ANOTHER STAR FROM SUN RECORDS TELLS HIS TRUE STORY - Luke McDaniel a.k.a. Jeff Daniels, the singer and guitarist from Ellisville, Mississippi, is
in the recording room at Sun, Sam Phillips's little red-bricked studio on 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, where Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins and the other gods first recorded.
Dressed in a cowboy shirt embroidered with flowers, Western bow tie, and cowboy hat, he positions himself behind the mic: "Although your mama's looking/Your papa's at the door/Go ahead and kiss me/'Cause I can't wait no more'', he yelps on
"Go Ahead Baby'', a lascivious rabble-rouser that, drenched in reverb and slapback echo, reveals a voice and style a little bit Elvis, a little bit Perkins, but all his own.
and Carl were pals of Luke's; they'd met in Shreveport, and both had told Luke to send Sam Phillips a demo. He'd already recorded cracking sides for independent labels, but never broke through, as he should have, with them. Sales figures aside, Sam liked what
he heard and booked him in.
Four boppers and a ballad are put down live, all in one or two takes with the Sun house band, including guitarist Roland Janes, saxophonist
Martin Willis, and drummer Jimmy Van Eaton. There's the amazing aforesaid "Go Ahead Baby'', plus the rockin' "Uh Babe'', "High, High, High'' and, the best of the bunch, perhaps, "My Baby Don't Rock'', defined by Luke's hair-raising yells and squeals, Willis's
wailing sax, and a frantic guitar solo from Janes. The country-tinged "That's What I Tell My Heart'', sees a change of pace; an exquisite ballad, it shows there's more than one side to McDaniel at Sun. It also features Jerry Lee Lewis on piano.
When the session is over, Luke goes over to Sam. "Can I get my union fee?", he asks. Sam shakes his head. He doesn't pay union fees. Sparks fly, and the songs are put in the can, where they
remain. Luke McDaniel's career at Sun Records was over just as it was beginning.
Before and after the Sun Records fiasco, from 1952 to 1960, Luke McDaniel tore it up
with a series of hillbilly and rockabilly sides for Jackson, Mississippi, label Trumpet, for King Records over in Cincinnati, and for Meladee in New Orleans. He played alongside Hank Williams on TV, shared a stage with Elvis Presley, and saw his songs recorded
by Buddy Holly, Jim Reeves, George Jones, and The Byrds. Yet he never received his due. He doesn't even get a footnote mention in Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins's Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'N' Roll. Neither is he in Escott's
Tattooed on Their Tongues nor his All Roots Lead to Rock. Ditto Nick Tosches's Unsung Heroes of Rock 'N' Roll. But while on this earth from February 3, 1927 to June 27, 1992, he blazed a trail with his exuberant, unfettered mix of white country and black rhythm
Enthralled by the sounds of Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb, Cowboy Copas, and the Bailes Brothers as an early teen, he picked up a mandolin, then moved on to guitar.
He was good, and he honed his craft on the road with the Jamup and Honey Show, a blackface comedy duo, then played with Hank Williams at the New Orleans Coliseum in 1950.
Hank Williams, "I saw him play live for the first time'', said McDaniel. "And it just about changed everything I had thought and done before. He set the standard: I wanted to sound like him, be like him. He really wielded an influence with songs like ''I Saw
the Light'', ''Lovesick Blues'', ''Mind Your Own Business'', and he made me see I had to get a record made''.
Lillian McMurry's Trumpet label provided the means. She
said to make McDaniel sound "like something that is selling right now...something like Hank Williams'', and his debut 1952 "Whoa, Boy!" did. Over infectious, western swing, he exudes: "Way down yonder in New Orleans/The black cat jumped on the sewing machine/The
sewing machine caught the black cat's tail/And you could hear that black cat wail''. The record's flip side, "No More'', a mournful wail, is in the Williams mold, too, and when Williams died only months later, Luke cut a song called "A Tribute to Hank Williams,
It was another Williams fan, singer/guitarist Jack Cardwell, who gave McDaniel his next break. Cardwell had also mourned Hank Williams's passing on wax with
"The Death of Hank Williams'', and the pair found themselves sharing a bill in Mobile, Alabama. On his advice, Luke jumped ship to Syd Nathan's King, while "Whoa, Boy!" had been a local hit for Trumpet, Luke had received no royalties, and he put down three
sessions of bop and boogie. These sessions gave rise to songs about cars in the rollicking "The Automobile Song'', and about girls in the poignant "Hurts Me So''.
also appeared on Louisiana Hayride, a radio and TV country-music show that took place at the Shreveport Municipal Auditorium. "That's how I met Elvis Presley'', he said. "He had everything going for him. He looked mean, he sounded mean, he played mean, but
he was a nice guy. He said he liked what I did, he was friendly, and he liked to encourage. He told me to keep singing and playing''.
Which is what Luke did. In 1955,
due to contractual obligations, he penned a song called "Midnight Shift'', a red-hot rockabilly number à la Elvis, under the stage name of Earl Lee. It had all the crucial ingredients, barely disguised lewd lyrics, ample twanging guitar, but Luke never
recorded the song. Buddy Holly, however, later succumbed to its allure, covering it on his 1958 album with The Crickets, That'll Be The Day.
By this time, McDaniel had
upped sticks to Mobile, Alabama, and, signing to Mel Mallory's Meladee label, started recording less country and more rockabilly under the name Jeff Daniels. "I just thought that name sounded better'', he said. "I thought it had a star quality to it''. (And
it did, years later, for the Georgia actor of that name). But it was ambition and not his stage name that was his downfall. When the unhinged "Daddy-O-Rock'', the very apotheosis of wild, raw rockabilly, started to sell for Meladee, Luke/Jeff set his sights
on a bigger prize and struck up with Sam Phillips, only to walk out on him as well.
"The session went well, we got the songs down raw, it felt exciting to be standing
in that studio, knowing Johnny Cash and Elvis and Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison had all recorded there before me. But I didn't think twice about leaving when Sam Phillips didn't pay. I blew it. Sun got the best out of me'', he said.
After that Sun session, Luke soldiered on, working on the Grand Ole Opry Big Tent Show in 1957 with The Everly Brothers and Bill Monroe, "That was a good one, you didn't realize the importance at the time, The
Opry, The Everly Brothers, Bill Monroe, it was history in the making", and founding his own label Venus to release the plaintive "You're Still On My Mind'', soon to become a standard covered by the likes of George Jones and The Byrds. Next there were singles
for Astro and, most notably, the furious "Switch Blade Sam'', for Hack Kennedy's Big Howdy label. But with no success, Luke hung it up. "My home life was hard. I divorced, had ten children to feed, and I wasn't making any money''. He left music, setting up
a trucking company in Baton Rouge. By the 1980s, though, he was back doing what he did best. "The pull was too much, it was something I had to do. I needed to be in a studio and out on stage. I recorded for Duell, it felt right'', he said. H continued to do
so up to his death in 1992, at age sixty-five. He may have died a cult hero, but he could have held his own on a bigger stage.