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.

UPDATES

• Amended the Beau Hannon and the Mint Juleps post.
• Added Big Style #101 to Big Style Records discography.
• Added more information to the Bob Taylor post, thanks to Jimmy Hunsucker.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Atomic Records

Hayloft Frolic and Rural Rockabilly on Atomic

Main Street in Jackson, Tennessee, ca. 1910

After some ventures into other fields of Southern music, we return to our little series about small Tennessee based labels and continue with a record company from one of the true birthplaces of rockabilly music: Jackson, Tennessee. The city is best remembered in music history as the birthplace of Carl Perkins but moreover, had a lively country and rockabilly music scene during the late 1940s and 1950s.

One of the record labels that turned out local recordings was Atomic Records, which was operated by singer Curley Griffin's father, about whom nothing is known, unfortunately. The company came into existence in 1955 and mainly served as an outlet to release Curley Griffin's own recordings.


Advertisement for a show
at the Jackson Armory
featuring lots of local talent.
The Jackson Sun, June 30, 1954
Early Life of Curley Griffin

Malcolm Howard "Curley" Griffin was born on June 6, 1918, likely in the growing town of Jackson, Tennessee, in Madison County. For long, only snippets of information were available on Griffin, which changed not until 1994, when an article by Claes-Håkan Olofsson appeared in American Music Magazine. With the help of Griffin's son Ron and Carl Perkins, Olofsson had reconstructed Griffin's career. Griffin was born with only limited eye-sight, son Ron later claimed his father had only ten percent vision. Griffin attended a school for the blind and soon became interested in music. His heroes were Bob Wills, Slim Whitman, and of course Hank Williams. In school, Griffin had some fiddle playing lessons but eventually took up the guitar, which became "his" instrument.

Due to his bad vision, it was hard for Griffin to earn a living with a usual day job, although he helped his father (who apparently either owned or worked in a construction business), building houses in the eastern part of Jackson. However, music became a major income for Griffin and by the 1940s, he fronted a country music band and had adopted the nickname "Curley" for performing purposes (most likely due to his curly hair). Likely by that time, he had already married Jimmie Helen Frasier Dunbar, who also appeared with his various bands and with whom he eventually had eight children. By 1940, Griffin lived on 778 East Chester Street in the south of Jackson, judging from a Jackson Sun newspaper clipping from October 30 that year.

By the late 1940s or early 1950s, Griffin and his band had a 15 minutes radio spot over local WDXI, where he was in good company, as artists like Carl Perkins and his brothers or Ramsey Kearney were also performing on the same station. It was there that Griffin first met Perkins, with whom he became friends and would write two hit songs. Perkins remembered Griffin singing in a Hank Williams style, being only limited in singing but very enthusiastic. 

The Founding of Atomic Records
In 1955, Griffin's father, who seems to have been a kind of a business man, became interested in the recording business and therefore, set up Atomic Records. In fact, Atomic was the first of several labels that emerged out of Jackson, releasing records by local bands. Other Jackson based labels would not come into business until the founding of Jimmie Martin's Jaxon label and Lamarr Davis'/Lonnie Blackwell's Lu imprint two years later.

According to Dave Travis' liner notes to his Stomper Time CD "Hot Rockin' Music from Tennessee, Volume 2", the first two recordings for the label were made by Curley Griffin in Nashville, Tennessee. "Gotta Whip This Bear" and "Just for Me" came from this session and featured Griffin's son Ron on lead guitar. They were released around fall 1955 on Atomic #300, pressed only on 78rpm format. After the record's release, Carl Perkins later recalled, Griffin came visiting him with his record, obviously enthusiastic about his debut release, and Perkins approved it.

Griffin followed up his debut with "I've Seen It All" b/w "Magic Moon" (Atomic #302), which were again two straight country music performances. There are no sales figures reported but it is likely Griffin's disc did not sell much as Atomic was strictly a local label.


Sheet music for Carl Perkins' "Boppin' the Blues".
From the collection of Steve Palfrey.
Boppin' the Blues and Dixie Fried

In the meantime, Griffin's friend Carl Perkins had made his way to Memphis, Tennessee, and had secured a recording contract with Sam Phillips' Sun record label. In late 1955, Perkins recorded "Blue Suede Shoes", a song that became a smash rockabilly hit in early 1956. Griffin was captured by the new sound that Perkins performed, wrote "Boppin' the Blues" and showed Perkins the results. Perkins in turn liked what he saw and "picked out a line or two that he had", arranging the song around Griffin's lines that Perkins thought were good. Though songwriting credits went to Perkins and Griffin, it is doubtful if Griffin was ever paid appropriately, although Perkins paid him a few hundred dollars in advance. The song eventually reached #9 on Billboard's C&W charts and #70 on Billboard's Hot 100.

Another song of Griffin's that was recorded by Perkins was "Dixie Fried", a tune with its lyrics based on the raw honk-tonk culture of the south that both Griffin and Perkins were experiencing in and around Jackson. Perkins turned it into a slice of hard-egded honky-tonk rockabilly and while the song became a disappointment in contrast to "Blue Suede Shoes" (peaking at #10 C&W and no entry into the Hot 100), it became some kind of a rockabilly anthem for later generations of rockabilly music fans.


Griffin's Got Rockin' On His Mind
While Perkins became famous nation-wide, appeared on TV but also had to struggle with the dark side of fame, Griffin remained in Jackson. Inspired by Perkins' cat music, Griffin recorded "You Gotta Play Fair", a fast rockabilly with an unmistakably rural charm, which was released on Atomic #303 with "Love Is a Wonderful Thing" on the flip side at some point during the year of 1956.

As Griffin's career in music was closely associated with Carl Perkins, rumors circulated ever since the rediscovering of Griffin's recordings that Perkins played lead guitar on some of the Atomic recordings. Griffin's most popular song to date became "Got Rockin' on My Mind", another backwoods rockabilly song, that was released in early 1957 with the bluesy and equally primitive "Rock Bottom Blues" on Atomic #305. Again, there are people insisting that Perkins played guitar on both tracks but there are no evidences Perkins played on any of Griffin's tracks. Ron Griffin claimed he was the lead guitarist on his father's last two releases (Atomic #303 and #305) and W.S. Holland, drummer with Perkins at that time, never knew Griffin made any recordings. Perkins, however, mentioned in an interview that "Rockin' on My Mind" was recorded at WDXI with himself and his two brothers, a statement that was not confirmed by any other close associate of either Perkins or Griffin.

Rex Hale and the End of Atomic
The definitive answer to this question will probably never turn up and we rather continue the story of Atomic Records, which is near its end, however. The last known release on the label was recorded by a country band known as Rex Hale and his Tennessee Valley Boys, who cut "A Hobo Life" (a rather pre-rockabilly style country traveling song) as well as "Traded My Freedom", a Curley Griffin composition. Rex G. Hale (1927-1968) had another record out on the misspelled Rythm record label from Nashville, Tennessee, recorded with the equally misspelled Rythm Masters. "Down at Big Mama's House", likely inspired by the minor R&B standard "Down at Big Mary's House", and "Darn Dem Bones" had the same rural charm that Curley Griffin's and Hale's Atomic recordings had, although his Rythm disc finds Hale in up-tempo form. Hale originated likely from a small place outside of Jackson and is buried in Mifflin, Chester County, not far away from the city.

Later years of Curley Griffin
Hale's charming country performance was the last (known) release on Atomic and it is likely that Griffin's father shut down the label soon after. His son Curley had limited success in the late 1950s as a songwriter, composing a few songs that were recorded by other artists. Jerry Jeter recorded Griffin's "Blue River" and "I'm Writing the End" for the Fort Worth, Texas, based Bluebonnet label and Tony Snyder cut another two of his tunes for the local, Jackson based, Westwood label, "They Call It Puppy Love" and "Fool for Jealousy".
Although Griffin was described by Carl Perkins as a busy songwriter, his skills in this field were limited. He will always be remembered as being the co-writer of "Boppin' the Blues" and "Dixie Fried", although his contribution to both songs can be regarded as rather marginal

Griffin had to fight health problems during his later years and eventually lost a battle with cancer on October 1, 1970, at the age of 52 years.

Discography

300: Curley Griffin - Gotta Whip This Bear / Just for Me (1955)
301: 
302: Curley Griffin - I've Seen It All / Magic of the Moon (1955)
303: Curley Griffin - You Gotta Play Fair / Love Is a Wonderful Thing (1956)
304: 
305: Curley Griffin - Got Rockin' On My Mind / Rock Bottom Blues (1957)
306:
307: Rex Hale and his Tennessee Valley Boys - A Hobo Life / Traded My Freedom (ca. 1957)

Note: The matrix numbers of #302 and #307 suggest that they were recorded/mastered around the same time.

Sources
45cat and 45worlds entry for Atomic Records

1 comment:

Apesville said...

https://anorakrockabilly45rpm.blogspot.com/search/label/Atomic%20%28TN%29

some labels I can re-up the link with the music if anybody needs it Dean