Raleigh Preston ‘Peck’ Touchton is easily one of the most noteworthy singers to emerge from the Houston country music scene in the fifties. But unlike most of his peers like George Jones, Touchton only recorded a handful of sides and, through no fault of his own, attained none of the commercial rewards granted some of his lesser known contemporaries. He was rather, another victim of the visionless inertia that typified the music business in Houston.
Born in Belmont, Louisiana on April 28, 1929, Peck migrated to Houston after high school graduation and began working drive-ins and dancehalls with a young band called the Sunset Wranglers. « Our first job was a place called Johnny’s Drive-Inn in North Shepherd, » he remembers today. « Back in those days, that was the way you started out. And us four would stay up there from eight to twelve, and one o’clock on saturday night. It was strictly a drive-in…car hops would pass the kitty, that’s how we made our money. » The group soon graduated to opening shows for established local acts like Jimmie and Leon Short and Bennie Hess.
The original Sunset Wranglers cut several sides for the Freedom and Green Star labels in 1950-51 : 4 sides for Freedom, among them the very nice uptempo « Walk ’em off blues » (# 5028) and the more quieter although equally good « Walkin’ on the top of the world » (# 5040).
« Walk ’em off blues«
« Lonely world »
« Walkin’ on the top of the world »
But the Wranglers splintered when singer Rocky Bill Ford successfully coerced the other members into leaving Peck to become his backing band in the wake of his hit « Beer drinking blues ». This turned out to Touchton’s advantage, however, as the new group he assembled was far more experienced than the old one. With this band, Peck moved up to the Starday label in 1954, but the pressing plant accidentally printed George Jones’ name on the label to his record, « Let me catch my breath » (# 160). When Starday procrastinated correcting the gaffe, Touchton grew impatient and asked to be released from his contract. There remain 3 unissued Starday tracks in the can.
« Let me catch my breath »
Starday’s loss was Sarg’s gain, and Charlie Fitch was happy to capitalize on the other label’s mistake. Fitch had become acquainted with Peck when the Sunset Wranglers backed up Glen Paul at his December 1955 session. Though he had reservations that Peck « sounded too much like Hank Williams », Fitch conceeded that Touchton’s songs had commercial potential. In the meantime the Sunset Wranglers were in great demand: they backed Johnny Nelms in disguise (« Western band« ) on his Azalea double-sider « « After today«
After today/Cry baby cry » in 1955 and played with him for dates : Peck remembered Johnny very well and often played at his club, The Dancing Barn, on Houston’s East Side: « We were working at the Dancing Barn with Johnny Nelms [c. 1955], » Touchton said in a 1999 interview. « We worked out there a long time. The Dancing Barn was a rough damn club, too. It was on LaPorte Road. (Nelms’s) old man, his daddy, had just got out of the pen for killing a man when we were working out there. His daddy killed one or two people. At least one. You could just look at the old man and know that the old son-of-a-bitch was dangerous. There was a few knives pulled out there during that time. Even the band had fisticuffs with the crowd. »
Peck recorded his Sarg debut, « You’ve changed your tune » and « Then I found you » at ACA [Bill Holford engineer in Houston] on March 7, 1956 (Sarg 132). The line-up of the Sunset Wranglers at this point included Herman McCoy (lead guitar), Doug Myers (fiddle), Hoyt Skidmore (steel guitar), Carlton Wilcox (bass) and Jo Anne Sky Eagle (drums).
« You’ve changed your tune »
« Then I found you »
Four months later, a slightly renovated version of the band went back to ACA to cut « My baby ain’t around » and « I’m just a standby » : George Champion provides lead guitar and doubles on piano, Jeannine Tulley plays rhythm guitar and Skidmore and Wilcox return. The raw power of Touchton’s voice was never captured better than it was on these four sides, and though sales were good, they weren’t strong enough to convince Fitch to release anything else. It didn’t help matters that Charlie’s finances at the time were at the lowest ebb they’s ever been at. (The four additional songs Peck recorded for Sarg were left unreleased, and have since been lost.)
« I’m just a standby »
But Peck came to the realization in 1957 that he couldn’t support his growing family, by devoting as much time to music as he was – a familiar story. Besides, music was changing and he wasn’t very enthused about changing with it. « One reason why I think I lost interest, Presley came along, and the first couple of records he had was good. Then he began to do his « Hound dog » stuff – we’d go to play a date and everybody wanted to hear « Hound dog ». And I hated the damn song. »
Peck only recorded once more (for Caprus Records in 1976), twenty years after his final Sarg record. He looks today at his past : « Back from about 1949 to ’56 or ’57, everybody in Houston just meshed. It was damn near tight-knit. Everybody knew everybody, and most of ’em were real good guys who would help each other. »
Notes by Andrew Brown for the « The Sarg Records Anthology » from 1999. Additional matters by bopping’s editor.