest men I knew. I never heard him say a bad word about anyone. He loved singing and performing, and he talked a lot about the old days and about his church."
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, and two great grandchildren as well as friends and fellow musicians.
and pleasingly, there is still an audience out there for Malcolm's music, rooted in Southern country styles and recorded over half a century ago by a local band trying to tailor their style to the popular demands of the moment. Malcolm Yelvington and the Star
Rhythm Boys created an effortless blend of western-swing and country blues that was badged under rock and roll at the time, and is still well worth reviving today.
Sam Phillips worked alone with his blues artists, believing that no one else could do as good a job rehearsing and recording them. But he had fewer reservations
about entrusting some of his country music production to the team of Bill Cantrell and Quinton Claunch. ''They were old friends I had known for many years'', recalls. ''We all lived in the same part of Alabama when we starting out. I lived in Florence and
they worked out of Muscle Shoals''.
Claunch and Cantrell had formed a hillbilly band, the Blue Seal Pals, in the mid-1940s and had played for a spell on WSM, the home
of the Grand Ole Opry. By 1948 the group had disbanded, and both Claunch and Cantrell had moved to Memphis to take up full-time jobs outside music, retaining only a limited involvement.
In 1954 Claunch and Cantrell worked up a song called ''Daydreamin''', which they planned to record with a local singer, Bud Deckelman. After they had auditioned it for Phillips, who refused it, they went to see Phillips' local competitor,
Meteor Records. With Meteor they were able to make a deal-as part of the arrangement, Cantrell and Deckelman, both engineers, agreed to fix Meteor's recording machine - and despite lukewarm reviews in the trade press ''Daydreamin''' became a strong-selling
record. Jimmy Newman quickly covered the song and scored the hit, but Deckelman's version secured him an MGM contract.
Phillips realized his mistake, which must have
been doubly galling given that he had mastered the Meteor disc. By that point Elvis Presley was selling well in the country market, and Phillips' thoughts turned quickly and seriously toward country music. He asked Claunch and Cantrell to work with him rehearsing
new country acts, and asked for first refusal on their new material.
Claunch and Cantrell discovered some of the artists they worked with; Phillips found others. Cantrell's
protege included Maggie Sue Kimberly, a four- teen-year-old gospel singer from Muscle Shoals, who sang a ''Daydreamin''' sequel called ''Daydreams Come True'' that betrayed her tender years. After a subsequent session for Sun in a rock and roll vein, Maggie
Sue retired from secular music for a while, re-emerging as Sue Richards in the early 1970s. She scored a few minor hits under her own name and then joined up with Tammy Wynette's group.