© 1999 Charly Records (CD) 500/200rpm CPCD 8352 mono digital
ESSENTIAL SUN ROCKABILLIES - VOLUME 6
Digitally remastered at Charly Studios.
Compilation and liner notes: Adam Komorowski.
1 - You Call Everybody Darling (Kenny Parchman)
2 - Flat Foot Sam (Tommy Blake)
3 - Born To Sing The Blues (Take 5) (Herald Jenkins)
4 - Drinkin' Scotch (Gene Simmons)
5 - I'd Rather
Be Safe Than Sorry (Master) (Warren Smith)
6 - Take Me (Take 1) (Jimmy Wages)
7 - Blues Blues Blues (Hayden Thompson)
8 - Judy (Rudy Grayzell)
9 - How Come You Do Me (Jimmy Haggett)
10 - Foolish Heart (Ray Harris)
11 - Huh Babe (2) (Luke McDaniel)
12 - Willie Brown (Mack Self)
13 - Fine Little Baby (Dick Penner)
14 - Be Honest With Me (Carl McVoy)
15 - Sweet Rockin' Mama (Jimmy Williams)
16 - Baby That's Good
17 - Rock'n'Roll With My Baby (Alternate Take) (Malcolm Yelvington)
18 - Rockin' Daddy (Eddie Bond)
19 - Move Baby Move (Dick Penner)
20 - Kiss Me Baby (Narvel Felts)
21 - Mystery Train (Vernon Taylor)
22 - Southbound Line (Tracy Pendarvis)
23 - Rock All Night (1) Glenn Honeycutt)
24 - How Do You Do
Me (3) (Jimmy Haggett)
25 - What's The Reason (2) (Kenny Parchman)
26 - Long Time Gone (Dean Beard)
Original Sun Recordings
© Original Sun Recordings, licensed from Sun Entertainment, Inc.
Had the misfortune to be an also-ran in the history of Sun Records, but not for lack of talent, as the surviving evidence demonstrates. While Elvis Presley,
Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash carved out the beginnings of national (and international) followings on the Memphis-based label, Parchman never got any further than a record number assigned to his single of "Love Crazy Baby" b/w "I Feel Like
Rockin'," which was thereupon canceled, for reasons lost to time. Born on January 15, 1932 near Jackson, TN, he was drawn to the music he heard on the radio, and his parents bought him a guitar while he was still a boy. He learned to play from his mother,
and it seemed like he might find a future, at least part of the time, in music. He later made a living driving a truck for Wells Fargo, but spent a lot of his spare time hanging around the clubs in Memphis, taking in the music. He finally formed his own band
in 1955. The outfit, heavily influenced by Carl Perkins' band of the same period, busied themselves playing local dances and record hops. The core of the band, known as the High-Hats, featured Jerry Lee Smith on piano while Parchman sang and played lead guitar.
By mid-1956, they'd made some demos for Sam Phillips at Sun Records, and they were signed in August of that year, with a planned debut of "Love Crazy Baby," which was subsequently canceled. He recorded other sides, including several originals, for Sun, none
of which ever got released. Finally, in the summer of 1957, he received an offer of a contract from the newly founded Jaxon label, based in Jackson, TN, and cut sides for them, making his belated debut as a commercial recording artist with "Treat Me Right"
b/w "Don't You Know."
Ironically, it was after that release that Parchman cut what is usually thought of as his best classic track, "Tennessee Zip," for Sun Records,
and again, it sat on the shelf for a quarter century. Although they continued to play some hillbilly-style country numbers, the band had pumped up their drum sound and pushed the tempos and slid easily into the booming rock & roll groove of the era, and
their music morphed directly into a hot rockabilly sound -- just as effective on their records -- that audiences 25 years later devoured as fast as it poured off the grooves of their singles. He was later signed to the LU label, also based in Jackson, which
issued his second single, "Get It Off Your Mind" b/w "Satellite Hop," in 1958. He and the band were still getting lots of work locally, playing a mix of hillbilly-style country music and rock & roll. He later left the music business to start a very successful
home construction company in Jackson; he was amazed to learn in the '70s and '80s of the discovery of his unissued Sun sides, and the degree to which his classic recordings of the '50s were idolized, especially in Europe. His health began failing in the early
'90s, however, and he passed away in 1999 at the age of 67 after a long illness.
by Bruce Eder
Rockabilly artist Tommy Blake, like so many before him, started his career as a straight-ahead country singer before making the switch to the
big beat. Born and raised in Shreveport, LA,Blake(born Thomas Givens) was already working in a teenage combo playing country music at station KTBS in the early '50s. By 1955, he had graduated to the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, TX, and Shreveport's junior version
of the Opry, the Louisiana Hayride. A year later, he was a regular member of Johnny Horton's TV show out of Tyler, TX, and had cut his first record for the tiny Buddy label out of Marshall, TX. By 1957,Blakehad put together his first great band, the Rhythm
Rebels, featuring the red-hot guitar talents of one Carl Adams, who would later find fleeting fame with Dale Hawkins.
After a one-off session for RCA Victor, yielding
a track called "All Night Long,"Blake met Sam Phillips and re-recorded the same tune for Sun as "Lordy Hoody." By March of 1958,Blake was back at 706 Union recording more material, with another single seeing release and the rest finding its way into rockabilly
history via reissues in the 1970s and '80s.Blakekept recording for smaller and smaller labels, pitching songs to anyone who had a ready advance, leaving "Story of a Broken Heart" for Johnny Cash to record after Blake had left Sun. He continued to write tunes,
like "Cool Gator Shoes" with Carl Belew, and record a few stray 45s for Chancellor and Recco after his time with Sun, but Blake continued a downward spiral until he was killed by his wife in a domestic dispute over the Christmas holidays in 1985.
by Cub Koda
With dreams of recording for Sun Records, Jenkins headed to Memphis, where Sam Phillips did indeed sign him to a recording contract, but none of the tracks he cut were ever released; Jenkins' biggest contribution to the label was writing
"Rock House," a minor hit for Roy Orbison. Leaving Sun in late 1956, he set out on a rockabilly package tour, during which he invented the stage name of Conway Twitty by combining the names of an Arkansas and Texas city, respectively. At the beginning of 1957,
he signed to Mercury Records, where he released a handful of singles that didn't make much of an impact, though "I Need Your Lovin'" scraped the very bottom of the pop charts. In 1958, he moved to MGM Records, where he finally achieved success with "It's Only
Make Believe," a song he had written with Jack Nance. Recorded with vocal support by Presley's back group, the Jordanaires, "It's Only Make Believe" became a major hit, spending two weeks at number one and going gold. Over the course of 1959 and 1960, Twitty
released a number of singles, the most popular of which were the Top Ten "Danny Boy" and "Lonely Blue Boy," and appeared in the B-movies Sex Kittens Go to College, Platinum High School, and College Confidential.
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Not the member of hard rockers Kiss, had a number 11 hit in 1964 with the novelty "Haunted House," but his heart was actually in the rich and rootsy rock, soul, and country traditions of his home base
of Memphis. Born in Tupelo, MS, Simmons relocated to Memphis after recording some rockabilly for Sun Records, who actually only got around to issuing one single from his sessions. Moving to the Hi label in the early '60s, he recorded several singles and an
album, but "Haunted House" was the only one that met with success before his last single for the company in 1966. With his white Southern R&B, Simmons echoed such fellow travelers as Roy Head, Bruce Channel, and post-rockabilly Dale Hawkins, although he
was not as gritty as any of them. He was a likable performer, though, and gave the Hi label some of their first tastes of success.
by Richie Unterberger
More than a few early rockabilly rebels went on to careers as country
singers, but few made the jump quite as gracefully as Warren Smith. Smith earned the ultimate rockabilly seal of approval, a contract with Sun Records, and he cut a number of memorable sides for the label, but in the early 1960s, he also enjoyed a brief but
memorable run on the country charts after signing with Liberty Records. Warren Smith was born in Humphreys County, Mississippi, on February 7, 1932. His parents divorced when he was very young, and he spent most of his childhood with his grandparents in Louise,
Mississippi. Smith grew up with a love of music, and while serving in the United States Air Force, he taught himself to play guitar during his time off the base in San Antonio, Texas. Once he received his discharge, Smith focused his energies on a career in
music, and he began playing dancehalls and honky tonks throughout the South. He landed a regular gig at the Cotton Club, a nightspot in West Memphis, Arkansas, when he was spotted by Stan Kessler, who played steel guitar with another act that frequented the
Cotton Club's stage, the Snearly Ranch Boys. Kessler was impressed by Smith's voice, and arranged an audition with Sam Phillips, the proprietor of a small Tennessee label called Sun Records. Phillips agreed with Kessler's assessment of Smith's talent, and
on February 5, 1956, Smith cut his first single, "Rock & Roll Ruby" b/w "I'd Rather Be Safe Than Sorry." While the flipside was a straight-ahead country tune, the A-side was a feisty rocker, given to Smith by Johnny Cash (who claimed to have bought the
tune from George Jones for a mere $40.00). "Rock & Roll Ruby" turned out to be a significant regional hit, and Smith followed it with a number of classic tunes, including "Ubangi Stomp," "Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache," "Uranium Rock," and "So Long,
I'm Gone." The latter tune, penned by Roy Orbison, proved to be Smith's most successful Sun release, eventually reaching 74 on the Billboard singles charts. However, though Smith consistently cut fine records for Sun, his rich voice (and his country-leaning
vocal style) didn't make him sound like a teenage idol, and Phillips seemed unsure of how to promote him. In 1959, Smith's deal with Sun ran out, and he moved to California.
In a genre jammed full of artists
who made one brilliant record and vanished into the mists of obscurity, rockabilly singer Jimmy Wages may be one of the most fascinating of all of them. Following his fellow Tupelo, Mississippi musicians the Miller Sisters up to Memphis, he landed a session
in 1956 with Sun Records. Like many of his contemporaries, he wrote his own material, but unlike them, he didn't play an instrument. He was accompanied on his 706 Union Avenue recordings by stalwart Sun players like J.M. Van Eaton on drums and Ray Harris on
lead guitar. Produced by Jack Clement (who also utilized Wages' string bass player Jesse Carter, acoustic guitar and steel guitar on Wages' sessions), the music from Wages' lone brush with fame is Southern music in the extreme -- full of quasi-religious images
and tales of recrimination that were at total odds with the sunnier, "gonna bop tonight" lyrics of the rockabilly tunes that were actually seeing release on Sun. Sam Phillips was hot to release "Mad Man" from these sessions, but Clement reportedly talked him
out of it, sensing that nothing from the sessions had true commercial appeal. The session remained unreleased until some 25 years later, when the music of Jimmy Wages was finally heard by the worldwide rockabilly community and lauded as raw genius. Wages record
fed again for Hi Records and Sun producer Stan Kesler, but never saw an actual release on any of his material until his Sun material was reissued.
by Cub Koda
Was among the groundswell of rockabilly cats who recorded for
Sam Phillips' legendary Sun Records in the wake of the label's breakthrough superstar, Elvis Presley. His lone Sun effort, "Love My Baby," remains a cult favorite among connoisseurs of early rock & roll at its most potent. Thompson was born in Booneville,
Mississippi, on March 5, 1938. According to a profile on the Rockabilly Hall of Fame website, he was given his first guitar at age five, quickly teaching himself to play. A fixture of local talent contests, he made his local radio debut at nine, originally
singing gospel but in time turning to country. Memphis-based rhythm & blues stations WDAI and KWEM profoundly shaped Thompson's musical development as well, and in high school he formed his first band, the Southern Melody Boys, playing energetic covers
of current country & western hits. In late 1954, the group signed to the fledgling Von label to cut its debut single, "I Feel the Blues Coming On," inching toward a rockabilly sound via the flip side, "Act Like You Love Me." Thompson continued to push
the Southern Melody Boys in the direction of rock & roll, and even passed up an audition for the country music radio showcase Louisiana Hayride in an effort to sever ties with traditional roots music. Creative differences split the group, and Thompson
soon landed with the Dixie Jazzlanders, who were hired to tour Southern movie theaters in conjunction with the just-released 1956 rock & roll musical Rock Around the Clock. The months passed, and when a record deal failed to materialize, the Dixie Jazzlanders
dissolved. Thompson next surfaced in the Slim Rhodes Band, spending another year on the road with no contract in sight.
Thompson eventually settled in Memphis, and like
Presley before him became a regular presence at Sun Studios. Finally, in late 1956 Phillips agreed to cut a single, recruiting guitarist Roland Janes, bassist Marvin Pepper, drummer Jimmy Van Eaton, and then-unknown pianist Jerry Lee Lewis to provide backing
for a propulsive rendition of Junior Parker's "Love You Baby." A series of additional sessions followed throughout 1957, but only at year's end did Phillips finally issue "Love You Baby" as a single, releasing the disc via his fledgling Phillips International
imprint. Thompson soon after joined a Sun package tour headlined by Sonny Burgess and Billy Lee Riley. He continued recording and touring for Sun but Phillips never released a follow-up effort, and in 1958 the singer relocated to Chicago, where he landed a
headlining gig at the Tally Ho Club in Highwood. Backed by guitarist Travis Westmoreland and drummer Bob Travis, Thompson recorded the B.E.A.T. label release "Tom Thumb" in 1959.
Pioneering rockabilly musician
Rudy “Tutti” Grayzell was born on June 8, 1933 in the small Texas town of Saspamco and grew up listening to all the strains of country and Tex-Mex music that were then popular in the San Antonio region. Although he originally aspired to be a baseball
player, picking up a guitar at the age of 13 bounced his life in a different direction. Now all about playing music, Grayzell formed a country band called the Silver Buckles with friends while he was still in high school. The band, which morphed into the Texas
Kool Kats, garnered enough of a local reputation to land a daily spot on a radio show broadcast from San Antonio’s KMAC station. A DJ there, Charlie Walker, recognized Grayzell’s talent and took him to see Fabor Robinson, who signed the musician
to his Abbott Records imprint. Grayzell recorded three singles for the label, all country-styled, and ended up playing on high-profile country shows, including The Grand Ole Opry and Louisiana Hayride. But Grayzell had discovered rockabilly and couldn’t
wait to try it on -- Capitol Records gave him a contract to do just that. He released three singles of vintage rockabilly for the label before moving on to Starday Records, where he tracked his most memorable and energetic sides, including his signature song,
1956’s “Duck Tail,” whose chart success allowed Grayzell to tour with Elvis Presley. Grayzell left Starday in 1957, signing with legendary Memphis label Sun Records early in 1958 for one single, “Judy” b/w “I Think of You.”
Following a move to California, he next recorded for Award Records, releasing the arresting novelty “F-B-I Story.” It was to be his last rock & roll record. Pushed by his managers to tone things down and be more of a mass entertainer, Grayzell
complied, but later admitted he regretted the decision. He moved to Oregon in 1960 and it remained his base of operations for the rest of his career. Grayzell never cracked the Top 40 with any of his releases, but his rockabilly sides in particular have allowed
him to work regularly in Las Vegas and on the nightclub circuit.
by Steve Leggett
In the history of Sun Records, Ray Harris is but a minor footnote. He only saw two singles released on the little yellow label, but his inclusion
in any rock history book is based on the fact that both of those records just happen to some of the greatest and rawest rockabilly ever recorded at Sun or anywhere else in the 1950s. Born in Mississippi, Harris started out as a straight ahead country singer
before hearing Elvis Presley and surmising that he could be doing the same thing and reaping every bit of the same share of the rewards. He moved up to Memphis and armed with little more than a burning desire to make it in the record business, put together
a small combo with an eye on recording for Sam Phillips and being on Sun Records. The two singles he recorded, "Come On Little Mama" and "Greenback Dollar Watch & Chain" both did brisk local sales but were both too ultimately raw to be heard on radio stations
North of the Mason-Dixon line. After playing lead guitar on a few stray sessions at the Sun studio (he can be heard on Jimmy Wages' sessions), Harris defected to the other side of the glass, becoming a successful producer for Hi Records in the late 1950s and
by Cub Koda
Was a singer/guitarist who came to Memphis from Mississippi, the same route as a younger contemporary of his named Elvis Presley - who also happened to be a cousin of his (their grandmothers were sisters),
though they never did meet. Born near Belzoni, MS in 1933, Honeycutt was brought up in Memphis after the death of his father. He was always musically inclined, and after the draft pulled him into the military for a couple of years, he decided to try making
it as a musician. By 1954, Honeycutt was playing and singing around Memphis and auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun Records -- a balladeer by inclination, Honeycutt came in with a few country-style songs, but was rejected on that basis. The following year,
however, he was leading a band called Glenn Honeycutt & His Rhythmaires, which included guitarist Jack Clement in its ranks. And when Clement was hired at Sun, he persuaded Phillips to give Honeycutt another chance -- the result was one of the best records
that Sun never issued, "Rock All Night." Actually, the latter apparently was scheduled and then pulled for its risqué lyric. Instead, Honeycutt's sole Sun release was "I'll Be Around"/"I'll Wait Forever." There were a dozen sides recorded, most of which
never surfaced, and Honeycutt subsequently recorded for labels such as Black Gold ("Right Gal Right Place Right Time" b/w "You'll Die of Loneliness"), and Fernwood ("Tombigbee Queen" b/w "Campus Love"), all without notable or lasting success. He kept his day
job with the United States Postal Service in Memphis, and might have been a footnote in history had it not been for fellow country artist Randy Rich, who brought Honeycutt's name to Rhythm Bomb Records, a London-based rockabilly revival label -- the result
was a tour of Germany and Sweden, on which Honeycutt proved he could still deliver musically, and the recording of Honeycutt's first album, 40 years after he entered the business. And just to prove that Honeycutt still had what it took after all of those years,
of the 12 songs on Mr. All Night Rock, 11 were originals.
by Bruce Eder
isn't exactly a household name, even in rockabilly circles, but any man who could co-write a classic like "Ooby Dooby" has carved some kind of a place for himself in the history of the music. Despite his having been
born in Chicago, Dick Penner got a shot at being an authentic country music and rockabilly legend when he was a year old and his family moved to Dallas, TX. It was there that he was exposed to country music on the radio, and by age 16 he'd taken up the guitar.
At 18 he entered North Texas State University in Denton, TX, where he hooked up with Wade Moore and later met Roy Orbison, who at that time was leading a group called the Wink Westerners, who subsequently transformed themselves into the Teen Kings. In collaboration with Moore, Penner co-authored a song called "Ooby Dooby," which Orbison and his band later turned into one of the best-selling rockabilly singles of all time at Sun Records. Making the switch from country music to
rock & roll, Penner and Moore formed a duo and recorded for Sun in 1957, sometimes as Wade & Dick and sometimes as the College Kids. Wade & Dick recorded six songs, and Penner did a handful of songs on his own, all of which displayed a hard, youthful
edge and were aimed at the new teen market, but none of them were notably successful. Penner's three singles (on at least one of which he shared guitar chores with Don Gilliland), "Move Baby Move," "Fine Little Baby," and "Someday Baby," all seemed to hook
around a certain thematic similarity. They weren't in a league with "Ooby Dooby," however, which made a respectable showing on the national charts in Orbison's hands and has since come to be regarded as a classic of the genre. Moore continued working in music
with Orbison, but Penner decided on a career in academia and reportedly became a professor of English.
by Bruce Eder
Despite never becoming a major national figure, Eddie Bond carved out a place as a rockabilly and country
star, as well as a radio personality, for 50 years. A contemporary of Elvis Presley and a fixture in Memphis and on the Louisiana Hayride in the mid-'50s, Bond was one of the best singers of the period, and led the Stompers, one of the hottest bands, but he
never broke out the way Elvis did. His records, whether rockabilly, country, or gospel, however, were among the best to come from Memphis from the mid-'50s through the 1960s, and helped Bond remain a much loved country/rockabilly performer into the new millennium. Born Eddie James Bond in Memphis, he was originally drawn into music by the work of Ernest Tubb and Roy Acuff. By age eight, Bond had saved enough to buy his first guitar, and as a teenager he played at beer joints
around Memphis. He drifted through various jobs after finishing school, including furniture factory worker and truck driver, before serving an 18-month hitch in the Navy.
After returning to civilian life, he began putting together his band, the Stompers, whose membership at various times in the years 1952-1954 included Jody Chastain and Curtis Lee Anderson. By 1955, the group's mainstays included Reggie Young
on lead guitar, John Hughey on the pedal steel, and Johnny Fine at the drums. Bond led the Stompers on tours across the South and Southwest, billed alongside Roy Orbison, among other future country and rock & roll stars. They failed in auditions for Sam
Phillips at Sun and the Bihari brothers' Meteor label, and in 1955 he signed with tiny Ekko Records, which resulted in a pair of singles issued late in the year, "Double Duty Lovin'"/"Talking Off the Wall" and "Love Makes a Fool (Everyday)"/"Your Eyes." These
were pleasant, well-played country numbers, but they didn't include the band, only Bond as singer. With Hank Garland on lead guitar, Jerry Byrd on steel guitar, and Marvin Hughes at the ivories, they were OK records and then some, but not representative of
Bond's real sound -- "Talking Off the Wall" was a rocker, with a solid beat and lots of tension in the lead and rhythm guitar parts, but it was the B-side to the milder "Double Duty Lovin'." In any case, neither record attracted any notice from the public
or the musical world.
Bond and his band managed to get signed to Mercury Records in 1956, and this was where they came into their own. From their first Mercury session
in February of 1956, Eddie Bond & the Stompers cooked, with a lean, hard rockabilly sound that rocked with the best of them. The band in those days featured Young, Hughey, and Fine, with Bond playing rhythm. The single "I Got a Woman"/"Rockin' Daddy" from
that session is testimony to the excitement they could generate. That Mercury debut sold well in the spring of 1956, and they were getting lots of gigs and broadcast exposure at the time. Bond played the Louisiana Hayride alongside Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash,
and Johnny Horton, and it was around this time that he started his own radio show, an activity that was to loom ever larger in his career. His second Mercury session produced still more rockabilly gold, including "Slip, Slip, Slippin' In" and "Flip, Flop Mama,"
and they sold respectably, if not spectacularly.
Bond didn't stay with rockabilly music, however, and his later Mercury sessions produced country sides, although "Love
Love Love" rocks pretty well. His Mercury contract ended in 1957, and for his next sessions, Bond was back doing rockabilly again, followed by more country music and even a foray into gospel in the early '60s. Bond's biggest success in the years that followed
came on radio, where his show achieved huge ratings; this, in turn, helped sustain his record sales, as he recorded or licensed various songs to different labels, mostly in a country vein.
Eddie Bond was never going to be another Elvis Presley -- he wasn't going to be turned into a movie star as easily, or branch into other, heavily produced sounds, and he was too successful early on as a radio personality to abandon that activity.
But he made a more than fair rival to Conway Twitty (whom he played with around 1955, when the latter was still known as Harold Jenkins), with a pleasing tenor voice, understated in its sweetness and dramatic nuance, and a good sense of how to deliver a song,
whether ballad, rocker, or gospel number. He continued performing through the 1990s and into the new century. His broadcasting career was especially successful and assured him of a wide country audience, while his classic rockabilly sides from the '50s helped
make him a living legend among enthusiasts, especially in Europe. Five decades into performing, he remained true to his country and rockabilly roots.
by Bruce Eder
Like the second man to fly the Atlantic solo, or the second
guy to orbit the Earth, Malcolm Yelvington stands somewhat in the shadow of history -- he's there, but he's eclipsed by his predecessor. He had the good fortune to be signed to Sun Records in 1954, but the bad luck to get the spot on the release roster one
record after Elvis Presley's debut 45, "That's All Right." Yelvington is one of those artists signed to Sun Records who never made it as big as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, or Carl Perkins -- but whose music and abilities were still impressive,
enough that he made a decent living performing in and around Memphis for years while he couldn't chart a record. The man never made it to national television, much less the national charts, but Yelvington today is highly regarded in Memphis as a living piece
of the city's musical transformation of the country.
Yelvington was born in Covington, a rural enclave close to Memphis, and was playing guitar and singing locally at
age 14. He developed a good baritone voice that brought him some listeners and engagements into his early 20s. One of the few models he had for his music was Ernest Tubb, himself a baritone who was just rising to national prominence at the time with "Walkin'
the Floor Over You." Yelvington mastered a honky tonk sound similar to Tubb's. Strangely enough, despite being influenced by Tubb, and working within hailing distance of Memphis, Yelvington and his music were separated by a wide gulf from the blues. His sound
came from hillbilly music, and he was scarcely aware of the presence of players like Furry Lewis or Frank Stokes in nearby Memphis.
During World War II, Yelvington was
rejected for military service for health reasons. After the war, Yelvington met Reece Fleming and Respers Townsend, who had already recorded together for RCA-Victor, at a series of impromptu performances at the Gem Theater. Through these informal gigs at the
Gem Theater, he eventually joined Reece Fleming's band, a western swing outfit called the Tennesseeans, who played all kinds of gigs, including school dances and honky-tonks, in the vicinity of Covington. They broke up in 1952, but Yelvington and the core
players joined up with the Star Rhythm Boys, a local outfit, and landed a daily spot on a radio station. Most of the bandmembers were older men with families, and limited their work to local gigs in Covington. Yelvington, however, lived in Memphis and faced
the reverse problem -- he began playing in Memphis as much as possible even as he continued with the band, playing with them on weekends. The band's gigs were always in the vicinity of Memphis, most notably at a honky-tonk called the Clover Club, north of
Covington, where they played for three years, built up a huge following, and made a good living just from the door receipts. Yelvington and lead guitarist Gordon Mashburn began looking into the idea of recording, to build on what they'd accomplished locally,
and heard about Sam Phillips and Sun Records, which had already recorded the Ripley Cotton Choppers.
Yelvington and Phillips first met late in 1953, and their initial
contact was less than promising. The band played country music, and western swing, and Phillips wasn't interested in recording either. He did like the band, however, and got them to audition a huge part of their repertory, whatever they brought in, among them
a song called "Yakety-Yak" (no, not the Coasters' song), but it was all too country for Phillips. They finally struck gold with a number called "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee," by blues singer Sticks McGee. That got Phillips' attention -- the mix of black and
hillbilly music was compelling to the label owner, who ran out of the control room, found out what the song was, and had the band cut it right there. Ironically, Yelvington had learned the song from a member who was no longer in the band, steel guitarist Carey
Busey, and had played rhythm behind it so many times that he ultimately adopted the song himself, even though Busey had originally sung on it. With background vocals provided by Reece's wife and another singer, the number had a freewheeling honky tonk feel,
and had its feet planted in country music with the prominent use of a steel guitar, but it also had just enough of the energy of its black source material to stand out from the country material of the day. That made it special, but it also proved to be the
record's undoing, on another level. Unfortunately for Yelvington and his band, around that same time Phillips also recorded a young Memphis-based, Mississippi-born singer named Elvis Presley, and his debut, "That's All Right," eclipsed "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee."
Yelvington and the Star Rhythm Boys took responsibility for promoting their own single, a frustrating process that required them to approach radio stations directly, one at a time, and leave
copies of the 45. They found out then that, despite its inherent drive and the mix of black and country influences, their record was still pegged as a country release, due to the presence of a steel guitar. The record died, labeled neither fish nor fowl --
too black for country stations, and too country for the deejays playing more rhythm-oriented songs.
Sun never released another record by Yelvington or his band, and they
next turned up on the Bihari Brothers'-owned competitor, Meteor Records, cutting music under the name "Mac Sales and the Esquire Trio" to avoid a lawsuit by Phillips, who still held their contract. Their Meteor re-recording of "Yakety-Yak" failed to sell,
and the Star Rhythm Boys were back, under their own name, at Sun in 1955, where they tried releasing some rockabilly-style material in the guise of "Rockin' With My Baby."
Neither Yelvington -- who
was nearing 40 at the time -- nor his fellow bandmembers (who were even older) were entirely comfortable with rockabilly as a sound, and never took to it as naturally as the 20-year-old Presley. The group finally broke up in 1958, after six years of steady
gigs and no luck in the recording studio. Yelvington gave up music after trying to play on his own, in order to devote his attention to a family of five children. In the mid-'80s, however, Yelvington would suddenly find a new music career, ironically enough,
as an original rockabilly star -- more than 25 years after his rockabilly records were passed over as too country-ish.
Histories of Sun Records mentioned him and the
Star Rhythm Boys, and people started looking for him, as one of Sun's original roster of rockabilly players. He was initially approached by European concert promoters, catering to a still huge and dedicated audience who loved American music, and who got him
over there to play a series of shows. He was back at Sun the following year, to record again, which led to the making of his first album, released in 1997, when he was 69-years-old. By that time, he was a living part of Memphis history, and a respected elder
statesman in country music and, yes, rockabilly - although in his heart, he'll always consider himself a country musician.
by Bruce Eder
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