The Story of Red Wortham's Sur-Speed label
We have discussed the San record label out of Bon Aqua, Tennessee, in one of our previous posts. But the tiny community of Bon Aqua was home to more than just one small record imprint. While San was an amateur label by part-time musician and part-time electronics buff Harold Tidwell, Sur-Speed Records was a far more professional approach. Although it was headquartered in Bon Aqua, it also had offices in Nashville as well as in Atlanta and Manchester, Georgia.
|Location of Bon Aqua in the Nashville area. Click to enlarge.|
Source: Google Maps
Early years of Red Wortham
The label was operated by Red Wortham, a musician, record producer, and promoter, who had partnered with Jim Bulleit in the latter's Bullet label in Nashville earlier in his career. Wilbur Clarence "Red" Wortham was born September 6, 1920, in Stewart County, Tennessee, located in the north-western corner of middle Tennessee, north-east of Nashville. Wortham was born to James William Calvin Wortham (1884-1962) and his wife Sarah Elizabeth (1892-1987). The Worthams had four children: Thomas Jefferson, Forest Lee, Rubye A. and the youngest, Wilbur Clarence. The family lived in a mixed neighbourhood, meaning that young Red Wortham grew up with both black and white people, a fact that later made him treat musicians equally, no matter which colour their skin had.
By the age of 13 years, Wortham had taken up the guitar and was playing shows with his friend Charlie. A few years later, he was already performing on WLAC in Nashville and, astonishingly, was even paid for his shows. We do not have much information on his musical influences but it is noteworthy that Wortham likely performed predominantly jazz music, although he subsequently recorded mostly country music and rhythm & blues.
Joining Bullet - Always a Smash Hit
In 1940, Wortham founded a big band orchestra that frequently performed at the Andrew Jackson Hotel in Nashville, which soon became a hot spot for local musicians. At some point in the 1940s, Wortham went into the business side of music, founding his own company to produce and promote other artists. In 1948, he joined Jim Bulleit's Nashville based Bullet record label as a promoter and producer. Bulleit left the label in 1949 and the company folded in 1952 due to constant commercial failure since 1947.
In the 1940s, Wortham met a female pop singer by the name of Phyllis Spain. Spain, who originally hailed from Kingston Springs, Tennessee, had performed on WSM and with Jack Gregory's Orchestra. They became a twosome and married, shortly afterwards Spain joined Wortham's own orchestra. When Decca A&R man Paul Wells approached Wortham as he was looking for another Kitty Wells, Wortham suggested his wife to be the one, and she signed a contract with Decca's subsidiary Coral and went on to record country music as Tabby West during the 1950s.
Although Bullet's only hits were orchestral pop songs, the label became better known for its country, blues, and gospel recordings, a musical path that Wortham would continue. By then, Wortham had built a little recording studio in Nashville that was located just around the corner from radio WSIX. In 1953, along with WSIX DJ Joe Calloway, he was instrumental in recording and discovering the Prisonaires, a vocal group made up of Tennessee State Prison inmates. The group's "Walking in the Rain" was released by Sam Phillips on Sun Records and became a success for the label and the group likewise. Wortham also dabbled in songwriting during the 1950s. Some of his compostions were recorded by such country music artists as Kitty Wells, Danny Dill, and his wife Tabby West.
During the mid 1950s, he ran the Delta record label in Nashville (with the involvment of Jim Bulleit), which produced a noteworthy output of gospel (The Fairfield Four), rock'n'roll (Whitey Pullen, Rhythm Rockers, Tommy Smith), and rhythm & blues (Shy Guy Douglas, with whom he would work steadily also in later years).
|Billboard February 2, 1957|
Billboard reports that Whitey Pullen is
in town to record for Wortham's Delta label.
Note that the magazine mentions the wrong name
(F.L. was Wortham's brother).
In 1962, Wortham bought an old, abandoned general store in Bon Aqua and converted it into a recording studio, Sur-Speed Studio. Three years later, he also set up a label of the same name that specialized in country music, gospel and rhythm & blues. The first known disc appeared in 1965 with Jim Low's "Prayer Will Find a Way" b/w "Gone Home" on Sur-Speed #191. At that time, the record labels had a simple brown to white design. The label's distinctive blue color would not be introduced until release #195 (Big C - "Raid on Cedar Street" b/w "Standing on the Outside") that same year.
Again, Wortham worked with Shy Guy Douglas, who had minor success with his Sur-Speed records but it was not enough to stimulate a good financial income for the company. As time went by, Sur-Speed became more of a custom label and Wortham recorded any singer who was able and willing to pay for it. The label had a good reputation as Wortham was known to treat musicians of both black and white color the same way.
The Center of Johnny Cash's Universe and Return to Wortham
Wortham operated the Sur-Speed label likely until the early 1970s and eventually sold the building to Johnny Cash. Cash's song catalog manager converted the building into an intimate live music venue and by the mid 1970s, Cash was performing small concerts there but also gave young, aspiring singer-songwriters their first stage. In the mid 1980s, Wortham bought back the building from Cash and revived his recording studio. It remained in Wortham's possesion until his death.
In the 1990s, Nashville based publishing firm Bluesland Productions acquired the rights to and master tapes of the Bullet, Delta, and Sur-Speeds catalogs. In 2007, a compilation entitled "The Bullet and Sur-Speed Records Story" was released.
Red Wortham died December 31, 2002, at the age of 82 years at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. He is buried at Memory Gardens in Centerville near Bon Aqua.
With Wortham's death, the old general store in Bon Aqua had an uncertain future - again. In 2016, the building as well as an adjacent farm, which had been also owned by Cash and was originally the estate of Civil War major Phillip Van Horn Weems, were restored and are now available to the public under the name of "Storytellers Hideaway Farm & Museum".
For discographical information on Sur-Speed, see its entry at 45cat and Bluesland Productions' website.
• The Spirit of Music Lives Here at the Farm
• Find a Grave
• The Storytellers Hideaway Farm & Museum official website
• Ennyman's Territory: Can Red Wortham Be Credited for Launching the Career of Elvis Presley?