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).
It took only one song to put Speck and Doyle into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame : « Music to my ear » was released on their own Syrup Bucket label in 1959, and the song still remains today one of the best examples of rockabilly music ever recorded.
Brother Watson, better known as Speck, and Doyle Wright were born near Bonifay, in the Florida panhandle, on April 2nd 1923 and July 13th 1928 respectively. The family were sharecroppers but moved to Columbus, Georgia in 1942. In the interval the two brothers had been raised on Country music with Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff as their main influences, later adding Ernest Tubb and Hank Wlliams. They had learned to play guitar and sing.
Soon after the move to Georgia, Speck was drafted and sent to fight in Europe, where WWII was raging. After his return to the mainland, he turned to music for a living, performing with brother Doyle. In 1947, they were working on station WRBL in Columbus with a 15-minutes radio show sponsored by a local furniture store. While with WRBL they began a long-time friendship with Ben Ferguson,the station’s engineer who was later to host his own ‘Uncle Benny’s Hillbilly Jamboree ‘, and also work as a producer for Comer Money, well known for his country and rockabilly sides on the Rambler and Money labels.
Early in 1948, Doyle was offered a job as a rhythm guitarist with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, right after Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs had left the band to go on their own. Doyle gladly accepted the offer but stayed only a few weeks with Monroe before returning to Columbus to work with Speck on their own live radio show on WRBL.
A few years later, probably in 1951, Doyle sent a tape he had recorded to Lew Chudd, manager of the Imperial label. Although better known as a Rhythm & Blues company, Imperial had also launched their Hillbilly serie (# 8000 onwards) in 1947. Many Southern Country artists were to appear in this serie through the years, with Jerry Irby, Link Davis, Danny Dedmon, Bill Mack, Jimmy Heap, Dewey Groom and Dub Dickerson being well known to fans of ’50s Hillbilly and Rockabilly music.
Chudd was favourably impressed by what he heard and signed Doyle immediately, although a Bllboard snippet reveals there have been a possible fight between Chudd and Art Rupe (Specialty Records, Hillbilly # 700 serie), who, according to the snippet, « had inked » Doyle.
Billboard Jan 26,1952
courtesy UncleGil . Thanks!
For Imperial anyway eight songs were cut at station WRBL in Columbus, Ga. During two sessions held between October 1951 and Spring 1952. Besides Doyle on vocals and rhythm guitar, backing was provided by Gene Jackson (fiddle), Billy Ray Andrews (steel guiar), Little Jim Finger (mandolin) and Speck Wright (bass). All songs were written by Doyle.
Imperial 8127 (« I’m not weeping over you/That’s why I cried ») has until now proven impossible to find, so cannot be commented. If ever you, Reader of this article, is the owner of this record, please show yourself in the comments or the “contact me” header. Luckily remain from this first session the two other songs on Imperial 8132. « Don’t tell me lies » is a mid-paced Hillbilly weeper, and « It just don’t seem right », although a little bit faster, is as ordinary Hillbilly. But it’s not quite a lively beginning for Doyle.
Out of the second session come Imperial 8157, « Ask the Lord » being a fast religious item and « Don’t you know or don’t you care » a decent Hank Williams inspired (at least for the vocals) Hillbilly mid-paced bopper ; last two tracks of the Spring 1952 session were issued in 1953 and comprised the most accomplished Doyle Wright boppers : « Someday you’ll return » and « An ache in my heart » do continue in the Hank Williams mould, with a fine fiddle giving a good tempo. None issue seems to have gained any hit status, even regional. And poor sales do explain the rarity of # 8127.
WRBL opened a TV station in August 1953 and with their popularity spreadng in the area, the brothers’ show was transferred to the new format, continuing until 1964. Between 1947, when the show was first aired on radio, and 1964, Webb Pierce, Hank Snow, Bill Monroe, Johnny & Jack, Cowboy Copas and Kitty Wells, among many others, guested with Speck and Doyle. (Webb Pierce, incidenall, had offered a recording contract to Speck when he appeared on the show in 1952. Not too een on going away from home on extensive tours, Speck denied the offer.)
Through well established on the local music scene, it was not until 1959 that Speck & Doyle were able to cut another session at WRBL, this time using Earl White and Hal Holbrook (fiddles), Lucky Ward (lead guitar), Howard ‘Frog’ Vincent (piano), Lanny Larue (drums) and Jim Finger (bass). Earl White and Hal Holbook were servicemen stationed at nearby Fort Benning. Two songs, « Big noise, bright lights » and « Music to my ear » were released on the Syrup Bucket label, which was created by the two brothers to make their own music available to the public. It is the only record ever released on the label to our knowledge.
« Big noise, bright lights » is a beautiful Hillbilly ballad with heavily featured twin fiddles, great lead guitar break and that matchless Southern flavour that makes this music so fascinating.
« Music to my ear » is THE side that rockabilly devotees around the world have made into an all-time classic. The twin fiddles are gone but the pianist, who was not heard on the other side, comes well to the fore on this track and takes his share of the break along with guitar player Lucky Ward while encouraging shouts from the other musicians are heard in the background. Once again the lead vocalist delivers a first class rendition of the song, while the humorous lyrics add another dimension to an already
dynamite track. This is truly one of the best rockabilly records ever made [valued between $ 800 and 1000] and one has to bear in mind that by 1959, when it was made, the style was dying in the USA. Most major labels had stopped recording anything in the genre. But small independant labels were slower to follow the trends and even if very few were to match the class of « Music to my ear », many rockabilly items were to be found on indies until the mid-’60s.
After the release of the Syrup Bucket single, Speck & Doyle worked shows in their area with Lefty Frizzell, Hank Thompson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Jimmy Dickens and countless others until 1963 when their careers took different directions. While Doyle stayed with WRBL as a technician, still playing TV, show dates and dances until 1982, Speck moved to WJHO, 30 miles West in Opelika, Alabama, hosting his own Country program between 12.30PM and 2.30PM from Monday to Friday for the next 25 years. He officially retired in 1989 but still works part-time for the station.
This is the story of Speck & Doyle. It had to be told, and next time you spin « Music to my ear » or « Big noise, bright lights », or any of Doyle’s Imperial sides, you will know that between the grooves of the records lie the spirit of two authentic and genuine artists who deserved better recognition.
(From Jack Dumery’s article, published by « NDT » # 124, July 1993). Additions by bopping’s editor. With the help of Allan Turner for the Imperial sides.
Howdy folks ! Hi ! To returning visitors. This a particularly important fortnight feature, because it includes no less than 11 selections !
We begin with an already reviewed artist (December 2010) in the article devoted to the K.C. label Westport. Here is the important and prolific MILT DICKEY. Born 1920, he was D.J. on KCMO during the early ’50s and cut nice boppers for first K.C. located Sho-Me label (# 528), like « Neon love ». The record must have been a regional success, as it was reissued exactly as same on Coral 64146 in 1953. I include the B-side of his Westport 129 disc (« Television love »), the fine weeper « Bleeding heart » with piano and fiddle backing and a good steel as expected. Dickey also released « Checkbook baby » on Coral 64169.
Still in Kansas, but 1963 for the next artist. BOB MARRIOTT & the Continentals is an hybrid of Country-rock, Soul and Rock’n’roll with « I’ll walk a mile » (Jayco 702). I know such an item may come upon Bopping’s visitors’ ears, but I like the drive of the tune, the harsh voice of the singer Chuck Vallent and a good guitar. You can of course disagree and leave a negative comment !
From Nashville in a more settled Country mould here’s PAUL DAVIS. During the ’50s he had two releases on M-G-M, the very fine « I don’t want a backseat driver » (# 12472, to be found on the Cactus « M-G-M Hillbilly, vol. 2 » compilation) and now « Big money » (# 12357, recorded June 18, 1956). « Big money » but a « single man »…Good shuffler according to Nashville standards : steel guitar throughout and good guitar over a relax vocal.
Five years later Davis would record the prototype of any truck repertoire with the original of « Six days on the road » released on the small Bulletin label # 1001 (reviewed June 18 1961, well nearly two years before the Dave Dudley hit). Fabulous wailing steel guitar, a lot of echo both on vocal and backing. By far according to my tastes the best version !
« Carroll county blues » was recorded on March 11 1929 by NARMOUR & SMITH, a duet emanating from Mississipi. The lead figure is taken on fiddle by Will Narmour, who befriended bluesman Mississipi John Hurt, and sustained by Shell (Sheriff) Smith on guitar. The tune has something of hypnotic, and was said to have come from the whistling of some black farmer. It’s been the duet’s greatest hit, and was revived on the Clarion reissue as Jones & Billings. Pretty old and crude Hillbilly !
Out of Trumansburg, N.Y. Seemingly in ’57 comes a pretty tame version of the Drifters’ « Money honey » by JANECE MORGANwith the Melody Men on the Marlee (# 101) label. An agreeable guitar and a too discrete steel over the singer, a poor man’s (woman’s!) Wanda Jackson. She had also a « First from» on Marlee 103, described as « teen rockabilly » on a ebay sale.
The name DEE STONE can be a bit familiar to Bluegrass afficionados, as he had at last 3 issues in 1952-53 on the Blue Ridge (from Virginia) and Mutual (from Illinois) labels, all backed by His Virginia Mountain Boys or his Melody Hill-billys. This time we find him on Blue Ridge 304 for « Countin’ the days », a very good Bluegrass uptempo tune (banjo and fiddle) over a duet vocal. In fact, this could as well be described, minus the banjo, as Hillbilly. Later on (in 1956, according to RCA « G » prefix), the man appears on Eastern (location unknown) for two great boppers, steel to the fore, and a piano : « Sun of love » and « Drifting down this lonely road ». An artist who we wish to hear more from. Final disc in 1960: « Ocean of dreams/After the dance » also on Eastern 12460.
Finally, a R&B rocker, cut in 1954 at a Clarksdale, MS radio station. Ike Turner was present at the session but didn’t play on this harsh-voiced « I’m tired of beggin’ », inspired by Junior Parker‘s « Feelin’ good » 1953 hit [Sun 187] by Eugene « THE SLY FOX ». Here he is pictured 20 years later, as Clarksdale high school principal. Of course the Spark label (# 108) was run by Leiber & Stoller out of Los Angeles, and had in its stall the Robins, Big Boy Groves and Ray Agee. Fox would cut « My four women/Alley music »(# 112) just at the time Atlantic bought this important small label late 1955.
Despite a long career that spanned almost 45 years, comparatively little is known about Earl Peterson. He was born in Paxton, Illinois, on February 24, 1927 and moved to Michigan when he was 18 months old. He apparently became proficient on both guitar and drums and formed his own band, the Sons of the Golden West, when he was still in high school. The group secured a regular spot on WOAP, Owosso, then moved to WMYC in Alma, Michigan, before settling at WCEN, Mount Pleasant. WCEN gave Earl and his group a regular show, Earl’s Melody Trails, and made him the talent director, staff announcer and farming news editor. Earl was to study Law after high school but he switched to a musical career instead.
Earl made his debut in the record business when he formed a record label, Nugget Records, with his mother, in January 1950.
Peterson also undertook road trips to publicise his record and, at the same time, worked guest dee-jay spots at various stations. It seems as though his mother, Pearle Lewis, was the driving force behind Peterson. Sam Phillips recalled that the pair arrived on his doorstep early in 1954 pitching « The Boogie blues ». Phillips located some country session musicians to work with Peterson and the result of the session was released in the Spring of 1954. “Boogie blues“(Sun 197)download
“In the dark“(Sun 197)download
The story becomes more convoluted from that point. In October of that year Peterson, with a healthy disregard for contracts and AFM regulations, re-recorded the same song for Columbia. The song was re-copyrighted and probably sold more than the 2500 copies that Phillips had shipped.
“Be careful of the heart you’re going to break” (Columbia 21406)download
In 1960 Peterson and his family established radio station WPLB in Greenville, Michigan. In 1962, they switched to the FM frequency and the following year saw Earl’s retirement from the performing side of the music business. By that point there was an undeniable quotient of rock and roll in country music and, in Bob Lewis’ words, « Earl wasn’t crazy about that stuff ». In 1965 Earl learned that he had cancer but he continued to work at the station until his death in May 1971.
“I ain’t gonna fall in love” (Columbia 21467) download
any Columbia issue coupled an uptempo and a slowie. The vocal is firm and assured, and the backing is on a par with the best what Nashville did offer at the time. Although unknown musicians, there was a steel, a fiddle and on « Boogie blues » (remake of the Sun version) a welcome rinky-dink piano. I posted the tracks side-by-side to let yourself judge.
« Boogie blues » on Sun 197 has sewing fiddle, steel and drums. Peterson’s voice is very reminiscent to that of Jimmie Rodgers, and the song itself derives from pre-war country songs, like Gene Autry’s ‘blues’ songs. Its flipside « In the dark » is a strong shuffler.
« Alimony blues », although in the past (N.L. Redita LP) credited to Peterson, is in fact done by Gene Steele.
« You just can’t be trusted », found on Youtube (Mr. Honky tonk chain), is evidently a ’60s recording, nice done, although I don’t know the original label neither the flipside.
First on the D label (#1034), the very Hollyish “Sady” by DOUG STANFORD. Very nice Rockabilly guitar and vocal hiccups. A medium bluesy “Separate ration blues” by BILL FREEMAN (later on All-star)(vocal “Buddy” Young): good piano, sax and fiddle.
Hillbilly boogie with AL WINKLER for “Show boat boogie” on the Winkler label # 45-88 . Boogie guitar, mandolin, and call-and-response format.