‘I Mean, I’m Mean’, ‘Behave, be-quiet or begone’ – Roy Duke
A Country Music Anomaly
By Shane Hughes (Rock-a-Billy Hall of Fame)
Additional content by bopping’s editor.
Roy had the potential to find success too, especially after signing with Decca in ’56. By this stage of his career Ernest Tubb had already cut a few of his songs and he was still tight with Tubb’s nephew Douglas Glenn. However, as with the trail of Douglas Tubb’s career, Roy’s tapered radically after minimal sales of his Decca releases (although Roy Junior confessed to Colin Escott that « Honky Tonk Queen » was a moderate hit in Nashville). Roy’s ill-defined style could have been the cause. Staid hillbilly fans may have heard something too progressive in Roy’s recordings, whilst southern teens probably shied away from the melodic hillbilly vocals and languorous rhythm so evident in Roy’s music. Regardless, Roy’s music has persevered and is still very much revered. It’s time his story was finally told.
Roy James Duke was born on 11th April 1922 at the Rutherford County Seminary Community in Tennessee. According to Bill Millar’s research, Roy’s father was associated with the church and his mother was involved with running a boarding house. His early life was not overly divergent to that of any other young southern country boy – working as a field hand picking cotton and listening to the Grand Ole Opry whenever the opportunity arose. Little else seems to be known of Roy’s adolescent years, of when he first garnered a serious interest in music or even if he took up playing an instrument. It is known that Roy’s brother, Frank Edward, was fairly like minded and that by the early fifties they had begun performing, either together or solo. By this time, Roy’s propensity as a songwriter had emerged as evidenced by Ernest Tubb picking up his « My Wasted Past » and recording it for Decca (# 28777) on 24th February 1953.
Ernest Tubb “My wasted past”
Tubb is given co-writer credit for the tune, however it seems likely Roy was the sole composer. Indeed, he probably wrote the tune with Tubb in mind and visited the ET record store, pitching the song to Tubb via Tucker Robertson and Jimmie Rodgers’ widow. Tubb’s recording wasn’t a hit, but must have inspired the young Duke not to give up. Apparently he was still working a fulltime job at this stage (for the Avoco aerospace company), but seemed keen to take his music career further.
Still based in Nashville in ’53, he soon fell in with an aspiring singer/songwriter from San Antonio, Douglas Glenn Tubb. Douglas had moved to Nashville from Austin during March ’53 (a move possibly instigated by Uncle Ernest). Needless to say, the young Douglas was constantly in the shadow of his famed uncle, and time and again he tried to shake the Tubb family tag, even changing his name on record during the latter fifties. Douglas Glenn Tubb was born at Porter Street, San Antonio on 29th June 1935, barely a month before his cousin Justin Wayne. By 1952, he had moved to Austin forming a band with Justin, Billy Tubb and three other unknown musicians. The group picked up a gig at the Dessau Hall in Pflugerville, attracting the attention of Austin’s KVET deejay, C. V. ‘Red’ Jones, who became their manager. He suggested the boys bill themselves as The Tubb Boys and the Hootenanny Scratchos, an odd name that at least seemed to draw crowds. They began playing shows and clubs in Austin, and even trekked to Shreveport with Goldie Hill to perform on the Louisiana Hayride. Further appearances followed on Slim Willet‘s Mid-State Jamboree in Abilene and the boys were also, apparently, guests of Hank Williams and his mother at the Skyline Club in Austin during December ’52.
A few months later, in March ’53, Douglas made the move to Nashville and almost immediately befriended Roy Duke and his brother Frank. Tubb and the Duke Brothers seemed to recognize kindred spirits in each other and wasted little time in organizing a band, which also included Russville, Alabama born fiddle player Mack Smith.
Small time entrepreneur Ted Edlin then entered the picture. He would later gain some notoriety managing the careers of Hawkshaw Hawkins, Jean Shepard and Cousin Jody, but was still unknown when he met Roy’s band in ’53. He spurred the group to join the ranks of Bill Bailey’s Minstrel Show to play the part of, as Ronnie Pugh depicted, “the hillbilly act to hold the crowds between animal acts and clowns in Cy Ruben’s circus“. To promote the groups part in the minstrel show, Edlin had Roy, Frank and Douglas cut a record each for his own Mart label, when they were presumably swinging through Birmingham, Alabama with Bailey’s circus. Roy saw the inaugural release on Mart with « My Heart Can’t Talk » (co-written with Frank and Ted) and the wonderfully simplistic and undoubtedly Ernest Tubb inspired « Goo Goo Eyes » (penned by Joyce Duke, the wife of Roy or Frank?) on Mart 1001. Retrospectively, « Goo Goo Eyes » proved a blue print for the recordings Roy would make in the coming years, if not less subdued than his later sides. Maybe slightly more jovial than his Decca recordings, his drowsy, yet infectious vocal was unmistakable. Roy’s hopelessly obscure Mart release was followed by his brother Frank’s offering of « Web Of Lies » and « They Made Me Fall In Love » (Mart 1002), Douglas Tubb’s « The World Is A Monster » and « Deaf, Dumb, And Blind « (another tune Joyce Duke had a hand in writing) (Mart 1003) and finally Ted Edlin himself with « Only One God » and « Hello Little Boy « (Mart 1004). Also Duke gave Donn Reynolds “I tell myself a lie“, which was issued in ’52-53 on Bullet 751.
“Goo goo eyes”
Sales of the Mart release were probably minimal, with most copies doubtlessly given away at the groups various appearances with the minstrel show. Edlin faded out of the picture some time later and Frank seemed to have adopted a lesser role in Roy’s career after the Mart release. It was another two years when Roy emerged from the depths of anonymity to make his second appearance on record. Around 1954, Roy met renowned songwriter and plugger and one time fishing buddy of Hank Williams, Vic McAlpin.
Douglas Tubb “The world is a monster”
Douglas Tubb “Deaf, dumb and blind”
Rocky Porter “The world is a monster
Donn Reynolds “I tell myself a lie”
Glenn Douglas “You just stood there”
Glenn Douglas & Ray Duke “Standing at the end of the world”
Early in ’56, Roy found himself cutting his quintessential classic « Be-Have, Be-Quit Or Begone « (sic) (note the original spelling of the title) in Nashville with guitarist Hank Garland for Reject (Reject 1002). Penned by his brother Frank and Vic McAlpin, Roy’s rendition of the tune was superlative in every aspect. Hank’s dexterous picking was incisive and a distinct contrast to Roy’s almost lackadaisical treatment of this rousing honky-tonk opus. It was Hank’s lead that raised the tune above such a simple typecast, offering a sharper edge to the tune and effusing it with a characteristic rockabilly sound.
Roy Duke “Be-have, be-quit or begone”
downloadcb 27-10-56 roy duke – decca 30095
Roy Duke, “Honesty”
Wayne (Red) Cobb “Shopping around”
Wayne (Red) Cobb “Somethin’ bad’s gonna happen”
Vic McAlpin’s involvement in writing the tune for Roy is indicative that he was still very much a part of Roy’s career and may have even been the catalyst for Roy signing with the small Hermitage label. Curiously, the initial release on Reject was credited to the slightly lesser known Wayne ‘Red’ Cobb. The enigmatic Cobb may have originated from Hank Williams’ adopted home town of Montgomery, Alabama where he was a permanent fixture on WBAM’s Deep South Jamboree in 1954 along with Shorty Sullivan, Rebe Gosdin (of Rebe and Rabe fame), Jack Turner and future rocker Lonnie Allen. By early ’56, Cobb was in Nashville and his Reject sides were probably cut at a split session with Duke. Aural evidence suggests Hank Garland was the picker on his sides too, which evoke a decidedly overt rockabilly tendency. Curiously, Vic McAlpin penned « Something Bad’s Gonna Happen », indicating Cobb may have been a fleeting protege of McAlpin. Regardless, Cobb’s Reject sides (« Shopping Around » and « Somethin’ Bad’s Gonna Happen », Reject 1001) were sharply disparitive of Duke’s sides and are arguably more reminiscent of Glenn Reeves unissued Decca sides, like “Rock around the world” or “Woman trouble“.
While Cobb’s Reject disc is far more desirable among collectors [$ 60-75], he seems to have drawn the short straw in terms of career growth. Duke’s Reject disc may have caught the ear of a discerning Decca talent scout, probably with considerable impetus from McAlpin, and on 11th May ’56 Decca purchased or leased Duke’s Reject masters, reissuing both sides on Decca proper (Decca 9-29962). Although Douglas Tubb had no apparent part in Duke’s Reject recordings, he was offered a Decca contract as well, no doubt instigated by McAlpin, who by now had brought a handful of talented artists Paul Cohen’s way.
Roy’s first of two dedicated Decca sessions took place in Nashville (possibly at Owen Bradley’s studio?) on 9th June. Hank Garland returned for the date, as did Bob Moore, who last worked with Roy on his Dot release from the year before. Opening the date was Roy’s consummate recording of « Honky Tonk Queen » (Decca 9-30095). Co-written with McAlpin and brother Frank, the tune was perfectly suited to Roy’s vocal style and was as convincing as anything he had recorded to date. From his last session on 20th February the following year was the even more inspiring « I Mean, I’m Mean » (Decca 9-30325). Much in the same vein as « Behave, Be Quiet Or Begone », « I Mean, I’m Mean » was far more impressive and could be considered the crowning achievement of its writers, McAlpin and Douglas Tubb. The flip, « Hard Hearted Mama », yet another Ernest Tubb inspired tune was equally effusive and warranted far more attention than was received. « Honky Tonk Queen » was garnering the greater sales, though, which certainly wasn’t an unjust scenario considering that, in the words of Roy Junior, “The cheque for that amounted to $1000 and it arrived just before Christmas when the family was real broke“.
Roy Duke “Honky tonk queen”
Roy Duke “It’s been the talk all over town”
Roy’s brief stay with Decca did prove moderately fruitful, despite minimal record sales. Remained 4 unissued sides, two out of each session. Ernest Tubb picked up Roy’s self-penned « Loving You My weakness », duly cutting the tune for his long standing label (Decca # 30098) on 13th September 1956. Roy himself graduated to regular performances on Tubb’s Midnite Jamboree and also befriended one time Jimmy Martin sideman (who was also under contract with Decca at the time) Greg Garing; the pair remaining friends for many years.
Roy Duke “I mean I’m mean”
Roy Duke “Hard hearted mama”
Meanwhile, Douglas Tubb churned out a few more sides for Decca through March ’58 before hitching with Johnny Cash, touring with him extensively and nudging many of Cash’s songs the way of his Uncle Ernest. Tubb repaid the favour to his nephew and Cash by recording no less than eight of Cash’s compositions, beginning with a memorable rendition of « So Doggone Lonesome » in 1956 (Decca 9-29836). After his Decca sojourn there were further obscure releases on equally obscure labels, but Douglas eventually found his niche as a songwriter, offering more than a helping hand to his cousin Justin and furnishing Ernest with a continual supply of original material until at least 1969.
Conversely, Roy’s career subsided when his final Decca release hit the market in March ’57. Roy Junior claims his father was involved with a release on M-G-M, however sufficient evidence is yet to surface. He did, apparently, remain active in music playing live gigs and seemingly forever reminiscing with his pal Greg Garing about those joyous years when Roy was almost a star. By ’91 he could still be found in Nashville making an occasional live appearance, although his health was deteriorating. Three years later he passed away.
Unlike many of the hard drinking, fast talking and hard bitten songwriters and aspiring singers who traveled the hard road to Nashville to find fame, Roy wasn’t bitter about his lack of success. At least Roy Junior’s conversations with Colin Escott depict a man who was mostly satisfied with his achievements. He should have been satisfied too. Success isn’t always interpreted by record sales. Sheer talent nullifies any deprecating market statistics. Roy Duke proved that. Simply listen to « Honky Tonk Queen » or « I Mean, I’m Mean ». Roy’s reverence, if only retrospective, is more than justified.
on June 9, 1956
- From midnight till dawn
- Good morning world
on February 20, 1957
- Behave yourself
- From now on
Availability of Roy Duke’s songs :
- « Goo goo eyes » on Bopping Hillbillies 2830 (last of the serie)
- « Behave, be-quiet or begone » on Bear Family 15971, « That’ll flat git it » (Decca) vol. 9
- « Honky tonk queen » and « I mean I’m mean » on Decca (bootleg) LP 4132 (« The Lost Decca recordings »)
ACKNOWLEDEMENTS – gracious thanks are extended to Al Turner, Kittra Moore, Willem Agenant and Dave Sichak ( www.hillbilly-music.com) for their generous assistance.
Additionnel sources: Rockin’ country style, Youtube and abundant use of 45cat and 78rom world.Tony Biggs’ book “Cowboys, honky tonks & hepcats” was also a source.