Frank (born 1940) was singing as a child on WHBO in Tampa, FL. (According to Frank, the radio station was so small, the signal “ … just barely made it over the tree tops”. He was 15 years old when he cut this, his first recording, at the Burdette Sound Studios in Tampa, backed by the Western Hayriders (who were already an established band by this time & included Pete Howell on lead guitar & Dusty Robbins on steel guitar). Frank plays the banjo on these sides. The A side, « I’m Different » (Starday 540), is a nice uptempo number with Frank soloing on the banjo with nice support from both lead & steel guitar. The flipside is a hillbilly weeper. It’s a great debut from an underrated artist.
Soon after, Frank formed his Top Notchers and cut « What That Is (That I’m Too Young To Know » (Starday 567) in the spring of 1956: it’s an uptempo ditty with a bluegrass feel (banjo and fiddle upfront), recorded at the tiny WHBO radio station in Tampa. A brief write-up in the June ’56 issue of Country Song Roundup mentions that « Frank Evans and his B-Bar-B Ranch Hands (the name they used when they appeared on TV in St. Petersburg) have recently returned from Nashville where they appeared on the Grand Ole Opry… » It was actually the Junior Opry they appeared on.
“What Is It”
The Top Notchers’ next release, « Barrel of Heartaches (Bucket Of Tears » (Starday 602), from late ’56, is their most primitive. Colin Thomas’ steel can be heard for the first time, and Arnold Newman’s lead gets in a few licks, but neither the song nor the performance show much inspiration.
The guys got things together for their next record, however. « Pull The Shades Down Ma » (Starday 645), released around June 1957, is Fifties country music of the sheerest excellence. « Now this city’s dwellin’ just ain’t cut out for me… » sings Frank in his most exuberant vocal on record and the band lays down an infectious rhythm that complements the lyrics perfectly. The song is reminiscent of the cool stuff Little Jimmy Dickens was cutting at the time: fun, full-blooded country that was uncompromisingly rural sounding.
“Pull The Shades Down Ma”
Frank’s next release came only three or four months later. « I’ve Got A Patent (On My Kind Of Love) » (Starday 674) is an uptempo swinger built around a fine « twin guitar » riff from lead and steel (which also gets in a good solo). Like all their records, « I’ve Got A Patent » got little notice except on WHBO. One of the deejays in Tampa who regularly played Frank’s records was Bill Floyd, who recorded the excellent « Hey Boy » for Starday. Local Mack King recorded for Starday as well, and Dixie records Benny Joy was also from the area.
“The Ain’t Got Blues”
Up to this time, the Top Notchers had pretty much side-stepped rock’n’roll. But in late ’57 or early ’58, Colin Thomas left the band and the guys added a drummer, moving closer to a rockabilly sound. Their final Starday single, « The Ain’t Got Blues » (Starday 719), recorded in the spring of ’58, could be described as low-key rockabilly. Frank’s vocal is not as strong as the previous two releases; nonetheless it’s a good effort. As with Frank’s previous five records, it’s highly probable that only 300 copies were pressed, the standard quantity for Starday customs.
In early ’59, Frank and a guy named Byron Clark set up a small recording studio and label in Tampa called Nugget (Lonzo & Oscar handling the song publishing). The label issued local rock’n’roll bands. The second Nugget release was the Top Notchers’ last, but they went out blazin’ with « Gotta Get Some Money » (Nugget 1001), a solid rocker with guitar and drums to the fore – you wouldn’t know by listening to it that these guys were purely country just a year or so earlier. Alas, it was the poorest seller of their releases: in 1960, it had sold 132 copies! Disillusioned, Frank sold his rights to Byron Clark. He later appeared weekly on Ernie Lee’s TV show.
The ticket out of Tampa came from a phone call from Bill Carlisle, who wanted Frank as thumb-guitar player for a tour. It helped establish him with Nashville musicans. He played circa ’62 with Skeeter Davis and Hawkshaw Hawkins. Later he joined ex-Drifting Cowboys Jerry Rivers in a country-folk-bluegrass band, even cutting an album in ’65 for Starday. Next 25 years saw him in Nashville, both as a musician and a businessman, before returning to Tampa, outside of the business completely. He diied in 2000.
Source: article by Andrew Brown in Hillbilly Researcher # 24 (’80s)
Thanks to Udo Frank for label scans. Nugget scan comes from YouTube.