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).
Raleigh Preston ‘Peck’ Touchton is easily one of the most noteworthy singers to emerge from the Houston country music scene in the fifties. But unlike most of his peers like George Jones, Touchton only recorded a handful of sides and, through no fault of his own, attained none of the commercial rewards granted some of his lesser known contemporaries. He was rather, another victim of the visionless inertia that typified the music business in Houston.
Born in Belmont, Louisiana on April 28, 1929, Peck migrated to Houston after high school graduation and began working drive-ins and dancehalls with a young band called the Sunset Wranglers. « Our first job was a place called Johnny’s Drive-Inn in North Shepherd, » he remembers today. « Back in those days, that was the way you started out. And us four would stay up there from eight to twelve, and one o’clock on saturday night. It was strictly a drive-in…car hops would pass the kitty, that’s how we made our money. » The group soon graduated to opening shows for established local acts like Jimmie and Leon Short and Bennie Hess.
The original Sunset Wranglers cut several sides for the Freedom and Green Star labels in 1950-51 : 4 sides for Freedom, among them the very nice uptempo « Walk ’em off blues » (# 5028) and the more quieter although equally good « Walkin’ on the top of the world » (# 5040).
download But the Wranglers splintered when singer Rocky Bill Ford successfully coerced the other members into leaving Peck to become his backing band in the wake of his hit « Beer drinking blues ». This turned out to Touchton’s advantage, however, as the new group he assembled was far more experienced than the old one. With this band, Peck moved up to the Starday label in 1954, but the pressing plant accidentally printed George Jones’ name on the label to his record, « Let me catch my breath » (# 160). When Starday procrastinated correcting the gaffe, Touchton grew impatient and asked to be released from his contract. There remain 3 unissued Starday tracks in the can.
Starday’s loss was Sarg’s gain, and Charlie Fitch was happy to capitalize on the other label’s mistake. Fitch had become acquainted with Peck when the Sunset Wranglers backed up Glen Paul at his December 1955 session. Though he had reservations that Peck « sounded too much like Hank Williams », Fitch conceeded that Touchton’s songs had commercial potential. In the meantime the Sunset Wranglers were in great demand: they backed Johnny Nelms in disguise (« Western band« ) on his Azalea double-sider « « After today«
download After today/Cry baby cry » in 1955 and played with him for dates : 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. »
Peck recorded his Sarg debut, « You’ve changed your tune » and « Then I found you » at ACA [Bill Holford engineer in Houston] on March 7, 1956 (Sarg 132). The line-up of the Sunset Wranglers at this point included Herman McCoy (lead guitar), Doug Myers (fiddle), Hoyt Skidmore (steel guitar), Carlton Wilcox (bass) and Jo Anne Sky Eagle (drums).
Peck only recorded once more (for Caprus Records in 1976), twenty years after his final Sarg record. He looks today at his past : « Back from about 1949 to ’56 or ’57, everybody in Houston just meshed. It was damn near tight-knit. Everybody knew everybody, and most of ’em were real good guys who would help each other. »
Notes by Andrew Brown for the « The Sarg Records Anthology » from 1999. Additional matters by bopping’s editor.
For this new rendez-vous, I’ve chosen three tracks from the ’50s, then one from…1978, the remainder being from the ’30s.
First, JOHNNY NELMS on Azalea 015/016 (Houston label), « After Today » is his finest hour, raw, emotional honky tonk. 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). I add in the podcasts his Starday offering, « Everything Will Be Alright » (# 228) from 1956. He already had records on Gold Star, Freedom, and later (briefly) on Decca. Nothing but a plain Country boy, who never made it…
Then, from the Cincinnati area, one JIMMIE WILLIAMS, I know nothing about, except this little record on the Acorn label (# 153). Here it is his original « Hey, Hey Little Dreamboat« , a nice, uptempo Hillbilly bop. Apparently the man had nothing to do with later Arkansas rocker of « You’re Always Late » fame.
From Nashville TN, April 1954, when young ERNIE CHAFFIN entered the Hickory studios, nothing really happened with his four sides; I somehow find some freshness in his « I Can’t Lose The Blues » (# 1024). Shortly after, he was to launch, with his steel player Pee Wee Maddux, the Fine label in Biloxi, MS. before moving in 1956 to Sun in Memphis.
That’s it for the ’50s! Now with a legend, ROSE MADDOX, taken live from Youtube (I just kept the sound track), for an old Jimmie Rodgers’ song, « Muleskinner Blues« . The Lady does it perfectly!
Onto the ’30s. First with ex-Governor of Louisiana (twice!) JIMMIE DAVIS. He sang Hillbilly as early as the late ’20s. Here you get his rendition of the traditional « When The Saints« , under the title « Down At The Old Country Church » (recorded Charlotte, NC, 1931), with Ed Shaffer on the lap-steel guitar. Full of emotion…
Finally, from 1936 comes a one-time associate to Davis, his Black bottleneck guitar player, OSCAR WOODS. Here he sings, on a funny cartoon, « Don’t Sell It – Give It Away« . The whole thing, recorded in New Orleans, sounds very much Western swing! Magic of internet to find those gems…