• Updated the post on Cash McCall, thanks to everyone who commented and shared information! • Updated the post on Santo Records, thanks to Marty McGinnis, John Shaw, and Dave Travis. • 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.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Hank Smith on Gilmar

Hank Smith / The Nashville Playboys - Heartbreak Hotel (Gilmar RX 120), 1956

How George Jones Became Starday's Elvis

By 1956, George Jones had landed his first hit in the country music charts, "Why Baby Why", and was Starday Records' rising star. He had recorded for the label since early 1954 but was still building his career. At the same time, rockabilly and rock'n'roll were taking America's music scene by storm. However, Starday had been mainly a country music label and Jones a country boy at heart as his producer and Starday co-owner Pappy Daily was. Though, Daily recognized the potential rock'n'roll was bearing, especially sales-wise.

In 1956, Dixie Records was introduced as a subsidiary of Starday and eventually served for custom recordings, potential original material and, beginning in January 1956, as a mail-order budget soundalike label. Daily coaxed several of his Starday recording artists into the idea of recording covers of the hits of the day, mostly country music but also some rockabilly songs. Jones was no exception and called into the studio. Short of money, he agreed to throw himself into a cover of Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel", which was released in late January 1956 and became an instant #1 rock'n'roll hit. Jones cut the song shortly afterwards, in March, at Gold Star Studio in Houston, Texas, and his version bears some raw power, much more primitive and energetic than Presley's original, with great support by Starday house musicians Doc Lewis on piano, Hezzie Bryant on thumping bass, and Hal Harris performing an aggressive lead guitar solo.

The recording first saw release on Dixie EP #502 (as an edited, shorter version) under the name of "Thumper" Jones. To say Jones didn't like to record rock'n'roll would be an understatement - he hated it. That's why Daily came up with the name "Thumper" - in order to hide Jones' real identity. Other songs from that EP were credited to Thumper Jones, too: "Blue Suede Shoes", which was in fact recorded by Leon Payne, and "Folsom Prison Blues", which had been cut by Benny Barnes. The longer version of "Heartbreak Hotel" was eventually leased to other budget companies and therefore appeared on a plethora of labels, including Tops, Gilmar, Record-Of-The-Month-Club, and probably some more.

Daily encouraged Jones to cut his own rockabilly songs and shortly after the session for Dixie took place, Jones was back at Gold Star in March to lay down "Rock It" and "How Come It", which were released in May 1956 on Starday #240 (again credited to "Thumper" Jones). These powerful rockabilly performances later became favorites among rock'n'roll music fans but remained a dark spot for Jones and didn't sell well back then, mainly because Starday, which was strictly a country label, didn't know how to promote it properly.

George Jones promo picture, late 1950s

Although Jones never recorded songs as frantic as his rockabilly performances for Starday, he cut a slew of other rockabilly songs that, in some cases, even cracked the charts. He did more sessions for Dixie that produced cover versions, including a rendition of Johnny Horton's rockabilly hit "I'm a One-Woman Man", and later cut rockabilly for Mercury, such as "White Lightning" (a #1 hit for Jones) or "Who Shot Sam" (#7).

In later years, Jones used to dismiss his 1950s rockabilly recordings and rumour goes that he cracked a copy of Starday #240 a fan handed him to sign. The songs, however, are still in circulation on countless rockabilly compilations and several reissues that gather Jones' rockabilly songs.

• Nathan D. Gibson: "The Starday Story - The House That Country Music Built" (University Press of Mississippi), 2011, page 34-36

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