Jackson, TN. Hillbilly Bop and Rockabilly: CURLY GRIFFIN (1955-1957), “Got Rockin’ On My Mind”

CURLY GRIFFIN
”CURLY WAS A GOOD FRIEND OF MINE”
(Carl Perkins)

My interest in Curly Griffin and his music stems from the time I started to collect Carl Perkins’ records and noticed the name Griffin as co-writer on ”Boppin the Blues” and ”Dixie Fried”. No information was available until the mid 1970’s when I purchased the single ”Rock Bottom Blues”/”Got Rockin’ On My Mind” that I brought with me when Erik Larsson and I met Carl Perkins at Hotell(sic) Windsor in Gothenburg in April 1977. Some information in this article comes from this meeting. When Rayburn Anthony toured Sweden in May 1993 I mentioned the name again and see, Curly’s son Ron had played the guitar in Rayburn’s band. I got the address to Ron who very kindly shared information and pictures for this little piece in a letter. Also Carl Perkins has made considerable contributions sharing memories about his old pal Curly.

Curly Griffin (crouching, left) and Carl Perkins (seated)

Malcolm Howard Griffin was born June 6, 1918 and his biggest musical influences came to be Bob Wills, Slim Whitman and of course also Hank Williams. Malcolm got the nick name “Curly” most likely because of his curly hair. He had bad eye-sight and his son Ron claims his father only had 10% vision, and most of his education took place in a school for blind people, where he also had lessons in fiddle playing. After his schooling was over he took up the guitar and started playing hillbilly and country music. He also had an interest in blues and pop. His poor vision made him trying to support himself as a musician as his handicap made it hard for him in other trades like carpenter and painter, but anyway Curly helped his father build some houses in the eastern parts of Jackson, Tennessee. Later, one of the streets was named Griffin Street. But it was as a musician Curly made a name for himself and over the years he had at least three different bands. His wife Helen, a good singer, was in two of them.

WDXI studio, Jackson, TN. Mid-’50s. Earl White (f), J.O.White (m), Curley Griffin (g), Bill Wallace (g), ? (steel), David (b)

Now over to Carl Perkins who tells us that he first met Curly at the radio station WDXI in Jackson, Tennessee where Curly and his band had a 15 minutes show. The same amount of time was also scheduled for Carl and his brothers Jay and Clayton. Also Ramsey Kearney who was very inspired by Eddy Arnold had a show here. Carl says Curly wasn’t the best of singers but he was very ambitious, something needed as his family was large consisting of wife Helen and children Patsy, Ron, Kenneth, William, Tommy and Don. Curly’s style was in the Hank Williams vein. Carl:
-About 1955 I moved down to Parkview Courts……………..anything with that Curly”.
It must have been around this time Curly recorded his first record. It was for the label Atomic Records owned by his father. Ron: “Curly´s father got into and was learning the record business with the Atomic label”. The recordings took place in Nashville (In 1955 according to the liner notes of Stomper Time CD 22) , probably in the RCA studio in Nashville, Tennessee and among the musicians were Chet Atkins on guitar and ’Lightning’ Chance on bass. The songs were the funny piece “Gotta whip this Bear” and “Just for me”. According to Ron Griffin the record only came out on 78 and Carl Perkins remembers a very excited Curly came over to his place to play him his record, and Carl did find it good.

On stage, mid-50s. Curley Griffin (g), Earl White (f), Helen Griffin [Curley’s wife](vo),David (b), Charlie ‘Chuck’ Rhodes (steel)

Curly’s biggest moment as composer must have been when he came up with the line “Boppin’ the Blues” that he presented to Carl who immediately went for it, Carl:
-“Boppin’ the Blues”, he had the title….after “Blue Suede Shoes”.
The record (Sun 243) thus became the follow up for ”Blue Suede Shoes” and was a decent hit peaking at the ninth place in the country charts. The song was published by Hi-Lo Music owned by Sam Phillips. Carl again:
-I remember that after “Boppin’ the Blues” came out………………that was happening then.
But Carl being a kind human being gave Curly a couple of hundred dollars in advance, but one can wonder with hindsight if Curly ever got any money at all from Sam and Hi-Lo Music. Back to Carl:
-Then, I don’t remember, probably……………………………I picked out a line or two that he had.
The song “Dixie Fried” has really became a classic tune and the follow up to “Boppin’ the Blues”. Many have recorded the song but no version matches Carl’s original recording.

If we return to Curly’s own records the next was “I’ve seen it All”/”Magic of the Moon” on Atomic 302 (probably from 1955). Top side is a fast hillbilly tune, while the flip is a standard fare country ballad with a waltz beat. We have no information about the musicians but the tracks to us sound like they’d been recorded before the breakthrough of Rockabilly, but we may be mistaken. On “I’ve Seen It All”, the guitar player sounds very much like Carl Perkins though.

Then came Atomic 303 in 1956 with “You Gotta Play Fair”/”Love is a wonderful Thing” [untraced, probably a slowie] and we have no information here either. “..Play Fair” is again a fast Rockabilly, strong and romping, but there is no aural evidence of the typical Carl Perkins’ playing style.

We have more information, albeit contra dictionary on Curly’s fourth and last platter, ”Got Rockin’ on my Mind”/”Rock Bottom Blues” on Atomic 305 from early 1957. In an interview Carl Perkins claimed it was recorded at the radio station WDXI in Jackson Tennessee with himself, Clayton and Jay B playing as well as an unknown piano player. Also drums are audible. In the middle of the piano solo Curly shouts something like “Aw, get it blue sueders” and “Blue Suedes” was the moniker Carl used for his group at that time (1956-1957. When I (Claes-Håkan) asked Ron if Carl ever played with Curly he wrote that:
-They might have played a gig together and some jam sessions but I played guitar for him on his recordings (except for the first) and as his band guitarist after his second band. If he (Carl) ever worked on a recording, I’m unaware of it.
We find Ron’s statement more likely to be true, as the band playing doesn’t sound much like Carl and his band and to get more evidence Claes-Håkan called W.S. Holland, the drummer for Carl in the 50’s before he joined Carl Mann’s band and later proceeded to Johnny Cash as a member of the Tennessee Three. When asked if he ever played with Curly W, S. replied:
-I’ll be damned. I’ve lived in Jackson all my life, I knew Curly and I know Ron, but I never knew that Curly made a record, and here’s a guy calling me from Sweden telling me this.
But in the letter from 1993/1994 Ron is totally unaware of Atomic 302 and 303 and only states he played guitar on “Rock bottom blues” and “Got rockin’ on my mind” leaving us with the possibility that Carl and his brothers (sans Holland) played on any or all of these tracks and in fact “You Gotta play fair” sounds a little like Carl, but maybe it’s just wishful thinking.

Curly’s also written two tunes, “Blue River” and “I’m Writing The End”, which were recorded by Jerry Jeter on Fort Worth, TX. Bluebonnet label (# 701) in 1959. Furthermore Curly (as Howard Griffin) composed both sides of Tony Snider’s “They call it Puppy Love”/“Fool for Jealousy” on Jackson, TN Westwood label (# 203). He also wrote “Traded My Freedom” for Rex Hale (Atomic 307).
One can argue that Curly’s musical career is no more than a foot note in the annals of Rockabilly and Country and Western, but an important one none the less being involved in the composing of two of Carl Perkins’ classical tracks ”Boppin’ the Blues” and ”Dixie Fried”. Howard Griffin has 16 songs registered at BMI. See below.
Curly died in 1970 after losing a long battle with cancer and we leave the final words to Ron who wrote:
-He believed in his family, songs and music. Everyone who knew him learned and benefitted from his life. The family thanks you for the chance to tell some of his story.
Atomic 300 Gotta whip this bear/Just for me
Curly-vocal and guitar, Chet Atkins-lead guitar, Lightning Chance-upright bass

Atomic 302 I’ve seen it all/Magic of the moon
Curly-vocal and guitar

Atomic 303 You gotta pay fair/Love is a wonderful thing
Curly-vocal and guitar

Atomic 305 Got rockin’ on my mind/Rock bottom blues
Curly-vocal and guitar, Ron Griffin-lead guitar

The songs below are the ones registered at BMI on August 15, 2018 as by Curly, as sole or shared author. Strangely, “Just for me” from Atomic 300 is not registered.

Blue River (or Blue River Belle); Boppin’ The Blues; Dixie Fried; Fool For Jealousy; Foothills Of The Smokies; Got Rockin’ On My Mind; Gotta Whip This Bear; I’m Writing The End; I Traded My Freedom; I’ve Seen It All; Love Bug Blues; Magic Of The Moon; Rock Bottom Blues; Tennessee Moonlight; They Call It Puppy Love; You Gotta Play Fair; and the non-registered “Just For Me”.

Sources: Original article by Claes-Håkan Olofsson 1994 (in Sweden’s American Music Magazine # 62) with support from Bo Berglind. English translation, additions and slight editing by Erik Petersson 2018. Photos by Ron Griffin. Used by permission from AMM editor Bo Berglind. Sincere thanks to all of them, and more precisely to Erik Petersson (“Magic Of The Moon” soundfile) and Germany’s own Ronald Keppner for “Just For Me” soundfile.