Tommy Spurlin & the Southern Boys, from average hillbilly to superlative rockabilly (Louisiana and Florida, 1954-56)
Tommy Spurlin’s « Hang Loose » (1956) became hugely popular during the British rockabilly revival of the late 1970s, when it was reissued in the UK on the specialist RM label. Spurlin had a half-brother called George ‘Benny’ Dumas, who was born to a different father in Allan, Alabama in 1931. They spent their early childhood in Jackson, Alabama before moving to Glenmora, Louisiana in their early teens. Spurlin’s grandfather retired to Miami in 1948 and the remainig members of the family followed suit a year later. By this time Dumas and Spurlin had started making music together. In 1952 they formed a semi-pro hillbilly band, Tommy Spurlin & the Southern Boys, comprising Spurlin on vocals and rhythm guitar, Dumas on bass, Virgil Powell on violin, Jimmy Slade on lead guitar and Bill Johnson on steel. In 1954 they made their first record, « Been Livin’ Wrong« / »My Address Is the Same« , released on Jiffy 205. Jiffy Records was a tiny label based in West Monroe, Louisiana, near Shreveport, where the band had picked up some work. Both sides are strict hillbilly ; « Been Living Wrong » is mid-tempo, while « My Address Is The Same » is a weepy ballad.
In the summer of 1955 they signed with Perfect Records, owned by Harold Doane in Miami, Florida. Doane, who had previously been involved in the motion picture industry, was using quite sophisticated recording techniques for the time and appears to have been one of the earliest studios to use tape rather than acetate discs as a recording medium. The first Perfect single by Spurlin and his group was « Danger!« / « Ain’t Had No Lovin’« , both sides written by Spurlin. This was still firmly in the C&W mould, agreeable mid-tempo ballads, well sung but ordinary. A second offering of Spurlin and the Southern Boys was issued on Perfect 108, again hillbilly bop, «There Might Have Been Love Song » being an uptempo side, perfect with Spurlin’s southern accent waving on steel and fiddle prominent instruments. The flipside, «Tomorrow I’ll Be Gone , escaped to my researches.
Like many other country ensembles, they fell upon hard times when rock ‘n’ roll started exploding in 1956. They decided to drop the fiddle and the steel guitar and started incorporating rock material into their stage shows. They were then regular on the Gold Coast Jamboree (WMIE, Miami). Their next single, released in August 1956, was « Hang Loose« / »One-Eyed Sam » (Perfect 109). Both sides were pure rockabilly, with a sparse guitar / bass accompaniment. Spurlin even adopted rockabilly mannerisms, e.g. small hiccups, and his vocal reminds me, especially during the « One-Eyed Sam » side, that of Andy Starr of « Rockin’ Rollin’ Stone » or « I Wanna Go South » fame. Later in 1956 the record was reissued on ART 109 (ART was Doane’s second label), with overdubbed drums. It is this overdubbed version that was reissued in the UK. The original undubbed version can be heard on the Ace CD « Miami Rockabilly » (released in 1998), along with three other tracks by Tommy Spurlin and the Southern Boys, and in the podcasts below.
Doane mailed some of Spurlin’s songs to music publisher Bill Lowery in Atlanta, Georgia. Lowery bought the publishing rights to « Heart Throb » (but not the other material), which he gave to one of his staff writers, Jerry Reed, who polished the lyrics a little, in return for a co-writing credit. Lowery then placed « Heart Throb » with one of his protégés, Ric Cartey, who recorded the song for RCA in January 1957. It wasn’t a hit, but the pay-off for Lowery came in 1982, when « Heart Throb » was included in the movie smash « Porky’s ». Spurlin’s own version of « Heart Throb » (recorded in 1956 and issued on ART 131 in 1957) was included on a 1979 album called « Miami Rockabilly » (AFS LP 1001). By 1957, Spurlin’s growing disenchantment with rock ‘n’ roll had made him increasingly unreliable. He was sacked from the band in late 1957, after which Dumas assumed Spurlin’s identity for performing purposes, which extended the band’s life for a few more years. In 1963 Dumas started a successful manufacturing business in Jackson, Alabama. In 1969, as Benny Dumas, he cut some country sides for a small Nashville label (Fiddlin’ Bow) before quitting the music business altogether in the early 1970s. The real Tommy Spurlin moved to Mississippi, where he died in 2005, completely unnoticed by the rest of the world. At least, I did not see his demise mentioned in any music paper, nor on the Internet. (The death date comes from the Social Security Death Index.)
biography by Dik De Heer (http://www.rockabillyeurope.com). Pictures from Terry Gordon’s RCS site or Youtube. Music from compilations. A big thank you to Al Turner for sending me both sides of Perfect 107. I did not podcast ART releases of « Hang Loose/One-Eyed Sam » since they are identical to the Perfect issue except the overdubbed drums.
Alexander Petrauskas of Germany tells me the picture is of Hank Spurling (of « Box Car Blues » fame). I really don’t know where I got the picture from. Anyway,thanks Alex!
A recently sent (by G Minus Mark) picture of Tommy Spurlin:
July 31rst. Diane Dumas, George’s daughter, sent me the real Tommy Spurlin’s picture. Thanks to her!
I include her message today, announcing good news (a forthcoming CD!):
Also two visitors did ask for overdubbed versions (drums) of Art 109 « Hang Loose/One-eyed Sam »; so I added them in the podcasts below. Thanks, fellows, for your visits!
Finally from a personal point of view, I am amazed with the correspondance we had with Diane Dumas, since her ancestry is French. Indeed, « Dumas », or « Dumais » or even other versions, do mean « Of House », « Mas » meaning « Mansion » in the XVII° century, date of the arrival of the French Dumases on the North American soil. Great spirits always meet.
Another message (early August 2012) from Miz. Diane Watson Dumas gives another light on Tommy Spurlin’s departing from the band: « I printed out your article on my Uncle Tom Spurlin and took it and showed it to my father, Benny Dumas. I wanted to point out a couple things that Daddy told me. First of all Uncle Tom was not sacked from the band. He quit. He did not want to do any more recording. Daddy thinks his wife might have influenced his decision in this. The band did no more recording after that. They did continue to play sometimes and Daddy played as back up for other people as well, like his good friend, Jimmy Voytek. Daddy did not assume Uncle Tom’s identity for any reason. Daddy was co-writer with Jack Frost of « Hang Loose » and he wrote « Heart Throb » which Jerry Reed later tweaked. My Daddy and all his brothers were very close. In your article it almost sounds like Uncle Tom was just thrown out, but he wasn’t. It was his choice not to record anymore and he and his brothers remained their close relationship. As I said he still played some with them and was in their furniture manufacturing plant with them. He died in his sleep of a heart attack on July 27, 2005 and is buried just down the road from me in the same cemetery where his daughter is buried and more of my family. He was a great uncle and we all loved him dearly. My Daddy was a great singer in his own right, but neverpursued his own career. He did make the one record in 1969. I think he did this just for himself. It was never really promoted. One side was « I Heard Some Talk » and the other side was « D.T. Blues ». My Daddy wrote both of these songs. He and Jimmy Voytek remained friends until Jimmy’s death. Jimmy and his family actually lived here for while and Jimmy worked for my Daddy at his manufacturing plant. In fact I found quiet a few of Jimmy’s records when going through some of my Daddy’s things. » So now we know why Tommy Spurlin quit the Southern Boys.