Fred Kirby, the N. Carolina Troubadour (1937-1952)



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cliff Carlisle & guitar

Cliff Carlisle

Fred (Frederick Austin) Kirby was born on July 19, 1910 in Charlotte, North Carolina. His father worked as a preacher and he had nine brothers and sisters. When he was a kid, Fred’s mother taught North Carolina maphim to play the guitar, and she later also helped him to master the fiddle. Fred became involved in the music business by accident: in 1927, while living in Florence, South Carolina, he joined his nephew to visit a friend at local radiostation WBT, and while singing some of his songs in the lobby of the station, Fred got noticed by a WBT employee. Fred was hired on the spot to make regular appearances on one of the station’s shows, and would remain to work for almost 20 years. In the early 1930s Fred lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he worked with people like Cliff Carlisle and with bands like “The Briarhoppers”, “The Smiling Cowboys” and “The Carolina Boys”.fred Kirby pic

Fred’s first recordings date from 1932 for the ARC label, but none of them have ever been released. In 1936 Fred signed with Victor’s Bluebird. His first recordings with Bluebird were “I’m A Gold Diggin Papa” and “The Lonesome Lullaby“. Next year he’d cut a session for Bluebird with Cliff Carlisle, which saw him duetting with Carlisle for « Cowboy’s Dying Dream ». It was even released in U.K. on Regal Zonophone. In 1938 Fred got signed by Decca where he recorded 16 songs. Quite a prolific artist in those days..Everyone then was yodeling, from Jimmie Rodgers to Gene Autry; so also did Kirby.

I’m A Gold Diggin’ Paparegal Kirby cowboy'sbluebird Kirby diggin'

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“Cowboy’s Dying Dream”

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In 1939 he and Don White, a musician from West Virginia with whom he had gotten acquainted in the early 1930s, moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to work for radiostation WLM as the “Carolina Playboys”. The following year, Fred moved to St. Louis to join radiostation KMOX. In St. Louis he gained local fame for selling over 5 million dollars worth US War Bonds during the war

In 1943 Fred moved back to Charlotte, North Carolina and returned to his previous employer : WBT radio. Shortly after, he and Don White regrouped as the Carolina Playboys and in the years after the War they both recorded for the Sonora label, both as the Carolina Playboys and separately. It was with Sonora that Fred recorded his most successful song, “Atomic Power” (Sonora 7008) in May 1946: that song was later recorded by many other artists, including Rex Allen and Red Foley. Later on Kirby released a Decca issue, «  Precious Lord I’ll Be There  » (Decca 46083), giving an indication of his forthcoming career, secular as well as religious.

sonora Kirby atomicKirby standing corralAtomic Power”

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 During 1949, he was approached by M-G-M executives and signed a contract for 4 tunes to be recorded. The very best of them were the coupling of M-G-M 10474, the energetic «  Juke Box Jackson From Jacksonville  » and the amusing «  My Little Dog Loves Your Little Dog  ».m-g-m Kirby Jacksonville

Juke Box Jackson From Jacksonville”m-g-m Kirby dog

My Little Dog Loves Your Little Dog”

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Next year, on July 25, 1950 Fred signed a contract with Columbia to record 4 songs during the very same year. His first recording session was done some ten days later, on August 4 and Columbia released all four songs that were recorded on that occasion. «  My Zig Zaggin’ Baby  » (Columbia 20764) and «  My Red Hot Potato  » were good boppers (fine guitar).

Columbia Kirby zig“My Zig Zaggin’ Baby”Columbia Kirby potato


Cash Box Feb. 9th, 1950

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“My Red Hot Potato”

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In June 1951 Columbia prolonged Fred’s recording contract for another year, but it wasn’t until July 9, 1952 before Fred did another recording session. During that session, eight songs were recorded Columbia Kirby souland six of them were actually released by Columbia., among them the religious bopper «  My Soul Is Not For Sale  », also «  When The Devil Sends His Columbia Kirby devilCalling Card  » (Columbia 21056) ; “We’re No Longer Sweethearts” and “A Pocket Full Of Candy” remained unissued. This 1952 session turned out to be his last one for Columbia: due to the lack of success of his records, Columbia decided not to renew his contract. Later on Fred had a release on Gotham (a NYC/Philadelphia label) with the evergreen “Wreck Of The Old 97” (# 404), a very good version.l

My Soul Is Not For Sale”Gotham Kirby wreck

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When The Devil Sends His Calling Card”

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“Wreck Of The Old 97”

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In the early 1950s Fred again started working for WBT radio, but this time he mainly concentrated on radioshows for the younger audience. Later, when television became more popular he was very successfully as a producer and presenter of specialised kiddie shows: his “Junior Rancho” would run for over 20 years. Nevertheless, Fred’s radiowork lasted even longer: his shows were broadcasted until the spring of 1991. In the 1990s, Fred’s health progressively declined: he suffered from Parkinsons disease, which eventually forced him to move to a nursing home where he died on April 22, 1996.

 

Sources: biography mainly from W. Agenant “Columbia 20000 serie”; additions from “hillbilly-music.com”; pictures from google. Soundfiles and label scans from the indefatigable Ronald Keppner: my warmest thanks to him, whom the feature could not have been written and completed without. ; also some help from UncleGil Rockin’ archives. The rest is a matter of time and…love! Please leave a comment below!

Cliff Carlisle, Blues yodeler and steel guitar wizard – some selections

Cliff Carlisle (1904-83)

A blues with a yodel : it may not sound much now, but in the 1920s a lot of careers were carved out of that curious amalgam. Jimmie Rodgers started it, and after him went Gene Autry, or Jimmie Davis, or Cliff Carlisle. The latter yodeled the longest and the best.

Raised in the countryside outside Louisville, Kentucky, Carlisle would say later : « My music is a cross between hillbilly and blues – even Hawaïan music has a sort of blues to it. » Teaming first in the early Thirties with the singer-guitarist Wilbur Ball, he went on the vaudeville tent show circuit, and afterwards he told they had actually been the first yodeling duet.

Then in 1930 he recorded in a Jimmie Rodgers vein (« Memphis yodel »), but with a distinctive touch on the Dobo resonator steel guitar. At this point he was also making a name on Louisville stations (WHAS and WLAP), billing himself and Ball as the « Lullaby Larkers ». That’s how his career took off.

In 31 or 32, he was in New York, extending his own port-folio, and recalling Jimmie Rogers singing a number about a rooster : « What makes a Shanghai crow at the break of day ? To let the Dominicker hen know the head man’s on his way.. » Ralph Peer wouldn’t let him record that, because it was kind of a risqué tune at that time, but finally he let Carlisle go. Hence « Shanghaï rooster yodel n°2 ».

Carlisle Cliff "Shanghai rooster blues"

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In 1932 Carlisle was working solo, but in the years that followed he was often partnered by his younger brother Bill. On one of their records they even staged a fight over who would do what. « Hold it, buddy, » says Cliff indignantly as Bill starts to yodel. « This is my « Mouse’s ear blues », and I’ll do the yodeling. » It isn’t the only unusual feature. « Moose’s ear blues » is, probably uniquely in the corpus of recorded hillbilly music, a song about defloration. « My little mama, she’s got a mouse’s ear, but she gonna lose it when I shift my gear. »

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By the mid-’30s, when he was working on WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina, and recording for Bluebird and Decca, Cliff was making a fair bid to corner the hillbilly disc market in sniggery songs about roosters and ashcans (there was an occasional double entendre loitering in this vicinity), and humorously violent tales of marital discord like « Hen pecked man », « Pay day fight » or « A wild cat woman and a tom cat man », where Cliff’s boisterous flights of fancy are powered by the twin engines of his Dobro and Bill’s inventive flat-picked guitar. By the end of the decade he had been on four record labels and made almost 200 sides. He and Bill had a cross-section of country music just prior to WWII. So it was hardly surprising that their family group, the Carlisles, with various sons and dauhters, was popular on the Grand Ole Opry and had hits in the ’50s with « Too old to cut the mustard » and « No help wanted ».

Carlisle Cliff "A wild cat woman and a tom cat man"

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In the mid-’50s Cliff retired to a quiet life of painting, fishing and church work. He did the occasional comeback on not very memorable albums for small labels, even reuniting with Wilbur Ball and playing for college audience or folk festivals.

(Freely adapted from the chapter devoted to Cliff Carlisle in Tony Russell’s « Country music originals – The legends and the lost »)

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Here are some selections of Carlisle’s work in very different styles.

From 1932, backed by a wild slapping-bass, for the evergreen « Goin’ down the road feelin’ bad ».

downloadCarlisle Cliff "Goin' down the road feelin' bad"

Accompanied by two guitars (Bill Carlisle) and a string-bass for « That nasty swing » from 1936.
Carlisle Cliff "That nasty swing"

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In January 1947, from one of his last recording sessions, with his Buckeye Boys and for a song very close to Bill Monroe‘s « Rocky road blues » (February 1945), «A mean mama don’t worry me ».

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Carlisle Cliff "A mean mama don't worry me"Recommended listening, if you can find them: Cliff Carlisle volume 1 & 2 on Old Timey 103 & 104.

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Bill Carlisle

carlisles she a leg 70351

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BILL CARLISLE (By Kevin Carey)bill-carlisle-photo1

Born 19 December 1908, Wakefield, Kentucky
Died 17 March 2003, Nashville, Tennessee

One of country music’s founding fathers, Bill Carlisle’s 70 (yes, seventy!) years in the music business began in 1931 when he made his first impromptu performance on the local radio station in Lexicon, Kentucky.

When discussing or writing about Bill Carlisle, it is impossible to ignore the influence of his older brother, Cliff, who at four years Bill’s senior, both encouraged Bill and joined him on many early recordings. Cliff’s own career, while cut short by his premature retirement in the late 40’s, had seen him record some of the finest early hillbilly sides and proving an inspiring figure in his slide guitar style.

Following his brother’s lead, Bill started recording in July 1933 on the Vocalion label (an offshoot of the ARC group of labels, to which Cliff had been signed). Bill’s first release, Rattlin’ Daddy, would prove to be one of his strongest and, in its 1947 guise (re-named Rattlesnakin’ Daddy) showed more than a hint of the rockabilly style that would follow.

Recording details from this period are sketchy, although a number of recordings were released on Vocalion, some with support from Cliff, and others that appeared on Bluebird, while the labels would also list Bill variously as “Smiling Billy Carlisle”, “Bill Carlisle’s Kentucky Boys”, or “The Carlisle Brothers”. Mainly these recording would fall into the Jimmie Rodgers genre, although Bill was as happy, if not happier to be recording both humourous and slightly risqué lyrics.

Moving to Decca in 1938, the brothers output slowed, but continued in a similar vein with much interplay between Billy and Cliff, with some tracks credited to Billy which were mainly Cliff, and vice versa! Just to make matters even more confusing, several tracks would also feature Cliff’s son, Tommy.

With the outbreak of WW2, it wasn’t until 1944 that both Cliff and Billy were signed to the fledgling King label, and hits followed in 1946 with Rainbow At Midnight, which peaked at number 5 (as The Carlisle Brothers), and in 1948 when ‘Tramp On The Street’ peaked at number 14.

A lean period then followed, which may have been coincidental with Cliff’s retirement, and it was only when Bill tempted Cliff to return to the business in 1951, with the formation of The Carlisles, that the hits returned, this time on the Mercury label, where they now performed in a more energetic style and had hits with Too Old To Cut The Mustard in 1951, and had their most successful year in 1953 with the brilliant No Help Wanted (featuring Chet Atkins on guitar) which peaked at number 1, Knothole, T’aint Nice, and Is Zat You, Myrtle?

Busy body boogie

Cliff retired in 1953, before recording the quartet of hits, and would pass away in 1983.

Bill last success on Mercury came in 1954 with two hits which followed in the same humourous vein, but the lack of further chart success prompted the bands departure from Mercury in 1956.

Continuing to record on various labels, The Carlisles saw only one more chart entry, when the innuendo filled ‘What Kind Of deal Is This’ reached number 4 in 1965.

As far as stage performances were concerned, Bill kept The Carlisles format running, despite numerous personnel changes, which would eventually see his children included in the act.

Rattle snake daddy

Always famed for his energetic stage act, which would see Billy doing the splits while singing, the nickname ‘Bounding’ or ‘Jumping’ Billy Carlisle were well earned. The act would continue thus through to the 90’s when Billy slowed down on personal appearances, although he would occasionally appear on stage, complete with zimmer frame, where he would perform a couple of songs holding on to the frame, before throwing it over his shoulder and marching off stage to rapturous applause.

Bill was inducted into the Country Hall Of Fame in November, 2002 and was the oldest regular performer at The Grand Ol’ Opry – his final appearance there (in a wheelchair) coming in February 2002.

Billy died, aged 94 on March 17th, 2003 following a stroke.

What kind of deal is this

Recommended listening –

Rough & Rowdy Hillbilly of the 1930’s (Collector) – Bluebird/Vocalion recordings
Tramp On The Streets (Cattle) King/Decca sides
Duvall County Blues (BACM) – Bluebird/Vocalion recordings

bill-carlisle-lp

Hickory LP of Bill Carlisle (I DID own, but sold!)

Busy Body Boogie (Bear Family) – Mercury/RCA/Columbia sides
carlisles-bear-family