Clyde Chesser and the Texas Village Boys, c. 1956. From left: Tex Compton, Frankie McWhorter, Chesser, Curtis Williams, Lou Rochelle, and Leon Rausch. From the book "Cowboy Fiddler" by Frankie McWhorter (Texas Tech Press, 1992). Click to enlarge.
Clyde "Barefoot" Chesser and his Texas Village Boys - Lost Highway / Smudges on the Wall (Central 119)
Leon Rausch's debut record remains virtually unknown, possibly because (a) his name isn't on the label, instead crediting "Leon Ralph," and (b) despite bring pressed on both 45 and 78, few copies survive. This excellent, western swing version of "Lost Highway" dates from around 1956 and probably features Frankie McWhorter on fiddle, Curtis Williams on lead guitar, and Lou Rochelle on steel. Chesser, trying to be cute, renamed Rausch "Leon Ralph" and Frankie McWhorter "Frankie Quarter."
The band was based in Waco and Temple, but also had a regular TV gig in Fort Worth on KFJZ. Central was primarily a gospel label, a subsidiary of the Word label in Waco. Rausch and McWhorter would go on to better things with Bob Wills in the early 1960s.
Frankie McWhorter singing with the Texas Village Boys on Fort Worth television, c. 1956. From the book "Cowboy Fiddler" by Frankie McWhorter (Texas Tech Press, 1992). Click to enlarge.
The Western Swingsters are a complete mystery -- nobody in San Antonio, assuming they were from there, remembers a group by that name. Four different vocalists on one EP seems suspicious, though, so perhaps this was just a studio concoction rather than an actual band. "Forgetting the Blues" is the toughest cut. The whole EP has a nice, recorded-live-at-a-dance-hall feel.
The Texas Rhythm Boys - Benzedrine Blues / Mr. Man in the Moon (Royalty 600)
In his seminal 1977 book Country: The Biggest Music in America (later given the incredibly awful subtitle The Twisted Roots of Rock and Roll), Nick Tosches tantalizes readers by referring to the Texas Rhythm Boys' "Benzedrine Blues" as "country music's only timeless contribution to drug music." It can be safely assumed that 99.9% of the book's readership has never heard this record, which was released c. 1948 on Jimmy Mercer's Royalty label out of Paris, Texas, and never reissued. Mercer also produced the Swing label, which was examined here.
Benzedrine was an over the counter amphetamine, widely used and abused by professional musicians. Approved by the FDA and readily available at drug stores for most of the 1940s, it was not really considered a "drug" at the time any more than, say, Hadacol was considered a drug, making Tosches's observation a bit daft. It wasn't mentioned in 1940s country music probably because it wasn't considered interesting enough to sing about -- not for any supposed taboo about "drug music." The Texas Rhythm Boys, however, begged to differ. The final verse celebrates the mixing of benzedrine with caffeine:
You can go on a coffee diet It makes you laugh and dance all night It gives you atomic energy Won't you try a tip from me Just one sip and you'll agree You roll, roll, roll on down the line
Nothing at all is known about Alvin Edwards and the Texas Rhythm Boys, a generic name for a rather generic group. "Benzedrine Blues" is their only known record.
Jimmy Johnson at home in Tyler, c. 1954. Photo courtesy Betty Lou Love.
"Mama Loves Papa (And Papa Loves The Women)"(unissued acetate)
Probably from the same demo session for Burton Harris that produced the Curtis Kirk acetate (heard here), Jimmy Johnson's first attempt at the Jack Rhodes song "Mama Loves Papa (And Papa Loves The Women)" is slightly faster, but otherwise close to the version he cut in Dallas for Columbia the following year. Lyrically, this is not one of Jack's better efforts, though if the stories of his womanizing are true then it can be seen as autobiographical. The steel guitarist dominates the song, and the playing is quite good considering that Al Petty and Bobby Garrett (the two possible steel guitarists) were both still teenagers at the time. It's probably Bobby, as some of the fills here are very similar to the Columbia version, which he plays on.
Jimmy Johnson, who was barely out of his teens himself here (but sounding years older), couldn't sustain a career in music past the mid-1950s. His now-famous Starday single in 1956 was his last hurrah before turning to the oil fields in Tyler full-time. He died at age 49 in 1980.
Hank Locklin and the Rocky Mountain Boys at KLEE radio studio, Houston, 1948. From left: Locklin, Clent Holmes, Dobber Johnson, Felton Pruett, Tiny Smith. Click to enlarge.
Hank Locklin - "Down Texas Way" (4-Star 1605)
Curtis Kirk's original, acetate-only version of Jack Rhodes' "Down Texas Way" was discussed at length here. Hank Locklin's version, which dates from the summer of 1951, is not as interesting but was far more commercial, with substantial lyric revisions (which could perhaps explain why Locklin wrested the writer credit away from Rhodes). The backing group here includes Bill Gautney (lead guitar) and possibly Frank Juricek (steel) and Theron Poteet (piano). Locklin would grind it out on the Houston scene for a few more years before moving to Florida, joining the Grand Ole Opry in 1960.
Cotton Thompson with Johnnie Lee Wills and His Boys at Cain's Dancing Academy in Tulsa, 1952. From left: Wills, Henry Boatman, Cotton, Waid Peeler, Don Harlan, Chuck Adams, Curly Lewis. Click to enlarge. Photo courtesy Kevin Coffey Collection.
Johnnie Lee Wills and His Boys featuring Cotton Thompson - "Oo Oooh Daddy" (RCA-Victor 47-5243) "Oo Oooh Daddy"
After leaving Beaumont and Baytown, Cotton Thompson worked a while in Odessa, and finally wandered back to Tulsa where he was reunited with Johnnie Lee Wills in 1952. Perhaps hoping to craft another "Milkcow Blues" (his recent Gold Star and Freedom singles not having sold much), Cotton recorded this fine blues tune with the Wills band at KVOO radio on September 21, 1952. The supporting players include Don Tolle (lead guitar), Tommy Elliot (steel), and Curley Lewis and Henry Boatman (fiddles).
Cotton Thompson and his band at the Forest Club in Beaumont, 1948. From left: J.L. Jenkins, Cotton, Darrell Jones, Richard Prine, Mutt Collins, Mancel Tierney. Click to enlarge. Photo courtesy of Kevin Coffey Collection.
Cotton Thompson with Deacon (Rag-Mop) Anderson and the Village Boys - How Long / Hopeless Love (Gold Star 1381)
Waco's Guy "Cotton" Thompson is best remembered for turning an obscure blues record, "Milk Cow Blues," into a western swing standard via his 1941 Decca version with Johnnie Lee Wills. (Most people at the time, in fact, assumed that Cotton wrote it.) He certainly was a more convincing blues singer than most white people of his time -- his was not a particularly "swinging" phrasing style, but nevertheless, his deep tenor voice is more comfortable with blues than country songs. It's a shame he didn't have a postwar session as lengthy as he did in the prewar days in Tulsa with the Alabama Boys and Johnnie Lee Wills. He also was a Texas Playboy during the 1943-44 period, not appearing on any of their records but featured in four films, singing lead in one segment of Wyoming Hurricane (1944). A video clip of this can be seen here.
Thompson was also very popular in the Beaumont/Port Arthur area, working steadily there for a good three years, 1948-1950. It was during the latter part of that period that he and Deacon Anderson's band cut this hot version of Louis Jordan's "How Long Must I Wait" for Gold Star in Houston (the title deliberately altered as per Gold Star's standard practice). The band is very tight and includes Anderson (steel guitar), Clyde Brewer (lead guitar), Pee Wee Calhoun (piano), John Wallace (bass), and Olin Davison, Jr. (drums). Several of these men had previously worked with Cliff Bruner and Harry Choates, so it's no surprise to hear them turn in a top-notch western swing performance here. (Emphasis on the "swing" -- with the clothes to match.) The actual recording date was probably May 27, 1950, since a Gold Star contract signed by Anderson exists with that date. Thompson would cut a single for Freedom shortly afterward, and eventually wander back to Tulsa to work with Johnnie Lee Wills again in 1952. One last session with Wills would be it for Cotton, who succumbed to Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1953.
Freddie Frank (with) Red Hayes' Fiddles and his Trail 80 Round-Up Boys - 12,000 Texas Longhorns / Off to Parts Unknown (Abbott 125)
"12,000 Texas Longhorns"
"Off to Parts Unknown"
A staple of the Odessa country music scene for 50 years, guitarist-fiddler Freddie Frank (1931-2005) spent his formative years 470 miles to the east, in Kilgore. Part of the same circle that included Jack Rhodes, Red Hayes, Jimmy Johnson, Curtis Kirk, Al Petty, Bobby Garrett, and Jim Reeves, Freddie, like Johnson, was not able to translate his vocal talents into the sustained recording career that he deserved. Instead, there was the all-too-predictable pattern of a few scattered releases on oddball labels in the '50s and early '60s, including his own Permian label. A Capitol session c. 1955 could have turned things around for him -- but it went unissued.
"12,000 Texas Longhorns" was Freddie's debut, from 1952. A memorable Jack Rhodes-J.C. Lile song, "Longhorns" was recorded superbly by the pros at KWKH Studio in Shreveport with Red Hayes' band providing the solid support: Joe "Red" Hayes and Kenneth "Little Red" Hayes (fiddles), Al Petty (steel guitar), and Leon Hayes (bass). Freddie supplies his own rhythm guitar. Red Hayes seems to have been everywhere in the early '50s. He would eventually follow Freddie to Odessa.
As for Jack Rhodes, he remains a controversial figure. Some people loved him; others hated him. Freddie's comments, made to me in a 1999 interview, are revealing:
"I went to work at the Reo Palm Isle (in Longview). I played lead guitar for Jim Reeves there when he was first starting out. When I left there, Red (Hayes) came in there and started working. He introduced me to Jack Rhodes. I moved up to Mineola and was staying up there helping him write songs. Jack had a bunch of people writing song-poems. We’d go and collect those and bring ‘em back, and I’d write the tunes for ‘em. Make ‘em meter out, and doctor ‘em up. They could put “DS” after my name -- doctor of songs. Jack didn’t write very much of nothing. Jack was a manipulator. He reminded me of Boss Hog on 'Dukes of Hazzard.' Jack owned the motel (the Trail 80 Courts), and was bootlegging (liquor), and he could afford to do what he wanted to.
"I think Jack had the sheriff paid off in Mineola. I don’t think he was arrested there. But I think he did get raided when he lived in Grand Saline. They were making their own whiskey up there. I think that’s why he moved to Mineola, ‘cause he couldn’t manipulate the law in Grand Saline. I told him when he died, they’d probably screw him in the ground like a corkscrew.
"But he put the con on just about everybody. When I got enough of it, I got enough, and I left...never called him, never spoke to him again. I think that was the same thing with Red (Hayes)."
Freddie is listed as co-writer with Rhodes on Gene Vincent's "Five Days, Five Days," but received no credit for writing the music to Vincent's "Red Blue Jeans and a Ponytail." Freddie's original demo of the latter can be heard on the Various Artists CD, Gene Vincent Cut Our Songs (Ace). ("Five Days, Five Days" credited there to Jimmy Johnson, may actually be Freddie.)
Freddie Frank and his Band, c. May, 1959. Possibly taken in Odessa. Click to enlarge.
The Northeast Texas scene coalesced almost entirely around Kilgore and Longview for the same reason that Jack Rhodes was able to run a lucrative bootlegging operation: most of the the surrounding counties were dry, and music jobs were scarce. Proximity to Shreveport and The Louisiana Hayride provided some glamor and promise for awhile, but that started to fade as the '50s wore on. This explains the exodus to West Texas that started happening with many Northeast Texas musicians. "You couldn’t make any money there," Freddie explained. "We were playing in those damn clubs for seven and eight dollars a night. And then, we come out here (to Odessa/Midland), and we’re making $150 a week. That was pretty good money for a musician. It’s always been easy to find work and make a living out here."
Friday, August 26, 2005 Odessa American
Frederick William “Freddie” Frank
Odessa Freddie was born July 19, 1931, in Baton Rouge, La., to Bill and Edna Frank and passed away Monday, Aug. 22, 2005, in Odessa. He was 74.
He is survived by his wife, Ila Joan Frank of Odessa; one daughter; one brother; two sisters; and two stepchildren. Freddie was a member of the Andy G. Vaughn Masonic Lodge in Odessa.
Freddie grew up in Kilgore and began his career as a professional musician there at the age of 17. He traveled all over the country, from Texas to California to Louisiana and Florida to Greenland and Nashville.
Freddie was a great fiddle player, teacher, songwriter and vocalist. He wrote and recorded several songs, one being a West Texas favorite, “This Old Rig.” Most People will remember him from the Stardust in Odessa, The Stampede in Big Spring and The Texas Country Bluegrass Band. He’ll be missed by all.
Arrangements are by Frank Wilson Funeral Home.
Thanks to Al Turner for the sound files and label scan.
This is the earliest known recording of Tyler singer Curtis Kirk (b. Feb. 15, 1929, in Grand Saline). Dating from 1951, or slightly earlier, "Down Texas Way" was a Jack Rhodes song that was recorded in drastically altered form by Hank Locklin for 4-Star Records -- with the songwriter credit going to Locklin. It's a mystery as to how or why this happened. Locklin could have bought the song from Rhodes -- such song-buying being typical for the day -- except that Rhodes very shrewdly guarded songs that he had anything to do with, and selling a song would have been unusual for him.
Kirk's original was recorded as a demo at the Burton Harris Studio (his house at that time) in Mount Pleasant, Tx. According to Harris: "I recorded many original songs during 1951, 1952, and 1953, mostly with Jack Rhodes from Mineola. Jack had come to me with about 150 songs, said he had never been able to do anything with them, and asked me to help him. We got musician friends to assist and I cut 22 of Jack's best songs. These were all done at our little house on Texas Street in Mount Pleasant. Vocals were done by Jimmy Johnson, Curtis Kirk, Betty Lou Spears, Freddie Franks, and Danny Brown. Bobby Garrett and Al Petty played steel guitars, Jimmy Johnson and I played lead guitars, Pee Wee Walker, fiddle, Jimmy McGuire and Doc Shelton, bass, Connie Frable, piano, and various others played rhythm guitar." (Burton Harris, The Way I Remember It, 1993)
"Down Texas Way" is an odd, rambling, no-holds-barred travelogue of Texas as seem through the cynical eyes of Jack Rhodes. As was typical for Rhodes, the wordplay here is pretty clever:
Coons, possums, and .45s A rattlesnake beatin' out a solid jive
Rich man, poor man, beggerman, all -- You better shoot fast or not at all
Musically, the guitarist (Jimmy Johnson?) and steel guitarist seem to have been thinking of the song as a ranchera, or something...these are not exactly typical country chordings behind the vocals. The twin-guitar break is well done and reminds one of similar breaks on Lefty Frizzell's early sessions.
Jack Rhodes must have pitched the song to Hank Locklin, then based in Houston, who recognized its potential and recorded a far more commercial, piano-driven version in the Summer of 1951 at ACA in Houston. Locklin stripped the song of anything potentially controversial ("half-breeds" and "pickaninnies" were ousted), altered some lyrics, and threw out the above "rich man" couplet entirely, while retaining the hook line, "It should be the capitol of the USA." Locklin's is still a good record (hear it here), but I wish somebody had released Curtis Kirk's version, too.
Rusty McDonald at KRLD in Dallas, early 1940s. Courtesy Kevin Coffey collection.
Rusty McDonald (with) Maxwell Davis and his Band - Dirty Pool / Easy Big Mama (Chesterfield 354)
"Easy Big Mama"
In his book San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills, author Charles Townsend asserts that after Tommy Duncan's departure from the Texas Playboys 1948, Wills "never found a vocalist who even came close to suiting his music the way Duncan had." This is highly debatable. Myrl "Rusty" McDonald (1921-1979), who sang with the band briefly in 1950, was, if anything, a better, more versatile singer than Duncan. It was his vocal that helped make "Faded Love" such a huge hit for Wills, and it's easy to imagine him as a permanent replacement for Tommy. Yet by the time the Texas Playboys recorded again in 1951, McDonald was gone for good from the band; "Faded Love" remains the only record most people know him by.
It is one of the peculiarities of the record business that those with little or no singing ability tend to have the most ambition, and end up making dozens of records, while singers possessed of outstanding ability sometimes wind up in a dead end street, with perhaps a few inconsequential singles on odd labels. Such is the case with Rusty McDonald. Originally from Lawton, Oklahoma, McDonald was one of the many whose fame never traveled far outside of Texas. "Faded Love" was a hit, but the rest, on labels like Ayo, Intro, and Coast went nowhere.
Ambition, or rather the lack of one, may have played a role here. "Rusty was good," remembered his friend, guitarist Spud Goodall, "A good guitar player, and one of the best singers. But he was a beer joint player -- that's what he wanted to play. I brought him on with us I was with Tex Ritter (c.1948). He called me and said, 'Hey, I need some work bad.' I said OK. Tex liked him, too. He'd come and stay about two weeks, and then he'd say, 'I'm going back to Oklahoma.' Rusty, Charlie Harris, Troy Passmore -- they were beer joint players. They were more comfortable in the joints." Perhaps this helps explain his quick departure from the Texas Playboys, as well.
Billboard announced on November 27, 1954, that the Chesterfield label had been formed in Hollywood and McDonald had been signed. Whose idea it was to cut a rock and roll record with the Maxwell Davis Orchestra isn't known. Most country/western swing vocalists would have been out of place singing with a black R&B band, but Rusty demonstrates his versatility (this is about as far away from "Faded Love" as you can get) by acing these two songs completely. There is none of the contrivance that you usually get from country singers who jumped on the rock and roll bandwagon during this period.
Rusty was actually living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, during most of 1955, where he had a TV and radio gig. Based on ads that ran in the local newspaper, like the one below, "Easy Big Mama" did not represent any change of direction musically, and the paper made no mention of the new record.
Albuquerque Journal, February 26, 1955.
Thanks to Al Turner and Kevin Coffey. Updated March 22, 2018.
The late 1940s/early 1950s were the high water mark for the popularity of country music in Texas, and it seems that everybody who could sing country was in demand -- including the visually impaired. Blind artists had always been part of popular music in America, but the national success of Leon Payne and his "I Love You Because" in 1949 was perhaps the catalyst for the addition of blind singers to several Houston area bands in this period. And, in a bizarre footnote, a record label soon appeared to help blind artists get exposure: Phamous.
Otis Glover, identified as a "Blind Boy" on the hand-drawn label (obviously by the same artist who had designed the Gold Star and Eddie's labels), hailed from Freeport. A 1948 article that ran in that city's newspaper, The Freeport Facts, recorded that the 28-year-old Otis attended the Lighthouse for the Blind in Austin and was "learning to read Braille, make door mats, make maps under government contract, to weave, and to get around independently." No mention of him as a singer (though musicianship, too, was strongly encouraged at Austin's Lighthouse).
This was recorded in early 1950 at ACA, got mentioned in Billboard in their April 1 issue, and then was repressed with a different label design, ID'ing the band as Old Pop Watts And His Old Plantation Melody Boys, and the songwriter of "I Lost My Heart" as Leonard Gilliam. Alas, the record was not a repeat of "I Love You Because," and poor Otis disappeared back into the mists. It isn't known if he continued singing. He died at MD Anderson Hospital in Houston in 1973.
Billboard, April 1, 1950.
The Old Plantation Melody Boys were a Rosenberg group, formed around January, 1946, that sometimes included Houston players, sponsored by Old Plantation sausage (owned by M.J. "Old Pop" Watts). The group included, at various times, Lester Woytek (guitar-vocals) and Frank Juricek (steel guitar). Watts was not a member of the group, merely their sponsor. They broadcast in Houston over KXYZ and KTHT, and appear on all subsequent Phamous releases.
Old Pop Watts and his Old Plantation Melody Boys, KXYZ promo photo, c. late 1940s. Lester Woytek (far left), M.J. (Old Pop) Watts (third from right). Click to enlarge.
"When I Was A Small Boy" is an updated version of an old folk song, alternatively known as "Dallas County Jail" and "Logan County Jail." A version was printed in John Cox's Folk-Songs of the South (1925), Vance Randolph's Ozark Folksongs (1946), and finally Malcolm Laws in Native American Balladry (1964), who gave it the number "E 17." Laws was unaware of Otis's version, but is aware of the verse "I'm going down to Huntsville to wear that ball and chain." Interestingly, blues singer Henry Thomas inserts this same line in a completely unrelated song, "Run Mollie Run" (1927). (Gene Autry's "Dallas County Jail Blues" is not related, despite the title.)
Eight releases on Phamous have been recovered, all on 78 and all probably dating from 1950-51. All except the first and last have the legend "Blind Troubadours" on the label.
An AP reporter named Martha Cole found out about Phamous and, intrigued, researched an article that ran in the Austin American-Statesman on November 15, 1951 ("Blind Helps Blind Here"). Datelined in Freeport, M.J. Watts is identified as the owner of "a small recording company, 'Phamous Records,' using blind talent only." According to the article Watts was 52 years old, a World War I veteran, and was himself going blind. The writer makes it sound as if Watts started Phamous as a philanthropic enterprise, which it probably was, though she adds that they have sold "15 to 20 thousand records a year." No explanation is given for the unusual spelling, "Phamous." Watts lived in Freeport, but used a Houston address for most of his business dealings.
Not long after the article ran, Phamous ceased to exist. Vision-impaired musicians continued to emerge, but the ancient, romantic figure of the "blind troubadour" soon passed into history.
Advertisement for an Otis Glover benefit to pay for his recording session, Freeport Facts, December 1, 1949.
Thanks to Kevin Coffey, Bill McClung and Al Turner.
How Come You Do Me Like You Do? Take 3 (Vocalion test)
Little information has survived about the Range Riders, a Hot Springs/Shreveport band who broadcast in both cities in the late 1930s. Their lone session was recorded by Art Satherley for Vocalion in Hot Springs on March 1, 1937. Of the ten titles recorded by the group, six were released, including Take One of "How Come You Do Me Like You Do?" This Gene Austin pop oldie is given a satisfying, semi-western swing treatment, though if their intention was to be a "western" band then The Range Riders are slightly behind the times by not including an electric steel guitar, and adding a tuba as well as a string bass. The instrumentation and repertoire is more pop than western so the name "Range Riders" seems like a bit of an anomaly. There is a breezy, lost-in-time feeling to their session; sales were probably abysmal, and Satherley no doubt responded to inquiries with a token "don't call us, we'll call you" send-off.
This is a test pressing of the previously unknown and unheard Take Three of "How Come You Do Me Like You Do?" This take was rejected because the fiddler is off-key during the introduction, but otherwise, it's a strong take, with a more aggressive bass solo than the issued version. It's unusual to hear slapped bass from this period.
The Range Riders. Click to enlarge.
Precisely who was in this group at this time has not been definitively established; however, some possible names have survived. A poor quality, undated newspaper clipping from The Shreveport Times exists in the archives of LSU-Shreveport and is reproduced here. The band is ID'd as: Harold Roberts (bass), Fred Selders (fiddle), Ruth Byles (vocals), H.C. Wilkerson (fiddle), Larry Nola (clarinet/sax), and Lewis Lamb (guitar). There is no tubist or pianist in the photo, as is heard on the record.
Tony Russell's Country Music Records lists Harold "Little Willie" Roberts on bass, and vocals on "How Come..." This appears to be the same person better known as "Pee Wee" Roberts, who led a western swing band on KTBS in Hot Springs during the 1940s (see the George Ogg interview). Russell lists as possible Jelly Green on fiddle and Spec Harrison on clarinet/alto sax, but both instruments could be also played by the men ID'd in the photo. Lewis Lamb, who does not sing on the released masters (but may play guitar), is presumably the same person who recorded for Freedom in Houston around 1951. Of the rest, nothing is known.
Jazz Oracle has reissued the entire Range Riders session on their highly recommended CD devoted to the Hot Springs sessions, Arkansas Shout. More info can be found here.
UPDATE: Kevin Coffey has pointed out that someone calls out "Play it Mr. Spec" during the clarinet solo on this take, which confirms that Spec Harrison is the clarinetist on this session.
Thanks to Chris Brown, and Mike Roseberry at LSUS.
Despite being a presence on the country music scene in Houston for over 30 years, Johnny Nelms never found the right song or right label to break out of the local honky-tonks. His long recording career included stops at Gold Star, Freedom, Starday, D, Tilt, Westry, Bagatelle, (briefly) Decca, and probably others, but none of these give the likes of Peck Touchton or Eddie Noack anything to worry about. They are decent C&W records, but nothing more. He was more successful as a club owner, pipefitter, Mason, and eventually a politician, serving in the Texas House of Representatives during the 62nd Legislature in 1971-72. When I met him in 1996, he was a bail bondsman in downtown Houston. (No, I wasn't there to see him about bailing me out of jail.)
For my money, Nelms' 1955 outing on the Azalea is his finest hour. The record, made at Bill Quinn's Gold Star Studio before it's renovation, is pretty low-fidelity, but Johnny's singing is great and musically, "After Today" is what '50s honky-tonk is all about: raw, direct, and emotional..."white man's blues," as (ironically) a black country music fan explained to me once. The uncredited backing band here is Peck Touchton's Sunset Wranglers, which includes Doug Myers (fiddle), Herman McCoy (guitar), Hoyt Skidmore (steel guitar), and George Champion (piano) -- the same band heard on Peck's Starday and first Sarg session. Peck remembered Johnny very well and often played at his club, The Dancing Barn, on Houston's East Side:
"We were working at the Dancing Barn with Johnny Nelms [c. 1955]," Touchton said in a 1999 interview. "We worked out there a long time. The Dancing Barn was a rough damn club, too. It was on LaPorte Road. (Nelms’s) old man, his daddy, had just got out of the pen for killing a man when we were working out there. His daddy killed one or two people. At least one. You could just look at the old man and know that the old son-of-a-bitch was dangerous. There was a few knives pulled out there during that time. Even the band had fisticuffs with the crowd."
Azalea moved around a lot. Starting in Mobile, Alabama, it moved to Houston for awhile, then Dallas, and the final releases have a Fort Worth address. To make things more confusing, Nelms' record was advertised in Billboard on July 16, 1955, with a New Orleans address. Presumably, label owner Dave Livingstone was a guy who "got around." He was certainly tenacious, releasing 31 records over about seven years. None were hits, but there were quality outings from the Hooper Twins, James O'Gwynn, Dixie Drifters, Coye Wilcox, Adrian Roland, the Country Dudes, Joe Poovey, and Marvin Paul. The label should be of interest to anyone into '50s Texas country music.
Nelms was born January 9, 1931 in Huttig, Arkansas (not Houston like he told me in 1996). He died at age 70 in Houston on February 17, 2001.
Danny Ross - You're the One / I Believe You're True (Minor 102)
"You're the One"
Minor Records was run by brothers Minor and Danny Ross out of Houston from 1956 to 1967. There were about 17 releases, most of them by Danny Ross. "You're the One" is the earliest known release (101 presumably was first, but nobody has found a copy). Danny went on to cut a few albums for Stoneway in the '70s. He died in 1995.
L.M. Whatley, Jr. and the Whatnots - Dreams That Flow / One Love Is Not Enough For Two (Whatnot 101)
"Dreams That Flow"
The fine "Dreams That Flow" was recorded at the Burton Harris Recording Studio in Mount Pleasant in 1963 or early 1964. The only thing that Burton remembered about the band was that they were from Pittsburg, Tx., which is about 12 miles south of Mt. Pleasant. It was pressed on their own "Whatnot" label by Rite (11929/11930).
Whatley (1931-1997) served in the Navy during the Korean war, and is buried in Pittsburg, Tx. This is his only known recording.
Eddie Noack - Too Hot To Handle / How Does It Feel To Be The Winner (TNT 110)
"Too Hot To Handle"
While "Too Hot to Handle" became a minor standard in the '50s, Eddie Noack's original version remains little known. It was apparently recorded around 1950-51 for Gold Star, but Bill Quinn didn't release it at the time; it only came out after Sonny Burns had cut it for Starday in the fall of 1953. It also represented a lyrical breakthrough for Eddie, who, up to this point, had written some pretty ordinary material.
"Too Hot to Handle" never got the treatment it deserved. Sonny Burns' version features a sluggish vocal and band; Gene O'Quin's version is dominated by a steel guitar played as deliberately corny as possible; Eddie's own version here is strong in the vocal department but weak musically. Only Lattie Moore's version quite cuts it in my book.
"I'm just a country boy..." -- not. At the time this was released in late 1953/early 1954, Noack was going to class at the University of Houston, completing a degree in journalism there in 1954. He was, in fact, one of the few Texas country singers of his generation to obtain a college degree. Later that year, he would sign with Starday.
Lee Rose - I've Got The Downhearted Blues / Lonely Heart, Stop Crying (Country Hit 233) "I've Got The Downhearted Blues"
You gotta love these "time warp" records that occasionally turn up from the '60s; even when they're not very good, you're still charmed by them. Listening to this Lee Rose single immediately puts the listener in the mind of...1953? 1954 at the latest? Try 1964. Rock and roll, Rockabilly, the Nashville Sound, the Bakersfield Sound, Ray Charles' Country albums, Phil Spector, Chubby Checker, the Singing Nun...these minor distractions simply didn't exist in Lee's world. Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb did, though, and dammit, that was enough for him. Such single-minded dedication is rare in pop music's empires of sand.
Lee Rose on stage with Buddy Brady (fiddle), Roscoe Clark (guitar), and Jerry Gimble (bass). Mayfair Auditorium, East Texas State Fairgrounds Tyler, Tx, 1953-54. Click on image for full-size view. Lee Rose, whose real name was apparently Rosamond, probably came from the Henderson, Tx., area -- a later "Country Hit" single by him has a Henderson address -- and most likely was a country disc jockey in the Northeast Tx. area who sang occasionally, mostly for the "old-timers" who still appreciated the Rodgers/early Tubb sound. Billboard noted in a 1950 issue that he had recorded for Freedom, but if anything was released, only God and Lee Rose know for sure.
Wink Lewis (with) Buz Busby Band - Low Ball Blues / Stand Still (Queen 153)
"Low Ball Blues"
Singer/Disc Jockey: rare indeed was the CV of any aspiring country star in the 1950s that didn't list both qualifications. Most of them, like Biff Collie for example, were far better disc jockeys than singers. A small minority, like Bill Mack and Fred Crawford, were far better singers than disc jockeys. But the court of public opinion -- cold, brutal, but more often, merely silent -- doesn't have time to weigh everything in the balance, and therefore many a deserving singer shuffled dejectedly off to a lifetime spent in soundproof booths reading from prearranged "playlists," usually featuring boring, tepid vocalists who simply got lucky with a few hits.
What of Winfred Earl "Wink" Lewis (1926-2007), then? He zig-zagged all around Texas and Louisiana for most of the '50s and '60s, DJ'ing for a variety of 10,000 watters, along the way cutting some very good records on small labels...a few of which he owned, or co-owned, including Queen. By the mid-'60s we find him in Houston, still trying to put out records, this time on the Pla-Boy label (Jimmie Heap's Banned In Tijuana album...if you've never heard it, don't worry: the title is the most clever part). Lewis then drops off the radar.
Billboard, May 21, 1955
Lewis is probably best remembered for his uncredited vocal on Hoyle Nix's 1955 "Real Rockin' Daddy," which is a western swing record often mistaken for rockabilly (record collector logic: since it has the word "rock" in the title, what else could it be?). That record is simply an update of Wink's slightly earlier "I'm a Honky Tonk Daddy" (Feature), which is also quite good honky-tonk from the Jay Miller Studio.
From this same time period (late 1955/early 1956), still based in the West Texas town of Snyder (south of Lubbock), Lewis emerges with "Low Ball Blues" (actually the B-side) b/w a strong ballad, "Stand Still," already recorded by Jerry Dove on TNT. The least known of Lewis's records, I think it makes a worthy companion piece to "Real Rockin' Daddy." Unfortunately, Lewis tried to "lowball" production costs by having the Queen records pressed by cheapo TNT, so even mint copies of these singles usually play with a massive dose of hiss. Anybody out there who can "remaster" this so we can actually hear the band, feel free to do so. Thanks to Joe Specht and Kevin Coffey.
Roy Lee Brown and His Musical Brownies - Ice Man Song / Weeping Willow (Swing 101)
"Ice Man Song" (Swing 101-A)
If this record is any guide, the free and easy spirit of 1930s western swing didn't begin to fade in Fort Worth until the war -- the Korean war, not WWII. For all intents, "Ice Man Song" sounds like something straight out of 1937, helped by a plethora of crude sexual metaphors and hot solos (though nobody present here would be mistaken for Cecil Brower or Bob Dunn). It being 1947, it hadn't quite dawned on the band that they need to only record songs that are "safe" for radio play -- this was done for the jukebox trade only, so anything goes. If the Musical Brownies had tried this just a few years later, they probably would have been subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities for the crime of corrupting Texan youth. The song comes from a highly unlikely source: Fred Waring, the ultra-square orchestra leader who specialized in nice waltz music for great-grandmothers. In 1926, Waring recorded an innocent, dumb song about an ice man (a common sight in those pre-refrigerator days) called "Any Ice Today, Lady?" whose first verse Roy Lee follows closely:
Any ice today, lady? It's nice today, lady; How about a little piece today? Oh, it's only a quarter, You know that you oughter Get a little before it melts away
But then it veers swiftly off-course, with a couplet found nowhere in Waring's original:
We wouldn't try to fool you, you're smart as a fox
If you want a bigger piece, well, how big is your box?
The rest of the song is merely an excuse to use "box" and "piece" as double-entendres as many times as possible. This is pretty hot stuff for 1947. Take that, Fred Waring!
The band recorded four songs which were pressed on their own, very cool "Cow Town" label. A picture of the label design for the other Cow Town release can be seen here.
But, with or without the band's knowledge, it was also pressed on the Swing label. Swing (usually misidentified as "Swing With The Stars," which was its slogan, not the actual label name) was a record company/pressing plant run out of Paris, Texas, by disc jockey/songwriter/entrepreneur Jimmy Mercer. The Swing label lasted a couple of years, but since Mercer was pressing on highly fragile shallac (perhaps recycled from old discs in some cases), not much on this label has survived these 60+ years later. There were a couple of releases by Homer Clemons (more on him later), a few blues items bought from Gold Star, and a few miscellaneous country releases like this one. Mercer had better luck with his Royalty label, which do turn up occasionally ("Benzedrine Blues" on Royalty is singled out for praise in Nick Tosches' Country), but he couldn't sustain his shoestring operation past 1950, when he shut his doors and moved to Illinois. Roy Lee's band continued playing for several years, but he didn't record again until the 1980s. He is best known for assisting Cary Ginell with his essential book, Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing. And no, by that time, Roy Lee certainly didn't want to be reminded of the "blue" material he'd recorded a lifetime before.
* Fred Waring's original version can be heard on this YouTube video here.
Dick Stubbs - Wired For Sound / Hillbilly Swing (Starday 143)
"Wired For Sound"
Dick Stubbs was a steel guitarist from Oklahoma who was part of the fertile Los Angeles scene of the late 1940s and '50s. He worked in Merle Travis's band for a few years, and played on lots of LA sessions -- I wouldn't be surprised if some records that people think feature Speedy West in fact have Stubbs on them. As far as I know, his one stop at Starday in 1954 was the only record he put out under his own name. Both sides are fantastic instrumentals featuring Stubbs and the underrated guitarist/fiddler Dickie Phillips, who eccentrically played both guitar and fiddle in his lap, a la Thumbs Carlille. If you've ever seen the Soundie video of the Tex Williams band performing "Tulsa Trot," you have seen Phillips' amazing technique in action. Does anybody remember him?
"Wired For Sound" was recorded at Crystal Studios in Los Angeles with Don Pierce producing.
Saxophonist George Ogg, in his own words "let it all hang out" with most of the top western swing bands in Houston during the golden age -- the late 1930s, when he was still a teenager, to the 1950s. Bob Dunn, Smokey Wood, J.R. Chatwell, Tony Scanlin, Buddy Ray, Dickie Jones, Mancel Tierney, Jerry Irby, Shelly Lee Alley, Moon Mullican, and more are some of the pre-eminent names in western swing, and George worked with all of them off and on over the years. He was, along with Tony Scanlin, one of the few in Houston to move freely between jazz orchestras and western swingers. Notably, he was a member of the Texas's most progressive swing band of the 1940s -- Dickie Jones and the Skyliners, a hot fiddle-led group (cohesive by Houston band standards) that focused entirely on "swing" with little or no reference to "western" whatsoever. Their performances at the Autotel Blue Room (on McCarty Drive near the Houston Ship Channel) must have been great, but their popularity was brief -- 1946 to 1947 -- and their memory soon faded away. Though historians today like to neatly divide music into "prewar" and "postwar" categories, a case could be made that, in Houston at least, the scene peaked during World War II, and by the late 1940s it was in terminal decline.
It remains difficult for people today to even understand the western swing zeitgeist in Texas. Unlike California, where the music merged with Hollywood singing cowboys and eye-popping Nudie suits to create a safe, nostalgic, and marketable entertainment vehicle, western swing in Texas was earthier, more pop and swing-oriented, and edgier, with little deference to Hollywood cliches. It was music by and for people who liked to drink and dance, and perhaps indulge in marijuana sometimes, too. The bands practiced their trade in dance halls, not auditoriums, like typical country music artists. None of this mattered to the record companies or radio stations, who simply called any music with a fiddle "hillbilly." The bands themselves thought of "hillbilly" as simply one style of song, not a label for their entire repertoire.
It's also kind of deceptive to even call these "bands" -- in our post-Beatles world, we tend to think of bands as the same group of people who play together for years. No such concept existed in the minds of the freewheeling Houston musicians of the era, and it seems like every musician worked in each other's bands at one point or another. It's more accurate to think of the Houston scene as having a talent pool that could be drawn upon on any given evening (or session) to deliver top notch "hot string music" or "dance music." Such a blasé attitude toward convention didn't help create a cohesive legacy that people could look back on decades later, which is one reason why these "bands" are virtually forgotten today.
Note: this interview is a compilation of separate, lengthy interviews I conducted with George on April 6, 2000, and May 23, 2003. Numbers throughout the text refer to footnotes at the bottom of this page.
GEORGE OGG: I went to Reagan High School (in Houston) in 1936. In the fall of the year, the band director came around asking anybody who was musically inclined -- he wanted to increase the band. We had about a 20-piece band there, and he wanted a big band. I joined the band there at mid-term. Mama bought me an alto sax, a Conn, from Goggan's Music Store downtown on Main Street. When the semester started, I was in the band. Of course, it's 2/4 music -- little bitty notes, and I had a hell of a time reading it.
I got along pretty good for a greenhorn. I played in Alisandro's band. It was an all-city band, about a 105-piece concert band from all the schools. It was a marching band. (Local television personality) Marvin Zindler played clarinet in the band. He was good, too. He was up close to the first chair. I was in the last chair. (Laughter)
Where were you born?
I was born in Newton County, in Burkeville, March 8, 1921. North from Beaumont. The Wiergate Long Leaf Lumber Company, it was the famous Long Leaf pines. With the pine trees that'd go 60 or 70 feel high before there were any limbs. Therefore, there were no knots. Man, that was the best lumber in the world. My dad was a locomotive engineer with TN&O. We lived there 'til 1930. Mom and dad were divorced when I was 13. Then we moved to Burkeville, then Beaumont. We didn't live in Beaumont but three months before we moved to Houston.
After that first summer, I went and stayed with my brother in Baytown. I drove a cab in the daytime. There was a fellow named B.D. Williams, played at the 400 Club out there on the far side of Baytown. Booger Red Greenhaw, he worked there at that time, too. 'Course, I played for free. I just went out there and sat in with them. And I know they wanted to kill me, because I didn't know nothing about popular music -- that you played four bars, four bars, and a bridge, four bars, and then four bars out. All the songs were that way then. It was cut and dried; you had your 32-bar tunes. And if they weren't 32, you broke meter. And that was a no-no. But I had a lot of fun playing with them, and picked up a lot of knowledge.
That was 1937?
Summer of '37, yeah.
I didn't know B.D. Williams was playing that early. I mainly associate him with Harry Choates's band in the late '40s.
He was driving a bus for Webb taxi and bus line down there. B.D. was awful corny. He used to sing that "I Saw Your Face in the Moon" tune, break meter, and we'd laugh and carry on. But the people just loved it. Man, they thought he was the greatest musician that ever was. Me and Booger Red met him out there one day -- he'd locked up the front of the bus. He said, "Well, we'll have to go out this
emir-jensi door," and we looked at each other: "What kind of a door is that?" (Laughter) It was the emergency door. I didn't know if he was kidding or if he was serious.
So, B.D. Williams was the first string band you worked with. Where did you go from there?
Galveston. Fred Real (Fred Real and the Melody Boys). And I played that same doggone alto sax, you know, and Booger Red said, "That damn thing sounds like a pipe organ." (Laughter) And that wasn't meant as a compliment, either. Oh, man, I was hell to put up with. I wasn't but 16 years old.
Is that when you started playing tenor?
Yeah. I went down to the Galveston Music Company and traded my alto in. Picked out a horn, and it was a Holton tenor sax. Holton was great for trombones and trumpets, but I didn't know the difference. I tried them all, but that Holton had the best sound. It had a big bell, you know -- a beautiful horn. That was another place where we nearly starved to death.
I thought Galveston had a pretty good reputation as a dance town in those days.
Yeah, but not for our type of music. They liked orchestras. They had several orchestras that were doing well.
How long were you there, approximately?
Not more than six months. And while we were there, we had a mighty turnover. Old Smokey Wood played with us for awhile, and J.R. Chatwell, Luke Colburn on guitar...
Fred Real and the Melody Boys in Galveston, c. 1936. George on saxophone, Red Greenhaw on banjo, and Caesar Masse on fiddle. All photos courtesy George Ogg, except where noted. (Click on any image to view full size.)
Smokey Wood is kind of a legendary character.
The first time I met him, we played a job in Beaumont. And J.R. Chatwell and Cliff (Bruner) got into a jam session there in the back room of the Beaumont Music Company. They were smoking pot, and Smokey got carried away -- he got too far out. But they played some of the finest music I've ever heard in my life. 'Course, when we were down there (in Galveston), we were ignorant. We didn't know nothing.
Smokey wrote a song called "Tangleweeds Around My Heart." It was a beautiful song. It had a hell of a bunch of chords in it, a very difficult chord progression. (At the jam session) Cliff played it, and J.R. played it, and I was just completely overwhelmed. I'd never heard anything like that. And they went on and on, I mean for hours. They didn't want to quit. We had to leave and go play a job, you know?
Smokey Wood c. 1946. "He was on the brink of insanity." Courtesy Joe Grant Collection.
If I remember correctly, they all showed up out at the dance, come up and sat in with us. We had one hell of a band that night.
We had a mandolin player from Port Arthur, Pee Wee something. French name. He was a fine little old musician. He'd never played mandolin before, but because Leo Raley was playing mandolin with the Texas Wanderers, we had to have a mandolin player, too. And we wound up playing a battle dance with the Texas Wanderers there at that club. And that was a wild party, I tell you. We had a mob that night. But most of the time it was slim pickings.
So, Chatwell and Wood were actual members of the Melody Boys for a time?
Yeah, though not for very long. You couldn't hold those guys down, man. And they couldn't hold a job. They weren't dependable. J.R. left first. There wasn't enough money. He was too well-known to work with a "beginner" group like us. Smokey worked with us for two months, maybe three. There were many times...he supposedly had migraine headaches, and he'd take seconal tablets. He'd get completely out of his head. He'd dope up, you know, to try to get rid of the headaches. He came out and worked a job with us at one of the clubs there between Galveston and Alvin. He played for maybe an hour or two, and he was popping pills and drinking beer. The first intermission was about 10:30, I guess, and he went out and got in the bus. After intermission, we went out there to see about him, and we couldn't wake him up. We shook him, hollered at him, banged on the bus -- we couldn't wake him up.
We'd just leave him in the bus. It'd be noon the next day before he'd wake up. And he'd come out of that bus looking like he'd just come out of hell. His clothes were all bedraggled and wrinkled, and he couldn't hardly walk, and he'd moan and groan about what a headache he had. He'd take those pain pills, drink...
Yeah! And, I'm telling you, with a combination like that -- and he was dirty. He never took a bath, didn't have any clothes. But we all liked him. He was a real fine musician. He had kind of a nasal, whiny voice to sing, but he sang good. He never broke meter or anything like that. He and Smitty (Ralph Smith) played "butterfly" type piano. I liked their style of playing. 'Course, he was a little more forceful than Smitty was. We loved the way he played. He sold it. He got it across -- good showman.
Did you ever see him again in later years?
Yeah, I was working with (Dickie) McBride. We played a couple of jobs and Smokey came by. He was down on his luck, as he put it, and McBride let him work a couple of jobs with us. We got a great big kick out of the way he played, but he was on the brink of insanity I think. He'd think he was being spied on, being watched. He was out of it. McBride said, "Well, I was trying to help him out. But people are starting to look at him like he's nuts." And he was! He was crazy. He was in bad shape. I don't remember seeing him after that.
McBride would loan him some clothes, good trousers, you know? And Smokey would sit down at the piano, and wouldn't pull the legs up, so the knees would be all stretched out. McBride would say, "Hell, I can't wear these. You might as well keep 'em."
The rest of '37, that fall, was when I went to work out at the Reno Club. My uncle, Bob Graham, owned the Reno Club. He was an old bootlegger, rum runner, and everything else. He had a hell of a reputation. I worked with several different groups. Of course, we only made three dollars a night. We worked seven nights a week, from nine to three. That was pretty rugged. I was still trying to go to high school. Lots of times I'd come staggering home after about three beers. It didn't take much to knock me out. Moon Mullican and me, and that steel guitar player from Waco (Tommy Dunlap), and Ray Carroll on drums...Ray Carroll, he was a yeoman (during WWII), and he was playing with some of the best musicians in the world out there. He taught school there at Davis (Jeff Davis High School in Houston). He was teaching the bugle corps how to read music.
After the Reno Club, Moon got a little group together with me, Cameron (Hill), Truman Welch, and Buck Henson. We had a fine little group, but there was just no money to made anywhere. We played mainly one to three nights a week. It was tough.
Moon had a reputation as a pretty wild character.
Moon was almost a preacher. His dad lived up in Corrigan. I went up there to visit them (his parents) with him one time. It was a little old farmer's hut, clapboard house and a fireplace. They didn't appear to be very well off. But his mother loved him dearly. They were good people. Yeah, Moon had a very strong religious education as a child. Brought up in the Baptist church...
Did he see any conflict between a strict religious background and playing blues music in beer joints?
Yeah, I think it bugged him.
The Moon Mullican Band at the Reno Club in Houston c. 1937. Sixteen-year-old George on sax.
The Reno Club...that's when they had the big, heavy chorus girls. You had to weigh over 200 pounds to be in the chorus line. That was something to see. Had a singer named Sophie, she must have weighed around 400 pounds.
You have a photo taken at the Reno Club a little later with Tony Scanlin on sax and Bill Awalt on piano.
Bill Awalt, he was from Evansville, Indiana. I don't know how to say this, but...he didn't like girls. He had V.J. Bourgeois on drums, and me and Tony Scanlin. It was about a nine-piece group. And we were reading stock (arrangements). The trumpet player -- I don't remember his name -- told me that the harmony was never supposed to play above the lead. And I didn't know whether he meant volume-wise or pitch-wise. But I was so taken aback by the fact that he said it, that I didn't say anything.
The Bill Awalt Orchestra at the Reno Club, Houston, c. 1938. From left: Bill Awalt, George, Fritz Kehm (drums), Tony Scanlin, Chet Miller (bass), unknown trumpet.
So the nine-piece band was during the same time period as this photo?
Yeah. It was a little later. After we moved from here (The Reno Club), we went to a beautiful club on South Main. Stewart's Club. Man, it was high class. And it was dark -- you couldn't recognize your mother in there. It had one of those reflective balls in the center of the floor. That was the place that burned. We had notice that our contract was up in two weeks. V.J. was the only one who didn't get his instrument out. He was going to come back Sunday morning and get his drums. Too late. Brand new set of drums. He was crippled. Must have been polio, 'cause he limped real bad.
Bill Awalt took off with our money, so Tony moved from sax to piano. We stayed there 'til the place burned down.
You insinuated that the fire was set deliberately.
Oh, there's no doubt about it.
Tony Scanlin, was piano his primary instrument?
Yeah. Tony went to school at the Houston Conservatory of Music. He got a degree out there. He could read music fine, play classical music on the piano. In 1935, the year that he was supposed to graduate from high school, he was involved in an auto accident. Some drunk ran into this carload of kids -- all of 'em were darn near killed. Tony had a fractured skull. He wound up with a steel plate in his head. When he played sax, the pressure caused him to have severe pain and headaches.
The guy had liability insurance. Tony got a pot full of money out of that deal. He bought a home for his dad, and he bought himself a sax, clarinet, and a piano. And a Lincoln Zephyr. Tony also had a motorcycle. He really blew a bunch of money, I'm telling you.
The insurance company paid out enough for all of that?
Yeah. He must have gotten $80 or $90,000 out of that. That old Lincoln Zephyr that he had, man, that son-of-a-gun would fly.We'd go 120 miles an hour many times. The cops, every time they'd see him, they'd take off after him. Especially with a motorcycle cop, he'd take off down a dirt road...you couldn't control the motorcycle on a dirt road. He knew that side of town. He lived at 1638 Park, off of Allen Parkway.
Would you rate Tony as one of the best musicians you worked with?
Oh yes. He was a good musician. No doubt about that. He played with nearly all of the orchestras in town.
Was he from Houston?
I don't know whether he was born here or not. But his parents came from down around Bryan. There's a big Italian settlement down there.
I worked with Jerry Irby a lot (in the '30s), me and Booger Red. Red lived out there in Spring with Jerry for awhile.
Jerry and Red briefly had a band in the '30s called the Serenaders. Were you involved with that?
No. But Jerry, he seemed like he was off in another world most of the time. He wanted to have his own band and be famous. And his grandmother was willing to spend the money. But he just wasn't a manager. He'd never had any responsibilities in his life. He married an old gal named Florene that was real bad news. That didn't go well with his grandma, or anybody else.
But I liked Jerry, he was a lot of fun to be around. He had a pretty good voice. But he didn't know how to sell, to perform. 'Course, that didn't make any difference in those days, I don't suppose. George Jones was the sorriest presentation I ever saw in my life, and look what happened to him.
Where did you see George?
When we were working at Cook's Hoedown downtown (in the '50s), he'd want to sit in with us. He'd sit down on the steps to the bandstand and play during intermission. Something's wrong with him mentally. You could insult him and he'd smile at you.
At a certain point around 1938, you and Tony started working with the Texas Wanderers.
Roy Thames had the Texas Wanderers name. The original Texas Wanderers was Cliff Bruner, Bob Dunn, Hezzie Bryant, Dickie McBride -- oh, those idiots, man, they set the world on fire there in Beaumont. They had mobs. But when they went to Hot Springs, it started dying out. Arkansas was an awful poor place then. I went up there in '41.
After the Texas Wanderers came back from Arkansas, I worked with them here in Houston.We worked quite a bit out there in Pearland at Kleising's Wonder Tavern. I worked with Bob (Dunn) and Tony Scanlin quite a bit out there. We made a lot of trips in that old Texas Wanderers car. Cliff worked with us a whole lot, Dickie Jones worked with the group, too.
Cliff would sit in with the band?
He did play jobs with us. He'd book the group, and Cliff had a whole bunch of little jobs. Like me, Hezzie, and Cliff, Wimpy (Deacon Evans) maybe. They called him Wimpy 'cause he loved to eat hamburgers.
The biggest disappointment, when McBride and that group went to California to make that movie (Village Barn Dance), Booger Red said that the first thing they asked them was, "Where's the sax man?" And dadgum, if I'd a-had any idea...
Well, why didn't you go? Were you in the band at that time (late 1939)?
Yeah. I was working -- not regularly -- but when they had a job that would pay, they'd call me up. They all liked me, and my playing, and everything. I used to cut-up quite a bit, stomp my foot, and jump up and down.
Was Cameron Hill living in Houston when you first met him in the late '30s?
Yeah. Him and Dickie Jones and Truman (Welch), they played an awful lot with Moon. Moon booked a whole bunch of jobs. They went up to Illinois, played up there. I don't think they were there very long. When they came back, I played a bunch of jobs with 'em. Cameron worked an awful lot with Dickie McBride.
Moon booked quite a few jobs. We played up in Corrigan, and Bob Dunn worked with us. Old Lefty Groves played guitar with us.
How well did you know Bob Dunn?
Oh, real close. After the (original) Texas Wanderers split up, he played a lot of jobs with us. A lot of guys like Dickie Jones, Dickie McBride, Tony Scanlin, they'd call us and we'd go play the job. I played a lot of jobs with Bob. They used to tell me tales about him. On every job we played, he'd get drunk. Hezzie would cuss him for drinking. When we'd get home, he'd get out and lean on the car. And he weighed about 250 pounds. Hezzie would say, "Dammit, you're springing my doors. I have to repair that door every time we play a job." It was funny.
But Bob sure played fine. He started out on trombone, and he played his steel guitar like it was a trombone.
Bob Dunn, 1938. "He played steel like it was a trombone."
Did you ever play with Ted Daffan's band?
I might've worked one job with him. But man, he played so bad. It was so terrible, I couldn't stand it. I said, "Man, don't call me." He was a wonderful guy, but Lord have mercy, he played so corny.
Did you ever hear Bob Dunn comment on Ted's playing ability?
No. I never heard Bob say a bad word about anybody.
When you were with the Texas Wanderers, where did most of your live appearances occur?
Dance halls. Out at Addicks, that was one of the main places we played (The Hitchin' Rack). We played a lot of jobs in Pearland at that Kleising Wonder Tavern. A lot of jobs in Baytown at the A&W Hall. We played the auditorium in El Campo...a lot of out of town jobs.
You didn't play very much in Houston itself?
No. It seemed like we always had a hard time doing any good around here. We played a lot of jobs in Trinity. We played in Conroe the night that Jo-Jo Thames was killed.
Really? What do you remember about that night?
It was me and Roy and Hezzie...Bob Dunn might have been there. It was some kind of W.O.W. Hall, or Eagle's, or something. (1) And this woman and Jo-Jo got to flirting and carrying on with each other. He wasn't a bad-looking cat at all, a pretty nice-looking guy. He left with her in her car. She'd told him that she was divorced, that she didn't have a husband.
They went from there to a motel. And her husband walked in on 'em and unloaded a six-shooter in him. He followed 'em from the club. Jo-Jo was completely blinded on that. That shouldn't have happened. (2)
That must have been quite a shock to the band.
Oh, it was. Man, the next morning that was all over the news. I couldn't believe that.
Cliff Bruner and Joe Thames, a couple of years before Thames' murder. Courtesy Cliff Bruner Collection.
Did you perform with the Texas Wanderers on the radio much?
Yeah, every day at noon. Twelve to 12:30. KXYZ was on the fifth floor of the Gulf Building.
Did you ever have any problems with that schedule, having to be there at noon every day?
Yeah. Usually, the instruments were on the bus, or we'd just leave 'em at the station. Things were so much better then, as far as honesty was concerned, you didn't have to worry about stealing or anything like that. Usually, Booger Red drove the bus. And he'd park it in front of his house, just leave everything the way it was. And then the next day, he'd drive it downtown, park, and take the instruments up to the studio on the freight elevator. And then he'd go park the bus somewhere and walk back to the station. That was his usual routine.
Your first recording session was with Shelly Lee Alley, June 12, 1939, in Dallas. That was where the producer came out of the control booth during your solo...
And said, "If I wanted good musicians, I would've hired 'em." I was playing pretty good clarinet then. Somebody took a chorus, and then I was going to take a chorus on clarinet. I played it in low register, close to the microphone, you know. Playing it pretty, I thought. And here he come out of there, and said, "Hey! If I'd a-wanted good music, I'd a-hired good musicians. I don't wanna hear nothin' like that." Oh, boy. Everybody was in shock. Well, they told me what a horse's rear he was, and that he'd come out of there and holler at you and all that.
That doesn't sound like Art Satherley or Don Law...do you remember what he looked like?
He was a little, short, fat guy. Pot-bellied. Red-faced. But that sure upset the band. So, I played mostly high register, and played pretty close to the melody, nothing fancy. I wanted to blank that out of my mind, 'cause that really did shake me up. I didn't expect that.
You don't recall the recording location for that session?
It was an old, ramshackledy building, I'll tell you that. You went up some dark stairs, and there was a warehouse or something underneath, and that (the studio) was just one big room. And he had a little office at the back of this room. He had all of his equipment set up in there. Now, that's about all that I remember.
It wasn't a hotel or a radio station?
So, it probably was the Brunswick building (508 Park). I wasn't sure if Brunswick was still recording in that building in '39. (3)
That sounds familiar. I was trying to remember how I got tangled up with Loren Mitchell and the group there in Corsicana. Joe Holley played with us there for awhile. What band was this?
Bob Justice and that 75 Club deal. And we had a guitar player who was so far above us -- he played like Jimmy Wyble or Billy Carter. He was constantly changing chords up and down the neck, for every beat, he'd change the chord. He played way out. Wonderful stuff.
Who was Bob Justice?
He had a rooming house there. But he managed the band, he was our booker (booking agent).
So when you were playing in Corsicana, that was around the time you made this session with Alley?
It was just before that. Loren Mitchell and two or three other musicians were there when we made the records. They were there at the building. They talked to me about joining their group in Corsicana. It didn't last but about four months, I guess. The (Cliff Bruner-led) Texas Wanderers used to play up in Corsicana, a great big place out there, on the outskirts of Corsicana. They had wonderful crowds. In fact, everywhere they went, they had hellacious crowds. When we followed 'em in the same places that they played, we never had any crowds. Every band I ever worked with was the same story. I guess maybe that saxophone was a jinx or something. I just wasn't a hillbilly.
Did you ever work with Shelly Lee Alley again after that recording session?
Not that I recall. I know I did prior to that. All I remember was that he smoked a pipe and sat down -- played the fiddle sitting down, smoking a pipe. I thought that was something else. He read nearly everything that he played. He had his music stuck up there in front of him.
Your next session was April 7, 1941 at the Jefferson Hotel in Dallas. It's the same band as the one in this picture, except Buddy Ray came in on fiddle. Bluebird released those records as the Modern Mountaineers -- but you never played under that name?
No. The Modern Mountaineers, that was a group with Lefty Groves, Smokey Wood...they were a real good group, man. After the Modern Mountaineers, I don't think Smokey Wood worked with any group for any length of time. Maybe a month, or two months was all.
Do you remember anything about that session at the Jefferson Hotel?
I hate to tell you, but I just don't even remember being there. That's just completely blank. I don't remember how we got there or how we got back.
The Texas Wanderers in Pearland, c. 1941. This group, with the addition of Buddy Ray on fiddle, recorded as "The Modern Mountaineers" on April 7, 1941, for Bluebird. From left: Deacon Evans, unknown bass, Roy Thames (manager), Johnny Thames, George, Ralph Smith, and Buddy Duhon.
That was right before you went to Hot Springs -- that was the summer of '41, right?
What brought you to Hot Springs?
Cameron got me. I'd been working with Cameron quite a bit before then, and he asked me to come up there and join the band. Pee Wee Roberts, after we left, I think he got to be chief of police. He had some connections. There was a whole lot of gambling going on up there. They had a big country club, horse races and stuff.
That was the darnedest place I ever saw in my life. We just barely eked by. We'd make maybe four or five dollars on a Friday night. Maybe for a special, big deal we'd make maybe ten dollars apiece. It was so darn economical, you didn't have to have any money. You could live like a king up there on a little bit of nothing. I'd just got married when we went up there. My wife went to work in a café, and she made more money than I did. (Laughter) But we had so much fun, it was so pleasant -- the atmosphere and everything. The location, the weather -- the humidity was just non-existent. Going up there from Houston was like going to heaven.
So you had a daily radio show out of KTHS?
Yeah. We had two programs. We had one at six o'clock in the morning, and one at one or two o'clock in the afternoon.And I don't think Cameron ever knew which program he was playing on. He drank quite a bit, you know. Of course, the people up there were pretty good about buying you beer and giving you drinks. Cameron could drink most people under the counter. He and Moon Mullican and Dickie McBride used to have drinking contests -- each one of 'em would have a fifth of whiskey. And then they'd drink a whole fifth of whiskey one night on the job. 'Course, by the time it was over, they didn't maneuver very well. That's why Laura Lee always drove. (Laughter) I never could drink, doggone it. Three beers was my capacity. But I guess maybe it was a blessing in disguise.
Pee Wee Roberts and the Skyliners, KTHS Studio, Hot Springs, Arkansas, Summer 1941. George on sax, Cameron Hill on lead guitar, Truman Welch on rhythm guitar, Lew Frisby on bass, Pee Wee Roberts at mic.
So you only worked with Pee Wee Roberts about three months?
That's it. I got married May 9, 1941, and my wife and I stayed up there 'til about September.
Why did you leave?
My wife's dad called and told me that my application had come up there at the railroad. He said, "Come on back and maybe you can get an honest job." (Laughter) Before I left Houston, I'd put in an application at the Santa Fe railroad out here, to work in the shop. I thought I had a pretty good connection out there.
So I went out there and filled out the application and everything. The head of the personnel department found out that I was a musician. He scrapped that application right there. He said that they had had an awful lot of trouble hiring musicians, that they'd get drunk and didn't show up...so that didn't pan out.
I started working at McElroy Oil Supply out there on Milby. That was '41 and '42. They were making machine gun tripods for the government. I was working the graveyard shift. So there were no more (band) jobs for me, working graveyard from midnight 'til eight in the morning. We started out at 39 cents an hour. I left there about '42, then went out to the shipyards, worked out there 'til '44. 'Til they shipped me out to boot camp, then the Hawaiian islands.
Who were you playing with during the war years, in say 1943?
Dickie Jones. We played out there at the Hitchin' Rack mainly, just weekends was all. But good grief, we had mobs. We'd make $75-80 apiece on a Saturday night. And no telling how much Jones stuck in his pocket.
Red Greenhaw kind of had mixed feelings about Jones. He admired Jones's musical abilities, as did everyone, but thought he was kind of condescending.
Yeah, he was a horse's ass. He was the kind of a guy who would take advantage of anybody. He always lied about his age. (4) We used to get the biggest kick out of that. Somebody wrote a deal about him being born in 1928. He's got a daughter born in '34, I think. That'd make him about six or seven years old when his daughter was born. (Laughter)
When we were working up at KTRH, we were the station band, with Jones, Cameron and Booger Red.
Was that the Village Boys?
Well, I don't remember now what they called us. Babe Fritsch was our announcer. And they wanted me to be the singer. Of course, Jones, he was his favorite singer. But Babe liked my voice better than he did Jones, and he wanted me to sing. Booger Red did a lot of comical numbers, Bob Wills, stuff like that. Usually I played bass fiddle with the group. I didn't particularly like it, 'cause it tore my fingers all up. I couldn't play clarinet for a long time after that. I guess the horn was just a little bit out of place.
Jones found a guy who had a three-quarter bass for sale real cheap -- I think I bought it for about $25. It was a German flat-back bass. So, I played that, and I played a lot of square dances with 'em. Old R.E. "Bob" Smith, he was a big square dancer (caller) out there on South Main. It was strictly high class -- where the rich folks went. I don't know how Jones knew Bob, but they knew each other. Nearly every time they had a shindig, he'd call Jones, and if we weren't booked, well, we'd go play it.
Did you and Jones play a lot of square dances?
Well, quite frequently. They paid good money. They paid more than what we could make on a regular job.
Did you play with many orchestras, or did you mainly work with the string bands?
I played at nearly all of the night clubs, and it was almost always with a reading group. Seven or eight pieces, reading stock music. And Tony (Scanlin) was the main one who got me the jobs, I guess, 'cause he was always with me.
So, Tony Scanlin was one of the few guys who, like you, moved freely back and forth between the string bands and the reading orchestras?
Oh, yeah. He was well-known. He was pretty wild. He was trying to out-run the police all the time with that Lincoln Zephyr. Everything he did was in a hurry, you know? And he was always late. He had a motorcycle -- coming up to the radio station one day, he flipped on a streetcar track down on Travis. It was raining. And he was all wet and muddy, his clothes were torn, and here he comes walking into the radio station...
All of us worked with everybody else. I worked a few jobs with Leon Pappy Selph. He always tried to stick to the hillbilly, except when he had that big orchestra during the war. I was out on the Hawaiian islands then. He played out at the Autotel Club. He had about a 16-piece orchestra. He was a good musician. He started out as a kid playing long-hair stuff. Classical. (Houston tycoon) Jesse Jones liked hillbilly stuff -- he got him on the radio station. Old Pappy stuck with him, and I don't blame him a bit.
Did you ever play at the Southern Dinner Club?
Very few times. I think that was (trumpeter) Kit Reid's main place.
Did you ever work with Kit Reid's bands?
No. I think he was head of the big band they had out at Ellington Field (during WWII), serving the Air Corps. He had a group through the union, and man, they raked off all the calls, the jobs. They got their pick of everything.
Nearly every musician in the union was out there working for Brown Shipyard. (Laughter)
The Peck Kelley Orchestra with Kit Reid on alto sax, Houston, c. 1940.
So you'd work in the shipyards during the day, and play out at night?
On weekends. Houston has always been a weekend town. Over here on the Harvard Club, the guy who owned that also owned the place on South Main that burned. Right at Washington and Harvard, it was a real dark, dingy place. Moon worked there with me, and I worked with a guy from Kansas City named Billy Stark. He played trumpet. Rudy Rivero played clarinet, and I played tenor sax. And we read stocks, played floor shows. All the show girls had their music...we had to read that stuff, you know.
You've mentioned the Shadowland Club as being a place you played.
Nicky's Shadowland was on West Gray. It was a dark, dingy place, too. It was mostly orchestras. I was playing with Tony Martino. That was back while I was working in the shipyard. Tony was the safety engineer, but he was also the band instructor. All the musicians worked there. We had a bandstand there at Brown Shipyard where they launched the boats. That's where we'd get together to play. He booked the same group to play jobs.
Nicky's, and the Ranch Club, and the Reno Club...all of 'em had floor shows and strippers then. No fiddles or guitar. Trumpet, two saxes, bass, drums, and piano was basic. That was the way it was.
Strippers were fairly common at these night clubs at that time?
Oh, yeah. It was a must -- club owners thought. Oh, they had their limits. They could go just so far. They couldn't bare their breasts or their privates.
I didn't realize that was so widespread.
Yeah. It was very prevalent then. But things were pretty tough. It was hard to make a living.
With the string bands, it seems like it was mainly you, Hal Hebert, and occasionally Tony Scanlin supplying the reeds.Later guys like Eddie Hurd and Link Davis came in.
Well, there was some other groups. There was the Sanchez Brothers. Hal played sax, David played trumpet, and Max played drums. Now, I played a lot of jobs with them.
Red Greenhaw remembered Bob Dunn playing with the Sanchez Brothers at the Reno Club.
He did, but I didn't work with him there.
Did you ever work with Peck Kelley?
Yeah, that was in Galveston when I was working with Freddie Real. Peck was working at the Tremont Cafe, and worked there for a long, long time. Nearly all of the musicians from all over the United States, if they'd play a job in Galveston, at the Galvez Hotel or someplace, (would sit in with Kelley). I sat in with him two or three times, with some of other -- some of the good musicians. (Laughter) I went along, but I was too inexperienced. He was very difficult to play with, because he'd give you an introduction, and you couldn't tell where you were supposed to come in. Everything was so much alike back then, but the way he played 'em, you couldn't tell if he was at the chorus or verse. He was way over my head.
Peck usually had one or two, maybe three musicians. He never did have a big group. And most of the time, he was the only musician. Peck was so damn blind, he couldn't read music. But he could hear it, and he could dadgum sure play it. Nobody knew he could play concert music.
Peck Kelley, 1941. "Nobody knew he could play concert music." Were the reading musicians condescending toward the so-called hillbilly bands, the string bands?
Yeah. The orchestras always looked down on us. I got a bad reputation playing with the westerns, the hillbillies. (In the '50s or '60s) Bobby Tinterow had a group at a hotel downtown. And Charlie Harris, Bob Collins, and their group were backing up a girl singer at this hotel. Bobby Tinterow had about a 20-piece group. And they all had tuxedos and bowties and everything. They got there before we finished. And we were playing, I don't know, "Steel Guitar Rag" or something like that in the key of E, and we played several numbers in D and A. Which, to a reading musician...they play in flats all the time. Like, B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, D-flat. You get into the sharps, it's a big difference in the fingering. When you get accustomed to it, you don't even have to think. Your subconscious mind takes care of it. You run your arpeggios, play chords, and a little jumping and jiving, you know.
So, the guys in Bobby Tinterow's orchestra knew you, and they were amused to see you playing with this western band?
Yeah. They played there regularly. Of course, I had on a cowboy outfit, the boots and all of that. Anyway, Bobby got his saxophone out --
he wanted to see what key we were in. He put his horn back up real quick. (Laughter) They were looking, whispering around, talking to each other, and I know what they were (saying): "They're playing that in E!" We got a big kick out of that.
When did you get back from the Navy?
I think it was about May '46.
Dickie Jones and the Skyliners at the Autotel Blue Room, 1515 McCarty Drive, Houston, 1946-47. From left: Tony Scanlin, Cameron Hill, Hezzie Bryant, Dickie Jones, Rusty Alfred, and George. "You start playing good music, you start starvin' to death."
When you came back, had Dickie Jones already started up his own band (The Skyliners)?
Yeah. He was playing at the Autotel. (5) I went to work for a pipe fitting company. And Jones asked me if I'd like to come to work with him at the Autotel. I didn't really want to get back in the music racket, but it looked so much better than what I was doing. I was getting burned up and blistered out there (at the pipe fitting company). Man, it was a horrible job. My brother bought me a Martin saxophone at a music shop in Baytown, and I went to work with Jones.
Jones and Cameron and a whole bunch of musicians were going to the Houston Conservatory of Music out there on Fannin. They were going there under the GI Bill. So I joined them. That was in '46, '47. They had some good teachers out there. We stayed over there 'til the end of the semester, and then a bunch of 'em switched over to the Southern College of Fine Arts on Lovett Boulevard. 811 Lovett.
Before that, I hadn't never graduated from high school. I'd dropped out at the end of the tenth grade. I was supposed to graduate the following year, but I didn't. I was goofing off playing music and having a ball. So, I went to Sam Houston downtown and got my diploma (in 1946). After that, I could move on to that music school with no problem.
Tony Sepolio graduated from the Southern College of Fine Arts.
Yeah, he did. I should have stuck with it, too. Old Truman Williams, I remember him coming by and picking me up and going to school.
The Autotel circa 1942. Around 1944, it was expanded to include the Blue Room for live music, and an upstairs addition was built. Bob Wills, Moon Mullican, Cliff Bruner, Pappy Selph, Jerry Irby, J.R. Chatwell, Harry Choates, Dickie McBride, and more all played here during the 1940s. The building was demolished in the 1970s.
So, the Skyliners played strictly jazz?
Yeah, right. We played a few western numbers, if we had a request, though we might not have done it the way they wanted it. (Laughter) I wish I'd had a recorder then, I'm telling you. We were playing some dadgum good stuff, you know?
Mostly we played at the Autotel Blue Room, 1515 McCarty. We worked out there about nine months, I guess. Everything was going great. The kind of music we played was the Goodman Sextet stuff, and Artie Shaw's Gramercy Five. Tony (Scanlin) wrote some arrangements. One of 'em was "I Found a New Baby." It was a diggin' group.
We started out about the spring of the year (1947), and it went great guns until around Thanksgiving. And then, at Thanksgiving, it began to dwindle down. It was about that time that the hillbilly's music came back. And it just flat knocked us out. You start playing good music, you start starvin' to death. We played certain numbers that were outstanding, (but) wouldn't be worth a hoot as far as selling. McBride was playing at a club down the street, and he was playing the western type of stuff, Bob Wills stuff. And, gradually, his crowds was getting bigger and ours was getting smaller. We got to cussing him, said, "If you can't lick 'em, join 'em." So I started playing with McBride.
I worked with Jones at the Autotel when Bob Wills played there. We had a battle dance. Bob Wills was upstairs and we were downstairs, or vice versa.
I didn't know that bands played upstairs at the Autotel.
They very rarely ever used the upstairs. There was no roof. It was wide open. But there was a dance floor up there, and on occasions, they put tables and chairs up there. You could pipe the music in from downstairs, or you could have a group up there. But two or three times was all I ever played up there. When another big band would come. Jones had a contract with old M.J. Fletcher (Autotel owner), so he paid us whether we played there or not on those deals. So, when Bob Wills was there, everybody was downstairs. But during intermission, they'd come up and play with us. We didn't have intermission at the same time they did.
Dickie Jones and the Skyliners relaxing after a gig at the Autotel Blue Room, July 9, 1946. From left: Tony Scanlin, George and Doris Ogg, Dickie Jones, unknown, Cameron Hill.
But I never worked with Bob Wills, and I don't think I could have. He would have fired me the first time -- they tell me that you couldn't laugh at him, and I know I would've laughed. (Laughter) I couldn't have held a straight face, and that was one of the things that you didn't dare do. If he was breaking meter, or something like that.
I think that's one of the reasons Buddy Ray didn't last with him very long.
Probably not. (Laughter) Old Buddy Ray, he played with us in Galveston. The first time I saw him, he was playing in a nightclub, sitting down there playing violin, and I think his mother was playing piano. There was no dancing. People were just drinking. And they were playing classicals, "Humoresque," and stuff like that. We talked him into coming to play with us. He went from there into the western groups...
You mentioned that Ed Gerlach used to sit in with the Skyliners.
Yeah, he used to come out to the Autotel. I think he was in college in Huntsville at the time. Lots of times he came down and sat in with us. He got such a big kick out of us.
Ed Gerlach was playing at a club down on Texas Avenue. Nice club. They played a lot of (Benny Goodman) Sextet stuff. Good musicians, you know? Somebody got a request for "It Makes No Difference Now." They played it, but they played it as corny as anything I ever heard. They blew it off so bad, but when they got through, the crowd went crazy! Man, they applauded, and clapped...Gerlach sacked up his horn, put it in the case, and he got up there on the microphone. He said that he had studied music for 20 years, and had tried to do the best that he could to entertain the people, and he said to then play the worst that he could possibly play, and (have) the people enjoy it, he said, "It tells me that I wasted my time." He went home -- I think he was back the next night, though.
So he cussed out the audience, in other words?
Oh, man, he lowered the boom on 'em.
How did Mancel Tierney get involved with the Skyliners?
Well, like I say, the musicians all knew each other. We weren't competitive or anything. (But) Jones and McBride seemed to be a little competitive. They tried to out-do the other. Laura Lee singing with McBride, that gave 'em an edge. Because the people would rather have a group with a girl singer.
Tierney was strictly a background person. Real fine, likeable person. Great sense of humor. I loved his piano playing.
Do you remember anything about Cireco Records? It was run out of the City Sound and Recording Company, downtown on San Jacinto Street.
I remember where it was, and I remember us going there. But I didn't know anything about the guy who owned it. That was taken care of by Jones. Wasn't Hal Hebert on that record with us?
I don't think so. Hal Hebert played in the band at the same time as you?
Yeah. He played alto sax.
Who's idea was it to record a take-off on "Jole Blon"? Because the song was credited to Tierney-Jones-Hill on the label. (6)
I guess probably Cameron was the one who had the idea. Maybe Cameron and Jones just wanted their name on it.
At the Autotel Blue Room, old Rusty Alfred was the principle singer. He could sing like a bird. He had falsetto like Gene Austin. He could sing in any key.
Dickie Jones and the Skyliners at KATL Studio, State National building, Main Street, Houston, Tx., 1947. From left: Cameron Hill, George, Rusty Alfred, Johnny Edwards (announcer), Hezzie Bryant, Skipper Trevathan, and Dickie Jones. "It was a diggin' group."
Did you ever see guys like Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw when they toured through Houston?
I don't think I ever went to one of their (concerts). I remember one time that Benny Goodman was here at the City Auditorium, and I think Paul Schmitt sat in with the group. He worked at the Houston Club for years and years. A real wild piano player. He sat in with Goodman, and Goodman patted him on the back. He really did play fine. I played a few jobs with him. He could play exactly like Peck Kelley, but he played way above what Peck played.
So, in your opinion, Paul Schmitt was a better pianist than Kelley?
Well, he was a completely different type -- he was strictly jazz. I never did consider Peck as a jazz pianist. He played a roaring piano, with both hands constantly going all the time. No melody. It would be very difficult to pick out where the melody would be. He wasn't my idea of a piano player. It was no fun to work with him, 'cause he'd drown you out unless you played pretty loud. He was the star, and nobody else mattered.
Skipper Trevathan was friends with Peck.
I liked Skipper. He was a fine guy. Played piano real well. Skipper also sat in with Goodman, him and Paul Schmitt. Skipper, he played alright, but he got no comment (from Goodman). But when Paul Schmitt played with him, Goodman bragged on him. I remember the next day, up at the radio station, everybody was talking about it. But Skipper played real fine. He played with nearly all of the orchestras around town. (7)
Cameron Hill at Cook's Hoedown Club, Houston, 1954. Clyde Brewer is on bass.
You've told me that you saw Cameron shortly before he died (in 1962).
He came back to Houston and lived in my garage apartment for about eight or nine months. Cameron and (his wife) Becky and their little daughter. And then, he left and went back out on the West Coast. And while he was on the West Coast, he had had a liver operation. They had removed part of his liver. They told him that if he ever got back on the bottle, it would kill him. Well, for about a year, he stayed off. He came back to Houston, and we played a few jobs together, but he got to the point where he couldn't remember the song. He'd get confused, and would put the bridge to another song to the one we were playing. It got real pitIful.
He was working quite a bit with Mack (Dickie McBride). I think McBride felt sorry for him. He couldn't hold it together, but still, Mack carried him for a long time.
The last time I saw him -- before he went into the VA Hospital, where he died -- he was sitting out at a drive-in beer joint out here on the Galveston Highway. Playing guitar, all by himself. People would drop nickles and quarters into his box. He fouled up two or three songs while we were sitting there. And I didn't get out of the car. It made me so sad, I wanted to cry. I just backed up and took off.
He didn't even know you were there?
No. The next time I saw him, his sister Dixie called us and told us that he was in the VA Hospital and wasn't expected to live very long. Doris and I went out and visited with him.
He's buried out here off of Jenson Drive. I went to his funeral. The VA even buried him. Cameron didn't have anything. He never did anything but play music. With me, music has always been a pleasure to play, but I never depended on it for a living. I always had another job.
You seem to have worked a lot with Benny Leaders in the late '40s and '50s.
I worked with Benny Leaders for quite awhile. We were selling vacuum cleaners in the daytime -- Dewey Yandell was the manager -- and working the (dance) jobs (at night). We played Brenham, Hempstead...we made pretty good money. Old Benny, he was a good salesman.
Eddie Hurd played with Benny a lot. He was his favorite sax man.
Initially, he had Bob Dunn on steel. He was playing pedal steel at that time (c.1948). How did he sound then compared to the earlier days?
It was the same old Bob. He played the same way then as he always played. He always sounded more like a trombone than a steel guitar. He played trombone before he ever learned to play steel, and I think that's what he was trying to do...play a string trombone. (Laughter) But I loved it, I loved the way he played. And he was a joy to be around. He was very quiet, and stayed to himself a lot.
Benny Leaders and the Western Rangers at the Hayloft Club, Old Galveston Road, Houston, 1948. From left: Jerry Chinnis, George, Benny Leaders, Alvie Yandell, Bob Dunn. "It was the same old Bob."
He had a reputation for being a heavy drinker in his early years, but by this point he'd settled down?
Yeah. During this time, he had a music store out here on West 19th. Nearly all the musicians made a special trip out there to buy their strings. Bob would talk bad about politicians, now. We used to get such a big bang out of talking politics with him. Man, he'd get on his soapbox and he'd come on strong. I used to get so tickled. I bought all my sax reeds, I always went to his shop. And we used to get into some of the dad-gumedest discussions you ever heard. But he was such a lovable character.
In the mid-sixties you played with Hap Williams' Orchestra.
We started up at Eagle's Hall down there on Louisiana and Gray, and we worked up there for about a year. And then we moved the band out to Dokie's Hall on Milby. I played out there way back. But Jones wanted me to go back to working with his group.
What was Jones doing at that time (late 1960s)? This was prior to Frank's Ice House, wasn't it?
No, it was Frank's Ice House. That's where I went when I left Dokie's. That's where we stayed for the rest of my (sarcastically) "musical career," you might say.
Was that band Frankie Vee and the Village Boys?
Yeah. I don't know where he got the name. He might've bought it from McBride. Sammy Dee (Sammy DeMottier), this guitar player, he played a lot there before Jones moved in. Sammy played guitar and had a pretty good little old group, but they weren't in the class of Jones and the group that we had. I worked with Sammy Dee on quite a few jobs.
Frankie Vee, he played guitar, but not very well. Frankie, oh, he was a character, man. Bob Wills was his idol. Sammy told me that (one night) Frankie walked up there and handed his guitar to Sammy Dee, asked him to tune it. And Sammy said, "What for?" (Laughter) He said, "Hell, you can't play the damn thing, what do you want to tune it for?" Old Frankie fired him right there on the spot. (Laughter) Sammy used to get so mad at Frank. It was so comical, I'd just bust my side laughing at these characters.
Charlie Harris played at Frank's Ice House shortly before his death (October, 1979) -- was that still the Village Boys?
No, it was Charlie Harris and his group. He called me several times before I finally got loose on the weekend. But Charlie was in pretty bad shape then. He was as bad a shape, almost, as Cameron was at carrying a tune...changing keys in the middle of a tune, hitting bad chords.
He could still sing well.
Yeah, he sure did. It was amazing. But it kept going downhill after that.
He died in 1979, not long after that.
Yeah. That seems like a long time ago.
How did you become involved with the River Road Boys?
Clyde (Brewer) called me occasionally to work a job with them.
How many years did you work with them? It was a pretty long time, wasn't it?
Off and on for about ten years. Bob White, Clyde, and me were playing three-part harmony with the clarinet and the two fiddles. It was a heck of a blend -- sounded good. Ninety percent of it was Bob Wills stuff. Our biggest jobs were up at Bryan-College Station. (But) things began to go downhill the last few years, and I couldn't get a day off to go work a job. But I did get a big bang out of it. Nearly every time we played a job, it was a big job. Leon Rausch, Johnny Gimble, even Bob Wills' brother (Johnnie Lee Wills) were on some of the jobs. It was a big deal.
So you haven't played since that time?
In '89 was when I joined the church. That's when I dropped it completely.
Out of all the bands you worked with, which was the most fulfilling musically?
Oh, by far it was Jones at the Autotel. I enjoyed that more than any group I ever played with. That was really nice.
It was the only time you played the music you really wanted to play, with no compromises.
Yeah. And the first thing you know, there wasn't nobody there but us. That's when the hillbilly and the western stuff -- the corny stuff, novelty stuff -- started going over. We couldn't understand that, why the people went for that. When we were playing that beautiful music -- jazz in perfect harmony. It didn't sell. Oh, it did for a long time, and the people were dancing and having a ball, but...
Aside than that, did you generally enjoy working with the string bands more than the orchestras? As I think you've mentioned before, there was more comaraderie with the string bands...
They were a lot closer together. They did a lot of traveling together. We'd go on long trips, and naturally you'd get on a more personal basis with each other. You'd discuss your family troubles and all that sort of stuff, and you got to where you'd know each other pretty well. But on the big bands, no. You'd go play the job, and you'd get your money or you'd wait 'til he's mailed you a check. No partying or nothing. At intermission, if you knew anybody (in the crowd), you'd go to their table. The others wouldn't know 'em. It was an entirely different type of association.
Even though I played second tenor, which was usually the main take-off, maybe once in the fourth or fifth number, you'd get eight bars (to solo). Most of the stuff that they played was slow.
Is that why you preferred playing with the string bands?
Oh, yeah. The freedom of the music we played -- you'd get a chance to do your thing. To let it all hang out.
Postscript: George Ogg died at age 89 on December 29, 2010. Notes
1. W.O.W. refers to the Woodmen of the World fraternal organization and trade union. W.O.W. Halls in Texas were frequent stops for dance bands of all types.
2. Joe Thames was murdered June 3, 1939. According to an article printed on the front page of the Houston Chronicle that day, “Joe Thames, 24, known to radio fans as ‘Joe, the Banjo Boy,’ was shot to death in the Oasis Grill, 11 miles out on the Humble Road, at 2:45 a.m. Saturday. Robert Ellison, operator of the restaurant and tourist camp, was charged with murder in the shooting. Thames, who played for the ‘Texas Wanderers,’ was shot three times with a pistol. “Mrs. Ellison, in a statement…said she and her husband separated two days ago, after a marriage of two months. She said she had gone to a dance Friday night and had returned to the Oasis with Thames. Her husband appeared in the doorway to their apartment, she said, with a pistol in his hand. ‘I’m going to kill both of you,’ she quoted him as saying. “Thames grabbed a chair, Mrs. Ellison related, and a fight started. Four bullets were fired, three of them striking Thames in the chest. Ellison surrendered at the constable’s office in Humble.”
3. No hard evidence has surfaced thus far to prove that ARC/Brunswick still used their warehouse at 508 Park in Dallas as a recording studio for their 1939 sessions, though comments by the Light Crust Doughboys’ John “Knocky” Parker and Marvin Montgomery suggest it.
4. Marvin Richard “Dickie” Jones was born in 1916. The piece that George refers to is Stay a Little Longer: The First Generation of Houston Country Music by Garna L. Christian (Houston Center for the Humanities: 1985).
5. The Skyliners were formed around late 1945/early 1946. An Autotel Blue Room advertisement in the July, 1946 Houston Press bills them as “Dickie Jones, Rome Landry and the Skyliners Featuring Jamie Lee.”
6. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys’ version of “Jole Blon Likes the Boogie” (MGM 10681) was recorded January 23, 1950. The writer’s credit on the MGM label goes to Wills-Jones-Kierney (sic). Mancel Tierney is the pianist on both versions. 7. Benny Goodman appeared with the Houston Symphony Orchestra on Nov. 11, 1947, the probable date of this concert. It would have been highly unusual, of course, for Goodman to allow a local pianist to sit in with his own band, even if he played “well above” Peck Kelley’s abilities.
Dickie Jones and the Skyliners’ “Jole Blon Likes the Boogie” appears on Lone Star Stomp (Krazy Kat) and Jole Blon: 23 Artists One Theme (Bear Family). “Diggin’” appears on Diggin’: Hot, Small Label Texas Swing (Krazy Kat); “Soft Winds,” “Seven Come Eleven,” and “Closing Theme” from 1947 KATL broadcasts appear on Seven Come Eleven (Krazy Kat).