DAFFAN records (1955-1958) (from Kevin Coffey’s notes to “The Daffan Records story”, Bear Family BCD 15878, 1995)
Ted Daffan Ted Daffan was at a crossroads both in his life and his career in the fall of 1955.
His days as a best seller for Columbia were behind him, his last recent big hit was as recent as 1950: “I”ve Got Five Dollars And It’s Saturday Night”. He’d had a decade of enormous success following his 1941 departure from Houston’s Bar X Cowboys to form his Texans. (…) He found himself back where he started in 1952, teamed for a time with old buddy Jerry Irby, who had also fallen on hard times (see elsewhere in the site for Jerry Irby’s story). By 1955, he’s reached a seeming standstill.
He had recently purchased the house and recording studio on Robert E. Lee street from Floyd Tilllman. (…) Eddie Noack sought him out that fall: he had written the somewhat uncharacteristic “These hands”, but could get no one interested in doing anything with it.
“I knew it was a hit”, said Daffan. “I couldn’t get anybody to record it.” So Daffan put together a studio band, brought in vocalist Jerry Jericho – and Daffan Records was born.
It was actually a partnership between Daffan and the late Herman Shoss, an old friend from high school days who played first violin in the Houston Symphony. Both they were part of the ‘house’ band that Daffan had put together for recording sessions, a band rounded up with old cohorts Buddy Buller on lead guitar and Lew Frisby on bass. Buller had been part of Daffan’s first band in 1933 and had lent his solid, distinctive lead guitar to all of Daffan’s prewar sessions; Frisby was one of the ‘hillbillies’ Daffan had joined in the Blue Ridge Playboys in 1934. He was later a long-time member of Floyd Tillman’s backing band and a busy recording session player, as well. Daffan added pianist Pete Burke, another veteran who had played with the Blue Ridge Playboys, the Bar X Cowboys and Jerry Irby’s Texas Ranchers. Daffan himself would alternate between steel guitar and baritone ukulele. He decided against using drums on his sessions (…) and his unusually but highly rhythmic uke adds a distinctive touch to many sides. “I’m a pretty good rhythm man,” he says. “My success was due to my ability to set up jazz patterns…That’s why I played ukulele. You can get great rhythm out of it.”
The combination of sounds – Daffan’s distinctively thin-toned steel or catchy baritone uke rhythm; the graceful violin of Shoss; the tasty jazz guitar of Buller; the unmistakable whorehouse piano of Burke – was singular, sparse and clean, all qualities that were trademarks of Ted Daffan. If Schoss’s violin sometimes defeated a song’s momentum – it felt particularly out of place on the uptempo Irby sides – its unintentional evocation of turn-of-the-century parlor romance sometimes actually worked to a performance’s advantage (at times it blended well with some of the old-fashioned qualities of Jericho’s voice, for example). “It’s funny,” says Daffan. “He could play first violin in the Houston Symphony but couldn’t quite cut country.” On the other hand, Buddy Buller’s excellent and sophisticated guitar work strengthened every session. Sadly, this underrated musicians’s best work with Daffan, recorded in Hollywood in 1942, remains for the most part unissued.
Daffan made interesting choices, too, in the artists he chose to record, recruiting seasoned vets rather than untried up-and-comers, until he recorded William Penix in 1958. (…) The fact that singers Irby, Jericho and McBride also played their own rhythm accompaniment was a plus. “That way, I saved a musician.”
The first Daffan Records releases, Jericho’s These Hands and the Daffan/Irby Tangled Mind, were successful beyond Daffan’s wildest expectations: both hit big regionally.(…) Unfortunately, when he could get distribution, Daffan could rarely get payment for records delivered. (…) Daffan’s hopes of leasing his masters to bigger labels were thwarted when those labels simply covered the songs: Hank Snow hit big with both These Hands and Tangled Mind. (…) By the end of 1957, Daffan had given up. He accepted an offer to go to Nashville to work with Hank Snow in a publishing venture. He revived his label out of frustration briefly later in the year, when he found and recorded William Penix, a singer-songwriter he felt had potential to be “another Hank Williams”, but couldn’t find a label interested in the sides. (…) He issued a second Penix release in ’62, then there was a flurry in the mid-sixties (Margaret Elliott, Johnny Bundrick) followed by a last try, with the Pickering Brothers (who were “The Picks” on the overdubbed Buddy Holly sessions in Clovis, NM) in 1971.
No comment about the tunes: honest Texas honky-tonk music from the mid-50s. Don’t miss anyway Fido’s “Trifling Heart”: just about one of the best ever boppers ever cut!
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.)
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:
“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!
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.
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 ».
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 « 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).
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!
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.