The location is the Trail ’80’ Courts, a motel in Mineola, about 90 miles east of Dallas, Texas. Inside a bunch of good ole boys have gathered for a songwriters’ jam session convened by the motel’s owner, Jack Rhodes. After various jobs, among them moonshiner and a back accident, he began writing country songs and putting on his first band, Jack Rhodes’ Ramblers, in 1947. They made their first professionnal recordings the same year, backing Rhodes’ brother-in-law Leon Payne. The acetates were sent to Jim Bulleit in Nashville, who issued 6 singles during 1947-48 by Payne. But in 1949, Payne switched to Capitol Records, forming his own band,the Lone Star Buddies, which led to a failure between he and Jack Rhodes. Rhodes’ Ramblers, later also named Lone Star Buddies did include the three Hayes brothers : Joe ‘Red’ and Kenneth ‘Little Red’ on fiddles, and Leon on bass.
Rhodes replaced Payne with a younger vocalist, Jimmy Johnson. Born in Smith County on 14 January 1930, Johnson was only 19. He worked as a heavy equipment operator in the Tyler area of Texas and sang in his spare time.
In the summer of 1950 the band performed on the Western Jamboree Club of R. D. Hendon in Houston (105 ½ Main Street), where they were discovered by Solomon Morris Kahal. He recorded them on his Freedom label in the ACA studio. From the session came the highly acclaimed « Salt Your Pillow Down » (# 5009), a number already cut on the same label by Dickie Jones (# 5003) (Benny Leaders, lead vocalist). As recorded by Benny leaders, « Salt Your Pillow Down » was a mellow, medium tempo blues ; Jack Rhodes’ Ramblers transformed the song into an excellent country boogie. The band who backed Jimmy Johnson comprised him on vocal, Bobby Davis on electric lead guitar, Red Hayes on acoustic, Al Petty on steel (later he was to cut on Starday 117 “Al’s Steel Guitar Wobble“), ‘Little Red’ Hayes on fiddle and either Leon Hayes or Doc Shelton on bass. They were to have another record (# 5031), « Warm Beer and Cold Cold Woman », with chorus done by the Morgan Sisters. Their tracks did not attract much attention at the time, although the better « Salt… » was a masterpiece : the voice of Johnson resembles that of Lefty Frizzell.
In 1952, Don Law of Columbia Records came to Dallas and cut Johnson at Jim Beck’s studio accompanied by Jack Rhodes’ band on February 1rst. They recorded four songs, all originals that Rhodes had possibly bought off their writers, and brought additional musicians : Jimmie Rollins on lead, Joe Knight on rhythm and Bobby Garrett on steel. Two 78s came out out under the name of Jack Rhodes and his Lone Star Buddies, of which neither sold, but one of the songs, « I’ve Lived A Lot In My Time » became a popular Jim Reeves recording. By far the best recording on Columbia was the bopper, near Rockabilly “Eternity”. Hear it below.
Jack Rhodes [Jimmy Johnson, vocal]”I’ve lived a lot in my life time”
Jack Rhodes [Jimmy Johnson, vocal]”Eternity”
Korean war then took Johnson for a couple of years. When he returned the experiences at the front had changed him. In 1954 he started playing guitar, and likely sing, for the Circle “O” Ranch Boys from Long View. He married the singer Bettie Lou Spears, the sister of the famous Billie Joe Spears, with whom he would have 3 children. In the mid-fifties he and his wife made an appearance on a local TV show. At that time he was full-time working as operator for an oil company.He did not record again until 1956, when Rhodes asked him to come over and demo a couple of new songs. Even though he was a stone country artist steeped in the honky-tonk tradition, Jack felt Johnson was young enough at 25 to adapt the new style of hillbilly with an added, danceable on-beat the trade journals had dubbed rockabilly.
Though he was merely a part-timer, whose few recording opportunities had arisen solely through Rhodes’ patronage rather than his own initiative, Johnson was an engaging vocalist with an authoritative style. His cool, dry delivery and virile lived-in timbre seemed ideally suited to Jack’s songs. They worked on « Woman Love », a lascivious blues: it’s a brooding shuffler with Jimmy’s deep and urgent vocals grabbing most of the attention.
« All Dressed Up », a Don Carter song boasted a rockabilly groove and classic honky tonk lyrics. Johnson accompanied himself on electric guitar, playing the bluesy licks himself. His wife, Betty Lou, strummed along on rhythm and Leon Hayes plucked up the bass fiddle. There was only one microphone and Rhodes carefully moved the three musicians around the room until he arrived at a satisfactory sound balance. On « All Dressed Up », Leon Hayes and Betty lou provided the backup chorus.
Jack Rhodes immediately mailed copy tapes to Cliffie Stone who had acetates made for Ken Nelson, Capitol’s A&R man, who detected a potential in « Woman Love ». But the dub sat in a pile on Nelson’s desk for three weeks, before being offered to a young Gene Craddock, who just made it with « Be-Bop A-Lula » in May 1956. Meanwhile, Jack Rhodes had asked Starday Records to press up a few hundred copies of Johnson’s songs on its Custom series(# 561). Jack took it around to stations in Gladewater, Greenville and Tyler but plays were very few in number. Johnson is not known to have made any further recordings, other than unissued songs written by Rhodes with Gene Vincent in mind, like « Five Days, Five Days », and not issued before 2004. Johnson died in January 8th 1980, unnoticed and uninterviewed.
Article based on the notes by Rob Finnis to CD « Gene Vincent cut our songs » (Ace, 2004), Andrew Brown & Kevin Coffey to « Heading back to Houston » (Krazy Kat, 1997), http://columbia20000.blogspot.fr for Jack Rhodes story. As usual, label scans were hard to come by : YouTube did help a bit, also popsike site.The only picture of Jimmy Johnson comes from excellent Andrew Brown site, wired-for-sound.