(by Michael Cocksedge – all additional content in brackets and italics by Bopping’s editor)
On to you, Mick!
Movie star, Radio star, Recording Star, Nashville lounge bar co-owner …..you name it and Big Jeff has done it and done it in style .
Born on 2nd September 1920 as Grover Franklin Bess in Ashland, just north west of Nashville. At the age of nineteen he married the girl from the next village called Emily Ediker . He started playing guitar in the late 30’s and by 1940 he was playing with ‘Roy Lucas & his Rhythm Rangers’ live on Radio Station W.L.A.C .
Jeff was never called to army service in WWII due to high blood pressure and so was working during the day during the war years at a bomb factory in mid Tennessee and by night working on Radio and various live shows and State Fairs .
From the mid 1940’s Jeff’s career is hard to establish, he was certainly on the rosters of various Radio Staions including Harrisburg W.E.B.Q , Knoxville W.N.O.X and at W.S.I.X where he could be found in the line up with ‘Goober and his Kentuckians’ plus many other stations. So by 1946 the 6ft 2 BIG Jeff Bess and his new band ‘The Radio Playboys’ had returned to W.L.A.C in Nashville and started a regular twice daily radio show.
Jeff’s early ‘Radio Playboys’ line-up included future stars like Grady Martin playing Fiddle (of course Grady was starting to make waves with his guitar playing and would go on to be a major picker in the country music scene), Lucky Strickland playing Accordion, Hillous Butrum on Doghouse Bass, Tommy Neblett on Guitar and Jeff handling acoustic Guitar and vocals. Benny Martin (no relation) was to take over Fiddle duties after Grady Martin left. Around this time the band were joined by Jack Henderson and many more musicians from all over the state.
It was during the late 40’s that his marriage to Emily had broken down and he started dating a certain Hattie Louise AKA ‘Tootsie’ (they would be married in 1949) and already Jeff was venturing into running bars and Club ownership as a way of making extra money.
By the late 40’s Jeff had lost his band so he recruited a local combo called ‘The Eagle Rangers’ to become his new ‘Radio Playboys’ the line-up was now Billy Robinson on Steel, his Brother Floyd Robinson on Lead Guitar [could he be the Floyd Robinson who later teamed up with Autry Inman for the “Jack & Daniel” duet, who cut 1953-54 several discs on Decca?], Jerry Rivers on Fiddle and Jack Boles on the upright Bass.
Guitarist and singer George McCormick during late 1949 would also join the band. George was raised and lived in the fantastic but gloomy sounding town called ‘Defeated Creek’ and would be another young picker, to go under Jeff’s wing before going on to future solo stardom. [Later on George McCormick went solo in 1953-54 on M-G-M and duetted with Texan Earl Aycock as “George and Earl” in 1955-56 on Mercury – see “Done gone” and their story elsewhere in this blogsite]
So into the 1950’s and Jeff was working hard, regular shows, regular radio slots and club/bar owner, things were starting to take off for Jeff and the Radio Playboys. Their shows were a mix of Hillbilly, folk and some gospel and by all accounts they could raise the roof just about anywhere .
Now Jeff was earning more money in this period than most Opry stars and was very influential in Nashville, BIG Jeff was a BIG deal ! but suprisingly had very little in the way of records released !
Jeff Bess and another (stage?) line-up of the Radio Playboys
Jeff and the Radio Playboys backed Jack Henderson on their first recorded release on ‘Cheker’ # 100 in early 1947 ‘The Tramp On The Street’ / ‘Gonna Give You Back To The Indians’. Jack took the vocals, Jeff Bess – Acoustic Guitar, Benny Martin – Fiddle, Grady Martin – Lead Guitar and Hillous Butrum on Bass. Grady Martin steals the show with some fine pickin’ on the ‘Indians’ side …..just marvelous !
The first proper Jeff Bess with The Radio Playboys release was in 1947 on ‘Cheker’ # 103 . The line-up was Jeff Bess – Vocals with Jack Henderson – Acoustic Guitar, Benny Martin – Fiddle, Grady Martin – Guitar and Hillous Butrum on Bass. ‘Poppin’ Bubble Gum’ b/w ‘A Kiss And A Memory’ . ‘Poppin’ Bubble Gum’ was a jaunty novelty number with various comic impersonations and was a fun number that folks liked at all his shows. [Original version had been written by Cincinnati guitar virtuoso Zeb Turner and cut by Lonzo & Oscar in July 1947 on RCA-Victor 47-2765. They often performed this song at their Opry appearances].
Lonzo & Oscar, “Poppin’ Bubble Gum”
1949 saw a second release but this time on ‘World Records’ # 1520 ‘After We Are Through’, which is a superb mid-tempo slice of hillbilly with lashings of Steel, Fiddle and Banjo, written by Jeff and on the flip again another updated version of ‘Poppin’ Bubble Gum’ [which reminds one of 1950 Billy Briggs’’ hit “Chew Tobacco Rag” on Imperial]. This was the last release on World Records Inc and the line-up on this recording was probably (Photo Below) Jack Boles- Bass, Bob King – Banjo, Bill Robinson (Seated) Steel – Jerry Rivers – Fiddle, Big Jeff Bess – Vocals/Guitar & Floyd Robinson – Guitar ( Announcer in this photo is Bill Stamps)
“After we are through” (World version)
Through this period according to various band members and promoters, Jeff was a great entertainer, a really good show man, but like a lot of stars of this period he loved a drink and he also loved the women ….. a lot !
Jeff and the boys had been playing the Tennessee State Fair which was re-introduced after the war in 1947, Jeff and the Radio Playboys always played the Beer Garden area and were sponsored by ‘Ma n’ Pa Hom Bru Beer’, so over time they worked into the routine comedy sketches and songs about this wonderful beer. It was around the 1950 State Fair that somebody had the idea of cutting a record to sell at the fair. The two songs ‘Ten – E -Cee –Hom – Bru’ and ‘Hom- Bru Boogie’ were recorded in the studios of W.L.A.C . Jeff Bess – Vocals/Guitar. Probably the Radio Playboys were Ed Hyde – Fiddle, George McCormick – Lead Guitar, Dwain Birdwell – Steel Guitar and Jack Boles – Bass . The records were sold only at the fair in 1950, how many were cut is unclear, but the label design is basic and there is no mention of the band on the label; this is an extremely rare 78 rpm (see my copy pictured below), imagine buying this in a beer garden booze up at the State Fair in 1950 and then imagine every copy made it home without a crack or breakage after an all day session on the Hom Bru ……very unlikely indeed !
New record company ‘Dot Records’ was looking for new acts for the big battle against the well-established labels in the Country/Hillbilly field in 1950. Big Jeff knew owner Randy Wood through radio station work and was duly signed up. Jeff saw five releases on Dot with some success . Dot # 1004 in the spring of 1950 was the first and was a tune geared at a popular money making market ‘Juke Box Boogie’ / ‘You Talk In Your Sleep’ . Juke Box Boogie was a superb Guitar driven honkytonker and jumps and bops around for sure.[heavily bootlegged as ’45rpm and yellow wax those days]
The second show on Dot was nearly a year in the making but boy it was worth the wait; Dot 1058 ‘Step It Up And Go’ / ‘After We Are Through’ the A & B side are pure magic and still sounds as fresh today as they did in 1951, you get it all, Johnny Maddox on piano, superb guitar by George McCormick and wonderful steel by Johnny Sibert make this a classic of early 50’s Hillbilly boogie. [The “Step it up and go” saga was told elsewhere in this blogsite since its beginnings in the ‘30s until its last known ‘50s renewal. Note that Big Jeff paid homage with the credits to the originator Blind Boy Fuller].
A further two releases on Dot in 1951 ‘Dot # 1064 ‘ Lifetime To Regret’ [original version issued Febr. 1948 by blind songwriter and ballad singer Leon Payne on Bullet 641]/ ‘Fast Women Slow Horses And Wine’, sung by George McCormick, and into 1952: Dot # 1088 ‘Move On Baby’ / ‘I’m In Love Dear With Thee’ did little to make a dent in the Country charts and were just decent country tunes which when you listen to them today are really top songs and are just wonderful to listen to.
“Fast women, slow horses and wine”
“Fast women, slow horses and wine”
The final outing on Dot # 1096 was actually sung by a certain George Mack and on the B side as George Mack & Jeff Bess. George Mack is actually Jeff’s Radio Playboy Guitarist George McCormick! George sang solo on ‘I Courted An Angel’ and sang as a duet with Jeff on the flip ‘I Don’t Talk To Strangers’ , both songs were written by Jeff and are top notch songs and are geared towards looking for the new Hank Williams star. It is unclear why they used the name George Mack on the label listing, maybe McCormick was not Country enough! who knows but it doesn’t matter, a great final release by Jeff and the Radio Playboys .
This were the last recordings in the 1950’s by Jeff and The Radio Playboys. Jeff did not see another release until the early 1970’s on Delta and Fiddle & Bow.
“I courted an angel“(vocal George McCormick)
1959 saw Jeff and wife Tootsie purchased a club in Nashville called ‘Mom’s’ which they renamed ‘Tootsie’s Orchard Lounge’ and was the place to be if you were a name in Country music in Nashville. Jeff ventured into the movies around this time where he had small appearances in ‘Face In The Crowd’ and in 1960 in ‘Wild River’ . By 1960 he and ‘Tootsie’ had divorced and she kept the club and Jeff would by the mid 60’s become a real life Sheriff in the Tennessee Police Department where he would stay until his retirement in 1980.
Big Jeff Bess passed away in August 1998. Jeff never saw massive music fame, but he left us some fantastic songs and if you listen to the Bear Family CD ‘Tennessee Home Brew’ and the Radio show tunes you can hear Big Jeff’s infectious laugh before and after every song, a true country star a true Radio Playboy !