The SPEED Label (Nashville, 1951-1955) (from Roll Street Journal # 17, 1986)
The label and the men behind it. (notes by Martin Hawkins)
The Speed Record Company was a small independant label operating from 1951 and about 1955 from Nashville, Tennessee. This was a period when the music business there was just beginning to thrive and diversify. Larger local labels like Bullet and Tennessee had seen some degree of success and all the major labels were taking an interest in the city.
Speed was run by three men – Frank Innocenti, John Dunn and James Gann – who were all separately involved in aspects of the record business. They all saw Speed as a sideline, and consequently it operated on evenings and at weekends. They used makeshift studios, either the Brown Brothers studio downtown or the WMAK or WLAC radio stations studios. Frank Innocenti did most of the recording, with the others taking care of manufacture and business generally. A guitarist named Chuck Gregory, then president of the Painters Union, was used as a session guitarist and seems to have run a record label called Gold which was near enough a sister label to Speed.
Speed Records had limited distribution. You won’t find any Speed Records adverts in the trade press of that period and you won’t see too many reviews of Speed issues. In fact, you won’t see too many Speed discs.
Despite the limited budget of the label, and although most Speed issues were a well-kept secret, the label nevertheless gathered together some talented artists and writers. Lattie Moore was one of the very best Honky Tonk singers. Bobby Helms was a classy country singer, and songwriter Jack Toombs provided the label with many fine songs.
John Dunn was born in Humphreys County, Tenn. in 1920 and had been involved in music since 1946 when he joined the Hermitage Music Co. This company had been involved in Nashville’s first local label, Bullet. When Heritage and Bullet moved into the pressing business with Southern Plastics, Dunn took charge of this part of the operation. In 1971 he started his own United Record Pressing Inc. His part in the Speed label was largely that of organising record manufacture and production. He now recalls the Speed days with some pleasure but has no regrets at the selling of the label because of the work involved in running it as a spare time activity.
Most of the ‘producing’ of Speed recordings was carried out by Frank Innocenti. Working also in the Memphis area, Innocenti had been a field salesman for Buster Williams’ Plastic Company and was experienced in selling both hillbilly and blues music.
Speed was basically a hillbilly label – with a 100 serie that went to at least 117. There was also a 300 R&B series, of which only one issue is known. The label was really out of business before the Rock and Roll came in, although Innocenti rues the day he failed to meet Carl Perkins who was considering leaving the Sun label in the middle of 1955 ; « I could have had « Blue Suede Shoes » – really. I met Carl Perkins up at Humboldt, Tennessee, and I had an appointment set to talk to him some more. But it happened I had a hard day and I was wore out. I just couldn’t go there again for the meeting. Well, that was that, Sun kept Carl and we sold out the label. »
Innocenti and Dunn both recall that the label was sold to A.C. Reed, a hotel proprietor from Bordeaux, just over the river from Nashville. Dunn feels that Reed kept the label going but this is not at all clear.
Frank Innocenti’s recollections about Speed days are as follows : « I came to Nashville in 1942 as a U.S. Air Force sergeant. I was born in a small coalmining town, Snoden, Penn. in 1916, just five years after my parents had come from Italy. (…) During the time I had Speed Records, I worked on the road with Williams’ Distributing Co. out of Memphis. I called on jukebox operators and record shops, selling. I was very busy. It seemed we carried all the independant lines going – MGM, CHESS, APOLLO, PEACOCK, SUN, etc. We had all the ‘Screamin’ labels in those days. I’d travel Tennessee and all down to Arkansas and Mississipi.
« I knew everyone in those days ; I knew Sam Phillips real well – he had the knack for it. If anyone was a record man, it was Sam for sure. I knew the great Hank Williams, we were close friends. We did a lot of fishing in this area (Nashville). Hank was the top selling artist on all the labels back then.
I started Speed in 1951. I got the name when the change came from 78 to 45 to 33rpm. The question of speed was on everyone’s lips and in record buyer’s mind. It proved to be a good name. Most all the Speed records were cut on 78rpm speed. In the summer of 1952 I met Lattie Moore as I came out of the Ernest Tubb Record Shop on Lower Broadway. Lattie wanted to make a record and he sung it right there on the busy sidewalk for me to listen. The song was called « Juke Joint Johnny ». I thought it so good I gave him a song contract and a recording contract and cut that very afternoon. In a hurried moment, I quickly contacted Noel Ball, a disc jockey who did some engineering and three musicians, piano, drums and bass. Lattie played guitar and had another guitarist (steel). We went to a make-shift studio above Buckley Record Shop. No one knew the song except Lattie and his steel payer, so to fill out the sound I told the engineer to bring up the drums as loud as possible to fill the sound of the piano. The song hit the jukeboxes fast and good. I think this was about the first Rock and Roll record out of Nashville, and in those early days we didn’t know it !
Then in 1953 came a beautiful writer by the name of Jack Toombs. He had this great song « You’re The Only Good Thing That Happened To Me ». I quickly signed the song and hurried a copyright, for Jack had the habit of selling songs and I didn’t want it to get away. (…)(The song appeared on Excello mid-1954)
Two young men contacted me, and I recorded them. One was Bun Wilson, from Paris, Tennessee. He was a comedian in Ernest Tubb’s band. He also played with Bobby Helms for me. The other was indeed Bobby Helms from Bloomington, Indiana. His « Freedom Lovin’ Guy » was a particularly good song and Bobby went to be a good top class artist.
After a while I had to take in two partners, my life long friends John Dunn and James Gann. We all tried, but went to the point where we just couldn’t go on. We sold the label to a A .C. Reed who wanted a label to promote a child star he had going. Not being a record man, he had no pedigree in the business and the label died.
I was really relieved to part with the label. I was unable to set up the distribution. We covered lightly, mainly Memphis, Cincinnati and St. Louis. But, I must say, the Speed name in its short life cut a wide path in the early days of recording in Nashville. To be in the class of recording one country standard, and to receive awards as Jack Toombs and I did for his song « You’re the only Good Thing » is an achievement indeed, I think.
The singers and their recordings. (Philip J. Tricker comments)
The label got of to a none too suspicious start as I find the vocals on the two sides of Speed 100 very bland and quite a bit on the ‘straight’ side. Mind you both sides are excellent and instrumentation is typical early 50’s with fine steel, and a pleasant piano to be found with « Flyin’ Saucer Baby » being the most uptempo. Speed 102 escaped my research.
Lattie Moore : It’s Good Enough For You/Juke Joint Johnny (Speed 101) and Baby I’ll Soon Be Gone/My First Love (Speed 105)
One of the two most sought after artists on the label and for all the good reasons too ! Considered by many lovers of Hillbilly to be one of the GREATS of that genre, Lattie, a son of Kentucky, had one of those truly superb rural Hillbilly vocals and on these early sides he was really superb. (…) It’s Good Enough For You is set to a shuffle tempo and the band may not have known his material before the session and you’d never have guessed it. And on the classic Juke Joint Johnny they were into their full stride with some wonderful interplay between the steel player and the pianist who both have breaks and come over powerfully. Baby I’ll Soon Be Gone is a strong number with boogie guitar runs and again fine piano and here the steel may not be in prominence but blends in beautifully. My First Love makes up a fine quartet of songs. Syd Nathan of King purchased Moore’s contract and Lattie was to spend a number of years at King before also recording amongst others for Starday and Arc.
Joedy Lea : The Devil Paid Me (With A Mother-in-law)/Sweet Little Baby (Speed 104)
Chunky guitar patterns open « The Devil… », an above average tale of woe about Joedy’s Ma-in-law & the trials and tribulations she puts him through. As on all Speed discs the backings are superb and I suppose that being located in Nashville the label was able to call on the cream of early session men (and women) in town. Ably assisted by a steel, piano and a fine fiddle player this is a fine disc with Joedy delivering the song in a fast ‘talking blues’ style and the flip slows things down as is a strange amalgam with some bluesy guitar licks and yet the piano has almost a cocktail lounge sound to it. Strange record.
Some confusion seems to reign with Hillbilly collectors between this man – Tennessee Slim Hollingsworth – and Mississipi Slim, who were both active in Nashville at the same time. Well, the latter (real name Carbel Lee Ausborn) recorded for Tennessee and has nothing to do with Tennessee Slim, who was quite a character in Nashville in those balmy days and was a good writer too as these two couplings prove. I’m An Old Wolf is a perfect vehicle for his lazy vocal delivery with great lyrics about he’s getting a bit long in the tooth for galivanting around. Bluesy edged steel complements the vocal while an able rhythm section chugs away in background. On the flip we have a nice Hillbilly weeper set to a walking bass. Swirling fiddle instro’s Crazy Hazy Kisses with again that ‘live in’ lazy vocal tells his tale. The break is split between the fiddle and a nice tasty steel. Again the standard of a weeper is adopted for the flip.
Shorty Sergeant : Night Life And Wine/You’d Better Think Again (Speed 107)
« Night Life And Wine » is a quick paced Hillbilly opus and yet another example of the good ear that Frank Innocenti had for good Hillbilly. He certainly kept in the same basic sparse support building around the steel, and in this case a very good and inventive guitar.
The first of two females to have a disc out on the label. Lov-ie, Lov-ie is a superb romping piece of Hillbilly Rock which opens with a bopping piano, sharp guitar and a thundering upright bass and is set to a classic fast jive tempo. The same can be said about her next on Gold 701, “Love You – Love You – Love You”, superb piano.
Tex Cronas : Patches on my heart/A Diamond Ring (Speed 109)
« A Diamond Ring » is a fine slice of uptempo Hillbilly Bop with Tex in good form on the vocal and ably supported by an excellent guitarist – Chuck Gregory, the co-writer ? – while a lopping piano is featured on the break. « Patches » follows the same format and is a good song.
Betty Jo : Fairyland Of Love/You’ll Need My Help (Speed 110)
Betty Jo Ball may well have been related to the D.J. Noel Ball who engineered the early Lattie Moore session.Her « Fairyland » is an easily forgettable ballad which has one of my least favorites instruments in it – an organ. However for the flip she comes up with the goods in the form of an ‘answer’ song to Carlisles’ Mercury record « No Help Wanted », which is set to a basic structure. Once again we are treated with hot Hillbilly pianistics and even the luxury of an upright bass taking a brief solo. Betty Jo was also to record for the Athens label in Nashville during the late Fifties.
« Pin Ball Fever » is a fine example of Hillbilly Rock and this time the beat is emphasized by a much more upfront drummer, very driving for the time 1953/54 and shows the way seeds of a more Rockabilly approach were sown. The solid little combo has a super steel and almost inevitable piano and a sharp guitar lays an hot break before the steel/piano share the second. A real fine Country ballad on the flip. Toombs also recorded for Excello.
Bobby Helms : Yesterday’s Lovin’/Hangin’ Around (Speed 114) and Freedom Lovin’ Guy/I’ve Never Seen A Girl (Like You) (Speed 117)
Both these records are Bobby Helms’ best recordings. When he came to Speed, he was a struggling Hillbilly singer from Bloomington, Indiana. He showed here that he was a superb singer/lyricist with Hangin’ Around with its classic answer & response technique and Rockabilly guitar showing where he was at. To prove his versatility, his other contribution for the label was « Freedom lovin’ Guy » which I rate as one of the TRULY GREAT HILLBILLY ROCKERS of all time. Swinging fiddles, hot upright bass set things up and then the steel arrives. Totally sparse backing and with Bobby’s superb vocal upfront. Later went to Decca.
Bob Rogers : Little Bit Late For Lovin’/I Want To Be Babied (By A Gal Like You) (Speed 115)
Yet another mysterious figure is the rurally hick vocalist Bob Rogers who’s high pitched style is not unlike Jimmy Work’s. Both sides are top class Fifties Hillbilly with the faster paced « I want To Be Babied » just shading it for me though I know some prefer the slower « Little Bit Late For Lovin’ » for the sharp guitar work. Once more the backing is sparse and the piano outstanding.
It is much more traditional sound and instrumentation abeit a sprightly one on « This Lesson Of Love ». Fine band with a super bass line behind good fiddle. Flip is a ballad.
SPEED RECORDS DISCOGRAPHY 100GEORGIA SLIMFlyin’ Saucer Baby (Jim Oden) SP-1 Jig Saw Puzzle Heart (Jim Oden) SP-2101LATTIE MOOREIt’s Good Enough For You (Moore) SP-5 Juke Joint Johnny (Moore) SP-6102GEORGIA SLIMFryin’ Pan Boogie Three Angels 103 104JOEDY LEA The Devil Paid Me (With A Mother-In-Law) (Leavins)SP11 Sweet Little Baby (Leavins) 105LATTIE MOOREBaby, I’ll Soon Be Gone (Pyle-Moore) SP-7 My First Love (Moore) SP-8106TENNESSEE SLIMIt’s Your Turn To Cry (Hollingsworth) SP-18 I’m An Old Wolf (Hollingsworth) SP-19107SHORTY SEARGENTNight Life And Wine (Seargent) You’d better Think Again 108CHICKIE KINGO-o-o-h (C. Gregory) SP-15 Lov-ie, Lov-ie (C. Gregory) SP-16109TEX CRONAS A Diamond Ring SP-13 Patches On My Heart SP-14110BETTY JO Fairyland Of Love (Ball-Catlett) SP-22 You’ll Need My Help (Carlisle-Ball-Catlett)SP-23111JACK TOOMBSPin Ball Fever (Singleton-Gregory) SP-24 I Can’t Stop Loving You (Jack Toombs) SP-25112LITTLE BUN WILSON Confess That You’re Mine 113TENNESSEE SLIMOne sided Love Affair (Hollingsworth-Simmons)SP-30 Crazy Hazy Kisses (Hollingsworth) SP-31114BOBBY HELMSYesterday’s Lovin'(B. Helms) SP-32 Hangin’ Around (B. Helms) SP-33115BOB ROGERSLittle Bit Late For Lovin’ (Jack Toombs) SP-34 I Want To Be Babied (By Agal Like You) (Rogers)SP-35116LITTLE BUN WILSONI Lost My Heart (Wilson) SP-36 This Lesson of Love (Wilson) SP-37117BOBBY HELMSFreedom Lovin’ Guy (B. Helms) SP-38 I’ve Never Seen Anyone (Like You (Uncredited)SP-39