Born Jess Willard Griffin, 28 March 1916, Washburn, Texas.?Died 26 May 1959, Auburn, California.
I must admit that I had never heard of Jess Willard before the release of his Bear Family CD in 2000. Though he recorded for a major label (Capitol), Willard always remained an obscurity and is ignored by the country music encyclopedias.
Jess was named after the boxer Jess Willard, who won the world championship heavyweight in 1915. Born in a small town in West Texas, he was one of seven children. His two big musical influences were his father, a skilled guitarist who passed onto his son his love for Western music and his technical ability, and his best friend, singer Jack Guthrie (1915-1948), whose early death was a great shock to Jess. By then Willard was living in Los Angeles where he began to appear with Ole Rasmussen and his western swing band. It was while sitting in with Rasmussen at Harmony Park Ballroom, singing Jack Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills” (a # 1 country hit in 1945), that he was heard by Lee Gillette, then head of Capitol’s country department. Gillette signed him to Capitol and produced Willard’s first session, on June 14, 1950, in Hollywood. When Capitol decided to put Gillette in their pop division, his A&R hillbilly position on the West Coast was taken over by Ken Nelson, who would produce all subsequent Capitol sessions by Willard. Gillette and Nelson noticed that Jess had trouble staying in tune on slow songs, but his vocal limitations were less apparent on up-tempo material. Most of his recordings are good-time honky tonk country, with a touch of western swing. As Jess was no great songwriter, Capitol seemed to regard him at first as a vehicle for covers of other’s hits (like Lefty Frizzell‘s “If You’ve Got the Money Honey“), but from his third session on, Willard sought original material from friends like Tex Atchison (a fiddler in Rasmussen’s band) and Eddie Hazelwood. They were the writers of “Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor” (recorded on May 3, 1951, Capitol 1562), probably Willard’s main claim to fame, especially after it was revived by Johnny Horton at the end of 1957 (Columbia 41110), and, in a more Rock’n’Roll mould, by Clyde Stacy in 1958 (Bullseye 1008). This song is still sung today. A ’90s very modern version was done by Tim O’Brien.
The Capitol recordings benefited greatly from the work of well-known West Coast session men like Jimmy Bryant, Speedy West and Cliffie Stone, and from humourous lyrics (“My Mail Order Mama“, “Turn That Gun Around“, for instance), but none of Willard’s 13 Capitol singles made any significant commercial impact. After a session in September 1952, his Capitol contract was not renewed and Jess would not record again for three years. In the summer of 1953, Willard and Eddie Hazelwood headed to Korea to entertain troops, followed by a four and a half month tour of the Far East.
In 1954 Jess befriended Hank Cochran, who was working in duet with teenage guitarist and future rock ‘n’ roll star Eddie Cochran. Though they were unrelated, the duo billed themselves as the Cochran Brothers. In 1955, the Cochrans toured northern California with Willard, then joined him for a time as members of the California Hayride in Stockton. Jess recorded Hank’s “Every Dog Has His Day” and his own “Don’t Hold Her So Close” for the Ekko label in Hollywood, with possible lead guitar from Eddie – although I (Xavier) don’t really recognize his usual style. The lead guitar would then be played by Hank. A fine record, issued in October 1955 (Ekko 1018), but unfortunately it would remain Willard’s only Ekko release.
When the Cochrans split and left the Hayride, Willard stayed, settling in Auburn, near Sacramento. He was a popular local radio personality and recorded two one-off singles for small labels (Kay-Hi 127 : « I’m Telling You », 1957, and Sundown – « Cops and Robbers », still untraced- 1959) before he died of a heart attack on May 26, 1959, at the age of only 43. Willard was, as Hank Cochran put it, “solid country … no pretense at all. He was as down to earth as you can get.” In the late 1970s, some of his recordings were rediscovered by country fans, and one track, “Honky Tonkin’ All the Time” was included on a Charly anthology in the early 1980s. Had he been alive, Willard would probably be amazed that people are still listening to his music in the 21st century.
(biography taken from Blackcat Rockabilly Europe and written by Dik De Heer – reproduced with permission)
Jess Willard is always at his best with medium up-tempo songs. Name « Cadillac Blues » from his penultimate Capitol session of February 25, 1952. Willard has that distinctive nasal pronunciation, prettily backed by the lead guitar playing of Walt McCoy (already an artist by himself on Crystal records. His « Cowboy Boogie » is to be found on Boppin’ Hillbilly vol. 16), and the steel guitar of Leodie Jackson (also an artist of his own, known for « Steeling The Blues“ or « Double Crossin’ Mama », the latter to be found on the 2001 « Swinging West vol. 2» compilation). Noticeable also is his fine version of « New Panhandle Rag », recently (early 1950) originally done by Webb Pierce on Pacemaker (see elsewhere in this site for Webb Pierce’s early disks). For this version, a fine instrumentation does include harmonica (Jerry Adler), the renowned Tex Atchison (he would later co-write « Honky Tonk HardwoodFloor ») on fiddle, and a very inspired Jimmy Bryant on lead guitar ; the whole being propelled by the solid bass of Cliffie Stone. Indeed his best known track is « Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor », with his tap dance sounds, bar-room styled piano, and on the whole its very easily evocative atmosphere of a early ’50s honky tonk. I like very much what is in my mind his best recording session ever, of September 1951 : songs like the two amusing « Turn That Gun Around » (Capitol 1855) and « My Mail Order Mama » (# 1963)(co-written by none other than Mar-Vel’s label Bob Burton’s lead-guitar player Ronnie Durbin, out of Indiana), Willard’s own « Truck Driver’s Boogie » (co-written with guitarist Walt McCoy, who does a superb job here), ; this song has nothing to do with the Milo Twins‘ 1947 song of the same name. Finally from this session, I like particularly « Mistreated Blues » (# 1855) with its line « Nobody wants me to be their darling – I’ve got those lonesome mistreated blues » and always an impressive backing on a slowish uptempo number.
Considering both Ekko sides, they are fine uptembo hillbilly bop songs, Willard in fine form, in front of a sympathetic backing. Everybody in the studio seems to feel relax and enjoy doing their job.
Big Allan Turner, out of England, did fortunately put his hands on a two-sided test pressing of songs, already unissued elsewhere, and published on his site (www.hillbillyresearcher.blogspot.com). They are really demonstration songs: “Please Believe In Me” and “It’s A Sin“, with sparse instrumentation (steel, lead guitar barely audible and bass), and otherwise would have deserved a full backing. No composer credits. Maybe Willard did intend to use them for knocking at another label’s door ?
Finally the Ka Hi issue, “I’m Telling You” (flipside unknown – this song has been reissued twice recently, on Cactus “High On The Hog – vol. 3” and Collector “Rock and Roll Country Style”. It’s a microscopic label, out of somewhere in California (I only know of another disc, by Freddie Byers – same period, 1957, a good hillbilly bop). Willard is in fine form, and lovely backed by a tight combo (steel, lead guitar, piano,fiddle and bass), singing the evergreen « You’re gonna change, or I’m gonna leave » refrain. Jack Guthrie had had his own version in 1946 on Capitol.
The last record I know of was issued probably in the Summer of 1959, so AFTER the untimely death (at the age of 43) of Willard. It’s on the Pico, Ca. Sundown 127 label, and I have still to hear « Cops And Robbers/Night Time Is Cry Time ». Anyone can help ? Let me know, please !
He died of a heart attack on May 26, 1959, at the age of only 43. Willard was, as Hank Cochran put it, “solid country … no pretense at all. He was as down to earth as you can get.” In the late 1970s, some of his recordings were rediscovered by country fans, and one track, “Honky Tonkin’ All the Time” was included on a Charly anthology in the early 1980s. Had he been alive, Willard would probably be amazed that people are still listening to his music in the 21st century.