The Harmonica Boogie Woogie Man: AUBREY GASS (1939-1965)

Nothing is known about this important, although quite obscure artist of the 1940’s and ’50’s. Even not any statistic of birth or death, although he was certainly livng in the Dallas, TX area, and was born there during the ’20s. Nothing more is known about his childhood and beginnings in music, so we are forced to deal only with the records he appeared on.

From 1939 until 1952 he was closely associated with another Texan, AL DEXTER and worked with him either as washboard player (in the ’30s), sometimes harmonicist, and in some cases held the vocal duties into the Dexter’s band, « The Troopers », not forgetting he was also songwriter : he was co-writer (with Tex Ritter) of the all-time Hank Williams‘ classic, « Dear John ». But more about that later.

Al Dexter

In 1939, he was a member of the Al Dexter’s Troopers, as said before, and offered the group a good selling disc : « Wine, women and song » – recorded in December 1939 and issued on Vocalion 5572, it was covered by Texas Jim Lewis in September 1940 (Decca 05875), and by the Prairie Ramblers (Decca 05878) – the song must’ve looked to Decca’s executives a lucrative seller). When re-recorded by Dexter on Columbia 37062 in April 1945, he was a second time covered (a reissue) by Jim Lewis (Decca 46021). It attracted two more versions in 1946 by Frankie Marvin (San Antonio 107) and Dick James (Coast 234).

Gass gave Al Dexter (or co-wrote with him) two more songs in 1941/42 : « The Money You Spent Was Mine » (Okeh 6206) and « Honky Tonk Chinese Dime »(OKeh 6604). He played the harmonica on « Diddy, Wah, Diddy With A Blah !Blah ! » (Vocalion 6255) – which Dexter re-recorded later on King as « Diddy Wah Boogie » (# 885). Gass also held the vocal duty for « Sunshine » (Vocalion 04988, reissued in 1946 on Columbia 20240), both coming out of a long 8-track June 13th 1939 session.

Al Dexter, “Diddy, Wah, Diddy With A Blah! Blah!

Aubrey Gass, vocalSunshine


Al Dexter "Diddy wah diddy with a blah! blah!"Aubrey Gass "Sunshine"

As far at it concerns records, Aubrey Gass disappeared from the music scene between 1941 and 1946. Was he drafted in U.S. Army during W.W. II such a long time is improbable. Anyway, his first record under his real name was issued mid to late 1946 in Houston by Gold Star (# 1318) and coupled a then-famous for veterans couplet, « Kilroy’s Been Here » and «  Delivery Man Blues ». Backed by the Easterners (guitar, bass, fiddle, steel and piano), Gass on alert vocal and harmonica delivers a joyful A-side, although the bluesy B-side is equally at home. Indeed both sides were written by Gass, who saw the following year a reissue of his Gold Star disc on the new DeLuxe (#6001) label, a proof of the popularity of the record.

Kilroy’s Been Here

Delivery Man Blues

Aubrey Gass "Delivery Man Blues"Aubrey Gass "Kilroy's Been Here"Kilroy’s been here  lyrics

Paul Page

It must also be noted that a song « Kilroy Was Here » was recorded and released by Paul Page on Enterprise; reviewed by Billboard on August 31, 1946, no one can say who came first for sure.

Tex Ritter

« Dear John » […] was his biggest song ; in fact, it was the only hit he ever wrote. The first version was by Jim Boyd, younger brother of Dallas-based western swing artist Bill Boyd. Gass apparently knew Jim Boyd, offered him « Dear John », and Boyd recorded it on March 11, 1949. Soon after, Tex Ritter got his finger in the pie. Ritter probably promised to get the song cut by a big name, like himself, or to get Gass a contract with his label, Capitol, if he could get a piece of the song. The fact that Gass recorded « Dear John » for Capitol (# 40239, or # 1427) some five months after Boyd suggests that Ritter lived up to his half of their convenant. Hank Williams later picked (early 1951) up the song, this time co-written « Ritter-Gass ». Note : Jim Boyd’s version is already written by Gass and Ritter…

The session for Capitol took place in Dallas on August 9th, 1949 (Billboard announced both the contact signing and the recording session on Sept. 17) and supplied four more Gass-written songs. The backing of Wesley Tuttle and Group (specially come to Dallas) was made of Gass himself (vocal/harmonica), probably Tuttle (rhythm-guitar), a steel, a bass player and a drummer. First came the already discussed « Dear John » : Gass is full of energy on harmonica, has a husky voice, as on the fast « Look Me Up » and (by far the most hard-rocking tune of the lot) « K.C. Boogie ». The last song, « Gee But I’m Lonely Tonight », is a slowie and Gass doesn’t seems at ease here.

Billboard Nov. 12, 1949

Dear John

Gee But I’m Lonely Tonight

copyright June 15,1950

Look Me Up

K. C. Boogie



Aubrey Gass "Dear John"Aubrey Gass "Gee But I'm Lonely Tonight"Aubrey Gass "Look Me Up"Aubrey Gass "K. C. Boogie"

« Dear John » had numerous versions, among them an R&B rendition by Dinah Washington, which climbed at n°3 in the charts. It also had a follow-up in 1953 as « A Dear John Letter », first by Jean Shepard (Capitol 2502).

Next recording session Aubrey Gass collaborated for was done on May 19, 1950 by Al Dexter and his Troopers again. Gass was present, and played some harmonica on several tracks, but still being contracted to Capitol, could not sing at all. He plays (distinct style easily recognizable) on « Blow That Lonesome Whistle, Casey » (King 875)[very near in essence to “K. C. Boogie“], « Walking With The Blues » (which he co-wrote) (King 884), then both sides of King 913 : « Diddy Wah Boogie » and « You’ve Been Cheatin’ On Me ».

Al Dexter & His Troopers, “Blow That Lonesome Whistle, Casey”

downloadAl Dexter "Blow That Lonesome Whistle, Casey"Al Dexter "Walking With The Blues"Al Dexter "Diddy Wah Boogie"
Walking With The Blues

Diddy Wah Boogie

You’ve Been Cheatin’ On Me


At unknown dates he cut several demos at Sellers Studio in Dallas, between 1950 and late 1951. Three of them found their way on the British/Nederland Boppin’ Hillbilly compilation n° 2810. Due to legal rights, we are not allowed to offer these great sides. They are : « Columbus Stockade Blues », « Here Today And Gone Tomorrow » and « Walkin’ Out Of Town ».Aubrey Gass "Fisherman Boogie"Aubrey Gass "Counting My Teardrops"Al Dexter, vocal by Al Dexter and Aubrey Gass "Counting M Teardrops"Al Dexter, vocal by Aubrey Gass "Fisherman's Boogie"

But « Counting My Teardrops » and « Fisherman Boogie », cut late 1951 or early 1952, were issued under Gass’ own name by Sellers as acetates, and released just as they were under Al Dexter’s name (« Vocal by Aubrey Gass ») on Decca, respectively 28345 and 28137 during the first half of 1952. Both tracks were probably recorded (given date by Michel Ruppli’s book « The Decca label » as Feb. 7, 1952) with the Al Dexter band : trumpet, rhythm-guitar, piano (particularly rolling in « Fisherman’s boogie»), steel, bass and drums and no harmonica at all. This 14 tunes session has no less than 8 unissued tracks, and could well reveal some surprises.

Aubrey Gass Vocal“, “Fisherman’s Boogie

Billboard August 23, 1952

Aubrey Gass & Al Dexter,Counting My Teardrops


A recent discovery on eBay has surfaced an unissued Audiodisc dated (as handwritten on label) May 23,1956. « Garbage Man » by Gass is a strange novelty : only vocal, harmonica and rhythm guitar. The acetate was gone on December 19, 2017 for $ 118,00.

Garbage Man“(acetate)

downloadAubrey Gass acetate "Garbage Man"

In 1962 (June) Aubrey Gass gave Tom O’Neal « Two Many Tickets » (released first on Cheatham 104, then reissued on Starday 607), a country rocker ; it’s probably Gass who played the harmonica in this song, as well as on the flipside « Sleeper Cab Blues ».

Tom O’NealToo Many Tickets

Tom O’Neal,Sleeper Cab Blues

Tom O'Neal "Too Many Tickets"

We now jump to one of the most famous Aubrey A. Gass records (backed by the Hel-Cats), this is on the Irving, TX Helton label released in 1965. « Corn fed Gal » is present in two recent compilations : a rocker with swooping piano (# 671-103), backed with a new version of « Kilroy’s Been Here ».(a good guitar ; piano is replaced by a discreet steel). Same label had Grady Owen (ex-Gene Vincent‘s Blue Caps bass player in 1958) (# 102) with « Vietnam Blues ».

Further research has unearthed a demo of « Corn Fed Gal », cut for the « Boyd Recording Service » in Dallas. The strange thing is that this version runs at 2 mn 05, while the Helton version has a duration of 2 mn 22. So then, are they the same ? Could it be that the lucky owner of the Boyd record please stand up and say the truth about this point. I am inclined personnally towards two different versions. This demo was sold on eBay in 2010 for $ 136,00.

Aubrey Gass "Corn Fed Gal" (Boyd Recording Serrvice)Aubrey Gass "Kilroy's Been Here"Aubrey Gass "Corn Fed Gal"



Corn Fed Gal“(Helton version)

“Kilroy’s Been Here


Last record is on the Swansee label # 1908 (mid-’60s) by Mr. G. « Pork-N-Beans » and « Sittin’n’Thinkin’ » are unheard, both written « Aubrey A. Gass », so cannot comment. Remember (see above) his actual name was Aubrey Andrew Gass.

Sources : my sincere thanks to UncleGil for Bronco Buster, the King Project, the Starday project and BACM music ; many (if not all) label scans do come from 78rpm-worlds ; thanks to ole’ Ronald Keppner for Sellers acetates ; Dave Sichak of for Aubrey Gass only known picture ; Gripsweat site for 1956 acetate ; Colin Escott, « Hank Williams, The Biography » for the « Dear John » story. Billboard books for notifications of releases (Thanks Imperial!).

Your comment is welcome: use the “Submit a comment” button below. Thanks!

Wheeling, W. Va. hillbilly: the DUSTY OWENS story (1954-57)

Dusty Owens was born on September 2, 1930 in Fairdealing, Missouri as Robert James Kucharski. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Flint, Michigan where he spent most of his childhood. When he was 6 years old, Robert took violin lessons in school but he later moved to accordion which seemed to be more to his liking. In 1947, while in High school, he joined a local western band called the O.K. Boys to play the accordion. Later that year Robert became their front man and changed the band’s name to Dusty Owens and his Rodeo Boys.

In 1947 Owens entered Flint Technical High School but he soon dropped out and moved to Saginaw, Michigan, to find a job as a professional musician. It was in St. Joseph, Missouri, while working for radio station KFEQ that he received his first official pay as a musician. When Glen Harris of Shenandoah, Iowa radio station KMA asked Dusty to come work for him, he moved to Iowa. At KMA he got acquainted with the famous Blackwood Brothers Quartet and with Ike Everly, the father of Everly Brothers Don and Phil. Ike was largely responsible for Dusty’s later career: he stimulated Dusty to concentrate on a singing rather than on playing the accordion and he helped him to get his own weekly 15-minute radio show at KMA. Ike treated Dusty as his pupil and took him to all kinds of events that might be helpful for Dusty’s singing career.

In 1949 Dusty Owens recorded several radio transcriptions for “Mother’s Best Flour” as well as for “Lassie Feeds” but when he got married later that year, he returned to Flint to work as an accordion teacher at a local school of music. In 1951, he and his former band the Rodeo Boys regrouped and briefly worked for radio station WHO, Des Moines. Apart from doing their regular weekday radio shows, the Rodeo Boys also were part of the “Iowa Barn Dance Frolic” that was broadcasted on Saturday nights.

In 1953, Dusty and his band joined the Wheeling Jamboree from Wheeling, West-Virginia, which was one of the most famous barn dances at the time. That same year Owens signed a songwriters contract with Acuff-Rose and on October 1, 1953 he signed a recording contract with Columbia Records. It was a standard contract for one year against a royalty rate of 2% of 90% and two one-year options.

On October 28, 1953 Dusty Owens did his first recording session for Columbia, with Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboys and Chet Atkins providing the back-up. During the session at the Castle studio in Nashville’s Tulane hotel, he recorded four songs that were all self penned. Columbia released “Hello, Operator” and “The Life You Want To Live” (Columbia 21202) in January, 1954 and in May they released “Just Call On Me” and Somewhere She’s Waiting” (Columbia 21260).

The second recording session for Columbia was done on June 3, 1954, and again, Columbia released all four songs.

Don Law decided to exercise the first option in Owens’ contract and on June 21, 1955, he did his third recording session for the label. Only two songs of this session were eventually issued and Columbia didn’t exercise the second option.

In 1956 Owens recorded six songs for his own Admiral label, including his most famous song “Once More” that was later cut by many others including George Jones, Melba Montgomery, the Osborne Brothers, Roy Acuff and Dolly Parton. During the 1960’s he recorded for Wynwood, but the quality of those recordings was inferior to his previous output.

Dusty Owens, a music appreciation (by bopping’s editor)

The Columbia sides (1954-1955) are generally of high standard. Although Owens is more at ease with medium paced tear-jerkers, he offers also some very good fast boppers. Let’s investigate his records side by side.

« Hello, operator » (# 21202) is a fast uptempo with fine fiddle and bass. A steel solo and a brisk vocal. Its flipside «The life you want to live » is a sincere medium paced shuffler.

Billboard April 30, 1954

“Hello, operator”


“The life you want to live”


Billboard June 26, 1954

More of the previous one with the follow-up « Just call on me » # 21260) : a warm voice over a fine fiddle. Its flipside « Somewhere she’s waiting » is an uptempo which shines the steel of Don Helms in.

“Just call on me”

Somewhere she’s waiting


A good song is « They didn’t know the difference (but I did) » (# 21310), an uptempo with fast fiddle and bass. « A love that once was mine » is a weeper that can be remoted.

Billboard Oct. 23, 1954

They didn’t know the difference (but I did)


The last 4 Columbia sides are all medium paced weepers, sometimes very sincere, but excitement is gone, and no song really comes to light.

The Admiral sides are in comparison far superior than the Columbias.

A very great early 1956 fast duet first « It’s goodbye and so long » (# 1000) with Donna Darlene (1938-2017), paired with the all-time hit « Once more » : an energetic blend of duet vocal, fiddle and steel.

It’s goodbye and so long


Once more


« Cure that shyness » (# 1002) has Don Owens solo and is a fast bopper. « A place for homeless hearts » is a medium paced tune with great ‘hillbilly’ voice. « Hey honey » ( 1004) is a good version of the Wiley Barkdull song (Hickory 1074) and dates from 1957. The flip « Our love affair » is a fast shuffler with strong bass.

Cure that shyness


A place for homeless hearts


Wiley Barkdull, “Hey honey”


Dusty Owens, “Hey honey”


I am putting aside Dusty Owens last sides (Admiral 1008) once his label was relocated in Florida : both songs are really poppish and outside the scope of this blog.

I added the very fine Rockabilly/bopper « You’re not doin’ me right » (Admiral 1003) by Donna Darlene, certainly backed by Dusty Owens’ Rodeos.

You’re not doin’ me right


And mention must be made of the Abbie Neal Rockabilly platters on the label: “Newton’s law” (# 1001), “If again” (# 1006) and “Hillbilly beat” (# 15000). They may come in later fortnight’s favorites.

Biography and Columbia songs taken from W. Agenant « Columbia 20000 serie » blog ; Admiral songs from various sources, mainly YouTube. Labels from 45-cat or 78rpm-world. Dusty Owens pictures from Hillbilly-Music site.

Hillbilly in Houston: R. D. HENDON & his Western Jamboree Cowboys (1951-56)

R. D. Hendon & his Western Jamboree Cowboys were one of the most popular western bands in South East Texas in the first half of the 1950s. Their renown never really extended much beyond the Houston area, but that sort of regional fame was the norm in an era when the country music scene was far les centralized and national stardom was a far more rare thing han it became in later decades. The group served as training ground for such performers as the great songwriter and singer Eddie Noack and the guitarist-vocalist Charlie Harris – neither a household name then and now, but this is not a reflection of their abilities or relative importance – and also included a number of less known but no less talented performers, such as guitarist-vocalist Harold Sharp, fiddler Woody Carter and guitarist Hamp Stephens.

R. D. Hendon himself was rarely an active participant in the band – he had, by all reports, an almost singular lack of musical ability or talent – though he did in his later stages attempt to drum and sing with the group and recorded a recitation under the name the Western Rambler. Nor were the Western Jamboree Cowboys the smoothest and slickest of Houston’s numerous top-notch western dance bands. They were more a classic honky-tonk band than a western swing band like Dickie McBride or Benny Leaders’ groups ad excelled the closer they stuck to that classic, earthier sound. The Cowboys’ performing days came to an abrupt halt in September of 1956 when Hendon, long a troubled man, took his own life, but in the preceding half decade they laid down a number of fine recordings – including a couple of undisputed classics.

Rigsby Durwood Hendon was born around 1914 in Marquez, Texas, and grew up in the Houston area. He served in the Navy and worked as an oilfield roughneck before entering the night club business. The growing popularity of the house band, the South Texas Cowboys, at his Sprinx Club led Hendon to purchase a larger club, the Old Main Street Dance Hall, better known, as Andrew Brown has pointed out, by its street address, 105½ Main. « Hendon gave the club « a western theme » Brown adds, « and rechristened it the Western Jamboree Night Club. The band’s name change followed suit and, by 1950, the club was drawing huge crowds six nights a week. » The band began broadcasting on Houston’s KLEE, where Hendon also nabbed a slot as a disc jockey, and began recording around the start of 1951.

The band’s first recordings were for Sol Kahal’s local Freedom label (# 5033), which had been in operation since 1948 and began a hillbilly series a year or so later. »Those tears in your eyes » b/w « No shoes boogie » was actually issued under bandmember Charlie Harris‘ name, with Hendon and the band receiving secondary credit. The disc is a classic, « No Shoes Boogie » being, Brown writes, »an excellent example of the hard-rocking, shuffle-beat swing that was common in Texas before rock and roll. » In addition to Harris, who wrote and sang both songs and supplied incisive, hot lead guitar, the band at this time included Johnny Cooper, guitar; Theron Poteet, piano ; Tiny Smith, bass ; and Don Brewer, drums. Regular steel man Joe Brewer was replaced on this session by former Texas Playboy, the legendary and still active Herb Remington, who played one of his most exciting solos here.

No shoes boogieCharlie Harris "Those tears in your eyes"Charlie Harris "No shoes boogie"


“Those tears in your eyes”


Soon after, Hendon & the Cowboys joined a number of other Houston acts – including Jerry Jericho and Hank Locklin – in the stable of Bill McCall, the canny and ruthless West Coast label owner whose long-term relationship with the legendary Houston distributor and record man Pappy Daily yeilded a number of excellent recordings on McCall’s Four Star, Gilt-Edge and associated custom and radio-play labels. From the beginning, the Cowboys’ recordings were generally issued in Four Star’s quasi-custom « X » series, but several issues also wound up being issued on the label’s main series and this saw wider distribution.

The Four Star recordings were inaugurated by another coupling that featured Charlie Harris, who was soon to leave the group. « Oh ! Mr. President » (4* X-20) was a rush-job in the spring of 1951, a rare, overtly political song dealing with the firing of General MacArthur by President Truman. This was followed by an excellent coupling that featured long-time bandmember Johnny Cooper, « The Wandering Blues » b/w « Marking time » (4* X-24).

Oh! Mr. PresidentR. D. Hendon (Charlie Harris) "Oh! Mr. President"


The wandering blues”


Eddie Noack

Cooper was soon replaced by Eddie Noack, already a veteran of the Houston recording scene and by mid-1951 the Western Jamboree Cowboys had settled into a classic lineup. Vocals were divided among Noack, Cecil « Gig » Sparks and Harold Sharp, with the two former supplying rhythm guitar and Sharp playing a sturdy lead. Don Brewer played steel, Tiny Smith played bass (Sparks and Smith had recently joined the band from Leon Payne’s group). A slew of strong recordings followed, including Noack’s classic debut, « I can’t run away » (4* 1590) , and two versions of the pretty « This moon won’t last forever ». The first version featured Harold Sharp (4* X-33) and a guest appearance of one of the song’s writers, trumpeter-bandleader Gabe Tucker, while a remake (4* 1590) marked the brief return of the peerless balladeer Charlie Harris and boasted a fiddle solo by former Floyd Tillman band mainstay Woody Carter, who joined the band for a few months during 1951-52 and was featured on the fiddle tune « Nervous Breakdown ».

R. D. Hendon (Harold Sharp) "This moon won't last forever"R. D. Hendon (Eddie & Gig) "I cant run away"
I can’t run away

This moon won’t last forever“(vocal Charlie Harris)

In late 1952 and early 1953, Hendon briefly recorded for the local Shamrock label, though he later returned to Four Star and several of the Shamrock recordings wound up being reissued on Four Star, as well, including the fantastic « Blues Boogie » (Shamrock X-13, 4* 1644) from fall 1952, which featured the twin electric
R. D. Hendon "Blues boogie"guitars of Harold Sharp and Hamp Stephens (who played the deep, boogie bass runs under Sharp’s melody lead) and the band’s new steel guitarist Chet Skyeagle. The fine guitarist Stephens had joined the band after stints with Hank Locklin and Bill Freeman’s Texas Plainsmen, both of whom recorded for Four Star. Spark’s maudlin tale of guilt « Hit and run driver » was issued only on Shamrock, while Jimmy Tyler’s fine «I Ain’t got a lick of sense » was recorded by Shamrock but issued by McCall (4* 1644) . A final Four Star release featured an unidentified vocalist (possibly Chuck Davis) on one of the more western swing orientated songs the Cowboys cut «You crazy mixed up kid » and « Talking to myself » (4* X-86). The last recordings for McCall were a group of covers of current hits issued on EP’s on the Blue Ribbon label. The sessions featured not only Harold Sharp, but also guest vocalists, fellow Four Star artists Jerry Jericho and Rocky Bill Ford. Among the covers were « Hey Joe » (Carl Smith), « For now and always » (Hank Snow), « Free home demonstration » (Eddy Arnold) and « I won’t be home no more » (Hank Williams).

Blues boogie

Ain’t got a lick of sense


R. D. Hendon "You crazy mixed up kid"You crazy mixed up kid


R. D. Hendon "Ain't got a lick of sense"Music making mama from Memphis”(vocal Eddie Noack)R. D. Hendon (vocal by Eddie) "Music making mama from Memphis"R. D. Hendon "Trademark"


Hey Joe” [vocal Jerry Jericho)

I won’t be home no more” (vocal Rocky Bill Ford)

R. D. Hendon (vocal by Eddie) "I'd still want you"I’d still want you” (vocal Eddie Noack)

Like many artists who had come to McCall via Pappy Daily, Hendon signed to Daily’s Starday label as soon as he could free himself of any contractual obligations to McCall – not easy feat in itself. From late 1954 to mid-1956, the Western Jamboree Cowboys cut four singles for Starday. Arguably not as strong across the board as the band’s previous recordings, there were still some fine moments, including Bill Taylor’s « Don’t push me. » (Starday 228) (Taylor would record for Sun Records « Split personality », with the Snearly Ranch Boys as well as working a long stint with Jimmy Heap‘s Melody Masters).

R. D. Hendon (vocal by Bill Taylor) "Don't push me (Let me fall)"

“Don’t push me”(vocal Bill Taylor)


Starday sides featured old hands like Harold Sharp and Gig Sparks, but later sides feature new bandmembers Taylor and Jack Rodgers. Hendon had a small hit in 1956 with « Lonely nights » (Starday 248) and another good tune was « Return my broken heart » (# 167).

“Bill Taylor & Smokey Jo “Split personality”R. D. Hendon "Loney nights"Bill Taylor & Smokey Jo "Split personality"

“Lonely nights”


R. D. Hendon (vocal by Harold Sharp) "Return my broken heart"Return my broken heart


Hendon’s suicide came not long after the final Starday release and occurred at a time of great musical upheaval. Rock and roll had arrived with a vengeance and it would have been interesting to see if Hendon would have managed to ride the storm of changing tastes – at the same time, the dancehall scene was being decimated by television and other factors. At any rate, Hendon was certainly game to try something new – his second Starday release found him trying his hand at singing rockabilly on the odd, uneven « Big Black Cat »(Starday 194) – although it’s obvious that Hendon was not a talented vocalist, as on the unissued-at-the-time « My old guitar » (during the song he even loses several times the tempo!).

Big black cat

R. D. Hendon "Big black cat"
My old guitar

Regardless of what might have been happened had Hendon lived beyond 1956, the half-dozen years in which the Western Jamboree Cowboys thrived remain a testament enough to Hendon and his talented crew.

Sources : the main biography went from Kevin Coffey for the Cattle CD 329 (2006), and some additions from Andrew Brown. As usual, a solid help was given by the indefatigable 78rpm-owner Ronald Keppner out of Frankfurt, Germany, thanks to him. Four Star X-20 was given by Steve Hathaway. Then my own researches and archives.

Cowboy Howard Vokes, Pennsylvania’s King of Country Music (1958-60)

cowboy howard vokes "this prison I'm in"

The Honorable ‘Cowboy’ Howard Dean Vokes is born in Clearfield, PA. on June 13, 1931. His father works in the coalmines to provide the needs of his big family, wife, 6 girls and 7 boys.
His mother handles her children in a firm education. Anytime uncles and cousins turn up at the family’s house it’s with their mandolin, harmonica and guitar. No wonder why young Howard
got his inspiration to use a broomstick as a guitar.
In this musical world, the Grand Ole Opry or the Supper Time Frolic shows fit very well the introduction to music of the multi-talented artist to come. He also lends an attentive ear to Buckshot Morgan, Rusty Herman or Slim Bryant on the local radio airwaves.

Howard started to play harmonica when only 6 years old to give it up for guitar 5 years later, right after the Vokes family set up in New Kensington, PA. in 1941.
When 15 years old, he got his first start on local shows and entertained on various radio programs such as WKPA, New Kensington or WAVL, Apollo.
A hunting accident broke his right ankle in 1948 and put him for 6 weeks in a hospital. His personal therapy is in writing songs and improve his guitar playing.
When ready he forms his first own group, The Country Boys. Together they travel throughout northern USA and some parts of Canada.

On March 1955, Wanda Jackson is in the Bradley’s Recording Studios in Nashville with a song written by the young Howard : «Tears at the Grand Ole Opry », issued on Decca 29514.

Wanda JacksonTears at the Grand Ole Opry

downloadwanda Jackson "Tears at the grand ole opry"

This same year, he puts his songwriting talents to the service of Hank King (or Russian origin: rn Papalia) for two tracks to appear on the Blue Ribbon label # 1925, « Your Atom Bomb Heart »/« I Want To Know (Why You Don’t Care For me ). They also appear on Blue Hen 223.

hank King " Your Atom bomb heart"

Hank King, “Your atom bomb heart


Also, for the Cicero, IL. based duo Denver Duke & Jeffrey Null who record in October 1955 « Hank Williams That Alabama Boy »  issued on the Blue Hen label. Jeffery Null & Denver duke "Hank Williams that Alabama boy"

Denver Duke & Jeffery Null, “Hank Williams that Alabama boy


Howard becomes their manager and main songwriter. He gets a record deal to his protégés with the Mercury label ; and he decides to handle his own career. So, in 1958 he cuts his very first single in the School House Studio in Jeanette, PA. backed by Johnny Drolz (steel), Skeets Martin (electric guitar) and Bob Rose (bass) issued as ‘Cowboy’ Howard Vokes : « Ghost Of a Honky-Tonk Slave », a pure medium honky-tonker with a strong Hank Williams influence, « This Prison I’m In »  is another honky-tonker, but slower and with a more driving vocal. Steel-guitar is omnipresent on both sides of this Del-Ray 204 single.

Canadian issue

Cowboy Howard Vokes "Ghost of a honky tonk slave"Ghost of a honky tonk slave


This prison I’m inCowboy Howard Vokes "This prison I'm in"



Real success comes with his second single : « Willie Roy, the crippled Boy », cut in 1959 in Cleveland, OH, with the same musicians as on his first record with additional help from his friend Rudy Thacker on guitar. This leads to many tours throughout the USA and TV and radio shows.

Cowboy Howard Vokes "Willie Roy, the crippled boy"

Willie Roy, the crippled boy


It’s not until 1961 that Howard meets with a second hit, « Mountain Guitar » (Del-Ray 205) after Rudy Thacker, writer of the song, cut the original version on Blue Hen 234. The great Roy Acuff also had his own version on Hickory 1134 in 1961.

Mountain guitar


Full Howard Vokes’ repertoire, recorded between 1958 and 1960, is of a high quality in an authentic and traditional sound in this shifting area.

The love I once knew“(Del-Ray 211)


“”Forever“(Del-Ray EP 250)


Tears at the Grand Ole Opry“(Mountain LP 2002)


Keep cool but don’t freeze“(Mountain LP 2002)


Down in the hollow“(Mountain LP 2002)

After 4 singles and 1 EP on Del-Ray, Howard records an album for the Starday label in Madison, TN. The session is produced by Don Pierce on August 2, 1963. 14 songs are issued on the album « TRAGEDY & DISASTERS IN COUNTRY SONGS » (Starday LP-258).

On February 1st, 1969, Howard uses the same Starday recording studios for another Country session, backed by DJ.Fontana (drums), Al Gore (flat top guitar), Jeff Newman (steel guitar), Joe « Red » Hayes (fiddle), Bill Linneman (bass). The 12 tracks appear on the « HOWARD VOKES SINGS THE SONGS OF BROKEN LOVE AFFAIRS » (Folk-Variety FV 1212).

Completely devoted to the Country Music cause, Howard Vokes remains the big promotor of this style in the state of Pennsylvania. He launches 2 labels, Vokes and Country Boy, to support new talents without forgetting the old veterans happy to get attentive ears again.

A deserved homage is paid to him in 1987 with a song written by Ray D.Jones and recorded by Mel Anderson, « The King Of Country Music In Pennsylvania » (Country Boy CB-106).


This article was originally written in French, then translated by Jack Dumery.

Johnny Nelms, a minor Houston hillbilly (1950-61)

Despite being a presence on the country music scene in Houston for over 30 years, Johnny Nelms never found the right song or right label to break out of the local honky-tonks. His long recording career included stops at Gold Star, Freedom, Starday, D, Tilt, Westry, Bagatelle, (briefly) Decca, and probably others, but none of these give the likes of Peck Touchton or Eddie Noack anything to worry about. They are decent C&W records, but nothing more. He was more successful as a club owner, pipefitter, Mason, and eventually a politician, serving in the Texas House of Representatives during the 62nd Legislature in 1971-72. When I met him in 1996, he was a bail bondsman in downtown Houston. (No, I wasn’t there to see him about bailing me out of jail.)

Peck Touchton

For my money, Nelms’ 1955 outing on the Azalea label is his finest hour. The record, made at Bill Quinn’s Gold Star Studio before it’s renovation, is pretty low-fidelity, but Johnny’s singing is great and musically, “After Today” is what ’50s honky-tonk is all about: raw, direct, and emotional…”white man’s blues,” as (ironically) a black country music fan explained to me once. The uncredited backing band here is Peck Touchton‘s Sunset Wranglers, which includes Doug Myers (fiddle), Herman McCoy (guitar), Hoyt Skidmore (steel guitar), and George Champion (piano) — the same band heard on Peck’s Starday and first Sarg session. Peck remembered Johnny very well and often played at his club, The Dancing Barn, on Houston’s East Side:

After todayJohnny Nelms "Cry baby cry"Johnny Nelms "After today"

Cry Baby Cry” (Azalea 104-B)


We were working at the Dancing Barn with Johnny Nelms [c. 1955],” Touchton said in a 1999 interview. “We worked out there a long time. The Dancing Barn was a rough damn club, too. It was on LaPorte Road. (Nelms’s) old man, his daddy, had just got out of the pen for killing a man when we were working out there. His daddy killed one or two people. At least one. You could just look at the old man and know that the old son-of-a-bitch was dangerous. There was a few knives pulled out there during that time. Even the band had fisticuffs with the crowd.

Azalea moved around a lot. Starting in Mobile, Alabama, it moved to Houston for awhile, then Dallas, and the final releases have a Fort Worth address. To make things more confusing, Nelms’ record was advertised in Billboard on July 16, 1955, with a New Orleans address. Presumably, label owner Dave Livingstone was a guy who “got around.” He was certainly tenacious, releasing 31 records over about seven years. None were hits, but there were quality outings from the Hooper Twins, James O’Gwynn, Dixie Drifters, Coye Wilcox, Adrian Roland, the Country Dudes, Joe Poovey, and Marvin Paul. The label should be of interest to anyone into ’50s Texas country music.


Nelms was born January 9, 1931 in Huttig, Arkansas (not Houston like he told me in 1996). He died at age 70 in Houston on February 17, 2001.

(from Andrew Brown and his blogsite « Wired for sound », 2009)

Johnny Nelms records – an appreciation (by bopping’s editor)

Both Gold Star 1386 (1950) sides [Note Nelms without “s”] are average Texas Country tunes, one fast (« I’ll learn ya, dern ya ») , the other slow – with minimal instrumentation, they can be forgotten. “I’m so Ashamed” was re-recorded just ten years later on “D” Records!

I’ll learn ya, dern yaNelm Johnny "I'll learn ya, dern ya"Nelm Johnny "I'm so ashamed"


« If I can’t have you » on Freedom 5018 is a pleasant little bopper (nice fiddle and a steel solo). From the 4-tracks Decca session (1951) once more nothing exceptional : 3 uptempos and a slowie. The best are « I told my heart (a lie about you) » Decca 46346) and to a lesser extent, «I’ve been lonesome before » (Decca 46381) ; the Tommy Durden written « Crossroads » had been the year before a regional hit by its author on Freedom.

If I can’t have you



Nelms Johnny "If I can't have you"

Billboard June 2, 1951

I’ve been lonesome before“(Decca 46346)

Crossroads“(Decca 46318))


Nelms Johnny "Crossroads" Nelms Johnny "I've been lonesome before"

Let’s jump to 1955 and arguably the cream of the entire Johnny Nelms output with the Azalea issue. « After today » (Azalea 104) is what hllbilly bop is all about : strong and emotional vocal over a medium paced tempo, solid backing (fiddle and steel) ; « Cry, baby cry » goes in the same vein, only adding echo for a good effect, as often in Starday records.

Billboard July 16, 1955

And deservedly Nelms’ next outing was issued on the famous yellow label, and both sides (« A tribute to Andy Anderson/Everything will be all right », Starday 238)) are very good examples of the ‘Starday sound’. It’s surely ole’ Doc Lewis tickling the ivories, and possibly Ernie Hunter who’s sewing his fiddle, plus Herby Remington on steel. Great sides of 1956, reminding certain Sonny Burns‘ or Fred Crawford‘s tunes, and very near in intensity to Azalea.

It’s interesting to note that the original of « After today » had been done in 1951 by the veteran of Honky-tonk in Houston : Jerry Irby, on the Hummingbird label (# 1001) . Included below.

Jerry Irby, “After Today”


Irby Jerry "After today"

A Tribute to Andy Anderson”

Nelms Johnny "Everything will be all right"Nelms Johnny "A tribute to Andy Anderson"Everything will be all right


Next record in 1957 on the Tilt label, and the change is significant, as for the first time Nelms imitates (consciously?) someone : Johnny Cash, for a train song, « Mr. Freight Train » (Tilt 1195). Any ‘string band’ instruments removed, sole remains a nice insistant guitar, and the result is fine. Flipside is an average slowie, « Hurt is the heart ».Nelms Johnny "Mr. Freight train"

Mr. Freight Train


Finally from 1959 to 1961, Nelms went on the Pappy Daily’s ‘D’ label, and had 4 singles of an high standard, considering the era. « Yoshe’ » and « Nelms Johnny "Yoshe'"Nelms Johnny "Half past a heartache"Nelms Johnny "I've never had the blues"Memories for a pillow » (D 1114) are uptempos, « Old broken heart » is a mid-paced inspired item, but its flipside « Half past a heartache » (D 1195) is better. « Picture of my heart » is a slowie, and « I’ve never had the blues » D 1178) is of course bluesy. (note a fine swooping piano).


Half past a heartache

I’ve never had the blues


Later on Johnny Nelms went on Stoneway, Westry, Bagatelle, among other small labels, during the late ’60s and early ’70s before turning on to Politics.

My special thanks to 78-Ron, as usual, as well as to Armadillo Killer (D labels). Some sides were taken from the HMC compilation. Thanks to Uncle Gil’s Rockin’ Archives.

The WEBSTER BROTHERS, a Bopping Bluegrass duet (1954-1962)

This Knoxville bluegrass brother group was largely overshadowed by the Brewster Brothers, with whom the siblings Audie and Earl Webster performed and recorded as part of a unit that was named with a great deal of brotherly love: the Brewster Brothers and Four Brothers Quartet. The implied confusion is enough to make one’s head spin along the lines of a deep shot of the liquor brewed in the hills above Knoxville. The band name suggests the presence of three sets of brothers, four of them related, but in reality there was only the combination of the Webster Brothers and the Brewster Brothers , totalling four. This is by no means the worst mistake in math in terms of bluegrass band names. That honor would probably go to the 7 Flat Mountain Boys, which was usually a quartet. At any rate, some bluegrass fans assume the Webster Brothers were like the Brewster Brothers in that they became prolifically recorded sidemen working in the bands of bigger bluegrass and country names, such as Carl Butler or Red Allen. This premise is normally based on the existence of players such as or Otis Webster or Jackie Webster, but neither of these old-time pickers nor any other Webster was a part of the Webster Brothers unit. Audie Webster played mandolin, guitar, and sang, while his more handsome brother Earl Webster was cut out to be a frontman, learning to handle lead vocals and rhythm guitar in order to live up to expectations. In tandem with the Brewster Brothers, it was the Webster Brothers who got to wear the light-colored suits and the former brothers got the dark stripes. Whatever meaning this might have in the bluegrass hierachy is unknown, but it seems important to mention. Singer Carl Butler, also a Knoxville lad, also formed a working combination with the Webster Brothers, cutting some records with them for Columbia, but owed no strict allegiance to the family. Butler also sang with other area brother groups, such as the Bailey Brothers – who, coincidentally appeared on the Grand Old Opry with the Brewster Brothers — and the Sauceman Brothers. In a sense, the basic concept of the lead vocal in a Knoxville bluegrass “brother” band of the ’50s can be likened to an old-time mystery: one can always assume the Butler did it. One he did with the Webster Brothers was Somebody Touched Me » a bluegrass gospel warhorse that has been cut in nearly 50 different versions.

Somebody touched me

downloadButler, Carl & the Webster Brothers "Somebody touched me"

The Webster Brothers collaboration with Carl Butler was going on for a full year, between October 1954 and November 1955 – they had already cut themselves 4 sides in March 1954 . During this term they recorded 16 sides, either on the Okeh label (a subsidiary of Columbia), or on the main label. An half was made of religious songs, well settled in Bluegrass tradition, the other included rural Boppers that had an appeal to the white market. Their best songs were : « Kisses don’t lie »/ »I wouldn’t change you if I could » (Okeh 18052)

Kisses don’t lie


I wouldn’t change you if I could


(Carl Butler lead singer), « It’s all left up to you »/ « Till the end of the world rolls around» (Okeh 18056)

“It’s all left up to you”

Webster Bros. "Till the end of the world rolls round"

Till the end of the world rolls ’round

 “Angel band” Columbia 21353, Carl Butler lead: fine vocal harmonies), the great hillbilly bopper « Road of broken hearts » (Columbia 21421) « 

Angel band


Webster Bros. "Road of broken hearts"Road of broken hearts”


Seven year blues


Seven year blues » (Columbia 21421), the good medium-paced, Hank Williams styled « Watching the clock » (Columbia 21503)(Carl Butler lead singer) and the religious « Somebody touched me » (Columbia 21563). They had one of the best accompanying teams in the country : Dale Potter on fiddle, and Ernie Newton (or Jr. Huskey) on bass.

Watching the clock

My heart won’t let me forget


Butler Carl the Webster Bros. "Watching the clock"webster Brothers, Andy & Earl "My heart won't let me forget"

Years later the Webster Brothers issued in 1962 on the Nashville Do-ra-me label (# 1432) a modern Bluegrass song, « My heart won’t let me forget». One more ’45 on the IHS label and that was it, they disappeared from music scene.

Sources : a biography by Eugene Chadbourne on AllMusic site. Ronald Keppner and 78-world for label scans. Willem Agenant (Columbia 20000 serie) for the music.