Johnny Nelms, a minor Houston hillbilly (1950-61)

Despite being a presence on the country music scene in Houston for over 30 years, Johnny Nelms never found the right song or right label to break out of the local honky-tonks. His long recording career included stops at Gold Star, Freedom, Starday, D, Tilt, Westry, Bagatelle, (briefly) Decca, and probably others, but none of these give the likes of Peck Touchton or Eddie Noack anything to worry about. They are decent C&W records, but nothing more. He was more successful as a club owner, pipefitter, Mason, and eventually a politician, serving in the Texas House of Representatives during the 62nd Legislature in 1971-72. When I met him in 1996, he was a bail bondsman in downtown Houston. (No, I wasn’t there to see him about bailing me out of jail.)

Peck Touchton

For my money, Nelms’ 1955 outing on the Azalea label is his finest hour. The record, made at Bill Quinn’s Gold Star Studio before it’s renovation, is pretty low-fidelity, but Johnny’s singing is great and musically, “After Today” is what ’50s honky-tonk is all about: raw, direct, and emotional…”white man’s blues,” as (ironically) a black country music fan explained to me once. The uncredited backing band here is Peck Touchton‘s Sunset Wranglers, which includes Doug Myers (fiddle), Herman McCoy (guitar), Hoyt Skidmore (steel guitar), and George Champion (piano) — the same band heard on Peck’s Starday and first Sarg session. Peck remembered Johnny very well and often played at his club, The Dancing Barn, on Houston’s East Side:

After todayJohnny Nelms "Cry baby cry"Johnny Nelms "After today"

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Cry Baby Cry” (Azalea 104-B)

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We were working at the Dancing Barn with Johnny Nelms [c. 1955],” Touchton said in a 1999 interview. “We worked out there a long time. The Dancing Barn was a rough damn club, too. It was on LaPorte Road. (Nelms’s) old man, his daddy, had just got out of the pen for killing a man when we were working out there. His daddy killed one or two people. At least one. You could just look at the old man and know that the old son-of-a-bitch was dangerous. There was a few knives pulled out there during that time. Even the band had fisticuffs with the crowd.

Azalea moved around a lot. Starting in Mobile, Alabama, it moved to Houston for awhile, then Dallas, and the final releases have a Fort Worth address. To make things more confusing, Nelms’ record was advertised in Billboard on July 16, 1955, with a New Orleans address. Presumably, label owner Dave Livingstone was a guy who “got around.” He was certainly tenacious, releasing 31 records over about seven years. None were hits, but there were quality outings from the Hooper Twins, James O’Gwynn, Dixie Drifters, Coye Wilcox, Adrian Roland, the Country Dudes, Joe Poovey, and Marvin Paul. The label should be of interest to anyone into ’50s Texas country music.

 

Nelms was born January 9, 1931 in Huttig, Arkansas (not Houston like he told me in 1996). He died at age 70 in Houston on February 17, 2001.

(from Andrew Brown and his blogsite « Wired for sound », 2009)

Johnny Nelms records – an appreciation (by bopping’s editor)

Both Gold Star 1386 (1950) sides [Note Nelms without “s”] are average Texas Country tunes, one fast (« I’ll learn ya, dern ya ») , the other slow – with minimal instrumentation, they can be forgotten. “I’m so Ashamed” was re-recorded just ten years later on “D” Records!

I’ll learn ya, dern yaNelm Johnny "I'll learn ya, dern ya"Nelm Johnny "I'm so ashamed"

 

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« If I can’t have you » on Freedom 5018 is a pleasant little bopper (nice fiddle and a steel solo). From the 4-tracks Decca session (1951) once more nothing exceptional : 3 uptempos and a slowie. The best are « I told my heart (a lie about you) » Decca 46346) and to a lesser extent, «I’ve been lonesome before » (Decca 46381) ; the Tommy Durden written « Crossroads » had been the year before a regional hit by its author on Freedom.

If I can’t have you

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Nelms Johnny "If I can't have you"

Billboard June 2, 1951

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I’ve been lonesome before“(Decca 46346)

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Crossroads“(Decca 46318))

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Nelms Johnny "Crossroads" Nelms Johnny "I've been lonesome before"

Let’s jump to 1955 and arguably the cream of the entire Johnny Nelms output with the Azalea issue. « After today » (Azalea 104) is what hllbilly bop is all about : strong and emotional vocal over a medium paced tempo, solid backing (fiddle and steel) ; « Cry, baby cry » goes in the same vein, only adding echo for a good effect, as often in Starday records.

Billboard July 16, 1955

And deservedly Nelms’ next outing was issued on the famous yellow label, and both sides (« A tribute to Andy Anderson/Everything will be all right », Starday 238)) are very good examples of the ‘Starday sound’. It’s surely ole’ Doc Lewis tickling the ivories, and possibly Ernie Hunter who’s sewing his fiddle, plus Herby Remington on steel. Great sides of 1956, reminding certain Sonny Burns‘ or Fred Crawford‘s tunes, and very near in intensity to Azalea.

It’s interesting to note that the original of « After today » had been done in 1951 by the veteran of Honky-tonk in Houston : Jerry Irby, on the Hummingbird label (# 1001) . Included below.

Jerry Irby, “After Today”

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Irby Jerry "After today"

A Tribute to Andy Anderson”

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Nelms Johnny "Everything will be all right"Nelms Johnny "A tribute to Andy Anderson"Everything will be all right

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Next record in 1957 on the Tilt label, and the change is significant, as for the first time Nelms imitates (consciously?) someone : Johnny Cash, for a train song, « Mr. Freight Train » (Tilt 1195). Any ‘string band’ instruments removed, sole remains a nice insistant guitar, and the result is fine. Flipside is an average slowie, « Hurt is the heart ».Nelms Johnny "Mr. Freight train"

Mr. Freight Train

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Finally from 1959 to 1961, Nelms went on the Pappy Daily’s ‘D’ label, and had 4 singles of an high standard, considering the era. « Yoshe’ » and « Nelms Johnny "Yoshe'"Nelms Johnny "Half past a heartache"Nelms Johnny "I've never had the blues"Memories for a pillow » (D 1114) are uptempos, « Old broken heart » is a mid-paced inspired item, but its flipside « Half past a heartache » (D 1195) is better. « Picture of my heart » is a slowie, and « I’ve never had the blues » D 1178) is of course bluesy. (note a fine swooping piano).

Yoshe’

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Half past a heartache

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I’ve never had the blues

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Later on Johnny Nelms went on Stoneway, Westry, Bagatelle, among other small labels, during the late ’60s and early ’70s before turning on to Politics.

My special thanks to 78-Ron, as usual, as well as to Armadillo Killer (D labels). Some sides were taken from the HMC compilation. Thanks to Uncle Gil’s Rockin’ Archives.

Daffan Records (1955-1958)

DAFFAN records (1955-1958) (from Kevin Coffey’s notes to “The Daffan Records  story”, Bear Family BCD 15878, 1995)

ted-daffan

Ted Daffan

Ted Daffan was at a crossroads both in his life and his career in the fall of 1955. (more…)

late May 2010 fortnite

Hi! You all. I am a bit early this time, coming back from a trip to find a flat in Vienne, Vallée du Rhône (where I belong), and soon moving from Brittany, before parting early next Friday 14th of May to Paris’ area to meet my girl friend for a few days. All this is a mess! But a whole lotta fun indeed. Here we go with some more music. From 1946-1947 come JERRY IRBY (see his story elsewhere on the site) and one his his early offerings on GLOBE (Pete Burke at the Rolling piano) for “Super Boogie Woogie”. Next we go to a famous entertainer for 6 or 7 years before his suicide (?) I’m told, R.D.HENDON & His Western Jamborees, from Houston. Here is his guitar picker (superb!) CHARLIE HARRIS and the shuffling “No Shoes Boogie” from 1951 (Freedom label), reissued on UK’s Krazy Kat label. On the West Coast with JACK GUTHRIE, too soon deceased, who made superior Hillbilly music as early as 1944 for Capitol records. I chose his “Troubled Mind Of Mine”. Location unknown: Texas maybe. LEON CHAPPEL on Capitol. He begun his career as LEON’S LONE STAR CHAPPELEARS on Decca during the 30’s. You can hear his great “Automatic Mama” (1953), fine Honky Tonk style. On to Louisiana, 1955, with the underrated JIMMY KELLY and “Dunce Cap”. The record came out from Monroe, first on the Jiffy label. It was so good that Imperial picked up and reissued it (more affordable). I finish with a beautiful JACK BRADSHAW 1958 ballad from 1958, way up North in Indiana. Backed by the Morgan Sisters (chorus unobstrusive), his “It Just Ain’t Right” can be found on Mar-Vel’. Enjoy the music. ‘Till then, bye, boppers!

super boogie woogieautomatic mamar.d.hendonmar-vel' 752

Jerry Irby

 

Jerry Irby (from Al Turner’s sleeve notes to « Jerry Irby » Collector CD2851)jerry-irby-propresuper-bopogie

Gerald « Jerry » Irby’s career in Country music spanned almost forty years. The list of artists he worked with during that time reads like a WHO’S WHO of Western Swing. It ranges from the likes of Ted Daffan to lesser known Western swing performers such as Bill Mounce And The Stars Of The South. In 1937 Irby was « pickin’ and singin’ » with the Bar X Cowboys, a first rate Houston based outfit which featured among its number Elmer and Ben Christian, and singer/guitarist Chuck Keeshan, the latter having worked with Leon « Pappy » Self, and who is to found, along joined Ted Daffan’s band, The Texans. Irby also spent sometime, in the late thirties ans early forties, with another Houston based ensemble, The Texas Wranglers. This outfit comprised of a number of noted Western swing musicians, including steel guitarist Bob Dunn, bassist Hezzie Bryant, vocalist/guitarist Dickie McBride, Leo Raley (mandolin), Gary Hester (fiddle) and Johnny Thames (banjo). These boys, at one time or another, had played alongside the likes of Floyd Tilman, Aubrey « Moon » Mullican and Cliff Bruner. (more…)