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.

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Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Story of Rock 'N' Roll Ruby


Warren Smith - Rock 'N' Roll Ruby (Sun 239), 1956

"Rock'n'Roll Ruby" - now a classic in rockabilly music history and covered by countless artists. The most famous and most successful by far came from Warren Smith, of course. When Smith realised he had a hit with it, he painted across his car "Warren Smith - The Rock'n'Roll Ruby Man." Judge by yourself if this was an arrogant move. His performance of the song, however, was reason enough for it.

Warren Smith, born on February 7, 1933, in Humphreys County, Mississippi, came to Memphis after his discharge from the US Air Force. He had been singing and playing guitar for some years by then and soon, Smith became acquainted with local musicians. He joined Clyde Leoppard's Snearly Ranch Boys, a country and western outfit that was quite popular in the Memphis and West Memphis areas. They played regularly on the radio and also were the house band of the Cotton Club in West Memphis.

Stan Kesler, songwriter and steel guitairst of the Snearly Ranch Boys, had written a country ballad entitled "I'd Rather By Safe Than Sorry" by then. He was impressed with Smith's singing skills and therefore arranged an audition with Sam Phillips at Sun Records. Although also impressed by the group's performance, he told them to come back with more song material.

At the same time, Johnny Cash enjoyed early success with "Folsom Prison Blues" (peaking at #4 on the Billboard C&W charts) and was touring the US. Today, Cash is credited with composing "Rock'n'Roll Ruby." He recorded a demo version of the song possibly in late 1955 at KWEM studio in Memphis. As Warren Smith (and Cash reportedly also) eventually stated, Cash bought the song from George Jones for 40$. In fact, Cash was touring in Texas during December 1955 and January 1956, perfoming both in Odessa, Texas, and at the City Auditorium in Texarkana on December 28 with Jones. Enough time to buy a song from another artist. May it as it be, we cannot be sure who was the actual composer of "Rock'n'Roll Ruby."

One night in February 1956, Sam Phillips showed up at the Cotton Club while the Snearly Ranch Boys were playing. Johnny Cash accompanied him and they invited Warren Smith to their table. Phillips suggested Smith and the Boys should record "Rock'n'Roll Ruby," which Cash obviously didn't consider for himself. A couple of days later, on February 5, the Snearly Ranch Boys went into Phillips Recording Service to back up Smith on his first recording session. The line-up consisted of Warren Smith on vocals and rhythm guitar, Buddy Holobaugh on electric lead guitar, Stan Kesler on steel guitar, Jan Ledbetter on bass, Smokey Joe Baugh on piano, and Johnny Bernero on drums, who replaced Clyde Leoppard. Also present were of course Sam Phillips as producer and reportedly Johnny Cash. The products of this session were outstanding performances of "Rock'n'Roll Ruby" and "I'd Rather Be Safe Than Sorry," released by Phillips on Sun #239 in March that year. Some copies had the song title misspelled as "Rock'M'Roll Ruby."

Billboard C&W "Review Spotlight", April 21, 1956

May 5, 1956 (note the wrong song title)

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.

"Rock 'n' Roll Ruby" hitting the local charts in Charlotte and Memphis

During the summer of 1956, Smith disbanded from the Snearly Ranch Boys after a dispute about the royalties of the single. He founded his own band with Al Hopson on guitar, Marcus Van Story on bass and Johnny Bernero on drums. Smith had four more releases on Sun between 1956 and 1959 but none of them really caught on with the audience. He returned to country music at the end of the decade and recorded one single for Warner Bros. at the end of 1959. Contrary to widely held beliefs, Smith was not covering under the name of "Warren Baker" on Warner. Afterwards, he signed a contract with Liberty and enjoyed his commercially most successful era with this label during the early 1960s, having several hits in the national charts. Though, his contract ended in 1964 and Smith's life fell apart. He became an alcohol and drug addict, had a severe car accident and finally spent some time in jail.

In the 1970s, Smith picked up courage and began to record again. The Rockabilly Revival of the 1970s gave him a new audience and some recognition he such much desired. He enjoyed his newly achieved "stardom" for a couple of years but died way too early in 1981 at the age of 41 years from a heart attack.

Apart from an alternate take Smith and the Snearly Ranch Boys recorded during the February 1956 session, also two live takes of "Rock'n'Roll Ruby" survived. One was recorded in 1956 at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, the other one probably in 1959, when Smith had moved to California and played the Town Hall Party in Compton. He also re-recorded the song in 1976/1977 at the Real to Reel Studio in Dallas. The result was released in 1977 on the Lake Country label LP "The Legendary Warren Smith."

"Rock 'n' Roll Ruby" hitting the No.1 spot in Memphis, May 26, 1956

Already in the 1950s, "Rock'n'Roll Ruby" was covered by several artists. Johnny Carroll was the first to cover it on April 25, 1956 (Decca #9-29940), followed by Dave Burton (RCA-Victor #47-6535), Buddy Merrill (Coral #9-61649), and Rusty Draper (Mercury #70879X45). Jerry Lee Lewis (1957), the Night Rockers, Rusty Wellington, Ted Daigle from Canada (under the name of "Ruby") and Sonny Burgess (1964) also recorded it during this time. "Rock'n'Roll Ruby" became a classic and was covered by such artists as Brian Setzer, Sleepy LaBeef, Mark Knopfler, Art Adams, Charlie Feathers and others. Johnny Cash included it in some of his live performances during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

3 comments:

Bayou Bum said...

Warren Baker on Warner Brothers is not Warren Smith, Warren Smith did one 45 on WB 5125 Dear Santa / The Meaning Of Christmas. Warren Baker is a bandleader and his recordings are instrumentals. Warren Baker has wrongly stated to be Warren Smith for a long time but with a bit of research you will find his 45,s on WB and other Music by him, so please set this straight once and for all,Thanks. Great story by the way.

Mellow said...

Thanks for the correction!

Mister Moon said...

Great article, Mellow. Thank you !

Just a small correction: between 1956 and 1959, Warren saw a total of five single releases on Sun, not six.

Thanks again.