Not many gals could have made such statement in the conservative country music world of the 50’s but Charline Arthur did it. That Texas gal was stylistically far ahead of her times and was rollin’ on stage floor wearing pants when other women were still in dress playin’ rhythm guitar on family band. She was a kind of “Maverick”, and an hot item to handle, just like Elvis Presley. She brings something new on female country music and opened the way for rockin’ boppin’ teenage Janis Martin, cute Brenda Lee or for glamorous Wanda Jackson. That girl was not there to stand by her man and weep about her unfaithful honky tonkin’ husband. She sings about parties, fancy clothes, women dreams and wanted to enjoy life. If you ain’t treated her right or if you ain’t nothing but a “Hound Dog”, you can move away, wag your tail and goin’ cryin’ in your beer somewhere. Move away, skinny dog!
Charline Arthur was born Charline Highsmith in Henrietta, TX, on September 1929 in a twelve children family. The family moved soon for Paris, TX, where she grew up with a conservative background. Her father was a Pentecostal preacher and her mother was a devout churchgoer. Both played music and soon Charline will pick up soft drink bottles off the roadside in order to buy her first guitar. Her first musical inspiration came from Ernest Tubb, the Texas Troubadour. She just wanted to sing like him on that bouncing Honky-tonk style and to blend it with some Boogie Woogie feel. At fifteen, she was singing locally on KPLT radio and soon joined a travelling medicine show. Touring with that show, she will meet and marry Jack Arthur, a dog house bass player, in April 17, 1948. By then, she can play guitar and fiddle. She was also clowning on stage wearing funny clothes and blackened teeth.
By late 1949, she did her first recording session in Dallas, at the Jim Beck Studio, for Jim Bulleit. “I’ve got the Boogie Blues“, an older song she had re-worked a bit at 12 years old, backed with “Is Love a Game” was soon issued on Bullet 707. There’s a lot of bluesy style in her voice and the Boogie side move a lot. Shortly after the couple settled to Kermit, TX, were she took a job as singer and DJ on KERB radio working six days a week. On that radio station, she will write, record and produce two sides later issued on Lew Chudd’s “Imperial” record label. That record is quite scarce and, hopefully, Bear Family used “Dreaming of You” on her CD. As the record bombed, “Imperial” forgot about that Texas gal and wandered for others Lousiana Hayride and Big D Jamboree performers to record as Slim Whitman.
She was still performing on KERB, when Eddy Arnold’s manager heard her singing on air. He brought Charline to the attention of Hill & Range Music who worked a deal with RCA records. On January 1, 1953 she returned from New-York with an RCA contract and a first session was set in Dallas one month later. On that session she cut “Anything Can Happen” and “I Kept it A Secret” that will be coupled for her first RCA record. “I Kept It A Secret“, from the pen of Jessie Mae Robinson, is a sequel of her hit “Keep it A Secret“. Here Charline growled a lot, putting some of Ruth Brown‘s touch and showcase her vocal abilities. Two other songs, one being from Sheb Wooley’s pen, was held for her next release on the label.
Six months later, RCA set her first session on Nashville still with Stephen Sholes as producer. With Chet Atkins on guitar and Don Helms on steel guitar, she cut the usual four songs session. The first song of the session “Heartbreak Ahead” was coupled with a fabulous quick cover of Rudy Grayzell‘s “Looking at the Moon and Wishing on a Star” as her next record. Rudy, also from Texas, had just that song recorded in Shreveport and out on “Abbott” Records the very same month. Another cover of that real fine song was recorded by Skeets Mc Donald for “Capitol” and Wanda Jackson covered “Heartbreak Ahead” on her first LP for the same label in 1958. Later, Rudy will join “Capitol” Records too before moving for “Starday” records were he cut his legendary Rockabilly sides. Rudy was from Texas and we know of a picture of him with Charline.
Let’s get back to Charline’s session where she cut her own “I’m having a Party by Myself” and the great “He Fiddled While I Burned” from the surprising Buck Ram pen. Both songs told loud and clear her feelings and hopes. At the tail end of 1953, another Nashville session would bring us three country weepers and the classic “Leave my Man Alone” with the support of Jerry Byrd on steel guitar and Bob Moore on double bass. Hey there girl, leave my Man alone … take that advice!
1954 saw Charline touring with the RCA’s Country and Western Caravan with the Davis Sisters, Hank Snow, Chet Atkins and Hawkshaw Hawkins. The Caravan travelled between April 26th and May 9th throughout the Southern and Midwestern United States playing Charlotte, Mobile, Oklahoma City or Tulsa. On the Little Rock show, RCA sent a recording engineer who taped the show later issued on RCA EPB 3220. Here Charline sang “Anything Can Happen” and “I’m Having a Party by Myself” backed by Chet Atkins, Bob Moore and Bud Isaac. The whole show was re-issued, in 1988, on LP by Bear Family records (BFX 15276). With a colour jacket and wonderful pictures and inner notes, that LP is a must for the Country music fans.
Charline went back on studio June 15, 1954 but, that time, in Dallas WFAA radio studios. Here she was backed by young RCA recording artist Tommy Sands on guitar. She cut a Johnny Hicks’s song titled “Please Darlin’ Please” with two other country songs from her pen “Someone’s Used To Be” and “The Good and the Bad“. In that last one there is some moral ambiguity and she growls just like Wanda Jackson would use to do later. But the best song of the session is for sure “Flash your Diamonds” with those great lyrics “If you want my attention … flash you diamond and show your gold“. Not usual words for female country singer then. But I have told you already that this chick was kinda different!
With few records out, Charline will play the WSM Grand Ole Opry were she had to clean up some lyrics and became a KRLD Big D Jamboree regular. She played that Saturday nite show from 1952 to 1956 sharing the stage with Sonny James, Doug Bragg, Orville Couch, The Maddox Brothers & Rose, Joe Poovey, Jimmy Patton, Elvis and Helen Hall. Helen Hall, who passed away on 23th September 2006, was her friend and herself a fine singer and composer. She got a record on “Coral” in 1955 but, unfortunately, after a car wreck the label dropped her.
She stayed real popular on the Big D Jamboree and can be heard, with Charline, on the fabulous “Gals of the Big D Jamboree” CD issued by Dragon Street records and leased to Rollercoaster Records in UK. Charline also toured with other artists, sometimes with Louisiana Hayride package tours. She played with Elvis quite a few times in 1955 as in Lubbock (13th Feb.), Abilene (15th Feb.), Beaumont (20-21th June) or Texarkana (02th sept). She was also on the Big D Jamboree show when Elvis made his first apparition here on 16th April 1955. It’s rumoured than Elvis told Charline she was his mother’s favourite but I am dubious with that statement. But favourite of DJ’s, she was. Charline was named in best female singer category for “Country & Western Jamboree” in 1955 and for “Country Song Roundup” in 1956. She also played some major dance places as The Reo Palm Isle, in Longview, that guest 1800 people or in Odessa where she met the then unknown Roy Orbison, who hosted a TV show.
During 1955, Charline Arthur was back twice on Nashville’s studio for two sessions. On the first, in April 1955, for the first time were used the Speer Brothers who will soon help Elvis Presley on his first RCA session. That’s her who persuaded Chet to bring in a vocal group used on two songs. On “Soft Hearted Girl“, they provided a good vocal backing that went along well with Chet Atkins guitar licks and Buddy Harman drums work. On “Honey Bun“, a Johnny Hicks composition, the whole feeling is more R’n’B. Charline growled and showed some Ruth Brown and Lavern Baker influences. From the same session on “Kiss The Baby Goodnight” you will find a vocal style real close to Brenda Lee. For sure, Little Brenda Lee heard that song far before recording for “Decca“. On one interview, Elvis mentioned that song and said nicely about Charline “That’s one of the finest entertainers on stage I’ve ever seen“. For sure, she was!
Second session in September 1955, brings to us a fabulous version of “Burn That Candle” a R’n’B song recorded by The Cues for “Capitol”. Gone is the vocal group support but here Charline is rockin’ and rollin’ like hell bound train. Recorded few days after Bill Haley own cover for “Decca”, that song receive here a strong bouncy treatment who made it an essential recording and maybe his best platter. “Just Look, Don’t Touch, He’s Mine” brings the same girl advice than in “Leave my Man Alone“. That’s a good vocal performance that suffers from a poor dynamic backing. Two country songs followed that usual 4 songs session and it didn’t work out well due do Chet Atkins production. Chet always had songs he wanted her to record and didn’t want let Charline record her own compositions. To add to the problem, Charline didn’t really think Chet’s guitar picking fit her own style, so those last sessions came with tears and troubles.
Her records sales going slow not helped and 1956 would see her last session and the end of his association with RCA Victor Records. In May 1956, with the great Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland on guitar and the usual Studio B crew, she cut her last session under Chet Atkins supervision. It’s sad to hear her covering Jean Chapel “Welcome to the Club“, Mae Boren Axton composition, issued few weeks earlier on “Sun” records. Soon RCA signed Jean Chapel, a Martha Carson sister, and re-issued her Sun single on RCA. For sure, it killed Charline’s own version and lead to the end of their relations. The last song recorded is “What about Tomorrow“, a Jack Arthur composition. What a premonitory title! From there Charline was disillusioned with the music business in general.
In 1957, she recorded in her mobile home few songs from the pen of her friend Helen Hall. Two of them found their way on the Hollywood “Coin” label and they are great. “Hello Baby” is a real great song that was already recorded By Bob Luman around 1956 in Jim Beck’s studio. That recording stayed unissued until it came on a Rollin’ Rock EP with wrong composer credits. Bob Luman also borrowed another song from Helen Hall’s pen on that same session “That’s Allright“. The original title of that superb Rockabilly song is “Have It your Own Way Baby” and both songs can be heard sung by Helen Hall, backed by Jack and Charline Arthur, on the Gals of Big D Jamboree CD and they cooked. Helen may have not had many records out but her name will always stay associate with the golden days of the Big D Jamboree. The “Coin” single B-side is a Charline country song without anything special.
The late 50’s saw Charline on the road working anywhere she could get a singing job before she settled in Salt Lake City. A long time fan, nightclub and records label owner named Ray Pellum, helped her with a job at a club in Idaho where she worked until the mid 60’s. During that time she recorded periodically for “Eldorado” records and later she signed with “Republic” records and “Wytra“. She moved for Califonia and played her beautiful Gretsch guitar around San Francisco bay. By the late 70’s, she was welcomed to Ernest Tubb’s “Midnight Jamboree” in Nashville and delivered a stunning version of her classic “I’m Having A Party All By Myself“. In 1978, she retired in Idaho where she lived in a trailer, near her sister Dottie Dee, with a disability pension and performing from time to time. She said “I’m kind of like the old fire truck that Minnie Pearl sometimes talks about. I’m always ready, but seldom called for“.
Crippled by arthritis, Charline enjoyed it much when Bear Family issued her first album in 1986. That album, and the help of Richard Weize, leads me to write to her in 1987. In a letter, dated October 9, 1987, she told me about her RCA recordings and her cover of “Welcome to the Club“. Unfortunately, on those pre-internet days, we only can share snail letter. One day, I got a letter dated January 4th, 1987 from Pocatello, Idaho. It was her sister Dorothy breaking me the news of Charline’s passing on November 27, 1987. That letter said “I know she enjoyed all the mail she got from over there. She was so happy with that album. That was her dream”. Now her friend Helen Hall is gone too … So I think it was time to write about that woman and to bring it to Bob Timmers’ attention. For sure, Charline with her songs and way of life deserve to be there … in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
My last pleasure was to see her pictured on the cover of “Hillbilly and Hollywood” (The Origins of Country and Western Style) written by Debby Bull. Published in 2000 that book showed hundreds of country stars pictured in them Nudie outfits and that’s a blast. Rare black and whites pictures of Lefty, The Maddox, Hank Thompson, Webb Pierce along with colour pictures of the original clothes with bright colours satin and rhinestones. A great travel in the Country fashion and style from the 50’s. And, among those giants of the Country Music, who’s on the book cover? Charline Arthur with her pant and fringes shirt. She’s the one!
Biography, and many photos, taken from the excellent article by Dominique “Imperial” Anglares published on the Rockabilly Hall Of Fame site.(all typing/syntax mistakes corrected!)