For over twenty years, the Slim Rhodes Show was an institution on Memphis radio. Starting out as a family group, the Rhodes maintained this characteristic through three generations despite a continually changing supporting cast.
Originally from Arkansas, James K. Rhodes formed a group called tte Log Cabin Mountaineers in Poplar Bluff, Missouri in 1936. At the core of the group were James’ three sons;: Ethel Cletus ‘Slim’ Rhodes, vocalist and guitarist ; Hillburn ‘Dusty’ Rhodes, vocalist and fiddle player ; and Gilbert ‘Speck’ Rhodes, bass player and comedian. The early group was completed by Dusty’s wife, Bea, a singer.
Slim was the eldest of the sons, born in 1913 in Pocahontas, Arkansas and the leader of the group. Working in Missouri – Arkansas border, the Log Cabin Mountaineers drew upon the sounds of Western swing emanating from Texas and the south west, together with the musical traditions of the Ozark mountains.
From the outset, though, the band was also a localised purveyror of prevailing music trends. Particularly after Slim gained a regular radio show on KWOC in Poplar Bluff in 1938, he came to recognize the value of balancing his natural feel for western swing with a responsiveness to public demand. Two decades later, Slim Rhodes’ Memphis recordings would form a chronological illustration of changing musical times in Memphs, from western swing to hillbilly to rock’n’roll.
The Rhodes band continued to operate as the Log Cabin Mountaineers during the early part of the 1940s, appearing not only on KWOC but on KLCN, Blytheville, Arkansas and KARK in Little Rock, Arkansas. Then, in 1944, the band joined WMC in Memphis and commenced a noontime country music show that ran almost daily until Slim’s death in 1966. For the latter half of this 22 year residency, the Rhodes Show also appeared n WMC TV and provided a platform for many aspiring local musicians. This experience came in useful when Speck later joined the nationally networked Porter Wagoner TV show out of Nashville in the 1970s and 1980s.
By the time they moved to Memphis, the Log Cabin Mountaineers had obtained the sponsorship of a floor company. They worked on WMC as the Mother’s Best Mountaineers. Their popularity increased through the 1940s to the point in 1950 when they were a natural target for Sam Phillips and his newly-opened recording enterprise.
Let’s take then the shortest possible digression from Slim Rhodes and his brothers, to introduce their guitarist : Brad Suggs (also called “Pee Wee”, “L.B.” or “Junior”) had his first professional affiliation with the Loden Family, around 1950. Sonny Loden, the later Sonny James, sang and played fiddle with the group. He wanted Suggs to go on the road with him, but Brad was married and had family obligations, so he chose not to.
Instead, he went to work with the Slim Rhodes band, once again joining a family group of musicians. Suggs played with them when he first got to Memphis until he went into the Army. They were going to send him to Korea, but he had two brothers who had already died in the war (Suggs came from a family of twelve), so he was allowed to stay Stateside. After his demob, probably in 1954, he went back to work for Slim Rhodes.
Suggs played guitar with the Rhodes band on all their Sun recordings, appearing as a featured vocalist on three of them in 1955-56: “Don’t Believe” (Sun 216), “Are You Ashamed Of Me” (Sun 225) and “Bad Girl” (Sun 238), all country ballads.
Like several other Sun alumni (Charlie Feathers, Malcolm Yelvington, Little Milton, Jimmy Haggett), Suggs also made a brief trip across town to record a rockabilly single for Lester Bihari’s Meteor label in 1956 (“Bop Baby Bop”/”Charcoal Suit”, Meteor 5034). But his true home territory was 706 Union Avenue. Brad hung around Sun a lot in those days. One thing led to another and he started doing studio work as a guitarist. Among the records he plays on are “Ubangi Stomp” by Warren Smith and “Hillbilly Music Is Here To Stay” by Jerry Lee Lewis.
WARREN SMITH (Sun 250, 1956)
Well I rocked over Italy and I rocked over Spain
I rocked in Memphis, it was all the same
Well, I rocked through Afrika and rolled of the ship
And seen them natives doin’ an odd lookin’ skip
I parted the weeds and looked over the swamp
Seen them cats doin’ the Ubangi-stomp
Ubangi-stomp with the rock and roll
Beats anything that you’ve ever been told
When it hits, it drives a cool cat wild
Well I looked up the chief, he invited me in
He said, a heep big jam session’s ’bout to begin
He handed me a tom-tom, I picked up that beat
That crazy thing sent shivers to my feet
I rocked and I rolled and I skipped with a smile
I done the Ubangi-stomp, Ubangi-style
Well we rocked all night and part of the day
Had a good rockin’ time with the chief’s daughter May
I was makin’ good time and a-gettin’ to know
Then the captain said son, we gotta go
I said that’s alright, you go right ahead
I’m gonna Ubangi-stomp ’till I roll over dead
Courtesy Black Cat Rockabilly Europe
Phillips recorded eight sides with the band under Slim’s name in 1950 for release on Gilt Edge Records of California. Concentrating on boogie and swing based styles, the Gilt Edge discs featured Slim and Dusty on vocals with fine fiddle and steel support spiced with energetic electric solos from Pee Wee Suggs.
In 1955, Sam Phillips recorded the Rhodes band again, this time for Sun. Despite a similar line-up to that of the Gilt-Edge era, the sound of the band was now much more hillbilly influenced. Subsequent sessions developed further, toward a rockabilly sound, and Slim’s vocalists changed from the swing balladeers (Slim, Dusty and Brad) to rockabillies like Sandy Brooks and Hayden Thompson (*).
1958. Perhaps Sandy Brooks on mike
Under the competition of a newer generation of rockabilly combos, Slim Rhodes soon found himself dropped from the Sun label. Although he did make several other recordings for labels like Cotton Town Jubilee, including an interesting promotional disc for Hart’s bread on the Hart’s label, Slim mainly concentrated on radio and TV work. New generations of the family came through, from sister Dot (who also recorded as Dottie Moore on King) to Slim’s niece Sandra Rhodes who at one time pursued a solo career with Fantasy Records, and sang as a backup singer on countless sessions at Hi Records.
The full story of the Rhodes band would take more space than is available here, and much more work remains to be done in interviewing members of the Rhodes band and fleshing out the contribution they made to country music in the mid-south. (Martin Hawkins, 1986)
(*) It is probably an error from Mr. Hawkins, as it is highly improbable that Hayden Thompson, out of Tupelo, MS., ever sang with Slim Rhodes.
Aknowledgements: Martin Hawkins (“Good Rockin’ Tonight”, book of 1996); generous use of 78worlds; music from various sources; Hillbilly-music.com for several details and pictures.
Try to find the 1996 CD on Gee-Dee
Discography of Slim Rhodes is available on the Praguefrank site: https://countrydiscography.blogspot.com/2011/02/slim-rhodes.html
Carl 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. 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 ».
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.
Jimmy Haggett was inspired by the phrasing of Jim Reeves, and took (without knowing it) a LukeMcDaniels’ 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), Black 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 from 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.
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.
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 ».
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.
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 ‘left)
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 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 ?).
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
Sam Phillips never had much chance with Country music. From 1950 to 1956 he cut Blues and Black R&B; from 1956 on he cut Rockabilly and Rock’n’Roll. Here below are his only attemps in the early years to record Hillbilly Bop. In the second part however, we will see names like Carl Perkins, Charlie Feathers, Malcolm Yelvington, Ernie Chaffin, Warren Smith, Mack Self doing Hillbilly Bop or Country music with much more success than Sam had had in the early days of SUN Records….
Harmonica Frank Floyd (1909 in Tacapola, Mississipi ; died 1984). A phenomenon, who spent 30 years with medicine shows all around the South. He went in 1951 to see Sam Phillips and recorded several Country Blues : Swamp Root, the traditional Step It Up And Go, Goin’ Away Walkin’ and Howlin’ Tomcat, soon sold to Chess in Chicago. He sounded black, and many Blues collectors until the seventies (his rediscovery by Steve LaVere) were wrong with him…In 1954, Sun issued two sides (Sun 205) : Rockin’ Chair Daddy and The Great Medical Menagerist. « …Daddy » from 1951 is proto-rockabilly with strong rhythm guitar, wild vocal, and mouth harmonica. He had a strong career when rediscovered in 1974 and recorded for Adelphi.
“Step It Up And Go”download
Earl Peterson (Feb. 24, 1927 in Paxton, Illinois. died 1971). made his beginnings at a radio station in Michigan. Become popular, he cut a first disc on Nuggett records, before signing at Sun in 1954. He recorded 4 titles, the best being « Boogie Blues » (Sun 197): sewing fiddles, steel-guitar, drums and bass, and a vocal very reminiscent of Jimmie Rodgers ; and the song itself derives from pre-war Country songs, like Gene Autry’s « Lowdown Blues ».
“Boogie Blues” download
Doug Poindexter & The Starlite Wranglers. Born in Arkansas, he too went to Sun in 1954 and cut (May 25, 1954) two sides of Hillbilly weepers : Now She Cares No More For Me and My Kind Of Carrying On. Published on June 1rst, 1954 on Sun 202. Two of the Wranglers were…Bill Black (bass) and Scotty Moore (lead-guitar), soon to back up the young Elvis less than two months later. Good hillbilly sides, tending towards Rockabilly. Poindexter then left for insurance business..
“My Kind Of Carryin’ On”download
Howard Seratt in April 1964 (rare picture from Martin Hawkins)
Howard Seratt, from Arkansas. Country gospel. Two sides (Sun 198), alone with his guitar & harmonica for Troublesome Waters/I Must Be saved. Nice sincere vocal. 1954 download
Hardrock Gunter (Feb. 17, 1925 in Birmingham, Alabama). He had a long recording story behind him when he sold two songs to Sam Phillips in 1954 (Sun 201) : Gonna Dance All Night was a proto-Rock & Roll song, and a recut of a previous 1950 Bama issue. Fallen Angel is far quieter. Gunter had a long career afterwards, recording prolifically and still entertaining afficionados in Europe in 1995 !
“Gonna Dance All Night” download
Slim Rhodes (Pocahontas, Arkansas, 1913 ; March 10, 1966 – thanks for the death info, Alex)). Guitar player and bandleader, very popular in the Memphis area in the late 40s/early 50s. Phillips leased several of his 1950-1951 recordings to Gilt-Edge. His first Sun single (Sun 216) was sung by Brad Suggs and billed « ordinary » by Billboard in May 1955. Rhodes would afterwards cut Romp and Stomp (Sun 238), a romping Hillbilly Boogie with steel-guitar and fiddle. It must have been a good seller, as the guitar solo was taken note-for-note on Harold Shutter’s « Bunny Honey » (Goldenrod 300 from May-June 1957), then Do What I Do (Sun 256), a superb Rockabilly in 1956 (vocal Sandy Brooks). He had several issues on Gilt-Edge. For Sun 238 and 256, please see SUN Records: Hillbilly sides (part 2).
“Gonna Romp And Stomp”download
Malcolm Yelvington (1927, Covington, Tennessee) led his first band, The Star Rhythm Boys, during the late 40s, wih pianist Reece Fleming. He cut his first sides in 1954 for Sun, among them his personal Western swing treatment of Sticks McGhee’s R&B classic Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee (Sun 211). The guitar player follows Brownie McGhee’s solo, and Reece Fleming plays the Your Red Wagon theme (it was then adapted for Rock around the clock). All in all, it is a pretty proto-Rockabilly song, a fine blend of black & white styles. Later on (see part 2), Yelvington came close to Rockabilly (Sun 246) with Rockin’ With My Baby.
“Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee”download Clyde Leoppard & the Snearly Ranch Boys were a group firmly associated with Sam Phillips during 1955-1957. Clyde Leoppard (steel), Johnny Bernero (d), Smokey Joe Baugh (p), vocalist Bill Taylor, Buddy Holobaugh (g) backed Smokey Joe, Warren Smith, and numerous other artists during this period. They had a solitary issue on Flip 502 (Sun subsidiary label) in 1954, and they handle right the charming piece of nonsense « Split personality », a romping Hillbilly bop. Smokey Joe had his own issue on Sun 228 in 1956 with « Signifying monkey ». His vocal is crude, and, as once said, a sort of Rockabilly Fats Waller (see part 2).
See part 2 for 1956-1958 Sun Hillbilly sides elsewhere on this site!