« Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby », the story of an enduring Hillbilly song (1936-1957)

The original of the song was made by the legendary Rex Griffin, one of those pioneers in Honky Tonk music. Here is his biography by a Bruce Eder:

As a songwriter, performer, and recording artist, Rex Griffin bridged the gap between Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams — indeed, it can be said that he bridged the gap between Rodgers and Buddy Holly, and between Rodgers and the Beatles. Griffin was among the first country music stars to record using his own material almost exclusively, and among the least of his accomplishments, one of his songs was covered (albeit without proper credit) by the Beatles. Griffin is the author of the original version of « Everybody’s Tryin’ to Be My Baby, » which Carl Perkins later adapted into his own song, and the Beatles subsequently covered to the profit of all except Griffin, who’d been dead about six years when all of this happened.

rex griffin


Griffin is one of those pre-war figures in country music whose legacy has been unjustly overlooked. He had no hits of his own after 1939, although his biggest hit from that year — « The Last Letter » — continues to get recorded at the end of the century. He was also a direct inspiration to both Hank Williams (whose recording of « Lovesick Blues » was virtually a copy of Griffin’s from ten years earlier) and Lefty Frizzell. One of country music’s first singer/songwriters, Griffin was the model for figures including Floyd Tillman, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard (and one could even throw Buddy Holly in there). And, like Williams, his personal demons in love and substance abuse brought a premature end — albeit not as suddenly as Williams’ — to Griffin’s performing career and his life.

He was born Alsie Griffin, second of seven children of Marion Oliver Griffin and the former Selma Bradshaw. He grew up without much formal education and spent most of his early childhood on the farm that his family owned in Sand Valley. By the 1920s, Ollie Griffin was working in Gasden at the Agricola Foundry, and Alsie followed his father there. The family regarded music as a pastime to be pursued after finishing one’s real work.

Alsie felt differently, however, wanting no part of farm life or the factory if there was any way of helping it. His first instrument was a harmonica, but it wasn’t long before he picked up the guitar. Gasden didn’t offer a big future in music, but Griffin took advantage of what was there, playing local parties and dances.

If the guitar was the first instrument that Griffin felt strongly about, his first love was the music of Jimmie Rodgers. He quickly adopted Rodgers’ style as his own and never entirely abandoned elements of his music — especially the yodeling — even once he had his own style nailed down.

Griffin made his first professional appearance on a bill at the Gasden Theater in 1930, and not long after he moved to Birmingham, where better opportunities awaited. He joined the Smokey Mountaineers, and it was there that he got his new first name — the group’s announcer had difficulty pronouncing Alsie, and simply renamed him Rex. The name stayed with him and he moved from city to city across the South, appearing on radio stations in Chattanooga, Atlanta, and New Orleans, among other cities.

His recording career began in 1935, when Griffin was signed to the newly formed Decca Record company, which already had the Sons of the Pioneers, Tex Ritter, Jimmie Davis, and Milton Brown in their roster of country artists. His first recording sessions were held in Chicago on March 25 and 26 of that year, during which he recorded ten songs, accompanied by his own guitar and Johnny Motlow on tenor banjo. All ten number were originals by Griffin, itself an astonishing achievement in those days. All of the material, both in its style and performance, recalled Rodgers — Griffin’s yodeling never let one forget who his inspiration was, although the songs hold up well on their own terms. Also striking about the recordings is Motlow’s banjo playing which, with its trilling, sounds almost like a mandolin.

Griffin’s first releases were successful enough to justify another session for Decca nearly a year later in New Orleans. This time he provided the only accompaniment on ten of the songs and did two additional songs backed by an amplified steel guitar. Among the songs that came out of those sessions was « Everybody’s Tryin’ to Be My Baby, » which in this context sounds almost like a blues composition, recalling works such as Tampa Red‘s « Tight Like That. » The piece was also a dazzling guitar showcase for Griffin, whose prowess on the instrument was considerable. This blues influence was no fluke — « I’m Ready to Reform » from the same session is a superb piece of white blues that can fool listeners as to its origins as easily as Autry’s or Rodgers’ best blues sides.


Griffin’s records continued to sell well, and in May of 1937, this time in New York, he cut two more sides, including his most famous number. « The Last Letter » became his biggest hit, a suicide note set to music. Stories vary as to its origins, the most commonly circulated one being that Griffin, who had a taste for alcohol that would later blight his life, was in a drunken depression over his failing first marriage when he wrote the note, and later set it to music as sobering up. Whatever the circumstances of its composition, the record caught on and became a hit throughout the South, and also brought Griffin the adulation of many of his colleagues, most notably Ernest Tubb, whose 20-year friendship with Griffin began over « The Last Letter. »

The song was covered by other artists, including Jimmie Davis, soon after its release. Gene Sullivan (vocalist for Roy Newman & his Boys) also covered three Griffin songs, including « Everybody’s Tryin’ to Be My Baby, » in the late ’30s, and even bandleader Bob Crosby cut Griffin’s « I Told You So. » Griffin’s own career kept moving forward, with concerts and radio performances throughout the South that made him one of the more popular performers of the era.

Griffin’s next recording sessions in September of 1939 yielded a dozen songs, including the follow-up to his biggest hit, « Answer to the Last Letter« , and his recording of « Lovesick Blues, » which was to be the model for Williams’ recording nearly a decade later that made Hank a star. Also recorded at the session was « Nobody Wants to Be My Baby« , a fast, breezy honky tonk-style number and one of several songs on which Griffin was backed by guitarist Ted Brooks and bassist Smitty Smith. The latter is also a beautiful piece of bluesy honky tonk and deserves to be better known.

Despite the success of « The Last Letter« , Griffin’s record sales were too poor overall to justify the label keeping him, and he was dropped by Decca after 1939. In the mid-’30s, he had played with Billie Walker and Her Texas Cowboys in New Orleans, and in 1940 he rejoined her band in Memphis. He later moved back to Alabama to spend more time with his ailing mother and appeared locally for the next few years. Among the places he played often was the notorious crime-ridden Alabama town of Phenix City, which would later become the subject of two feature films. In Gasden, he performed with a group called the Melody Boys, which included two future members of Tubb’s Texas Troubadors.

In 1941, following the death of his mother, Griffin moved to Dallas, where he had a regular spot on KRLD’s Texas Round-Up. His popularity from these broadcasts made Griffin a natural to take over the Texas Round-Up. This was to be his best broadcast showcase, and had it not been for the war, Griffin might’ve become a major star from his work on KRLD. As it was, the show ended in 1943 as the available talent dwindled amid continued military call-ups.

Griffin moved to Chicago in 1944, and it was there that he made his next batch of recordings. These 16 sides — recorded with a band that may have included Red Foley on guitar — were not intended for commercial release. Rather, they were made for Decca Records’ World Transcription Services, for broadcast over the air by radio stations that licensed them.

Despite these recordings for the company’s transcription division, there was no interest at the time in trying to release new commercial sides by Griffin. To hear the material today is to glimpse some of the best honky tonk-style music of the era — by that time, Griffin had taken on a more modern style, and he had even cut his Rodgers-inspired yodeling to a minimum. In addition to capturing Griffin performing « live » in the studio, these are among the few sides he left that feature him working with a band and, thus, show something of the sound he must’ve had during that early-’40s Dallas period.

The oversight by the record company, in terms of offering him a new contract, is difficult to explain. It is possible, however, that the wartime rationing of shellac (a key ingredient in 78 rpm records) had so dampened interest in any risky new ventures (the record business at one point seemed doomed to shut down) that Griffin never had a chance with his old label.

He made his last recordings in 1946 for Cincinnati-based King Records, which had previously recorded Grandpa Jones, the Delmore Brothers, and Merle Travis, among others. Griffin cut eight sides for King, backed by Homer & Jethro on guitars and mandolin. The sides showed Griffin in decent form, an easygoing honky tonk singer with a smooth style and a good voice, but lacking the sharp edge to his singing and playing that sparked his earlier work, clearly on the decline by this time.

These proved to be his last recording sessions. His worsening diabetic condition, complicated by drinking and other dietary abuses, forced an end to Griffin’s career, and the collapse of his second marriage late in the 1940s sent him into a personal tailspin. He moved to Dallas and still wrote songs, and when his health allowed (he was hospitalized several times), he pitched them actively to singers who had recording contracts, including Ray Price, who cut « Answer to the Last Letter« , « Beyond the Last Mile« , and « I Saw My Castles Fall Today« .

His friendship with Tubb blossomed into a profitable professional relationship for both, as Tubb recorded many of Griffin’s songs, and Griffin also became close to Tubb’s nephew, Douglas Glenn Tubb. Their interest, coupled with the quality of his work, sustained Griffin during the 1950s, and in 1955 he wrote « Just Call Me Lonesome« , his last hit, recorded by Eddy Arnold and Red Foley. His last years were blighted by further ill health, as Griffin was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was confined to a New Orleans hospital for what proved to be the final months of his life, and died in October of 1958.

Griffin’s death at the age of 46 was a great loss to country music. Moreover, his lack of any hit recordings of his own after 1939 resulted in there never being an LP release of his songs — there was no impetus on the part of Decca Records to explore his recording history, and he was left in limbo as a recording artist, a distant memory to older listeners. The possibility of Decca’s successor, MCA Records, doing anything with Griffin’s music in the 1990s or beyond seems even more remote.

The songs he wrote, however, have endured over the 40 years since. Hank Thompson recorded « An Old Faded Photograph » in 1960, and « The Last Letter » was re-recorded by Jack Greene in 1964 and became a hit once again. Soon after, Tubb cut an entire album of Griffin songs, and other artists who have covered « The Last Letter » include Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard. At the time of his death, Griffin’s quarterly royalty statement from the publisher of his newest songs was 18 dollars and change, a situation that had changed drastically by the 1960s. Additionally, his song « Everybody’s Tryin’ to Be My Baby« , as appropriated by Carl Perkins — the inability of the family to protect the copyright probably cost his daughters millions in royalties — and later covered by the Beatles, has become a rock & roll standard only slightly less familiar than « Blue Suede Shoes » or « Maybelline« . And then there was his version of « Lovesick Blues, » which Williams freely admitted to having learned from Griffin, even though Hank was also familiar with the Emmett Miller original — Griffin did make changes in the lyrics and structure of the song that Williams kept in his version.

In 1970, in recognition of his achievements as a composer, Griffin was among the very first composers inducted into the newly founded National Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in Nashville. In 1996, Bear Family Records of Germany released a long overdue triple-CD career retrospective on Griffin entitled The Last Letter.

In 1938, bandleader and pianist ROY NEWMAN cut in Dallas « Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby« , in a more Western swing mood. Griffin had done it fast- paced, Newman kept it. Whole thing is cheerful, funny, and ideal for dancers. The personnel included: Gene Sullivan on vocal duties, Newman on piano, a young Jim Boyd on guitar, along with Holly Horton (clarinet), Cecil Browen (fiddle), Ish Irwin (bass) and Walter Kirken (banjo). ROY NEWMAN is known for his « I Got Ants In My Pants » and « Rosalie », cut either in Dallas or in New Orleans at the end of the ’30s.

vocalion 04866 roy newman everybody's trying to be my babyThen ten years later, the song was covered twice. I really don’t know who came first, so I suppose it was GLEN THOMPSON. He hailed from Danville, VA, and had numerous records on the Tornado, (Tennessee) Athens, even his own Glen Thompson labels. Most of his output can be found on a UK. Krazy Kat CD « Tarheel Swing ». Here he delivers a fine, up-to-date hillbilly bop shuffle paced version (uncredited) of the classic on the Manchester, KY Acme label (# 982-B). The steel player is particularly fine (two solos), as the fiddler and the pianist. Lyrics do seem to emanate direct from Griffin. JIMMY SHORT & the Silver Saddle Ranch Boys out on the West coast did their version in 1951 on the 4 Star label (# 1538). A bit Western flavored (as Short yells to invite the members for their solos); the steel Jay Higham is impressive, as the rhythm guitar by Short, who reminds me much of Clyde Moody‘s « The Blues Came Pouring Down » from 1949 (hear this song in his story elsewere in the site).


acme 982-B glen thompson everybody's trying to be my babyglen thompson

Glen Thompson

bb 7:4:51 jimmy short

Billboard April 7, 1951

4 *1538 jimmy short everybody's trying to be my baby Then we go to the two last versions we’re interested in. Without doubt, the YORK BROTHERS revived the Griffin song, however strangely crediting it to Wayne Walker and Webb Pierce. Theirs is very good, well-suited to their harmony style, and taken at a Rockabilly tempo. Issued 1957.

carl perkins sun studios

Carl Perkins - Sun studio

decca 30473 everybody's tryin' (Pierce-mathis)

sun LP 1225 face B

The musicof GLEN THOMPSON or YORK BROTHERS’ song and the CARL PERKINS song is totally different. The Carl Perkins song has blues-style guitar riffs and a start-stop rhythm closer to « Blue Suede Shoes« . There are two verses in common but Carl Perkins wrote completely new music for his song released on Sun Records in 1957 on the famous « Dance Album » LP 1225.

And the rest is history of Rock’n’Roll, when the song got a world-wide appeal when released in 1964 in England. A fine career for a 1936 session-filler by a long-forgotten honky tonk artist…Finally it was revived in 2003 by JOHNNY CASH, as a tribute to Carl Perkins, his old friend (who had died a couple years before). A nice, strong version.

« Do-Right Daddy » LEON CHAPPEL (from 1935 to 1953) – Western, hillbilly blues, honky-tonk

Leon Chappel remains a sadly unrecognized progenitor of western swing, later recording a clutch of singles for Capitol that are fascinating for their mutant hillbilly-blues approach.

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late December 2011 fortnight’s favourites

Howdy folks! This time, being late by 3 days, I won’t be as talkative as usual. Very few snippets on the main artist, and only label shots for the others. CUZZIN BILL HAMBY does offer us his aptly named « Heart Break Station » on the Way-Vee (# 600) label, I think from somewhere in Texas.  way-vee 800 bill hamby Heart break stationrenco 737 bobby metzel no longer mine

Then on to BOBBY METZEL with the fine « No Longer Mine » (Renco 737)

Back to TIM DINKINS, whose I podcasted the great « Cattin’ Tonight » once in an article devoted to « Cat Music« . Here it is the equally good flipside, « It’s All In A Lifetime » (Fable 595 A, from California).

fable 595A tim dinkins It's all in a lifetime

The three remaining tracks are by CLEVE WARNOCK, who apparently was active in Atlanta, Ga. First cut is from 1955: « My Baby Is Gone » on the Stars label (# 502). The two other tracks do date from 1957, also on Stars: « So Goes Life » (# 2127) and « Boy And A Guitar » (# 2128) (yep, Warnock is alone with his guitar!). Note that the 1957 sides were co-written with BILLY BARTON.Enjoy the selections and have a merry Xmas and a Boppin’ New Year!

stars 502 cleve warnock my baby is gonestars 2127 cleve warnock so goes lifestars 2128 cleve warnock boy & a guitar

YORK Brothers (Leslie & George): Hamtramck Mama – 1940s Hillbilly into 1950s and beyond

Few realize the vintage of the YORK Brothers’ earliest recordings, and that their first and biggest record, « Harmtrack Mama », was actually recorded in 1939 ! Released in Detroit on the upstart Universal label, « Hamtramck Mama » (Universal 105/106) was the very first independant Hillbilly record of a new era which would only really get into full swings toward the end of W.W. II. It reached markets in many parts of the country (over the years selling at least 300,000 copies in the city of Detroit alone) and was as much an achievement for Universal as it was for the Brothers. The record can be found with many distributor names and label variations, some very crudely printed, indicating that they had big trouble keeping up with the demand.

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early December 2011 fortnight’s favourites

Hello folks! This is the new serie of mostly obscure Hillbilly bop and/or late ’50s Country-rockers. About the majority of the artists, they disappeared into obscurity without leaving any trace, just after the release of their record. Anyway, most important is the music they left behind them, and I hope you will enjoy it as much as I chose the tunes.

We’re beginning with LEE NICHOLS on the Allied label for a nice shuffling Hllbilly bop from 1954, « Baby, You’ve Got Everything » (# 5016). Just where Nichols came from or even label’s location I have been unable to find any snippet. To add a little more confusion, the name Allied must have been pretty common for, I bet, a Southern record label. Found (July 26th, 2014) the flip side, « Have a heart » – nice shuffling ditty.allied 5016 lee nichold - Have a ball <a href= »http://www.bopping.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/allied-lee-Nichols-Have-A-Heart.mp3″ target= »_blank »>download

allied 5012 lee nichols baby you've got everythingA less unknown artist was LUCKY BOGGS. I don’t know exactly where he came from, but it seems, from the spare details I’ve got on him, that he very often traveled through the U.S., from Ohio to Texas, then Georgia and Texas to Michigan. Here, taken from hillbilly-music.com, his biography:

When he was just 16, Lucky Boggs began his professional musical career in 1946, working with a band called the Rhythm Rascals over WPAY out of Portsmouth, Ohio. From there, he moved to Bloomington, Indiana in 1947. In 1948, he was working with Chess Davis’ Chicago Follies and touring throughout the south. Later, he moved to Saginaw, Michigan and to radio station WKNX, playing with Don Boots’ band. In 1949, he was playing with Chuck Bridges’ Ohio Playboys over WHTN in Huntington, West Virginia. and later at KRIC in Beaumont, Texas. Lucky then formed his own band and became a member of the staff at WSAZ-TV in Huntington, West Virginia then moved to WNXT in Portsmouth, Ohio again. February of 1956 saw him sign a three year record contract with Buddy Record Corporation in Marshall, Texas. They said his first single included « Once I Went To Town » b/w « Tears In My Heart« , that was released in April of 1956. In that same month, Lucky rejoined WSAZ-TV in Huntington and was the vocalist with Dean Porter and the Country Rhythm Boys and was also on the Saturday Nite Jamboree show. Note that Buddy records saw also first Tommy Blake release (« Kool It », a crude Rockabilly), same guy was later to cut marvelous Rock’nRollers for Sun in Memphis.

lucky boggs pic

Lucky Boggs

Here I am offering his great shuffler from 1959, « Drillin’ Rig Boogie » (label unknown).

Next artist is now more well-known than during his short life (he died at the early age of 26). IRY LEJEUNE was  born 1928 in a modest sharecropping farm near Church Point, La. Unable to work in fields because of a bad sight, he began at an early age playing accordion, and made his life’s earnings entertaining for local sharecroppers in his area. WWII years were tough, as work was missing, all the troopers being gone. When they returned, they were angry to hear their own Cajun music, and Iry LeJeune was ready to satisfy them. This induced him to record in 1948, along with the fiddler Floyd LeBlanc, « Evangeline Special« , a loud, heavy piece of Cajun  accordion-led hillbilly, on Opera 105, in Houston, Texas (backing provided by Virgel Bozman’s Oklahoma Tornadoes). His career was well on its way. Alas, on October 1955, he was killed upon returning from a gig; in Eddie Shuler‘s own words: « They had a flat where they were widening the highway and they couldn’t pull off. They were trying to change the tire when a guy came along going about 90 MPH. He hit him (LeJeune) and knocked him into a field. That was the end of Iry. »

opera 105b iry lejeune evangeline specialiry lejeuneThe name of HARMONICA FRANK is indeed familiar to many ’50s music lovers. Born 1908, he toured extensively with the last medicine shows during the ’30s, and set up a sort of one-man show, singing, playing guitar and blowing harmonica, all at the same time! He recorded first in 1951 for Sam Phillips, who leased tapes to Chess in Chicago, because he sounded black. « Howlin’ Tomcat » (Chess # 1494), cut December 1951 (just 60 years ago) is a nice piece of folk-blues. Floyd had a fine voice, and his growlings are very convincing. Phillips used to call him « his favorite son« , and actually hired Elvis 3 years later in seach of a new Frank Floyd.

chess1494A Howlin' tomcatharmica frank

log cabin 6171 Hoyt StevensFrom Madisonville, TN, comes the completely unknown (to me, at least) HOYT STEVENS on the obscure Log Cabin label, for the good Rockabilly « 55 Chevy » (# 617). A lot, thousands, dozens of thousands of those artists were to record a one-off record at the turn of mid ’50s, then disappeared; and someone very often finds a gold nugget – thanks to internet, the collectors do offer now very freely their finds.

starday 341 nelson young sunriseFinally, NELSON YOUNG is a relatively well-known artist, whose career was concentrated in the Cincinnati, OH area. He had in late 1957 the famous « Rock Old Sputnick » out on the Lucky label. In 1958, he offered us a more Hillbilly bop tune, although Bluegrass flavored, on Starday 341, with « Sunrise« .

That’s all, folks, for this time! Enjoy the selections, and, as usual, comments welcome. Bye-bye

The pictures below (Iry LeJeune with Virgel Bozman‘s band in 1947) couldn’t find their room at the right place:

iry lejeune+nathan

Iry Lejeune & Nathan Abshire

iry lejeune+virgel bozman band, 1947