Monday, April 19, 2010

Bar X Cowboys on Eddie's

Elmer Christian and The Bar X Cowboys - Cocain Blues (sic) / I Wish I'd Never Learned to Love You (Eddie's no #)

"Cocain Blues"

The "bad man ballad" "Cocaine Blues" was already decades old when it created a minor sensation in the country music world during 1947-48. Slumber Nichols' version on S&G (reissued on Imperial) appears to have been the first postwar version (John Dilleshaw and Riley Puckett had recorded it in the '20s); Nichols was covered by Roy Hogsed on Coast (recorded May 20, 1947) and Billy Hughes on King (with different lyrics); these in turn inspired Dick Dyson's Musical Texans' version on Tri-State. The best-selling version was Hogsed's, after it had been reissued on Capitol in the summer of 1948 (#15 Juke Box on August 21, 1948). The worst-selling version was this one by Houston's venerable western band, the Bar X Cowboys, from probably late 1948/early 1949.

Bar X Cowboys stationary.

Eddie's was a label owned by Eddie Henry, the Dowling Street record store owner/distributor. Most of his releases were jump blues, but -- rather daring for a black man in the South in the late '40s -- he also made a few excursions into country and Czech music. Most of Eddie's sessions were cut at ACA or Gold Star, so why he chose to record the Bar X Cowboys at a house (possibly his own) is a mystery -- fear of the Musician's Union during the ban of '48, perhaps? The audio was, as can be heard here, very poor (you can hear the levels increase during the song), and singer Paul Brown remembered that the record wasn't very audible on jukebox playback. This would have been enough to ensure a brief shelf-life, but -- to make things even worse -- the record was pressed on possibly the most fragile shellac I've ever beheld. Any copies that didn't crack in 1948 have surely broken over the last 60 years, and it's a miracle that even one copy survives today.

This was probably the last Bar X Cowboys record with Elmer Christian as the bandleader. Between this session and their first Macy's session, Elmer went into semi-retirement and gave the band to Paul Brown, who led the group until their last hurrah in 1954. The personnel on "Cocain Blues" is: Paul Brown (vocal), J.D. Standlee (steel guitar), Truman "Tweedle-O" Williams (lead guitar), Roy "Sleepy" Thompkins (fiddle), Elmer Christian (bass), Tommy Sanders (drums), and possibly Ralph Smith (piano).

The Bar X Cowboys, Houston, c. 1947. From left: J.D. Standlee, Elmer Christian, George Edgin, Tommy Sanders, Sleepy Thompkins, and Paul Brown.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"Rock 'n' Roll" radio in Houston, 1950

The popularization, if not origination, of the phrase "rock and roll" as a descriptor of a kind of then-contemporary black song is generally credited to Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed, whose "Moondog's Rock And Roll Party" debuted on July 11, 1951. If that's the case, why do we find the phrase prominently displayed in this Houston Informer advertisement from February 25, 1950? "Rock 'n' roll with this solid half hour of jam 'n' jive," screams this ad for the new Dr. Daddy-O program, which had debuted February 20th on Houston radio station KTHT.

The "Dr. Daddy-O/Jivin' with Jax" program had started in New Orleans (home of Jax Beer) on WWEZ in June, 1949, when Vernon Winslow became the first black disc jockey in that city. The show was a huge success, giving Jax the idea of franchising the "Dr. Daddy-O" concept to other radio stations in cities where Jax was sold. Thus in Houston, Cesta Ayers (who also recorded for Imperial around this time) became "Dr. Daddy-O." Ayers broadcast from KTHT studios, but also did remote live broadcasts from the Eldorado Ballroom and the Bronze Peacock. No airchecks survive, but we can dream, can't we?

Houston already had at least three black disc jockeys by this time (Lonnie Rochon had started on KNUZ in February, 1948, followed by Vernon Chambers on KCOH later that year; Trummie Cain came along slightly later), and, of course, Dr. Hepcat (Lavada Durst) had started on KVET in Austin that same year. Many more followed on Texas airwaves during 1949-50. We have no idea what Rochon or Chambers sounded like, but we can at least say that Dr. Hepcat preceded (and possibly inspired) New Orleans' Dr. Daddy-O by many months. For all we know, it was Dr. Hepcat or one of the Dr. Daddy-Os who popularized the phrase "rock and roll" in their patter, but not having the phrase as part of their program's name -- as well as being based in Texas -- doubly ensured the now-familiar pattern of historical erasure. If only Jax executives had decided to instead call their show Rockin' with Jax, we might today view the regional origins of the phrase "rock and roll" in a different light.

Below: Lonnie Rochon, "Houston's First 'Sepia' Disc Jockey," at KNUZ, c. 1950.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

House of Hits

House of Hits: The Story of Houston's Gold Star/SugarHill Recording Studios by Andy Bradley and Roger Wood (University of Texas Press) 352 pages, $23.07, available from Amazon.

Texas has always been one of America's most sentimental regions, which makes it seem odd that the state's most populous city is perhaps the most unsentimental large metropolis to be found, not just in Texas itself, but the country as a whole. Houston's aggressive live-only-for-the-future approach toward public policy, a socio-religious tenet firmly in place among its business leaders since the turn of the 20th century, has resulted in one of American capitalism's greatest municipal triumphs -- an economic juggernaut to which the total collapse of a giant energy corporation like Enron hardly musters a digit in unemployment levels. But such statistics make the corollary to the city's futurism that much more bare: a civic idea devoted entirely to hypothetical future rewards necessarily prohibits (and often obliterates) the past. Wholesale physical destruction of old buildings was/is an obvious manifestation of this idea, but less discernible was/is the psychological damage that has ensued. Houston has survived as a city without a history for at least a generation now. One result of this enforced historical amnesia has been that not one in 50,000 of the city's residents has ever heard of Gold Star Studios, much less cares about it. That may change with this book.

Like most people, Bill Quinn came to Houston from somewhere else. Also like most people, he stayed. From humble origins as Quinn's Radio Repair shop around 1940, Quinn expanded into uncharted territory when he built a recording studio and, more remarkably, record pressing plant, during the latter part of the WWII years. This was not something you learned by going to college. After a year or two of experiments and failures, he succeeded in getting the Gulf label off the ground in 1945, to be followed by the much greater success of the Gold Star label the following year. Quinn was more interested in technology than running a record label, though, and the Gold Star label went kaput in 1951 when the IRS sued for back taxes. Quinn soldiered on, engineering for other labels that rented his studio, most notably Starday, Duke/Peacock, and D, and an endless number of smaller ones, from Azalea to Zebra.

But Bill Quinn is just one aspect of the story that has been going on now for 70 years -- a singularly remarkable fact in a city in which even the best business models are expected to fail as soon as a new trend comes along, and where lawyers and oilmen -- not music business people -- are upheld as civic leaders . Quinn sold the studio around 1963, and it eventually wound up being purchased by the infamous International Artists label. The Bubble Puppy's 1969 psychedelic ride "Hot Smoke and Sassafras" was a long way from Harry Choates's "Jole Blon," but it was a huge hit that should have set the studio on solid ground for the new decade. Yet IA, too, succumbed to tax problems in 1971.

By any reasonable measure, the story should have ended there -- but record hustler par excellance Huey P. Meaux -- who had recorded the Sir Douglas Quintet's "She's About a Mover" at Gold Star in '65 -- had other ideas, buying and refurbishing the studio in 1972. Along with the new gear came a new name -- SugarHill (one word), chosen, according to Bradley, because "it did not evoke any particular music genre and thus would leave the future of the enterprise open to any potential type of production." (The New Jersey rap label/studio named Sugar Hill came later.) By 1975, Huey made good on that promise, taking the then-forgotten Chicano rocker Freddy Fender and giving him a country song with a new bridge -- sung in Spanish. Fender's "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" was a #1 pop and country hit, eerily reminiscent of the success Harry Choates had had with his crossover hit "Jole Blon" 28 years earlier. Prior to now, few people have had any inkling of a connection between these two improbable hits.

That's House of Hits' greatest strength -- forging links between eras, genres, songs, labels, and artists that, prior to now, had only been vaguely connected in popular and regional music histories. Focusing on a studio instead of a particular band or genre creates a wider palette for stories to unfold, intersect, and commingle in unexpected and interesting ways. For example, who would have known, prior to reading this book, that Jimmy McCracklin's 1965 hit "Think" (#8 R&B on Imperial) was recorded at Gold Star? The only potential clue of a Houston connection was a co-writer credit to that notorious non-existent songwriter, "D. Malone." And yet McCracklin is here, quoted at length on why and how "Think" came to be recorded at the studio.

Bradley conducted 90 interviews for this book, with perhaps the most revealing quotes coming from either studio engineers or close observers to the operation. If names like Ray Rush, Glenn Barber, Doyle Jones, Roy Head, Wiley Barkdull, Guy Clark, Bill Dillard, and Mickey Moody mean anything to you, then House of Hits is an essential read. There are great quotes from all of the above, unique to this book, that guide the reader on an almost-yearly tour of the studio, its characters, and its songs, from the 1940s until 2009. The book gives important artists their due, but stays on subject -- which means that, for example, an in-depth musical analysis of Eddie Noack's Starday sessions won't be found here. It's a book about musicians, but the studio itself plays the starring role.

Conspicuously absent from the interviewees was Huey P. Meaux. Huey was either in jail or on parole during the period this book was being written, and was inaccessible or inimical toward being interviewed in depth about his legendary career. This unfortunately means that the section devoted to "the Huey years" (1972-1984) is a lot drier than it would have been with his participation, an unavoidable weakness.

Nearly all of the old recording studios in Texas -- Jim Beck, ACA, Ben Hall, Sellers, Nesman's, Texas Sound Studios -- have long since faded into history, but Gold Star/SugarHill has defied very long odds, and today is not only the oldest operating recording studio in Texas, but among the oldest in America. You can book your next session there for competitive rates, or you can just drop by and have a chat with Andy Bradley for a history lesson, free of charge.

P.S. - The 42 page discography in the back of the book is a wonderful bonus, but the statement made there that "much of this information was researched by Andrew Brown" is, of course, not true. Anthony Rotante began working on a Gold Star discography in 1955, and Chris Strachwitz, Mack McCormick, the late Mike Leadbitter, Neil Slaven, Al Turner, Phil Tricker, Dave Sax, Dick Grant, Doug Hanners, and many, many others have compiled the information found in this section over the decades, to which my own contributions have been comparatively modest. I assisted the authors of House of Hits, but was not directly involved, and when the information was being shared I never thought it would actually make the final book. I certainly didn't intend to take credit for other's work. So, to all of the above researchers, just consider me the steward of the information that you have so painstakingly compiled.

University of Texas Press webpage about House of Hits

Houston Chronicle article about House of Hits