Born 24 May 1925, Knoxville, Tennessee, USA. Claude “Red” Kirk started playing steel guitar at seven but changed to ordinary guitar and began singing at 10. He served in the US Army during World War II and on discharge played on WNOX Knoxville’s Mid Day Merry-Go-Round and Tennessee Barn Dance. He spent three years as a member of Archie Campbell’s touring show but later his fine vocals, reminiscent of Eddy Arnold, saw him tour and work radio and television at numerous venues including Dayton, Lexington and Louisville. He also played on WLS National Barn Dance in Chicago, the Big “D” Jamboree in Dallas and the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport and made guest appearances on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. He made his first recordings for Mercury in 1949, on some being accompanied by noted session musicians that included Jerry Byrd (steel guitar) and Tommy Jackson (fiddle). He later recorded for ABC-Paramount Records, Starday, Dewitt and Great. Died in Bristol, TN, in May 1999. (anonymous biography from allmusic.com)
His radio shows as D.J. : WNOX, Knoxville, TN ; WTMT, Louisville, KY ; WKLO, Louisville, KY ; WOWI, New Alban, IN ; WIMA, Lima, OH. (from hillbilly-music.com)
RED KIRK : an appreciation (by bopping’s editor)
- the Mercury and RCA years (1949-1954)
Fine honky tonk music that brought Kirk the somewhow ambitious nickname of « The voice of the country », it spanned five years and gave him two massive hits. Generally backed by the cream of Cincinnati musicians, among
them Jerry Byrd on steel for example, he kept the Mercury label’s executives faith in him to go on in spite of moderate sales of his other records. Most of his recordings for Mercury are uptempos, although his voice pushed him naturally to sing ballads, hence his nickname : he was then a bit crooning and, apart from one or two exceptions, I’ll let them apart. So I will concentrate on uptempo and boppers.
It’s very hard to describe Red Kirk’s version of « Lovesick blues » (Mercury 6189), since it’s so very close to Hank Williams’ one. What is notable is the urgency of the recording, very early (presumably February 1949) after the « original » (which actually was not) of Williams, cut late December 1948. Kirk’s version is credited « Traditional » and includes an accordion part. The other tunes of the session are forgettable ballads (# 6189 and 6204).
« I wasted a nickel » (# 6223) and « Church bells chimed » (# 6274) are good examples of the ballads of Red Kirk : the richness and sweetness of his voice are perfectly emphasized by musicians, as told before, the top notch team of Cincinnati country music : among them, one can speculate Zeke Turner on lead guitar, Tommy Jackson on fiddle. Red Kirk is even (a common practice then) associated vocally to a girl singer, Judy Perkins, for two ballads (# 6237).
“I wasted a nickel”
Time goes on, and we reach the second Red Kirk hit, in November 1950 : « Lose your blues » is a bluesy bopper with some yodeling, backed by Jerry Byrd.
Out of the HW pattern was the slow, bluesy « Can’t understand a woman (who can’t understand her man) » # 6288), and the fast, double-voiced « Sugar-coated love « # 6332)[a very fine guitar solo.]
“Can’t understand a woman (who can’t understand her man)”
“Sugar coated love”
Kirk went further in 1952 with the proto-rockabillies « Knock out the lights and call the law » (# 6409) and « Walkin’ ’round in circles » (# 70044) : both include snare drums and predate by two years the Starday sound, which included howling steel and sawing fiddle. Note that the nickname “The voice of the country” was erased, only remain the laconic “vocal by Red Kirk“. But for Mercury, enough was enough. Success had for too long eluded Kirk and they let him go. « Train track shuffle » (# 6358) escaped to my researches, and although the title sounds promising for a train song, nobody seems to own it.
“Knock out the lights and call the law”
Red Kirk appeared in 1954 as vocalist on a notorious Chet Atkins session held in Nashville, and sang a good mid-paced bopper, « Set a spell » (RCA 47-5956), but this seems to be more a good turn to Kirk than a a step to a new recording label.”Set a spell“
- The final Red Kirk years (1956-1967)
From then on, Kirk went from one small label to another, searching the always elusive hit. In late 1955 he cut two tacks in Nashville for Republic # 7120 : « Davy Crockett blues » is a fine uptempo, with some yodel, based of course on the current rage. Stylistically it’s not that far from his last Mercury sides three years earlier : steel and fiddle gave him a good support. A very convincing side, although in 1956 it was way too late for such a type of song. « Red lipped girl » is a folkish fast, dramatic song which has a strong Indian appeal, as Marvin Rainwater.
In 1957, Kirk choose a Lee Hazlewood/Loy Clingman song « It’s nothing to me » and cut it on the Ring label # 1503 : his rich deep voice does a very good effect on that song, although he copies the original very close. Note that the credit goes to « Patterson », a pseudonym of Leon Payne. Kirk’s ’45 had at any rate made some noise, because the larger ABC bought the sides and reissued them as ABC-Paramount 9814. The flipside « How still the night » is a good ballad, with prominent piano.
“It’s nothing to me”
Later on in 1958, Kirk recorded a single on Starday regular serie (# 421) : « Dark streets/I wonder », to me are very ordinary Country songs, well in the Nashville mould. Then he had two ’45s on the DeWitt and Spot labels (one track « Hurtin’ all over » is common to both of issues), but I didn’t hear them.“Dark streets“
Finally on Great (a sublabel to Chart) in 1967 (# 1075), he recut « It’s nothing to me », and he does a very fine job with this modern version (it even has a brass section and violins). The flipside is « Sleep, little brother », a sincere ballad.“It’s nothing to me”
And that’s it. Red Kirk disappears from the musical scene, and no one knows what he did (perhaps radio?) between 1967 and his death in 1999 in Bristol, Tennessee.
Sources: 45-cat and 78rpm-world; YouTube for some tracks; the invaluable help once more of the indefatigable Ronald Keppner; my own archives.