Bill Browning, or Bill « Zekie » Browning? Two Rockabillies in Ohio (1957-1961)

bill browning

Bill or Zekie?

Article of Phillip J. Tricker reprinted from ‘Roll Street Journal’ n° 1 (1981)

all additions are in brackets […]

The name Bill Browning had been one that I had seen on a few lists over the period of quite a number of years. He seemed to be on interesting labels but I had never been fortunate enough to hear any of his records until November 1977.

Yes I remember it very well indeed. It was my first trip the the USA looking for records, and in a Texas warehouse I came across three copies of Bill Browning‘s « Don’t Push-Don’t Shove » (Starday 432). Back at my motel that evening I became a Bill Browning fan and I have spent the five years since trying to obtain his records.

A native of West Virginia [real name Wilmer L. Browning. Born 1931 in Wayne County, W.Va. Died in 1978 – maybe cancer], Bill formed his first band known as the »Kanawha Valley Band » when he was in his mid teens, and they had a radio show on WTIP in Charleston, West Virginia, for some years.

When he was 24, he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1955. He then formed another group, the « Echo Valley Boys » [comprising Art Fulks, Merl Hoaf, Jackie Wooten, Roy Barker and Marshall Looney], and they appeared regularly in the area. It was about this time that Bill got into recording for the first time and from there the story takes an unusual twist.

It has been claimed that the Bill Browning who recorded for Island and Starday, among others, is a different artist from the Bill « Zekie » Browning, who had records issued on Ruby and Lucky. What follows is just one man’s opinion and the reasons for arriving at them. The earliest date I can place on a record by A Browning is the one on Ruby, # 220, which is credited « Rainbow Rhythmaires – vocalist Zekie Browning ». The years 1957-1960 find all the discs as by Bill Browning, usually with Echo Valley Boys. Next woud appear to come the Stardays (# 432 and 488), and here we find an interesting clue. On Starday 488B (Country Strings), credited to Bill Browning, there is a line in the song which goes :

«  Zeke picked on the country strings »

Now the highly distinctive style of guitar playing on this record is also to be heard on both sides of Lucky 0001 (I’ll pay You Back/Breaking Hearts), credited to « Zekie » Browning.

Another strange occurrence was that « Breaking Hearts » was issued under both names on Island and Lucky 0001. When I finally got hold of the Lucky issue, I was somewhat stunned that they were not even the same songs. Not even similar. Against the mid tempo Island bopper, the Lucky song is a Hillbilly weeper (with a duet vocal with Don Boone)(the song remains untraced, and was not reissued by White label on the « Lucky label » LP, not even available on Youtube, where it’s always confused with the Island tune of the same name).

There is a similarity on SOME of the records vocally, but when it comes down to the final analysis, I feel that the biggest clue is in the guitar work. On all the records I have managed to obtain/hear, the quality of the guitar work is of a uniform high standard. It is highly probable that he played on other artists records, and as lead guitarist [It is claimed on the sleeve of the « Cincinnati Rockabilly » Lee LP, that he played lead on Nelson Young‘s « Rock Old Sputnick », Lucky 0002. In return, Nelson Young played in Zekie Browning’s band].

As a final thought. the names of Bill and Zekie Browning are both used as recording credits, but, and this is I think important, only the name Bill Browning appears as a song writing credit. ALL of the eight sides on the four records I own credited to Zekie Browning have got Bill Browning as the composer. I believe they are one and the same. An artist whose Rockabilly records excite me, and who’s more Hillbilly tracks show a true love of Country music. He was never a big star, but I bet he brought happiness into many lives. [One final note : Tapio Väänanen found that the rights to Bill Browning songs were owned by his family, who seems to hold the rights to Zekie’s too. Strange…On final analysis, maybe they were distant relatives…Who knows ?

++++++++++++++++++++++++

According to Tapio Väänanen, of Finland, Bill « Zekie » Browning was born March 25, 1925 in Hyden, Kentucky and raised in Wooton.

He lived and performed in Hamilton and Cincinnati, Ohio.

Finally he died November 29, 1999.

Once more according to Mr. Väänanen, Bill Browning was born 1931 in Wayne County, W.Va. He moved later to Cleveland, Ohio. He died in 1978.

So it seems that Mr. Tricker’s 1981 speculations were wrong. Just a serie of strange and amusing coincidences…

Kentucky and W. Va maps browning affiche

About the music (notes from Bopping’s editor)

Either one of both Brownings do offer superior Rockabilly music, from 1957 to 1960. Bill Browning (Island, Starday) has more records, even an LP (2 tracks) and an entire LP (’60s), the best and available tunes are disposable on podcasts below. Best tracks are :

« Ramblin’ Man » (Island 1) is a very fine Rock-a-ballad, propelled by a strong rhythm guitar. A good mandolin player takes a short solo. Singer is in fine form, and the guitar player seems to enjoy doing some licks.

island 1 echo valley boys Ramblin' manisland 2 echo wash

« Wash Machine Boogie » (Island 2), a classic in its genre. Again a strong rhythm, a boogie guitar (an agreable solo). Echo Valley Boys do sing in unison with Browning for the refrain. A piano player has his own solo. Amusing lyrics.


« Dark Hollow » (Island 7) is a really fine side. Train song, very well sung, with emotion. This is the original version to Luke Gordon (see elsewhere in this site for his story), and of course the best-known one by Jimmy Skinner.

island 7b dark hollowisland 7 borned

« Borned With The Blues » (Island 7), as the title suggests, is a medium-paced blues. Again the singer is at ease. The guitar takes a nice solo. Good atmospheric blues record, as Rockabillies sometimes did : Gene Vincent (« Vincent’s Blues »), Bob Luman (« Amarillo Blues »), to name just a few.


« Let The Bible Be Your Guide » (Island 8) is nothing but a plain sacred country song. It anyway adds something new to Bill Browning’s range of songs.

island 8 let the bible

« Breaking Hearts » (Island 10). Again a nice bopping disc, this time adorned by a good steel player and fiddle (both take short solos). The voice of the singer is a bit high-pitched for a good effect.

island 11 sinful


island 7 breaking hearts



« Sinful woman » (Island 11), again this very effective interplay between steel and fiddle, for a very nice fast Hillbilly bopper.

« Down In The Holler Where Sally Lives » (Island LP), a fast, unison sung bopper ; good Rockabilly guitar.

« Love Left Over » (White label 8814)(Island unissued), a fine Rockabilly fast side – prominent mandolin, and a short but good guitar solo. A lot of echo on the vocal.

« Answer To Your Telephone » (White label 8814) (Island unissued), again a fast side. Steel player to the fore. Very good guitar solo. Fiddle present. May come from the « Breaking Hearts » session.

«    « Don’t Push Don’t Shove » (Starday 432), from 1958-59. A fast drum intro, very good out-and-out Country-rocker. Strident guitar and steel. Browning in nice voice shape.

«    Down In The Hollow » (Starday 488), from 1960. The theme must have been a favorite of Browning, as it is note-for-note the Island recording, leased to Starday.

 »   « Country Strings » (Starday 488 B), a fast, superior Bopper.

starday 432starday 488starday 488B


60 lucky 0011 "zekie" (instros) I did separate from the tracks above the followings : « Hula Rock », « Makes Me Feel-A- So Good » and « Gonna Be A Fire », spoiled by obstrusive choruses, too commercial and pop-oriented, at least to my ears.

he Later he had records on Marpone, Alsta, among other labels.

And that’s it for the first Bill Browning.

Bil Bill Zekie Browning recorded first for the Hamilton, Ohio Ruby label (# 220), « I’ll Agree » (1955 ? or later ?), and, although the record is now untraceable, it’s also forgettable : I have heard it moons ago, and it was a hell of a slow Hillbilly weeper…

NoThen on Lucky 0001, « I’ll Pay You Back » is superior ! What I could call, in search of a better term, a fast bluesy Rockabilly, complete with slapping bass and a very good guitar solo. Singer (named here «Bill « 59 lucky 0005 "zekie" bad case of the blues Zekie » Browning) has a somewhat husky voice, perfect for this kind of song. A minor classic, which reminds me of Jess Hooper (« Sleepy Time Blues » on Meteor!

«    « Breaking Hearts » remains untraced, so I cannot comment. According to Phillip Tricker, it’s a Hillbilly weeper on a waltz tempo.

lucky 0001 I'll paylucky 0001a breaking heartslucky 0011 creepin'enola 313 glass of wine (walter scott)

BB 7-3-60 lucky 0011 "zekie" (instros)

Billboard March 7, 1960


«

« Bad Case Of The Blues » (Lucky 0005), a superior Bopper for 1959. This time a pianist and a drummer add their touch, while steel and fiddle do shine all way through.

He then had a double-sided instrumental on Lucky 0011, « Spinning Rock Boogie/Creepin’ And Crawlin’ », backed by the Dynamics. Original record untraced and forgotten (I am unable to find at this time my copy of the White label LP « The Lucky label » WLP 8858!)

Later he was to be found on Enola, during the ’60s, for two 45s. « Glass Of Wine » (# 313) is a nice ’60s Country-rocker with strong guitar. This song was credited to Walter Scott, I’d assume the same man who had « I’m Walkin’ out » on Ruby in 1956 (posted in a past fortnight’s favorite). Enola 312 « Loser’s Blues » looks promising, but does escape to my searching antennas.

As usual, label shots were taken from Terry Gordon’s RCS site, or YouTube. Music from « Ramblin’ Man », a bootleg LP devoted to Bill Browning on Island and Starday. TRG in Holland issued a bootleg called « Hula Rock : The Island Recordings », which gathers every issue of this short-lived label. Then, old White label 8817 (« Island recordings ») and 8858 (« The Lucky label ») complete the lot. Then nothing more.

        A message from Bill Zekie Browning grandchild: « This story is not all correct on the Bill « Zekie » Browning part, he is my grandpa he died when I was 19 years old. There is not a picture of him on this site, that must be another Bill. He was an amazing musician he could play every instrument. He loved the guitar, harmonica and banjo the most. He played music for me and my family all the time, especially at Christmas. He always kept his harmonica in his left shirt pocket. He was an awesome grandpa, we spent alot of time together, I am his first born grandchild. My grandma, his wife Phyllis is a gentle, kind beautiful woman, just turned 70 years old, living healthy and well, she was much younger than my grandpa. » Please send us a picture of the actual Bill Zekie Browing!

bill_b10 Thanks to visitor DrunkenHobo (Dean C.) who pointed out two major errors in this article on November 4, 2011.

          bill zekiebill zekiepicture sent by Mz. Christina Brinkenhoff, daughter-in-law to Zeke Browning (July 8th, 2014). At last we now know how did look Zekie Browning..

late July 2010 fortnight

Hello folks! This is REALLY a hot summer over there in France, lot of heavy clouds but…no rain at all. Perfect time anyway to keep oneself well dry inside and stomp to that good ole’ Hillbilly beat. We begin with a very elusive artist from the Cumberland Valley/Cincinnati area. I’ve told before in this site about him, and did promise I should post everything I gathered for one year and a half. This could be later this year, so watch out for the fullest possible story on Mr. JIMMIE BALLARD. The first cut in this fortnite is Ballard’s own version of « Birthday Cake Boogie » (Kentucky 508)cake508ballard

of course, the same song was also recorded by, among others, BILLY HUGHES and SKEETS McDONALD, and stands out as a classic ‘risqué‘ or ‘double-entendre‘ song. Ballard was the front man then of BUFFALO JOHNSON‘s Herd (who was active in the D.C. area, and a full story on him is on the line.  And he keeps the vocal duties with the also ‘risqué‘ (Kentucky 520 ) « T’ain’t Big Enough« . Both songs are from 1953/1954, fine uptempo Boppers, altho’ just above average, except for lyrics.

taint big enoughBilly Briggs - norh pole boogie

Back to a Wildcat out of Texas, a very long career as steel guitar player as soon as 1936, then singer and front man of his band, the XYT Boys, BILLY BRIGGS. I will have some day a complete story on him. He was (maybe he’s still alive, I dunno) to have a sound on his own, and produced very strange ditties from his steel in 1951 for his greatest success (much covered) « Chew Tobacco Rag N° 2 » . Here I’ve chosen the amusing « North Pole Boogie » (Imperial 8131, late Forties), complete with icy wind effects (on steel), and Briggs’ own barytone voice imitating a sort of ‘polar bear’ .

Back to Cincinnati and BILL BROWNING. I’ve written about him elsewhere in the site with the story of the LUCKY label. Today I listen to his composition « Dark Hollow« , which was a hit in 1958 when picked up by JIMMIE SKINNER, before the very nice version on BLUE RIDGE by LUKE GORDON (watch out for his story later in 2010), then even by The Grateful Dead in 1973, among others. I particularly like the recent version made by FRED TRAVERS (90’s) which I’ve included in the podcasts; almost falsetto urgent vocal and great dobro.Bill Browning Island 7 - dark hollow

More from Cincinnati. BOBBY ROBERTS (I think there were at least 2, or 3 personas by the same name during he 50’s). Here he’s the great Hillbilly singer, who cut late 1955 4 sides for KING records. I cannot rememeber if I posted earlier his great « I’m Gonna Comb You Out Of My Hair » (what a title!). This time, I offer the second KING (4868, unverified – Ruppli’s book still stored) « I’m Pulling Stakes And Leaving You », same lyrics format. Great, great Hillbilly Bop. Later in 1956, Roberts (or one of his aliases) had « Big Sandy » or « Hop, Skip and Jump« , pure Rockabillies. I still wonder if it’s the same man; if so, he would have adapted very well and quickly (within some months) from pure Hillbilly vocal to almost Rock’n’Roll. By the way, he would not have been the first to do so: SKEETS McDONALD, GEORGE JONES, MARTY ROBBINS did very well the transition early in 1956.

Another elusive artist: guitar player/singer PETE PIKE. Recently deceased (2006) just after a CD ‘back to roots’ (Bluegrass) issued in 2005, he was active both in Virginia and D.C. areas from 1947 onwards, and associated several years with another interesting man, BUZZ BUSBY (Busbice). Pike had Hillbilly Bop records on FOUR STAR and CORAL in 1954-1955, among them I’ve chosen the superior ballad  « I’m Walking Alone« . Another future entry in www.bopping.org, research is well advanced.

Finally, on the Rocking Blues side, you’re in for a treat with L.A. ‘black Jerry Lee Lewis’ (as the Englishmen call him when he visits their shores), WILLIE EGAN and « What A Shame » from 1957 (Vita label). Pounding piano, wild vocal, strong saxes, heavy drums, the whole affair rocks like mad, althoug relaxed. Enjoy, folks. Comments welcome. ‘Till then, bye-bye.