A Heap of Texas Music
The Story of Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters
Jimmy Heap is probably not the most famous name in country music history but was a big name in Texas' music scene from the mid 1940s up to the late 1950s. Heap led the Melody Masters, a honky tonk band that enjoyed state-wide success throughout the years. The outfit scored one major hit in 1954 with "Release Me" and had more regional strong sellers to bragg about. In the next upcoming posts, we will focus on some their records that I recently purchased. The first installment of this series will focus on Heap's and the band's career, while forthcoming parts of this series will deal with particular records of them with its background history.
James Arthur "Jimmy" Heap; Jr., was born on March 3, 1922, in Taylor, Williamson County, Texas, a small city nearly 30 miles northeast of Austin. His father, James Arthur Heap, Sr., was the son of an English immigrant and was born in 1880 in a town called Palestine in Texas, located 143 miles away northeast of Taylor. Heap's grandfather, Walter Joseph was born in 1852 in Manchester, England, and had settled in the United States by 1876. That year on May 24, he married Florence Nabors (1862-1945), who hailed originally from Edith, Arkansas, in Milam County, Texas. They had eight children, including James Arthur, who married Lizzie Vanelia Trump (1877-1971) on November 8, 1900. By then, the family already lived in Williamson County. Young Jimmy came to this world in 1922 and he also had a brother, John Arthur, who was likely a bit older. Jimmy still lived in his hometown Taylor, when his father died suddenly at the Heap's home in 1941. His brother already lived in Houston at that time.
About a year prior to his father's death, Heap got interested in music, which was surprisingly late compared to his later fellow musicians. At age 18, Heap worked at a local gas station in Taylor. Herman Bruno "Slim" Gensler, a local business man and musician, regularly stopped by and used to carry his guitar with him to play a song or two. This inspired Heap to master the guitar and take up music as a hobby. But before Heap seriously could think about a career in music, war interrupted his life. Months after his father's death, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour brought the Second World War to the United States and Heap joined the US Army Air Corps. During the war, he was stationed in Sedalia, Missouri, where he first met his wife to be.
Upon his discharge after the war, Heap took the chance and tried music professionally. He set up the Melody Masters with old high school buddies Arleigh A. "Arlie" Carter (piano), William "Bill" Glendening (bass), Louie Rincon (fiddle/banjo), Bill Kaspar, and Tommy Swenson. Soon, they performed all around central Texas and managed to land a weekly spot on Saturday nights at Dessau Hall outside Austin. Their gigs there were instrumental in gaining their first popularity.
After some time, the band began broadcasting live over radio KTAE in their hometown of Taylor in 1948. Their show was in parts sponsored by their regular venue, Dessau Hall. Previously, during the year of 1947, the band held three demo recording sessions at Peterson's Studio in Austin. By then, Horace Barnett had joined the band on rhythm guitar, fiddle, and vocals, while Kaspar and Swenson had dropped out. On their first session, they recorded three songs: the well-known fiddle tune "Cindy" (which was documented as "Sindy" by the studio, however), "Sentimental Journey," and the blues "Milk Cow Blues," which was likely rather a take on Bob Wills' western swing version than on the original by black blues man Kokomo Arnold.
Horace Barnett and Arlie Carter adopted an old fiddle tune, rearranged it and dubbed it "Dessau Waltz," a tribute to their regular night spot. An early version of this song was cut by the band during their third demo session at Peterson's. When they got the chance to record for the Austin based Lasso record label, they re-recorded it along with "Twin Fiddle Waltz" and both were released as their debut single on Lasso #100 (credited to the "Melody Masters," omitting Heap's name). The line-up on this record included Heap on lead guitar, Horace Barnett on guitar, fiddle and vocals on "Dessau Waltz," another new member namely Cecil "Butterball" Harris on steel guitar, Louis Rincon on fiddle, Arlie Carter on piano, and Bill Glendening on bass. "Dessau Waltz" was eventually re-released in 1951 by Republic Records as by "Jimmy Heap and the Ranch Hands."
"Dessau Waltz" was good enough to let Lasso record the band a follow up. "Lonely Waltz" b/w "Rugged But Right" was cut at radio KVET in Austin, where also their first for Lasso had been recorded. It appeared also in 1948 on Lasso #103. Producer of both discs was Fred M. Caldwell, who was the owner of Lasso.
|Taylor Daily Press, September 2, 1949|
The band grew in popularity across Texas and the Southwest and in 1949, Lew Chudds' Imperial Records knocked on the door, offering Heap and his band a recording contract. Many other country performers from Texas were already signed to the label or would sign, although the label had its headquarter in California. Some of the more recognizable names of Imperial's country roster were Dub Dickerson, Weldon Rogers, Bill Mack, Lew Williams, Adolph Hofner, Charlie Adams, Billy Briggs, and not to forget Slim Whitman.
Heap and the Melody Masters recorded their first session for Imperial in September 1949 at radio KTAE's studio in their hometown of Taylor. A total of seven songs were recorded and "That's My Baby" b/w "Today, Tonight and Tomorrow" (Imperial #8064) proved to be a good seller for the band. Prior to the signing with Imperial, Houston "Perk" Williams (1926-1994) from Chriesman, Texas, had joined the Melody Masters as a fiddler and vocalist, replacing Louis Rincon. Although the band was blessed with many good singers, it was subsequently Williams, who sang the bulk of the material and gave the band another boost of success with his recognizable voice. In addition, an unknown drummer supported the Melody Masters on their first Imperial session, although the band would not include a frequent drummer until the mid 1950s.
Their recording of "A Million Tears" was an even better seller and the famed Big D Jamboree from Dallas invited them to join its cast. The years 1949 and 1950 saw the band recording several more sessions and the majority of the material was released on Imperial. They also backed Bert Haney and Bill Dowdy for Empire label releases and were recorded live while playing the Big D Jamboree. These live cuts were later released on CD.
Approximately in February 1951, Heap and the Melody Masters recorded one of the songs that would become a timeless classic and had a deep impact on country music. William Warren from Cameron, Texas, (with additions by Arlie Carter) had written "The Wild Side of Life," in which the lyrical ego moans about the honky-tonk lifestyle of a bygone love affair (inspired by Warren's earlier experiences). Recorded at KTAE along with "When They Operated on Papa, They Operated on Mama's Male," Imperial released both songs in March on #8105. The record became a good seller in their homestate and fellow Texan Hank Thompson recorded his version with the Brazos Valley Boys in December 1951. It became Thompson's first number one hit and his biggest one at the same time. The song became not only a standart in country music afterwards, being covered by such stars as Burl Ives, Ray Price, Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter or Freddy Fender, but also crossed over to other genres. UK hard/boogie rockers Status Quo recorded a hit version in 1976 and still perform it in live sets to this day. Rod Stewart, Bonnie Tyler, and Vic Dana, among others, also recorded it. The line "I didn't know God made honky tonk angels" inspired songwriter Jay Miller to write an answer song, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," which was a massive hit for Kitty Wells and became another country music anthem.
Heap and the Melody Masters enjoyed increasing popularity during these years in the Southwest and especially in Texas. They did their last session for Imperial in September 1951 and when the even bigger Capitol Records came along and offered a recording contract, they naturally accepted. Capitol was also the label that would release Hank Thompson's hit version of "Wild Side of Life." The band held their first recording sessions for the major West Coast label on November 17 and 18, 1951, abadoning the old KTAE studio in favor of the University of Texas studio in Austin. Capitol released their label debut in February the next year, comprising "Lifetime of Shame" b/w "True or False" (Capitol #F1958).
Their biggest hit would come three years later. Vocalist Perk Williams found an old 4 Star record with Eddie Miller on it, singing his own composition "Release Me." The band liked it and added the song to its live performances. After receiving a good reception from their audiences, they decided to record it, which took place on February 27, 1953, at an unknown location. Coupled with "Just to Be with You" on Capitol #F2518 in July 1953, it became a hit not until January 1954, when it climbed to the national Top 5. "Release Me" would become another classic.
|Billboard May 10, 1952, advert for their latest Capitol release|
Heap and the Melody Masters combined different styles in their brand of country music. Their repertoire stretched from honky tonk tear jerkers to uptempo boppers and western swing. They recorded instrumentals like "Heap of Boogie" or country hep cat music like "Cat'n Around," which foreshadowed the rockabilly craze two years later.
Though combining hot country stylistics in their music, they did not quite reach the status of "rockabilly" while recording for Capitol. The label released two songs that nearly matched the new style, "Sebbin Come Elebbin" and "Go Ahead On" but with Perk Williams' over-the-top vocals and the undeniable western swing backing, both cuts sound more like parodies than serious attempts at the new style of music.
No more hits followed for the Melody Masters and by the end of 1956, they dropped from the Capitol roster. They had done their last session for the label in December 1955 and by then, the Melody Masters had been expanded due to the addition of drummer George Harrison and sax player Kenneth "Ken Idaho" Aderhold. Capitol continued to release discs by them until September 1956, the last being the instrumental "Mingling" coupled with "This Song Is Just for You" (Capitol #F3543).
Left without a major recording deal, the core of the Melody Masters - Heap, Harris, Barnett, and Glendening - decided to record independently and either release the results on their own labels or lease them to other companies. Pianist Arlie Carter had left the band after their last Capitol session and Perk Williams would depart in late 1957. The band released their first independent production in 1957, recorded in June at KTAE, with "See No Man No Yo Yo" b/w "Too Little Much Too Late" on their own label Big Band (#JH-1001). Although Williams was still part of the band at that time, Bill Taylor was already recording with them, who would from time to time fill in as a vocalist during the next years (along with other singers besides the band's members). Born in Alabama, Taylor came from Memphis, where he had performed and recorded with Clyde Leoppard's Snearly Ranch Boys and now teamed up with the Melody Masters. He would perform as "Wild" Bill Taylor or William Tell Taylor occasionally.
In the fall of 1957, the band recorded the first session for their newly founded Fame label. This would be Perk Williams' last recording with the band. After that, the group ventured more and more into rock'n'roll music and continued to cut records for their own Fame and Splash labels as well as Pappy Daily's D and Dart labels or Slim Willet's Winston label.
With the addition of drums and sax, the band had become more of a rock'n'roll band and by the early 1960s, the members had grown out of their western swing image and had transformed the Melody Masters into a popular dance band, performing the hits of the day. They slowed down recording activities but remained a popular live act. They even played stints at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, where they erased some public annoyances with a controversial sex comedy routine by band member Ken Idaho. Instead of backpedaling, they took it even further and recorded a couple of "sex party albums."
|A couple of the band's "party albums" that they released on their Fame imprint|
Though their heyday was over, the band, at that time renamed "The Jimmy Heap Show," remained a popular live club and dance hall act until 1977, when Heap disbanded the group in June that year. Later that same year, he recorded an album for Huey Meaux's Crazy Cajun label, which also resulted in one single on the subsidiary label American Pla-Boy.
Sadly, Jimmy Heap drowned in a boating accident on December 3, 1977, at the age of 55 years. He is buried at Taylor City Cemetery in his hometown of Taylor. Heap and the Melody Masters may not have been the most successful country music artists but they had a deep impact on country music, recording the original version of one of the genre's leading song examples, "The Wild Side of Life," and scoring the first hit version of another standard, "Release Me." Moreover, they left the legacy of numerous Texas honky tonk and western swing recordings as well as a slew of late 1950s Texas rock'n'roll. Bear Family Records re-released the Melody Masters' complete capitol sides in 1992 on CD. In 2006, another German reissue label Cattle Records, added a second CD reissue entitled "The Wild Side of Life" featuring their Imperial output. A definitive reissue of Heap and the band's complete legacy is still missing, however.
• Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters on Fame
• Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters on Capitol, Part I
• Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters on Capitol, Part II
Also visit their homepage
• Taylor Daily Press newspaper article
• Find a Grave entry
• TSHA Handbook of Texas
• Austin Chronicle: "Cum on Feel the Noise - The New Dessau Music Hall" (1998)
• Praguefrank's Country Discography entry
• 45cat and 45worlds entry
• Rockin' Country Style entry