Sunday, July 21, 2019

Floyd Tillman: His Final Interview

Floyd Tillman and wife Marge in Houston, early 1940s. (Leon Selph Collection)

On September 1, 2002, I interviewed Floyd Tillman at his home in Bacliff, Texas. This was in anticipation of a career-spanning Bear Family boxset, which did eventually appear in 2004. Prior to then, I wasn't sure if he wanted to be interviewed again -- some people had apparently tried without success. It wasn't a top priority of mine, since he had been interviewed in the past, and his Decca and Columbia sessions seemed to have been pretty well documented. 

With the help of fiddler Clyde Brewer, I was able to contact Floyd's son Larry, who said he'd be glad to arrange a meeting. I came prepared, with a stack of Tillman's original singles plus a full discography spanning 1936 to 1958. My goal was to try to draw out anything possible about his early days, about how he transitioned from a pop music singing lead guitarist with the Mack Clark Orchestra to a "hillbilly" singer and songwriter with groups like the Blue Ridge Playboys -- and no longer known as a lead guitarist. It seemed like a strange transition, but for anyone who knows Houston, it really wasn't. Many local musicians (George Ogg, Tony Scanlin, Smitty Smith, Jimmy Wyble) moved between pop orchestras and string bands. Houston audiences tended to prefer their country music on the pop side, as well, with smooth vocalists like Floyd, Jerry Irby, and Dickie McBride. This was part of a broader cultural patten in which Houstonians imagined themselves as somehow better and more urbane than Southerners, though of course this attitude didn't extend into such areas as desegregation. 

The interview went well enough, just not as revelatory as I'd hoped. Floyd was friendly and cooperative, but didn't remember too much from his early days, and I mostly received very short answers to my questions. I was able to clarify a few confusing things (why did he switch to the Columbia label in 1945 after having such success with Decca?), but for the most part, Floyd didn't elaborate on his answers. This is in no way intended as a criticism of an ailing 87-year-old man; I've interviewed many people 20 to 30 years younger that were far less lucid, not to mention less polite. I believe that this was Floyd's final interview, as he passed away a year later, on August 22, 2003. 

Although he was retired, Floyd continued to perform on special occasions during these later years, such as the annual Shelly Lee Alley celebrations in Columbus alongside his old bandmates Leon Selph and Cliff Bruner. These gatherings were the only time I actually saw Floyd on stage. It was great getting to hear "Slipping Around" from the man himself. 

Also present at the interview was Larry Tillman, who helped clarify some of his father's answers. 

Floyd Tillman: ...I had never made any songs on a record yet (as a soloist). Dave Kapp, I'd heard a lot of people talk about him. I wanted to know if he had any room for me (on Decca), so I wrote a letter to Decca (stating) that I sing and play guitar. He wrote me a letter and said, "Yeah, if you got any songs like 'It Makes No Difference Now,' we sure need you bad. We'll take anything." So when he came to the Rice Hotel to record a band -- was busy recording -- I told him I was Floyd Tillman. (Note: Floyd has forgotten that he recorded prior to this, for Vocalion, but we get to those records shortly.)

He said, "Wait'll I get through recording this band, then I'll talk to you. Do you sing?"

 I said, "Well, I try to." 

He said, "I heard you try to copy everybody. Don't be a copycat, just sing like yourself. Also, I've heard that you try to sing like Bing Crosby -- just forget about Bing Crosby, sing like yourself. Don't sing like anybody you know of." And he said, "I'll listen to you real good when I get through recording this other band." He finally got through, and said, "Now let's see what you got." 

I played lead guitar, and I was gonna stay with that, but I thought, "Well, heck, why shouldn't I write songs and make some money?"

So I sung one song and he said, "That's pretty good. Let's keep it." Then I sang another, and he said, "It stinks -- throw it away." (Laughs) He said, "Always remember when you write a song, put the title in at least twice or more in every song. A lot of songwriters forget to put the title in a lot."

That was the way I started singing. I couldn't sing worth a darn -- I played lead guitar, and I was gonna stay with that, but I thought, "Well, heck, why shouldn't I write songs and make some money?" 

Larry Tillman: Was the Aragon Ballroom where you sang earlier than that?

FT: I was playing with a hillbilly band (The Blue Ridge Playboys) -- they called us "hillbillies" then. This pop bandleader (Mack Clark) came over to see me and said, "Would you like to go to work for me? I could pay you at least $15 a week." I was making about that much anyway. So I took a chance, and I worked with them (as an electric guitarist) about half-a-year...then I got a raise to $45 a week, if the band made it. If they were good. So I kept it for about three years. The crowds finally started falling off, so I went back to the hillbilly band I was playing with. I had "It Makes No Difference Now," but (Clark) didn't want it. He said, "We don't record hillbilly songs."

The Aragon Ballroom was located right close to the Gulf Building. The Gulf Building was on Main Street, and this here was on another street across Main (1010 Rusk St.). It had one of those spotlights on the sign.  

Andrew Brown: So you played with the Mack Clark Orchestra about three years?

FT: Yeah. The first band I worked with was Adolph Hofner. I left home and stayed with my sister, who was married to a railroad man in San Antonio. I thought, "Well, maybe I could get a job here in San Antonio." I took my guitar and my old Ford...

AB: You'd never played with any bands prior to Hofner?

FT: Except Hofner. They had a three-piece country band, and they were good. I asked them if I could sit in. They said, "Sure, get your guitar out." So I started playing lead take-off choruses, and oh, they really admired it. They offered me a job, but the guy who run the place couldn't afford another musician. So they all decided they wanted me anyway. They chipped in 25 cents apiece, we all worked for 75 cents a night and tips. This was 1932, 1933.

The Blue Ridge Playboys, Houston, 1935-36. Floyd on resonator guitar.
 (Houston Chronicle Photo)

AB: Who inspired you on take-off guitar? Because that seems a little early for people to want to play lead guitar.

FT: On the radio, I'd heard some kind of program that was selling medicine. Somebody played real fine lead guitar on it. I got to listening to that; that got me started a little bit into it. I really practiced. I figured that if I just stayed with it and practiced, I'd be a fine lead guitar man and somebody would hire me. 

AB: Did you hear anybody on records during that time, like Eddie Lang, Nick Lucas, people like that?

FT: I heard Nick Lucas...he'd play little runs before the song, then sing along with it. 

AB: But it was mainly off the radio that you'd hear lead guitar players?

FT: Yeah. I had two brothers that played on the side, because they both had jobs. One of 'em played fiddle, the other one (Ernest) played guitar and banjo. And he also played a cornet. Occasionally, they'd get a country dance and I'd play with 'em. We'd go out on the plains. Usually, a dollar night would be all you'd make. Finally, they jacked it up to where they'd get a dollar-and-a-half, then two dollars. 

AB: This was in Post?

FT: Yeah. Post, Texas. 

AB: So how long did you work with Hofner?

FT: I worked with him about six months. Things were closing down. That guy decided to close his place (Gus's Palm Gardens). It was just a little place. I couldn't get no jobs there, so I went to Houston. 

Circa 1939-40.

AB: How did you meet Leon Selph? 

FT: I just went up to the station (KXYZ), sat in with them, played a little guitar. That's when I wrote "It Makes No Difference Now." 

AB: Now, Adolph Hofner told me a story that, while you were playing with him, you offered him "It Makes No Difference Now."

FT: No...I don't know why people get that idea. I never did offer to play it with them. I'd record it with them, but not give it to them. I knew it was pretty valuable, 'cause everybody was liking it. We started using it with Leon Selph's band as a theme song, because we were getting so many requests for it. 

AB: Who else was in the band when you joined? I don't think Ted Daffan had joined yet. 

FT: No, he hadn't. Later on we got him. We had a meeting. Leon wanted us to make some suggestions. We needed somebody who had a sound system and a car, and that fit Ted perfect. He played Hawaiian guitar then, he'd never played country and western or hillbilly music. 

AB: So, your first electric guitar was one that Ted fashioned?

FT: No, it was a new guitar, a name brand. But he sold a lot of them to people who...he had a coil winder that he'd built. He was kind of good with electronics, and I was too at that time. I used to love electronics so much. I'd build one tube radios, crystal Post, I liked the one tube radios better 'cause they'd reach farther. 'Cause the closest station was Fort Worth or Dallas. 

I was a messenger boy for Western Union. I'd go back behind the furniture place there (in Post), look through their garbage and find some old tubes and take 'em. I never spent any money on any of my radios. I didn't have it to spend. 

Larry: Dad, what was it you bought from Ted?

FT: I bought a Vol-U-Tone amplifier. I traded him a Model A Ford and a lot of little things for it. 

AB: Your first session with the Blue Ridge Playboys was at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio. 

FT: Yeah...I was playing with the Mack Clark band then, but I asked the leader if I could get off to make some records. He said, "Sure, we ain't having any good crowds anyway." 

I had no problem getting board, because I had a sister there who had a husband that worked for the railroad. I got one of the spare bedrooms. 

Dave Kapp was the only teacher I ever had that showed me how to sing, or anything. 

AB: Where did they record in the Gunter Hotel?

FT: Most everybody, even in Nashville, would hang up burlap all over the place. None of them were a regular recording studio. Later on, they built a pretty regular one in Houston, of all places. And I'd get better sound there than I would in California. (Note: According to Al Dexter, the November 1936 ARC sessions were held on the 7th floor of the Gunter.)

One 'em was the Rice was a big room. They'd turn off the fans and sweat while they was making records, 'cause the fans would make the sound wavy or something. But after he (Dave Kapp) got through recording that band and listened to me...he was the only teacher I ever had that showed me how to sing, or anything. 

Floyd in the Hillbilly Hit Parade song folio (1940). Click to enlarge. 

AB: At the session at the Gunter, I assume that was the first time you met Art Satherley and Don Law. 

FT: I suppose it was. Both of them was with Columbia then. (Note: it now seems clear that Art Satherley was not present at any of the American Record Corporation's San Antonio sessions.)

AB: Yeah, actually it was the American Record Corporation at that time. Did you find it unusual that these two British guys were overseeing this session?

FT: Well, as far as I know, Don Law wasn't (British). But I do know Uncle Art Satherley was from England. He had the accent all the time. He was always a character, the way he talked: "Do it again, m'boy." (Laughs)

AB: Don Law was British, too. 

FT: I didn't know that. See, he talked quite American. I never did know he was British. Later on, I produced my own records without either one of 'em. And I think I did better than they did, 'cause they didn't know what they wanted. I'd take a slow song, and they'd say, "Step it up, step it up, play it faster." Art Satherley turned down "I Love You So Much It Hurts Me" three times. Three different sessions. He finally let me record it when we needed one more song. 

AB: So you felt that Satherley exerted too much control? 

FT: Oh, yeah. From then on, I controlled my own band. I did my own (producing). I set the tempo like I wanted it. But both Art and Don Law would want to play 'em too fast on everything. He said, "We've got to get fast records, they're the only things that sell." And I thought to myself, "'It Makes No Difference Now,' we didn't play it fast, and look how it sold." 

Goose Creek Daily Sun, August 10, 1936. Floyd and the Blue Ridge Playboys are guests to "hostesses" in Pelly, near Baytown. 

AB: Bob Wills seemed to have a good personal relationship with Satherley, but it sounds like you were a little more distant from him. 

FT: Yeah.  

AB: It sounds to me like Satherley thought he knew a lot about country music. 

FT: Well, he knew what he was told, anyway. Somebody must have told him to get fast songs, that any time a song was fast, it's good, that'd sell it.  

AB: (Reads line-up of Nov '36 session.)

FT: I play lead on some of 'em, and some of 'em Herman Standlee would. I remember that. Herman Standlee played too much take-off. He couldn't play lead and swing it along with the melody like me. I's easier for me to just play a little melody, along with the melody. 

AB: So that explains why there's two electric guitars on that session -- you just went along as guest, and a vocalist. You sang, "Take Me Back to West Texas."

FT: All of those songs I wrote. 

Larry: "Blue Monday" and "Rhythm in the Air" were Dad's first two songs he wrote when he was a night watchman at Post. 

FT: That's where I learned how to play guitar. Night watchman, I had 45 minutes off every hour. It'd take me about 15 minutes to make my rounds. I'd work 12 hours a night. That was a lot of hours. But I'd use 'em by learning and practicing on lead guitar. 

AB: So "Blue Monday" and "Rhythm in the Air" were the first songs you wrote and recorded?

FT: Yeah, that's true..."It Makes No Difference Now" was turned down by Vocalion.

AB: At this first session, you auditioned "It Makes No Difference Now," and they refused to record it?

FT: They said it was too slow, and too sad. 

AB: They didn't have any problem with "Blue Monday" and "Rhythm in the Air"...

FT: No, because I did them a little bit faster. 

AB: So, Herman Standlee was the Blue Ridge Playboys' regular lead guitarist at that point.

FT: At that point, he was. But he just comes and goes. He'd work awhile, then he'd decide to go out and go to work in the carpenter business for some reason. He'd make more money that way. 

Moon Mullican was such a great piano player. I mean, he'd put on a show, even wear the piano out when he gets through with it. 

AB: How did Moon Mullican get involved with the group?

FT: Well, we (hired) him to play some other instrument -- I forget what the other instrument was now. Oh, it was a bass -- but we had a bass. We didn't need a bass man. But he ended up playing piano. He was such a great piano player. I mean, he'd put on a show, even wear the piano out when he gets through with it. 

AB: He auditioned as a bass player, and you said, well, do you play anything else. 

FT: Yeah. And he said, "Piano." And he got on it, played "Rosetta" in G or something like that and just started really going. He wanted to sing one of my songs, and I said, "Good, nobody wants to record this." "I'll Keep On Loving You." He did a good job on it. 

He was a very good entertainer for the band. He'd roll up his britches leg like a woman and say, (effeminate voice), "Oh, I don't know that one." And everybody would laugh at him. 

AB: After you got back to Houston after this session for Vocalion, you went back to Mack Clark's Orchestra?

FT: That's right. 

AB: What instrument did Clark play?

FT: He didn't play. He just led the band. He didn't play at all. 

AB: Did the Mack Clark Orchestra have a radio program?

FT: Yeah, we had one called "Noon Serenade." Every day at noon, they'd come over to KXYZ and set up. But at night, just before the dance started, we'd start one from the Aragon Ballroom. 

AB: Do you recall any of the other members of that group? 

FT: Yeah, Smitty (Ralph Smith), the piano player, went to work for me later on when the band folded up. 

AB: Somebody told me he was from that true? 

FT: Yeah. All of the Mack Clark band was from the middle western states. [Note: Ralph Smith was from Yankton, South Dakota.]

AB: So he came down with that band?

FT: Yeah. I think they got the job (while they were) up there. 'Cause they came down in an old bus that was about dilapitated. And they got a job playing at the Aragon Ballroom. 

Larry: Dad, didn't you tell me once that Helen Smith was a vocalist with 'em for awhile?

FT: That's right. 

AB: So you played lead guitar with them for about three years? 

FT: Yeah. 

AB: You didn't sing with them?

FT: Once in a while they'd introduce me, 'cause they had all girl singers, you know, they needed at least one male voice. 

They had a good, popular band. For a while, when I first went to work with 'em, they were doing good. And it just finally faded away. 

AB: Did you ever see any of the other big jazz bands in Houston at that time, like Peck Kelley's?

FT: Yeah, I forgot the name of all of 'em. After we'd get through, I'd go out and sit in with 'em, just for the fun of it. Peck Kelley, I knew him well. I came out and sang with him. (He'd say), "How 'bout that 'World Keeps On Turning' song ("I'll Keep on Loving You")?" He'd like 'em about that tempo. 

Floyd Tillman's Lone Star Melodies song folio (c. 1945). 

AB: So when you left Mack Clark's Orchestra...

FT: He didn't have another guitar player to replace me. I just quit, and he just left the guitar out of the band. 

AB: That was when you decided you were going to concentrate on songwriting and singing...

FT: Yeah, that and running a little band. 

Floyd (far left, with resonator guitar) with Shelly Lee Alley (far right) and his band. Photo taken in Houston in 1936 during the Texas Centennial celebrations. (Shelly Lee Alley, Jr. Collection) Click to enlarge. 

AB: I wanted to ask you about this picture taken for the Texas Centennial...

FT: Oh yeah, that was when I first rode a freight train to Houston. There's Shelly Lee Alley. 

AB: You're playing a resonator guitar in that picture.

FT: Yeah, that's the one I learned on. 

AB: So this band was prior to Leon Selph's?

FT: Well, I think it was on the side. This other guy was getting a band together. He was supposed to be the leader, but he wasn't much of a leader. This was taken at a studio in Houston somewhere. All we did was have rehearsals. Then I went back to the Blue Ridge Playboys, stayed with them a little while. 

AB: So during this period (1936) you played this resonator hadn't gone electric yet.

FT: No, but later on Ted Daffan had something called a Vol-U-Tone (amplifier)...where you'd stick the coil under the strings. 

AB: Here is, I think, the earliest picture I have of the Blue Ridge Playboys. 

FT: Oh, yeah. This is the first picture we took together. (Studio portrait with circular design on wall.) 

AB: Your next recording session was with the Blue Ridge Playboys again. March 6, 1939, at the Rice Hotel. (Names song titles.)
That was the first time you recorded at the Rice Hotel, with Dave Kapp. 

FT: First time we recorded at all was with Dave. 

AB: Where did they set up at the Rice Hotel? 

FT: In one of the rooms. A big one. They had a little partition to keep the sound out of the control rooms. 

AB: Dave Kapp seemed more experienced and knowledgable about this type of music than Art Satherley and Don Law, in your opinion?

FT: I think he was, because he wasn't doing exactly what he was told to do, he just did it. Because he knew what sells and what didn't. 

Once I run into Dave Kapp in California. That's when I was with Columbia. And he said, "Oh, I hear you're doing good. That 'Slippin' Around' sure did sell good." He knew all about it...after I got out of the army, I signed up with Columbia records. Ted Daffan got me a job with them.

Later on, I got my own studio. I built that studio on Robert Lee (Street) in Houston. I'd make my records there, and sometimes I wouldn't even have somebody to come out and tell me what to do (i.e., a producer). I would just do it. (Laughs) [Note: Floyd opened his recording studio in 1950.]

AB: The session with "I Didn't Know..."

FT: Those were original songs. I didn't have a band to play with then. 

Musicians just loved him (Bob Dunn), but the average person didn't understand him. He didn't play simple enough choruses, you know. 

AB: (Names musicians) What do you remember about Bob Dunn? 

FT: Well, a lot of people thought he was an excellent guitar player 'cause he played some great take-off choruses, but I don't think he was real good at playing just straight leads. He was very good on take-off. He was one you might call a "national" guitar player -- everybody knew of him. 

Musicians just loved him, but the average person didn't understand him. He didn't play simple enough choruses, you know. But he was a great steel man. His notes were good, but they were just good for somebody who liked that sort of thing. Kind of like Django Reinhardt. 

AB: Did you listen much to Reinhardt?

FT: Yeah, somebody loaned me one of his records -- "Night and Day" -- and it knocked me out. I played it over and over 'til I wore it out. 

AB: Dunn was never a member of your band? J.D. Standlee played in his style, though. 

FT: J.D. Standlee played a very good steel guitar. He played a great introduction on "I Gotta Have My Baby Back." 

AB: At a certain point, you joined the Village Boys. 

FT: Yeah. I even named the band. I just thought it'd be a good country name. 

AB: How did it come about that you met Jimmie Davis, and sold him songs? 'Cause one of the Village Boys records is credited to Tillman-Davis. 

FT: I sold him "It Makes No Difference Now." He came down to see me one time, and he offered me $300 for it. I think I sold him half of several. He said, "I don't want to buy anything full, because you'll get it back anyway after 28 years." 

Floyd at Magnolia Gardens, Houston, early 1950s. 

AB: You must have been pretty bitter at the time, selling this song that became a national hit. You weren't making any money off of it. 

FT: That $300 was a lot of money. I paid down on a new car with it. That's how I got my new car. Later on, I made more money the year I got it back than what I sold it for. 

Since I've always done it (sold songs), then I have nobody to blame but myself. 

AB: So you had a pretty good relationship with Davis?

FT: Yeah. He died at 101. I know one time when he was governor, I had dinner with him. He invited me to come to a real dinner. 

AB: Your next session is credited to "Floyd Tillman and his Favorite Playboys." 

FT: Yeah, I went to Dallas to make that session. Some of 'em were from the Blue Ridge Playboys. They busted up, I think, about that time. Howard Oliver, he was a good banjo player. 

AB: That was April 30, 1941, Sound Recording Studios, Dallas. That was the first time you recorded in an actual studio, not a hotel?

FT: I believe it was, it looked like one, but it wasn't exactly the polished, refined thing like you'd think it would be. All the studios were like that, except for the one in Houston, the guy [Bill Holford] called me and said, "I'd like for you and your band to come up and make a record for free." That's where I recorded "Slippin' Around." 

AB: Shortly after that session, you joined the Air Corps, or got drafted? 

FT: I was in the Air Corps. At first, I was at Ellington Field (near Houston), and I went in as a radio mechanic, it was called. Stupid name for a radio man. 

AB: So, the whole time period of WWII, you were stationed at Ellington? 

FT: Yeah. The whole time. Something always happened (to keep him there). I said, "How can I get out of here? I want to get out and help win this war, instead of just doing nothing." I wanted to be a radio gunner. Finally, I got a chance to go to one of the other camps. I was rushing home to tell my wife and family what happened, and I scraped my thumb on a flat tire I had -- was trying to change it. Made a black streak go up through here. So I called the seargeant, and he said, "You better rush back here." They put me in their hospital and they said, "Yeah, you got blood poisoning." 

AB: Did you play at all during this time? 

FT: Yeah. Sometimes when we'd be off on Saturday night, I'd play with bands. Then I had my own band. On Thursday nights I played for the NCO -- Non-Commissioned Officers Club. 

Jerry Irby, Floyd, Hank Williams. Houston, circa 1948-49. 

AB: Who was in that band -- was that local guys? 

FT: Some of 'em were. One of 'em went through WWII, and he was coming home, and he got killed in an automobile accident. He was a good friend of mine. I had a hard time organizing another band after that. 

AB: That brings me to this next session you did, that I don't know anything about. You turned up in New York...

FT: Oh yeah, I was going to tell you about that. 

AB: I assume you'd gotten out of the Air Corps --

FT: No, I wasn't. I was just on furlough. I was eligible to get these round-trip tickets to New York for $37. That was a lot of money then -- there and back. 

AB: How did that session come about? Did you contact Dave Kapp?

FT: I just walked in his office. He said, "What are you doing here?"

AB: Oh, you just showed up unannounced?

FT: Yeah. Unannounced -- I didn't call him on the phone or anything. He said, "What are you doing up here?" That's when I made this one here (pointing to record): "GI Blues" and "Each Night at Nine." 

AB: So you recorded these at Decca Studios in New York City, April 20, 1944?

FT: Yeah. 

AB: Who is the band on that record? 

FT: We didn't have an organized band. We just had to get the musicians up together.  I never played with any of 'em before. Whoever it was (producing), said, "What is the name of the band (for the labels)? Is it just plain Floyd Tillman, or..." I said, "Well, Floyd Tillman and his Favorite Playboys." So they called it that. 

Judy Canova sang it ("Each Night at Nine") every Thursday on her network show on the radio. 

Larry: Was it at that time, or later with Columbia, where you got the $5,000 advance?

FT: I think it was with Columbia. No -- the Aberbachs give me $5,000 once. The publishing company. 

Larry: Hill and Range. 

FT: But they gave advances to anyone they thought could sell. Ted Daffan got a good advance from them once. 

AB: I'm curious why you didn't remain on Decca, after your records for them had sold so well. 

FT: Well, because I found out that I could make more money on Columbia. Ted Daffan talked me into it. He said how much he was getting, and we compared what we were getting. He said, "I can get you on Columbia if you want to." I said, "Okay. I'll soon be discharged." I was waiting for my discharge. Then I got on Columbia.

AB: Do you remember when you received your discharge from the Air Corps? 

Larry: I've got those papers in here somewhere with the exact day. 

FT: It was '45. 

AB: And that's when you set about organizing your band with the Raley brothers, Lew Frisby...

FT: Yeah. I had all my band picked. All I needed was to get my discharge and go to it. 

Floyd Tillman band at KTHT radio studio in Houston, c. 1946. L to R: Von Reece (announcer, kneeling), Red Raley, Sam Balker, Marge Tillman, Floyd, Leo Raley, Darold Raley, Lew Frisby. (Kevin Coffey Collection.) Click to enlarge. 

AB: And the rest of them had already gotten out?

FT: I think I was about the only one in there except Smitty. He'd been in a little while. Lew, he wasn't in. He had some kind of ailment. 

(Looking at c.1946 picture with pianist identified as "Sam Balker.")

AB: Sam Balker, I'd never heard that name. 

FT: I haven't either. 

AB: Now, your first session was done at Columbia Studios in Hollywood. February 11, 1946. 

FT: I remember it. We went out on a train that time. We didn't go in cars. They paid our way. 

AB: That's when you recorded "Nails in My Coffin."

FT: Jerry Irby sent me a telegram that said he'd give me half of the song if I'd record it. I answered. I said, "Well, I'm going to record it, but I've got to take one of my songs out."  

AB: So, when you went out there, you really hadn't had any intention of recording that? 

FT: No. I played it for the Aberbach boys and they went crazy over it. Said they'd give me a thousand dollars guarantee right now if I could get the song (rights). I said, "Well, I'll try it." 

Promotional postcard datestamped April 10, 1946. 

AB: (Names songs)

FT: "Sign on the Dotted Line," I didn't write that. Some boys in East Texas wrote it. I can't think of their name offhand. It wasn't a very good song. It kind of broke meter to get all the words in. 

(Looking at Air Corps discharge papers.)

AB: You were discharged November 29, 1945. This says Randolph Field? 

FT: That's where I had to go to get my discharge. The war was over, and we were still in it. 

AB: (Reading from paper.) "Date of enlistment, November 2, 1942." And it was right after your discharge that you organized your band? So it was probably December, 1945? 

FT: Yeah, I got it all ready. 

AB: And you immediately got a radio show on KTHT.

FT: Yeah, I saw that announcer, Von Reece. 

AB: Did you just go down there and audition in person? 

FT: Yeah. I'd call 'em on the phone, and if you can't get 'em on the phone, just go down there in person. They was glad to have us back. 

AB: During this time, there were a lot of clubs in Houston. It seems like a lot of your early shows were at 105 1/2 Main. 

FT: Yeah, I played there regular. Every Wednesday night, or whatever night we played there. They throwed out so many people, they even got me once. A lot of people would ask me, "Well, are they going to get thrown down the stairs this time?" 

AB: Kind of a rough place. 

FT: It was rough. There was a lot of fights. We had two auxillary policeman, but they couldn't stop it. 

Floyd on the cover of Billboard, April 15, 1950. (San Antonio Public Library.)

AB: You mentioned Jerry Irby...I guess you knew him from your earliest days in Houston. 

FT: Yeah, he was playing for the kitty the first time I saw him. That's what I had to do. 

AB: Irby said that he used to play root beer stands on Washington Avenue with Ted Daffan. 

FT: That's true. Right after I left Ted, he got Jerry. I played right there with Ted. We played for the kitty. And then I had a chance to go somewhere with somebody, and that's when Jerry Irby took my place and started playing with Ted. 

AB: Were you pretty good friends with Jerry? Or did you see him as a rival, or...

FT: No, I always was friendly with him. He was friendly with me. On my night off, I'd sit in with him sometimes. 

AB: Your next Columbia session was in Chicago. March 25, 1947. 

FT: Oh, yeah. I almost forgot about that. I think I flew. That's before I had learned to fly.

AB: Oh, you mean you took a passenger jet. You didn't actually fly yourself. 

FT: Yeah. Later on, I traded my plane in on an Avion. It would cruise at 200 mph. So, when I'd go to California, I'd stop once in El Paso to eat, and then go on to Los Angeles. 

AB: Was Don Law still involved at this point (1947)? Or was it just Satherley? 

FT: Don Law, he come out to my studio once and A&R'd. He was out there one time. 

"The Worm Has Turned," that was a remark made by Smitty, playing poker. He'd say, "The worm has turned -- I'm going to win next time." I thought, "Well, that's a good name for a song." You always get good ideas that way. 

AB: What inspired you to build your own studio?

FT: Just for fun. I had nothing else to do. (Laughs) I built it in the living room. You walk right in, and you're in a recording studio. 

AB: You used an Ampex tape recorder? 

FT: Exactly. 

The Floyd Tillman band with Marge and new pianist Bennie McNeil. KTHT radio studio in Houston, late 1940s. 

Larry: You used to cut your own masters, 'cause you'd give me and Don all that fuzzy stuff that used to come off of 'em. 
Now Ted, later on, bought the house from dad. And dad put in a mobile home right next to it. So they were neighbors for a few years. 

FT: I wasn't really making much money on it (the studio). Once in awhile, somebody would want to record something. 

AB: So everything you did for Columbia after 1950 was done at this studio?

FT: Uh-huh. 

AB: (Names some song titles.)

FT: "The Worm Has Turned," that was a remark made by Smitty, playing poker. He'd say, "The worm has turned -- I'm going to win next time." I thought, "Well, that's a good name for a song." You always get good ideas that way. 

AB: Your next session (in 1947) was done in Nashville. 

FT: That was where I recorded "I Love You So Much It Hurts." That was where they had toesacks hanging up all around. It was at some hotel. 

AB: The Castle Studio at the Tulane Hotel. 

FT: Babe Fritsch wrote "Gals Are Funny That Way." He'd been after me a long time (to record one of his songs). He'd been our announcer, so I figured I'd record it and see what it was like. It was a good song. 

AB: And about a year later was when Bill Holford called you. 

FT: And I did "Slippin' Around." He said, "If you've got anything you'd like to record, come on over." 

AB: So Don Law wasn't at that session. 

FT: No, Don Law didn't show up for that one. I was the A&R man. 

AB: I guess that was when Holford was still on Westheimer. 

FT: That's right. He'd made a studio in his house. That was before he had that fine studio he had over there on Washington Avenue. 

AB: At your next session you did "This Cold War With You."

FT: I did that for Holford, I remember. At his new studio. 

Leon Payne, Jerry Irby, announcer Biff Collie, Floyd. Circa 1950. 

AB: I wanted to ask you about some of the other clubs, like Cook's Hoedown Club. 

FT: That used to be an automobile mechanic's shop. Cook needed some advice...he said, "Do you think we could build a dancehall out of this garage? I've got a chance to buy it."  I told him "I think one place is as good as the other one. You need room, but you've got plenty of room." (The floor) wasn't quite level. They had to build a platform over the floor. One time I got Elvis Presley...he called me "Mr. Tillman." I met him in Shreveport. 

AB: At the Hayride?

FT: Yeah. 

Link Davis with Floyd and band, late 1940s. (Link Davis Estate)

AB: I think the first gig he played in Houston was at Eagle's Hall. You and Link Davis were on that bill. 

FT: Eagle's Hall was kind of a (private) club. I never did join the club. The first time I played it was with Leon Selph and the Blue Ridge Playboys. 

Cook told me, "Don't ever book that kid in here again."

I say, "What's wrong, Mr. Cook?" 

He said, "I had to turn away too many people that weren't of age. Teenagers." 

Elvis played with us at Magnolia Gardens. I had a little trailer, I'd go out there and offer him to stay in it. I said, "I've got some soda waters and beer in that icebox." He said, "Have you got any food in that icebox?" (Laughs) Finally, he went on the job. I didn't think he'd ever make it. I never did understand rock and roll. "That's All Right," I heard that on jukeboxes several times. And that was a good song, I thought. 

At one time, I booked him. I'm not a booker, but there was a disc jockey (at KNUZ), Walter Colvin, he said, "You know what? That kid's gonna make it. If somebody would loan me some money..." I said, "I will, how much do you need?" He said, "If I could borrow $1,000, I could get Elvis booked at Magnolia Gardens." Luckily, I happened to have a little bit then, saved up. And we got him four times. Paid him $1,000 (total) to book out there four times. 

AB: Did Link Davis play in your band at this time? 

FT: Well, I played in his band. I'd been out to El Paso and come back, started all over again.  

Link Davis, he had to go to a corrections school (in the 1940s) for taking some "tea" (marijuana), as he called it. But he told me he had a ball at that corrections school, 'cause he could do most anything he wanted to. 

He'd talk right off the bandstand to some girl that asked for a request. He'd say, "Baby, I got eyes for you. I'll sing anything you want." 

AB: (Shows him a copy of "Save a Little for Me" on Western.) Was this recorded at your studio? 

FT: No, it was done at another studio. It was on Telephone Road...

AB: Oh, Gold Star. Bill Quinn. 

FT: Yeah. 

AB: "Baby I Just Want You" on Sarg -- was that done at the same time as this?

FT: Yeah. 

AB: With Hub Sutter on clarinet? 

FT: Yeah. He had tunnel vision. He could just see a little bitty image. He never could drive because of that. (But) he was a very good musician. 

Below: Billboard, April 15, 1950. 


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