(by Michael Cocksedge – all additional content in brackets and italics by Bopping’s editor)
On to you, Mick!
Movie star, Radio star, Recording Star, Nashville lounge bar co-owner …..you name it and Big Jeff has done it and done it in style .
Born on 2nd September 1920 as Grover Franklin Bess in Ashland, just north west of Nashville. At the age of nineteen he married the girl from the next village called Emily Ediker . He started playing guitar in the late 30’s and by 1940 he was playing with ‘Roy Lucas & his Rhythm Rangers’ live on Radio Station W.L.A.C .
Jeff was never called to army service in WWII due to high blood pressure and so was working during the day during the war years at a bomb factory in mid Tennessee and by night working on Radio and various live shows and State Fairs .
From the mid 1940’s Jeff’s career is hard to establish, he was certainly on the rosters of various Radio Staions including Harrisburg W.E.B.Q , Knoxville W.N.O.X and at W.S.I.X where he could be found in the line up with ‘Goober and his Kentuckians’ plus many other stations. So by 1946 the 6ft 2 BIG Jeff Bess and his new band ‘The Radio Playboys’ had returned to W.L.A.C in Nashville and started a regular twice daily radio show.
Jeff’s early ‘Radio Playboys’ line-up included future stars like Grady Martin playing Fiddle (of course Grady was starting to make waves with his guitar playing and would go on to be a major picker in the country music scene), Lucky Strickland playing Accordion, Hillous Butrum on Doghouse Bass, Tommy Neblett on Guitar and Jeff handling acoustic Guitar and vocals. Benny Martin (no relation) was to take over Fiddle duties after Grady Martin left. Around this time the band were joined by Jack Henderson and many more musicians from all over the state.
It was during the late 40’s that his marriage to Emily had broken down and he started dating a certain Hattie Louise AKA ‘Tootsie’ (they would be married in 1949) and already Jeff was venturing into running bars and Club ownership as a way of making extra money.
By the late 40’s Jeff had lost his band so he recruited a local combo called ‘The Eagle Rangers’ to become his new ‘Radio Playboys’ the line-up was now Billy Robinson on Steel, his Brother Floyd Robinson on Lead Guitar [could he be the Floyd Robinson who later teamed up with Autry Inman for the “Jack & Daniel” duet, who cut 1953-54 several discs on Decca?], Jerry Rivers on Fiddle and Jack Boles on the upright Bass.
Guitarist and singer George McCormick during late 1949 would also join the band. George was raised and lived in the fantastic but gloomy sounding town called ‘Defeated Creek’ and would be another young picker, to go under Jeff’s wing before going on to future solo stardom. [Later on George McCormick went solo in 1953-54 on M-G-M and duetted with Texan Earl Aycock as “George and Earl” in 1955-56 on Mercury – see “Done gone” and their story elsewhere in this blogsite]
So into the 1950’s and Jeff was working hard, regular shows, regular radio slots and club/bar owner, things were starting to take off for Jeff and the Radio Playboys. Their shows were a mix of Hillbilly, folk and some gospel and by all accounts they could raise the roof just about anywhere .
Now Jeff was earning more money in this period than most Opry stars and was very influential in Nashville, BIG Jeff was a BIG deal ! but suprisingly had very little in the way of records released !
Jeff Bess and another (stage?) line-up of the Radio Playboys
Jeff and the Radio Playboys backed Jack Henderson on their first recorded release on ‘Cheker’ # 100 in early 1947 ‘The Tramp On The Street’ / ‘Gonna Give You Back To The Indians’. Jack took the vocals, Jeff Bess – Acoustic Guitar, Benny Martin – Fiddle, Grady Martin – Lead Guitar and Hillous Butrum on Bass. Grady Martin steals the show with some fine pickin’ on the ‘Indians’ side …..just marvelous !
The first proper Jeff Bess with The Radio Playboys release was in 1947 on ‘Cheker’ # 103 . The line-up was Jeff Bess – Vocals with Jack Henderson – Acoustic Guitar, Benny Martin – Fiddle, Grady Martin – Guitar and Hillous Butrum on Bass. ‘Poppin’ Bubble Gum’ b/w ‘A Kiss And A Memory’ . ‘Poppin’ Bubble Gum’ was a jaunty novelty number with various comic impersonations and was a fun number that folks liked at all his shows. [Original version had been written by Cincinnati guitar virtuoso Zeb Turner and cut by Lonzo & Oscar in July 1947 on RCA-Victor 47-2765. They often performed this song at their Opry appearances].
1949 saw a second release but this time on ‘World Records’ # 1520 ‘After We Are Through’, which is a superb mid-tempo slice of hillbilly with lashings of Steel, Fiddle and Banjo, written by Jeff and on the flip again another updated version of ‘Poppin’ Bubble Gum’ [which reminds one of 1950 Billy Briggs’’ hit “Chew Tobacco Rag” on Imperial]. This was the last release on World Records Inc and the line-up on this recording was probably (Photo Below) Jack Boles- Bass, Bob King – Banjo, Bill Robinson (Seated) Steel – Jerry Rivers – Fiddle, Big Jeff Bess – Vocals/Guitar & Floyd Robinson – Guitar ( Announcer in this photo is Bill Stamps)
Through this period according to various band members and promoters, Jeff was a great entertainer, a really good show man, but like a lot of stars of this period he loved a drink and he also loved the women ….. a lot !
Jeff and the boys had been playing the Tennessee State Fair which was re-introduced after the war in 1947, Jeff and the Radio Playboys always played the Beer Garden area and were sponsored by ‘Ma n’ Pa Hom Bru Beer’, so over time they worked into the routine comedy sketches and songs about this wonderful beer. It was around the 1950 State Fair that somebody had the idea of cutting a record to sell at the fair. The two songs ‘Ten – E -Cee –Hom – Bru’ and ‘Hom- Bru Boogie’ were recorded in the studios of W.L.A.C . Jeff Bess – Vocals/Guitar. Probably the Radio Playboys were Ed Hyde – Fiddle, George McCormick – Lead Guitar, Dwain Birdwell – Steel Guitar and Jack Boles – Bass . The records were sold only at the fair in 1950, how many were cut is unclear, but the label design is basic and there is no mention of the band on the label; this is an extremely rare 78 rpm (see my copy pictured below), imagine buying this in a beer garden booze up at the State Fair in 1950 and then imagine every copy made it home without a crack or breakage after an all day session on the Hom Bru ……very unlikely indeed !
New record company ‘Dot Records’ was looking for new acts for the big battle against the well-established labels in the Country/Hillbilly field in 1950. Big Jeff knew owner Randy Wood through radio station work and was duly signed up. Jeff saw five releases on Dot with some success . Dot # 1004 in the spring of 1950 was the first and was a tune geared at a popular money making market ‘Juke Box Boogie’ / ‘You Talk In Your Sleep’ . Juke Box Boogie was a superb Guitar driven honkytonker and jumps and bops around for sure.[heavily bootlegged as ’45rpm and yellow wax those days]
1959 saw Jeff and wife Tootsie purchased a club in Nashville called ‘Mom’s’ which they renamed ‘Tootsie’s Orchard Lounge’ and was the place to be if you were a name in Country music in Nashville. Jeff ventured into the movies around this time where he had small appearances in ‘Face In The Crowd’ and in 1960 in ‘Wild River’ . By 1960 he and ‘Tootsie’ had divorced and she kept the club and Jeff would by the mid 60’s become a real life Sheriff in the Tennessee Police Department where he would stay until his retirement in 1980.
Big Jeff Bess passed away in August 1998. Jeff never saw massive music fame, but he left us some fantastic songs and if you listen to the Bear Family CD ‘Tennessee Home Brew’ and the Radio show tunes you can hear Big Jeff’s infectious laugh before and after every song, a true country star a true Radio Playboy !
They were two very different singers who teamed for a brief two years to make some of he most interesting duet recordings of the 1950s. Normally vocal duos were kinfolks who had sung together since the cradle but George McCormick from Tennessee and Earl Aycock from Mississipi did not meet until they were in their early twenties.
George McCormick was born on June 16 1933 and spent his early life near Carthage, the hilly area north of Nashville. The life was tough in rural Tennesseee ; George took an interest in music and formed a string band with two friends, the Thomas Brothers, playing in the local area. They left to Nashville, hoping they could find work with Carl Tipton – what they did, in 1947, but he wouldn’t geting much work and they couldn’t make no money. So the partnership ceased. Next step was a meeting with Big Bess (Jeff), and it paid $ 45 a week. The Thomasses worked four, five or six different shows every morning between 5:30 and 8:30 with any WLAC artist from Bob Jennings to Andy Wilson or Mac O’Dell.
Big Jeff Bess
For several years George played guitar and bass alongside a number of up and coming musicians who passed through Big Jeff’s Playboys band, until too the lead in some shows and was even allowed to make his first recordings as a vocalist : as George Mack on one of Jeff’s Dot Records discs in 1952, he played and sang « I courted an angel » and « I don’t talk to strangers » (Dot 1096). He left in 1953 to play in Martha Carson’s band on WSM radio and the Grand Ole Opry and got a contract with M-G-M Records, for whom he cut 12 tracks within less than one year between August 1953 and July 1954. His first two singles were « Fifty-fifty honky tonkin’ » (MGM 11598) and « Hi there sweet thing » (MGM 11656). « Fifty-fifty » was a song Fred Rose had apparently written especially for Hank Williams, a tale of relationships and nightlife brimming with homespun insights.
McCormick really does sound like Hank on this, without being a ‘soundalike’ : he had the spirit and the style and a hard edge to his voice but a degree of originality too. Musicians Jerry Byrd and Tommy Jackson did their best to recreate the trademark Drifting Cowboys licks and the rhythm section of Chet Atkins, Ray Edenton and Lightning Chance takes the performance along at an appropriately jaunty pace. This first song bas backed by « Don’t add an ex to your name » a clever song written by Knoxville’s Arthur Q. Smith. The disc was a good territorial seller and it could have easily been a major hit. « Hi there sweet thing » was another catchy Hank-ish song and it also gained good reviews.
Four days after Christmas in 1953 George McCormick was back in the studio with the same band. Almost a year after Hank Williams had died the featured song was « The sundown train », with McCormick perfecting the keen edge to his voice until he sounded almost more like Hank than Hank. The flipside was « Flutter bug », a Fred Rose song that still recalled the honky tonkin’ Williams sound and rambling cowboy themes but which had some smoother edges and more crafted lyrics than many of his contemporaries.
George was called for his third six-monthly MGM session on 1 July 1954. This time the musicians took their sound from Hank’s band : in fact they were Hank’s band, the Drifting Cowboys. Sammy Pruett on guitar, Don Helms on steel, Jerry Rivers on fiddle and Cedric Rainwater on bass. The session saw issued the rollicking « Don’t fix up the dog house » (written by Don Helms), and recalling some of Hank’s earliest songs where the dog house had been the indicator of wife troubles. Perhaps the best recording was held back from release and didn’t see the light of day for three years. It was « I’ll keep your name on file ». By the summer of 1954 George had three singles on MGM and had been gone some months from the Jeff Bess show. He had started regularly with Martha Carson, when they arrived in Alabama and did take a new bass player, name Earl Aycock.
Sidney Earl Aycock was born in Meridian, Mississipi in 1930. He took an interest in hillbilly music at a young age and played guitar/bass with local bands of east Mississipi, even joining Bill Nettles’ Dixie Blues Boys and playing bass on « Hadacol Boogie ». After a stint in USAF he worked as a DJ before auditioning for Martha Carson. Towards the end of 1954 he teamed up with George McCormick to sing duets as part of the Martha Carson Show. According to the latter, « Earl liked Carl Smith. My favorite was Hank Williams. That’s one reason Earl and I sounded so good together ; our styles had a nice blend. Generally Earl sang the lead and I sang tenor harmonies. »
Before long the new duo started to think about making records. They heard Mercury’s A&R man Dee Kilpatrick was looking to sign a duet act. The deal was made in January 1955, and in next February George and Earl were in the studio for their first Mercury release. All in all, the duet recorded twelve songs ; Mercury issued them over a period of a year and a half. From the opening few seconds of the first session it was clear that the legacy of Hank Williams was not going to frame the sound of a George and Earl record. Earl had a clearer diction ; Chet Atkins, at home with raunchier stuff, had brought another lead guitarist, Joe Edwards, who had a more driving style. This was echoed by the attacking approach of fiddler Benny Martin. Rhythm section (Bob Moore and Ray Edenton) was augmented by drummer Buddy Harmon and Floyd Cramer on piano. This was an altogether ‘bigger’ sound with something of the new rockabilly styling McCormick had heard when playing with Elvis Presley on package shows.
The prime song was « Got anything good », a gloriously tight recording that fit right between uptempo honky tonk and rockabilly. The song was written by Detroit-based country singer Rufus Shoffner (« Mother-in-law boogie » on Fortune). The flipside, « Can I » was about a woman leaving her man. Again there is a good balance between country and rockabilly with a take-off guitar solo from Chet Atkins and fiddle runs setting the pace as much as the drums. « Billboard » review of April 1955 was good and before long Mercury issued the other two tracks of the session. « Sweet little miss blue eyes » is introduced by a fiddle riff and develops onto a fast-flowing love song where the singers take substantial solo parts as well as their duet sections. The song was something of a hit and has become a minor standard as recorded by Carl Smith, Bill Monroe, Ray Price, Vince Gill. The song was given to them by Don Helms and Merle ‘Red’ Taylor (the man who cut in 1955 « Don’t worry about nuthing » in Memphis on Meteor records, as Mason Dixon). In contrast, « Going steady with the blues » has a more modern stop-time sound and features Joe Edwards on guitar behind an exclusively harmony vocal.
Sometime in the summer of 1955 the hot new vocal duo was back in a Nashville studio for Mercury although the details and the musicians are not known. The instrumentation is similar to the first session ; just add Shot Jackson on steel guitar and almost certainly Del Wood on piano. « Heartaches » opens with a full-throated duet that gives way to a solo lead by Aycock and a modern-sounding take on the fiddle and the steel solo duet. It was backed on the third George and Earl single by « Don’t don’t don’t », provided by Louisiana-based record producer J. D. Mller. A fourth single coupled Autry Inman’s « Take a look at my darlin’ » with « Cry baby cry », a song written by Gene Davis (later Bo Davis on Crest) and inspired by « Why baby why ». It is kicked off in trademark style by fiddler Benny Martin and the duo sing strongly over a tinkling piano until the piano and fiddle take solos. Earl has a more ‘country’ voice, while George has moved further away from Hank’s style.
Early weeks of 1956, that was the third Mercury session. Musicians unknown, but could be largely the same again. « Remember and regret » is a plaintive love song written by Wayne Walker, one of in-house songwriters employed by Nashville publishers. This is a country-sounding record with fiddle solos and embellishments well to the fore but it retains the tinkling piano and the drum-augmented beat.
The next song was different entirely : out of nowhere comes a pop vocal leading to a cheerful and impossibly catchy lyric about « Eleven roses ». Originally a song poem and cut by a NY doo-wop group : quite how the song made its way into a hillbilly session in Nashville is a mystery.
The two last songs were in fact issued first : « Done gone » and « Better stop look and listen ». « Done gone », written by Don Helms was intended to be a hit. McCormick remembers : « It had a rocking style and Joe Edwards really played up that rockabilly guitar ». The Mercury label had equally high hopes on the other side, provided by J. D. Miller (and also recorded by Johnny Jano , although unissued at the time). It opens with a hurrying duet leading into an Elvis Presley-styled lyric from Earl and a ringing and rocky guitar solo probably by Joe Edwards. Just at the time Earl Aycock moved to Texas (the origin state of his wife, who wanted him to stop touring around) to become again a disc-jockey, so the duet ended overnight. The story of Earl Aycock will come separately.
George McCormick carried on for a while with the Martha Carson Show, but she wanted to go to New York and work up there. He said : « She had a big following including a lot of Christian people and she was a big star in country gospel music. » He told Martha Carson : « I’m not going to the city, I’m staying right here in the country ».
When he finally severed his connection with Martha Carson’s show, George needed new work and a new record label. He then worked for two years with the Louvin Brothers, whom he had backed up on the Opry show for a couple of years in 1952-1953. He played rhythm and sang (baritone) wih them, touring all around the country.
The new record label was MGM and his session took place on January 12 1957 at the RCAVictor studio in Nashville. Fiddle and steel sounds of earlier MGM sessions are long gone ; it seems to be Joe Edwards on guitar and Buddy Harman on drums. Pianist, bass player and chorus are unidentified. The session produced four songs, although George’s final single, « Doubt », was backed by « I’ll keep your name on file » from three years ago. The first single coupled the Joe Gibson’s moody « The blues moved in this morning » with the Bryants’ « After all we’ve been through ». « Blues » has a fine guitar solo but is marred by an irritating, repetitive piano figure while « After all » moves close to a pop ballad sound. Last track « Ain’t got nothing but the blues » is lost.
George’s vocals on this session are self-consciously less country than in former years and it is clear he was capable of many different vocal performances. MGM although did not exercise their option for another session, and George probably didn’t know it would be several years before he recorded again as a solo vocalist : actually Hank Williams tribute sessions in 1963 for two low-budget labels. He toured extensively in the East with Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper until 1965, when Porter Wagoner hired him in his Wagonmasters. He appeared in many of the 686 episodes of the Porter Wagoner TV show. Then his last three singles were in 1968-69 on the Stop label : best seller being « Big Wind ». Then he went to work with Billy Grammer and along the way for controversial Alabama Governor George Wallace, before he left after an incident, and went with Grandpa Jones. He stayed with Jones twenty-two years and retired in 1996.
Porter Wagoner TV show
Article based on notes of Martin Hawkins for the BF George & Earl CD « Better stop look and listen ». Some label scans do come from John Burton, Udo Frank or Dean C. Morris : thanks to them. Music from various sources, including a Tom Sims’ cassette. Pictures from the records or from the web.
Billboard Aug. 19 1957 "Blues moved in this morning"