Nothing is known about this important, although quite obscure artist of the 1940’s and ’50’s. Even not any statistic of birth or death, although he was certainly livng in the Dallas, TX area, and was born there during the ’20s. Nothing more is known about his childhood and beginnings in music, so we are forced to deal only with the records he appeared on.
From 1939 until 1952 he was closely associated with another Texan, AL DEXTER and worked with him either as washboard player (in the ’30s), sometimes harmonicist, and in some cases held the vocal duties into the Dexter’s band, « The Troopers », not forgetting he was also songwriter : he was co-writer (with Tex Ritter) of the all-time Hank Williams‘ classic, « Dear John ». But more about that later.
In 1939, he was a member of the Al Dexter’s Troopers, as said before, and offered the group a good selling disc : « Wine, women and song » – recorded in December 1939 and issued on Vocalion 5572, it was covered by Texas Jim Lewis in September 1940 (Decca 05875), and by the Prairie Ramblers (Decca 05878) – the song must’ve looked to Decca’s executives a lucrative seller). When re-recorded by Dexter on Columbia 37062 in April 1945, he was a second time covered (a reissue) by Jim Lewis (Decca 46021). It attracted two more versions in 1946 by Frankie Marvin (San Antonio 107) and Dick James (Coast 234).
Gass gave Al Dexter (or co-wrote with him) two more songs in 1941/42 : « The Money You Spent Was Mine » (Okeh 6206) and « Honky Tonk Chinese Dime »(OKeh 6604). He played the harmonica on « Diddy, Wah, Diddy With A Blah !Blah ! » (Vocalion 6255) – which Dexter re-recorded later on King as « Diddy Wah Boogie » (# 885). Gass also held the vocal duty for « Sunshine » (Vocalion 04988, reissued in 1946 on Columbia 20240), both coming out of a long 8-track June 13th 1939 session.
As far at it concerns records, Aubrey Gass disappeared from the music scene between 1941 and 1946. Was he drafted in U.S. Army during W.W. II such a long time is improbable. Anyway, his first record under his real name was issued mid to late 1946 in Houston by Gold Star (# 1318) and coupled a then-famous for veterans couplet, « Kilroy’s Been Here » and « Delivery Man Blues ». Backed by the Easterners (guitar, bass, fiddle, steel and piano), Gass on alert vocal and harmonica delivers a joyful A-side, although the bluesy B-side is equally at home. Indeed both sides were written by Gass, who saw the following year a reissue of his Gold Star disc on the new DeLuxe (#6001) label, a proof of the popularity of the record.
It must also be noted that a song « Kilroy Was Here » was recorded and released by Paul Page on Enterprise; reviewed by Billboard on August 31, 1946, no one can say who came first for sure.
« Dear John » […] was his biggest song ; in fact, it was the only hit he ever wrote. The first version was by Jim Boyd, younger brother of Dallas-based western swing artist Bill Boyd. Gass apparently knew Jim Boyd, offered him « Dear John », and Boyd recorded it on March 11, 1949. Soon after, Tex Ritter got his finger in the pie. Ritter probably promised to get the song cut by a big name, like himself, or to get Gass a contract with his label, Capitol, if he could get a piece of the song. The fact that Gass recorded « Dear John » for Capitol (# 40239, or # 1427) some five months after Boyd suggests that Ritter lived up to his half of their convenant. Hank Williams later picked (early 1951) up the song, this time co-written « Ritter-Gass ». Note : Jim Boyd’s version is already written by Gass and Ritter…
The session for Capitol took place in Dallas on August 9th, 1949 (Billboard announced both the contact signing and the recording session on Sept. 17) and supplied four more Gass-written songs. The backing of Wesley Tuttle and Group (specially come to Dallas) was made of Gass himself (vocal/harmonica), probably Tuttle (rhythm-guitar), a steel, a bass player and a drummer. First came the already discussed « Dear John » : Gass is full of energy on harmonica, has a husky voice, as on the fast « Look Me Up » and (by far the most hard-rocking tune of the lot) « K.C. Boogie ». The last song, « Gee But I’m Lonely Tonight », is a slowie and Gass doesn’t seems at ease here.
« Dear John » had numerous versions, among them an R&B rendition by Dinah Washington, which climbed at n°3 in the charts. It also had a follow-up in 1953 as « A Dear John Letter », first by Jean Shepard (Capitol 2502).
Next recording session Aubrey Gass collaborated for was done on May 19, 1950 by Al Dexter and his Troopers again. Gass was present, and played some harmonica on several tracks, but still being contracted to Capitol, could not sing at all. He plays (distinct style easily recognizable) on « Blow That Lonesome Whistle, Casey » (King 875)[very near in essence to “K. C. Boogie“], « Walking With The Blues » (which he co-wrote) (King 884), then both sides of King 913 : « Diddy Wah Boogie » and « You’ve Been Cheatin’ On Me ».
Al Dexter & His Troopers, “Blow That Lonesome Whistle, Casey”
At unknown dates he cut several demos at Sellers Studio in Dallas, between 1950 and late 1951. Three of them found their way on the British/Nederland Boppin’ Hillbilly compilation n° 2810. Due to legal rights, we are not allowed to offer these great sides. They are : « Columbus Stockade Blues », « Here Today And Gone Tomorrow » and « Walkin’ Out Of Town ».
But « Counting My Teardrops » and « Fisherman Boogie », cut late 1951 or early 1952, were issued under Gass’ own name by Sellers as acetates, and released just as they were under Al Dexter’s name (« Vocal by Aubrey Gass») on Decca, respectively 28345 and 28137 during the first half of 1952. Both tracks were probably recorded (given date by Michel Ruppli’s book « The Decca label » as Feb. 7, 1952) with the Al Dexter band : trumpet, rhythm-guitar, piano (particularly rolling in « Fisherman’s boogie»), steel, bass and drums and no harmonica at all. This 14 tunes session has no less than 8 unissued tracks, and could well reveal some surprises.
A recent discovery on eBay has surfaced an unissued Audiodisc dated (as handwritten on label) May 23,1956. « Garbage Man » by Gass is a strange novelty : only vocal, harmonica and rhythm guitar. The acetate was gone on December 19, 2017 for $ 118,00.
In 1962 (June) Aubrey Gass gave Tom O’Neal « Two Many Tickets » (released first on Cheatham 104, then reissued on Starday 607), a country rocker ; it’s probably Gass who played the harmonica in this song, as well as on the flipside « Sleeper Cab Blues ».
Further research has unearthed a demo of « Corn Fed Gal », cut for the « Boyd Recording Service » in Dallas. The strange thing is that this version runs at 2 mn 05, while the Helton version has a duration of 2 mn 22. So then, are they the same ? Could it be that the lucky owner of the Boyd record please stand up and say the truth about this point. I am inclined personnally towards two different versions. This demo was sold on eBay in 2010 for $ 136,00.
Last record is on the Swansee label # 1908 (mid-’60s) by Mr. G. « Pork-N-Beans » and « Sittin’n’Thinkin’ » are unheard, both written « Aubrey A. Gass », so cannot comment. Remember (see above) his actual name was Aubrey Andrew Gass.
Sources : my sincere thanks to UncleGil for Bronco Buster, the King Project, the Starday project and BACM music ; many (if not all) label scans do come from 78rpm-worlds ; thanks to ole’ Ronald Keppner for Sellers acetates ; Dave Sichak of hillbilly-music.com for Aubrey Gass only known picture ; Gripsweat site for 1956 acetate ; Colin Escott, « Hank Williams, The Biography » for the « Dear John » story. Billboard books for notifications of releases (Thanks Imperial!).
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Hello, this is a full Summer 2017 (early August) fortnight favorites’ selection, with 10 tunes. The first two are by an unknown artist on a famous label. HARRY CARROLL on the Starday label # 277 (issued December 1956). A waltz tempo for « Checkerboard lover », a mid-paced sentimental « Two-timin’ » for the flipside. Typical Starday atmosphere, but nothing exceptional. Carroll seemingly co-wrote « The trail of the lonesome pine » for Jimmy Donley (Decca 30392), and that was over. “Checkerboard lover”
GLENN & JODY, the Singing Buddies were backed by Larry Nolen & the Bandits for this fine WS flavored bopper « I’m even with you » on the San Antonio label Eagle # 3772. It’s for you, Bill S. Larry Nolen was a veteran of the S.-A. scene, having records issued on Sarg as early as 1954 (« Hillbilly love affair »), Starday in 1956-57 (« Lucky lady », « King of the ducktail cats »), then later on Eagle (apparently his own label, or one he was involved in – backed by Herby Remington on steel) or Renner in 1961.
RED MANSEL had previously cut for Starday custom # 523 (« I’ve crossed you off my list ») in July 1955, and was the first to appear on Dan Mechura’s new label, All Star # 7165, with a fine medium paced ballad, « Changing heart ». Very great vocal.
KEN GABBARD & The Hilltop Ramblers cut in 1965 on the Trenton, OH Harp label (no #) the very nice « Thing’s can’t be as they were » (sic). Uptempo ballad, and typical early ’60s hillbilly sounds.
Howdy, folks ! This is the early June 2017 bopping fortnight’s selection, between 1937 and 1947, with some projections in the very early ’60s.
Here we go before WWII with BILL NETTLES & his Dixie Blue Boys for his first recording session, held in Dallas, TX on June 22nd, 1937 (nearly 80 years ago…) His story has already been written in this site, and I will focus on one track, « Oxford (Miss) Blues », described on the label as « hot string band with singing ». Really hot fiddle (Dock Massey, who’s also singing, among cheers and yells) and strong slapping bass (by Nettles’ brother Luther). They didn’t do such great tracks so often, even in the ’40s and ’50s.
ALSIE « REX » GRIFFIN (1912-1959) made most of his career during the ’30s on Decca, as a follower of Jimmie Rodgers, and a fine yodeler too. Here on the decline (one of his last records) in Cincinnati on King 584 (February 1947), I chose « I’m as free as the breeze » : nice hot guitar player (obviously inspired by the late Django Rheinhart) and a discree steel for a good mid-paced bopper.
Griffin was also responsible for three classics, « Everybody’s trying to be my baby » (one feature in this site is devoted to this song and its continuation), « Won’t you ride in my little red wagon » (the signature song of Hank Penny), and the morbid « The last letter ».
HANK STOLLINGS went on the RCA-pressed 1961 Versatile 101 « Date with the blues » (vocal Chuck Louis) with a deep-voiced country rocker ; 2 fine fiddle solos, and a good loud guitar too.
From the same or similar era (late 1959) we find also BEN JACK & Country Boys for «I’m entitled to your love», a mid-paced light country rocker with fiddle emanating from Tulsa, OK, to be found on the Cimarron label # 4048. This label was owned by Leon McAuliffe, former steel player in the Bob Wills’ Playboys.
Back to TOMMY FAILE (reviewed early May with « That’s all right » on Lawn 104, NYC label) and the flipside of this December 1960 issue, « The rest of my life ». Arthur Smith is seemingly on lead guitar (on bass chords) for this baritone-voiced, female chorus backed (unobstrusive) country rocker.
Indiana born, on a Chicago label, comes BOB PERRY for two tunes. First a famous small Rockabilly classic,« Weary blues, goodbye » on the Bandera label (# 1303, from 1959), valued at $ 150-200, it has a very strong rhythm guitar (obviously played by Perry himself) and a fantastic steel guitar solo . So tame in comparison is the second Perry issue on Cool 158, « Gone with the wind », which is a gentle Rockabilly/rocker (all the same attaining $ 75-100). Perry went later on Top Rank and BandBox.
Jimmie Dale got his start in hillbilly music with the guidance of Dave Miller, who was a famous New Jersey-Newark disc jockey.
He organized his own band and they made personal appearances in the New York night club circuit. Jimmie also appeared at Carnegie Hall, Frank Daly’s Meadowbrook and the top spot on Dave Miller’s television show. By 1953, he was being heard over radio station WAAT in Newark, New Jersey.
Dale had other boogies in the same style.
Sources : 45cat and 78rpm-worlds, YouTube (e.g. Rockin’ TomKat for Bob Perry on Cool) ; Hillbilly-Music.com (picture of Rex Griffin and Jimmie Dale) ; also Wikipedia for Rex Griffin bio. My own archives.
The little historical town of Natchitoches lies on the banks of the beautiful Cane River (Louisiana), and it was there that Bill Nettles was born on 13 March 1903 (another source mention 1907)
Natchitoches town (red button) in Louisiana
Bill was a member of U.S. marine and he took a part in World War I. Then he got a job as brakeman on the Pacific railroad line and around this time he met his future bride, Emma Lou Rich from Arcadia, Louisiana: on 19 December of 1922 in Shreveport they were married. He and his wife had four children, the eldest of whom, Bill Jr. (1926), enlisted in the Marines in 1943, reported missing at Okinawa albeit surviving and returning home in 1945. He was the inspiration for Bill writing « God bless my darling he’s somewhere ».
Emma Lou Rich was Bill’s dream maid, tireless manager and director of his Fan Clubs, she wrote the paper “Nettle ’em” which would significantly support his success.
Bill’s interest in music was initially satisfied by purchasing records of his favourite singer Jimmie Rodgers, as well as buying platters by Jimmie Davis, Gene Autry and Cliff Carlisle.
Then in 1934 Bill teamed up with his brother Norman to form the Nettle Brothers, with Norman on guitar and himself on mandolin. Unlike many popular duos of the time (Shelton Bros, Monroe Bros, Callahan Bros or Blue Sky Boys, etc.) Bill and Norman refrained from duetting on vocals, which made them stand out from the run of the mills outfits trying to imitate the well known names. Thus it was not long before an offer came their way to appear on radio in Shreveport on KWKH, at that time starring a favourite artist of Bill’s, Jimmie Davis. It was he who got their recording contract with Vocalion (1937).
The first session, held in Dallas in June 1937, yelded their first single, « Shake it and take it (like the doctor said – on later issues) »/ »My cross-eyed Jane » which saw Bill vocalising as well as playing mandolin. Augmented by brothers Norman on guitar and Luther on bass with Doc Massey on fiddle, Bill produced a lively performance, reflected in the sales of the record.
The group recorded another session in San Antonio as well as another in Dallas, and all in all eleven singles (a total of 22 sides) were recorded between 1937 and 1938. While their record sales did not set the world alight, their popularity on the radio continued to increase with appearances on KRMD and KXBS (both out of Shreveport, La.), KALB (Alexandria, la.) and KVDL (Lafayette, La.)
Gradually the membership of the band increased to the stage where it became known as the Nettles Brothers String Band, and early in 1941 they were signed to the Bluebird label, cutting their first session on June 3rd. Once again the venue for recordings was Dallas with Lonnie Hall (violin), Reggie Ward (string bass) and Jim King (steel guitar) making up the five pieces band. By the time of the second session in October, the line-up had changed to the extent that the steel was gone, Hershell Woodall was on bass instead of Reggie Ward. A lead guitarist and a banjo player were also featured.
Bill had started writing songs as early as 1924 when trying to appease his wife after a domestic tiff and writing « My sweet pot of gold ». His pen gained more prominence as his group’s name spread, and other artists started recording his songs. Among the first were Red Foley and Wilf Carter who, as Montana Slim, cut « Too many blues » on Victor (20-2364). Bill’s original version came on Bullet 637 in 1946. Despite being a prolific writer, Bill had failed to copyright any before « Just before we said goodbye ». Too many blues (Bullet 637):
It is worth noting that whilst the first records to appear on Vocalion in 1937 were credited to « Bill Nettles & his Dixie Blue Boys », the Bluebird recordings were credited to « the Nettles Brothers ». Bill had in fact played mandolin on a Vocalion session as early as 1935, backing Jimmie Davis and Buddy Jones. Also the Jimmie King who played steel guitar on the first Bluebird session was the father to Claude King, the C&W singer/songwriter of « Wolverton mountain » fame.
Nettles’s beautiful “Have I Waited Too Long?” was introduced at KWKH in 1943 by Radio Dot and Smoky, and later became Faron Young‘s theme song. Along with Harmie Smith, Bob Shelton, Dick Hart, young Webb Pierce, and host Hal Burns, Nettles & His Dixie Blue Boys helped to launch a twice-weekly Louisiana Hayride program on KWKH in the summer of 1945 that predated the more famous auditorium show by almost three years.
Faron Young: Have I waited too long (Gotham 415-A)
After the Bluebird sessions Norman retired from the band, which late in 1945 was signed to RCA-Victor, reverting his name to « Bill Nettles & his Dixie Blue Boys » with brother Luther back on bass. However the rest of musicians were local Dallas sidesmen from the musicians’ union. « They were long haired usicians and did not fit in with Bill’s style. He hated these Victor records », wrote his widow Emma Lou. RCA’s and Bill’s personal conceptions differed completely, in fact recordings were by then “mainstream pop ». So greatly was he disillusioned with RCA that Bill broke his contract and went to Bullet Records.
It’s not clear whether this experience with RCA persuaded Bill to reform his own band, but he went to Bullet with a radically new line-up. Danny Dedmon joined as lead guitarist and became a mainstay of the Dixie Blue Boys along with fiddle player Robert Shivers. In between changing of recording labels, Bill moved the family from Shreveport to Monroe, La., where with the exception of short breaks he woud live for the rest of his life. He also started appearing at the local radio station KMLB, where he was to record sometimes. By this stage Bill and his wife had four children. The eldest, Bill Jr. never got deeply involved in his father’s musical career. However one of the remaining children, Loyce (born 1929), became a featured singer in her dad’s band, billed a « The Little Dixie sweetheart ». She became a permanent along with her piano playing husband, Pal Thibodeaux, when the Dixie Blue Boys recorded for Imperial.
Nettles & His Dixie Blue Boys helped to launch a twice-weekly Louisiana Hayride program on KWKH in the summer of 1945 that predated the more famous auditorium show by almost three years.
Bill cut three sessions with Bullet from Nashville. The first date for Bullet was already on 7 July 1946, probably at Jim Beck’s studio in Dallas, as Beck had a tie with Jim Bulleit. « High falutin’ mama » (# 637) was a prime example of uptempo bluesy country. “Too Many Blues” was recorded by Wilf Carter, as told earlier. Other two songs of the session, « You’re breaking my broken heart again » and « Hungry » (#638) were equally good. Both later sessions held in Jackson, Ms., and in Houston, Tx. remained unissued.
After a fleeting stay with Red Bird, an affiliation which failed to produce any released material, Bill Nettles then signed with Imperial, as did Danny Dedmon, recording in his own right with a band credited as « The Rhythm Ramblers », actually the Dixie Blue Boys. Dedmon recorded 19 sides for Imperial, albeit only 9 were with Bill Nettles, all cut in Beaumont, Tx. On a couple of Bill Nettles’ singles, daughter Loyce was allotted the vocal duties.
Euell was the third of the Nettles’ off-spring. He too was born in Shreveport in 1935. Thus he was barely fourteen when he played on Bill’s first Mercury session in April 1949, giving the family a 50% share in the group personnel. Not only did he pay guitar, but Euell also doubled as chauffeur and handyman. His versatility extended to playing bass, fiddle and drums. During his three years stint in U.S. Army in Paris, France, he met his Spanish wife to be.
At the first Mercury session Bill recorded the highly promising « Hadacol boogie ». Covered by Jesse Rogers on RCA (32-0001), whose version outsold Bill’s, It had also a version by Professor Longhair (Roy Byrd), who combined it with Bill’s third Mercury session « Hadacol bounce ».
A tune he wrote and recorded for that label, “Hadacol Boogie“, in a Monroe radio station in 1949, was a celebration of Dudley LeBlanc‘s restorative elixir. It went to # 9 on the country charts. (“Hadacol Boogie” is alleged to be the first song that Jerry Lee Lewis performed in public, in 1949. Occasionally Jerry will perform the song on stage, though he never recorded it.)
Presumably encouraged by this hit, Mercury had on 3 February 1950 ensured in Cincinnati, Ohio that their musicians parade horses (Jerry Byrd, Tommy Jackson and Zeb and Zeke Turner) were sent into the ring for « Push and pull boogie » (Mercury 6330). Turner’s guitar intro is similar to that of the Delmores’ “Blue stay away from me” or early Hank Williams’.
Yet another recording session could not bring more hit. Bill took his residence at radio station KLMB, Monroe on with their own group. The only new name was Sam Yeager who played the guitar. Although “Hadacol bounce” should been even better than the “Hadacol boogie” according to Mercury, it failed.
In 1953 Bill had one of his short spells away from Monroe when he was sponsored by the Surety Gas Co. To appear on WRBC out of Jackson, Miss. Whilst there he cut a session for the local Trumpet label. Sadly nothing was ever issued from these recordings and undoubtedly « When my kitten starts cattin’ around » sounds intriguing. Maybe it was due to the fact that Bill moved on to another radio station elsewhere that caused Trumpet to lose interest, for it was around this time that he moved to KOGT in Orange, Texas, then to KOBX inBeaumont, Texas, finally KFRO in Long View, Texas. It seems likely that this exposure around the Texas area brought Bill to the attention of Starday Records, where he cut the fine « Wine-o-boogie » and « Gumbo mumbo » (# 174). The session included an unissued re-recording of « Shake it and take it » and was probably held at Gold Star studio in Houston (1954), with regular local musicians, Hal Harris (lead guitar), Doc Lewis (piano), Red Hayes (fiddle) and Herbie Remington (steel) providing the backing.
Whilst the advent of rock’n’roll put a brake on Bill’s recording activities, perhaps inspired by his youngest daughter Shirley (born 1936) married to Rev. Gerard Lewis (a first cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis, and a fine piano player in his own right), Bill was « saved » and
baptized in 1958, subsequently becoming a devout Christian. Around 1957/58 The Dixie Blue Boys were performing on radio as a sacred group, before Bill disbanded the group and effectively retired from business.
Early 60s he cut in Monroe a whole lot of tracks for an unknown label (private recordings?), all of which do remain untraced and unissued.
In 1965 he was talked into a comeback and appeared on his own Nettl label. His preoccupation with the Vietnam War caused him to re-do his old song as « God bless my darling he’s somewhere in Vietnam ». Sadly this revival (3 singles) was short lived : Bill Nettles died on April 5 1967.
Throughout his life he wrote over 300 songs, and had 155 published by leading publishers. It is worth looking at some of the artists who made use of Bill as composer :
Be nobody’s darling but mine – Roy Acuff
Old age pension check – Roy Acuff
Old age pension blues – Shelton Brothers
I just can’t say goodbye – Pete Pyle
Louisiana moon – Gene Autry
I still believe in you – Charlie Mitchell
It’s nobody’s fault but my own – Will Johnson
Our last goodbye – Stanley Brothers
Honky tonk blues – Al Dexter
Just forgive and forget – Jimmie Davis
Nobody’s darling but mine – Jimmie Davis (huge 1941 hit)
Answer to blue eyes – Johnnie & Jack
No time for tears – Bill Boyd
Too many blues – Montana Slim, Red Foley
Have I waited too long – Faron Young
I just don’t know why but I do – Jenx Carman.
Of the Dixie Blue Boys, Danny Dedmon, Pal Thibodeaux and Norman Nettles recorded in their own right.
Nettles loved to write “answer” songs, such as “Answer To Blue Eyes”, “It’s Your Turn To Walk The Floor For Me”, “I Hauled Off and Loved Her”, and even answered his own songs: “(I Want To Be) Somebody’s Darling” and “Hadacol Bounce”.
Reprinted (with written permission) from Adam Komorowski’s article in Hillbilly researcher n° 7 (1988), based on a unpublished text written by Emma Lou Nettles for the 60’s magazine « Western Coral ». Many thanks to Ronald Keppner (Germany) for the loan of rare 78 rpm.
The original of the song was made by the legendary Rex Griffin, one of those pioneers in Honky Tonk music. Here is his biography by a Bruce Eder:
As a songwriter, performer, and recording artist, Rex Griffin bridged the gap between Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams — indeed, it can be said that he bridged the gap between Rodgers and Buddy Holly, and between Rodgers and the Beatles. Griffin was among the first country music stars to record using his own material almost exclusively, and among the least of his accomplishments, one of his songs was covered (albeit without proper credit) by the Beatles. Griffin is the author of the original version of “Everybody’s Tryin’ to Be My Baby,” which Carl Perkins later adapted into his own song, and the Beatles subsequently covered to the profit of all except Griffin, who’d been dead about six years when all of this happened.
Griffin is one of those pre-war figures in country music whose legacy has been unjustly overlooked. He had no hits of his own after 1939, although his biggest hit from that year — “The Last Letter” — continues to get recorded at the end of the century. He was also a direct inspiration to both Hank Williams (whose recording of “Lovesick Blues” was virtually a copy of Griffin’s from ten years earlier) and Lefty Frizzell. One of country music’s first singer/songwriters, Griffin was the model for figures including Floyd Tillman, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard (and one could even throw Buddy Holly in there). And, like Williams, his personal demons in love and substance abuse brought a premature end — albeit not as suddenly as Williams’ — to Griffin’s performing career and his life.
He was born Alsie Griffin, second of seven children of Marion Oliver Griffin and the former Selma Bradshaw. He grew up without much formal education and spent most of his early childhood on the farm that his family owned in Sand Valley. By the 1920s, Ollie Griffin was working in Gasden at the Agricola Foundry, and Alsie followed his father there. The family regarded music as a pastime to be pursued after finishing one’s real work.
Alsie felt differently, however, wanting no part of farm life or the factory if there was any way of helping it. His first instrument was a harmonica, but it wasn’t long before he picked up the guitar. Gasden didn’t offer a big future in music, but Griffin took advantage of what was there, playing local parties and dances.
If the guitar was the first instrument that Griffin felt strongly about, his first love was the music of Jimmie Rodgers. He quickly adopted Rodgers’ style as his own and never entirely abandoned elements of his music — especially the yodeling — even once he had his own style nailed down.
Griffin made his first professional appearance on a bill at the Gasden Theater in 1930, and not long after he moved to Birmingham, where better opportunities awaited. He joined the Smokey Mountaineers, and it was there that he got his new first name — the group’s announcer had difficulty pronouncing Alsie, and simply renamed him Rex. The name stayed with him and he moved from city to city across the South, appearing on radio stations in Chattanooga, Atlanta, and New Orleans, among other cities.
His recording career began in 1935, when Griffin was signed to the newly formed Decca Record company, which already had the Sons of the Pioneers, Tex Ritter, Jimmie Davis, and Milton Brown in their roster of country artists. His first recording sessions were held in Chicago on March 25 and 26 of that year, during which he recorded ten songs, accompanied by his own guitar and Johnny Motlow on tenor banjo. All ten number were originals by Griffin, itself an astonishing achievement in those days. All of the material, both in its style and performance, recalled Rodgers — Griffin’s yodeling never let one forget who his inspiration was, although the songs hold up well on their own terms. Also striking about the recordings is Motlow’s banjo playing which, with its trilling, sounds almost like a mandolin.
Griffin’s first releases were successful enough to justify another session for Decca nearly a year later in New Orleans. This time he provided the only accompaniment on ten of the songs and did two additional songs backed by an amplified steel guitar. Among the songs that came out of those sessions was “Everybody’s Tryin’ to Be My Baby,” which in this context sounds almost like a blues composition, recalling works such as Tampa Red‘s “Tight Like That.” The piece was also a dazzling guitar showcase for Griffin, whose prowess on the instrument was considerable. This blues influence was no fluke — “I’m Ready to Reform” from the same session is a superb piece of white blues that can fool listeners as to its origins as easily as Autry’s or Rodgers’ best blues sides.
Griffin’s records continued to sell well, and in May of 1937, this time in New York, he cut two more sides, including his most famous number. “The Last Letter” became his biggest hit, a suicide note set to music. Stories vary as to its origins, the most commonly circulated one being that Griffin, who had a taste for alcohol that would later blight his life, was in a drunken depression over his failing first marriage when he wrote the note, and later set it to music as sobering up. Whatever the circumstances of its composition, the record caught on and became a hit throughout the South, and also brought Griffin the adulation of many of his colleagues, most notably Ernest Tubb, whose 20-year friendship with Griffin began over “The Last Letter.”
The song was covered by other artists, including Jimmie Davis, soon after its release. Gene Sullivan (vocalist for Roy Newman & his Boys) also covered three Griffin songs, including “Everybody’s Tryin’ to Be My Baby,” in the late ’30s, and even bandleader Bob Crosby cut Griffin’s “I Told You So.” Griffin’s own career kept moving forward, with concerts and radio performances throughout the South that made him one of the more popular performers of the era.
Griffin’s next recording sessions in September of 1939 yielded a dozen songs, including the follow-up to his biggest hit, “Answer to the Last Letter“, and his recording of “Lovesick Blues,” which was to be the model for Williams’ recording nearly a decade later that made Hank a star. Also recorded at the session was “Nobody Wants to Be My Baby“, a fast, breezy honky tonk-style number and one of several songs on which Griffin was backed by guitarist Ted Brooks and bassist Smitty Smith. The latter is also a beautiful piece of bluesy honky tonk and deserves to be better known.
Despite the success of “The Last Letter“, Griffin’s record sales were too poor overall to justify the label keeping him, and he was dropped by Decca after 1939. In the mid-’30s, he had played with Billie Walker and Her Texas Cowboys in New Orleans, and in 1940 he rejoined her band in Memphis. He later moved back to Alabama to spend more time with his ailing mother and appeared locally for the next few years. Among the places he played often was the notorious crime-ridden Alabama town of Phenix City, which would later become the subject of two feature films. In Gasden, he performed with a group called the Melody Boys, which included two future members of Tubb’s Texas Troubadors.
In 1941, following the death of his mother, Griffin moved to Dallas, where he had a regular spot on KRLD’s Texas Round-Up. His popularity from these broadcasts made Griffin a natural to take over the Texas Round-Up. This was to be his best broadcast showcase, and had it not been for the war, Griffin might’ve become a major star from his work on KRLD. As it was, the show ended in 1943 as the available talent dwindled amid continued military call-ups.
Griffin moved to Chicago in 1944, and it was there that he made his next batch of recordings. These 16 sides — recorded with a band that may have included Red Foley on guitar — were not intended for commercial release. Rather, they were made for Decca Records’ World Transcription Services, for broadcast over the air by radio stations that licensed them.
Despite these recordings for the company’s transcription division, there was no interest at the time in trying to release new commercial sides by Griffin. To hear the material today is to glimpse some of the best honky tonk-style music of the era — by that time, Griffin had taken on a more modern style, and he had even cut his Rodgers-inspired yodeling to a minimum. In addition to capturing Griffin performing “live” in the studio, these are among the few sides he left that feature him working with a band and, thus, show something of the sound he must’ve had during that early-’40s Dallas period.
The oversight by the record company, in terms of offering him a new contract, is difficult to explain. It is possible, however, that the wartime rationing of shellac (a key ingredient in 78 rpm records) had so dampened interest in any risky new ventures (the record business at one point seemed doomed to shut down) that Griffin never had a chance with his old label.
He made his last recordings in 1946 for Cincinnati-based King Records, which had previously recorded Grandpa Jones, the Delmore Brothers, and Merle Travis, among others. Griffin cut eight sides for King, backed by Homer & Jethro on guitars and mandolin. The sides showed Griffin in decent form, an easygoing honky tonk singer with a smooth style and a good voice, but lacking the sharp edge to his singing and playing that sparked his earlier work, clearly on the decline by this time.
These proved to be his last recording sessions. His worsening diabetic condition, complicated by drinking and other dietary abuses, forced an end to Griffin’s career, and the collapse of his second marriage late in the 1940s sent him into a personal tailspin. He moved to Dallas and still wrote songs, and when his health allowed (he was hospitalized several times), he pitched them actively to singers who had recording contracts, including Ray Price, who cut “Answer to the Last Letter“, “Beyond the Last Mile“, and “I Saw My Castles Fall Today“.
His friendship with Tubb blossomed into a profitable professional relationship for both, as Tubb recorded many of Griffin’s songs, and Griffin also became close to Tubb’s nephew, Douglas Glenn Tubb. Their interest, coupled with the quality of his work, sustained Griffin during the 1950s, and in 1955 he wrote “Just Call Me Lonesome“, his last hit, recorded by Eddy Arnold and Red Foley. His last years were blighted by further ill health, as Griffin was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was confined to a New Orleans hospital for what proved to be the final months of his life, and died in October of 1958.
Griffin’s death at the age of 46 was a great loss to country music. Moreover, his lack of any hit recordings of his own after 1939 resulted in there never being an LP release of his songs — there was no impetus on the part of Decca Records to explore his recording history, and he was left in limbo as a recording artist, a distant memory to older listeners. The possibility of Decca’s successor, MCA Records, doing anything with Griffin’s music in the 1990s or beyond seems even more remote.
The songs he wrote, however, have endured over the 40 years since. Hank Thompson recorded “An Old Faded Photograph” in 1960, and “The Last Letter” was re-recorded by Jack Greene in 1964 and became a hit once again. Soon after, Tubb cut an entire album of Griffin songs, and other artists who have covered “The Last Letter” include Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard. At the time of his death, Griffin’s quarterly royalty statement from the publisher of his newest songs was 18 dollars and change, a situation that had changed drastically by the 1960s. Additionally, his song “Everybody’s Tryin’ to Be My Baby“, as appropriated by Carl Perkins — the inability of the family to protect the copyright probably cost his daughters millions in royalties — and later covered by the Beatles, has become a rock & roll standard only slightly less familiar than “Blue Suede Shoes” or “Maybelline“. And then there was his version of “Lovesick Blues,” which Williams freely admitted to having learned from Griffin, even though Hank was also familiar with the Emmett Miller original — Griffin did make changes in the lyrics and structure of the song that Williams kept in his version.
In 1970, in recognition of his achievements as a composer, Griffin was among the very first composers inducted into the newly founded National Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in Nashville. In 1996, Bear Family Records of Germany released a long overdue triple-CD career retrospective on Griffin entitled The Last Letter.
In 1938, bandleader and pianist ROY NEWMAN cut in Dallas “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby“, in a more Western swing mood. Griffin had done it fast- paced, Newman kept it. Whole thing is cheerful, funny, and ideal for dancers. The personnel included: Gene Sullivan on vocal duties, Newman on piano, a young Jim Boyd on guitar, along with Holly Horton (clarinet), Cecil Browen (fiddle), Ish Irwin (bass) and Walter Kirken (banjo). ROY NEWMAN is known for his “I Got Ants In My Pants” and “Rosalie“, cut either in Dallas or in New Orleans at the end of the ’30s.
Then ten years later, the song was covered twice. I really don’t know who came first, so I suppose it was GLEN THOMPSON. He hailed from Danville, VA, and had numerous records on the Tornado, (Tennessee) Athens, even his own Glen Thompson labels. Most of his output can be found on a UK. Krazy Kat CD “Tarheel Swing“. Here he delivers a fine, up-to-date hillbilly bop shuffle paced version (uncredited) of the classic on the Manchester, KY Acme label (# 982-B). The steel player is particularly fine (two solos), as the fiddler and the pianist. Lyrics do seem to emanate direct from Griffin. JIMMY SHORT & the Silver Saddle Ranch Boys out on the West coast did their version in 1951 on the 4 Star label (# 1538). A bit Western flavored (as Short yells to invite the members for their solos); the steel Jay Higham is impressive, as the rhythm guitar by Short, who reminds me much of Clyde Moody‘s “The Blues Came Pouring Down” from 1949 (hear this song in his story elsewere in the site).
Billboard April 7, 1951
Then we go to the two last versions we’re interested in. Without doubt, the YORK BROTHERS revived the Griffin song, however strangely crediting it to Wayne Walker and Webb Pierce. Theirs is very good, well-suited to their harmony style, and taken at a Rockabilly tempo. Issued 1957.
Carl Perkins – Sun studio
The music of GLEN THOMPSON or YORK BROTHERS’ song and the CARL PERKINS song is totally different. The Carl Perkins song has blues-style guitar riffs and a start-stop rhythm closer to “Blue Suede Shoes“. There are two verses in common but Carl Perkins wrote completely new music for his song released on Sun Records in 1957 on the famous « Dance Album » LP 1225.
And the rest is history of Rock’n’Roll, when the song got a world-wide appeal when released in 1964 in England. A fine career for a 1936 session-filler by a long-forgotten honky tonk artist…Finally it was revived in 2003 by JOHNNY CASH, as a tribute to Carl Perkins, his old friend (who had died a couple years before). A nice, strong version.