Riley was born on his parents’ farm in Mount Pleasant, Texas, in 1912 as the youngest of eight brothers and sisters. At age two, he contracted infantile paralysis (polyo), so he depended on crutches for the rest of his life. Perhaps this handicap forced him to make a career in country music. His bluesy voice is genuine and comes from the heart. The life he lived is reflected in his songs, as he had a lot in common with his idol Hank Williams.
In 1938 he won first prize at a singer’s convention which was an own show at radio KPLT in the neighbouring small community of Paris. A year later he toured with other acts. This tent show had a regular band. More of this kind of shows were executed during World War II.
It was about the end of 1945 when Riley returned to Mount Pleasant where he established his own band, the Hillbilly Ramblers. This band consisted of Smokey Cal Burton Harris (later label owner of Security Records), Ray Key and the very young Country Johnny Mathis. Soon they could be heard on radio KIMP in Mount Pleasant. Their popularity grew and also the demand for buying their music on phonograph records.
In 1949, Crabtree eventually signed a contract with Louise and Jesse Erickson, owners oof the Talent (later Star Talent) label, located in Dallas, Texas. Another idol of Riley was Jimmie Rodgers, so he picked just Rodgers songs for his first two sessions. All these items were cut at Jim Beck’s studio in Dallas, where also many of the Columbia recordings were recorded, not only by Riley Crabtree. Producer Don Law wanted it that way. It was his idea the future had to belong to the honky-tonk sound with fiddles, steel guitar, piano and such as later performed by Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, Billy Walker and numerous others. Don Law believed in Crabtree’s talents – not only because of his big local success “Shackles and Chains” – and signed him on the Columbia label on November 13, 1950. Three days later, a remake of “Shackles and chains” was recorded with “Get away from it all” on the flipside. The contract was for 4 songs and lasted one year but with the option to prolong the contract from year to year for always another year.
Even the re-make of “Shackes and chains” was a success. It didn’t reach the charts but Riley received an offer from Nashville then to join the Grand Ole Opry as a regular act. However he decided to stay closer to home and joined KRLD’s famed Big “D” Jamboree, as a regular member.
Johnny Hicks was the emcee back then. Regional stars he shared the stage with were Gene O’Quin, Hank Locklin, Sunshine Ruby, Charline Arthur, Sonny James and many more. The Jamboree band were the Light Crust Doughboys. The main reason why Crabtree stayed in the Dallas, Texas area was the fact that in spite of his success through his phonograph records contract, he – as his band members – couldn’t make a living out of it. He also had a wife and two children to take care of. His main income was from his daily job as a car mechanic.
Due to fading success on Riley Crabtree’s recordings, Don Law decided not to prolong the contract for another year. Last session therefore was November 15, 1953. After a two year interruption, Crabtree signed up with the West coast Ekko label. Until the last single was released in 1965, Riley was on a variety of independent labels such as Country Picnic (1957), Security (1958), C and W (1959/60), Van-Dan (1962 or 1963), York (ca. 1963), Country Hit (1963 to 1965) and Cheatham (1965).
Towards the end of the sixties, Crabtree suffered a stroke and was from then on confined to a wheel-chair. A tragic accident caused by a defective electric blanket took the life of Riley and two friends on April 1, 1984. Only Riley’s second wife could escape the fire.
From the notes to both Riley Crabtree CDs: “Riley Crabtree – 28 original tracks” (Ger. Cattle 312) and “The rare Riley Crabtree radio sessions” (Ger. Bronco Buster 9061)(early 2000s). Pictures of 45’s, as usual, from Terry Gordon’s site Rockin’ Country Style. Big “D” Jamboree pictures from Steve Bonner. Picture of Star Talent 78 from Big Al Turner’s Hillbilly Researcher site.
Riley Crabtree’s music – from a listener’s point of view (notes by Bopping editor)
Since the notes above were constantly poor on life’s facts and litterally mute on the music itself, I have to admit that I like very much Crabtree’s music, actually since ca. 1984-86 I received a batch of cassettes from Californian collector Tom Sims. Within one of these I heard “Tattle Tattle Tale” (Country Picnic, 1957), which had me wanting for more. “Tale” is a great fast Bopper in its own right: Riley’s is in good and firm voice, a nice piano has a solo just after the lead guitar, the steel guitar player is just adding fine licks to the lot, and a loping bass support them all. It took me a mere twenty years to find more. The two German CDs were interesting for various reasons; first, they contained the “1949 Jimmie Rodgers sessions” (Talent, just Crabtree and his guitar), very sincere and well done; second, they had tunes from radio transcriptions (1956-onwards), which included fine renditions of country standards (“Hey, Good Lookin’”) , and an attempt to cut Rockabilly music (“Go,Cat, Go”), fact is Riley had well adapted to new trends. It appears that Crabtree was a fine songwriter on his own: songs like “That’s What I Like” or “Pack Up Your Clothes And Come On Down” were good country songs for the time being. Then Dragon Street Records out of Dallas, in 2007, issued the “Big D Jamboree” tapes: 4 more Crabtree tracks, 2 from radio shows. Then I picked from various sources the two versions of “She Loves Me Better”, the first cut for Security (1958), with Burton Harris on lead; the second on Country Hit, with drums and fine steel (1963), again Crabtree’s compositions. All the Columbia sides eluded my researches, even on 78s.
Riley had a good voice for ballads, as in “Don’t Turn Away From Me” but could also romp a Hillbilly Bop: The majority of his output however does consist of medium paced Boppers, such as “Meet Me At Joe’s” (with a very young Eddie Cochran on lead guitar) or “Something Tells me” (nice “Texas piano”). He seem to have had the same lead guitar player, Burton Harris (owner of Security Records), for 10 years. Alas, Burton, who provided the tapes of “Absolute Security Radio Shows”, died in 2006.