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, « Your Atom Bomb Heart »/« I Want To Know (Why You Don’t Care For me ). They also appear on Blue Hen 223.
Hank King, “Your atom bomb heart”
Denver Duke & Jeffery Null, “Hank Williams that Alabama boy”
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.
“Willie Roy, the crippled boy”
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.
Full Howard Vokes’ repertoire, recorded between 1958 and 1960, is of a high quality in an authentic and traditional sound in this shifting area.
“The love I once knew“(Del-Ray 211)
“”Forever“(Del-Ray EP 250)
“Tears at the Grand Ole Opry“(Mountain LP 2002)
“Keep cool but don’t freeze“(Mountain LP 2002)
“Down in the hollow“(Mountain LP 2002)
After 4 singles and 1 EP on Del-Ray, Howard records an album for the Starday label in Madison, TN. The session is produced by Don Pierce on August 2, 1963. 14 songs are issued on the album « TRAGEDY & DISASTERS IN COUNTRY SONGS » (Starday LP-258).
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.