Few realize the vintage of the YORK Brothers’ earliest recordings, and that their first and biggest record, « Harmtrack Mama », was actually recorded in 1939 ! Released in Detroit on the upstart Universal label, « Hamtramck Mama » (Universal 105/106) was the very first independant Hillbilly record of a new era which would only really get into full swings toward the end of W.W. II. It reached markets in many parts of the country (over the years selling at least 300,000 copies in the city of Detroit alone) and was as much an achievement for Universal as it was for the Brothers. The record can be found with many distributor names and label variations, some very crudely printed, indicating that they had big trouble keeping up with the demand.
The York Brothers were born in Louisa, Kentucky – George on February 17, 1910 and Leslie on August 23, 1923 to a musical family who encouraged their musical ambitions. Their grandfather was from Yorkshire, England, and this later influenced their choice to adopt the York Brothers as a stage name when they were told that their own local long Yorkshire name was uncommercial. Upon leaving school after the 8th grade, George worked in the mines of Kentucky and began to consider professional music as a way out of a better life. Eventually he took the plunge and ventured to Denver, Colorado, gaining a job as guitarist in a band and doing radio shows. Before long, he moved to station WPAY in Portsmouth, Ohio and wrote to Leslie that things were looking good.
Leaving school after the 9th grade, Leslie had been avidly practicing guitar and had just won a talent contest in Lexington, Ky. He joined his brother and they found their way north to Detroit in the late 1930s. Here work was plentiful for the country musician who could entertain the thousands of Southerners who had migrated there for work in the auto industry. Their start came at a time when the popularity of the brother acts was just peaking and they were among the few who successfully made the transition to the Postwar era. They were adequate guitarists, and had an exceptional vocal harmony style. Leslie played the lead picking while George played the rhythm, often in an unusual double time. Little is known of the background of Universal records, but it’s doubtful that anyone expected the immediate success of the Brothers’ disc. Certainly the salacious lyrics of « Hamtramck Mama » helped sales, but they also provoked an outcry in certain quarters : it was banned outright in the conservative Detroit suburb of Harmtrack ! With just two acoustic guitars, George and Leslie York’s record harked back to the good time bawdy songs like « Deep Elem Blues » (Shelton Brothers), « She’s A Hum Dum Dinger » (Jimmie Davis), and countless other celebrations of drinking, riotous living and ladies of dubious repute. In contrast, the flipside, « Going Home » was probably far more typical of their repertoire, with its line about Mother and Home : one of their best ballads.
Universal rushed them back into the studio, added a wild steel guitarist, and they were almost as successful with the amusing outspoken story of « Highland Park Girl » (another local area), and « Detroit Hula Girl » (Universal 107/108). Other sessions included the topical for the time being « Conscription Blues » (# 126), or « Gamblers Blues » (# 402) and « Sweetheart Darling » (404), by which time the Yorks’ reputation led them to sign with Decca in 1941 for a fine session (without steel).
Meanwhile, Universal launched their new Hot Wax label (sporting the provocative outlines of two glamorous pinup girls), which issued the evergreen « Hamtramck Mama » coupled with the great « It Taint No Good » (# 405), finally launching Yorks’ imitators like Bill Casteel, Evelyn Haire or Rye’s Blue Yodelers, albeit without much success.
But more somber times were ahead and record production was falling because of the war effort. Hot Wax became Mellow Records, and George and Leslie were not recalled to decca, although their local popularity remained intact. They resigned with Mellow and recorded at least 30 sides during the 1941-1943 period. Starting at the strange number of # 1619, every known Mellow record is by the York Brothers and most copies are well worn, attesting to their popularity and the playing of their records. The « Hamtramck Mama » coupling (# 104/105) was reissued on Mellow but Leslie had changed to electric guitar soon after the Decca date, and a new more up-to-date version was requested. This was used for further Mellow pressings and was numbered # 1105 (still backed by # 405, the old « It Taint No Good »), and only reissued on the confidentially distributed 1999 Woodward album (enclosed in the podcasts below). The original version was reissued by Fortune Records in 1949 and issued back-to-back with « Highland Park Girl » (# 120). The record was still being pressed as a 45 rpm by the mid-60s ! A nearly 23 years enduring life for a hillbilly record…
The Mellow records, which must have been issued at a rate of close to one a month, make up a fine collection of songs that return to more traditional themes – love and betrayal, home, traveling and the old West. With Leslie’s electric guitar, they are different in sound to the Universals and soon a bass was also added to the line-up : Johnny Lavender had joined as bassist and comedian and his driving playing is a strong feature of these last sides for the label. It will be surprising to any that « Going Back To Shindig » dates from 1943… Mellow 1640 is « A Merry Cristmas To The Boys Over There », and both of the brothers were soon to serve in the Navy – George in the Pacific and Leslie in Europe.
After the war, they headed for Nashville in 1946, and were invited to join the Grand Ole Opry, also gaining a contract with the new Bullet label. Their first release, « I’m Not Foolin’ » (# 607) is something of a throwback to their earlier blues songs. They also cut a third version of « Hamtramck Mama » for Bullet in 1947, which is very similar to the Mellow remake, except that the last verse (« the preacher laid his bible down ») was omitted. From this point on, they resumed a steady output of records and easily managed to keep abreast of the times. The first step was augmenting the band with accordion, and later, steel guitar. « Mountain Rosa Lee » on King # 691 (March 1948) is a highlight of these transitional years and has become a bluegrass classic since Reno and Smiley revived it in 1959. Also from this 1947 year are « Let’s Talk Our Troubles Over » (# 690), a less risqué but very rocking « It Ain’t No Good » (# 73), the bluesy « Mississipi River Blues » (# 683) and Western swing styled « You’re The One » (# 691).
There was an interruption in recording due the 1948 ban but personal appearances kept up and they took a six weeks leave for the Louisiana Hayride, then resuming at the Opry until their return to Detroit in 1950.During their busy three years stay, they cut « Motor City Boogie » (# 858) for King Records, and covered some R&B hits such as Tiny Bradshaw’s « Gravy Train » (# 852) or The Dominoes’ massive 1951 hit « Sixty minute Man » (# 970), as well as their own « Chicken Blues » (# 983). They would on occasion modify their harmony style to sing in unison, to better suit some of the new songs. On « Sixty Minute Man », they cleverly alternate between harmony and unison singing.
Generally Leslie played lead guitar, but on several sessions a fine studio band was used featuring the great work of Zeke Turner. Add Jerry Byrd on steel and Louis Innis on bass, and this is the fine band that accompanied many great artists in studio from Chicago to Cincinnati. One of the best examples is the superb interpretation of Wynonie Harris’ « Tremblin’ » (# 983). In contrast, Leslie leads two 1953 guitar instrumentals, « Saint Joseph High School Bounce « and « Lakewood And John Marshall Blues » (# 1173), which show just how far his guitar work had come since the earlier days.
One Valencia Dawson frequently appears as writing credit on their records, and one can wonder if she is a real person, or a Yorks Brothers pseudonym.
There was also a popular trend in Country music of using Latin rhythms, a trend started by Johnnie and Jack’s « Poison Love ». The Yorks used that pattern very often, e.g. with « That’s Why I’m Crying All The Time » (# 1049). In 1953, the brothers and their families moved to Dallas. TX, beginning TV work and appearing on the Big D Jamboree as well as on WFAA Shindig. More R&B records with « Love Sweet Love » # 1042), catchy uptempo tunes like « Don’t Leave Me With The Yum Yum Blues » (# 1418) . There is also the atmospheric « Mister Midnight » (# 1324), the amusing « Mohawk Squaw » (# 1468) and the near Rockabilly « You Get Mad » (# 4994). All in all, an impressive roster of blues, hillbilly, and bopping tracks for 38 singles , one EP (they had two in UK, issued by Parlophone), and 4 albums between 1947 and 1956.
After that, they returned to Decca for a superb Rock’n’Roll version of Rex Griffin’s 1936 song « Everybody’s Tryin’ To Be My Baby » (# 30473, 1957). Les went solo on Sage for a couple of, a bit pop-country sides (# 241), which did not make any noise. In 1963, the brothers launched their own York label, starting with the great « Monday Morning Blues » (# 100), and cutting also Riley Crabtree. Then they did hang up, and spent their retirement in Dallas. George passed away in July, 1974, and Leslie in February 1984.
article based on the notes of Collector CD shown besides (unknown writer). Additions and corrections by Bopping’s editor. As usual, a big thank you to Tony Biggs who sent me rare label scans from his collection.