Welcome to Mellow's Log Cabin. This blog's purpose is to supply information on a diversity of American southern music - ranging from country, blues, old-time and folk to R&B, rock'n'roll and rockabilly. I regularly present my research results about artists, labels, shows and also give guest writers a chance to publish their texts here on occasion.

UPDATES

• Added Big Style #101 to Big Style Records discography.
• Added more information to the Bob Taylor post, thanks to Jimmy Hunsucker.

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Monday, April 13, 2020

Cecil Campbell on MGM

Cecil Campbell - Fog Rising on the Mountain (MGM K12245) 1956

Cecil Campbell is one of those artists that had built a reputation from the 1930s onwards, which he still held in the 1950s, but he is largely forgotten today. He helds his place in western swing history with the leadership of his band, the Tennessee Ramblers, and recording for RCA-Victor in the 1930s and 1940s. In rockabilly circles, he is best remembered for recordings like "Rock and Roll Fever" or "Dixieland Rock." The latter's flip side, the haunting "Fog Rising on the Mountain," is featured today.

Cecil Robert Campbell was born on March 22, 1911, in Danbury, North Carolina. Campbell grew up working on his father's tobacco farm and eventually began appearing on radio WSJS in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, by 1932. Previously, he had worked with different old-time groups locally. Campbell played guitar, tenor banjo, and was also a singer. His main instrument, however, became the steel guitar. He started out on acoustic dobro in the early years but eventually would follow the trend and switched to an electric steel guitar. He also became known for his showmanship and entertaining the audiences with his comedy act.

While visiting his brother in Pittsburgh in the early 1930s, Campbell was asked by Dick Hartman to join his band, the Tennessee Ramblers. Hartman had founded the group in 1928 for appearances on WDKA. The Ramblers' repertoire consisted of old-time fiddle music but they also tried their hand at a new style that was emerging during the early 1930s, which was soon to be called western swing. Members at that time included Hartmann on harmonica, guitar, and vocals, Kenneth "Pappy" Wolfe on fiddle and vocals, as well as Harry Blair on guitar and vocals (sometimes also referred to as "Horse Thief Harry"). And since many performers used nicknames, Campbell was often called "Curley" at that time. He joined the group on guitar, steel guitar, banjo, vocals, and by 1933, Hartman and the band had relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina, where they first appeared on WHEC, sponsored by the Crazy Water Crystals Company, and switched to WBT in 1936, where they became a mainstay.

Dick Hartman's Tennessee Ramblers, mid 1930s: Harry Blair,
Cecil "Curley" Campbell, Fred "Happy" Morris,
Dick Hartman, Kenneth "Pappy" Wolfe

The Tennessee Ramblers soon enjoyed a rising popularity, last but not least due to their regular performances on WBT and also its live stage show, the Crazy Barn Dance. The group also toured the country and appeared on different radio stations across the land. By the time the band first recorded in 1935, the group also featured fiddler Jack Gillette and later that same year also Fred "Happy" Morris on bass. Their first session took place on January 3, 1935, in New York City, where they cut numerous songs that were released on Bluebird. Some of them were also used for release on Montgomery Ward, His Masters Voice, and other labels.

The band continued to record until fall 1936, also as "Hartman's Heart Breakers" or "Washboard Wonders." This incarnation of the Tennessee Ramblers held its last session with RCA-Victor on October 11, 1936, in Charlotte. The Tennessee Ramblers kept on performing and also began appearing in various B western movies, including "Ride Ranger Ride" (1936), "The Yodelin' Kid from Pine Ridge" (1937, both starring Gene Autry), among others. Hartman left in 1938 but the band continued without him, simply calling themselves "The Tennessee Ramblers" now, led by Jack Gillette (previously, they were mainly billed as "Dick Hartman's Tennessee Ramblers").

The group got the chance to record for RCA again in 1939, starting on February 2 in Rock Hill, South Carolina. They recorded up until 1941 and Bluebird released discs by the Ramblers until April 1942, when the war brought the recording industry to an halt. By then, some of the original members had left and the line-up consisted of Campbell, Jack Gillette, Tex Martin (real name Martin Shorpe), and Harry Blair.

Don White, Claude Casey, and Cecil Campbell, ca. 1940s.
Both White and Casey were also popular Carolina based
artists and regulars on WBT.

In 1945, when the last original member of the band, Harry Blair, departed, Campbell took over the leadership of the Tennessee Ramblers, perfoming now under the name of "Cecil Campbell's Tennessee Ramblers" (which now included guitarist William Blair and bass player Roy Lear). This new unit now became his backing band instead of being an attraction in its own right. Campbell managed to secure a recording deal with RCA in 1945 after World War II. The first release of the new outfit hit the market just in time on January 1, 1946, featuring "Hawaiian Skies" b/w "Midnight Boogie" (RCA-Victor #20-1790, recorded ca. December 1945). Previously, Campbell had taken part in a Washington, D.C., joint session with Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith in ca. September 1944 and its results were released on Super Disc 78rpm releases in September 1945.

Campbell remained popular, not only in the Carolinas but also in other parts of the United States, through tours and appearances on such WBT shows as the Dixie Jamboree and the Carolina Hayride (which was broadcasted coast to coast over CBS from 1946 onwards).

While Campbell put out numerous singles during the 1940s and 1950s, his only chart hit recording was "Steel Guitar Ramble" in May 1949. Many of his 1940s RCA sides showcase his skills on the steel guitar, as Campbell and the Ramblers included many instrumentals in its repertoire. Campbell and RCA parted ways in 1951 but he continued to record for different labels afterwards. In 1952, he cut two singles for the local Charlotte based Big Wheel label and followed up with one disc on Palmetto Records in 1953. Both the Big Wheel and Palmetto recordings were taped down at radio WBT's studio in Charlotte, produced by Arthur Smith.

In 1955, Campbell signed a contract with the major MGM label. As nearly every other country music artist in those days, Campbell also incorporated some rock'n'roll material into his act, namely such songs as "Dixieland Rock" (1956, which was, however, hopped up western swing) or "Rock and Roll Fever" (1957). Both "Dixieland Rock" and its noteworthy flip side, the haunting country tune "Fog Rising on the Montain," were recorded in April 1956 possibly at Music City Recording in Nashville with an unknown line-up (except for Campbell on steel and vocals, logically). Both tunes were released on May 8 that year (MGM #K12245).

After his stint with MGM, Campbell took a break from recording but continued to do personal appearances. However, his popularity had waned since the beginning of the decade. Although he tried his hand at rock'n'roll to refresh his sound, his age and dated western swing sounds were not pleasing the young audiences anymore. In 1958, he went into the real estate business and remained active in this field until the 1970s.

Cecil Campbell's Tennessee Ramblers, 1950s


Nevertheless, he had not abandoned music. In 1964, Arthur Smith produced an instrumental album by Campbell, recorded in Smith's Charlotte studio and released by Starday as "Steel Guitar Jamboree." A year later, Campbell founded his own Winston label, on which he occasionally released recordings. He continued to perform live with the Tennessee Ramblers, often appearing at the annual Western Film Fair in Raleigh, North Carolina, well into the 1980s.

Cecil Campbell died on June 18, 1989. An interview with him made in 1982 is stored in the Country Music Hall of Fame archives. Reissue label Jasmine Records released a 24 tracks CD by Campbell entitled "Steel Guitar Swing." Also, the British Archive of Country Music (BACM) has collected 24 tracks from different stages of Campbell's career on the CD "From Tennessee Farms to Hawaiian Palms." BACM has also gathered selected tracks from the pre-war era of the Tennessee Ramblers on two CDs ("Dick Hartman's Washboard Wonders/Tennessee Ramblers" and "Tennessee Ramblers, Vol. 2: The Jack Gillette Years").

Recommended reading:
• Cecil Campbell discography on 45cat and 45worlds
• Entry at the Country Music Hall of Fame 
Cecil Campbell and the Tennessee Ramblers on hillbilly-music.com (attention: the 1928 Brunswick recordings credited to the Tennessee Ramblers are by a different group of the same name)
Dick Hartman's Crazy Tennessee Ramblers advertisement

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Story of Sheldon Gibbs

Western Swing from the Desert
The Story of Sheldon Gibbs and his Arizona Ranch Boys

I came across Arizona musician and entrepreneur Sheldon Gibbs while researching the times and career of rockabilly one-shot Dennis Herrold. Where's the connection between Herrold, a Texas based artist, and Gibbs, who was located in Phoenix? Both artists likely never met in their lives. The bridge between these two men is Dale Noe, who at one point played in Gibbs' band but also performed alongside Dennis Herrold in a Texas based combo. While going deeper and deeper into the research, I did a quick search on Gibbs and have scraped together what I could find.

Every city in the 1950s had men like Gibbs: they were musicians, led a band, were heard on radio, ran clubs or bars and also were also part time record producers. Henry Sheldon Gibbs was born on March 10, 1903, in Kentucky. By the late 1920s, he had married his wife Ola (born in 1904 in Eureka Springs, Arkansas), who gave birth to their daughter Joan in 1928. The couple resided in Eureka Springs at that time but had relocated to Phoenix, Arizona, by the end of World War II. However, it is likely that Gibbs and his family had moved there at least a year earlier.

The Arizona Republic ran an advertisement on August 30, 1945, that announced the reopening of "their newer and better Gibbs Café," a spot which was operated by Gibbs and his wife on 612 West Van Buren Street in Phoenix. The opening ceremony featured live music performances by Gibbs and his Willow Breeze Playboys. Around the same time, the band became mainstays on KPHO radio.


Eventually, the Willow Breeze Playboys changed their name to the Arizona Ranch Boys. However, the former name was used by Gibbs for one of his large ballrooms in Phoenix, the Willow Breeze Ballroom. He ran another one in the city, the New Frontier Ballroom. The band got so well-known and popular that Gibbs established two incarnations of the Arizona Ranch Boys, so they could play both ballrooms at the same time. Billboard reported on November 29, 1947, that Gibbs and the band had moved from KPHO to KOY. At that time, the band consisted of Gibbs, Whitey Thompson as well as Paul R. Herndon on guitars, Art Hawkins on steel guitar, Slim Forbes and Frankie Bourland on fiddles, Ed Russell on piano and accordion, Jimmy Carroll on banjo, Jerry Allen on banjo and "vibes", and Gene Herndon on bass. The group also featured a vocal trio consisting of Gibbs, Paul R. Hendon and Jimmy Carroll, billed as the Bar-G-Trio on stage.

Soon, Gibbs became the program director of the station and one day, faced a young, unknown amateur singer by the name of Martin David Robinson, who had worked various odd jobs after his discharge from the US Navy in 1946 and was earning his money as a truck driver by then. He had heard a cowboy singer on KOY and thought the singer "was pretty bad. One time, he got right in the middle of his song and he forgot the words and didn't know what to do. And I thought, man, this guy has got to be making a living doing this." Robinson went to the station, auditioned with "Strawberry Roan" and Gibbs was persuaded immidiately. He fired the other singer and engaged Robinson, who appeared on the station as "Jack Robinson." This singer would eventually be known as Marty Robbins, one of country music's biggest stars.

In 1950, Gibbs set up his own record firm called Desert Recording Company with its label, Smart Records. The company was located on 1213 East Highland Avenue in Phoenix. From 1950 up to 1953, he released several 78rpm records by his band on this label. The first appeared in Noveember 1950 as by Sheldon Gibbs and his Arizona Ranch Boys, feauring "Chinese Breakdown" and "Wakeup Susan." By 1952, a young guitarist by the name of Dale Noe had become a member of the band. In May 1952, Gibbs released a record featuring Noe as a vocalist and guitarist, "I'm Sorry I Got in the Way" b/w "Houn' Dog Boogie." Billboard reviewed the disc on May 24 and especially the latter side is of interest here with Noe showcasing his skills on the guitar. Billboard commented: "Sheldon Gibbs and the combo beat out a rhythmic instrumental with energy. Should catch a fair share of juke coin." The single caught some juke coin in the Phoenix area likely but not too much outside.

Although the Arizona Ranch Boys performed mainly western swing, "Houn' Dog Boogie" pre-shadowed the rockabilly and rock'n'roll sounds that would come out of Phoenix only few years later by the likes of Sanford Clark, Joe Montgomery, Jimmy Johnson, Lonesome Long John Roller, and others.

Billboard C&W review, May 24, 1952

By 1952, Gibbs also emceed his own local TV show and was spinning records on KPHO again, as reported by Billboard on May 10, 1952. He was also promoting other artists in the region.

By 1960, Gibbs was on KRIS and his Willow Breeze Ballroom on Grand Avenue had developed into a hotbed for local musicians that would hold jam sessions there on the weekends. At the same time, Gibbs founded the Hilligan label, operated from the same adress as the ballroom. The label was mainly an outlet to release two recordings by country turned rock'n'roll singer Jimmie Patton, who had previously immortalized himself with the raw "Yah! I'm Moving" on Sage Records. For Hilligan, he recorded the trememdous "Okie's in the Pokie," which is now a favorite among rockabilly fans. The other side was not as energetic as "Okie's" but "Hut-Hurp Rookie's Marching Song" was a rocking country style song with a fast piano solo. Gibbs released them on Hilligan #001/2 in 1960 and on both sides, he gets co-writting credits. Both sides were picked up by Russell Sims, who released them on his Sims label (Sims #117) in September 1960. "Okie's in the Pokie" was issued without the spoken intro, however.

Gibbs spent the rest of his life in Phoenix, where he died on February 24, 1983, at the age of 79 years. He was buried at Greenwood Memory Lawn Cemetery. His wife Ola followed in 1995, his daughter Joan in 2012.


Discography 


Smart 1001: Chinese Breakdown / Wakeup Susan (1950)
Smart 1002: Santa Claus Breakdown / Leather Brichtes (1950)
Smart 1003: Ragtime Annie / Sally Goodin' (1950)
Smart 1004: Boil Them Cabbage Down / Mississippi Sawyer (1950)
Smart 1007: Varsovienna / Sugar in My Coffee'o (1951)
Smart 1013/15: Waltz of the Hills / Your Last Chance
Smart 1014: I Ain't Gonna Laugh No More / Bird Book Boogie
Smart 1016: I'm Sorry I Got in the Way / Houn' Dog Boogie (1952)

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Mystery of Dennis Herrold

Hi there folks! Just a quick note that Bear Family Records is releasing the LP/CD "The Mystery of Dennis Herrold" on April 3. I have been involved in this project heavily as I had the honor to write the extensive liner notes for this awesome release.

I have been long into the story of Herrold and have published an article about him in American Music Magazine in 2015, which was the most complete biography of him back then. Now, Bear Family gathered Herrold's complete Imperial recordings plus bonus tracks on this outstanding release. The liner notes are much more detailed than my article and reveal the true story of Dennis Herrold for the first time.

Be sure to grab your copy here.

It was a real pleasure for me to do this project. Stay tuned for more!

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Jerry Smith on Shock

Jerry Smith - Sweet Face (unknown year), Shock 1007


Most discographies doesn't list this record but it seems to be one of Jerry Lee "Smoochy" Smith's earliest discs, if not the first. Smith, famous for being an integral part of Memphis' rockabilly scene in the 1950s (although second generation of the originals, if so to speak, as he arrived not until 1957), also had success in the early 1960s with the instrumental group "Mar-Keys."


Smith was born in 1939 and got his musical talent from his father, who played fiddle, guitar, and harmonica. He also played a bit piano and taught his son the few chords he knew. That was the beginning of Smith's musical career. Father and son began appearing on local Jackson, Tennessee, radio WDXI but tragedy struck, when Smith's father was killed in a car accident. Afterwards, Smith began performing with other groups and by 1953, he played with a gospel quartet and performed on radio again.

Jackson had a small but lively music scene and Smith soon began playing with Carl Perkins' band. When Perkins got into the Sun studio to record "Blue Suede Shoes," he asked Smith to play piano on it (although producer Sam Phillips would have been sceptical about a piano in the band, as he thought this would drown the "Sun Sound"). However, as Smith was only about 15 years old at the time, his mother didn't allow him to travel to Memphis. "Blue Suede Shoes" became a million seller and when Smith got the chance again to record in Memphis as part of Kenny Parchman's band, he was allowed to go.

Smith moved to Memphis in 1957 and recorded several sessions with Parchman and afterwards, became a session musician at Sun until 1959. Smith performed with different acts, including Chips Moman, and through this association Smith became a part of the Mar-Keys, who had a big hit in the summer of 1961 with the instrumental "Last Night."

It is speculative where the Shock single fits in. Smith had at least two more local Memphis releases i this period. One was on the Sandy label with Smith belting out "The Girl Can't Help It" and "Come On Back." Judging from the sound of both records, I'd say the Sandy disc was first and the Shock single afterwards. It is not known where and when this record was recorded but "Sweet Face" features some nice piano work by Smith. He also made a record for the local Chimes label, which was totally different in sound.

Smith continued his career in the music business and recorded for such labels as Rice, Chart, ABC, Papa Joe's Music Box, Decca, Hi-Lowe, and countless singles and albums for Ranwood (mostly hiding under the pseudonym of "The Magic Organ"). He played on several rockabilly revival recordings, including great sides by Eddie Bond and Vern Pullens. In 1983, he became part of the Sun Rhythm Section, a group of original rockabilly performers that toured worldwide.

Smith remains active as a musician to this day. In 2008, he has published his autobiography "The Real Me." A nice interview from back then was made by the Commercial Appeal in Memphis.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Johnny Cash on post-Sam Phillips Sun

Johnny Cash - Get Rhythm (1969), Sun 1103

This is just an oddity in Johnny Cash's discography and not a very interesting one to be sure but I thought someone might like it or find it just enjoying.

This is a reissue as you might expect. Sam Phillips sold the Sun record label on July 1, 1969, for 1.000.000 $ (yes, one million) to Shelby Singleton, who had earlier success in the record business with his Plantation label in Nashville. Shortly after acquiring Sun, Singleton began re-releasing old Sun sides from the 1950s and 1960s, including this Johnny Cash classic. It was originally recorded by Cash (vocals/rhythm guitar) and his fellows Luther Perkins (electric lead guitar) and Marshall Grant (bass) on April 2, 1956, at the Sun Studio in Memphis with Sam Phillips taking seat behind the glass, engineering and producing the session. 

Cash had written the song after seeing a shoe shine boy working on the streets of Memphis. An earlier demo had been recorded by Cash in late 1954 or early 1955 with just his acoustic guitar. With its fast rockabilly beat, the song was initially intended for Elvis Presley but when Presley switched to RCA-Victor, Cash recorded the song himself.

"Get Rhythm" became the flip side of Cash's first no.1 country chart hit, "I Walk the Line" (originally Sun 241) but did not enter the charts itself at that time. When Shelby Singleton dug out the old Sun masters, he paired it with Cash's original recording of "Hey Porter" and released it in October 1969 on Sun #1103. Interestingly, Shelby Singleton edited the tape and added fake applause to "Get Rhythm" (to "Hey Porter" not to unknown reasons) to pretend it was a live recording. He did this possibly as Cash was riding high on the charts with his two Columbia live albums "At Folsom Prison" (1968) and "At San Quentin" (1969). However, this proved to be a clever business strategy as the single reached #23 in Billboard's country charts and also, first on November 15, 1969, peaked #60 at Billboard's Hot 100.

Friday, December 27, 2019

RIP Sleepy LaBeef

One of the true legens in rockabilly music has left us. Sleepy LaBeef had a big influence on many musicians through the year. His career was massive, although not commcercial successful. His guitar playing was distinctive and I can say that he also influenced me a lot.

LaBeef died on December 26, 2019. Read more at variety.com.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

At the Rockhouse

 
Roy Orbison / Teen Kings - Rockhouse (Sun 251), 1956

At the Rockhouse
The story of one of rockabilly music's anthems

The song "Rockhouse" (often also spelled "Rock House"), now a rockabilly anthem, was recorded in its best known version by Roy Orbison but was eventually often covered, especially by modern rockabilly combos. The origins of this song, however, date back to early to mid-1956 or even earlier.

How the house began to rock
Harold Jenkins alias Conway Twitty
Mississippi born Harold Jenkins just got out from the US Army, where he had served in Yokohama. Upon his return, Jenkins soon heard Elvis Presley's recording of "Mystery Train" and, although he was a lover of country music, decided upon a career as a rock'n'roller. He put together a group, which he named "The Rockhousers" and started writing songs. One of them was the band's signature song, "Rockhouse." It was about a dancehall, where all the cool cats went on Saturday nights.If Jenkins had a certain inspiration in mind is not known but you could find lots of those venues across the south back then.

Jenkins auditioned a couple of times at Sun Records but label owner Sam Phillips had little interest in Jenkins. However, a couple of demo sessions were made and in the summer of 1956, one of those sessions produced the demo of "Rockhouse," among some other recordings. The line-up consisted of Jenkins on vocals and rhythm guitar, Jimmy Ray Paulman on lead guitar, Bill Harris on bass (other sources also name Jimmy Evans, which is doubtful however), and Billy Weir on drums. Phillips was impressed enough with the song and purchased it for his publishing company Hi-Lo.

Roy Orbison at the Rockhouse
Roy Orbison in the 1950s
Seeking for song material for Roy Orbison, who just had a noteworthy hit with "Ooby Dooby," Phillips relied on "Rockhouse." Orbison took the song and re-worked it. It was hardly the same song anymore and Orbison sorted out much of the lyrics. On September 17, 1956, Orbison and his band, the Teen Kings, recorded the song along with another tune, "You're My Baby" (a Johnny Cash composition). The lineup included Orbison on vocals and electric lead guitar, Johnny "Peanuts" Wilson on rhythm gitar, James Morrow on electric mandolin (although inaudible), Jack Kenelly on bass, and Billy Ellis on drums. Producer Jack Clement (his first production at Sun) put a good load of echo behind the recording of "Rockhouse" but Phillips was satisfied with the result and released both songs on September 24, 1956, on Sun #251.

Billboard reviewed the disc on October 20 in its "Country & Western" segment as a spotlight and was excited: "[...] Flip [Rockhouse], is another good rockabilly rhythm side, is wraped up solidly by Orbison, who could break thru with a hit follow-up to his 'Oobie Doobie.'" However, the moment of success had passed and the chance to cash in on "Ooby Dooby" had been gone already. The disc did not even found mention in Billboard's territorial charts until the end of the year. Orbison would record more material for Sun but success eluded him until the 1960s, when he became a superstar with such well produced ballads like "Only the Lonely," "Blue Bayou" or "Pretty Woman." When Orbison hit big in 1961 on Monument Records, Phillips hauled out his Orbison tapes and released an album of it to cash in. It was titled "At the Rockhouse" and of course included "Rockhouse."

Billboard Country & Western review, October 20, 1956
(note that Billboard misspelled the name as "RAY Orbison")

Contemporaries at the Rockhouse
Although "Rockhouse" became not a chart hit for Orbison, it got nevertheless enough exposure to spawn some cover versions (this, in part, due to the comprehensive tour activies by Orbison and other Sun artists across the south). The first to record a version of his own was Texas born Buddy Knox. Infact, Knox and Orbison knew each other from mutual appearances on radio and at the advice of Orbison, Knox auditioned at Norman Petty's studio. This resulted in Knox' first hit "Party Doll" in early 1957. On March 20, 1957, Knox and his band, the Rhythm Orchids, held a session for Roulette at the Bell Sound Studio in New York City, where they recorded their version of "Rockhouse" along with some other rock'n'roll covers. The line-up consisted of Knox on vocals, Donny Lanier and George Barnes on guitars, an unknown bass player, and Dave Alldred on drums. The recording was released on Knox's first, self-titled album on Roulette in 1957. Knox would eventually cut another version in 1979 in London, which was released on Rundell and Rockhouse LPs.

Another version was recorded in 1960 by Ralph Jerome, which was issued around October that year on KP #1007. Chan Romero, who recorded the original hit version of "Hippy Hippy Shake" (later to be recorded by the Beatles and the Swingin' Blue Jeans), cut a demo version of "Rockhouse," which was, however, rather a reworking than a cover as Romero changed the lyrics and structure of the song. On that take, he accompanies his singing with his electric guitar. The tape remained unreleased at the time but finally found its way onto the 1995 CD "Hippy Hippy Shake" on Del-Fi Records.


The Bobby Fuller Four in 1962

Fellow Texan Bobby Fuller recorded another version around 1963/1964, before he made his move to Los Angeles and hit bit with "I Fought the Law." Fuller, who had furnished a complete recording studio in his home in El Paso, recorded many demo sessions there with his band, including a rollicking and dynamic version of "Rockhouse." Fuller used a slightly different arrangement for the song and it can be assumed that he and his group also performed the song live on stage. However, it stayed in the vaults until 1984, when it was released as part of the "Bobby Fuller Four Tapes" on Voxx/Rhino. Tragically, the aspiring Fuller had been found dead in 1966 in his car, parked in front of his apartment. The circumstances surrounding his death are unsettled to this day.

Modern day rockabilly versions
Since, "Rockhouse" has become a classic in rockabilly music and has been covered many times by countless modern rockabilly artists, either live or on record. The following is a selection of modern day cover versions:

• Flat Duo Jets on their album "Two Headed Cow" (2008)
• Brian Setzer on  his album "Rockabilly Riot, Vol. 1" (2005)
• The Meteors, live repertoire
• The Straycats, live repertoire
• Slim Jim 'n' the Bopcats on their EP "Rockhouse" (2005)
• The Bel-Airs on their EP "Rockhouse!!"
• Omar and the Stringpoppers, live repertoire and recording (Harold Jenkins arrangement)

Monday, August 12, 2019

Don Willis on Style

Don Willis - A Glass of Wine (1964), Style 45-1921

Don Willis is best remembered today for his double smash single "Boppin' High School Baby" / "Warrior Sam," which became not only every record collector's dream but also two of the most popular original rockabilly songs during the 1970s revival. Today, we put the spotlight on Willis' far lesser known single for Style Wooten's Style custom label. While the top side "Mar's Dame" already creeps in the shadow of "Boppin' High School Baby," the flip side "A Glass of Wine" is even more obscure.

Don Franklin Willis was born on September 30, 1933, in Munford in Tipton County, Tennessee (the same region where Carl Perkins came from). He grew up on a farm stock and his early interest in music applied to country music singers like Ernest Tubb and Eddy Arnold but he also enjoyed pop music by the likes of Perry Como and Bing Crosby.

In the mid-1950s, Willis opted for a professional career in music as he had taken up the guitar by that time and also sang. He took part in a talent contest in Covington, Tennessee, where he met guitarrist Shelby Byrd, who was also a participant. Together with Vaughn Allen Kent, they founded a country band but by 1956, they abandoned the conservative country sound in favor of the new, energetic rock'n'roll and rockabilly sounds that were heard all over the South. They named themselves "The Orbits" and got an audition at the birthplace of rock'n'roll, Sam Phillips' Sun Studio in Memphis. Willis and his band recorded one song for Phillips, "Deep In My Heart I Have a Place for You," which did not impress Phillips enough, however. Unfortunately, the tapes seems to have been lost.


Don Willis and his band, likely mid-1950s (taken from the cover of
White Label LP "Boppin' High School Baby")


Working at daytime at the Kimberly-Clark Company and performing on weekends, Willis tried his hand at songwriting, which produced both "Boppin' High School Baby" and "Warrior Sam" in 1957. The band made some demo recordings of the songs in Nashville, which were heard by Jay Rainwater (Brenda Lee's stepfather), who was taken with the band and then worked on a deal with the major label Mercury Records. However, Willis got to know Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart through a fellow-worker. Axton and Stewart had just set up their brand new but tiny Satellite label and agreed to record Willis and the Orbits. 

Both "Boppin' High School Baby" and "Warrior Sam" were echo-laden, wild and raw rockabilly recordings and presented a great performance. The small-scale production went nowhere, though, as Satellite had not the financial means to promote the single properly. The single appeared in early 1958 on Sattelite #101 (being the second ever released disc on the label, which would evolve into Stax Records). Willis would have been better off with a contract with Mercury but it was too late.

The single became Willis' only record for six years and his career in music remained static. He started another approach in 1964, when he recorded "Mar's Dame" and "A Glass of Wine" for Style Wooten, who issued these well played and well-behaved songs on his Style label (Style #1921). It is likely that Willis actually had to pay for the session, as Wooten ran a custom recording business. Although copies were sent out to radio stations, with another semi-professional label behind his back, Willis' second disc likely sold equally poor.

Willis kept his daytime job and restricted his musical actvities to his spare time. Eventually, he founded the "Memphis Kings," a band wich stayed together for more than 35 years and performed all over the Mid-South. A single was released by the band on the Madison, Tennessee, based Top Gun label and the band also produced an album around 1971 on the MK label. This LP was sold at their gigs and the track list gives an interesting insight of what the band's repertoire was back then. Another single was released in 1974 on Musictown in Nashville.

In the 1970s, the Rockabilly Revival discovered Willis' 1950s Satellite records and made them popular in the European Neo-Rockabilly scene. A bootleg of the original single was made and later, a legal re-issue on Record Mart followed. Today, an original copy of the single is unbelievable worthy and copies were sold for more than $2.000. In 1991, Dutch rock'n'roll explorer Cees Kloop issued a 15-tracks Don Willis LP, including alternate takes of "Boppin' High School Baby," "Warrior Sam" and "Mar's Dame," which were alledgedly found in Willis' collection on acetate. Dave Travis released a CD with Willis' recordings in 2015 on his Stomper Time label.

Willis remained popular with European rockabilly fans and there were plans for a concert in Europe at the Hemsby Rock'n'Roll Weekend, which were cancelled due to Willis' bad health. He passed away on March 1, 2006, in Memphis.


Discography

Satellite 101: Don Willis and the Orbits - Boppin' High School Baby / Warrior Sam (1958)
Top Gun 11610: Memphis Kings - Give Me All Your Love / Our Love Don't Travel on the Same Road
Musictown 0055: Don Willis - The Brighter Side of Life / Can't Find the Feeling (1974)
MK LP 3080: Memphis Kings - The Memphis Kings (ca. 1971)

Monday, February 25, 2019

Hazel Records Discography

Hazel
P.O. Box 11522 East Memphis Station

I discovered Hazel Records much later than Wooten's other labels. It seems that this record label was not fully owned by Style Wooten as the J. Allen Gann release superficially had no connection to the Wooten company but was certainly on the same label (it has a Southaven, Mississippi, adress). Also, the publishing company on the Hazel releases was Abide Music, which is not known to have been a Wooten imprint.

45-1218: Bobby & Hazel - Little Tavern / Hazel Holloway - The Wife of a Wino
45-1219: The Joy of Memphis Quartet - I Know the Lord Laid His Hands on Me / I Feel Like Flying Away (1968)
45-1220: Jimmy McCarter - One Dozen Blue Roses / The Heart You Stole (1968)
45-1221: The Joy of Memphis Quartet - Oh Lord You Know / Tell Me What You Going to Do (1969)
45-1222: Lillian Minor - You Been a Long Time Gone / Bar Room Daddy
45-1223: Hazel Hollowell - I'll Make Believe / There Goes My World
45-1224: Bob Liles - Try Me / Don't Try to Explain
45-1225:
45-1226: J. Allen Gann - Walking Tall in Heaven / A Whole Lot of Whys (on My Mind)

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Floyd and Mary Biggs

Save the memory of Floyd and Mary Biggs

Floyd and Mary Biggs were a husband-wife composer duo, likely from Nashville, Tennessee. The couple caught my attention about four years ago when I corresponded with Kenny Norton, a Murray Nash discovery, and talked about his career in music. He recorded two of their songs in 1965 for Nash's Musi-Center label. During my research on Nash's activities, I discovered that the Biggs had written many more songs. However, I failed to nail down some facts about Floyd and Mary Biggs.

When asked about the Biggs, Kenny Norton replied to me: "I only met Floyd and Mary a few times and that was always in the studio. You probably know more about them than I do. I do know they were very nice and helpful to me as a teenager not knowing exactly what I was doing. At the time I had no idea how much they had contributed to the music business. It was the same with Murray [Nash]. I had no clue how much he contributed. Floyd and Mary were just down to earth people. If you had met them on the street you would have no idea who they were. It was the same for Murray. Mary always worked with me on the piano. I think she understood my situation of having to record 'Oonie Oonie' when I really didn't like the song at all." Floyd Biggs was visually handicapped, according to Norton: "Floyd and Mary seemed to be about middle age when I knew them. They were very simple people. Floyd was not totally blind but close to it."

Mary Biggs first appeared as a songwriter in February 1957, when RCA-Victor released Del Wood's "After Five," written by Mary Biggs, Wayne Meador, and "Red" Biggs (probably Floyd). During the mid-1950s, the couple often worked with Hargus Robbins, a Nashville piano session musician, who was also blind. Together, they also composed Robbins' rockabilly single "Save It," which he released as "Mel Robbins." Floyd and Mary Biggs were active until the mid-1960s, often writing for Murray Nash's catalogue.

The whereabouts of Floyd and Mary Biggs are not known, unfortunately. I have researched and found many people of this name but I haven't found a good track, yet. There was a Mary Katherine Biggs (1932-2018), who lived in Springfield, Tennessee (not far away from Nashville) but there's no hint she's the same Mary Biggs.

I have collected Floyd and Mary Biggs compositions and counted 33 songs so far. You can retrieve my results at 45cat.com.


Thanks to Kenny Norton for sharing his memories with me.

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