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.

late January 2012 fortnight’s favorites

Howdy folks! This is maybe the last fortnight I’ll be posting before mid-February, as I am moving; so all CDs and material are stored. ’till then, another batch of goodies.

ThWho came first? I’d assume JOHNNY BOND, who penned “Drink Up And Go Home” along with Joe Maphis – whose version was untraceable. Instead I found 1955-56 FREDDIE HART‘s, the demo by CARL PERKINS (cut 1957, with brother Jay B. on duet vocal, unissued until the ’80s), then a ’60s version by the Human Jukebox, SLEEPY LA BEFF. Hear them 3 versions, whose I include the lyrics below of.

You sit there a-crying, crying in your beer                          finn la- beff Drink
You say you’ve got troubles, my friend listen here
Don’t tell me your troubles got enough of my own
Be thankful you’re living, drink up and go home

I’m fresh out of prison, six years in the pen
Lost my wife and family, no one to call friend
Don’t tell me your troubles, got enough of my own
Be thankful you’re living, drink up and go home

Back there sets a blind man, so blind he can’t see
Yet he’s not complaining, why should you or me?
Don’t tell me your troubles, got enough of my own
Be thankful you’re living, drink up and go home

Then we go to a certain HAROLD ZAHNER, backed by Johnny Smith and the Missouri Tsun-nell chambers She'swo, on the Missouri Smith label, who offers a good version of “Shake Baby Shake“. Is this the Rock’n’Roll classic (Johnny O’Keefe, Jesse Lee Turner or the Killer), I don’t know. Full of rural energy anyhow. BILL CHAMBERS do come with the good “She’s Treatin’ Me Bad” on the Sun-Nell label (a RCA custom pressing of 1958), and we come to an end with VIRGEL BOZMAN (also BOZEMAN) for the fine little classic “Blues For Oklahoma” on his own O.T. label (# 109).

This O.T. label was originally based in Westlake, a small town on Highway 10 in the Southwestern corner of Louisiana. The initials O.T. stood for Oklahoma Tornadoes, a group run by Virgel that had recorded for Bill Quinn’s Gold Star label. Among the members of this short lived, but important band, were Bennie Hess, and Cajun fiddler extraordinaire Floyd Le Blanc. . His brother, Harmon recorded Rockabilly on the Texas Sarg label. Another Bozman O.T. release, when the label was relocated to San Antonio, is the fine, more Western Swing in style, “Troubles, Troubles” (# 113), backed by the Circle C Boys. It’s driven along by a bass player who enjoys himself enormously.

smith zahner shake ot  bozman  oklahoma

“Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby”, the story of an enduring Hillbilly song (1936-1957)

The original of the song was made by the legendary Rex Griffin, one of those pioneers in Honky Tonk music. Here is his biography by a Bruce Eder:

As a songwriter, performer, and recording artist, Rex Griffin bridged the gap between Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams — indeed, it can be said that he bridged the gap between Rodgers and Buddy Holly, and between Rodgers and the Beatles. Griffin was among the first country music stars to record using his own material almost exclusively, and among the least of his accomplishments, one of his songs was covered (albeit without proper credit) by the Beatles. Griffin is the author of the original version of “Everybody’s Tryin’ to Be My Baby,” which Carl Perkins later adapted into his own song, and the Beatles subsequently covered to the profit of all except Griffin, who’d been dead about six years when all of this happened.

rex griffin

 

Griffin is one of those pre-war figures in country music whose legacy has been unjustly overlooked. He had no hits of his own after 1939, although his biggest hit from that year — “The Last Letter” — continues to get recorded at the end of the century. He was also a direct inspiration to both Hank Williams (whose recording of “Lovesick Blues” was virtually a copy of Griffin’s from ten years earlier) and Lefty Frizzell. One of country music’s first singer/songwriters, Griffin was the model for figures including Floyd Tillman, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard (and one could even throw Buddy Holly in there). And, like Williams, his personal demons in love and substance abuse brought a premature end — albeit not as suddenly as Williams’ — to Griffin’s performing career and his life.

He was born Alsie Griffin, second of seven children of Marion Oliver Griffin and the former Selma Bradshaw. He grew up without much formal education and spent most of his early childhood on the farm that his family owned in Sand Valley. By the 1920s, Ollie Griffin was working in Gasden at the Agricola Foundry, and Alsie followed his father there. The family regarded music as a pastime to be pursued after finishing one’s real work.

Alsie felt differently, however, wanting no part of farm life or the factory if there was any way of helping it. His first instrument was a harmonica, but it wasn’t long before he picked up the guitar. Gasden didn’t offer a big future in music, but Griffin took advantage of what was there, playing local parties and dances.

If the guitar was the first instrument that Griffin felt strongly about, his first love was the music of Jimmie Rodgers. He quickly adopted Rodgers’ style as his own and never entirely abandoned elements of his music — especially the yodeling — even once he had his own style nailed down.

Griffin made his first professional appearance on a bill at the Gasden Theater in 1930, and not long after he moved to Birmingham, where better opportunities awaited. He joined the Smokey Mountaineers, and it was there that he got his new first name — the group’s announcer had difficulty pronouncing Alsie, and simply renamed him Rex. The name stayed with him and he moved from city to city across the South, appearing on radio stations in Chattanooga, Atlanta, and New Orleans, among other cities.

His recording career began in 1935, when Griffin was signed to the newly formed Decca Record company, which already had the Sons of the Pioneers, Tex Ritter, Jimmie Davis, and Milton Brown in their roster of country artists. His first recording sessions were held in Chicago on March 25 and 26 of that year, during which he recorded ten songs, accompanied by his own guitar and Johnny Motlow on tenor banjo. All ten number were originals by Griffin, itself an astonishing achievement in those days. All of the material, both in its style and performance, recalled Rodgers — Griffin’s yodeling never let one forget who his inspiration was, although the songs hold up well on their own terms. Also striking about the recordings is Motlow’s banjo playing which, with its trilling, sounds almost like a mandolin.

Griffin’s first releases were successful enough to justify another session for Decca nearly a year later in New Orleans. This time he provided the only accompaniment on ten of the songs and did two additional songs backed by an amplified steel guitar. Among the songs that came out of those sessions was “Everybody’s Tryin’ to Be My Baby,” which in this context sounds almost like a blues composition, recalling works such as Tampa Red‘s “Tight Like That.” The piece was also a dazzling guitar showcase for Griffin, whose prowess on the instrument was considerable. This blues influence was no fluke — “I’m Ready to Reform” from the same session is a superb piece of white blues that can fool listeners as to its origins as easily as Autry’s or Rodgers’ best blues sides.

 

Griffin’s records continued to sell well, and in May of 1937, this time in New York, he cut two more sides, including his most famous number. “The Last Letter” became his biggest hit, a suicide note set to music. Stories vary as to its origins, the most commonly circulated one being that Griffin, who had a taste for alcohol that would later blight his life, was in a drunken depression over his failing first marriage when he wrote the note, and later set it to music as sobering up. Whatever the circumstances of its composition, the record caught on and became a hit throughout the South, and also brought Griffin the adulation of many of his colleagues, most notably Ernest Tubb, whose 20-year friendship with Griffin began over “The Last Letter.”

The song was covered by other artists, including Jimmie Davis, soon after its release. Gene Sullivan (vocalist for Roy Newman & his Boys) also covered three Griffin songs, including “Everybody’s Tryin’ to Be My Baby,” in the late ’30s, and even bandleader Bob Crosby cut Griffin’s “I Told You So.” Griffin’s own career kept moving forward, with concerts and radio performances throughout the South that made him one of the more popular performers of the era.

Griffin’s next recording sessions in September of 1939 yielded a dozen songs, including the follow-up to his biggest hit, “Answer to the Last Letter“, and his recording of “Lovesick Blues,” which was to be the model for Williams’ recording nearly a decade later that made Hank a star. Also recorded at the session was “Nobody Wants to Be My Baby“, a fast, breezy honky tonk-style number and one of several songs on which Griffin was backed by guitarist Ted Brooks and bassist Smitty Smith. The latter is also a beautiful piece of bluesy honky tonk and deserves to be better known.

Despite the success of “The Last Letter“, Griffin’s record sales were too poor overall to justify the label keeping him, and he was dropped by Decca after 1939. In the mid-’30s, he had played with Billie Walker and Her Texas Cowboys in New Orleans, and in 1940 he rejoined her band in Memphis. He later moved back to Alabama to spend more time with his ailing mother and appeared locally for the next few years. Among the places he played often was the notorious crime-ridden Alabama town of Phenix City, which would later become the subject of two feature films. In Gasden, he performed with a group called the Melody Boys, which included two future members of Tubb’s Texas Troubadors.

In 1941, following the death of his mother, Griffin moved to Dallas, where he had a regular spot on KRLD’s Texas Round-Up. His popularity from these broadcasts made Griffin a natural to take over the Texas Round-Up. This was to be his best broadcast showcase, and had it not been for the war, Griffin might’ve become a major star from his work on KRLD. As it was, the show ended in 1943 as the available talent dwindled amid continued military call-ups.

Griffin moved to Chicago in 1944, and it was there that he made his next batch of recordings. These 16 sides — recorded with a band that may have included Red Foley on guitar — were not intended for commercial release. Rather, they were made for Decca Records’ World Transcription Services, for broadcast over the air by radio stations that licensed them.

Despite these recordings for the company’s transcription division, there was no interest at the time in trying to release new commercial sides by Griffin. To hear the material today is to glimpse some of the best honky tonk-style music of the era — by that time, Griffin had taken on a more modern style, and he had even cut his Rodgers-inspired yodeling to a minimum. In addition to capturing Griffin performing “live” in the studio, these are among the few sides he left that feature him working with a band and, thus, show something of the sound he must’ve had during that early-’40s Dallas period.

The oversight by the record company, in terms of offering him a new contract, is difficult to explain. It is possible, however, that the wartime rationing of shellac (a key ingredient in 78 rpm records) had so dampened interest in any risky new ventures (the record business at one point seemed doomed to shut down) that Griffin never had a chance with his old label.

He made his last recordings in 1946 for Cincinnati-based King Records, which had previously recorded Grandpa Jones, the Delmore Brothers, and Merle Travis, among others. Griffin cut eight sides for King, backed by Homer & Jethro on guitars and mandolin. The sides showed Griffin in decent form, an easygoing honky tonk singer with a smooth style and a good voice, but lacking the sharp edge to his singing and playing that sparked his earlier work, clearly on the decline by this time.

These proved to be his last recording sessions. His worsening diabetic condition, complicated by drinking and other dietary abuses, forced an end to Griffin’s career, and the collapse of his second marriage late in the 1940s sent him into a personal tailspin. He moved to Dallas and still wrote songs, and when his health allowed (he was hospitalized several times), he pitched them actively to singers who had recording contracts, including Ray Price, who cut “Answer to the Last Letter“, “Beyond the Last Mile“, and “I Saw My Castles Fall Today“.

His friendship with Tubb blossomed into a profitable professional relationship for both, as Tubb recorded many of Griffin’s songs, and Griffin also became close to Tubb’s nephew, Douglas Glenn Tubb. Their interest, coupled with the quality of his work, sustained Griffin during the 1950s, and in 1955 he wrote “Just Call Me Lonesome“, his last hit, recorded by Eddy Arnold and Red Foley. His last years were blighted by further ill health, as Griffin was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was confined to a New Orleans hospital for what proved to be the final months of his life, and died in October of 1958.

Griffin’s death at the age of 46 was a great loss to country music. Moreover, his lack of any hit recordings of his own after 1939 resulted in there never being an LP release of his songs — there was no impetus on the part of Decca Records to explore his recording history, and he was left in limbo as a recording artist, a distant memory to older listeners. The possibility of Decca’s successor, MCA Records, doing anything with Griffin’s music in the 1990s or beyond seems even more remote.

The songs he wrote, however, have endured over the 40 years since. Hank Thompson recorded “An Old Faded Photograph” in 1960, and “The Last Letter” was re-recorded by Jack Greene in 1964 and became a hit once again. Soon after, Tubb cut an entire album of Griffin songs, and other artists who have covered “The Last Letter” include Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard. At the time of his death, Griffin’s quarterly royalty statement from the publisher of his newest songs was 18 dollars and change, a situation that had changed drastically by the 1960s. Additionally, his song “Everybody’s Tryin’ to Be My Baby“, as appropriated by Carl Perkins — the inability of the family to protect the copyright probably cost his daughters millions in royalties — and later covered by the Beatles, has become a rock & roll standard only slightly less familiar than “Blue Suede Shoes” or “Maybelline“. And then there was his version of “Lovesick Blues,” which Williams freely admitted to having learned from Griffin, even though Hank was also familiar with the Emmett Miller original — Griffin did make changes in the lyrics and structure of the song that Williams kept in his version.

In 1970, in recognition of his achievements as a composer, Griffin was among the very first composers inducted into the newly founded National Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in Nashville. In 1996, Bear Family Records of Germany released a long overdue triple-CD career retrospective on Griffin entitled The Last Letter.

In 1938, bandleader and pianist ROY NEWMAN cut in Dallas “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby“, in a more Western swing mood. Griffin had done it fast- paced, Newman kept it. Whole thing is cheerful, funny, and ideal for dancers. The personnel included: Gene Sullivan on vocal duties, Newman on piano, a young Jim Boyd on guitar, along with Holly Horton (clarinet), Cecil Browen (fiddle), Ish Irwin (bass) and Walter Kirken (banjo). ROY NEWMAN is known for his “I Got Ants In My Pants” and “Rosalie“, cut either in Dallas or in New Orleans at the end of the ’30s.

vocalion  newman everybody's Then ten years later, the song was covered twice. I really don’t know who came first, so I suppose it was GLEN THOMPSON. He hailed from Danville, VA, and had numerous records on the Tornado, (Tennessee) Athens, even his own Glen Thompson labels. Most of his output can be found on a UK. Krazy Kat CD “Tarheel Swing“. Here he delivers a fine, up-to-date hillbilly bop shuffle paced version (uncredited) of the classic on the Manchester, KY Acme label (# 982-B). The steel player is particularly fine (two solos), as the fiddler and the pianist. Lyrics do seem to emanate direct from Griffin. JIMMY SHORT & the Silver Saddle Ranch Boys out on the West coast did their version in 1951 on the 4 Star label (# 1538). A bit Western flavored (as Short yells to invite the members for their solos); the steel Jay Higham is impressive, as the rhythm guitar by Short, who reminds me much of Clyde Moody‘s “The Blues Came Pouring Down” from 1949 (hear this song in his story elsewere in the site).

 

acme  thompson everybody's

glen thompson

bb 7:4:51 jimmy short

Billboard April 7, 1951

4 *  short everybody's Then we go to the two last versions we’re interested in. Without doubt, the YORK BROTHERS revived the Griffin song, however strangely crediting it to Wayne Walker and Webb Pierce. Theirs is very good, well-suited to their harmony style, and taken at a Rockabilly tempo. Issued 1957.

carl perkins sun studios

Carl Perkins – Sun studio

decca york brothers everybody's

sun LP 1225 perkins

The music of GLEN THOMPSON or YORK BROTHERS’ song and the CARL PERKINS song is totally different. The Carl Perkins song has blues-style guitar riffs and a start-stop rhythm closer to “Blue Suede Shoes“. There are two verses in common but Carl Perkins wrote completely new music for his song released on Sun Records in 1957 on the famous « Dance Album » LP 1225.

And the rest is history of Rock’n’Roll, when the song got a world-wide appeal when released in 1964 in England. A fine career for a 1936 session-filler by a long-forgotten honky tonk artist…Finally it was revived in 2003 by JOHNNY CASH, as a tribute to Carl Perkins, his old friend (who had died a couple years before). A nice, strong version.

Cat music: the roots of rockabilly – What does mean “cat” ?

‘Cat’ has been used as a term in popular music since the Jazz years of the 1920’s. Revered by the ancient Egyptians, cats have a mystique and grace all over their own – no wonder these independent and mysterious animals became such a byword for ‘Cool’ in music from Hep Cats, jazz be-boppers of the ‘40s, and right through into 1950’s Rock’n’Roll.

(more…)

SUN Records: Hillbilly Bop sides (1955-1957) (part 2)

perkins brothers

The Perkins Brothers band (1954)

sunlogoCarl Lee Perkins (1932-1998) is too well known, and information on him is easily available. Search with your engine or go direct to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Perkins also Rockabilly Hall Of Fame site http://www.rockabillyhall.com/CarlPerkins.html. The Perkins Brothers (Jay B. rhythm guitar, Clayton, bass – later W.S. Holland, d) band began performing in the Covington, Tennessee, area in 1953 and quickly found success with a Hillbilly-boogie type music heavily based on Blues. When they heard in July 1954 Elvis’ Blue Moon Of Kentucky on radio, they decided to go see Sam Phillips to record. First they were cut in Country vein (Turn around, a ballad,  being their first disc on Flip 501), because Phillips would not them rivalling with Elvis. With the latter’s departure in November of 1955, they were given freehand, and the result was « Gone gone gone » (Sun 224) in September 1955 : a romping Hillbilly bop, almost a Rockabilly. sun perkins gone Three months later, Perkins cut Blue suede shoes, the rest is history…

 

Smokey Joe (Baugh), vocalist and piano player for the Clyde Leoppard Snearly Ranch Boys (see part 1) had one single (Sun 228, reissued as Sun 393 in the 60s) under his name taken from the 4 sessions he cut on his own between August 1955 and 1956. His style is heavily based on R&B, there is even his raucous voice which reminds one of Fats Waller. « The Signifying Monkey » is a sort of amusing recitation, and a whole lot of then hip animals like monkeys and baboons is cited. The steel-guitar (played by Stan Kesler) is very unobstrusive, and there’s even a trumpet on the B-side « Listen To Me » ! All in all a record on the border of Hillbilly and R&B, the sort of thing Phillips was still looking for, even after the departure of Presley and the crossover success of « Blue Suede Shoes ». He cut similar nature material left in the can (and later issued in Europe) with tracks like « Hula Bop » and « She’s A Woman ».

sun smokey monkeyMaggie Sue Wimberly

 

Little is known about Maggie Sue Wimberly who went to Sun in October 1954 and cut a solitary single (Sun 229) : « How Long/Daydreams Come true ». In the early part of 1954, Sam Phillips had turned down Bud Deckleman and his song (co-penned by the team Quinton Claunch/Bill Cantrell) « Daydreamin’ ». Deckleman had been to Lester Bihari of Meteor and had a huge hit with this record. Phillips tried to catch up on the success and recorded a follow-up, « Daydreams Come True » by Wimberly, which came nowhere. One of the rarest Sun records ever…A fine Hillbilly weeper though. 

 

Charlie Feathers (1932-1998) is also well known. See his official site : http://www.charliefeathers.com/ for a very detailed biography. He arrived at Sun from Mississipi in 1955 and recorded with the duet Quinton Claunch (fiddle)/Stan Kesler (steel) one bopping fast novelty « Peepin’ Eyes » (Flip 503). He claimed later to have directed Elvis Presley’s late Sun sessions, and actually wrote and gave him I Forgot To Remember To Forget (Sun 223) ; Sam Phillips wanted Feathers as a Country singer, and he was not allowed to sing anything else than the great « I’ve Been Deceived » (Flip 503) or the beautiful Defrost Your Heart (Sun 231). Even his demos of Rockabilly songs (Bottle To The Baby, complete with hiccups, later re-cut for King in July 1956 ; or Honky Tonk Kind) were rejected by Phillips. That is why he came, through his brother-in-law, in touch with Meteor Records, and cut the classic Rockabilly « Get With It/Tongue Tied Jill » on April 1rst, 1956.

feathers picsun feathers defrost
flip feathers deceived

 

Jimmy Haggett was inspired by the phrasing of Jim Reeves, and took (without knowing it) a Luke McDaniels’ song, « No More » (from 1952), although with different lyrics. Flip was « They Call Our Love A Sin » (Sun 236). The record had sold 448 copies a year after release, and the songs are pretty tame. Shortly after, Haggett tried his hands at Rockabilly but felt uneasy and hired a front singer to replace him. But that’s another story.

 

Warren Smith (1932-1981) is well documented too. See : http://www.rockabillyhall.com/WarrenSmith.html. He went from Mississipi as lead singer of Clyde Leoppard Snearly Ranch Boys and was presented to Sam Phillips early in 1956 by Johnny Cash who gave him his very first song: Rock’n’Roll Ruby (Sun 239) – which George Jones claims to have written, instead of Cash. Anyhow the demo of it by Cash was published in U.K. in the 80s. But Smith was an ably Country singer – the best he heard at Sun, to quote Phillips – and his renderings are quite good  flavored Rockabilly/Hillbilly Bop songs : I’d Rather Be Safe Than Sorry (Sun 239), sun smith safeBlack Jack David (Sun 250), So Long I’m Gone (Sun 268), Tonight Will Be The Last Night (unissued at the time) or later effort Goodbye Mr. Love (Sun 314). Disappointed by a constant rivality with Jerry Lee Lewis, he moved to Hollywood and Liberty Records in 1959 as a Country singer and succeed a little.

 

The Miller Sisters (Elsie & Jo) were a local Memphis act, discovered by Phillips in 1955. Elsie Jo Miller and Mildred Wages did originate Miller Sistersfrom Elvis’ hometown, Tupelo, Mississipi ; they were offered to record for Sun at 5 occasions between March 1955 and July 1957, so Sam Phillips must have been confident enough in them as a duet. First they cut a passable Hillbilly weeper on Flip 504 (Someday You Will Pay), backed by the then cream of Sun studio musicians : Stan Kesler on guitar, Quinton Claunch on steel-guitar, Bill Cantrell on fiddle, Marcus Van Story on bass ; even Charlie Feathers used spoons on this tune ! Later in 1956 they embarked on the Rockabilly bandwagon and cut a little classic, Ten Cats Down (Sun 255), with the accompaniment of members of Clyde Leoppard Snearly Ranch Boys, aptly augmented by the sax of Ace Cannon. They were also involved as vocalists on Cast King 1956/1957 session (originally unissued) which produced the beautiful « Can’t find time to pray ». They did disappear after 1957.

sun miller-sis. ten

 

Slim Rhodes (Ethell Cletus ‘Slim’ Rhodes) (see part 1) had a Hillbilly boogie romper on Sun 238 with « Gonna Romp and Stomp » ; he had well adapted from the wild sounds of Hillbilly Bop instrumental « Skunk Hollow Boogie » (Gilt-Edge 5015, recorded at Sun in July 1950) to the new trends of 1956. « Romp… » is still Hillbilly Bop in essence, but the pace is Rockabilly (note the classic guitar solo), as is their next effort (Sun 256) : Take And Give/Do What I Do (vocal Dusty Rhodes). Two very fine Sun records ! Last recording of Rhodes for Phillips was in 1958, and of far lesser interest (I’ve never been so blue), hence unissued then.

sun rhodes romp

riley vieux

 

Billy Riley (Pocahontas, Ark., 1933 ; dead August 2, 2009). Born to a poor sharecropping clan, Riley developed a passion for blues and learned to pick guitar watching the older black musicians his family worked alongside. Although he made some early appearances performing on local radio, Riley’s career took shape after he was discharged from the Army in the mid-’50s. Moving to Memphis, Riley soon hooked up with a crew of fledgling country musicians that included “Cowboy” Jack Clement. He and his truck driver partner, Slim Wallace, founded the tiny Fernwood label in a South Memphis garage and cut Riley’s debut recordings, “Trouble Bound” and “Think Before Your Go“(still unissued today). Clement took the tapes to Sam Phillips over at Sun Records so he could master a single. Impressed by what he heard, Phillips ended up hiring Clement to work at Sun, and signed Riley. Hence « Trouble Bound/Rock With Me Baby » (Sun 245). Riley and his group – which included drummer J.M. Van Eaton and guitarist Roland Janes — would also become the de facto house band at Sun, providing the backing on numerous hits. Another Hillbilly song recorded at a Rockabilly pace is the underrated « I Want You Baby » (Sun 260), overshadowed by the A-side which made Riley famous until today, the classic « Flyin’ Saucer Rock’n’Roll ».sun riley trouble

 

Malcolm Yelvington & band

Malcolm Yelvington and band, 1956

Malcolm Yelvington (see part 1) had well adapted to 1956 trends with his unique brand of Western Swing/Hillbilly Bop for a February 1956 session which produced the uptempo « Rockin’ With My Baby » (full of reference to then R&R hits) and the slower, much more interesting « It’s Me Baby » (Sun 246). Later Yelvington recorded mainly mainstream Country, always flavored of Western swing : tracks (unissued then) like « Trumpet » or « Goodbye Marie », to be found on 1990’s Bear Family compilation « Sun – The Country years » 10-LP boxset. It also included a different version of « Yakety Yak » to that Meteor Records released in 1956.sun yelvington  baby

 

It was not before October 1956 that Sam Phillips (too busy cutting Rockabilly and Rock’n’Roll sessions) recorded more Hillbilly, this time with Ernie Chaffin. The latter went from Biloxi, MS. and had had records from 1954 on Fine and Hickory labels. « His style was as unique as Johnny Cash’s : he depended on a percussive, repeated rhythmic pattern and minimal instrumentation. Unlike Cash’s work, however, Chaffin’s songs (most often composed by his acoustic guitar player Murphy ‘Pee Wee’ Maddux) were highly melodic and his voice had considerable range.  While the songs were lyrically more conventional than the stark lonesome ballads of Cash, Chaffin’s songs drew much of their power from unusual and arresting chord changes. » (Hank Davis) Between October 1956 and June 1958, Chaffin had 7 Sun sessions, resulting in 4 Sun singles, the best being the first two, and the most memorable and accomplished tracks being « Feelin’ Low » (Sun 262) and «Laughin’ And Jokin’ » (Sun 275). Both are on the border of Hillbilly Bop, and announce the future Country music of the late 50s/early 60s, when Rock’n’Roll and Rockabilly were integrated into it. All in all Ernie Chaffin recorded 15 songs for Sun, and they are all on the Bear Family boxset .

ernie chaffin BF

Ernie Chaffin ‘left)

262 chaffin low

 

Sam Phillips made relatively few mistakes in his choices, but after the discovery of Cast King (Joseph Dudley King) tapes in the Sun vaults, it is surprising why he didn’t release ANYTHING by him, like another mystery, the now famous Jimmy Wages. Maybe too busy with Rock’n’Roll bands ! Cast King cut one convincing religious narration (« Can’t Find Time To Pray ») in 1956 with the Miller Sisters as backing vocals, but the most interesting track was to come in June or July 1957 with « When You Stop Loving me » : « It is a splendid song and must have stood a fair chance of success. Although neither the composition nor the performance are really polished, the end product is quite spectacular (…) Instrumentally it’s a gem, featuring standout steel-guitar work and some nice dobro. » (Hank Davis/Colin Escott). It’s a « Country waltz beautifully sung, which stands alongside Sun’s finest Country records and his non-appearance is a mystery. »

 

mack self

Mack Self

Mack Self was a real Country singer, and although he tried a variety of other styles when at Sun, he always retained a country purity in his vocals and his band was never going on rough edges. He had 5 sessions between 1955/1956 and 1959 and only had two singles (from which one on Phillips International), the other being  (Sun 273) « Easy To Love/Everyday » . The solitary Sun release had very little chance of success in 1957, and actually sounded anachronic for the times being. Beautifully sung Country ballads ; and Phillips allowed Self to sing that, when he released at the same period pounding rockers by the likes of Carl Perkins, Tommy Blake, Wade & Dick, Ray Harris ! But a real treasure was unearthed in the 1990s on the aforementioned Bear Family boxset : Self had recorded a Hillbilly session in 1955/1956, complete with steel-guitar and fiddle. « Easy To Love » is plaintive, and the fiddle of Bill Cantrell well to the fore. The same session gave us a near-Rockabilly Hillbilly Bop, « Goin’ Crazy », complete with slapping bass (Jimmy Evans – is he the same guy as the one later on Rivermont and « The Joint Is Really Jumpin’ » rasping piano rocker ?).273 self easy

 

We came to an end with the Hillbilly Bop sides cut by Elvis Presley. Actually he cut at least 8 Hillbilly sides in his own unmistakingly style, and 5 went their way as B-sides of his Sun singles. They are too well-known, but listen to them closely as Hillbilly Bop sides…Johnny Cash was also near Hillbilly, although he never used steel-guitar neither a fiddle – but his style was really his own and did in fact owe very little to Hillbilly…Do not forget The Rhythm Rockers (Sun 250) and “Fiddle Bop/Juke Box, Help me find my baby” – actually Hardrock Gunter. Phillips leased them from Emperor Records, it wasn’t his production.

 

 

 

 

Credits: all the color pictures that bear “The Country Years” do come from the Bear Family boxset BCD 15211 “Sun – The Country Years”

All label pictures do come from www.rockincountrystyle.com