Thursday, December 24, 2009

Leon Rausch & Texas Village Boys on Central 119

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)

"Lost Highway"

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.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Western Swingsters on Jet EP 611

The Western Swingsters (Jet EP 611)

"Forgetting the Blues" vocal by Bennie Hatfield

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.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Texas Rhythm Boys on Royalty 600

The Texas Rhythm Boys - Benzedrine Blues / Mr. Man in the Moon (Royalty 600)

"Benzedrine Blues"

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.

More on Royalty can be found here.

Jimmy Johnson 1951 acetate

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.

Thanks to Burton Harris.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Hank Locklin on 4-Star 1605

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 on RCA-Victor 47-5243

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 on Gold Star 1381

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)

"How Long"

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.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Freddie Frank on Abbott 125

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.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Curtis Kirk 1951 acetate

Curtis Kirk - "Down Texas Way" (unissued acetate)

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.

Curtis Kirk died on January 2, 1985.

Thanks to Burton Harris.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Rusty McDonald on Chesterfield 354

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)

"Dirty Pool"

"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.