Despite being a presence on the country music scene in Houston for over 30 years, Johnny Nelms never found the right song or right label to break out of the local honky-tonks. His long recording career included stops at Gold Star, Freedom, Starday, D, Tilt, Westry, Bagatelle, (briefly) Decca, and probably others, but none of these give the likes of Peck Touchton or Eddie Noack anything to worry about. They are decent C&W records, but nothing more. He was more successful as a club owner, pipefitter, Mason, and eventually a politician, serving in the Texas House of Representatives during the 62nd Legislature in 1971-72. When I met him in 1996, he was a bail bondsman in downtown Houston. (No, I wasn’t there to see him about bailing me out of jail.)
For my money, Nelms’ 1955 outing on the Azalea label is his finest hour. The record, made at Bill Quinn’s Gold Star Studio before it’s renovation, is pretty low-fidelity, but Johnny’s singing is great and musically, “After Today” is what ’50s honky-tonk is all about: raw, direct, and emotional…”white man’s blues,” as (ironically) a black country music fan explained to me once. The uncredited backing band here is Peck Touchton‘s Sunset Wranglers, which includes Doug Myers (fiddle), Herman McCoy (guitar), Hoyt Skidmore (steel guitar), and George Champion (piano) — the same band heard on Peck’s Starday and first Sarg session. Peck remembered Johnny very well and often played at his club, The Dancing Barn, on Houston’s East Side:
“We were working at the Dancing Barn with Johnny Nelms [c. 1955],” Touchton said in a 1999 interview. “We worked out there a long time. The Dancing Barn was a rough damn club, too. It was on LaPorte Road. (Nelms’s) old man, his daddy, had just got out of the pen for killing a man when we were working out there. His daddy killed one or two people. At least one. You could just look at the old man and know that the old son-of-a-bitch was dangerous. There was a few knives pulled out there during that time. Even the band had fisticuffs with the crowd.”
Azalea moved around a lot. Starting in Mobile, Alabama, it moved to Houston for awhile, then Dallas, and the final releases have a Fort Worth address. To make things more confusing, Nelms’ record was advertised in Billboard on July 16, 1955, with a New Orleans address. Presumably, label owner Dave Livingstone was a guy who “got around.” He was certainly tenacious, releasing 31 records over about seven years. None were hits, but there were quality outings from the Hooper Twins, James O’Gwynn, Dixie Drifters, Coye Wilcox, Adrian Roland, the Country Dudes, Joe Poovey, and Marvin Paul. The label should be of interest to anyone into ’50s Texas country music.
Nelms was born January 9, 1931 in Huttig, Arkansas (not Houston like he told me in 1996). He died at age 70 in Houston on February 17, 2001.
(from Andrew Brown and his blogsite « Wired for sound », 2009)
Johnny Nelms records – an appreciation (by bopping’s editor)
Both Gold Star 1386 (1950) sides [Note Nelms without “s”] are average Texas Country tunes, one fast (« I’ll learn ya, dern ya ») , the other slow – with minimal instrumentation, they can be forgotten. “I’m so Ashamed” was re-recorded just ten years later on “D” Records!
Let’s jump to 1955 and arguably the cream of the entire Johnny Nelms output with the Azalea issue. « After today » (Azalea 104) is what hllbilly bop is all about : strong and emotional vocal over a medium paced tempo, solid backing (fiddle and steel) ; « Cry, baby cry » goes in the same vein, only adding echo for a good effect, as often in Starday records.
Billboard July 16, 1955
And deservedly Nelms’ next outing was issued on the famous yellow label, and both sides (« A tribute to Andy Anderson/Everything will be all right », Starday 238)) are very good examples of the ‘Starday sound’. It’s surely ole’ Doc Lewis tickling the ivories, and possibly Ernie Hunter who’s sewing his fiddle, plus Herby Remington on steel. Great sides of 1956, reminding certain Sonny Burns‘ or Fred Crawford‘s tunes, and very near in intensity to Azalea.
It’s interesting to note that the original of « After today » had been done in 1951 by the veteran of Honky-tonk in Houston : Jerry Irby, on the Hummingbird label (# 1001) . Included below.
Next record in 1957 on the Tilt label, and the change is significant, as for the first time Nelms imitates (consciously?) someone : Johnny Cash, for a train song, « Mr. Freight Train » (Tilt 1195). Any ‘string band’ instruments removed, sole remains a nice insistant guitar, and the result is fine. Flipside is an average slowie, « Hurt is the heart ».
Finally from 1959 to 1961, Nelms went on the Pappy Daily’s ‘D’ label, and had 4 singles of an high standard, considering the era. « Yoshe’ » and « Memories for a pillow » (D 1114) are uptempos, « Old broken heart » is a mid-paced inspired item, but its flipside « Half past a heartache » (D 1195) is better. « Picture of my heart » is a slowie, and « I’ve never had the blues » D 1178) is of course bluesy. (note a fine swooping piano).
Since 1955, Central City’s WMTA radio showcased every Saturday night a live show named “The Saturday Jamboree“. Among the performers Royce Morgan can be found ; also Eddie Gaines from White Plains, Billy Harlan (the « I wanna bop » cat) on double-bass – in the late 50’s he also worked as disc-jockey on WMTA and WNES. Also Tag and Effie Willoughby, and Jimmy Piper. (more…)
Born De Armand Noack, Jnr., 29 April 1930, Houston, Texas/ Died 5 February 1978, Houston, Texas A.k.a. Tommy Wood.
Eddie Noack, 1950
Noack who gained degrees in English and Journalism at the University of Houston made his radio debut in 1947 and made his first record for the Gold Star label in 1949, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”. In 1951, he cut several songs for Four Star including “Too Hot To Handle“. Leased to the TNT label, it drew attention to his songwriting and was recorded by several artists (including Sonny Burns) , most recently by Deke Dickerson, who also included “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” on his new (excellent) CD, “Deke Dickerson In 3 Dimensions”.
Noack joined Starday in 1953 (beginning a long association with ‘Pappy’ Daily), where his immediate success came as a writer when several of his songs were recorded by top artists including Hank Snow who scored a # 5 Country hit with “These Hands” in 1956.
Noack moved with Daily to his D label where in 1958, after recording rockabilly tracks as Tommy Wood, he had a country hit with “Have Blues Will Travel” (# 14).
During the ’60s, Noack quit recording to concentrate on songwriting and publishing and had many of his songs including Flowers For Mama, Barbara Joy, The Poor Chinee,A Day In The Life Of A Fool and No Blues Is Good News successfully recorded by George Jones as album cuts.
In 1968, Eddie recorded “Psycho” for the K-Ark label.
This bizarre song, about a serial killer, was virtually unknown then since the original fifties version by its composer, Leon Payne (yes, the “I Love You Because” guy), had – understandably – never received any airplay. Since Eddie’s version it has become a cult favourite, covered by, among others, Elvis Costello.
Noack did make some further recordings in the ’70s, including arguably some of his best for his fine tribute album to Jimmie Rodgers. He moved to Nashville and in 1976, recorded an album that found release in the UK (where he had toured that year) on the Look label. He worked in publishing for Daily and Lefty Frizzell and in an executive role for the Nashville Song- writers Association until his death from cirrhosis in 1978. A fine honky tonk performer, somewhat in the style of Hank Williams, he is perhaps more appreciated today as a singer than he was in his own time.
Biography taken from Black Cat Rockabilly (Dik De Heer)
Below is a reprint of a New Kommotion article from 1976, “Talk Back With Noack”, in which Noack tells his early story in his own words.
I started in operating « Ruby Records » in February 1955. Before that I played the electric steel guitar for several years. Later on I met Esta Dodds, and worked as her A&R man, on « Esta records ». She was several years my senior and I felt she was satisfied moving at a slow pace. This irritated me and I became to be dissatisfied, so decided to start my own recording service, « talking letters » (Short recorded weddings, speeches and cut demos – in the same manner as did Sam Phillips in Memphis during the late 40’s).
Receiving satisfaction from this facet of recording, it prompted me into seeking my own label. I wanted to register it as « Rainbow Records », but there was a « Rainbow » label in Memphis, Tenn. Rather than be a part of an infrigement act, my wife gave written permission, without involvement to her, to use her name. The name « Ruby » was placed in a two dimensional diamond figure, with simulated glitter…with stars emitting from the glitter – which formed the logo. Then I was successful in getting it registered at the principal register in Washington. Wherein « Ruby Records » was given birth. (more…)