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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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)

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