The Ballad of Big Style Wooten
King of Memphis Custom Recording
I want to express my gratitude to Micheal Hurtt, who did a great job researching and writing the liner notes to the 4CD compilation "The Soul of Designer Records." A great portion of information came from those highly interesting notes, while I nevertheless did a lot of research on Style Wooten on my own. I also want to thank Gene Stewart for sharing his memories with me.
Style Wooten was a busy record producer and studio owner during the 1960s and 1970s in Memphis. His beginnings in the music business reach back to the early 1960s, when he worked with Gene Williams, then independently produced his first discs, and ended sometimes in the late 1980s. His most successful outfit was his Designer label, which focused on custom gospel recordings but he was not limited to one musical style. His output during those years is immense and a complete discography of his labels is still missing. To collect all of his produced records would take years, not to say decades.
According to Wooten's son Jason, he was "a giant of a man, standing six-foot-six and with a full, furry beard and a wax-tipped handle bar moustache." Wooten's life was as colourful as this description. He was born Jesse Corbett Graham on January 17, 1921, in Woodlawn, Tennessee. His mother, a Native American, was named Zula Graves and his father originally hailed from Scandinavia. His name remains unknown to this day. Why his last name was Graham and not Graves remains another mystery, as his son Jason admits: "[...] I don't know how we got Graham from Graves." It was a hard life for Zula Graves back then, since Native Americans weren't very well respected in the United States during those times. Though, she was friends with Hazard Wooten, whose family owned a tobacco farm. The family soon adopted Zula and her young son and they took the surname Wooten.
The Wootens were a very musical inclined family and would gather around to perform together. They taught Style, as he billed himself, to play piano, guitar, bass, drums, organ, mandolin, and fiddle. It is not reported how talented he was on all these various instruments but his son remembers, however, that "[...] he was a super musician" and that "[...] He could play every instrument imaginable but I don't know how because his hands were huge; they were like the biggest hands I've ever seen in my life." Roland Janes later told Michael Hurtt, anyhow, that Wooten "didn't know a thing about music."
During the 1950s, Wooten earned his living with different businesses. He would run Wooting Trucking and did some other odd jobs with Reverend Bell during this time. After his trucking company closed, Wooten went into the music business. He founded a band and began playing country music and bluegrass in clubs. He would play bass fiddle in this outfit but subsequently switched from performing to managing other bands.
|3635 Allandale Road in Memphis today|
As it was with many of his activities, Wooten managed bands for some time and then set his mind on other things. At that time, he was residing on 3635 Allandale Road in Memphis and around 1964, he met DJ, TV host and entrepreneuer Gene Williams, who owned the Cotton Town Jubilee label in West Memphis and was a disc jockey at KWAM. Williams would do custom recordings at the station's studio and Wooten was his right hand, as Roland Janes remembered. He first assisted Williams in producing Bob Taylor's "If I Had Back What I Used to Have" b/w "Walking the Street" (Cotton Town Jubilee #107), still under the name of "J.C. Wooten."
The accurate date when Bob Taylor's record was recorded is not known but it can be assumed it was in late 1963 or early 1964. On April 25, 1964, Wooten placed an enquiry with Billboard:
A.&R. MAN WITH OWN PRODUCTION and publishing company, plus talent roster and distributor contacts, desires connections with a Southern recording company, Style Wooten, 3635 Allandale, Memphis, Tenn. Ph. 324-4640.Wooten decided it was time for his own record labels and started Big Style and Eugenia as well as Stylecraft Publishing. Probably his first two own productions were singles by Sylvia Mobley and "Cowboy" Slim Dortch. Mobley was born in 1941 and first recorded for Wayne McGinnis' Santo label in Memphis. She then cut "Are You Sorry" and Marlon Grisham's "Worried Over You" for Gene Williams (Cotton Town Jubilee #113, ca. 1964). In 1964, Wooten gave her another try and Mobley laid down two of her own compositions, "Every Time I See You" and "Tell Me Clouds," released on Wooten's Big Style label (Big Style #102). He was still assisted in production by Bozy Moore and Chuck Comer, a radio DJ, songwriter and one time business partner of Gene Williams. Williams, in addition, took over the distribution of the disc and re-released "Every Time I See You" in 1965 with a different flip side, the Chuck Comer tune "I'm Not Alone Anymore" (Cotton Town Jubilee #115).
Henry Pierce "Cowboy Slim" Dortch was exact twenty years older than Mobley and already a veteran performer by then. Born in 1921 in Tennessee, Dortch performed on various radio stations in his early career. He soon settled down in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, but it seems he made the occasional trip to Memphis during the 1950s and 1960s. It is likely that Dortch made his first recordings for Wooten during one of those trips in 1964. If Wooten recorded Dortch already at Roland Janes' Sonic studio (which he would use always from that point on), is not documented. Being strictly a country musician, Dortch nevertheless belts out "Big Boy Rock" on his first sesssion, a rock'n'roll collector's dream nowadays. Coupled with "Mailing My Last Letter," Wooten released both songs on his Eugenia label (Eugenia #1001) in 1964. Probably that same year, Dortch recorded more tracks under the supervision of Wooten, including "Sixteen Miles" / "The Black Rose" (Eugenia #1001, number used erroniously twice by Wooten) and "Over at Uncle Joe's" / "Stop, I'll Walk with You" (Lighting Ball #100). You can clearly identify Travis Wammack's lead guitar playing on these sides, who recorded a lot at Sonic Studios during this time, as he recollected. Yet another record of Dortch, "A Long Time" / "Broad Tennessee", was produced by Wooten, since his Stylecraft Publ. was credited on the label. The RCA-Victor account number 729S can be found on the label. Interestingly, Wooten's account eventuelly would be 718S.
Wooten followed Gene Williams' pattern to produce custom recordings for everyone who paid for it. The artists came to Wooten, paid him a certain amount of money and he organized a studio session, recorded them and took over all the production and manufacturing. Artists payed 425$ for a recording session, mastering and the pressing of 500 or 1000 copies of their record. In some cases, if Wooten sensed a "hit," Wooten also signed a contract with the artists, carrying all the costs and marketing the disc in addition. What started as a small venture in early 1964, soon grew to Memphis' largest custom recording service. In 1964, the Style label was set up by Wooten, followed by Allandale and Tentay in 1965. The first disc released on Style was "Lonely Street" / "Let's Start Our New Love Affair" (Style #45-1920). Style Records was the first outfit to feature a typical fancy label design. Style #45-1922 by Billy Raye, featuring "Charles the Blues" / "How Was I to Know," was likely Wooten's last co-operation with Gene Williams. Both songs were published by Cotton Town Music and Williams was mentioned on the label as the producer. Around the same time, Wooten began an collaboration with veteran Memphis musician Roland Janes. Janes had opened his Sonic Recording Studios in 1961. Previously, his activities included being a staff musician at Sam Phillips' Sun Records, lead guitarist in Jerry Lee Lewis' and Billy Lee Riley's groups, a producer and owner of Rita Records. In 1964, Wooten came along and began renting Sonic studio for his custom recordings. As Janes remembered, "I charged Style practically nothing for the studio. He'd bring those groups in there, they'd come in from Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis, all over the place. Every weekend we'd cut maybe five different groups. He'd cut four songs on each group, he'd put a single out and then he'd hold one in the can. What they'd do, they'd pay him a little bit at a time, then when they had enough money to press a record he'd go 'head and press the record, give 'em X number of copies [...]."
In 1967, Wooten moved from Allandale Road to 3373 Park Avenue, where he would establish his own studio. The new facility had two modern studios with Wooten doubling as the studio's manager and chief engineer. The custom recording venture, now called variously "Wooten Recording Company," "Style Wooten Productions," or "House of Wootens Productions," attracted more and more singers and groups. In line with the location change, Wooten also set up other labels: Camaro in 1967, Designer in 1968, and Pretty Girl and Wooten in 1969. At the same time, Wooten introduced Pretty Girl Publishing as an alternative to Stylecraft. The majority of the label names had some kind of a meaning to Wooten. He had a passion for cars - especially of small cars, as his son remembers, which is quite remarkable for a six-foot-six standing giant of a man like Style Wooten. Hence the label names Camaro and Torino. Allandale was obviously named after the street he once lived on; Big Style, Style, and Wooten were named after the man himself, J'Ace was a reminiscence of his son Jason. Some labels were also devoted to particular musical genres. Pretty Girl, for example, was exclusively designed for female country singers, while Designer was used for black gospel recordings.
|Roland Janes, prob. 1950s|
Especially the Designer imprint was used frequently by Wooten. Between 1968 and Designer's demise in 1978, more than 500 different releases appeared on that label. The majority of the groups came from all parts of the United States in order to record for Wooten. In many cases, it was the groups first (and only) recording session. They came from Missouri, Michigan, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Milwaukee, and even California. Since Wooten did not influence the groups regarding musical issues, all of his productions are historial documents of how southern music - rock, country, gospel - was performed in those times. It was pristine and pure music. This not happened with the Designer recordings but with all recordings Wooten produced. "[...] He didn't cheat nobody; he treated everybody right. He felt that he was performing a service and he was. He didn't do business the way most people would do it but that didn't mean he wasn't a fair guy," Roland Janes remembered. He continued: "[...] But Style, he was great. He would give them their freedom: it was their record and he would let 'em cut it."
If artists had no own backing band or needed help with the arrangement, Wooten brought in studios musicians he frequently worked with. Those included Eddie Slusser on guitar (who had worked with Kenny Owens in the late 1960s), Gary Draffin on bass, Pat Gibson on keyboard, and Gary Adair on drums. Adair and Draffin also helped Wooten to get his own studio running.
Gene Stewart, who recorded the first version of Billy "Crash" Craddock's hit "Rub It In" for Camaro, recalls about Wooten: "As I remember, I knew someone who had gone to Memphis, Tennessee, and cut a record with Camaro Records which was one of Style's labels. He indicated that it was relatively cheap to make a 45 RPM there, so I called Style and asked him the cost of two songs. I had been singing the rock song 'Rub It In' for several months and crowds at the country shows went wild over the song - so I decided I would record it." Since he needed a another song to fill in the B side, Stewart composed "I Feel the Need to Cry" and travelled to Memphis. They cut both songs one morning probably at Sonic: "I took my drummer with me to sing harmony and Style got a group of studio musicians to back us on the two songs and we recorded both songs in one take! I sold thousands of copies at country shows but Camaro had no distribution at all to radio stations so I did a personal mail out to some selected radio stations myself," recalls Stewart. Craddock's version would peak at #1 of the US and Canada country charts in 1974. Similar to others who worked with Wooten, Stewart remembered him being "quite a character," as he puts it. Back home, Stewart also encouraged James Fields to record for Wooten, which he did indeed.
At some point, Wooten was joined by Charles Bowen, who assisted in production at numerous sessions. Stan Neill also worked with him on and off. Neill also produced other sessions for Dan Craft across the border in West Memphis. Roland Janes closed down Sonic in 1973 (or 1974, according to other sources) and Wooten moved all of his operations to his own gear at 3373 Park Avenue.
|3373 Park Avenue in Memphis, where Wooten established his own studio.|
The building is housing the "Church of God" now.
|3109 Park Avenue today|
At the tail end of 1973, Wooten changed locations one more time and relocated down the road to 3109 Park Avenue. In 1974, he also married his wife Jo Ann with whom he had one son, Jason. In 1978, he closed down all of his operations for unknown reasons. Rumour goes that he was crowded out of business by rival record producers. However, Wooten was also a severe alcoholic and his wife Jo Ann divorced from him that year. He quit his recording service and began working at MIFA in Memphis, where he served as a custodian and was living in their office house until about 1987. He was back at producing in 1985 already with his Four Winds label. One of the artists on this label was his old companion Reverend Douglas Bell from the 1950s.
Wooten married again and moved with his new bride Ann to Mississippi, where she hailed from. Wooten continued to produce records and ran Stylecraft Music as well as his labels Style, Styleway, and Good News right until his death. Style Wooten died on February 8, 1998, in his sleep. He is buried at the Bethel Cementery in Leake County, Mississippi. Interestingly, his birth date on his gravestone is given as January 17, 1919, and not 1921.
In 2014, Big Legal Mess Records acquired the rights to re-release the complete Designer catalog and issued an extensive 4CD compilation with 101 tracks from Wooten's black gospel label. Most recordings came from the extensive collection of Bruce Watson at Big Legal Mess. The highly interesting booklet to this set was written by Michael Hurtt.
Location images from Google Street View
Special thanks to Gene Stewart