This article (and the following ones about the same musical label) is based on the Hillbilly Researcher’s article from 1992 written by expert Phillip. Tricker, and mostly on the notes of other experts Andrew Brown and Kevin Coffey for the compilation “Heading back to Houston” (Krazy Kats CD12) issued ca. 1998. Important additions have been made by bopping’s editor.
The style of Honky Tonk music that Starday commenced to issue in 1953 had developped over the years following the end of WWII and a thriving recording scene had expanded in the Houston area with much of the recorded output appearing on labels like FOUR STAR and more locally labels like MACY’S, NUCRAFT, OPERA, HUMMING BIRD and PHAMOUS to name but just a few. Some, like MACY’S issued over fifty releases while others scaled down to a mere dozen or so and yet others a solitary lone release. One of the most important of these labels was FREEDOM : little was known about the artists and bopping music. However, since 1992 and Phillip Tricker’s article, an important amount of research has been done and we can now have a far better overview of both the label, its owner and the artists.
FREEDOM Records was run by Saul Kahal, sometimes spelt Kahl, and had two series : the 1500 one for Blues/R&B releases, and the 5000 for Hillbilly. The latter seems to have commenced in early 1950 and some forty plus releases were put out until the labels’ demise, probably in early 1952.
Solomon Morris Kahal was born in New York City in 1901, the eldest son of Romanian Jewish immigrants. In his youth he learnt saxophone, clarinet and piano, although his career as musician was short-lived : by the late twenties, he was working as a salesman for the Doughnut Corporation of America (DCA), a prosperous manufacture of doughnut-making machines sold to bakeries and grocery stores. He remained with DCA much of the forties, until business called him in Houston late 1947. There he met his future wife Gladys, and quickly announced his intentions: cut and sell « race records », because he felt it would going to be « the big business ».
In Houston, Kahal met H. W. Daily (who soon became christened ‘Pappy’), a juke-box operator and distributor (through his retail store) for such labels as MGM and Four Star (he also managed Four Star artists). Daily was skeptical about R&B records, but agreed to help Sol Kahal and put up some, if not most, of the original capital that got Freedom off the ground. At the commencement of the label’s life Kahal was in partnership with a black record store owner named Eddie Henry (whose ventures into recording included Eddie’s label, on which cut the young Willie Littlefield).
However Kahal’s partnership with Pappy Daily and Eddie Henry were short-lived, and Gladys sollicited some help from her uncle, who agreed. So Freedom was officially registered on December 30, 1948. Initially, Sol and Gladys operated Freedom out of their house at 1322 Oxford Street, but later moved to a downtown office on Main Street.
Through extensive sessions at Bill Holford’s ACA Studios, they scored local and regional hits in 1949 with the race serie (e.g. Big Joe Turner), which ran 49 records, plus 15 in a gospel serie. And the Kahals couldn’t have timed their excursion into country music better than then. Houston’s scene was as its postwar zenith from 1949-1951, with countless opportunities for singers and musicians, as well as disc jockeys, club owners and record labels. Alas, Freedom enjoyed only one modest regional hit in its hillbilly serie, Tommy Durden’s lugubrious« Crossroads » (# 5025).
Musically the label retained numerous links with an earlier era, that of the immediate post-war and even pre-war Western swing, and this is emphasized even more by some of the artists who recorded for FREEDOM.
The very first disc [untraced by bopping’s editor] finds BILLIE STEVENS & PAUL covering « Send me the pillow you dream on » (# 5000) originally recorded by Hank Locklin on Four Star 1360 in June of 1949. Flipside « Moonlight and roses » is also a pleasant ballad duet with sparse backing and accordion, steel and rhythm. Ms. Stevens is unknown but Paul could be PAUL BROWN who led a band called the Bar X Cowboys and appeared later on label as well as recording for other Houston labels like MACY’S, a label for whom DICKIE JONES and the Rhythm Rangers whose « Houston Texas blues/Be careful little darlin’ » (# 5001) followed, had also recorded. Actually this disc disguises Benny Leaders and his
“Houston Texas blues“ download
« Houston Texas blues » is a lovely slice of slow Western swing with some fine ‘dirty’ steel work. Together with 5 releases BENNY LEADERS was the most recorded artist on the label. He also committed himself to the second Dickie Jones record, « Salt your pillow down » (# 5003) a song well suited to Bennie’s warm voice with excellent steel and lead guitar, a mellow, medium tempo blues..Dickie Jones, “Salt your pillow down“download Joan Brooks, “Heading back to Houston“download
The flip is by JOAN BROOKS with Paul Brown accompaniment and called « Heading back to Houston ». The powerfully voiced Joan belts away while the band romps along driven by a manic bass man and includes hand claps and all the band singing by the end of the number. Then Benny Leaders under his actual name, in « In a land of broken dreams » (# 5007) show him in a relaxed mood (piano main instrument) while Ashlene Stevens could be related, on the flipside, duetting on « Think of me » with Leaders, to Billie Stevens. Leaders had previously played on some Jerry Irby’s sides and had at one time as part of the Western Rangers the famous steel player Bob Dunn. « Boots don’t leave me» (# 5012), which feature Benny’s laconic vocal on a fine Western swing bopper that has excellent steel, fiddle and clarinet ; « I’ll be jumped up and down » (# 5020; he is backed by Link Davis on sax and Eddie Hurd on clarinet.) and « Naggin’ woman » (Caruthers switched meanwhile to fiddle)(# 5029) were co-written by Irby and the latter’s steel player Deacon Evans : all three songs show Leaders leaning toward a more honky-tonk style than he normally featured, perhaps a concession to a marketplace that was drifting further and further from Western swing. Regardless, Leaders’ vocals were still smooth and the Western Rangers still provided jazzy Western-swing take-off choruses. Issue 5038 is made of two slowies, organ-led, better escape them, you Boppers addicts. Later on Leaders even tried Country-boogie with a cover of the Clovers’ “Hey Miss Fannie” (OK’ed 1050), far less convincing however than the demo of a young Texas outfit led by Roy Orbison, the Wink Westerners.
“Boots don’t leave me“(5012)download
“I’ll be jumped up and down“download
“Hey miss Fannie“download
Wink Westerners, “Hey miss Fannie“(demo 1954)download
The quainty named STUBBY’S TUNE GOONS are next with the equally quainted titled « Buggy buggy love » and « Wurry-wurry-wurry » [sic](# 5004), with STUBBY STUBBLEFIELD on vocals (and piano) on both sides. This singer and therefore I suspect, the band were connected to Pete Hunter, a well-known D.J. in the Bayton area. As titles suggest, songs are not lyrically great but the classy backings sure make up for it. Stubblefield wrote Johnny Nelms’ « If I can’t have you »(# 5018)
“Buggy buggy love“download
Next JIMMIE SPEAR & the Bluebonnet Boys’ « Turn me ’round » (#5005) : it’s a superb Hillbilly bopper with great vocal and backing ; his second « Heart carved in a tree »(# 5021) was a slowie and a local hit, anyway Spear disappeared shorty afterwards from the music scene, perhaps at the insistence of his wife. while COYE WILCOX with Jack Rhodes Ramblers ‘ « I need someone tonight » (# 5006), although veering towards the same style as Jimmie Spear does retain a more Western swing feel too it. Both of these two came out in the early summer of 1950 with the former being one of seven releases to be reviewed in Billboard. Probably in early 1952 Coye gave us « Look what love has done to me » and « It’s nobody business (what we do) » (# 5040). Both sides show the powerful influence that singers like Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams had on aspiring singers; but don’t get me wrong : Coye has enough vocal talent to be different and not a soundalike. The backings are great Texas Honky tonk Hillbilly ; he later recorded for Azalea and other small labels of the area.
“Turn me ’round“download
“I need someone tonight“download
“Look what love has done to me“download
“It’s nobody’s business“download
PETE HUNTER was a D.J. in Baytown and KLEE in Houston. He had aready recorded for Bill McCall’s 4* label, later (1955) on M-G-M, and had a huge following in the area both for his D. J. work and for his stage appearances on which he would often double as MC for shows like « Houston Hometown Jamboree ». His « Wrapped in cellophane » is a catchy Hillbilly bopper with an unusual backup of accordion, clarinet and banjo complimenting the fiddles and is a clever song about wrapping goods in cellophane, an innovation of the time (# 5008). The flip,« The ‘Tater song » is a kiddie type novelty number and may account for him often being billed as ‘TATER PETE HUNTER. He later recorded for Feature, as did other artists, and for the major M-G-M.
“Wrapped in cellophane“download
JIMMY JOHNSON seems to have made his debut on shellac with his version of « Salt your pillow down » (# 5009). The song seems to have been popular in this area. Accompanied by Jack Rhodes’ Ramblers, it is a magnificent Hillbilly disc with superb vocal, steel guitar, and very classy acoustic lead guitar break. Jimmy later recorded again with Jack Rhodes, for Columbia and then for Starday. Andrew Jackson Rhodes (1907-1968) was heavily involved in the Texas music scene for many years ; he had formed his own band, the Lone Star Buddies after WWII (which included a young Joe ‘Red’ Hayes on fiddle) who backed Rhodes brother-in-law Leon Payne on his first Bullet records (« Lost highway ») in 1948.
In 1949 Rhodes organized the Ramblers with Johnson on vocal, and they transformed the Benny Leaders’ song into a country boogie par excellence. The Ramblers were comprised at the time of Bobby Davis (el. lead guitar), Red Hayes (ac. lead guitar), Al Petty (steel), ‘Little Red’ Hayes (fiddle) and a bassist, probably the third Hayes brother Leon, on bass. More on Jimmy Johnson is on the site, and scheduled is the full Jack Rhodes’ story. The second issue by Jimmy Johnson with Jack Rhodes’ Ramblers also feature the Morgan Sisters on harmony vocals for « Warm beer and a cold cold woman » (# 5031), a superb fast Honky tonk.
Jimmy Jonson “Salt your pillow down” (5009)download
“Warm beer and a cold, cold woman“(5031)download
More about Freedom in a near future…