• Corrected and extended the post on artists performing under the name of Bill Haney. Thanks to all visitors who commented on this issue! • Updated the post on Fiddlen Jamie, thanks to all visitors who shared their memories with me. • Updated the post on Lynn Pratt, his Hornet label, and Tammy Locke, thanks to Volker Houghton.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Kenny Norton story

"I'm Just Trying to Find That One Song"
The Story of Kenny Norton 
Special thanks to Kenny Norton

Kenny Norton was one of the many artists produced and recorded by Murray Nash, a Nashville music scene all-around talent and man. "I can't say enough good about Murray Nash, an honest man in a sea of sharks. I received my education at the hand of Robey and Meaux as did many others. Murray Nash was a credit to the music business and the people he worked with were blessed to have him pass through their lives," remembers Norton about Nash. He was still a teenager when working with Nash, releasing his first 45 single on the MusiCenter label. Still, 50 years later, Norton recalls the short time with Nash with fondness.

The early years
Norton was born on June 7, 1947, in Elgin, Texas. At the age of eight months, he was adopted by Sue and Derril Norton from Mexia, Texas, who had a grocery store. Norton was mainly raised by his nannie, a black lady called Katie Brewer: "Katie was a very big influence on my life. She was cousins with Sam Hopkins from Houston. He was known as Lightning Hopkins and was a blues singer. He was recording for Don Robey. Sam always just recorded and took cash for the recordings."

While taking care of young Kenny, Katie used to listen to the radio. She always tuned in to a R&B station out of Dallas, Texas, so Norton grew up listening to such artists as Fats Domino, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Ray Charles, Irma Thomas, and of course Lightning Hopkins. Later on, when Norton was in his teens, he also listened to "Randy's Record Mart" in his car, another nighttime R&B radio show from WLAC, Nashville. In contrast to many other singers of his age group in rural Texas, Norton was not raised on country music but on rhythm and blues, quite different back then. One song which he still remembers today was Fats Domino's "Valley of Tears." He listened to that 78rpm so many times, he wore out the record. Later he also listened to the likes of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Katie encouraged Norton to take up singing, as he recalls: "Katie encouraged me to sing because I was always singing along with the radio. I soon had a simple studio set up in my room and spent a year recording and playing the recordings, trying to improve. The truth is I was never a great singer and I'm still not. But like Katie always said everybody can sing, they just have to find their song. So I stuck with it." Norton kept on practicing and also sang with Katie's niece Dinna.

How He Got to Nashville
Sometimes, Norton helped his parents at the store and delivered goods to people. One of the customers he supplied was the famous songwriter Cindy Walker, which he didn't know at first: "I had been delivering to two ladies for over a year and had no idea who they were. It was Cindy Walker and her mother Momma Walker. One day while at Cindy's house we got to talking and music came up. I told her I liked to sing and had a studio set up at home. She said she would like to hear some of the recordings. The next week when I delivered to her I brought a tape and she listened to it." She told Norton that she had a friend in Nashville, who had a recording studio and was just trying to build up a record label. That certain friend was Murray Nash.

"[...] It was then that she told me just who she was. She had written many hits for Ray Charles, Jerry Wallace, Jim Reeves and many others. She had traveled with Bob Wills in the early days." Walker called Nash and Norton travelled to Nashville by bus in order to meet with him. Nash rented a room at the Noel Hotel for Norton, which was not far away from the studio. The next day, Nash introduced Norton to Floyd and Mary Biggs: "Mary was blind and Floyd seemed almost so. Murray was one of the kindest people I have ever known as was the Biggs. After talking with Murray for about an hour he said he would like to record a song that the Biggs and Hargus Robbins had written. He let me listen to the song and I didn't like it at all. I felt it was three or four years too late for it." That song was "Oonie, Oonie, Yah, Yah, Yah," which saw later release on Norton's only single for Nash. 

The aforementioned Hargus Melvin "Pig" Robbins was a blind pianist who was a busy session musician back then. The Biggs and Robbins also collaborated on a couple of other songs that were recorded by some of Nash's artists for his Do-Ra-Me label, including "Someone Like You" by Audrey Bryant (Do-Ra-Me #1405), "Afraid to Answer" by April Clarke (Do-Ra-Me #1429), and "Buenos Noches" by Houston Turner (Do-Ra-Me #1437).

Norton in 1964/1965, taken from the
picture sleeve of his MusiCenter single.
Although Norton was not impressed with both "Oonie, Oonie, Yah, Yah, Yah" and the song Nash intended for the flip "To Know You", he agreed to record them. Nash gave him a tape of the song and Norton went back home to Texas, where he learned the tune. After three weeks, he was back in Nashville for his first recording session. He cut "To Know You" along with "Oonie, Oonie, Yah, Yah, Yah" with Hargus Robbins on piano. According to Norton, this took place in late 1964 or early 1965 at Nash's Sound of Nashville studio. About three or four months after the session, both songs were released in 1965 (MusiCenter #3104).

A couple of months later, Nash arranged a second session for Norton in order to lay down four more songs. Two of them, "All Night Long" and "I'm Getting Tired of You," had been recorded earlier by a group called "The Valiants" on MusiCenter (MusiCenter #3102). The other two were "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" and "Get Back." Those four recordings turned out to be more R&B than Nash intended, who was more familiar with producing country music: "Murray was wanting me to go more country but I was in no way interested in country. These recordings were made at what I believe was Grower studios. I may have the name wrong. I do recall a guitar player named Eddie who Murray said played for Hank Snow. Murray gave me tapes of the recordings and I went back home."

The Crazy Cajun Years
After the release of the disc, Nash released Norton's contract to Don Robey (1903-1975), owner of Duke-Peacock Records in Houston, Texas, probably because Robey was a hit-making producer in the rhythm and blues field with such artists as Little Junior Parker, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Gatemouth Brown, and many others. " In about 6 weeks I got a letter from Don Robey from Duke Peacock Records in Houston. Don ask me to come to Houston and meet with him. I'm thinking that the sessions for the covers had been requested by Robey and as it turned out that was the case. From that time on I pretty much lost control of everything. Murray released me to Robey and a short time later Robey released me to Huey Meaux." Norton signed an exclusive recording contract with Meaux for six singles and a seperate songwriter contract. He stayed with Meaux for the next years.

However, Meaux was busy with producing Doug Sahm (and his Sir Douglas Quintet), Barbara Lewis, and B.J. Thomas. When Freddy Fender came along in the mid-1970s, "everyone else was put on the back burner," as Norton puts it. Norton grew desillusioned with the music business and quit music, while Meaux was imprisoned in 1967 for a violation of the Mann Act. "I had become a commercial pilot and flew for a corporation out of Waco, Texas. Actually I was a personal pilot for the owner of the corporation who was a gambler. I spent most of my time flying him to either Vegas or Hot Springs, Arkansas, to gamble," recalls Norton his later employment. The guy Norton worked for got killed in a car crash, so Norton switched to flying mail out of Memphis. That's were he met Murray Nash for the last time, who had quit the music business by that time, too: "One morning when I had flown into Nashville, when I opened the door of the 18 beech so they could unload and reload the mail, there stood Murray Nash. We both couldn't believe it. We were on a tight schedule and were only allowed around 20 minuets on the ground. We talked about 15 minutes and I never saw Murray again. This was in the summer of 1969 or 1970."

Kenny Norton in Mexico, 1976
Kenny Norton, ca. 1977
In the mid-1970s, with his contract still active, Norton began to work with Meaux again. He recorded several of his compositions for him, including "I Wish You Were a Hooker," "Try and Feel the Rain," "The Middle of April," and "Good Mornin' Sam." Meaux promised to release an album with Norton's recordings but din't follow through with it. "What ever music I wrote while with him, he claimed 100%. [...] I think my last recordings for Huey were in late 1975 or early 1976. By that time I had learned my lessons about the record business, I'm a slow learner." Norton then decided to take two of the master tapes, "You Left the Water Running" and "Your Picture," and sold them to independent producer Jimmy Bounds for 2500 $. Bounds released them on his Swamp label. 

Norton worked not only as a commercial pilot but also as a smuggler, transporting weed from southern Mexico. "I spent many years as a commercial pilot and a few as a pilot smuggling weed from southern Mexico. I had quit smuggling in 1977 and was busted a year later. I spent 86 days in the Federal Correction Instutite in Fort Worth, Texas," recalls Norton.

About two years ago, Norton started composing songs again after divorcing from his wife. Today, living on a 17 acres farm at the Brazos River in the woods, Norton has five songs on iTunes and works on a CD at the moment, which he hopes to release this year. Some of the songs he already wrote are about his time as a smuggler, hence the name of his album project "Smugglers Moon." Norton just wants to "[...] write and record and [I] will stay indie, it's never been about the money for me, after all these years, like Katie said: I'm just trying to find that song I can sing."

I want to express my gratitude to Kenny Norton, who was so kind to share his memories with me and supplied a lot of information.


MusiCenter 3104 
Kenny Norton 
To Know You (Biggs-Biggs-Robbins) / Oonie, Oonie, Yah, Yah, Yah (Biggs-Biggs-Robbins) 
SK4M-3563 / SK4M-3564 (RCA) 

Country Side CS 102
Josea Hopkins
Strawberry Wine (Kenny Norton/John Stuckey) / Monday Morning Blues (Kenny Norton/John Stuckey)
CS-JH-02 / ? 
1975 (on label)

Swamp SR-3106
Kenny Norton and (Salvation Express)
You Left the Water Running (B. Lynn-K. Norton) / Your Picture (R. Gundie)


Unknown said...

This was such a fun article to read about Kenny Norton! Hearing his story and the events of his life was fun. I am just starting to get into country music and I am finding it fascinating. To hear of all the originals and the music is so good. Wish I got into country music a little earlier!

Jessie | http://mustang877.com

Unknown said...

I remember hearing Oonie Oonie on the jukebox at Spunky's Cafe on the old traffic circle in Mexia Texas . I was in two fairly successful rock bands in those days ,The Ups and Downs from Wortham , and District 14 from Mexia , but I never met Kenny !

Unknown said...

Every once in awhile I read a book that leaves a lasting impression on me. I just finished reading Smugglers Moon and it made me smile and think about the adventures that he had.
There was a positive energy that he put into the pages even though the job was smuggling!
I wish there was a picture of Maria! Thank you for the excellent story Kenny!!!
John C