Eddie Kirk, California Cityzed Hillbilly (1947-52)

Like many country artists of bygone years, Eddie Kirk is hardly known to contemporary audiences – in this case particularly surprising as he was among the first of the country music artists on Capitol Records to enjoy chart successes and one of the busiest musicians on the West coast scene in the post-war years. Yet, in the majority of the country music reference books, he doesn’t even warrant a footnote.
He was born Edward Merle Kirk on 21th March 1919 and, as his birthplace was a ranch near Greeley , Colorado, it was almost natural that the cowboy songs of the ranch hands, along with riding and roping, should have been part of his childhood. Such songs were inspirational and, by the age of 9, he was singing and tap-dancing to the accompaniment of a small local band in Greeley. Then, knowing many of the tunes by heart and accompanying himself on guitar, he won himself a daily 15 minutes show on a local radio station, earning $ 2.50 per week.
In spite of spending two years in college, majoring in civil engineering, music won out in his future ambitions. He joined the Beverly Hillbillies, a group led by Glen Rice, and touring the western states finally led him to Hollywood where he continued his radio performances. Returning to Colorado, he mixed singing with a bref period as a flyweight amateur boxer before joning Larry Sunbrook’s band in 1935. There, in addition to his fine voice and impressive guitar work, he showed off his yodeling skills and, for two consecutive years (1935-36), won the title of National Yodeling Champion.
Eddie Kirk’s career was suspended when he joined the US Navy and, after the ceasing of hostilities in 1945, he returned to Hollywood and quickly built up his reputation performing on Gene Autry’s radio show, playing guitar in Johnny Bond’s band, touring with the Andrews Sisters and making several movies, four with cowboy hero Charles Starrett for Columbia pictures.

He began his recording career in 1947 on Capitol Records, the label that had already secured country success with other western singers like Tex Ritter, Tex Williams, Jack Guthrie and Jimmy Wakely. Kirk soon added to the company’s success story with The Gods Were Angry With Me in 1948 and, the following year, with a cover of George Morgan’s Candy Kisses.. He continued recording for Capitol for another three years and, although he never achieved another chart entry, he did met his wife Barbara while signed to the label. She was the secretary of Lee Gillette, Capitol’s A&R chief and his record producer, and the two were married n 1949. After almost two dozen singles on Capitol, his recording career continued on King, RCA Victor and Volt.
In 1951 one of radio’s foremost first country music shows, Town Hall Party, was launched and, besides attracting crowds of almost 3,000 twice weekly, the Friday night shows soon gained a massive audience, thanks to transmissions on Pasadena’s KXLA, and the NBC network broadcasting the Saturday shows. Eddie Kirk became one of its regular performers, joining an impressive « who’s who » of West Coast country music talent that included Tex Ritter, Eddie Dean, Rose Lee and Joe Maphis, Tex Williams, Wesley and Marilyn Tuttle, Freddie Hart, the Collins Kids and Johnny Bond, with the show making even greater impact when segments starting being seen on television via Los Angeles’ KKTV channel.

Keeping up an almost full time schedule, Kirk was also being heard daily on a KXLA morning disc jockey show, Harmony Hoedown as well as being a member of the Hometown Jamboree group, one of the offshots of Clffie Stone’s highly successful West Coast operations. The group, which ncluded Kirk playing rhythm guitar and singing, had over 300 members and guests during its ten years duration and was a serious rival to Spade Cooley’s Hoffman Hayride broadcasting at the same time until its station, KTLA, enticed Stone’s show into its weely schedules with a substantial financial offer. The Hometown band additionnally doubled as Capitol Record’s country studio band.
Eddie Kirk was also a proficient songwriter, his biggest success being So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed, a number one record for Merle Travis, and co-penned with Travis and Stone. The same partnership also created Blue Bonnet Blues. Bright Lights And Blonde Haired Women proved a popular title for Tennessee Ernie Ford, while Kirk’s other originals included Sugar Baby, Please Don’t Cry Over Me, How Do You Mend A Broken Heart and Remember That I Love You.
In his later years, he became less engaged with the entertainment industry, devoting time to his family and a new-found love of flying. He died on 27 June 1997, aged 78 years.
Biography written by Tony Byworth

Eddie Kirk’s best bopping sides

(according to bopping Editor)

« Saturday Night Time Blues » (Capitol 974) : a boogie lead-guitar (Jimmy Bryant?) on a shuffle rhythm, certainly given by Cliffie Stone’s bass, a good steel (probably Speedy West) and a someway forceful vocal make this a very nice bopper cut in March 1950.

Blue Bonnet Blues

« Blue Bonnet Blues » (Capitol 1287) from April 1950 is one of the very best Kirk’s songs. Speedy West shines on a discreet steel as soon as the first christal notes of the song. He’s joined by Billy Liebert on accordion. There’s even an harmonica player for good on this shuffle beat superlative bopper.

The third selection is another shuffler, well suited to Kirk’s voice, who yodels gently during « Drifting Texas Sand » (Capitol 1591, from May 1951) : the usual batch of guitars, bass and harmonica (solo) comes up. From the same session I chose « Freight Train Breakdown » (Capitol 1790), a very fast song with drums and a very agile lead guitar by Jimmy Bryant (train effects by Speedy West on steel).

Cash Box July 7, 1951

Freight Train Breakdown

Cash Box September 29, 1951

In 1952 Kirk signed with RCA-Victor and cut two sessions. The first one provided a super bopper (fiddle) « Country Way » (RCA 47-5247), while he supplied us with a strange banjo led country-bopper, « Wanderin’ Eyes » (RCA 47-5287). And that was it.

Below is a partial selection of Capitol tunes Eddie Kirk played rhythm-guitar on.

Merle Travis

Kentucky Means Paradise
Cincinnati Lou
Crazy Boogie

Gene O’Quin

The Pinball Millionaire
Bustane Blues
Boogie Woogie Fever
No Parking Here
Texas Boogie

Jess Willard

Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor
Boogie Woogie Preachin’ Man

Skeets McDonald

Scoot, Git And Begone
Big Family Trouble

Tennessee Ernie Ford

I’ve Got The Milk ’em In The Morning Blues
Smokey Mountain Boogie
Mule Train
I’ll Never Be Free

Ramblin’ Jimmie Dolan

Hot Rod Race
Juke Box Boogie
Hot Rod Mama

Speedy West/Jimmy Bryant

Railroadin’
Crackerjack

Images and soundfiles from various sources.

Jess Willard, Honky Tonkin’ All The Time (1950-1959)

 

 

JESS WILLARD

Born Jess Willard Griffin, 28 March 1916, Washburn, Texas. Died 26 May 1959, Auburn, California.

I must admit that I had never heard of Jess Willard before the release of his Bear Family CD in 2000. Though he recorded for a major label (Capitol), Willard always remained an obscurity and is ignored by the country music encyclopedias.

Jess was named after the boxer Jess Willard, who won the world championship heavyweight in 1915. Born in a small town in West Texas, he was one of seven children. His two big musical influences were his father, a skilled guitarist who passed onto his son his love for Western music and his technical ability, and his best friend, singer Jack Guthrie (1915-1948), whose early death was a great shock to Jess. By then Willard was living in Los Angeles where he began to appear with Ole Rasmussen and his western swing band. It was while sitting in with Rasmussen at Harmony Park Ballroom, singing Jack Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills” (a # 1 country hit in 1945), that he was heard by Lee Gillette, then head of Capitol’s country department. Gillette signed him to Capitol and produced Willard’s first session, on June 14, 1950, in Hollywood. When Capitol decided to put Gillette in their pop division, his A&R hillbilly position on the West Coast was taken over by Ken Nelson, who would produce all subsequent Capitol sessions by Willard. Gillette and Nelson noticed that Jess had trouble staying in tune on slow songs, but his vocal limitations were less apparent on up-tempo material. Most of his recordings are good-time honky tonk country, with a touch of western swing. As Jess was no great songwriter, Capitol seemed to regard him at first as a vehicle for covers of other’s hits (like Lefty Frizzell‘s “If You’ve Got the Money Honey“), but from his third session on, Willard sought original material from friends like Tex Atchison (a fiddler in Rasmussen’s band) and Eddie Hazelwood. They were the writers of “Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor” (recorded on May 3, 1951, Capitol 1562), probably Willard’s main claim to fame, especially after it was revived by Johnny Horton at the end of 1957 (Columbia 41110), and, in a more Rock’n’Roll mould, by Clyde Stacy in 1958 (Bullseye 1008). This song is still sung today. A ’90s very modern version was done by Tim O’Brien.

bullseye stacy floor

caitol willard floor

The Capitol recordings benefited greatly from the work of well-known West Coast session men like Jimmy Bryant, Speedy West and Cliffie Stone, and from humourous lyrics (“My Mail Order Mama“, “Turn That Gun Around“, for instance), but none of Willard’s 13 Capitol singles made any significant commercial impact. After a session in September 1952, his Capitol contract was not renewed and Jess would not record again for three years. In the summer of 1953, Willard and Eddie Hazelwood headed to Korea to entertain troops, followed by a four and a half month tour of the Far East.

In 1954 Jess befriended Hank Cochran, who was working in duet with teenage guitarist and future rock ‘n’ roll star Eddie Cochran. Though they were unrelated, the duo billed themselves as the Cochran Brothers. In 1955, the Cochrans toured northern California with Willard, then joined him for a time as members of the California Hayride in Stockton. Jess recorded Hank’s “Every Dog Has His Day” and his own “Don’t Hold Her So Close” for the Ekko label in Hollywood, with possible lead guitar from Eddie – although I (Xavier) don’t really recognize his usual style. The lead guitar would then be played by Hank. A fine record, issued in October 1955 (Ekko 1018), but unfortunately it would remain Willard’s only Ekko release.

ekko willard close

When the Cochrans split and left the Hayride, Willard stayed, settling in Auburn, near Sacramento. He was a popular local radio personality and recorded two one-off singles for small labels (Kay-Hi 127 : « I’m Telling You », 1957, and Sundown – « Cops and Robbers », still untraced- 1959) before he died of a heart attack on May 26, 1959, at the age of only 43. Willard was, as Hank Cochran put it, “solid country … no pretense at all. He was as down to earth as you can get.” In the late 1970s, some of his recordings were rediscovered by country fans, and one track, “Honky Tonkin’ All the Time” was included on a Charly anthology in the early 1980s. Had he been alive, Willard would probably be amazed that people are still listening to his music in the 21st century.

(biography taken from Blackcat Rockabilly Europe and written by Dik De Heer – reproduced with permission)

Jess Willard is always at his best with medium up-tempo songs. Name « Cadillac Blues » from his penultimate Capitol session of February 25, 1952. Willard has that distinctive nasal pronunciation, prettily backed by the lead guitar playing of Walt McCoy (already an artist by himself on Crystal records. His « Cowboy Boogie » is to be found on Boppin’ Hillbilly vol. 16), and the steel guitar of Leodie Jackson (also an artist of his own, known for « Steeling The Blues or « Double Crossin’ Mama », the latter to be found on the 2001 « Swinging West vol. 2» compilation). Noticeable also is his fine version of « New Panhandle Rag », recently (early 1950) originally done by Webb Pierce on Pacemaker (see elsewhere in this site for Webb Pierce’s early disks). For this version, a fine instrumentation does include harmonica (Jerry Adler), the renowned Tex Atchison (he would later co-write « Honky Tonk HardwoodFloor ») on fiddle, and a very inspired Jimmy Bryant on lead guitar ; the whole being propelled by the solid bass of Cliffie Stone. Indeed his best known track is « Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor », with his tap dance sounds, bar-room styled piano, and on the whole it’s very easily evocative atmosphere of a early ’50s honky tonk. I like very much what is in my mind his best recording session ever, of September 1951 : songs like the two amusing « Turn That Gun Around » (Capitol 1855) and « My Mail Order Mama » (# 1963)(co-written by none other than Mar-Vel’s label Bob Burton’s lead-guitar player Ronnie Durbin, out of Indiana), Willard’s own « Truck Driver’s Boogie » (co-written with guitarist Walt McCoy, who does a superb job here), ; this song has nothing to do with the Milo Twins‘ 1947 song of the same name. Finally from this session, I like particularly « Mistreated Blues » (# 1855) with its line « Nobody wants me to be their darling – I’ve got those lonesome mistreated blues » and always an impressive backing on a slowish uptempo number.

Considering both Ekko sides, they are fine uptembo hillbilly bop songs, Willard in fine form, in front of a sympathetic backing. Everybody in the studio seems to feel relax and enjoy doing their job.

Big Allan Turner, out of England, did fortunately put his hands on a two-sided test pressing of songs, already unissued elsewhere, and published on his site (www.hillbillyresearcher.blogspot.com). They are really demonstration songs: “Please Believe In Me” and “It’s A Sin“, with sparse instrumentation (steel, lead guitar barely audible and bass), and otherwise would have deserved a full backing. No composer credits. Maybe Willard did intend to use them for knocking at another label’s door ?test willard sin

Finally the Ka Hi issue, “I’m Telling You” (flipside “One Love“, rockaballad – added April 2, 2018)) – this song has been reissued twice recently, on Cactus “High On The Hog – vol. 3” and Collector “Rock and Roll Country Style”. It’s a microscopic label, out of somewhere in California (I only know of another disc, by Freddie Byers – same period, 1957, a good hillbilly bop). Willard is in fine form, and lovely backed by a tight combo (steel, lead guitar, piano,fiddle and bass), singing the evergreen « You’re gonna change, or I’m gonna leave » refrain. Jack Guthrie had had his own version in 1946 on Capitol.

“One Love” (Ka-Hi 107)

downloadkahi willard telling

The last record I know of was issued probably in the Summer of 1959, so AFTER the untimely death (at the age of 43) of Willard. It’s on the Pico, Ca. Sundown 127 label, and I have still to hear « Cops And Robbers/Night Time Is Cry Time ». Anyone can help ? Let me know, please ! (Finally heard those sides, they are poppish..)

He died of a heart attack on May 26, 1959, at the age of only 43. Willard was, as Hank Cochran put it, “solid country … no pretense at all. He was as down to earth as you can get.” In the late 1970s, some of his recordings were rediscovered by country fans, and one track, “Honky Tonkin’ All the Time” was included on a Charly anthology in the early 1980s. Had he been alive, Willard would probably be amazed that people are still listening to his music in the 21st century.

Another Jess Willard 45 was unearthed two years ago by a fellow American collector, that on the Californian G&G label # 107. Two very fine tunes, »Hillbilly Heaven » is the A-side while the flipside is a Jack Guthrie (an old compere of Willard) original, « I’m Branding My Darling With My Heart ».(added on April 3, 2018)

g&g willard heavenHillbilly Heaven

download
I’m Branding My Darling With My Heart

downloadg&g willard branding