The Honorable ‘Cowboy’ Howard Dean Vokes is born in Clearfield, PA. on June 13, 1931. His father works in the coalmines to provide the needs of his big family, wife, 6 girls and 7 boys.
His mother handles her children in a firm education. Anytime uncles and cousins turn up at the family’s house it’s with their mandolin, harmonica and guitar. No wonder why young Howard
got his inspiration to use a broomstick as a guitar.
In this musical world, the Grand Ole Opry or the Supper Time Frolic shows fit very well the introduction to music of the multi-talented artist to come. He also lends an attentive ear to Buckshot Morgan, Rusty Herman or Slim Bryant on the local radio airwaves.
Howard started to play harmonica when only 6 years old to give it up for guitar 5 years later, right after the Vokes family set up in New Kensington, PA. in 1941.
When 15 years old, he got his first start on local shows and entertained on various radio programs such as WKPA, New Kensington or WAVL, Apollo.
A hunting accident broke his right ankle in 1948 and put him for 6 weeks in a hospital. His personal therapy is in writing songs and improve his guitar playing.
When ready he forms his first own group, The Country Boys. Together they travel throughout northern USA and some parts of Canada.
On March 1955, Wanda Jackson is in the Bradley’s Recording Studios in Nashville with a song written by the young Howard : «Tears at the Grand Ole Opry », issued on Decca 29514.
This same year, he puts his songwriting talents to the service of Hank King (or Russian origin: rn Papalia) for two tracks to appear on the Blue Ribbon label # 1925, « YourAtom Bomb Heart »/« I Want To Know (Why You Don’t Care For me ). They also appear on Blue Hen 223.
Howard becomes their manager and main songwriter. He gets a record deal to his protégés with the Mercury label ; and he decides to handle his own career. So, in 1958 he cuts his very first single in the School House Studio in Jeanette, PA. backed by Johnny Drolz (steel), Skeets Martin (electric guitar) and Bob Rose (bass) issued as ‘Cowboy’ Howard Vokes : « Ghost Of a Honky-Tonk Slave », a pure medium honky-tonker with a strong Hank Williams influence, « This Prison I’m In » is another honky-tonker, but slower and with a more driving vocal. Steel-guitar is omnipresent on both sides of this Del-Ray 204 single.
Real success comes with his second single : « Willie Roy, the crippled Boy », cut in 1959 in Cleveland, OH, with the same musicians as on his first record with additional help from his friend Rudy Thacker on guitar. This leads to many tours throughout the USA and TV and radio shows.
It’s not until 1961 that Howard meets with a second hit, « Mountain Guitar » (Del-Ray 205) after Rudy Thacker, writer of the song, cut the original version on Blue Hen 234. The great Roy Acuff also had his own version on Hickory 1134 in 1961.
On February 1st, 1969, Howard uses the same Starday recording studios for another Country session, backed by DJ.Fontana (drums), Al Gore (flat top guitar), Jeff Newman (steel guitar), Joe « Red » Hayes (fiddle), Bill Linneman (bass). The 12 tracks appear on the « HOWARD VOKES SINGS THE SONGS OF BROKEN LOVE AFFAIRS » (Folk-Variety FV 1212).
Completely devoted to the Country Music cause, Howard Vokes remains the big promotor of this style in the state of Pennsylvania. He launches 2 labels, Vokes and Country Boy, to support new talents without forgetting the old veterans happy to get attentive ears again.
A deserved homage is paid to him in 1987 with a song written by Ray D.Jones and recorded by Mel Anderson, « The King Of Country Music In Pennsylvania » (Country Boy CB-106).
This article was originally written in French, then translated by Jack Dumery.
Howdy, y’all of you ! Here is the new early December 2017 fortnight’s favorites selection, there will be ten tunes, mostly from the ’30s, with the odd entry in the late ’20s, and the most recent being a 1956 platter.
LEO SOILEAU was a Cajun fiddler, whose intense and dramatic playing is heard in three tracks, first « Les Bleus de La Louisiane » (Decca 17009A) from 1935. When reissued, it was renamed simply « Louisiana Blues » (Decca 5116-A). The whole story is told by Wade Falcon in his super blog « Early Cajun Music », read here: “Les Blues De La Louisiane (Louisiana Blues)” – Leo Soileau. Third track by Soileau is a vocal (himself) for « Petit ou gros » (Bluebird 2197). I add as a comparison the modern and energetic version (« Petite ou la grosse ») done by AL BERARD (vocal and fiddle) with the Basin Brothers in 1996 for Rounder Records.
Another old-time duet is that of the DIXON BROTHERS (Howard and Dorsey), who came from poor areas of North Carolina. They were greatly inspired during the late ’20s and early ’30 by another duet, DARBY & TARLTON. It was Jimmy Tarlton on guitar who influenced the most Howard Dixon. They were picked out by Victor Records and recorded a mere 60 sides between 1936 and 1939, mostly blues, old fiddle pieces or versions of songs of the time given. I choose two numbers, first « Weave Room Blues » (Bluebird 6141), and old-time duet with fine dobro, and « Spinning Room Blues » (Montgomery Ward 7024) : more of the same style. This is a bit similar to Cliff Carlisle.
Next from a more recent era (circa 1953), EDDIE SHULERand his Reveliers on one of the very first TNT issues (# 103). Eddie Shuler does the leading of his group (Norris Savoie on vocal and Hector Stutes on fiddle) for a nice rendition of the classic « Grande Mamou ». He had already recorded as soon as 1946 for his own Goldband label (with his version of the evergreen « Jolie Blonde », Goldband 1012), and issued important recordings (Cajun, Hillbilly, Rockabilly and later swamp-Pop) and stuff later.
Then we jump to 1956 Rockabilly from Memphis, TN, with BILL BOWENwith the Rockets on the Meteor label. Bowen was born in 1923, and had country music shows as early as 1944 from Tennessee, to Indiana and Illinois. In 1954 he and his band were involved with Ray Harris at a radio station outside Memphis, said Harris. Bowen turned out Rockabilly in 1955-56, and Sam Phillips would demo’ him with a raw snippet of « Two timin’ baby ». He also recorded for Chess but nothing happened. It was Lester Bihari who signed him for two years at Meteor, hence the two-sided « Don’t shoot me baby » (I’m not ready to die)/ Have myself a ball » (Meteor 5033, June 1956). The lead player is Terry Thompson, a 15-years old Mississipi wonder, who had already played that role for Junior Thompson on Meteor 5029 (« Mama’s little baby/Raw deal »).
MERLE KILGORE is not a newcomer. He met in the ’60s and ’70s a lot of success as a songwriter in Nashville : wrote « Ring of Fire » for Johnny Cash, and « Wolverton mountain » for Claude King. But I am more interested with his beginnings for Imperial records, seemingly all cut at KWKH in Shreveport, La. Here’s « Everybody needs a lttle lovin’ » that Merle released on # 8300. A Rockabilly guitar
Tillman Franks on double bass with Johnny Horton
(fine solo), propelled by a thudding bass (Tillman Franks?) over an urgent vocal. Later Wyatt Merle Kilgore (his actual name, being born in Chickasaw, OK. In 1934) turned frankly towards Rock’n’roll with tunes like « Please please please », cut in New Orleans in Jan. 1956 with an-all Black group, that of Dave Bartholomew, and « Ernie » . So eclectic was the man ! He was also a board member of the Hank Williams Montgomery museum, being very close to Hank’s family. He was back to his Country roots in 1959 with Country rockers on the « D » label (‘Take a trip to the moon »). Died of a lung cancer in 2005.
I didn’t find anything on the next artist : TROY JORDAN & His Cross-B-Boys, except to location of the label: Midland, Texas. So can only comment both sides of his disc issued on Tred-Way 100. The A-side is a good uptempo, « Who Flung that mater », with a too-discrete steel-guitar and well-sung, although nothing rxceptional. B-side is really fine bluesy a tune: guitar, steel, a piano solo, lazy vocal for « Don’t cry on my shoulder». Jordan was a distant cousin of the Carter Sisters, so it may be they are the right way for a research on him.
HILLBILLY HERMAN, & his Tennessee Valley Boys, despite his name, is a Blugrass artist in 1966, who offers « Today I watched my dreams come true » (Breeze 366, located in Livingston, TN), a solid uptempo, with great backing in the background The main instrument is a very nice mandolin ; alas the guitar solo is very insipid. The Breeze label had issued a very rocking version of “Wreck of the old 97” (# 381) by Jim Sebastian. A record to watch for. In the meantime, do YouTube searching! Herman had an elusive issue on Hatfield (no #)[untraced]
Despite being a presence on the country music scene in Houston for over 30 years, Johnny Nelms never found the right song or right label to break out of the local honky-tonks. His long recording career included stops at Gold Star, Freedom, Starday, D, Tilt, Westry, Bagatelle, (briefly) Decca, and probably others, but none of these give the likes of Peck Touchton or Eddie Noack anything to worry about. They are decent C&W records, but nothing more. He was more successful as a club owner, pipefitter, Mason, and eventually a politician, serving in the Texas House of Representatives during the 62nd Legislature in 1971-72. When I met him in 1996, he was a bail bondsman in downtown Houston. (No, I wasn’t there to see him about bailing me out of jail.)
For my money, Nelms’ 1955 outing on the Azalea label is his finest hour. The record, made at Bill Quinn’s Gold Star Studio before it’s renovation, is pretty low-fidelity, but Johnny’s singing is great and musically, “After Today” is what ’50s honky-tonk is all about: raw, direct, and emotional…”white man’s blues,” as (ironically) a black country music fan explained to me once. The uncredited backing band here is Peck Touchton‘s Sunset Wranglers, which includes Doug Myers (fiddle), Herman McCoy (guitar), Hoyt Skidmore (steel guitar), and George Champion (piano) — the same band heard on Peck’s Starday and first Sarg session. 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.”
Azalea moved around a lot. Starting in Mobile, Alabama, it moved to Houston for awhile, then Dallas, and the final releases have a Fort Worth address. To make things more confusing, Nelms’ record was advertised in Billboard on July 16, 1955, with a New Orleans address. Presumably, label owner Dave Livingstone was a guy who “got around.” He was certainly tenacious, releasing 31 records over about seven years. None were hits, but there were quality outings from the Hooper Twins, James O’Gwynn, Dixie Drifters, Coye Wilcox, Adrian Roland, the Country Dudes, Joe Poovey, and Marvin Paul. The label should be of interest to anyone into ’50s Texas country music.
Nelms was born January 9, 1931 in Huttig, Arkansas (not Houston like he told me in 1996). He died at age 70 in Houston on February 17, 2001.
(from Andrew Brown and his blogsite « Wired for sound », 2009)
Johnny Nelms records – an appreciation (by bopping’s editor)
Both Gold Star 1386 (1950) sides [Note Nelms without “s”] are average Texas Country tunes, one fast (« I’ll learn ya, dern ya ») , the other slow – with minimal instrumentation, they can be forgotten. “I’m so Ashamed” was re-recorded just ten years later on “D” Records!
Let’s jump to 1955 and arguably the cream of the entire Johnny Nelms output with the Azalea issue. « After today » (Azalea 104) is what hllbilly bop is all about : strong and emotional vocal over a medium paced tempo, solid backing (fiddle and steel) ; « Cry, baby cry » goes in the same vein, only adding echo for a good effect, as often in Starday records.
Billboard July 16, 1955
And deservedly Nelms’ next outing was issued on the famous yellow label, and both sides (« A tribute to Andy Anderson/Everything will be all right », Starday 238)) are very good examples of the ‘Starday sound’. It’s surely ole’ Doc Lewis tickling the ivories, and possibly Ernie Hunter who’s sewing his fiddle, plus Herby Remington on steel. Great sides of 1956, reminding certain Sonny Burns‘ or Fred Crawford‘s tunes, and very near in intensity to Azalea.
It’s interesting to note that the original of « After today » had been done in 1951 by the veteran of Honky-tonk in Houston : Jerry Irby, on the Hummingbird label (# 1001) . Included below.
Next record in 1957 on the Tilt label, and the change is significant, as for the first time Nelms imitates (consciously?) someone : Johnny Cash, for a train song, « Mr. Freight Train » (Tilt 1195). Any ‘string band’ instruments removed, sole remains a nice insistant guitar, and the result is fine. Flipside is an average slowie, « Hurt is the heart ».
Finally from 1959 to 1961, Nelms went on the Pappy Daily’s ‘D’ label, and had 4 singles of an high standard, considering the era. « Yoshe’ » and « Memories for a pillow » (D 1114) are uptempos, « Old broken heart » is a mid-paced inspired item, but its flipside « Half past a heartache » (D 1195) is better. « Picture of my heart » is a slowie, and « I’ve never had the blues » D 1178) is of course bluesy. (note a fine swooping piano).
This is the first fortnight’s favorites section for 2017, and we begin with a curious record : by CLIFF FERRÉ, « A cocky cowboy » on the Kem label (California). It’s a fast Western swing flavored number.
RAY WHITLEY (1901-1979) seemingly on the East coast is present with two tracks : « Jukebox cannonball » on Cowboy # 301 from 1947 : a lovely piece of Bop, which reminds me of Hank Williams‘ early sides. One composer name, that of Rusty Keefer, brings to Philadelphia and Bill Haley’s version on Essex 311 (January 1952). A long biography of Ray Whitley is to be found on YouTube: Johnn Maddy chain.
I added a reference version : JESSE ROGERS (cousin to Jimmie) released « Jukebox cannonball » too on Arcade 147 in January 1957. Ray Whitley “Jukebox cannonball”
Whitley also had in 1949 another great number, « You’re barkin’ up the wrong tree now », on Apollo 195. An insistant crazy fiddle rivalling with an excellent guitar over a warm voice. This was a Hank Willams/Fred Rose compostion. At least the title was renewed in December 1956 in the hands of DON WOODY (Decca 30277) who takes his song at a brisk speed for a true Rockabilly classic, full of amusing barks. Great guitar of Grady Martin.
Ray Whitley “You’re barkin’ up the wrong tree now”
On the West coast now with JIMMIE LAWSON. He does a fine shuffler, « Tennessee blues » (Columbia 20477) from July 1947. Much later on the Fable label, in 1957 (# 584) he had « Ole Jack Hammer blues », a strong medium paced rocker with great guitar (Sandy Stanton, owner of Fable records?).