One of the first articles I ever wrote was about rockabilly/honky tonk singer Buck Griffin, which in turn led me to my proud association with Joe Leonard. Griffin was a great artist who unfortunately struck out before making the major leagues, despite going to bat for Lin, MGM and Holiday Inn between 1954 and 1962. He tried his hand at both country and the newly emerging rockabilly style but was destined to remain relatively unknown.
Born Albert Clyde Griffin in Corsicana, Texas on 23rd February 1923, his formative years were spent moving throughout Oklahoma and Kansas. Whilst still in his teens, A.C., as he was known, formed and fronted a country band with three schoolmates. After leaving school and holding down jobs on pipelines and oil fields, he started to play the local honky tonks and eventually got a gig on radio station WKY.
Throughout the forties and fifties radio had bred many stars who once they were groomed and polished, moved on to better things, leaving the station manager to find a replacement. WKY probably had this in mind when they copyrighted the name Chuck Wyman and had our Mr. Griffin use it for all his broadcasts. Once he left the station, singers like Paul Brawner and Pronger Suggs took over the role and the sponsors continued backing the shows. The public must surely have noticed whenever a new Chuck arrived, but after a hard days toil in the cotton fields or rounding up cattle, I don’t suppose they cared.
Local entrepreneur Joe Leonard Jr. who owned radio station KGAF in Gainesville, Texas had started his own publishing company and had released four singles on his fledgling Lin label. Leonard liked what he heard in Griffin and in early ’54 took him to Dallas where they cut two Griffin originals at the WFAA Studio. « It Don’t Make No Never Mind » featured both horn and piano solo’s but suffered from a pedestrian pace. The jazzier western swing cut « Meadowlark Boogie » was catchier but when they were released as Lin 1005 they went nowhere. Unperturbed by the lack of success, they returned to the studio on 17 September 1954 to cut four more slabs of hillbilly, again all written by Griffin. Cut at the Jim Beck Studio in Dallas, two singles were issued with Lin 1007 coupling the slow « Rollin’ Tears » and the lively « One Day After Payday » with it’s great backing (including Sonny James on fiddle), and clever lyrics. Lin 1008 again suffered the same fate despite two more Hank Williams-like numbers, « Going Home All Alone » and the nice « Lookin’ For The Green » (Lin 1008).
When they returned to Jim Beck’s studio a couple of months later, they cut the brilliant country bopper, «Let’s Elope Baby » (Lin 1015), a track which gained greater recognition via Janis Martin‘s cover for RCA (# 47-6744, reviewed by Billboard on December 6th, 1956). It’s thought that the backing band for the session provided by Bill Wimberley comprised of several ex-Texas Playboys including Johnnie Gimble on fiddle. The results are thus very polished and were Buck’s best efforts to date. « Bawlin’ And Squallin’ » the flip of « Elope » was another swinger, as was the marching « Go-Stop-Go », another penned by W. D. Patty and « Cochise » was out of the Kaw Liga theme (Lin 1016). « Little Dan » was very commercial with driving fiddle and great, playful vocals and could have been a contender if luck had played more of a part in his career. The flip « Neither Do I » was another dip into the Hank Williams book of songwriting (Lin 1018).
Despite poor sales Buck received the boost of Hank’s label MGM offering to release his records. Obviously keen to produce the goods and get his career going in the right direction, Buck must have anticipated great things when he travelled to the Clifford Herring Studio in Fort Worth, Texas on 9th May ’56 with Leonard and regular guitarist Merl Shelton. All his recordings had shown a versatility but this session really offered a new sound with the classic « Stutterin’ Papa » kicking off the proceedings. This rural rockabilly with great guitar throughout, hiccup vocals and loud drums, had lyrics which kids could actually relate to, someone which most of his records failed to have. Issued as MGM K12284, the top side « Watchin’ The 7:10 Roll By » featured high lonesome wails and a good country boogie guitar. It looked good for the guys as the single picked up a very encouraging review in the June 30 issue of Billboard who awarded « Watchin’ The 7:10 Roll By » , 82/100 in their Commercial Potential Ratings. Reviewed in the New C&W Records section, they enthused “Griffin uncorks a wonderfully effective train-rhythm blues job. The rhythmic figure repeats for solid spin and sales potential .New on the label, the performer is impressive and the country band backing swings.”
The same gang returned to the session on July 6th, cutting four more Griffin originals. « Bow My Back » and « Old Bee Tree » were coupled as MGM K 12439, but again no chart action was forthcoming. Both were strong hillbilly bop songs, aimed at the country market with « Bow My Back » being particularly clever. For the third and final single on MGM proper, a song from each of the Fort Worth sessions was chosen. The top side « Jessie Lee » is now rightly considered a classic with groups copying it to this day. Backed with the dramatic ballad « You’ll Never Come Back » (cut at the « Stutterin’ Papa » session), the coupling was reviewed in the 23 December 1957 issue of Billboard who described it thus “Country blues, slow in tempo. Griffin has a very authentic feel for the genre, and plenty of individuality in his vocal. Solid wax, and merits real exposure.” They also featured it in their “This Week’s Best Buys (Pop)” section where they referred to him as “a solid new“.
The backing of national radio still eluded him and despite the favourable review in Billboard and his appearances on the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, the sales were only sufficient for MGM to issue his next single on their Metro subsidiary. Cut in January 58, both « The Party » and « Every Night » (Metro 20007) were poppier than anything previously attempted with backing vocals and sounding a bit like Gene Vincent. It should have come as no surprise when this also bombed, and, probably getting disillusioned, Buck didn’t return to the studio until the turn of the new decade when he returned to Lin label. The Nashville sound was evident on « First Man To Stand On The Moon » and « Twenty Six Steps » (Lin 5030). Another two years passed before Joe Leonard produced a single which came out on the Holiday Inn label, formed by hotelier Kemmons Wilson and Sam Phillips. « Pretty Lou » was a really neat sax led rocker with « Girl In 1209 » being an attractive slowy (# 109). It’s a shame that Sam Phillips only fits in this story as an aside because the mouth waters at the thought of what he could have achieved with Buck Griffin. That voice was made to be backed by Roland Janes, Billy Lee Riley et all.
Since those days Buck has sold bibles, started his own Rotary label, had “Drinkin’ With The Blues” on the Foundation label, hosted a Kansas based NBC TV show and settled in Erick, Oklahoma. In 2000, the love of his life, Mildred Griffin, his wife for 58 years, passed away at the age of 76. Buck himself passed away in a hospital on February 14, 2009, aged 85 – I’ve only just heard, so I don’t even know what he died from. Anyway, thanks for the music, Buck, and rest in peace.
I can’t for Heaven’s sake remember where I did pick up this story from, nor its author. But it did appear to me it was perfect, and I kept it in its entirety, just adding some info and correcting several errors. All selections available for podcasts have been arranged in their recording original sequence. Nov. 15, 2011 note: A visitor, Mikael Mäki, advises me that this article was written by Shaune Mathers, and published on the Rockabilly Hall of Fame site. Thanks to both of them. By request I have added in the podcasts the fine, jumping Rotary side, “Green River Towns”, from the mid-60s – sharp, at the same time crying attractive steel-guitar.
Labels (Lin MGM) as usual do come from Rockin’ Country Style.
“Flashing lights, wine and me”
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