Ernie Chaffin’s two Hickory records come from a single session on May 5, 1954 and all the songs were written by Chaffin’s longtime buddy Pee Wee Maddux. Chaffin’s defining moment came with « Feelin’ Low » on Sun in 1956, and the Hickory singles are rather mundane in comparison, although there’s no disguising the quality in his voice.
Born in Water Valley, MS on January 1, 1928, Chaffin grew up listening to the Opry, and that’s what decided to become an entertainer. In 1944, he moved to Gulfport where there were more clubs along the shoreline. He met Murphy » Pee Wee » Maddux at some point in the early ’50s, who brought Chaffin to Nashville in 1954. They met Jim Denny who introduced them to Paul Cohen [Decca/Coral Records] saying «I got a boy here sounds a little like Eddy Arnold, a little like Red Foley, a little like Marty Robbins, but not a lot like anyone. » Cohen offered a four-year deal, but Chaffin didn’t like his attitude. « Then we went to see Fred Rose and he was a different kind of person altogether. He was a fine person. Made me feel relaxed. » Hence Hickory 1016 « I’m Gonna Salt My Sugar Away/Lonely Wind ».
Ernie’s second Hickory single was another workmanlike performance, but it too lacked the magic of the best of his Sun singles. « Get Me On Your Mind » (# 1024) was the best of the four cuts, and featured a fleet little guitar solo. Fred Rose was disappointed with the sale of both singles and Hickory didn’t renew Ernie’s contract after Fred Rose’s death, so Ernie, Pee Wee Maddux and Professor Marion Carpenter started their own label, Fine Records. The Fine single (# 1010 « The Stop Look And Listen Song/The Heart Of Me») made its way to Memphis and impressed Jack Clement at Sun. The first Sun single, « Feelin’ Low » was quite simply one of the best country records of the fifties.
Feelin’ Low (Sun 262)
Chaffin began his Sun recording career with a standout performance. The instrumental instro establishes the 1-6 minor chord sequence, although the song actually begins on the 5-chord. From there it shuttles back and forth between 1 and 5 until Ernie hits the powerful line « Might as well… » and the chords run from 1 to 4 behind him. The title phrase is anticipated by a descent into the 6 minor, giving the song its catchy, almost cowboy like sound. Billboard described « Feelin’ Low » as ‘folky’ and noted that Chaffin’s voice possessed an ‘Elvisy’ character. Interestingly, Harvey’s steel solos almost always focus on single note work whereas his backup to Chaffin’s vocal returns to more conventional swelling chords. Apparently, the song garnered some unexpected pop interest in the north east states but, for whatever reason, Sun failed to capitalise on it.
In « Lonesome For My Baby », Chaffin first established the use of the flatted 7-chord in his material. We don’t have to wait too long for it. « Pretty girls all around » and we’ve slipped from A to G. The song features a repeated 1-5, 1-5 musical riff throughout that serves as every bit as much as a ‘hook’ as the title phrase.
I’m Lonesome (Sun 275)
Although Sun’s reputation is rooted in rockabilly and blues, it is hard to imagine a stronger or more beautiful country record. Once again, Ernie has drawn on the flatted 7-chord, this time in the key of D. Every element of the performance is flawless and the elements coalesce perfectly into a memorable and timeless performance. It si arguably Chaffin’s best work.
Laughin’ And Jokin’ (Sun 275)
Once again, Ernie Chaffin contributes a 1 – flatted 7 chord pattern to good effect, this time turning it into an uptempo, almost jaunty mood. Of Ernie’s first four sides for Sun, this was probably the most conventional country. The song has a wonderfully rhythmic drive, abetted by the percussive strumming of Pee Wee Maddux. Harvey helps himself to two 8-bar steel solos, played in a style that was reproducible by non-steel players. A thoughtful gesture.
Linda (not originally issued)
Sun always pushed its artists or allowed them to evolve in new directions. This is surely the most uncharacteristic track in Ernie Chaffin’s Sun repertoire and most of his fans would probably fail to identify it in a blindfold test. It is essentially a pop blues and features an appropriately bluesy vocal from Ernie. The backing is led by some equally high string guitar work and rather thin sounding rhythm section. Chaffin himself was unimpressed by this track.
The Heart Of Me (not originally issued)
This track had first been recorded (albeit in a different key) by Ernie for Fine Frecords in Biloxi, MS. The new arrangement goes beyond the distinctive rhythmic style of Chaffin’s first two outings on the Sun label and under less fortunate circumstances the entire production might have been embalmed in strings. Here it is adorned only by guitar, bass and – surprise ! – fiddle, played by Pee Wee Maddux.
I’ll Walk Alone (prevously unissued)
Here, as on « Linda », Ernie Chaffin ventures into alien stylistic territory. While Ernie turns in a melodic ballad-like vocal performance, the band offers a strongly contrasting shuffle blues. The backing track is anchored by brushwork from the drums and the piano but the highlight is the aggressive lead guitar.
Be Faithful To Me (previously unissued)
Sometimes it is best not to look too deeply into the vaults. This rather tedious ballad might have been used if Ernie’s career had even taken him into the Las Vegas lounge act circuit. The piano solo says it all.
Got You On My Mind (previously unissued)
By contrast, this unissued track is an out-and-out delight. It’s obviously a demo, a simple vocal/guitar version of a delightful melodic country tune. Maybe the lyrics needed a little polishing but the innate drive and joy of the effort transcend the technical limitations.
Born To Lose (Sun 307)
After Sun 275, it took over eighteen months for Sun to release another single on Ernie. Unfortunately, the product was not worth the wait.
There was certainly nothing wrong with the song. Ted Daffan had composed it during the early years of WWII, and later copyrighted it under his mother’s maiden name.
(Nothing Can Change) My Love For You (Sun 307)
This was another maudlin excursion that probably said a lot about the way Jack Clement perceived the country market in 1958.
Miracle Of You (alternate, unissued)
This is the bed-track for the song which appeared on one side of Ernie’s final outing. It is a pleasant but undistinguished pop-country ballad although Ernie’s distinctive vocal style retrieves some country interest.
Please Don’t Ever Leave Me (Sun 320)
What a joyous surprise to have Ernie depart from Sun in a style every bit as memorable as his arrival – perhaps even more countrified. After the pop expermiments and excesses, « Please Don’t Ever Leave Me » was a blessed return to fundamentals. Ernie’s vocal is unadorned country and Ernie Harvey’s work is mainstream country steel guitar.
After Sun, Ernie moved through a number of small labels. « Hank Williams once told me that I’d never make it big because I let my music come after my family. I always felt like to Lord came first, my family came second, and my music third. » Most of Ernie’s later recordings were gospel cassettes, and sadly he died following a tractor accident on his farm in 1997. His longtime musical cohort, Pee Wee Maddux, committed suicide shortly afterwards.
On Village Records (# 7778, 1962), Ernie Chaffin offers a strong pop-country rocker, « Set ’em Up Joe », backed by a weepy ballad (« Spare Me The Details ». All in all, a forgettable disc, although it stayed several weeks on New Orleans charts..
The analysis of the Sun sides was made by Hank Davis for the boxset « Sun Country ». The story of the Hickory deal come from Martin Hawkins’ « A Shot In he Dark » book.