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, 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

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