Born Jess Willard Griffin, 28 March 1916, Washburn, Texas.?Died 26 May 1959, Auburn, California.
I must admit that I had never heard of Jess Willard before the release of his Bear Family CD in 2000. Though he recorded for a major label (Capitol), Willard always remained an obscurity and is ignored by the country music encyclopedias.
Jess was named after the boxer Jess Willard, who won the world championship heavyweight in 1915. Born in a small town in West Texas, he was one of seven children. His two big musical influences were his father, a skilled guitarist who passed onto his son his love for Western music and his technical ability, and his best friend, singer Jack Guthrie (1915-1948), whose early death was a great shock to Jess. By then Willard was living in Los Angeles where he began to appear with Ole Rasmussen and his western swing band. It was while sitting in with Rasmussen at Harmony Park Ballroom, singing Jack Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills” (a # 1 country hit in 1945), that he was heard by Lee Gillette, then head of Capitol’s country department. Gillette signed him to Capitol and produced Willard’s first session, on June 14, 1950, in Hollywood. When Capitol decided to put Gillette in their pop division, his A&R hillbilly position on the West Coast was taken over by Ken Nelson, who would produce all subsequent Capitol sessions by Willard. Gillette and Nelson noticed that Jess had trouble staying in tune on slow songs, but his vocal limitations were less apparent on up-tempo material. Most of his recordings are good-time honky tonk country, with a touch of western swing. As Jess was no great songwriter, Capitol seemed to regard him at first as a vehicle for covers of other’s hits (like Lefty Frizzell‘s “If You’ve Got the Money Honey“), but from his third session on, Willard sought original material from friends like Tex Atchison (a fiddler in Rasmussen’s band) and Eddie Hazelwood. They were the writers of “Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor” (recorded on May 3, 1951, Capitol 1562), probably Willard’s main claim to fame, especially after it was revived by Johnny Horton at the end of 1957 (Columbia 41110), and, in a more Rock’n’Roll mould, by Clyde Stacy in 1958 (Bullseye 1008). This song is still sung today. A ’90s very modern version was done by Tim O’Brien.
The Capitol recordings benefited greatly from the work of well-known West Coast session men like Jimmy Bryant, Speedy West and Cliffie Stone, and from humourous lyrics (“My Mail Order Mama“, “Turn That Gun Around“, for instance), but none of Willard’s 13 Capitol singles made any significant commercial impact. After a session in September 1952, his Capitol contract was not renewed and Jess would not record again for three years. In the summer of 1953, Willard and Eddie Hazelwood headed to Korea to entertain troops, followed by a four and a half month tour of the Far East.
In 1954 Jess befriended Hank Cochran, who was working in duet with teenage guitarist and future rock ‘n’ roll star Eddie Cochran. Though they were unrelated, the duo billed themselves as the Cochran Brothers. In 1955, the Cochrans toured northern California with Willard, then joined him for a time as members of the California Hayride in Stockton. Jess recorded Hank’s “Every Dog Has His Day” and his own “Don’t Hold Her So Close” for the Ekko label in Hollywood, with possible lead guitar from Eddie – although I (Xavier) don’t really recognize his usual style. The lead guitar would then be played by Hank. A fine record, issued in October 1955 (Ekko 1018), but unfortunately it would remain Willard’s only Ekko release.
When the Cochrans split and left the Hayride, Willard stayed, settling in Auburn, near Sacramento. He was a popular local radio personality and recorded two one-off singles for small labels (Kay-Hi 127 : « I’m Telling You », 1957, and Sundown – « Cops and Robbers », still untraced- 1959) before he died of a heart attack on May 26, 1959, at the age of only 43. Willard was, as Hank Cochran put it, “solid country … no pretense at all. He was as down to earth as you can get.” In the late 1970s, some of his recordings were rediscovered by country fans, and one track, “Honky Tonkin’ All the Time” was included on a Charly anthology in the early 1980s. Had he been alive, Willard would probably be amazed that people are still listening to his music in the 21st century.
(biography taken from Blackcat Rockabilly Europe and written by Dik De Heer – reproduced with permission)
Jess Willard is always at his best with medium up-tempo songs. Name « Cadillac Blues » from his penultimate Capitol session of February 25, 1952. Willard has that distinctive nasal pronunciation, prettily backed by the lead guitar playing of Walt McCoy (already an artist by himself on Crystal records. His « Cowboy Boogie » is to be found on Boppin’ Hillbilly vol. 16), and the steel guitar of Leodie Jackson (also an artist of his own, known for « Steeling The Blues“ or « Double Crossin’ Mama », the latter to be found on the 2001 « Swinging West vol. 2» compilation). Noticeable also is his fine version of « New Panhandle Rag », recently (early 1950) originally done by Webb Pierce on Pacemaker (see elsewhere in this site for Webb Pierce’s early disks). For this version, a fine instrumentation does include harmonica (Jerry Adler), the renowned Tex Atchison (he would later co-write « Honky Tonk HardwoodFloor ») on fiddle, and a very inspired Jimmy Bryant on lead guitar ; the whole being propelled by the solid bass of Cliffie Stone. Indeed his best known track is « Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor », with his tap dance sounds, bar-room styled piano, and on the whole its very easily evocative atmosphere of a early ’50s honky tonk. I like very much what is in my mind his best recording session ever, of September 1951 : songs like the two amusing « Turn That Gun Around » (Capitol 1855) and « My Mail Order Mama » (# 1963)(co-written by none other than Mar-Vel’s label Bob Burton’s lead-guitar player Ronnie Durbin, out of Indiana), Willard’s own « Truck Driver’s Boogie » (co-written with guitarist Walt McCoy, who does a superb job here), ; this song has nothing to do with the Milo Twins‘ 1947 song of the same name. Finally from this session, I like particularly « Mistreated Blues » (# 1855) with its line « Nobody wants me to be their darling – I’ve got those lonesome mistreated blues » and always an impressive backing on a slowish uptempo number.
Considering both Ekko sides, they are fine uptembo hillbilly bop songs, Willard in fine form, in front of a sympathetic backing. Everybody in the studio seems to feel relax and enjoy doing their job.
Big Allan Turner, out of England, did fortunately put his hands on a two-sided test pressing of songs, already unissued elsewhere, and published on his site (www.hillbillyresearcher.blogspot.com). They are really demonstration songs: “Please Believe In Me” and “It’s A Sin“, with sparse instrumentation (steel, lead guitar barely audible and bass), and otherwise would have deserved a full backing. No composer credits. Maybe Willard did intend to use them for knocking at another label’s door ?
Finally the Ka Hi issue, “I’m Telling You” (flipside unknown – this song has been reissued twice recently, on Cactus “High On The Hog – vol. 3” and Collector “Rock and Roll Country Style”. It’s a microscopic label, out of somewhere in California (I only know of another disc, by Freddie Byers – same period, 1957, a good hillbilly bop). Willard is in fine form, and lovely backed by a tight combo (steel, lead guitar, piano,fiddle and bass), singing the evergreen « You’re gonna change, or I’m gonna leave » refrain. Jack Guthrie had had his own version in 1946 on Capitol.
The last record I know of was issued probably in the Summer of 1959, so AFTER the untimely death (at the age of 43) of Willard. It’s on the Pico, Ca. Sundown 127 label, and I have still to hear « Cops And Robbers/Night Time Is Cry Time ». Anyone can help ? Let me know, please !
He died of a heart attack on May 26, 1959, at the age of only 43. Willard was, as Hank Cochran put it, “solid country … no pretense at all. He was as down to earth as you can get.” In the late 1970s, some of his recordings were rediscovered by country fans, and one track, “Honky Tonkin’ All the Time” was included on a Charly anthology in the early 1980s. Had he been alive, Willard would probably be amazed that people are still listening to his music in the 21st century.
Howdy, folks! Finally moved. More room for records, more space for living. Hope all of you are fine, still prepared for good ole’ Hillbilly music. Two classics will be discussed this time. All the podcast will be 78 rpm but only one 45: many a hiss! (more…)
Bobby Adamson walked over to a coat closet in the entrancy of his comfortable home in Exeter, California and pulled out a garishly colored jacket and trousers. He held them up, displaying them with pride. Golden yellow in color, the suit was decorated with strappings of California’s San Joaquin Valley, icons which were no different from any other farming community in 1950s America : husks of corn, bales of hay, and barefooted, overalled farmers carrying buckets. The suit was designed for Adamson by Nudie Cohen, rodeo taylor for stars. In those days, a Nudie suit was the mark of stardom for country and western performers ranging from the Maddox Brothers and Rose to Elvis Presley. In the mid-50s Bobby Adamson was a member of this select fraternity of celebrities, for he and his boyhood friend Woody Wayne Murray were the Farmer Boys, a talented vocal duo whose brief moment in the spotlight lasted for only a few years before being obliterated by the coming of rock and roll. Despite recording for the prestigious Capitol Records label and touring with stars of the Grand Ole Opry as well as Elvis Presley himself, the Farmer Boys are never mentioned in the annals of country music history. Yet the Farmer Boys helped popularize the distinct and provocative « Bakersfield Sound » that lives on today in the music of Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam. (more…)
The mainstay of this ensemble was Jimmy Lee Fautheree. Born (James Walton Fautheree) on April 11, 1934 in Smackover, Arkansas. When he was 12 years old, his aunt bought him a guitar and he was fortunate that his parents wanted him to be an entertainer : so Fautheree became an accomplished guitarist at the age of 16 He spent many hours and dayspracticing guitar and singing with two of his younger brothers, Lynn and Jackie, both of whom in adulthood would follow him in musical pursuits. Their father was an oilman and moved his family from town to town as jobs became available, but settled in Dallas in 1946. The family was very musical minded, so Jimmy came by it honest.Jimmy liked and was around most phases of music : blues and hillbilly were his favorites, but country and gospel also fell into place. Ernest Tubb and Jack Guthrie were big influences, but Merle Travis left a definite impression on Jimmy with his distinctive finger-picked electric guitar style.
Following a successful appearance on the Big « D » Jamboree, Jimmy Fautheree was soon a regular feature of the Dallas Country music scene. ‘Country’ Johnny Mathis, not to be confused with the pop crooner of the same name, hailed from Maud TX, where he was born in 1935. Mathis is arguably the most notable of the many individuals that made up the other half of the Jimmy & Johnny guise. Mathis had already garnered some experience in the recording field, having waxed a handful of sides for the JB [an extra-Bullet outfit of Jim Bulleit] in 1951 and Talent (Dallas, Texas) (1949) labels. Jim Bulleit acted also as manager for Jimmy Fauthereee (see below Billboard snippet).
In 1951, the boys were invited on to the Louisiana Hayride and very quickly became part of the house band which was then run by bassist Tillman Franks (more on him in the article devoted elsewhere in this site to the early days of Webb Pierce in Shreveport). Recently unearthed tapes of the Hayride concerts stand testament to their talent. Shortly after joining the prestigious show, Fautheree was signed to a recording contract with Capitol records. His first Capitol session took place at the Louisiana Hayride in 1951 in Shreveport, Louisiana. Four songs were recorded – “Go Ahead and Go” (a Jimmy Lee original), the fine uptempo “I’m Diggin’ A Hole To Bury My Heart” (# 2153) and here, Fautheree was also renamed “Jimmy Lee“. He went on to be a great star in the hillbilly field. One of his Capitol records is interesting,”Blowin’ And Goin’” as it includes a muted trumpet, an unusual instrument in early ’50s Country, but in Lee Bond‘s Republic sides, e.g. “How About A Date“, cut at the same time as Jimmy Lee (see elsewhere for this label’s story)
Billboard 1952 snippet
In 1953, the pair Fautheree-Mathis recorded « If You Don’t, Somebody Else Will » for Feature (a Crowley, La. Jay D. Miller label), but it wasn’t until the following year, when they re-recorded the song for Chess, that it made the n°3 spot and became their only hit record. Jimmy Lee continued working and recording under the name of Jimmy & Johnny (Decca), albeit now with his brother Lynn. The new duet cut superb Rockabillies : the furious « Sweet Love On My Mind » (written by Wayne Walker, and shortly thereafter recorded by Johnny Burnette and the Rock’n’Roll Trio on Coral)(# 30061), the lazy uptempo Hillbilly bop bordering Rockabilly « Sweet Singing Daddy » (# 29772), the equally good « What ‘Cha Doin’ To Me » (# 30410), while the latter’s flipside, « I’ll Do It Everytime » was titled « Skiffle-Billy Beat » ! They were featured on Faron Young‘s band – Faron Young & The Deputies, on to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, performing there many times on the famous stage. Jimmy was featured in many shows of Elvis Presley’s early years, with Elvis being Jimmy’s opening act several times. Wow, how many can say that has happened for them ? Fautheree also did teaming up on Chess with Wayne Walker for the major 1955 Rockabilly classic « Love Me » with its furious steel-guitar and Fautheree’s own raucous, gutbucket bluesy guitar. In addition, he made later some solo recordings : in 1958, he cut the out-and-out rocker « Teen-Age Wedding » for the Vin label in New Orleans under the name Johnny Angel.
KWKH was a radio studio, also the only recording studio in Shreveport. Its studio was built as a room within a room : about two ft. away from the outside walls of the building, another wall was constructed stuffed with fiberglass. The only windows faced the annoncer’s booth and an area in front of the studio where the coffee machine and several chairs and tables were situated. The dimensions of the studio were approximately 25×30 ft. with a 12-foot ceiling, which was similar to the Dallas’ Jim Beck’s studio facility. Nevertheless, engineer Bob Sully excelled in being able to make the most out of what was available. For instance, he discovered that an echo effect was possible through feeding the output back into the board. Which he did, with Jimmy Lee & Wayne Walker « Love Me ».
Mathis teamed early in 1955 with a Dallas club owner, Les Chambers, who put on several singles on Starday by himself. The pair issued two nice fast Hillbilly boppers : « Everybody Else Does (Why Can’t I ») (Starday 181), as an answer to « If You Don’t, Somebody Else Will », and « Give Me A Little More » (Starday 206).
Chambers soon disappeared, recording-wise, while Johnny Mathis switched naturally under the protection of Starday, when this label and Mercury went to a common venture early in 1957. There he had «One Life » (# 71273), as several tracks on various artists albums, e.g. « Hillbilly Hit Parade ». He even cut uncredited for the
low-budget Dixie label a nice version of the, I believe he was
the originator, Porter Wagoner song « I Thought I Heard You Call My Name » (# 526). Later in 1958, he recorded Rockabilly on ‘D’ as Les Cole and the Echoes (« Bee Boppin’ Daddy /Rock-A-Bye-Baby», # 1010). He and Fautheree were reunited in the late fifties for a couple of releases on ‘D’, (“My Little Baby” , # 1089 ) and one for the Los Angeles Republic label (« Knock On Wood », # 2014), in 1961 before finally dissolving the act, and once again each one going their own way.
During the 1960s, Jimmy Lee recorded for the Paula label in Shreveport : a more modern version of « Can’t Find The Door Nob » (sic, # 239) (1966) and one very tough, fine guitar-led instrumental: “Box Full Of ‘Git’” Next year, he cut the nice, loud rocker “Overdue ” (also on Paula 279), then on the Lodema label, more instro with “Project X-9” and the awesome country bopper “Laziest Man In The World” (Lodema # LR 101, 1983).
Jimmy produced several Gospel albums, his first in the late 1970’s. Lynn Fautheree died in 1989 from asbestosis. It would not be before 1995 that Jimmy & Johnny performed again together for the first time in 35 years, when they recorded a gospel tune “It Won’t Be Much Longer“, released on the Dallas based TIMA Records in 2000. It was their last recording together. It was however their last recording as Johnny became ill in 1999. Hewas invited to come backfor a reunion on the Louisiana Hayride show on June 27 and 28, 2003, titled “One More Ride”, at the original Municipal Auditorium, 706 Elvis Presley Ave., Shreveport, Louisiana. Jimmy opened the Friday night show by singing one of his recordings, “Unknown Legends“, written by Johnny Mathis. That song was perfect for the night, and as many of the original performers such as Kitty Wells, Johnny Wright, Bonnie, Maxine, and Jim Ed Brown, Billy Walker, just to name a few, were present to once again perform their talents, and could say, “we are home once again“.
Also last year (2003), Jimmy performed a Rockabilly Show, “The Ponderosa Stomp”, in New Orleans, Louisiana, backed by Deke Dickerson and the Ecco-Fonics Band. That performance went so well that Deke invited Jimmy Lee to his Fort Horton studios in Austin, TX., to record with the band. The result is: “I Found The Doorknob“, Jimmy Lee’s first recording in forty years! The new CD features the hit “I Found The Doorknob” (answer song to “Can’t Find The Doorknob“), and many others including “Gotta Get You Near Me Blues“, “Overdue“, “Box Full of Gits” (Jimmy’s admirous guitar picking), “I’m Diggin a Hole“, “Big Mamma Blues“, “Nine Pound Hammer“, and many more. This CD is available through the web site – dekedickerson.com, his first album for nearly 30 years.
Jimmy went to Rye, Sussex, England, and performed the Rockabilly Rave Show on March 7, 2004, doing an outstanding performance playing his guitar and singing to many a fan who never thought they would get to see their favorite artist in person. This was also the first time he ever did perform in Europe. Three months later, he lost his battle against cancer : he passed away at his home in Dallas TX, on June 29, 2004.
As a solo artist, Johnny Mathis released several singles for D, United Artists and Little Darlin’. His final charting single was “Please Talk to My Heart,” released in 1963. He also encountered significant success as a songwriter, penning songs for Johnny Paycheck, George Jones and Webb Pierce, among others.
Mathis suffered a stroke in February 1999, and was no longer able to perform. He died on September 27, 2011, one day prior to his 78th birthday
There was also a release on TNT which is by a different Jimmy & Johnny duet; a Jimmy Lee has « Look What Love Will Do » on Vin 1010, and a record on Feature is by a Jim & Johnny, once again no relation to Messers Fautheree and Mathis.
Biography based on Dik De Heer work (www.rockabilly.nl), Walter Stettner’s own, from « Steel Guitar Forum » (published on the Rockabilly Hall of Fame site), and, most of all, from the very fine and indispensable book « Cowboys, Honky-tonks and Hepcats » written and published by my good friend Tony Biggs. Nearly all pictures were provided by Tony, too. And all the music comes from his fabulous collection…Thanks-a-lot, Tony!