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 boogie« 

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« Those tears in your eyes »

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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. President« 

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« The wandering blues »

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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 ».


« I can’t run away »

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

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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
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 »

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« Ain’t got a lick of sense« 

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« You crazy mixed up kid »

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« Music making mama from Memphis »(vocal Eddie Noack)

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« Hey Joe » [vocal Jerry Jericho)

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

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« I’d still want you » (vocal Eddie Noack)

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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).

« Don’t push me »(vocal Bill Taylor)

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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 »

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« Lonely nights »

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« Return my broken heart »

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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 »

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« My old guitar« 

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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.

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 today« 

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« Cry Baby Cry » (Azalea 104-B)

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« 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 ya« 

 

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« 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 »

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Billboard June 2, 1951

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« I’ve been lonesome before« (Decca 46346)

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« Crossroads« (Decca 46318))

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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 »

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« A Tribute to Andy Anderson »

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« Everything will be all right« 

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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 ».

« Mr. Freight Train »

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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 « 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).

« Yoshe’ »

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« Half past a heartache »

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« I’ve never had the blues« 

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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« 

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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 »

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« I wouldn’t change you if I could »

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(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 »

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« Till the end of the world rolls ’round »

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

« Angel band »

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« Road of broken hearts »

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« Seven year blues »

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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 »

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« My heart won’t let me forget« 

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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.

Freddie Frank, bopping in Texas (Abbott, Starday, Permian: 1953-1961)

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. 

« 12,000 Texas Longhorns« 

Billboard March 7, 1953

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« Off to parts unknown« 

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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. 

Freddie Frank « Red blue jeans and a pony tail »

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Gene Vincent & the Blue Caps « Red blue jeans and a pony tail« 

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Freddie Frank « Five days, five days »(possibly)

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Gene Vincent & his Blue Caps « Five days, five days »

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Freddie Frank « Trying to be my baby »

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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.

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Gypsy heart »

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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),

« This old rig« 

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«  »On the bayou tonight »

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and nothing exceptional. The second issue, billed « Freddie Frank and the Lone Star Cowboys »(# 1002), even faster than «This old rig » is a tour-de-force both for Freddie and the steel player, who makes prowesses. « Another woman looking for a man » is written by Hayes, possibly one of the family (Joe, Leon or Kenneth) and such a track reminds one of Skeets McDonald‘s best honky tonkers a few years earlier, or Sonny Burns’ songs in his best moments.

a very old Freddie

« Another woman looking for a man »

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Flipside « So alone inside » remains untraced, while Permian 1004 is once more a fantastic two-sided bopper. Energetic voice well to the fore, fine fiddle and a rollicking steel for « Tool pusher from Snyder », revived from Slim Willet‘s original issue (1951) ten years earlier on the Star Talent label (# 770). The final side « Haywire Jones » (written also by Slim Willet and published in 1959 on Winston 1040), although a little quieter, is equally a very nice bopper in the George Jones vein. The Permian label also published Earl Montgomery (regular bassist on Winston Slim Willet issues) and Bill Massey (unheard).

Slim Willet « I’m a tool pusher from Snyder »

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Freddie Frank « Tool pusher from Snyder

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Freddie Frank « Haywire Jones »

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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.

Cliff Carlisle, Blues yodeler and steel guitar wizard – some selections

Cliff Carlisle (1904-83)

A blues with a yodel : it may not sound much now, but in the 1920s a lot of careers were carved out of that curious amalgam. Jimmie Rodgers started it, and after him went Gene Autry, or Jimmie Davis, or Cliff Carlisle. The latter yodeled the longest and the best.

Raised in the countryside outside Louisville, Kentucky, Carlisle would say later : « My music is a cross between hillbilly and blues – even Hawaïan music has a sort of blues to it. » Teaming first in the early Thirties with the singer-guitarist Wilbur Ball, he went on the vaudeville tent show circuit, and afterwards he told they had actually been the first yodeling duet.

Then in 1930 he recorded in a Jimmie Rodgers vein (« Memphis yodel »), but with a distinctive touch on the Dobo resonator steel guitar. At this point he was also making a name on Louisville stations (WHAS and WLAP), billing himself and Ball as the « Lullaby Larkers ». That’s how his career took off.

In 31 or 32, he was in New York, extending his own port-folio, and recalling Jimmie Rogers singing a number about a rooster : « What makes a Shanghai crow at the break of day ? To let the Dominicker hen know the head man’s on his way.. » Ralph Peer wouldn’t let him record that, because it was kind of a risqué tune at that time, but finally he let Carlisle go. Hence « Shanghaï rooster yodel n°2 ».

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In 1932 Carlisle was working solo, but in the years that followed he was often partnered by his younger brother Bill. On one of their records they even staged a fight over who would do what. « Hold it, buddy, » says Cliff indignantly as Bill starts to yodel. « This is my « Mouse’s ear blues », and I’ll do the yodeling. » It isn’t the only unusual feature. « Moose’s ear blues » is, probably uniquely in the corpus of recorded hillbilly music, a song about defloration. « My little mama, she’s got a mouse’s ear, but she gonna lose it when I shift my gear. »

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By the mid-’30s, when he was working on WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina, and recording for Bluebird and Decca, Cliff was making a fair bid to corner the hillbilly disc market in sniggery songs about roosters and ashcans (there was an occasional double entendre loitering in this vicinity), and humorously violent tales of marital discord like « Hen pecked man », « Pay day fight » or « A wild cat woman and a tom cat man », where Cliff’s boisterous flights of fancy are powered by the twin engines of his Dobro and Bill’s inventive flat-picked guitar. By the end of the decade he had been on four record labels and made almost 200 sides. He and Bill had a cross-section of country music just prior to WWII. So it was hardly surprising that their family group, the Carlisles, with various sons and dauhters, was popular on the Grand Ole Opry and had hits in the ’50s with « Too old to cut the mustard » and « No help wanted ».

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In the mid-’50s Cliff retired to a quiet life of painting, fishing and church work. He did the occasional comeback on not very memorable albums for small labels, even reuniting with Wilbur Ball and playing for college audience or folk festivals.

(Freely adapted from the chapter devoted to Cliff Carlisle in Tony Russell’s « Country music originals – The legends and the lost »)

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Here are some selections of Carlisle’s work in very different styles.

From 1932, backed by a wild slapping-bass, for the evergreen « Goin’ down the road feelin’ bad ».

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Accompanied by two guitars (Bill Carlisle) and a string-bass for « That nasty swing » from 1936.

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In January 1947, from one of his last recording sessions, with his Buckeye Boys and for a song very close to Bill Monroe‘s « Rocky road blues » (February 1945), «A mean mama don’t worry me ».

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Recommended listening, if you can find them: Cliff Carlisle volume 1 & 2 on Old Timey 103 & 104.

MACK HAMILTON & his Drifting Texans: « I’m a honky tonk daddy » (1953-54)

Nothing at all is known about MACK HAMILTON, (not even a picture), except he came probably from the Gulf, between Port Arthur, a mere 90 miles East of Houston, TX, and nearby Louisiana. And that is asserted only by the location of the two record labels he got to wax on between 1953 and 1954.

His first ever record was cut in Port Arthur for the Diamond Recording Company in 1953. To add much more confusion, a Diamond diskery was active during this period, which emanated from Beaumont, TX (on the Gulf too) and issued Country records, for example one by Morris Mills (Diamond # 101, « Jumbalaya answer« ), a rather prolific regional artist (also 4* and Macy’s). Although you may say it’s the same company with two locations, which has nothing to do with two other Diamond Co. in New York. This « Diamond Recording Company » was also a short-lived concern with only two issues, one therefore by Mack Hamilton (vocal and guitar): (Diamond CW-1001/1002) : the lugubrious mid-tempo « Moaning in the morning » (fiddle and steel prominent) and the self-conscious very Hank Williams styled « Sweet little Rosebud », a solid bopper, with even a short accordion solo, but steel and fiddle are once more well present.

Billboard, 31 October 1953

« Moaning in the morning »

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« Sweet little Rosebud »

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The second issue of the label was cut by Roland (R.A.) Faulk, as « Roland and his Rythm Boys » (sic). Sides CW 1003/1004 : « Send

me someone/I’d own the world ». are pleasant waltz tempo hillbillies. Nothing special, except a heay bass, a steel and a good piano and guitar. The singer is firm and confident : he was active on the Port Arthur area, and was to record in October 1956 the great Rockabilly « My baby’ gone » on Big State 592, a Starday custom, out of Port Acres, TX.(valued $ 700). But I am wandering from Mack Hamilton.

« Send me someone »

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« I’d own the world« 

Roland (R.A.) Faulk, « My baby’s gone »

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His next offerings were commited to wax in late 1953 for the Feature label, which was located in Crowley, La. and run by J.(Jay) D. Miller. Hamilton’s sides however were recorded at radio KTRM in Beaumont, TX. seemingly as a 4-tracks session. Backing Hamilton were Rusty (guitar) and his brother Doug Kershaw on fiddle, plus Louis Fourneret on steel. The tracks included two great Boppers : « I’m a honky-tonk daddy », completely Hank Williams styled with thudding bass and hot steel (Feature 1087A), and in the same pattern, « Will you will or will you won’t ?» (Feature 1095A).

« I’m a honky-tonk daddy »

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« Will you will or will you won’t? »

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« In a world without you »

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« A girl with too many sweethearts »

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Less fast were the flipsides, although very good on their part : the weepers mid-tempo « In a world without you » and « A girl with too many sweethearts ». And that was it. J. D. Miller wrote every Feature song, and must have had faith in « I’m a honky-tonk daddy », because he offered it to Wink Lewis on the very following number (# 1088). Lewis did a great version too. Later on he cut the great piano led Rockabilly « Zzztt, zzztt, zzztt » on the Texas Tone label (with Buzz Busby & his Band). I am wandering once more from Mack Hamilton, but there’s no more to relate about him : he disappeared completely from the music scene.

Wink Lewis, « I’m a honky-tonk daddy« 

Billboard Sept. 8, 1956

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Wink Lewis, « Zzztt, zzztt, zzzttt« 

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Notes : with great help from Ronald Keppner (Diamond recordings); notes by Bruce Bastin for Flyright vol. 19 (557) « Bayou boogie » ; my own archives.