Jimmy Swan was born November 18, 1912 in Alabama. After his father left the family, his mother moved to Birmingham, where young Jimmy helped support his mother by shining shoes and selling newspapers. His most famous shoeshine customer was Jimmie Rodgers, known as the Singing Brakeman, and the Father of Country Music. He won a talent contest sponsored by a local radio station at the age of 15, and decided he might have a career in music. At 17 he married Alabama beauty queen Grace Armour, and they had three children, Charles, Wanda, and Randy. Jimmy ended up riding the rails to Mississippi and working for awhile to support his family during the Great Depression. The 1940’s found Jimmy in Mobile, Alabama, where he formed the only live Country nightclub band playing in the area. Jimmy’s first lead guitar player was Hank Locklin, who would become famous in his own right with such hits as Send Me the Pillow that You Dream On, Please Help Me I’m Falling, and Country Hall of Fame.
Another alumni of Jimmy Swan and the Blue Sky Boys from their days in Mobile was Hank Williams. They remained friends after Hank left to seek his fortune in Nashville until his tragic passing on January 1, 1953. Listening to Hank’s old recordings and Jimmy’s records from that time, it is very hard to tell whose singing style influenced whom.
Jimmy would move to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, go on to a radio career, and make his mark as a songwriter as well. Before eventually buying a large portion of WBKH, Jimmy spent some time as a disc jockey at WFOR, also in Hattiesburg. He later told this story of the last show he did with his friend Hank Williams:
The show was somewhere in Biloxi, and Jimmy hurried back to Hattiesburg for his next early morning shift at WFOR, as Hank and his Drifting Cowboys departed for Ohio. The next morning on the air, Jimmy announced Hank’s newest record. After it started playing, Jimmy went back for a moment and looked at the newstype coming in, only to discover that his friend Hank had died in the backseat of his Cadillac en route to the next concert. The new Hank Williams song playing as Jimmy read the news bulletin was called I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.
In 1949, Matt Pelkonen was reporting that Jimmy was being heard by the audiences over radio station WTOK in Meridian, Mississippi.
In 1951 Jimmy Swan made his first attempt for political office, running for Sheriff of Forrest County. Out of ten candidates, he finished sixth.
In 1952, Country Song Roundup was informing its readers that Jimmy would soon be seen on a chain of television stations throughout the southern United States with a new program. He was also to begin making transcribed radio programs with the Holliman Advertisement Co. which was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and would be called the « Cowboy Jim Show ».
Around 1952, it was being reported that he had an hour and a half radio show that ran Monday through Friday over WFOR in Hattiesburg. His show on Saturdays was being heard over a four station network. Around this time, he was recording with the Trumpet record label. Stan Anderson tells us Jimmy was one of the few white artists to record on this Jackson, Missisippi label that was owned by a lady named Lillian McMurry. The label was known for recording mostly Blues artists such as Sonny Boy Williamson. Jimmy’s I Had a Dream did well on radio nationally. It’s a strong number, sung in unisson (R.B. Mitchell, lead guitar and second vocal) with nice bass by Hilton Giger, and steel-guitar by Charley Ward (reminiscent of Don Helms, legendary steel player for Hank Williams). Jimmy Swan went on to have several more hits on the label. First Juke Joint Mama (penned by Swan) (Trumpet 176), which was first cut by Denver Darling in 1945 on Decca. It’s solid medium Hillbilly Bop (steel and fiddle), « You’re driving me out of my mind »…Triflin’ On Me (Trumpet 177) is uptempo, steel guitar (Roy Lunn) to the fore, and nice fiddle solo by Clayton Parker. All these sides were recorded April 17, 1952, at WFOR radio in Hattiesburg, Mississipi.
In late 1952 or early 1953, MGM executive Frank Walker was in the midst of writing his annual letter to Hank Williams. Before he could finish it, he was informed of Hank’s passing on January 1, 1953. Mr. Walker is said to have then finished it and addressed it to Hank in « Songwriter’s Paradise ». He asked Jimmy Swan to record the « The Last Letter » ( MGM 11450) – as Hank’s mother had requested that Jimmy do so. The other side of that record, « The Little Church » was written by Jimmy.
A second Trumpet session took place on February 3rd, 1953, this time in Houston, TX, at Bill Quinn’s ACA Studio. Jimmy Swan cut 4 tracks, the best being two heavily influenced Hank Williams numbers, the very good « One More Time » (Trumpet 198), and its flipside « Lonesome Daddy Blues » (a nice uptempo take-off to « Long Gone Lonesome Blues », complete with semi-yodel a la Hank and steel guitar effects).
According to Mr. Anderson, as Jimmy’s radio career flourished, so did his songwriting career. His most famous composition probably would be The Way That You’re Living. In addition to Jimmy’s recording of the song, it was covered by at least three other major artists of the day. James O’Gwynn (also from Hattiesburg) recorded it, as did Jimmy C. Newman. The Texas Troubadour, Ernest Tubb, featured the song on his Thanks a Lot album.
Jimmy’s songs began to show up in the country music magazines of the day along with their lyrics. These tunes included « I Love You Too Much« , « Losers Weepers« , « Mark Of Shame« , « Why Did You Change« , « Don’t Conceal Your Ring« , « No One Loves A Broken Heart« , « The Way That You’re Living« , « Hey Baby Baby » and « Lonesome Man« .
Jimmy wrote a few paragraphs for Country Song Roundup’s Fifth Anniversary issue in 1954 as did many disc jockeys around the country.
« Being a DJ and a recording artist, born and raised in the country, Folk music has meant everything to me. It has given me and mine things we never would have realized — a home and a chance to meet some of the most wonderful folks I have ever met.
Folk music has given me the chance to tell the world what is in the heart of a Country boy by writing and singing the songs we love, songs of everyday life with Country folks, as we live it. Some folks write books and other things to express their feelings, but we Country artists express our feelings in writing and singing those songs.
Let me say thanks to Country Song Roundup for the way it comes to our aid, helping us Country artist and DJs bring our songs ot the whole world. Without your untiring efforts, we’d find the going just a little tougher. »
— Jimmy Swan, 1954
Glen Campbell and Tex Clark wrote in their regular feature, « Letter To The Home Folks » column in late 1954 that Jimmy was being heard over at WHSY, also in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and just signed on with the Dixie Broadcasting Company.
Disc Jockey Al Dunaway wrote a letter to the editor of Country & Western Jamboree magazine in late 1955 that gives us some insight as to how the radio network may have worked back then. Al had to level his show for a time to serve in the military. It was called « Country Capers ». He had Jimmy Swan on as well as his own six piece western swing band, the Rockin’ Rhythmaires. Jimmy’s part of the show came from Hattiesburg, MS via the network hookup over the Dixie Broadcasting system.
1955/1956 saw Jimmy cut two sessions in Nashville for MGM. Times had changed, Hillbilly lended towards Rockabilly, and Swan adapted well to new trends, although being faithfull to his Hillbilly roots. Backed by the cream of Nashville’s musicians (Mss. Chet Atkins, Floyd Cramer, young Jimmy Day on steel, Tommy Jackson on fiddle), Jimmy Swan had highlights with « Hey, Baby, Baby » (MGM 12226) – steady vocal -, « The Way You’re Living (Is Breakin’ My Heart) » (a medium Hillbilly weeper, MGM 12348), and most of all, its flipside « Country Cattin’ ». With its references to then Rockabilly hits, « Blue suede shoes » and « Heartbreak hotel », its classic line « I’m a cool cat on the prowl », « Country Cattin’ » stands as one of the best examples of a Hillbilly artist trying his hands at Rock’n’Roll. Solid vocal, steel and piano solo, strong backing. Hear it !
In comparison, his solitary 1959 session for Decca (cut in Biloxi, MS, with his 1953 band !) sounds strange. Swan was 47 years old, and his way of singing was still 1953…Nice uptempo ballads like « Don’t conceal your wedding ring » or « No One Loves A Broken Heart » (Decca 31041), completely out-of-date for 1959.
1965. Swan had 6 tunes recorded (one session) again in Biloxi, produced by his then guitar player Pee Wee Maddux. The sound was more modern, but still firmly Hillbilly. The best sides were « Honky Tonkin’ in Mississipi » (JB 102), a driving track with forceful vocal – no doubt what Swan was still doing on stage – and « Rattlesnake Daddy (from Tennessee) » (JB 105), with hi-pitched vocal, semi-yodel and fast backing. Nevertheless, the overall sound was still…1955 ! Finally Swan had a Big Howdy release (# 8107) in 1968/69, a bit deceiving, because this time main Country and less interesting.
In 1967 Jimmy entered the political scene again and ran in the Mississippi Democratic Primary for Governor. Had he won the Democratic nomination, he would have faced Republican candidate Rubel Phillips in the state’s general election in November. Jimmy finished a strong third in the primary.
He ran again in 1971, and again finished third; it was his last effort for political office. During the 1971 campaign, Mr. Anderson recalls someone actually made an assassination attempt on Jimmy somewhere in Mississippi’s Delta region. After finishing his campaign speeches, Jimmy would usually sit in the front seat of his car while his friend and chauffeur, Pat Massengill, drove them to the next destination. One night someone was driving in the opposite direction down the highway and fired a shot where Jimmy normally sat. Jimmy’s life was spared that night; he was sleeping in the back seat instead. Massengill fired back at the other car, but never knew if he hit anyone. No one was ever arrested in the case.
Stan tells us that the 1971 election in Mississippi was the first time he ever voted, and Jimmy was the first man he ever voted for when he ran for governor. Stan distinctly remembers that Jimmy’s name appeared on the ballot as James Eldon (Jimmy) Swan, which is contrary to some web sites that have Jimmy’s name spelled differently; it should be noted that the online SSDI database indicates Stan’s memory is pretty good as it does show his name as James E. Swan.
Stan notes his musical journey came to late to lay claim to having been a member of Jimmy’s band, but as for a lot of the musicians he met around Hattiesburg, the first thing they would say is “I used to play with Jimmy Swan.” If they all did, his band would have been bigger than the Lawrence Welk Orchestra!
By the time Stan first met Jimmy Swan at his Hattiesburg radio station WBKH in the summer of 1966, Jimmy had disbanded his backup group, quit playing the honkytonks, was mostly working in his radio career. He just did the occasional guest appearance at concerts and special events.
Stan was 15 at the time, not singing much yet, but thinking maybe he had a future as a guitarist. With his mother’s help, he set up a time with Jimmy one afternoon, and he listened to Stan pick a bit, and told me to keep practicing and improving. Stan felt glad Jimmy saw some possibilities in him, because he couldn’t have been too impressed with that first electric guitar of Stan’s. Stan relates was pretty naïve equipment-wise, and had an real cheap electric guitar that required a lot of tuning.
Stan persevered and by 1968 felt he had improved a bit, and was even doing a bit of singing. Jimmy, who still owned a large portion of WBKH, had already run once for Governor the previous year, and was now working at WLAU Radio in Laurel, another Country station managed by another local entertainer, F. M. Smith.
In February, 1968, Rustin’s Grocery just outside Laurel had their grand opening. WLAU did a remote broadcast of the festivies, with many live performers on hand, and some fine backup musicians from the area who had worked with Jimmy Swan and F. M. Smith off and on over the years.
Mr. Anderson was one of many guest artists, and believes this was his first time on a show with Jimmy. Pat Lane of WLAU also performed on the show, and one of the youngest guests was a 10-year-old named Darlene Busby, who did a great job of Hank Locklin’s hit « Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On ».
Stan recalls when he played with Calvin Prine and the Rebels, there was one show somewhere in Hattiesburg where Jimmy came up and did some singing with their group backing him. Jimmy and Stan were also on the same night at a short-lived radio show called the Gulf Coast Jamboree, held in the Gulfport-Biloxi area.
Also on the Gulf Coast was a concert in a school football field (a fund-raiser, Stan believes) on May 23, 1970. I remember that occasion particularly well because of a music gag Stan had been pulling since Jimmy first ran for Governor in 1967. When Stan sang Folsom Prison Blues that night, he did the second verse as follows:
When I was just a baby, my mama told me, Son,
Always be a good boy, and vote for Jimmy Swan. »
Of course, the crowd wasn’t expecting that, and Stan said he heard a huge laugh from the bleachers. Jimmy was talking to someone at the time. He later told me, « I like what you said. I didn’t hear it, but somebody told me about it. » I told him I had been pulling that one for awhile, and he said, « Go ahead, pull it, pull it! »
Stan told us the very last show he ever did with Jimmy was the night before the Mississippi Democratic Primary in 1971. He did not sing that night, but there were lots of us who did before he gave his final campaign speech about what he would do if he were elected Governor.
The Sullivan Family contributed some great Gospel singing, and then Stan’s band opened the Country portion of the show. Stan’s mother, who played bass for his group, even wrote some extra lines for Stan to use in Folsom Prison Blues. It was the only time I would sing the whole verse in this way:
When I was just a baby, my mama told me, “Son,
Always be a good boy, and vote for Jimmy Swan.”
So let’s all get behind him and back him all the way.
He’s a man who’ll fight for what is right
Let’s make it Jimmy’s day.
After that several other bands followed, including one group called the Duck Hillbillies, from the Mississippi town of Duck Hill.
Stan recalls it was everything you see in the movies about Southern political rallies. Live music, fried chicken, speeches from various candidates, the whole nine yards. One of the politicians who spoke that night was Trent Lott, who went on to a distinguished career in both the House and Senate.
Jimmy Swan was the final speaker of the evening. He received a thunderous ovation from the 10,000 plus crowd assembled at Kamper Park that evening. But as in the 1967 gubernatorial race, Jimmy again finished a strong third.
Jimmy never ran for political office after that. He occasionally still did a few public appearances, singing only his own songs and some by his late friend, Hank Williams, Sr.
After Stan moved to Canada, he would still talk on the phone once in a great while with Jimmy. When Stan called to wish him a happy 78th birthday, his singing voice sounded as good as it did in his younger days. He said he had quit smoking three years before.
The last time Stan ever called Jimmy, he, by that time, was married to his second wife, Christine. She was from Jackson, Mississippi and Jimmy said they would spend two weeks at his home in Hattiesburg, and two weeks at her home in Jackson.
From the time of Hank Williams’ death until he retired from radio, Jimmy always did an all-Hank tribute show every January 1. Following the passing of his wife Grace from cancer, and in his 70’s Jimmy married his second wife, Christine.
In 1994, at the age of 82, Jimmy Swan had a heart attack and left this world, mourned by friends, family, broadcasting colleagues, and Country Music fans the world over. Much of his musical legacy is still available on CD, thanks to a label in Germany called Bear Family Records.
Jimmy’s youngest son Randy followed him into music for a short while, but went into broadcasting full time. After years in radio, he became head of the news department at WDAM-TV in Hattiesburg.
He may not have won an election for a political office, but he did leave an impression with the folks that came to know him. Upon Jimmy’s death the Hattiesburg American printed a tribute to him entitled “Jimmy Swan&a Hattiesburg Legend.”
Hillbilly-Music.com wishes to thank Stan Anderson, who played with Jimmy Swan in his early years for sharing his memories and recollections of those times; Stan is still playing country music and resides in Canada.
All Jimmy Swan’s music is collected on the Bear Family CD 15758 « Honky Tonkin’ in Mississipi » as shown below