Billy Wallace had one of the most unique voices in rockabilly music and played a different guitar style than most of the guitarists back then would do. Both, his voice and full-bodied guitar play worked well together on his classic session with the Bama Drifters in 1956 for Mercury Records, on which he laid down four songs. But Wallace had also a long and more successful (but also unknown) career in songwriting. He never achieved the honor he should have.
Wallace was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1917, but his family moved soon after to Athens, Alabama. Previously, his father had worked on the oil fields in Oklahoma. He grew up on his father’s farm and learned to play the guitar at an early age. As a teenager, he began to write songs and was later influenced by the country music stars back then like the Delmore Brothers, Rex Griffin and Roy Acuff but also listened to Hank Smith, Ernest Tubb and Hal Smith.
In 1943, Wallace got married and moved to Huntsville, Alabama. His career as a songwriter began, when Bill Carlisle recorded one of his songs. After that, Wallace and his wife moved to Nashville, Tennessee, hoping to be discovered in the « Music City USA ». In 1950-51, he recorded his first three singles for the small Tennessee record label based in Nashville : on Tennessee 829, “Southwind” is a worthy addition to the train-song catalogue and is performed in typical Wallace style. The flipside is “I’m Gonna Turn You A’Loose” (sic) and features excellent fiddle playing from Nashville session-man Tommy Tucker. Others included « Dog Hauled Around/You Got Some Explaining To Do » (# 719).
None of them charted but in 1952, he was signed to a contract with Decca Records. Although Wallace was signed as a performer, his songwriting took off at Decca instead of his recording career. His first single on the label, « Back Street Affair » (# 28243), wasn’t a hit but was covered by Webb Pierce, who hit #1 on the country charts. That was the ticket for Wallace to songwriter stardom. The next two years saw Wallace being a successful composer and writer of songs for artists such as Red Foley, Kitty Wells, Johnny Bond, Billy Walker, Bill Carlisle, Little Jimmy Dickens and Patsy Cline. An entire 4-song Decca session remains unissued today. Another good Decca track is « While The Gettin’s Good » (# 28568), a typical Nashville hillbilly bop of the era, 1952-53. Then he cut on Blue Hen, out of Harrington, Delaware, « You Can’t Ride On My Train », a fine reminiscent of « Southwind » (# 210).
In 1956, Wallace moved to Mercury Records, but only cut two sessions for the label. On these days, Wallace recorded all of the material which would become favorites among rockabilly collectors years after. An exact recording date is not know, but it seems probable that Wallace recorded his Mercury material in the spring of that year, then in August. He was backed by the Bama Drifters, a session group that consisted of a guitarist and a bass player. It sounds that the bass player (who really slaps his bass!) also backed Johnny T. Talley on his Mercury session, but that’s only a guess. However, Wallace’s first single on the label was issued in May 1956 and featured « That’s My Reward » backed by « What’ll I Do » (# 70876). His second record came out in September 1956 and was composed of « Mean, Mistreatin’ Baby / Burning the Wind » (# 70957) . All four songs were dominated by Wallace’s unique guitar style that was influenced by traditional blues music, just as his lyrics. Verses like « gonna jump in the river three times, ain’t a-comin’ up but twice » were clearly traditional nature, whilst « I asked you for water, you gave my gasoline » was borrowed from Tommy Johnson‘s 1928 song « Cool Drink of Water Blues».
It was during his days at Mercury that Wallace suffered a stroke. He couldn’t play guitar anymore because his entire left side was paralyzed. Although Bill Carlisle and A&R manager Dee Kilpatrick tried to help Wallace, Mercury dropped him. He had to learn to play guitar again and in the fall of 1957, he had out his next releases on Deb Records (the great double-sider « Wolf call/Two O’Clock In The Morning » (# 882) and the energetic « Don’t Flirt With My Baby » (# 1003), . None of his records didn’t catch on or even showed up a sign of success, but Wallace kept on recording. He was a man who never saw the happy site of live, but he « had that strong desire that stayed there. He learnt to play guitar over again. One time, I think it was the one that came out on Arcadia, his doctor was right there with him all during the session« , remembered Wallace’s wife later.
Wallace continued to record a great amount of singles for small labels like Del-Ray, Republic (the fine bluesy « I Can’t Run Away (from these blues) » (# 7127) in 1956 (the original being issued on the very small Lewisburg, TN, Harvest label), Nashville, Pace, Gig, Canadian Arcadia and also releases on Sims.
His health didn’t grow better and in 1968, Wallace and his wife returned to Huntsville, where he spent the rest of his life. Billy Wallace died in 1978. In 1980, Eagle Records released an album with Wallace’s songs he had recorded in 1962 and 1963 on Del-Ray.
Notes from various sources. »hillbillyboogie1″ YouTube channel did contain a good biography, amended by other sources. Label scans mainly from YouTube. Music come from Hillbilly Researcher CD # 38 devoted to Billy Wallace.
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