Bakersfield, Ca. Sound: the Pep, Tally and Bakersfield labels
(from the notes of Bo Berglind for the CD « Just Around Bakersfield »(2009)
The Bakersfield’s sound could also be called the story of the Buck Owens’ sound.It developed during the 1950s in smoke-filled honky-tonk bars that offered music seven nights a week and of course on radio and television stations in Bakersfield and throughout California. The town, known mainly for agriculture and oil production, was the destination for many Dust Bowl migrants and others from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and other parts of the South. The mass migration of « Okies » to California also meant that their music would follow and thrive, finding an audience in California’s Central Valley.
This music was brought to the public by a myriad of small Bakersfield labels such as Audan, Bakersfield, Fire, Global, Hunco, Impact, Indio, Kord, Millie, Pike, Rose, Rural Rhythm, Super-Sonic and Tally. From nearby cities came Pep (Pico Rivera, later Los Angeles) and Chesterfield (Los Angeles) to name a few. Of these only Tally became real big in the 1960s: Tommy Collins, Merle Haggard for example.
The label was formed in 1956 by R.B. Christensen; it had a 100 and 500 series. It lasted until 1959.
Formed in the early months of 1956, the label had twelve releases, the most well known being done by the veteran Tommy Duncan, « Daddy Loves Mommy-O », but also had Dusty Payne, later on Rodeo/Excel labels.
The label made its debut in 1955 with its owner J.E. Swarr, later Claude Cavener.
Among its roster was a young Alvis Edgar « Buck » Owens. Already a seasoned performer and recording artist (La Brea label), Owens cut three first class records for the label including classic rockabilly under the alias of « Corky Jones ».
Another claim to fame was the very first version of « Crazy Arms » by Kenny Brown: the song, heard by Ray Price, rised up to # 1 in 1956, before being revived by Jerry Lee Lewis the same year. Other good Pep artists included Ronny Branam.
Founded by Lewis Talley in 1955, its roster included Fuzzy Owen. It was in the little crampted building, not bigger than a bathroom, of Tally that Buck Owens cut « Hot Dog » b/w « Rhythm And Booze ». Fuzzy Owen also cut there « Yer Fer Me ». The biggest star on Tally was of course Merle Haggard, between 1962 and 1964.
The artists: I have concentrated on the more Country and Rockabilly artists.
Bill Carter (born in 1929 in Arkansas), was at one time stationed in U.S. Army in northern part of California. There he met Big Jim DeNoone and had even records on Gilt-Edge and Republic. His sides on Tally were cut in 1957-58 and the best is « I Used To Love You » (Tally 115). He later went to Black Jack and later moved to Nashville to form his own Bill Carter singers.
Charles « Fuzzy » Owen, also from Arkansas (1929). He picked cotton with relatives in California during the day and played three nights a week at the Blackboard, then just a hole-in-the-wall tavern. They were inspired by Ernest Tubb: Fuzzy was on steel, his first cousin Lewis Talley on guitar and vocal and an accordion player. After a stint in the Army, in 1952, Fuzzy and Bonnie Owens recorded the Hillbilly Barton’s song « A Dear John Letter », with a very limited distribution. The same year however, Ferlin Husky and Jean Shepard picked up the song to #1 position. Fuzzy Owen also cut the fine « Yer Fer Me » In 1955 Owen and Tally formed Tally. They cut rocker Wally Lewis, and later went to higher grounds with Merle Haggard.
George Rich didn’t became rich with his « Drivin’ Away My Blues » (Tally 105), then disappeared completely.
Lynn Billingsley recorded (Bakersfield 107) his « Childhood Boogie » with Johnny Cuvellio Orchestra (Red Simpson on lead guitar, Johnny on drums). Record came late in 1956.
Custer Bottoms cut his claim to fame (« Stood Up Blues », Bakersfield 108) with a band that must have included Buck Owens on these very hot lead guitar licks, ca. early 1957.
Sid Silver is another unknown musician that made the terrific « Bumble Rumble » on Bakersfield 510). Bill Woods in on guitar with Johnny Cuviellos band.
Phil Brown recorded on Bakersfield (# 130) with Bill Wood’s band, « You’re A Luxury », which stands as the nearest to Hillbilly Bop of all the selections. He disappeared afterwards.
Buck Owens was born in 1929 in Garland, Texas. He came to Bakersfield in 1937-38 making a living harvesting vegetables, picking peaches, before switching to music: first, mandolin in 1940, before guitar in 1951 (having in the meantime married to Bonnie, before divorce). Bill Wood’s sideman Tommy Duncan noticed Buck’s guitar picking, which led him to join Bill Wood’s Orange Blossom Playboys at the Blackboard Café. It was to become Buck’s home base until 1957. 1953: first recording (« Blue Love »). He played with Bud Hobbs on « Louisiana Swing » (see earlier: the debut of Bakersfield sound). In 1955 he cut his first sides for Pep, real country music, before his rockabilly classics from 1956, « Hot Dog » and « Rhythm and Booze ». The rest is a Capitol contract and international history.
Charles « Kenny » Brown, part Choctaw indian, was from Little Rock, another from Arkansas (1928). When he was 13 he went to California where his mother has settled after divorcing. He started his own band, after discharge from U.S. Army, Kenny Brown and the Arkannsas Ramblers. In 1955, he got in touch with Pep which issued their first record by him.. He cut « Crazy Arms » on Pep 102 (written by young Ralph Mooney), later picked by Ray Price, who sent it to # 1 in April 1956. He later had two other records on Pep, « Throw A Little Wood On The Fire » being the better, before leaving to Sundown (co-owned with his third wife Geanetta). Kenny Brown died in 1996 due to a bad medical treatment.
Louise Duncan, from Waco, Texas, moved early in California with the desire to become a country entertainer, but had to wait the age of 24 to cut her first sides on Bakersfield. A pleasant Hilbilly, « Wherever You Are », which attracted the ears of Ken Nelson at Capitol records and gave her a national distribution.
Bill Woods, musician and disc jockey, the real « Father of the Bakersfied sound » went from Denison, Texas (1924). His father, an itinerant preacher, settled in 1940 in Arvin, Ca., just south of Bakersfield. After several moves, and beginning to play guitar, he became bass player for Tommy Duncan, ex-Bob Wills’ Playboys singer. In 1949, he founded his own band, the Orange Blossom Playboys,
not long before recruiting Buck Owens on guitar, himself playing the piano on his first record (« Trusting You », Cliff Crofford, vocal) for Modern. Many musicians passed through his band, in much demand on records cut in Bakersfield, and even on Capitol. As for himself, he cut great rockers like « Bop » and « Phone Me Baby », as well as great country tunes like « Ask Me No Questions ». He also liked stock-car racings, until an accident in the early ’60s. He later played piano for Merle Haggard, but suffered more surgeries and died in 2000.
Cliff Crofford fronted first Bill Wood’s band on Modern (« Trusting You ») before cutting for Tally some Rockers, « There Ain’t Nothin’ Happenin’ To Me » or « A nght For Love » (Tally 104). He wrote several songs by himself, and later went duetting with Billy Mize on Town Hall Party (search for him on Youtube).
Bonnie Blue Bell (who sounds male) had a good rocker with « Let’s Go » on Bakersfield 105.
For more information, get the CD « Just Around Bakersfield » (2009) as shown below:
Thanks to Bo Berglind for loaning some rare label scans. Also to Terry Gordon’s « Rockin’ Country Style » site