A staple of the Odessa country music scene for 50 years, guitarist-fiddler Freddie Frank (1931-2005) spent his formative years in Kilgore. Part of the same circle that included Jack Rhodes, Red Hayes, Jimmy Johnson, Curtis Kirk, Al Petty, Bobby Garrett, and Jim Reeves, Freddie, like Johnson, was not able to translate his vocal talents into the sustained recording career that he deserved. Instead, there was the all-too-predictable pattern of a few scattered releases on oddball labels in the ’50s and early ’60s, including his own Permian label. A Capitol session c. 1955 could have turned things around for him — but it went unissued (and no one has got a trace of it).
Mineola, Wood Cty
“12,000 Texas Longhorns” was Freddie’s debut, from early 1953, and issued on Fabor Robinson’s Abbott label (# 125). A memorable Jack Rhodes-J.C. Lile song, “Longhorns” was recorded superbly by the pros at KWKH Studio in Shreveport with Red Hayes’ band providing the solid support: Joe “Red” Hayes and Kenneth “Little Red” Hayes (fiddles), Al Petty (steel guitar), and Leon Hayes (bass). Freddie supplies his own rhythm guitar. Flipside « Off to parts unknown » is slowlier, although a vigorous slice of hillbilly bop. Red Hayes seems to have been everywhere in the early ’50s. He would eventually follow Freddie to Odessa. Next Abbott issue (# 126) by Curtis Kirk was presumed as having been recorded at the same place and occasion as Freddie Frank.
As for Jack Rhodes, he remains a controversial figure. Some people loved him; others hated him. Freddie’s comments, made to me in a 1999 interview, are revealing:
“I went to work at the Reo Palm Isle (in Longview). I played lead guitar for Jim Reeves there when he was first starting out. When I left there, Red (Hayes) came in there and started working. He introduced me to Jack Rhodes. I moved up to Mineola and was staying up there helping him write songs. Jack had a bunch of people writing song-poems. We’d go and collect those and bring ’em back, and I’d write the tunes for ’em. Make ’em meter out, and doctor ’em up. They could put “DS” after my name — doctor of songs. Jack didn’t write very much of nothing. Jack was a manipulator. He reminded me of Boss Hog on ‘Dukes of Hazzard.’ Jack owned the motel (the Trail 80 Courts), and was bootlegging (liquor), and he could afford to do what he wanted to.
“I think Jack had the sheriff paid off in Mineola. I don’t think he was arrested there. But I think he did get raided when he lived in Grand Saline. They were making their own whiskey up there. I think that’s why he moved to Mineola, ’cause he couldn’t manipulate the law in Grand Saline. I told him when he died, they’d probably screw him in the ground like a corkscrew.
“But he put the con on just about everybody. When I got enough of it, I got enough, and I left…never called him, never spoke to him again. I think that was the same thing with Red (Hayes).”
Freddie is listed as co-writer with Jack Rhodes on Gene Vincent‘s “Five days, five days » (Capitol 3678), but received no credit for writing the music to Vincent’s “Red Blue Jeans and a Pony tail” (Capitol LP T 768 « Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps »). “Five Days, Five Days“, credited by Rob Finnis to Jimmy Johnson, may actually be Freddie with Leon Hayes on tremendous bass. Franks had been quickly adapting his voice (he even adopts hiccups) and playing to new trends. From the same sessions came a version of the evergreen « Trying to be my baby »[see the story of this song in this site]. On the other hand, Frank was not listed among artists involved in the “Louisiana Hayride“, according to Imperial, who runs an ambitious reedition program (20 CD) of tapes saved from this famous radio/live show.
Earlier in 1953 the team Jimmy Rhodes-Freddie Frank had been cutting two sides for Starday in Beaumont, Texas. The very fast « Gypsy heart » (# 117) has fine fiddle and guitar, and vocal credited to Franks, while the flipside « Al’s steel guitar wobble » is a showcase for Al Petty, supported by a good piano (is this Starday house-musician Doc Lewis?). Both sides have Frank on rhythm guitar.
Next stop in Freddie Frank’s career is in Odessa (West Texas) in 1961. Unable to find a label proper to release real Hillbilly at this time, he then launched his own label, Permian, apparently a common venture with Slim Willet. Frank had 3 issues on this label. First «This old rig »(1001-A) has energetic rhythm and voice over very fine fiddle and steel. : a great Bopper. The flipside (« I want to be) On the bayou tonight », has, as expected, Cajun overtones (without accordion yet),
With thanks to HillbillyBoogie1 (biography); John Burton (Abbott issue) : Armadillo Killer for one Permian issue ; Uncle Gil for the Starday project ; notes by Rob Finnis to the CD (Ace) « Gene Vincent cut our songs ».. May “HillbillyBoogie1” get in touch please to get us more details from his corresponding with Freddie Frank. I really don’t know what happened to him between his Permian sides from 1961 and his death in 2005.
One of the most prolific Southwestern labels of the postwar era in Texas was Dallas’ Talent/Star Talent Records, owned and operated by Jesse Erickson. In number of actual, documented releases in its hillbilly serie (700), it may indeed have been the most prolific. Erickson’s 80-odd issues over a roughly four year period beginning in 1948 appear to be the most by a Texan hillbilly label until Starday came along in 1953.
Of course, volume doesn’t necessarily correspond with quality, but many of Talent’s – it became Star Talent about halfway through his life – releases were classics of postwar country music, like Hoyle Nix’s “Big Ball’s In Cowtown”, Slim Willet’s “Tool Pusher On A Rotary Rig” and Riley Crabtree’s “Shackles And Chains”. And many more were prime examples of the changing musical climate of the region, when Western swing was slowly displaced to straightforward Honky tonk.
The label was also unusual in the way it evolved from a strictly local label (Buddy Walker issues) to far-flung markets like New Orleans (Ray Rogers), Arkansas (Buster Doss) or Memphis (Freddie Burns).
It’s yet to be established exactly when Erickson began recording Talent sessions, but the birth of the label seems to have coincided with the musicians’ union recording ban (the Petrillo ban), on January 1rst, 1948. Erickson drew talent from the lively local scene which revolved around the Lone Star Jamboree (later Big D Jamboree), held every Saturday at Ed McLemore’s. Involved was disc jockey Al Turner. Among Jamboree’s early stars were Riley Crabtree and a youngster, Buddy Walker, at the same time salesman for Erickson’s record shop, and the first to sign for Talent – he had the first 6 releases on the label.
Talent’s inaugural release, Buddy Walker’s “Bordertown Fiesta”, became a regional hit. Recorded at the Seller’s studio, it included a nebulous house band made up of Jamboree house band regulars: lead guitar player Buster White (later Leon Rhodes), Tex Melton (later Jimmy Kelley) on steel guitar, and fiddler Ted Hodges (later Billy Jack Saucier). The obscure female pianist Aline McManus also played on several early sessions. Back to Walker. A smooth (though indeniably country) and appealing singer, typically with his first B side, the strong “We Lived A Lie”.
Gene O’Quin (his story can be found in its entirety on the site), was probably still short of 16 when he made “Next Sunday Darling Is My Birthday” (Talent 708). Alongside his longtime buddy Boots Borquin, he was already a a seasoned club and stage performer, as his poignant et assured vocal attests. Both were regulars of the Jamboree, but O’Quin would have his second disc ,backed by the Jamboree house band and credited to him alone: a forgettable “Pennies for Papa” coupled with Hank Williams’ “The Blues Come Around” (Talent 741). Soon after, O’Quin would hitchike to California and sign for Hometown Jamboree and Capitol Records.
Erickson’s first move outside of North Texas was bandleader Hoyle Nix, a fiddler whose West Texas Cowboys based out of Big Spring. Nix rose to regional stardom amid the West Texas oil boom. He took a page from his idol Bob Wills’ book when he, as Wills had done often, revamped an old folk standard as “A Big Ball’s In Cowtown” (Talent 709). The song not only became Nix’s signature tune (he re-recorded it in 1959 for the Caprock label, of Big Spring), but also by far the biggest hit of Talent/Star talent, selling 10.000 copies in the Dallas area alone, and remaining in print long after most of Erickson’s early reissues were deleted. It was also a hit for the neo-Western Swing outfit Asleep At The Wheel in the 1980’s.
Alton “Tex” Melton was an early regular steel guitarist of the Big D Jamboree. He was the steel player on a number of early Talent sessions, but also a singer/songwriter (without steel), on his line fine bluesy issue “It Won’t Do Baby” (Talent 714). He seems to have dropped out of sight afterwards.
Aline McManus, whom about nearly nothing is known, was a session pianist and had a lone issue, “Television Love” (Talent 722, vocal Jack Padgett). The song has nothing to do with television however, but is a fine bopper with twin fiddles and probably George McCoy on steel. Vocalist Jack Padgett (who had previously recorded for his own Echo label) came originally from Oklahoma, and relocated in Fort Worth, Tx. when he was approached by Jesse Erickson.
His “Boogie Woogie Gal” (Talent 729) is one of three he had on the label. Afterwards, relocated in Odessa, he wrote “Cowtown” for Tex Ritter, then switched to Four Star.
Cowboy Dixon is a real mystery, and we only have his music, the solitary fine “Everything’s Gonna Be Changed” (Talent 733); otherwise we are clueless!
The Seven Rowe Brothers were from Oklahoma, and had spent several postwar years in California when they settled in Dallas. Fronted by vocalist and sometimes fiddler Jack Rowe, they were shortly to begin a long association with Al Dexter. The Rowes at this time included Earl and Lightnin’ on fiddles, Luke on guitar, and A.D. on bass, usually augmented by various steel guitar players, lead guitarists and drummer Freddie Cantu. “Polk County Two Step” (Talent 732) is derived from the Bob Wills’ tune “Faded Love”. The Rowes continued to perform professionnally through the 1990s, though death and ill-health had decimated the act.
Johnny Mathis, from Maud, Texas, was one of the most important artists to have gotten their start on Talent. Ex-steel guitar player with Riley Crabtree’s band, he cut “Before You Call” (Dave Lander’s current hit) at a Crabtree session. Mathis soon became a solo performer on the Jamboree where he met future partner Jimmy Fautheree. They both recorded solo before teaming up with “If You Don’t Somebody Else Will” in 1954. Their relationship was on and off again for years and in the late ‘50s Mathis began a distinguished solo career per Pappy Daily’s D records, recording some excellent honky-tonk records under the name Country Johnny Mathis (to distinguish him from the pop star).
Johnny Bee, born Balducci, was a fine singer, with a deep, resonant baritone. He had a tendency to sound like Ernest Tubb, and the best track by him is “Hang-over Blues” (Talent 744).
from the Tony Biggs collection
Snuffy Smith, an ex-bass player, had worked in Southern California, before relocating in Hobbs, New Mexico. He had recruited champion fiddler Tex Atchison and future Pee Wee King’s drummer Sticks McDonald (who billed himself as the “Krupa of Western Swing”). He later formed the Snuff Dippers, and cut “Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide” (Star-Talent 753 – the first issued under the modified name). By the late ‘50s Smith had joined Bob Wills as bus driver, bassist and sometimes singer.
Riley Crabtree (his entire story is to be found in this site) was one of the most prolific Texas country singers of the postwar years. He had a regional hit with “Shackles and Chains”, before signing with Columbia in 1950. Obviously influenced by Jimmie Rodgers, he cut eight of his sides. A regular on the Jamboree, he then went to Ekko (1955 – Eddie Cochran onguitar), and continued to record for small labels throughout the ‘50s ans early ‘60s.
Hank Harral is best remembered today as the owner of Caprock records in the late ‘50s, where he issued his classic “Tank Town Boogie”. Born 1913, he made his debut as the Happy Yodeler on Amarillo’s KGRS in 1928. He worked here and there as bandleader and DJ, and recorded for Star Talent “Tank Town Boogie” and “Dream Band Boogie” (Star Talent 760).
Freddie Burns was a popular Memphis country dance and radio band that numbered a young fiddler Sonny James (absent from the Star Talent sides). The fiddler then was Speedy McNatt, who sings with Burns on the excellent “Juke Box Boogie”, coupled with the equally fine “Two Piano Boogie” (Star Talent 762), with the blind pianist Ray Martin. The Freddie Burns’ band, the Ranch Hands, are not known to have recorded again.
Burns Brothers/Sunny Burns. From Jackson, Ms., Sunny (not the Starday artist Sonny Burns), Slim and Pee Wee, recorded, for unclear reasons for Star-Talent in Dallas (3 singles). They played straightforward country with western swing overtones. They chose strong material, “I Can Sleep Again At Night” (Star-Talent 765) and “Agreed To Disagree” (769). They served later as training band for future rockabilly Joe Clay.
Slim Willet. Erickson was astute enough to sign as many singing deejays as he could, a practice guaranteeing his releases would get air play. Born Winston Moore in 1919 (his full story is also featured in this site), he was a popular DJ in Abilene. He had ambition . His debut single, “Tool Pusher On A Rotary Rig” and “I’m Going Strong” (Star Talent 770) were uptempos. Later Willet would go to Four Star after his “Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes” became an unlikely major hit in 1952. Over the next years, Willet recorded prolifically (Winston, Edmoral) before his death in 1966.
Wayne Walker. Not to be confused with the Hoyle Nix guitar player, nor the singer-songwriter from Shreveport, he was a Houston singer. He was moderately successful as a songwriter (R.D. Hendon, Jerry Jericho) and his lone Star-Talent issue (“Who’s Kiddin’ Who” – 776) is one of the rarest of the label.
Notes from Krazy Kat’s CD “Playboy Boogie”. Thanks to Al Turner for label scans.
James Arthur “Jimmie Heap” (later Jimmy) was born March 3rd, 1922 in Taylor, Tx. He died at only 55 on December 3rd, 1977, on account of a boat accident in Lake Buchanan. His corpse was rescued only one day after.
Jimmie’s career did begin shortly after discharge from U.S.A.F. during WWII, more exactly said in 1947. Arlie Carter (piano), Horace Barnett (rhythm guitar), “Big” Bill Glendenings (bass) and Louis Renson (or Rencon) (fiddle), all belonged to the Melody Masters right from the start. Later they were joined by Cecil R. “Butterball” Harris (steel-guitar). Indeed Jimmie Heap was on vocal and lead guitar.
With appearances on radio KTAE (from 1948 to 1956) and in clubs, they were always fully booked up. A Barnett composition about a club they were frequently playing at, “Dessau Hall Waltz” soon found the interest of Lasso Records, who cut the band during the Spring of 1948. Their first singles appeared therefore on this tiny label. They even had leased masters on 4 Star, wrongly credited to “Dolores & Blue Bonnet Boys”. (more…)
Slim Willet will forever be remembered as the composer of « Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes ». The song was a monster hit in 1952, initially for Slim Willet himself, then for the likes of Skeets McDonald, Ray Price and Red Foley. The song also made inroads into the pop field, with successful covers by a slew of pop singers, including a N° 1 hit for Perry Como in 1953.
Ironically « Don’t let the Stars Get In Your Eyes » was the B side of Willet’s second release on his own 4 STAR Custom pressed SLIM WILLET label. Slim gleefully recalled in a 1950’s article in COWBOY SONGS that 4 STAR had written to him upon receipt of his masters advising him that « Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes » was – quote – « Off beat, off meter, off everything and would not sell ». Needless to say when the record started to attract considerable attention, 4 STAR speedily reconsidered their position, brushed aside any doubs they may have harboured about the song, and signed Slim Willet to a recording deal.
Before taking a closer look at what led on from the success of « Don’t let The Stars Get In Your Eyes », it would be better to first take a glance at Willet’s formative years in order to put events into perspective.(more…)