Wired For Sound

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Music and Mayhem on Main Street

Music and Mayhem on Main Street:

R.D. Hendon and his Western Jamboree Cowboys in Context

Part 3: The Freedom Session

The first record by the Western Jamboree Cowboys comes as a surprise to anyone familiar with their other recordings. The 4-Star and Starday singles are fine but conventional country music efforts; "No Shoes Boogie," on the other hand, is raucous country boogie that veers on western swing or proto-rockabilly. Few country bands bragged of playing with "a solid beat" in 1951, even if the drumming is quite understated compared to what was to come a few years later. 

"No Shoes Boogie" is the debut recording of Houston native Charlie Harris (1929-1979), the vocalist-lead guitarist best-remembered today for his tours and recordings with Ray Price's band in the 1960s. Harris was the epitome of what Spud Goodall called a "beer joint picker" -- someone who actually enjoyed playing in smoke-filled night clubs and dance halls, year after year. Long periods of his career were spent in San Antonio, and on tour with vocalists such as Price and Stonewall Jackson, but he was back where he started from, playing in Houston-area clubs, at the time of his death at age 50.

Houston country audiences of Harris's childhood and early adulthood preferred pop-style vocalists like Dickie McBride, and Harris styled himself in this mold, emulating vocalists such as Frank Sinatra rather than "hillbillies." He progressed rapidly as a guitarist, also, and by the early fifties he was already considered one of the best lead guitarists in a city full of them. 

Freedom 5033. Courtesy 55bluesman / 45 Worlds. 

"No Shoes Boogie" and the ballad "Those Tears in Your Eyes" (it is not clear which song, if any, was intended as the A-side) were both copyrighted on March 12, 1951, and the recording probably dates from around that month. The Freedom label was still flying high at this point, but, like Macy's and Gold Star, would come crashing down by the end of the year. It is believed that Bill Quinn's refusal to pay the Federally-mandated luxury tax on record manufacturing -- which inspired an IRS investigation -- led to these labels' demise, as Freedom, along with many other local labels, was pressed by Quinn.

Rhythm guitarist Johnny Cooper remembered recording "No Shoes Boogie" at Gold Star Studio, but had no other recollections of the session itself. The listener is taken aback by the wild Speedy West-styled steel guitar solo. Both Jay W. Ingham and Joe Brewer played steel with Hendon during this period; in 1994, during my initial research into the band, Brewer was still living but Ingham could not be located, and was believed to be deceased. Brewer denied being on the record. Since I knew that Herb Remington had been used as a session guitarist on other Freedom singles, I sent a cassette to him of "No Shoes Boogie," and he replied that he believed that he was on this record. This was duly published in the liner notes to the Heading Back to Houston compilation on Krazy Kat (1997). Since that time, I've wondered if I acted too hastily. There are no Jay W. Ingham recordings to compare but he was a respected steel guitarist and it should still be thought possible that Ingham, not Remington, was the musician heard on "No Shoes Boogie." 

The public was not impressed. "No Shoes Boogie" was not a hit, and copies are rare today.

Charlie Harris's tenure with the group came to an end not long after "No Shoes Boogie" was released. Most bands were commonwealth groups, with profits split evenly among the players. But the Western Jamboree Cowboys were employees of R.D. Hendon, who could hire or fire musicians at will. The generous weekly salary he paid them ($70.00 each, the value equivalent of $745.00 today) was offset by R.D.'s over-demanding, egotistical, and tempestuous nature. Many musicians refused to work for him at any price. 

Charlie Harris and fan c. 1951.  

This took its toll on Harris especially. "R.D. was a very strange man, to say the least," remembered Fred Deaver, who played rhythm guitar in the band for a couple years in the early period. "He had an ego that couldn’t be satisfied. He fired Charlie Harris more times…and re-hired him, just strange things. Charlie would always come back." 

Steel guitarist Joe Brewer confirmed this: "About every three or four weeks, R.D. would fire Charlie off the bandstand. About mid-range of the dance, and Charlie would get up and walk out. Nobody ever knew why – but in about three weeks, he’d hire him back. He did a lot of guys that way."

It's hard not to notice a sad, psychological dimension to Hendon's relationship with Harris. Charlie was everything that R.D. wanted to be -- young, tall, handsome, a talented musician. By firing him from the band, he was acting out his jealousy the only way he knew how. By mid-1951, Harris had grown tired of this game. When Hendon fired him again, he went to work for Gabe Tucker's band, and never returned. 


Joe Brewer, interview by Andrew Brown, Nov. 14, 1994. 
Johnny Cooper, interview by Andrew Brown, Sept. 4, 1995.
Fred Deaver, interview by Andrew Brown, Dec. 28, 1994.

Charlie Harris with R.D. Hendon's Western Jamboree Cowboys. The date of this photo is unknown but was probably taken in late 1950 or early 1951. From left: Charlie Harris (vocals, lead guitar), Cecil "Gig" Sparks (vocals, rhythm guitar), R.D. Hendon (manager), J.T. "Tiny" Smith (bass), Johnny Cooper (vocals, rhythm guitar). Photo courtesy Johnny Cooper.  Click to enlarge.