At 1 :30 on Wednesday afternoon, October 22, 1952, newly signed RCA Victor recording artist Curtis Gordon began his first session at Brown Brothers in Nashville, with RCA A&R man Steve Sholes presiding. Three of his own band members joined him in the studio : fiddler Charles Mitchell, pianist Curly Gainous and bass player Slick Gillespie. Rounding up the band were three of Nashville’s early studio A-team : guitarist and Sholes protege Chet Atkins, singer and rhythm guitarist Eddie Hill and steel guitar virtuoso Jerry Byrd.
For Gordon, landing a deal with RCA, the label of Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow, was a major break. A regional performer who mainly worked south Georgia and north Florida and did occasional national tours, he fit into the honky-tonk sound in vogue at the time. It didn’t matter that he had no national home base like the Opry or Louisiana Hayride. He was a regional favorite around Georgia, Alabama and Florida, and in those days major labels didn’t shy away from signing such acts, hoping to break them nationally.
Born in July 27, 1928 on a farm near Moultrie, Gordon spent his boyhood drinking in music. « Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills were two of my favorites.(…) Ernest Tubb was really my idol until I got into Bob Wills. » Soon enough, Gordon was trying to sing locally, winning a talent show sponsored by a Moultrie radio station.
His drive to perform never diminished as a teenager, though temporaly affected his education. « I went to Gulfport, Mississipi and worked with a little band at a radio station for six or eight months until my folks brought me back and put me in school » he says. Gordon also made early contacts with a fellow Moultrie resident following his own musical road : fiddler Ivy J. Bryant, years from his metamorphosis into premiere country-jazz guitarist Jimmy Bryant.
Even though Gordon’s folks brought him back from Gulfport to attend high school, he continued developing his performing talents with Pee Wee Mills and the Twilight Playboys around the area and on their program on Moultrie’s WMGA radio. Finally, on January 1, 1949 Gordon organized his own band. Starting around southern Georgia and northern Florida, he had enough work to keep him going. In June 1952, he and the band appeared in a talent contest at Atlanta’s Tower Theater. Impressed, RCA Victor’s Atlanta distributor Sam Wallace recommended Gordon to Steve Sholes, who signed the singer shortly after that. Around July, he joined the Mobile, Alabama’s ‘Dixie Barn Dance’, on the small country stage shows in the tradition of the Opry and the Louisiana Hayride.
Making Mobile his base of operations, by October of 1952 he’d opened his first Radio Ranch nightclub, which became one of the major country music outlets in the region. Over the next four decades, he’d also own three other Radio Ranches (a copyright name) in Thomasville, Albany and Moultry, Georgia.
That busy month was capped by that RCA session on the 22nd. Whatever Gordon planned to record at hat first session, Steve Sholes, as usual, had his own ideas. Seeing Gordon as a potential ballad singer, he directed the session that way, having him record What’s A Little Pride and The Greatest Sin. Both were penned by Cy Coben, whose songs (both good and lousy) wound up being recorded by many RCA artists. At the same session, Gordon did better with the strutting Jack Toombs-Vic McAlpin ditty You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, featuring bouncy guitar from Chet and Gainous’s competent honky tonk piano. Jack Toombs’ If You Tell Me One More Lie indicates Sholes had ideas to position Gordon to be another Lefty Frizzell.
Though Sholes encouraged artists to submit numbers for consideration on sessions, more often than that, he turned to the folks at Hill and Range for material, a sweetheart deal that resulted in many RCA artists recording great tunes but an awful lot of crap. While some artists, Hank Penny and Grandpa Jones among them, openly fought the producer over material, others, including Johnny Lee and Luke Wills, acquiesced but privately griped over the dross Sholes forced them to cut. Gordon felt differently. « I could go in to a session and we’d have some songs picked out and Steve and them picked up material, and they’d come in with another song and they’d say, « Let’s do this one here », and we’d have to whip it up in a hurry. It didn’t bother me that Steve picked material because I had a lot of respect for Steve Sholes being a great producer. »
Gordon chuckled over one memory of that first session involving fiddler Mitchell. « C.M. Mitchell and me were doin’ one of those songs and we had Chet there and he said « What you want me to play ? » And Mitchell said, « Play a chorus like Merle Travis ! » then he realized what he’d said, and it just flipped him out. »
By 1952 Gordon had visited Bryant in Southern California and the chance to appear on Cliffie Stone’s ‘Hometown Jamboree’, the well-known local TV show starring Tennessee Ernie Ford. His connection was Jimmy Bryant, by then the top country studio guitarist on the West Coast, known for his work with pedal steel pioneer Speedy West on such Tennessee Ernie hits as The Shot Gun Boogie and I’ll Never Be Free and in Hometown’s staff band. Gordon enjoyed the vacation and the chance to perform. « I was just a little old country boy, which I still am, and to me that was the greatest thing in my life. When I first met Tennessee Ernie Ford, and I was stayin’ with Jimmy. »
Gordon wasn’t back to record until May 18, 1953. RCA, still lacking their Nashville facilities, this time utilized the little-known Thomas Productions. With Sholes again in charge, Eddie Hill was back to play rhythm guitar. Otherwise, the session utilized Gordon’s own band including pianist Gainous, bassist Gillespie, and steel player Freddie Calhoun, clearly influenced by Jerry Byrd and Speedy West. Instead of C.M. Mitchell, the studio band featured the dynamic, explosive Nashville studio fiddler Dale Potter.
At the session, he recorded Pee Wee Maddux’s nondescript Rocky Road Of Love
and the slightly risqué Where’d Ja Get So Much Of, a sassy, Jimmy Dickens flavored novelty co-written by Porter Wagoner and George Earls with a swinging hard-bowed fiddle break from Potter and jazzy piano from Gainous. Surprinsingly, Sholes allowed the singer to cut two of his own songs : the ballad I Just Don’t Love You Anymore and Rompin’ And Stompin’, the latter influenced by Louis Jordan’s Saturday Night Fish Fry and Hardrock Gunter’s 1951 country boogie hit Birmingham Bounce. The band was more than up to the task, as Calhoun kicked in Speedy West bar-crashes, Gillespie walked his bass and Potter played a scintillating break.
Country boogie, which held sway from the late forties into the early fifties, was a bit passé at this point. Nonetheless, Rompin’ was a strong performance, Gordon’s vocal brimming with character and fire, and proving a point that of the 16 songs he recorded for RCA, the fast numbers were consistently the strongest. In this case, though it didn’t chart nationally, it clearly impressed RCA. Sholes brought him back for another session to Thomas Productions on September 28, 1953 with Gillespie and Gainous along with Potter, Hill and steel guitarist Walter Haynes, then a member of Little Jimmy Dickens’ road band, the Country Boys.
With Rompin’s success in mind, Sholes, who’d pushed Gordon into a Lefty mode on that first session in 1952, decided to emphasize the uptempo numbers. From Georgia country artist Cotton Carrier came I’d Do It For You, a pleasant number in the vein of Carl Smith’s faster material as was Boudleaux Bryant’s Tell ‘Em No. You Crazy, Crazy Moon was a ballad that hewed closely to Smith’s ballad singing. Not everything succeeded. The corny, medium-tempo Little Bo-Peep, written by Tommy ‘Butterball’ Paige, Ernest Tubb’s lead guitarist, was more suited to the sentimental vocal side of Moon Mullican.
Throughout this time, Gordon was not just working around his home area, but touring America as part of package shows, leaving his band behind.
Though Gordon’s singles sold enough to sustain his contract, nothing came even close to the national charts. His final RCA session at Thomas’s took place on February 22, 1954. He used nearly all of the band on this date including Gainous, Slick Gillespie and guitarists Hugh Harrell and C.L.Hare. The studio players included Chet Atkins, whose fortunes were rising as the New York-based Sholes depended on him to organize Nashville sessions. The steel player was the dynamic pedal steel pioneer and RCA artist Bud Isaacs, whose playing on Webb Pierce’s hit recording of Slowly established the instrument in Nashville.
Sholes returned to the ill-fated gambit of having Curtis parrot the style of others. As a result, his version of Hank Thompson’s I’d Like To Tell You came off as a generic rip-off of Thompson. Detour composer Paul Westmoreland’s Caffeine And Nicotine got an arrangement lifted lock, stock and barrel from the Carlisles’ Mercury recordings and their hit, No Help Wanted. Everything from the Bill Carlisle-inspired, frenetic vocal, rhythm guitar with paper through the strings and the Atkins guitar solo (he played on the Carlisles’ sessions), was clearly aimed at that audience. Divided Heart, a Chuck Wilson number, was an inconsequential ballad. One exception to the rule was the revival of Rompin’ And Stompin’s spirit with Baby, Baby Me, a boogie with sharply focused solos from Isaacs and Potter.
When The RCA contract ended, Gordon wasn’t particularly bitter. He had learned how to handle himself in a recording studio, « We never did any real big ones. All of them did good enough to keep me on the label », he told in 1986.
The mass audience may not have known Gordon, but others still saw potential in him. In December, 1954, A&R man Dee Kilpatrick signed him to Mercury Records. For the most part, the music recorded here was far more satisfying than at RCA. For one thing, many of the songs were Gordon originals, though a few songs were pushed on him. The first Mercury date was done shortly after his signing at an early studio owned by Owen Bradley. Using members of his own band, including guitarist Dusty Stewart, steel guitarist Freddie Calhoun, Slick Gillespie, Curly Gainous and C.M.Mitchell, Gordon recorded Don’t Trade, an Eddie Noack ballad done in waltz time. The bizarre instrumental Chopstick Mambo, the kind of thing Sholes might have pressed on him had it had lyrics, reflected a dance craze of the moment.
In 1955, Gordon and his band recorded another session, supplemented by Buddy Emmons, a gifted young steel player from Indiana who had just replaced Walter Haynes in Little Jimmy Dickens’ Country Boys. Gordon recorded two songs by a new composer/singer named Bobby Bare : Our Secret Rendezvous and Baby Please Come Home, a pleasant, uptempo honky-tonker. In early 1956 Gordon did another session with a similar band (Chet Atkins on lead guitar) that yielded Hey Mister Sorrow, Too Young To Know and Play The Music Louder.
By 1956, Elvis Presley was sweeping the nation. While many in country were bewildered by him, Gordon knew him well, having met (and booked) him the previous year. (…) Elvis was certainly on Dee Kilpatrick’s mind when he called Gordon to Nashville in March, desperate to get something resembling rock on record as soon as he could. Presley’s success was causing a crisis,since conventional country records – honky tonk tunes with fiddle and steel guitar – were suddenly sounding old and corny. Radio began rejecting those kinds of records, and Kilpatrick needed Gordon to record something that rocked. The singer showed up at Bradley Film and Recording, the first studio on what’s now called Music Row, with three of his musicians : steel guitarist Al Murray, Stewart and Slick Gillespie. The Nashville studio element again included Eddie Hill and drummer T. Tommy Cutrer.(…)
Four rockabilly compositions came out of this session, many of them featuring Murray’s futuristic, unorthodox steel guitar, in the Speedy West tradition. Draggin’ was a hot-rod race ditty with Sun-style slapback echo and tough Scotty Moore-inspired lead guitar, Gillespie slapping the bass in the style of Bill Black. Hearing Elvis, Scotty and Bill at Radio Ranch obviously left its mark given the authoritative accompaniment from the band. Rock, Roll, Jump and Jive combines a driven beat with searing lead guitar. Surprisingly, Mercury never issue it or Sittin’ On Top Of The World. Gordon adapted the old blues to rockabilly with stinging Moore-style guitar from Stewart and strong rhythm. Mobile, Alabama, a prideful rocker about Gordon’s adopted hometown, has become a favorite of rockabilly revivalists, one that also afforded the chance to hear more of Murray’s rolling steel.
Gordon did part of his time with Mercury while serving a hitch in U.S. Army Special Services as part of the Circle-A Wranglers. This Army country band had been fronted by Faron Young during his early 1950s Army hitch. While in the band, Gordon met an aspiring Oklahoma singer-musician named Roger Miller. « …) I heard him play and I said ‘How ‘bout you comin’ to play fiddle for us ?’ And he didn’t think he wanted to. I think he was kind of afraid if he messed up (that the Army would) ship him overseas or somewhere. And he finally agreed to do it (…) and played fiddle with the Circle-A Wranglers for a long time (…) »
In early 1957, Curtis traveled to Houston, (probably) to Gold Star Studios, where Pappy Daily, the legendary Texas record producer who co-founded Starday Records and discovered George Jones (now a Mercury artist) was to produce Gordon. With Mitchell on fiddle and, he recalled, Noel Boggs on steel guitar, he recorded three originals : So Tired Of Crying, an uptempo song in a mode between Hank Williams and George Jones, whose influence permeated One Blue Moon, One Broken Heart. Those, as well as Out To Win Your Heart, were penned with Jimmy Townsend.
In October, 1957, Gordon headed to Nashville for his final Mercury session, Pappy Daily again producing. During the trip, he had a surprise reunion with Roger Miller that had far-reaching implications for the budding singer-songwriter.
« A couple months after he got out (of the Army) I was goin’ into Nashville to record. When I got to the Andrew Jackson hotel, the bellboy was Roger. We grabbed each other and was glad to see each other, and I said ‘Come up to the room, man. I’m here to record.’ So Roger came up to my room and we sat up all night writin’ songs, we wrote two or three songs. I told Roger that night, ‘I’m cuttin’ tomorrow and I want you to go with me.’ So we went down and Pappy Daily was cuttin’ George Jones, and I carried Roger down there and introduced him to Pappy Daily. Pappy Daily signed him to a writer’s contract and things went boomin’ for him right on. »
Surprisingly, for Gordon’s last Mercury date, he was finally recording with Nashville’s true A-team, including Hank Garland and Chet Atkins on guitars, bassist Bob Moore, pianist Floyd Cramer, Eddie Hill on rhythm guitar and probably Buddy Harmon on drums. This time, all numbers except Cry, Cry were Gordon originals. Cry, Cry was a down and bluesy ballad. Sixteen, an original ballad penned by Curtis and his wife, was aimed at the teenage market with Garland contributing juicy lead guitar. Curtis had someone in mind for Cry, Cry. « I wrote the song for Tommy Sands. I thought I could do it and Mercury said ‘Hey, why don’t you do it ? » He had someone in mind when he wrote the bluesy, raw Please, Baby, ,Please : Fats Domino…,who denied cutting the song. Instead, Gordon recorded it with Roger Miller and one Windy Wade singing backup on the session. The final song recorded at the session was I wouldn’t, a Gordon-Roger Miller tune.
No matter how much Gordon toured, Radio Ranch remained home base. (…) Looking back in 1998, Gordon reflected realistically about his overall success on records. « If I had to choose a favorite one of the whole bunch it’d have to be ‘Rompin’ And Stompin’ » he concluded.(…) He also had some luck with his compositions. In 1980 George Jones recorded Gordon’s I’ve Aged Twenty Years, on his « I Am What I Am » LP, though Curtis’s own mid-80s recordings for the tiny Duke of Country label in Nashville went nowhere. Gordon remained busy at the Radio Ranch in Moultrie thoughout the 1980s, as rockabilly revivalists rediscovered his RCA and Mercury material.(…)
In the mid 1990s, after fifty years of performing, Gordon, still happily married to wife Grace, retired from performing and the nightclub business in order to relax – most of the time. Nonetheless, in February, 1998, he was heading back to England, where he previously scored with audiences when he appeared with the Collins Kids, amazed that European fans remember the lyrics of old records that at the time, were ignored by the masses. « I wanted to retire. I’ve been in it so long and I got so many other things I would like to do but I love to play. I disbanded about three years ago. I still play other clubs but not regular. I go out and play clubs that have house bands. Rest of the time I’m tied up with a plantation out there with a beautiful lake, log cabin. I still love to ride horses and hunt. Never smoke or drank. I don’t believe in doing something that’s harmin’ your health. »
In a country music industry run by music consultants, radio and media consultants and accountants, rock’n’roll refugees and arrogant Nashville superstars who try to run their record companies, Curtis Gordon remain a vital link to country’s simpler, sweeter past. He summarized his career simply in 1986, a benediction that still holds today. « I hope I contributed a little bit to country music. It’s been my whole life. »