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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
(might be incomplete)
Baugh, Smokey Joe
Lewis, Jerry Lee
Van Brocklin, Lucille
Van Story, Marcus
• 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