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

• Amended the Beau Hannon and the Mint Juleps post.
• 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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Wednesday, November 10, 2021

The Snearly Ranch Boys

The Band that Made Them Rockabilly Stars
The Snearly Ranch Boys from Memphis, Tennessee

The Snearly Ranch Boys at the Cotton Club, West Memphis, Arkansas, mid 1950s:
(from left to right) Stan Kesler, Buddy Holobaugh, Clyde Leoppard, Hank Byers,
Smokey Joe Baugh, Barbara Pittman

It is said that members of the Snearly Ranch Boys were involved in more Gold and Platinum records (nearly 400) than the members of the Beatles (141). This has yet to be proven but would be an astonishing effort for a local country music and rock'n'roll combo from Memphis. Much has been written about particular members of the group but seldom, the group itself was the spotlight of a publication.

The Snearly Ranch Boys were part of Memphis' music scene through the whole decade of the 1950s. They were there when the melting pot of blues and country music began to bubble, they were there when it exploded and they were still there when it would evolve into new styles. Over the years, members came and went, so many that it is actually hard to tell how many.

The band was basically a country and western outfit, entertaining the Memphis audiences with honky tonk and western swing sounds on a frequent base at night clubs and over radio. The band underwent many line-up changes over the years. By the mid 1950s, they soon found themselves being in the orbit of the rising Sun label - in parts due to their vocalists, who often went to Sun from being a member of the Snearly Ranch Boys. The band could be described as a "cradle" for Memphis rockabilly singers.

The early years at the Snearly Boarding House
The birthplace of the group that became known as the Snearly Ranch Boys was a boarding house on 233 North McNeil Street in Memphis. It was owned by Omah "Ma" Snearly at least until the 1940s and was known as the Snearly Ranch or Snearly Ranch House. A lot of musicians were living in this boarding house and by 1949, a consistent group of musicians had developed that came together as a band. In honor of Ma Snearly, the group named itself after her boarding house. The Snearly Ranch Boys were born.

The first ever line-up of the band is not reported unfortunately but early members included Jan R. Ledbetter on bass, whose wife came to the Snearly Ranch during World War II, and Clyde Leoppard, who alternated between steel guitar, bass and drums and became the group's manager. Other early members were Robert "Bob" Pepper, Tommy Potts, and Johnnie White, among probably others.

The building that housed Ma Snearly's Ranch is stillstanding on
233 North McNeil Street. Source: Google Street View

The Ranch Boys soon made themselves a name in Memphis and its counterpart across the Mississippi River, in West Memphis, Arkansas, as a popular live act. Their brand of music was not clearly defined. It definitly rooted in the country music styles of the 1940s, including honky-tonk and western swing, but the group's members brought in a lot of different musical influences and tastes, too. Pianist Smokey Joe Baugh brought in a good batch of boogie woogie and rhythm and blues, not only because of his piano playing but also because of his gravely voice. Drummer Johnny Bernero, who often performed with the band during the mid 1950s and became known at local Sun Records for his distinctive shuffle rhythm, also liked to perform jazz music once in a while. Bill Taylor felt a similar affection for jazz and was influenced by such artists as Dizzy Gillespie.

The Snearly Ranch Boys' own brand of country music made them a popular act and earned them a regular spot at Gary Loftin's West Memphis based Cotton Club, located on Broadway and frequented mostly by white country music listeners. West Memphis was a hot bed for entertaining at that time, a pulsating town of nightlife, clubs, live music, and gambling. The Snearly Ranch Boys rose to become the house band of the club for years. The band also held a regular spot on radio KWEM in Memphis/West Memphis since the early 1950s, spreading their sounds all over the region. The station hosted both black and white musicians, many of them now of legendary status, including B.B. King, Eddie Bond, Johnny Cash, Sonny Boy Williamson II, James Cotton, and many more. It also aired Memphis' few Saturday night live country music stage shows, "Saturday Night Jamboree", from 1953 to 1954 and eventually, after being renamed KWAM, Gene Williams' "Cotton Town Jubilee" in the early 1960s. Snearly Ranch Boy Smokey Joe Baugh and Memphis guitarist Paul Burlison, who was a member of Shelby Follin's band at that time, were performing from time to time with Howlin' Wolf on the latter's show, which was on the air right after the Follins band's spot (and the Ranch Boys' show in turn came after the Wolf's).

An early line-up of the Snearly Ranch Boys, ca. early 1950s.
Clyde Leoppard is placed far left on steel guitar. Source: KWEM Archives.


Entrance Into the Sun Orbit
Stan Kesler joined the Snearly Ranch Boys in the early 1950s after relocating to the city in 1950 as well as Bill Taylor. Kesler would play steel guitar and Taylor served as the band's trumpeter and featured vocalist. Both were adept at songwriting and collaborated on a couple of songs, originally intended to be recorded by the band, but two of them ended up to be on the list for Elvis Presley, who had made his recording debut in summer 1954 for the uprising independent label Sun Records in Memphis. But more of that later. 

Even before Presley recorded these songs, the band came to the attention of Sam Phillips, who ran his Sun record label out of his studio on Union Avenue in Memphis. The songwriting efforts of the Kesler-Taylor duo and the band's connection to Bill Cantrell and Quinton Claunch, both short-time members of the Snearly Ranch Boys and by 1954  Sam Phillips' new auxiliary workers in the C&W field, brought the band to the attention of Phillips, who seriously considered breaking into the country music business (partly due to Presley's success in this field). Whoever was responsible for bringing the band into the little Memphis Recording Service studio, either Claunch and Cantrell or Leoppard as part of his manager role for the band, Sam Phillips set up a session for the Snearly Ranch Boys in February 1955 that produced two songs: "Lonely Sweetheart", a country ballad reminiscent of the 1940s country hits written by Stan Kesler and probably Al Rogers (a bandleader with whom Kesler had performed prior to his Memphis days), and the Kesler-Taylor penned novelty number "Split Personality", on which Taylor and Smokey Joe Baugh collaborated as Dr.-Jekyll-and-Mr.-Hyde-like narrators. The line-up included Bill Taylor on vocals, Smokey Joe Baugh on vocals and piano, Buddy Holobaugh on guitar, Stan Kesler on steel guitar, and Clyde Leoppard on bass (or drums, depending on which source you believe). Jan Ledbetter, who played bass with the group, was perhaps absent that day.

Phillips released both songs on his new label Flip (#502) already that same month or the month after (sources vary on this issue). It came out on both 78rpm and 45rpm format and is now a rare item. The disc didn't saw much exposure, although it might have sold decent in the Memphis area due to the band's popularity and possibly brought them onto some of Sun's package tours during 1955 or 1956. In addition, Phillips recognized Kesler's talents as a musician and booked him for a slew of country sessions during 1955, including recordings by Charlie Feathers, the Miller Sisters, and Carl Perkins.

Kesler and Taylor composed "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone" (borrowing its melody from a Campbell's soup advertisement), which was eventually recorded by Elvis Presley in early April 1955 for Sun Records. Presley's version was a blues tingled country song, supported strongly by Jimmie Lott's drumming, Bill Black's slap bass and Scotty Moore's rich guitar playing (Moore also performed with the Ranch Boys a couple of times prior to 1954). Released later in April that year as the flip side of "Baby Let's Play House" (Sun #217), it became a #10 C&W hit. Kesler would compose more songs that were given to Presley, including "I Forgot to Remember to Forget", which Presley took to #1 in the country charts in 1955.

Although their one and only release as a band did not make any great impact, it brought pianist Baugh to the attention of Phillips. In some way, he embodied what Phillips had looked for so long (and had found in Elvis Presley): a white country boy who could sing like a black man. And Baugh, whose gravelly voice wasn't of natural cause but likely due to a throat or windpipe injury, could very well sing like a black blues singer. Paired with his boogie piano style, he was sounding so black people often thought he really was.

On August 25, 1955, another session was organized, this time to produce tracks on Baugh. With a selection of Snearly Ranch Boys that included Buddy Holobaugh, Stan Kesler, Bill Taylor, and Johnny Bernero (replacing Leoppard), at least two songs were produced that day, which were eventually released by Phillips a month later. "The Signifying Monkey" was credited to Kesler and Taylor but the lyrics had a long tradition in African-American culture. It was more of a narrative, done by Baugh in his gravely voice, with Stan Kesler taking up the lead part on his steel guitar. Its flip side, "Listen to Me Baby" was the much more interesting side, a remarkable piece of jump blues and country music crossover. Baugh has fine moments on the piano here with Bernero providing a jumping beat and Kesler throwing in the country feel on steel guitar. The record was first issued on Flip #228 and then, after Phillips had to discontinue the label due to legal troubles, on Sun #228 and hit the market on September 15. On the Flip release, the credit went to "Smokey Joe" and the band was hiding as "Clyde Leoppard Band", whereas the Sun version was simply credited to "Smokey Joe," omitting the Snearly Ranch Boys possibly to make it attractive also to black audiences. The disc sold surprisingly well with 25.000 copies and reportedly got Baugh an invitation from the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York.

Session band
Baugh and the Snearly Ranch Boys recorded some more sessions for Sun during 1955 and 1956 but none of the recorded material was ever released by Phillips despite Baugh's successful debut. However, it was another, fresh singer that would gain Phillips' attention and cause the band to enter the studio on 706 Union Avenue again.

Mississippi born Warren Smith was fresh out of the US Air Force in early 1956 and upon his discharge, had almost immediately relocated to Memphis. Smith had taken up the guitar during his service and decided to try his luck in the music business. Soon after his arrival, he visited the Cotton Club and asked the band for an audition, spontaneously sitting in with them. Stan Kesler promptly recognized the singer's talent and contacted Phillips to tell him about his new discovery.

Kesler had already a beautiful country ballad in the can entitled "I'd Rather Be Safe Than Sorry" intended for Smith, who was raised on country music and evidently greatly adept at this style, but Sam Phillips requested another song for a session. Before Kesler or any other of the band members could write a word or a note, Phillips called back and told Kesler that Johnny Cash had returned from a tour with a "rhythm song" he had written in Shreveport. In February, the band including Smith, Phillips and Johnny Cash met at the Cotton Club to go through the details. The idea was to share the profits from the future record in equal parts as, after all, Clyde Leoppard was paying Smith's expenses at the Snearly boarding house. A demo of the Cash song, entitled "Rock'n'Roll Ruby", was given to the band to give in idea of how it sounded. Cash had previously made the tape at KWEM.

Later that month, a session was set up at Sun and the band worked up the selected compositions. The line-up included Warren Smith on vocals and rhythm guitar, Buddy Holobaugh on lead guitar, Stan Kesler on steel guitar, Smokey Joe Baugh on piano, Jan Ledbetter on bass, and Johnny Bernero on drums. The result was a rollicking performance of "Rock'n'Roll Ruby" with great twin-solos by Holobaugh and Kesler plus another piano break by Baugh and Bernero's shuffle rhythm. The flip side, "I'd Rather Be Safe Than Sorry", became what was intended to be, a beautiful ballad sung sincere by Smith and supported by Kesler's steel guitar fills.

Sam Phillips coupled both recordings on Sun #239 and released them in March 1956. Billboard reviewed Smith's single first on April 21 and - when "Rock'n'Roll Ruby" had already hit the local Memphis and Charlotte charts - picked it as a "This Week's Best Buy." On May 26, Warren Smith hit the #1 spot on the Billboard Memphis C&W charts. Smith performed a string of shows with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Eddie Bond, and Roy Orbison in the Memphis area, then embarking on a tour through Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi with Orbison, who had just hit the charts with "Ooby Dooby." By July, "Rock'n'Roll Ruby" had sold more than 68.000 copies, a success that none of Sun's other top stars like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins or Jerry Lee Lewis achieved with their debut releases.

The recording of "Rock'n'Roll Ruby" (and a couple of earlier unreleased recordings of Smokey Joe Baugh) proofed the Snearly Ranch Boys could really rock, although they maintained a country feel to everything they did. But they would carry their sound even further. And: the Snearly Ranch Boys had established itself as a smithy for Sun singer (or at least for singers who became part of the label's periphery).


Billboard May 5, 1956


While "Rock'n'Roll Ruby" had become a good seller by April, the Snearly Ranch Boys already worked with another vocalist, this time a young female singer from Memphis, Barbara Pittman. Smith had left the band as he was riding high on local chart success despite his agreement with the band. Barbara Pittman had performed with Lash LaRue's western show prior to her return to the city in early 1956. Then, she met Kesler who brought her in as a vocalist for the Snearly Ranch Boys for their regular spots at the Cotton Club. Kesler had written a song called "Playing for Keeps" that he wanted Elvis Presley to record, who had just switched labels to RCA-Victor, and recorded a demo of it with Pittman as the singer. Sam Phillips heard it and was impressed. A session was arranged on April 15 for Pittman and the band, recording a couple of songs, including the raucous "I Need a Man" and a soft ballad entitled "No Matter Who's to Blame". The sound was similar to Warren Smith's record but more aggressive in approach. Kesler's steel guitar played in the background this time, while Buddy Holobaugh knocks out a thrashing solo on guitar, Jan Ledbetter slaps the bass like he never did before and Smokey Joe Baugh pounding the keys for another instrumental break.

Phillips was confident enough with the results that he signed Pittman to a contract and released both songs, which were again Kesler originals, on Sun #253 on September 24, 1956. It was reviewed in October by Billboard but sold not as much as it should have done. Pittman would go on to record various sessions for Sun, often with members of the Snearly Ranch Boys but mostly not as a whole unit, and had four more releases on Phillips' new Phillips International label.

Own productions
By this time, the Snearly Ranch Boys underwent some changes. Stan Kesler learned electric bass in late 1956 and switched from steel guitar to bass altogether eventually, being one of the first musicians in Memphis to use this new kind of instrument. He also was working with Sun as a session musician and songwriter. Also other members of the group, especially Smokey Joe Baugh and Johnny Bernero, were used frequently by Sam Phillips as studio musicians. Bill Taylor had left the band by then and headed to Texas, where he joined Jimmy Heap's Melody Masters. 

Although it is quite possible that Barbara Pittman performed with the band on occasions throughout the years, the band also featured other singers in their live programs and many of these names could be found sooner or later on a record. Another young musician from Ferriday, Louisiana, performed with then band on occasion approximately during very late 1956 and early 1957. His name was Jerry Lee Lewis. After his first record came out on Sun on December 1, 1956, Sun staff producer Jack Clement brought him along and placed him as a pianist with the Snearly Ranch Boys, as Smokey Joe Baugh had disappeared for a while in his usual unreliable manner. However, by February or March 1957 Lewis had already left again as he was on tour with some of the big names of Sun's roster. The band made a recording later that year with a new singer. Eddie Collins came to the band likely in 1957 and they recorded him at Slim Wallace's garage studio on Fernwood Drive. The products, "Patience Baby" b/w "Can't Face Life Alone", were recorded with the usual line-up and found release on Wallace's Fernwood label (#104, September 1957).

By late 1957, Kesler parted ways with Sun Records, opting to form his own record label in the form of Crystal Records. From this point on, the Snearly Ranch Boys ceased from recording at Sun and recorded at various other venues in Memphis. Also, Kesler and Leoppard discovered the business side of recording and operated various companies in partnership during the next years.

Kesler's first own business was Crystal Records. The label was in business for the most part of 1958 and all releases were by Snearly Ranch Boys vocalists: Jean Kelly, also nicknamed "The Cotton Patch Cinderella," Don Hosea (who also recorded for Sun and Rita), Jimmy Knight, who cut the band's "Hula Bop", and Jimmy Prittched, who likely waxed the best remembered recording from this time period, the magnificent "That's the Way I Feel" (with Smokey Joe Baugh doing a tremendous performance a la Jerry Lee Lewis on the piano). By the end of the year, the label had gone out of business, however. More on Crystal Records can be found here

Leoppard and Kesler joined forces in 1959 and opened up a recording studio, L&K Recording Service on 65 North Main Street in Memphis with some semi-professional equipment. Both had experienced failures while founding record labels - Kesler with Crystal, Leoppard with his Fonovox label that had only one sole issue by Smokey Joe Baugh - but, their joint venture in form of the recording studio did not last long either. By April 1959, Jack Clement joined as a partner. Clement, another musician and recording engineer who had started with Fernwood for a brief time, then worked with Sun until 1959, set out on his own in the spring of that year, founding the short-lived Summer Records (which did not last long, either).

In March 1960, Jack Wiener came in. Wiener was a sound engineer at Sheldon studios in Chicago, which mastered and pressed records for such labels as Chess, Sun, and many smaller imprints including Clement's Summer label. He had come down to Memphis in order to fulfill his army service and to construct parts of  Sam Phillips' new recording studio on Madison Avenue. While in Memphis, he became acquainted with other music business personalities and one of them was Stan Kesler. Wiener bought 50% of the L&K studio, the other 50% were left for Kesler, Leoppard, and Clement. The latter dropped out soon after, moving to Nashville to work for RCA-Victor and then to Beaumont, Texas, finding acclaim in his own right.

Kesler found another property on 14 North Manassas Avenue (not far away from the Sun Studio on Union Avenue), moving and rebuilding the small-scale studio under the name of "Echo Recording Studios Inc.". This studio was used by local and even more distant clients during the next two years, although it officially folded already in January 1961. However, Kesler continued to use the studio to run the labels Pen (starting in 1962) and XL.

Kesler produced at least two records that still had a Snearly Ranch Boys connection, although they were not or not directly connected with the band. By 1962, Bill Taylor had returned to Memphis and, of  course, hooked up again with his old bandmate Stan Kesler. Kesler produced two instrumentals with Taylor, the Mexican styled "Border Town" dominated by Taylor's trumpet, and "Twilight Fantasy" with likely Bobby Woods on piano. The second record came into existence two years later. Kesler produced a record for a tex-mex band named Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs. They had recorded earlier but it was probably Kesler's first production with them and he remembered "The Singifying Monkey" that the Snearly Ranch Boys had done with Smokey Joe Baugh on vocals. Kesler let Domingo Samudio, Sam the Sham's real name, record it along with one of his own songs, "Juimonos (Let's Went)", and released it on the XL label (#905) in 1964. Although it had an updated sound, the arrangement was pretty well the same as Smokey Joe Baugh's version nearly ten years earlier.

Sam the Sham's version might have urged Sam Phillips to dig out the old Smokey Joe Baugh tapes and re-release his version of "The Signifying Monkey" in May 1964. Another theory signifies that Phillips re-issued the song because it has the same shuffle beat as Millie Small's song "My Boy Lollipop", which was a hot platter in April 1964.

Clyde Leoppard's Tempo Recording Studio
By the advent of the 1960s, the Snearly Ranch Boys had drastically changed. Many of the original members went their own ways. Bill Taylor had parted in the mid 1950s, Buddy Holobaugh left for Waco, Texas, in 1961. Smokey Joe Baugh, who was unreliable due to his alcohol and pill addiction in any case, worked with the Bill Black Combo throughout the 1960s, and Kesler went more and more into record production. Johnny Bernero had founded his own band by the mid 1950s, which at times also included Buddy Holobaugh and Clyde Leoppard, and recorded one single on Beacon/Dot.

In addition to the line-up changes, other circumstances made it difficult to keep the band running. KWEM became KWAM in 1959 and stopped airing live music a year later. The Cotton Club and nearly every other club in West Memphis were closed down following the murder of a 9th grade school girl after leaving the Cotton Club. Leoppard changed the name of the band to "The Tempos" in the 1960s to go in uniform with his new recording studio. In addition, the old name of the band had become out of fashion by the late 1950s. An exact date is not reported but it seems that the band disbanded at some point in the 1960s.

Leoppard continued his activities in the music business, operating his Tempo Recording Studio out of downtown Memphis. Reverend Juan D. Shipp, KWAM gospel radio show host and independent record producer, used Leoppard's facilities frequently to record gospel acts, which he released on his D-Vine Spirituals and JCR labels. The VU label also came out of Tempo and this label may have featured the involvement of Leoppard himself. 

In his later life, Leoppard relocated to Arkansas, where rock'n'roll collector and Sun Records enthusiast Mack Stevens found him in the 1990s: "I met Clyde back in the 1990s in Arkansas; I visited his small rural house and he had a recording studio in the back but unfortunately it had suffered a lightning strike the night before which knocked out all the equipment including the vintage Ampex recorders. Sadly he didn't have any of the good vintage records either, although he had some big band and country 78s, run of the mill things, for which he had made his own homemade 78 RPM sleeves out of old stock Carl Perkins Sun LP covers by cutting them down two inches."

Appendix
The Snearly Ranch Boys were more than just a popular country band. They were part of a musical legacy that developed in the 1950s in Memphis; a development, that began in the early years of the decade and lasted well into the 1970s. The group was a micro-catalyst in the city's music scene during the heyday of rockabilly and rock'n'roll. And moreover, the band overcame racial boundaries through music (a key element in the invention of rock'n'roll), exemplified through the relationship of some band members with Howlin' Wolf. Michael Hurtt, musician, record collector and researcher, also met Clyde Leoppard in later years and constitutes: "Clyde was never a member of the musicians' union, and was turned down when he applied in 1956. He claimed it was because of his association and mixing with blues bands, which I can very well believe. Despite a miniscule recording career (perhaps due to the union situation), Clyde's band was a true incubator of Memphis rock 'n' roll. In addition to Warren Smith and Barbara Pittman, more trailblazers passed through the Snearly Ranch Boys than didn't: Reggie Young, Bill Black, Marcus Van Story, Hayden Thompson, Eddie Bond and Gene Simmons to name just a few, and long-running member Stan Kesler, who started out on steel and then switched to electric bass. Stax and Hi Records founders Jim Stewart and Quinton Claunch were members as well.""

There has never been an official re-release of the Snearly Ranch Boys' output, as the recordings under their own name were next to minimal. However, El Toro Records compiled a CD comprised of Smokey Joe Baugh's recordings that also includes much of the band's session work in addition to some more recordings on which Baugh served as a studio musician.

List of members
(in alphabetical order)
(might be incomplete)

Baugh, Smokey Joe
Bernero, Johnny
Byers, Hank
Hall, Buddy
Hosea, Don
Holobaugh, Buddy
Hornbeck, Rusty
Kelly, Jean
Kesler, Stan
Knight, Jimmy
Ledbetter, Jan
Leoppard, Clyde
Lewis, Jerry Lee
Martin, Ray
Pepper, Robert
Pittman, Barbara
Potts, Tommy
Pritchett, Jimmy
Claunch, Quinton
Smith, Warren
Stewart, Jim
Taylor, Bill
Van Brocklin, Lucille
Van Story, Marcus
Vescovo, Al
White, Johnnie
Young, Reggie


Sources

The New York Times: Sun Country Retrospective
The Snearly Ranch Boys Facebook site 
The Commercial Appeal: Stan Kesler obituary
Long Lost Memphis '70s Sacred Soul
706 Union Avenue: The Flip sessions
A Collector's Guide to the Music of Chuck Berry: Jack Wiener and Sheldon Recording Studios
Soul Detective: Clarence Nelson, Part Two

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Rose Lee Maphis R.I.P.

Country music star Rose Lee Maphis, one half of country music husband-and-wife duo Rose Lee & Joe Maphis, passed away October 26, 2021. She was 98 years old.

Maphis was born 1922 in Baltimore and started her career on Maryland radio. She soon became part of a group named the Saddle Sweethearts and while working the Old Dominion Barn Dance in Richmond, Virginia, in the mid to late 1940s, she met her future husband Joe Maphis. The couple moved to California and married there in 1952.

Her husband Joe became known as one of country music's most versatile guitarists and played on countless recording sessions for both stars and unknowns alike. In 1953, they couple wrote and recorded "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music)" (inspired by the infamous Blackboard Club), which became a hit in their version and a classic in honky-tonk country music. It has also been covered a lot of times through the decades by various artists. During the 1950s, Rose Lee and Joe Maphis were stars in California's country music scene, appearing on various radio and TV shows, including the famed Town Hall Party.

Later on, Rose Lee Maphis concentrated more on raising their children but returned to recording in the 1960s. In 1968, the family relocated to Nashville where they cut more albums. Following her husband's death, she ceased performing but went on to work at Opryland and later greeted the fans at Country Music Hall of Fame tours. 

Read more

Watch Rose Lee & Joe Maphis perform their hit "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke" at the Town Hall Party.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Josephine Johnson - Double High Five


Singer-songwriter Josephine Johnson has produced her EP “Double High Five” during the pandemic year of 2020. She is a full-time musician only since 2018 but has released three albums so far. This EP is her newest release.

The six songs on “Double High Five” are mostly slow ones, dominated by Johnson’s sweet voice and tenderly arrangements. The title track, not even two minutes long, features an enjoyable pop styled melody. “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” is a cover of the Sam Phillips song (no, not THE Sam Phillips of Sun Records fame) and has also been recorded by Robert Plant and Allison Krauss. The highlight on the record, however, is “Feather Song,” a mid-paced country rock number.

Visit her website for more information.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Sur-Speed Records

The Guru of Nashville Indenpent Record Production
The Story of Red Wortham's Sur-Speed label


We have discussed the San record label out of Bon Aqua, Tennessee, in one of our previous posts. But the tiny community of Bon Aqua was home to more than just one small record imprint. While San was an amateur label by part-time musician and part-time electronics buff Harold Tidwell, Sur-Speed Records was a far  more professional approach. Although it was headquartered in Bon Aqua, it also had offices in Nashville as well as in Atlanta and Manchester, Georgia.


Location of Bon Aqua in the Nashville area. Click to enlarge.
Source: Google Maps

Early years of Red Wortham
The label was operated by Red Wortham, a musician, record producer, and promoter, who had partnered with Jim Bulleit in the latter's Bullet label in Nashville earlier in his career. Wilbur Clarence "Red" Wortham was born September 6, 1920, in Stewart County, Tennessee, located in the north-western corner of middle Tennessee, north-east of Nashville. Wortham was born to James William Calvin Wortham (1884-1962) and his wife Sarah Elizabeth (1892-1987). The Worthams had four children: Thomas Jefferson, Forest Lee, Rubye A. and the youngest, Wilbur Clarence. The family lived in a mixed neighbourhood, meaning that young Red Wortham grew up with both black and white people, a fact that later made him treat musicians equally, no matter which colour their skin had.

By the age of 13 years, Wortham had taken up the guitar and was playing shows with his friend Charlie. A few years later, he was already performing on WLAC in Nashville and, astonishingly, was even paid for his shows. We do not have much information on his musical influences but it is noteworthy that Wortham likely performed predominantly jazz music, although he subsequently recorded mostly country music and rhythm & blues.

Joining Bullet - Always a Smash Hit
In 1940, Wortham founded a big band orchestra that frequently performed at the Andrew Jackson Hotel in Nashville, which soon became a hot spot for local musicians. At some point in the 1940s, Wortham went into the business side of music, founding his own company to produce and promote other artists. In 1948, he joined Jim Bulleit's Nashville based Bullet record label as a promoter and producer. Bulleit left the label in 1949 and the company folded in 1952 due to constant commercial failure since 1947.

In the 1940s, Wortham met a female pop singer by the name of Phyllis Spain. Spain, who originally hailed from Kingston Springs, Tennessee, had performed on WSM and with Jack Gregory's Orchestra. They became a twosome and married, shortly afterwards Spain joined Wortham's own orchestra. When Decca A&R man Paul Wells approached Wortham as he was looking for another Kitty Wells, Wortham suggested his wife to be the one, and she signed a contract with Decca's subsidiary Coral and went on to record country music as Tabby West during the 1950s.

Although Bullet's only hits were orchestral pop songs, the label became better known for its country, blues, and gospel recordings, a musical path that Wortham would continue. By then, Wortham had built a little recording studio in Nashville that was located just around the corner from radio WSIX. In 1953, along with WSIX DJ Joe Calloway, he was instrumental in recording and discovering the Prisonaires, a vocal group made up of Tennessee State Prison inmates. The group's "Walking in the Rain" was released by Sam Phillips on Sun Records and became a success for the label and the group likewise. Wortham also dabbled in songwriting during the 1950s. Some of his compostions were recorded by such country music artists as Kitty Wells, Danny Dill, and his wife Tabby West.

During the mid 1950s, he ran the Delta record label in Nashville (with the involvment of Jim Bulleit), which produced a noteworthy output of gospel (The Fairfield Four), rock'n'roll (Whitey Pullen, Rhythm Rockers, Tommy Smith), and rhythm & blues (Shy Guy Douglas, with whom he would work steadily also in later years).

Billboard February 2, 1957
Billboard reports that Whitey Pullen is
in town to record for Wortham's Delta label.
Note that the magazine mentions the wrong name
(F.L. was Wortham's brother).

Sur-Speed Records
In 1962, Wortham bought an old, abandoned general store in Bon Aqua and converted it into a recording studio, Sur-Speed Studio. Three years later, he also set up a label of the same name that specialized in country music, gospel and rhythm & blues. The first known disc appeared in 1965 with Jim Low's "Prayer Will Find a Way" b/w "Gone Home" on Sur-Speed #191. At that time, the record labels had a simple brown to white design. The label's distinctive blue color would not be introduced until release #195 (Big C - "Raid on Cedar Street" b/w "Standing on the Outside") that same year.

Again, Wortham worked with Shy Guy Douglas, who had minor success with his Sur-Speed records but it was not enough to stimulate a good financial income for the company. As time went by, Sur-Speed became more of a custom label and Wortham recorded any singer who was able and willing to pay for it. The label had a good reputation as Wortham was known to treat musicians of both black and white color the same way.

The Center of Johnny Cash's Universe and Return to Wortham
Wortham operated the Sur-Speed label likely until the early 1970s and eventually sold the building to Johnny Cash. Cash's song catalog manager converted the building into an intimate live music venue and by the mid 1970s, Cash was performing small concerts there but also gave young, aspiring singer-songwriters their first stage. In the mid 1980s, Wortham bought back the building from Cash and revived his recording studio. It remained in Wortham's possesion until his death.

In the 1990s, Nashville based publishing firm Bluesland Productions acquired the rights to and master tapes of the Bullet, Delta, and Sur-Speeds catalogs. In 2007, a compilation entitled "The Bullet and Sur-Speed Records Story" was released.

Red Wortham died December 31, 2002, at the age of 82 years at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. He is buried at Memory Gardens in Centerville near Bon Aqua.

With Wortham's death, the old general store in Bon Aqua had an uncertain future - again. In 2016, the building as well as an adjacent farm, which had been also owned by Cash and was originally the estate of Civil War major Phillip Van Horn Weems, were restored and are now available to the public under the name of "Storytellers Hideaway Farm & Museum".

Discography
For discographical information on Sur-Speed, see its entry at 45cat and Bluesland Productions' website.

Sources
The Spirit of Music Lives Here at the Farm
Find a Grave
The Storytellers Hideaway Farm & Museum official website
Ennyman's Territory: Can Red Wortham Be Credited for Launching the Career of Elvis Presley?
Discogs

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Banty Holler - Journeyman Songs


To define Banty Holler’s style simply as „country music” would not do their style justice. The music this duo is playing mixes elements of bluegrass, blues, country music, and even rock’n’roll. The songs often feature tentative dobro sounds but can also push forward with banjo, drums, or electric guitar. The duo is made up of Neile H. Coe, originally from the Chicago area, and Gijsbert Diteweg from the Netherlands and the duo has already put out four EPs since 2016. “Journeyman Songs” is their first, self-produced, full-fledged album.

The record starts with a calm and tender “Clementine” with fine dobro playing. “Hit This Chord” is of much more energy, adding banjo and electric guitar to the line-up. “Alright”, the third track, is a fine, mid-paced, acoustic blues based song.

Another highlight on the album is the instrumental “Journeyman Reel,” an acoustic guitar number that reminds the listener of the everlasting classic “Wildwood Flower”. “Sons of Outrage” is quite the opposite and, although a dobro is present again, has a rock’n’roll feel to it. They chose a similar style for “Grass”. The LP concludes with “Constantine”, a slow ditty that features a breeze of electric steel guitar and – for the bluegrass feeling – a gingerly played mandolin.

“Journeyman Songs” has its fine moments. Americana and roots music lovers will go for this album.

Visit their website for more information.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

San Records from Bon Aqua

Bon Aqua and Good Music from Hickman County, Tennessee
The Story of the Rockin' Postmaster Harold Tidwell


Today, we spotlight the small San record label from Bon Aqua, Hickman County, located in central Tennessee southwest of Nashville. Its creator was Harold Tidwell, a longtime Bon Aqua resident and part-time country music singer. Tidwell is better known to rockabilly fans under his pseudonym "Don Wade", under which he cut two records, which are loved by many rockabilly music enthusiasts.

He was born Harold Neatam Tidwell on November 10, 1930, in Bon Aqua, a small place in rural Tennessee. The place was named after a nearby mineral spring, which was known for its water of good quality. The Tidwell family were longtime residents of Bon Aqua and members of them can still be traced down there. Tidwell's father Henry Neatam (1904-1993) was a farmer, bus driver, and employee of a furniture manufacturing plant, who married Asaline Lampley (1909-1987) in 1925. The couple gave birth to a child in 1925, which tragically died as an infant. In 1930, their son Harold Neatam followed.

Tidwell served his country from 1951 to 1953 in the armed troops, spending time in Korea. By 1958, he had become the local postmaster of Bon Aqua, which had a post office since 1842. He had also taken up music, playing the guitar and sing, and likely performed locally. Tidwell, who was a bachelor all his life, was equally adept at electronics and built himself a recording studio in his small home in Bon Aqua.


Catalog of Copyright Entries, 1953

We first find mention of Tidwell's music activities in 1953. Back then, he was problably trying his hand at songwriting for the first time. The catalog of copyright entries of that year lists a song called "You Said Goodby" in its section of unpublished music by Harold Neatom Tidwell and a certain Judith Evelyn Tidwell, whoever that may be. No hint can be found to her identity.

Harold Tidwell
(from the collection of Volker Houghton)

By early 1958, Tidwell had decided to try his hand at recording and created San Records, which found first mention in Billboard on March 24, 1958. However, the first known release of San came not into existence until late 1958 or early 1959. Tidwell had assembled a bunch of musicians and cut two magnificient pieces of local rock'n'roll, "Gone, Gone, Gone" and "Bust Head Gin." It is not known where they recorded them but Tidwell's studio could be a good bet. The songs appeared under the name of "Don Wade" on San #206, so judging from the release number, there is a chance that there existed even earlier releases. Underground favorites today, the songs nothing back then. However, it can be assumed they saw next to no exposure as San was a local vanity imprint.

Tidwell had two more recordings in the can, "Oh Love" and a cover of Carl Perkins' 1957 Sun recording "Forever Yours", which Tidwell put out on San #207 in the spring of 1959. Billboard amd Cash Box both took notice of the disc in April that year and appreciated it in its reviews. Though, the record only saw little attention like its precursor. Tidwell continued to record some local talent, including Ronnie Allen, who cut an equally good and cherished rock'n'roller entitled "Juvenile Deliquent" (among other songs).



Billboard C&W review April 13, 1959

Billboard May 4, 1959

Cash Box C&W review April 11, 1959

Tragedy struck on January 14, 1963, when Tidwell was robbed and shot three times at his home by a stranger, who pretended to need help with his car. He lay seven hours in his bathroom, when his father found him. Tidwell was rushed into Thomas Hospital in Nashville. Although his condition was critical, he survived.

Being physically disabled, he ran a small electronics shop to earn a living and even did some recording on a singer named David Barnes. He released the results on San Records around 1967. Harold Tidwell died August 27, 1977, at age 46 years and was buried at Five Points Church of Christ Cemetery in Bon Aqua.

For decades, virtually nothing was known about the name Don Wade. In 1980, they saw release again on Dutchman Cees Klop's White Label LP "Tennessee Rockin'", which also contained various other San recordings by Ronnie Allen and David Barnes. Klop must have discovered the little San label shortly before during one of his many trips to the United States but failed to unearth substantial info on Tidwell, although he found Tidwell's parents.

That same year, Big H Records' "Vintage Rock'n'Roll Collector's Items, Volume 8" compilation included "Gone, Gone, Gone" and "Bust Head Gin". It was not until 2020 when record collector and researcher Volker Houghton unearthed parts of Tidwell's story and made it public though his YouTube column "Stranger Than Fiction". However, other researchers have previously tried their luck to finding Tidwell to no avail, like Barbara Botwinick: "A few years ago I tracked down someome from his [e.g. Tidwell's] home town. She couldn't believe anyone from Bon Aqua would have any talent at all! I can't remember her name - she even sent me a picture of the Tidwell family house, which had been in disrepair by then. She was going to look into finding out some info for me but I never heard back from her. [...]"

Volker Houghton is still in the progress of finding more material on Tidwell, so we stay tuned.

San Records Discography

San 206: Don Wade - Gone, Gone, Gone / Bust Head Gin (1958-1959)
San 207: Don Wade - Oh Love / Forever Yours (1959)
San 208: Ronnie Allen - Juvenile Delinquent / River of Love (1959)
San 209: Ronnie Allen - High School Love / This Love of Ours (1960)
San 300: Ronnie Allen - Gonna Get My Baby / The Best of Me (1961)
San 301:
San 302: David Barnes and the Hearts - Loving On My Mind / I Can't Stand It Anymore (1967)

 

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Reka Records discography

Jimmy Ace - Kentucky Twist (Reka 299)

Reka Records was the small outlet that saxophone player Jimmy Lamberth operated out of his hometown Jonesboro, Arkansas. Active between 1959 and 1964, the label issued a bit more than a handful of releases, all of them from local talent and commercially unsuccessful.

Lamberth was born in 1927 in Jonesboro and came - contrary to most of his fellow musicians - from a trained and more sophisticated musical background. He played jazz in different bands but eventually would also perform with country combos in the Memphis and Arkansas regions. He was not eager to record or score a hit but nevertheless cut a session for Lester Bihari's Meteor label in 1957, which produced the single "Latch on to Your Baby" b/w "I'll Pretend" (Meteor #5044). In the late 1950s, he also worked with piano rock'n'roller Teddy Redell and backed him up on a couple of sessions for Vaden Records.


In 1959, Lamberth set up his own label, Reka Records, and made Jonesboro its headquarter. However, he would record most of the singles in Memphis, as he would often print on the labels ("A Memphis Recording"). The debut was a release of the owner himself with "Reelin' and Rockin'" b/w "Harbor Lights" in 1959. He would cut two more releases for the label (also as "Hank Hankins").

This particular release was issued twice. The first edition was Reka #298 by Jimmy Lamberth, hiding under his pseudonym "Hank Hankins". He turned the old Stephen Foster tune "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!" into a wailing rock'n'roll instrumental and reworked the Delmore Brothers hit "Blues Stay Away from Me" in the same way (with vocal support, however). He subsequently used the same masters for #299 and re-released them under the name of fellow sax man Johnny "Ace" Cannon. Cannon likely did not perform on these cuts, as Lamberth was the sax man himself, but he probably thought, it would be a good idea to release the songs under Cannon's name, as Cannon was riding high on the charts with his own version of "Blues Stay Away from Me" in 1962. Interestingly, some copies of #299 have a sticker over the artist name with Jimmy Ace on it. This was done possibly due to contractal restrictions as Cannon was tied to Hi Records.

By the mid 1960s, the label had become dormant and in the 1970s, Lamberth became a missionary evangelist for the Phillipines and kept this occupations well into the 2000s. He died 2016, aged 88, in Jonesboro.

If you have additional info on Jimmy Lamberth, Reka Records, or artists that recorded for the label, feel free to contact me.

Discography

294: Jimmy Lamberth - Rockin' and Reelin' / Harbor Lights (1959)
295: Jo Haynes - So Long / Scotty Mine
296: Sonny Deckelman - Born to Lose / After You're Gone
297: Billy Childs - Call Me Shorty / I  Need Your Love (1960)
298: Hank Hankins - My Old Kentucky Home Rock / Blues Stay Away from Me (1960)
299: Ace Cannon - Kentucky Twist / Blues Stay Away from Me (also released as by "Jimmy Ace") (ca. 1962)
400: Jimmy Lamberth - Do You Know / Step-Out
401: Kenny Owens - Wrong Line / Come Back Baby (1964)

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

R.I.P. Don Maddox

Don Maddox, last surviving member of the famous Maddox Brothers & Rose, has died September 12, 2021, at the age of 98 years. Maddox had spent a great portion of his life, including his last years, on his ranch in Oregon. Although he was absent from the music business after the break-up of the family band in the 1950s, young fans rediscovered them and persuaded him to take the stage again in later years. He did his last performance in 2016 in Burbank, California.

The Maddox Brothers & Rose consisted of brothers and their sister Rose, gaining popularity across the USA from the mid 1940s until the mid 1950s. Their style was prototype rockabilly and influenced many of the 1950s rock'n'rollers.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Ben Jack on Bejay

Ben Jack and the Country Boys - I Loved You So Much I Let You Go (Bejay 1301), 1962

One of the small record entrepreneurs that orignated out of Arkansas was Ben Jack, a part-time musician, who built his own recording studio and label. Jack allowed himself to have the debut release on his own label, Bejay (the name coming from Jack's initials B and J) that eventually served as an outlet to release the custom recordings he made at his studio. Actually, Jack became a local celebrity mainly because of his music shops in the Fayetteville region.

Jack was born Ben Hoyt Jack on December 27, 1933, to Frank and Rena Helen Jack. Jack's father Frank owned the local Jack's Motor Company in Van Buren. Ben Jack was musical inclined and learned to play pedal steel guitar at some point. It is said that he once performed with the likes of Bob Wills and Hank Thompson. By the 1950s, Jack was playing locally with a band. In 1959 and 1960, Jack and group recorded some country songs for Leon McAullife's Cimarron label.

Billboard March 7, 1960, C&W review

By the the early 1960s, Jack was also dabbling in recording and producing techniques, establishing his own recording studio in Van Buren. Out of this studio, he also operated his own Bejay label. The first release came in 1962, two country songs by Jack and his band: "I Don't Want to Go" b/w "I Loved You So Much I Let You Go." More releases followed but a fire destroyed the recording studio, causing Jack to move across the Arkansas River to the city of Fort Smith. There, he rebuilt his studio in an abandoned garage, turning it into a modern recording studio with top notch gear of the time.

Billboard January 6, 1962 C&W review

Although electric guitars were already popularized in the wake of rock'n'roll music in the mid 1950s, the mid 1960s saw a boom of electric amplified guitars due to the success of the Beatles and what followed as the "British Invasion". In 1965, Jack and his wife Shirley (1938-2017) decided to open up their first music store in Fort Smith, "Ben Jack's Guitar Center", which featured a guitar repair shop in the back and a music store selling guitars and other instruments in the front. The store became a success and a year later, the Jacks opnened a second store in Fayetteville. They eventually sold their store in Fort Smith (however, it retained Jack's name) but established more branches in Rogers and Bentonville. Ben Jack's stores became an institution in Northwest Arkansas, one of the most venerable and popular spots for musicians and those who wanted to become an accomplished one. The staff included only the most versatile musicians of the region, inlcuding Earl Cate, a local guitarist who had played with Ken Owens and the Del-Rays and his own band, Bruce Grubb, who worked for the Jacks for more than 20 years, or Larry Stark.

Jack continued the run his recording studio through the decades well into the 1980s. Mickey Moody was the studio's manager for years. Countless sessions took place in this studio, giving local musicians and bands the opportunity to release their own material. Some of them saw release on Bejay but many LP productions were published on small private labels.

Jack also owned one of the largest privtae collections of vintage guitars, was active in the charity field and other local businesses. He died unexpected on November 6, 2009, at the age of 75 years in Fayetteville. He is buried at Gill Cemetery in his hometown of Van Buren. Following his death, stores were closed exept for the Fayetteville branch. It was sold by Shirley Jacks in 2014 to Don Nelms and family, who run a local car dealership. Nelms and his chief financial officer Roy Shorter are also local musicians and songwriters. Shirley Jack died in 2017.

Discography

Cimarron 4045: Ben Jack and Country Cousins - I Only Want a Buddy / Book of Memories (1959)
Cimarron 4048: Ben Jack and Country Boys - Do I Love You / I'm Entitled to Your Love (1960)
Bejay 1301: Ben Jack and the Country Boys - I Don't Want to Go / I Loved You So Much I Let You Go (1962)

See also
Bejay discography at Arkansas 45rpm Records

Recommended reading
Ben Jack's recording studio
Ben Jack interview
That's All Rite Mama: The Hightide on Bejay

Sources
Find a Grave
Talk, Business & Politics: Music Stores Serve Diverse Clientele
Fayetteville Flyer: Local music store owner Ben Jack dies
Joel Walsh: Nelms Family Buys Ben Jack's Guitar Store in Fayetteville (Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette)

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Teron Records discography

Teron Records was a label and recording studio based in Hollywood, California. It was owned by partners Terry Dunavan and Ron Solovay, both singers and artists in their own rights. Teron, derived from the first names of both owners, came into existence in circa 1963 and folded likely in 1967. One of its owners, Terry Dunavan, will be the subject of an article in a future American Music Magazine article.

The following discography is the most complete of Teron Records at the moment. If you have any additions, feel free to pass them along.

T-777: Margie Hobbie – Choo Choo Safari / Grown Up Blues (1964)
T 778: Gil Anthony – A Ring for Rosie / Green Eyes
T-779: Bill Pape – It’s Easy as A B C / Tomorrow
T-780: Michael Anders - Kid in Between / It's No Sin
T-781: The Four Queens – A Cider in My Eye / The Boy Next Door (1964)
T-782: Carol Hunt - Oh Tommy / Oh Baby Please
T-783:
T-784:
T-785:
T-786:
T-788:
T-789:
T-790: Bill Seagle - Moon Walk / No Letter Today
T 408: Steve Garza – Your Callin’ Me Now / Simple as A B C
T 409: The Samurais – Love Light / Watch Dog
T 410:
T 411: Terry & Ron – Saturday Night / My Funny Valentine
T 412: Mildred Harrison – Grown Up Blues / You’ve Got a Good Thing Goin’
T 413:
T 414: Gail Staddard - Dalil Sa Iyo / As the World Turns
T 415:
T 416:
T 417:
T 418: Connie Dupuis - I Wish I Were Wendy / My Mixed Up Heart
T 419:
T 420:
T 421:
T 422: Georgie Herk – Untrue / It’s Not Much Fun Being Lonely
T 423:
T 424: Natalie Dale – All Dressed Up / The Beginning and the End
T 425: Wes Boice - Don't Come Runnin' / ?
T 426:
T 427:
T 428: Gordon Morris – I Went Driving / You Callin Me Now
T 429:
T 430:
T 431:
T 432: Sherry and Larry - Darling the Moon Will Not Glow / Cuddle Up (has also CH-101 as cat.#)
T 433: Rod Keith - Wedding Bells are Ringing / Lenore (has also CH-103 as cat.#)
T 434: Gary Cruise - Mystery Train / ?
T 435:
T 436:

T 437:
T 438:
T 439:

T 440:
T 441:
T 442:

T 443:
T 444:
T 445:
T 446:
T 447:
T 448:

T 449: Efrem Musgrow - Waitin' All My Life / I Can't Believe
T 450: Tony Ywanciow - Sad Times / Cry Them for Me
T 451:
T-452:
T-453: Ona Marie Chaidez - He Didn't Deserve What Happened to Him (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) / I am Imagin'
T-201: Linda Lee - You Love Is Showin' / Miss Alone

Thanks to Apesville and Bob