Johnny Jano: Some Other Time (1956 – 1957)
Johnny Jano was yet another fine rockabilly singer who didn’t get a whiff of even local chart action, although it has been said by his producer Eddie Shuler that the lack of success was the fault, in part, of Johnny, himself, who was dedicated to his career as a radio announcer/deejay and refused to take a break to tour and promote his early singles on Excello and Goldband.
Not much is known about Johnny Jano’s early biography. He was born John Remie Janot in Eunice, Louisiana, on 14th September 1933 and followed the familiar rural route of country musician/deejay/announcer to secure his first job at Radio KEUN in his hometown, deep in Cajun country. Early on, he dropped the silent t from the end of his surname to disguise his French ancestry although he remained fiercely proud of his Cajun roots, having sung in the style to his own guitar accompaniment during his radio shows in the late 1940s and playing for a brief time with the legendary Cajun Swing band led by Julius “Papa Cairo” Lamperez around the Gulf Coast in the early 1950s before forming his first band – called The Jumpin’ Jacks – to play his own mixture of Cajun, Honky Tonk and the burgeoning rockabilly sound. By the mid 1950s, Johnny Jano had accepted a position at Radio KSIG outside Crowley, Louisiana, where he met performers such as Rusty & Doug Kershaw and Wiley Barkdull (with whom he is said to have made his recording debut). His proximity to Crowley and his friendship with the Kershaws brought Jano, inevitably, to the attention of J D Miller, the local recording entrepreneur and studio owner who had been recording Rusty & Doug for the best part of the previous three years.
Like Sam Phillips in Memphis, J D Miller was a visionary who was more than happy to allow his protégés plenty of studio time to get into their grooves and to attempt a variety of sounds and styles until something special gelled. Throughout most of the latter part of 1956, Miller ran through the spectrum of choices for down-home musical accompaniment to support his new singer. As well as immersing Jano with the local country musicians to produce a standard rockabilly sound, Miller also teamed him for a session in late 1956 with Excello recording artist Guitar Gable’s swamp blues band, The Musical Kings (which at this time included Gable (guitar/leader), Tal Miller (piano) and Jockey Etienne (drums)) and it was two of the resulting masters from this interesting session that were chosen as Jano’s debut single.
Reversing the label progression of fellow Louisiana rockabilly, Al Ferrier, Johnny Jano began his solo recording career when J D Miller sent the masters of “Rocking And Rolling” and “I’d Make a Good Man for You”, to Ernie Young in Nashville and was rewarded with a release on Excello 2099. It may have helped that Gable’s band were present, as he was an Excello artist with two releases under his belt, already, but Young agreed to issue the single, although it seems he may have felt that “Rocking and Rolling” was too generic a title and re-named the song “Havin’ a Whole Lot of Fun” before issue; still the release sold poorly and Miller was asked to provide no more masters of Johnny Jano to Excello*. It was Miller’s first real attempt at producing and selling the new rockabilly sound, but the lack of interest failed to discourage either producer or artist and they continued to lay down a small but exciting clutch of embryonic rockabilly sides on which Jano’s charismatic deejay personality shone forth: The seminal versions of “Rocking and Rolling”/”Havin’ A Whole Lot Of Fun” and “I’d Make A Good Man For You”, the lyrically smart “Some Other Time” and “Rock and Roll Baby” (love the reference to his two-tone shoes and knee-knockin’ coat), the cool “You’re the Only Girl” and “Have You Heard The Word (Lulu’s Back In Town)” AKA “Rock Me Baby”, which refers to his debut release. Jano’s ebullience on such movers as “She’s My Baby”, “Rocking and Rolling” and “Stop, Look and Listen” made him one of the darlings of the rockabilly revivalists in the late 1970s after these tracks were finally issued on Flyright’s ground-breaking King of Louisiana Rockabilly LP. J D Miller obviously had a lot of faith in his own composition “(Better) Stop Look and Listen” as it had already been recorded and released by George & Earl on Mercury after Rusty & Doug Kershaw had demo’d the song for Miller at his studio.
Shortly after the debut release – with no interest having been expressed by the label in a follow-up - Jano went back to deejaying on Radio KLOU in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and he was again perfectly placed there for a resumption of his recording career when he was signed to Eddie Shuler’s local Goldband Records. By early 1957 Eddie Shuler had collated a semi-regular house band, called The Yellow Jackets, for his rockabilly/rock ‘n’ roll recordings. Led by drummer Walter “Wise” Miller, this fine bluesy band included the Gatemouth Brown-influenced guitarist Johnny Duhon, saxophonist Willie Spell and a bass player remembered only as “Cochise”; this group accompanied Jano on two sessions in January and February 1957, resulting in another solitary single, “Mabel’s Gone” c/w “Pledging My Love To My Darling”. The top-side had been written by a talented young singer called Harvey Chambers who recorded for Shuler under the comedy pseudonym “Hopeless Homer” and a whole year elapsed before Shuler issued the single – possibly to wait-out the standard exclusive twelve month contract held by Excello – during which time no further sessions were seemingly conducted. Despite Shuler’s lack of continued interest in Jano both before and after the belated release, the single must have begun to sell reasonably well locally as it was soon picked up by Don Pierce’s Hollywood label for reissue and wider distribution throughout the South in the spring of 1958. Other masters cut at those January and February 1957 Goldband sessions, which remained unissued until the rockabilly revival in the 1980s, included the dynamic “Rock-My-Baby”, “High Voltage” and “Oh! Baby”.
The lack of teen-idol success apparently didn’t concern Johnny Jano at all. He shrugged his shoulders and returned to doing what he loved best: presenting radio shows for the down-home folk of the Louisiana swamps. He never gave up on his recording career, though, and indeed he even returned to work with Eddie Shuler in the 1960s as well as releasing singles on George Khoury’s Lyric label and his own Jador Records, which he co-owned with the Goldband boss. In the 1970s, after resuming his recording career on Paula and Goldband, proper – a break of almost twenty years – and releasing an LP titled Johnny Jano Sings Cajun Pure (Goldband LP 7775), he accepted a plum job as a deejay at powerful Radio KLVI in Beaumont, Texas, and became hugely popular the length and breadth of the Gulf Coast with his own Sunday morning show, Cajun Bandstand, and a regular weekly newspaper column – Johnny’s Jambalaya. In spite of neglecting his recording career, Jano never stopped performing his music, either as a one-man band playing piano, guitar and harmonica or appearing with a four piece Cajun country band…and now proud of his Frankish heritage he even re-attached the t to his surname and once more became Johnny Janot. He continued to play the clubs and present his radio show until his health failed, and it was in his adopted home of Beaumont that Johnny suffered a fatal heart attack on 16th January 1984 – he was aged just 50.
Dave Penny – January 2010.
With grateful acknowledgement to the ground-breaking research of John Broven and Bruce Bastin, without which these notes would have been impossible to write.
* Oddly, “Havin’ A Whole Lot of Fun” received the accolade of being issued in Europe in 1957 when it was chosen to back Louis Brooks’ “X-cello Rock” for a release on Belgium’s infamous Ronnex label!
AL FERRIER - I'm The Man
I and my brothers, Warren and Brian, used to get up at 5am and go to Alexandria, Louisiana, and play a radio show and then come back and haul pulp board for the rest of the day. That was real hard work. I'll never forget what my dad told us one time. He said, 'Sons, I used to get mad at you all but now you're ticklin' me. I'm laughing at you at the way you're running yourself down with the music and the work'. Back in those days you had to work to make it. We were in the logging business. It was real hard. My brothers and I would haul logs all day long but still played radio shows.
One morning I told my brothers I was going back to the house and write me some songs because I want to play music. That's what I did. In fact that's when I wrote "Let's Go Boppin' Tonight". We started playing it around the clubs and people started requesting it. I knew I had something that people would like. They liked to get up and boogie to it in the clubs.
On the local scene country music was real popular. All I did was take a country piece and put a fast tune to it. Then Elvis came on the scene and rock n' roll started. I did sing a lot of rock n' roll in the clubs. We played 4 or 5 nights a week back then and would play country and rockabilly. All the while I kept singing "Let's Go Boppin' Tonight"…
Al Ferrier (interviewed by Steve Kelemen)
One of eleven children, Alfous Glenn Ferrier was born in Montgomery, Louisiana, on 19th August 1935, to a hugely musical family. Both his parents played instruments; his dad favouring the fiddle while his mother preferred the guitar, and their talent was passed on to their eight sons and three daughters. Little Al began to learn to play the guitar seriously at the age of eight:
My older brother, Warren (who is still alive), played the fiddle. He would play a tune and, if I would make a wrong chord on the guitar or get out of meter, he would pop me on the head with the fiddleboard and say 'son, you can't make me look bad on this song. You have to get the right tune and right meter'. He popped me on the head with that fiddleboard many times: That's how I got started playing music!
By the age of 13, Al quit school and went to work with his brothers at the logging camp, but the hard slog would make them all dream of forming a band and becoming big country stars. Al remembers that his first musical influences were Lew Childress, Grandpa Jones and, of course, Jimmie Rodgers, but by his teens he was inspired by rising superstar Hank Williams and other stars that he heard on The Grand Ole Opry. Around this time he also began to take notice of blues and r&b.
From the radio show in Alexandria, Al graduated to TV appearances on Channel 5 in the same town from about 1950 and three years later he left Louisiana for about eighteen months to relocate to Gadsden, Alabama, for regular appearances on The Midway Jamboree Show on Radio WGWD (billed as "Al Ferrel"). Moving back to Louisiana - and the logging camp job - at the end of his WGWD contract, Al was even more determined to make a go of a musical career and he began writing his own songs in both the familiar honky tonk country style and in the burgeoning rockabilly style.
Al's older brother, Brian Ferrier, had already begun to live the dream. An exceptionally talented guitarist, Brian had played briefly with Hank Thompson's western swing band at the Louisiana Hay Ride broadcast over Radio KWKH, and is rumoured to have once accompanied the young Elvis Presley on the same show. A chance meeting with local country hero and Dot recording star Jimmy Newman provided an introduction to Eddie Shuler, who owned Goldband Records in Lake Charles, and in March 1955, Al Ferrier (vocals/rhythm guitar), Brian Ferrier (electric lead guitar) and their brother Warren (fiddle/double bass), dubbed their group "Al Ferrier & his Boppin' Billies" and cut their debut session for Goldband. The finished masters included Al's own stone country tunes "Yesterday We Were Married" and "I'll Never Do Any Wrong" along with a brace of songs in the new rockabilly style: "My Baby Done Gone Away" and "No No Baby", the latter of which was a rockabilly arrangement of a recent blues recording by Clarence Garlow and it was chosen to be the a-side of the debut single released on Goldband 1031.
"No No Baby" was a fair-sized hit locally and Al and his brothers were recalled to the Goldband studio around November 1955 for some more intensive sessions. "What Is That Thing You Call Love?" had been written and recorded by Eddie Shuler, himself, backed by The Hackberry Ramblers on Goldband 1024 earlier in the year, while Al's own song, the chugging "Honey Baby" was also cut at this time, but neither were considered suitable for release. Instead, Shuler released the rockabilly recut of "My Baby Done Gone Away" with Al's honky tonker "It's Too Late Now" on Goldband 1035. The single didn't sell well this time and Shuler released no more Al Ferrier singles in the 1950s…not even the potential smash hit he had in the can - "Let's Go Boppin' Tonight"!
In the meantime, Al and his brothers began playing the Louisiana Hay Ride, where they rubbed shoulders with legends:
Eddie Shuler drove us up to the Louisiana Hayride and Horace Logan introduced me to some people on the show - Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and lots of the stars that made it bigger later on. They weren't popular at the time. They were just like I was but did make it big later on. They called me up to sing. My brother Warren played the upright bass and Brian played the guitar. I played the rhythm guitar and sang. We went on before Elvis that night. Elvis was getting encores all night long but that night we got two encores in front of him.
After we finished Elvis called me to the back room and said if you would like to send that song ("Let's Go Boppin' Tonight") to Sam Phillips in Memphis, I'll record it for you. So I thought, if he thinks he can put it over I could probably do the same thing, so I didn't send the song. I did alright with it by not giving it to Elvis.
Dismayed at Eddie Shuler's neglect of his career, Al Ferrier jumped at the chance of recording at J D Miller's better-equipped studio in Southern Louisiana in 1956:
A fellow told me about J.D. Miller down in Crowley, Louisiana. He said you must go down and talk to Mr. Miller. I went down and Miller accepted me. He said he would record me and sent me some songs in the mail. He sent me one called "I'm The Man". We went down and recorded it and it got to #3 in Nashville.
I recorded for J.D. Miller for about 10 years. We'd get together and I'd write some songs and he would write some and we'd record them along with Warren Storm, Rocket Morgan and Brian playing lead guitar. Most of the time there were studio musicians but Brian would come with me to record. Often we stayed until midnight or later and had to be back for work the next morning.
J.D. Miller had 4 or 5 labels he could put you on. He put me on the Excello, Rocko and Zynn labels.
Having already cut "Let's Go Boppin' Tonight" with Shuler, Al was nervous about re-recording the song for a rival producer, but he was also annoyed that Shuler was sitting on what he felt was his best chance at success. Consequently he re-recorded the song for Miller in a new arrangement and with a new title, "Hey! Baby", which Miller paired with one of his own songs, "I'm The Man" - a humorous answer to the big pop hit "Green Door" done in the style of Johnny Cash. The tracks were sold to Ernie Young's Excello label in Nashville and were released early in 1957 on Excello 2105.
Al continued recording for J.D. Miller throughout the rest of the 1950s, and his seminal rockabilly style changed into a more mainstream rock 'n' roll style: Miller released "Kiss Me Baby" c/w "I Thought I Found Love" (Rocko 502) in late 1958 which coupled a sophisticated rock 'n' roll top-side with a doomy honky-tonker on the flip, but when, just months later, he issued "Chisholm Trail Rock" c/w "Gunsmoke" (Zynn 510), the Boppin' Billies' rockabilly style had become subsumed completely under a Champs-styled instrumental pop-rock make-over. The groups' name was even changed to The Vamps to make the transformation complete.
The final Al Ferrier release by Miller in the 1950s, however, was more of a return to rockabilly form with "Blues Stop Knocking (At My Door) c/w "She Left Me" (Zynn 1013), after which Al retired to his North Louisiana home to reflect on past glories. But just a few years later, in the 1960s, there was also the first rumblings of a revival of this forgotten music over in Europe and both Eddie Shuler and J.D. Miller had been tracked down and made aware that their back catalogue items were becoming very collectible. Shuler began dipping into his unreleased masters and, finally, released his original version of "Let's Go Booping(sic) Tonight" backed with "What Is That Thing Called Love" on Goldband 1072 around 1970. When he was eventually able to make contact again with Ferrier, Shuler re-signed Al to a long-term contract and hurried him and his Boppin' Billies back into the studio for the well-received LPs "Country With Sax" (Goldband LP 7756) and the superb "The Birth Of Rockabilly" (Goldband LP 7769) which included a further six unissued 1950s masters.
Not to be outdone, J.D. Miller recorded Al and his "New Boppin' Billies" in October 1975 at his Modern Sound Studio for the album "From 1955 to 1975 - The Back Sound Of Rockabilly" (Showtime LP 1000) which also included previously unissued 1950s tracks among the new material. Shortly after the release of this album, Miller signed a licensing deal with Bruce Bastin's Flyright label in England, and once again the classic 1950s rockabilly sound of Al Ferrier and his Boppin' Billies was being given the attention it demanded on such LPs as "Boppin' Tonight" (Fly LP 525) and "Al Ferrier 1957-1959" (Fly LP 597). Later still, Charly Records in London, gave the Shuler-produced Goldband tracks a similarly respectful treatment on compilations like "Bop Stop Rock" (GCL-107) and "Swampcats Beat" (GCL-117).
Despite losing his loyal and talented brother Brian in October 1981, the decade was a great one for Al's career, starting with his award by the Natchitoches City Council for 25 years of musical achievement. Also in 1980 he performed for the first time as a guest of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which won him great acclaim among people who wouldn't normally listen to an old backwoods rockabilly. Later in the decade he visited Europe to play the Rockhouse Rock 'n' Roll Meeting in Zwolle, Holland, where he cut a new album for Rockhouse ("Dixie" LP 8708) and, back home in Louisiana, he was approached by Floyd Soileau of Jin Records to record what became his 35th Anniversary release "Greetings From…Louisiana" (Jin LP 9030):
Jin Records is down in Ville Platte, South Louisiana: I called Floyd Soileau one time and said this is Al Ferrier and he said 'Man, I've been wanting you to call me. Come on down here and we'll do an album together'. I told him I needed some new songs and he said he'd send me some through the mail. I learned them and went down there and we cut the album at the Jin studio.
During the 1990s, Al Ferrier decided to quit secular music and devote his talent to his religion ("I was a drunk and a bad man while in the music scene and liked to fight and get into lots of trouble."). His final rockabilly album was "Legendary Al Ferrier with the Louisiana Swamp Cats" (Goldband GR-7817), which he followed up with his first gospel release "Help Me Keep the Faith" (GR-7841); still recording for Goldband - the label that gave him his big break 55 years ago! Now that's gotta be some kinda record…
Dave Penny - November 2009.
With grateful acknowledgement to the interviews and articles published by Steve Kelemen (Rockabilly Hall Of Fame) and Johannes Sipkema Jr (Now Dig This #88).
SUGAR CHILE ROBINSON:
The history of 20th century entertainment has been littered with the often ultimately tragic stories of its child prodigies; from Jackie Coogan in the 1920s, Shirley Temple in the 1930s, Toni Harper in the 1940s and Frankie Lymon in the 1950s. On the whole, although precociously talented, child entertainers were usually saddled with inferior, childish material that, while perhaps cute at the time, usually resulted in the youngster being regarded as a flash-in-the-pan novelty act which grew tiresome pretty quickly. The fall from grace, when they reached adolescence, was usually brutal, and some couldn't handle the swift drop in popularity and turned to drink or drugs, while others accepted that their time in the spotlight had ended and retired more gracefully to concentrate their energies in other directions. One such was that tiny bundle of Detroit dynamite, "Sugar Chile" Robinson.
Born Frankie Robinson in Detroit on 28th December 1938, the youngest of seven children born to Clarence and Elizabeth Robinson, neither of whom were musicians, while yet a toddler "Sugar Chile" began pounding on the piano left at his house by an aunt - he reputedly hammered out a recognisable version of Erskine Hawkins' current hit "Tuxedo Junction" at the age of two and by the following year was allegedly able to copy any music he heard on the radio. His nickname was bestowed about the same time when he developed a liking for sugar cubes, which his mother gave him to mollify him when he was upset, and he became her little "Sugar Chile".
His father recalled:
"Sugar Chile was just able to walk when he started thumpin' the piano. When he was about two, a friend of mine came over one evenin'. We just sittin' around and he says to Sugar Chile, 'Here's a nickel, go play me a piece on the piano.' We figured Sugar Chile would just slide his hands along the keys and then run for that money. Doggone it if that kid didn't thump out 'Tuxedo Junction'…"
In the early 1940s, aged about three, Sugar Chile Robinson entered and won the under 18s talent show at Detroit's Paradise Theatre, and for the next few years he was an infrequent visitor to that famous theatre and his fame began to spread. In 1945 - still only six years old - he played guest spots at the Paradise with Lionel Hampton's band and with Frankie Carle's Orchestra; Hampton wanted to take the child on tour with his band, but the US Child Labor Laws prevented it. Nonetheless, the seeds had been sown, and after guesting with Carle's band in October, before the month was out, he had been signed to a film contract by MGM and was on his way to Hollywood. While in Tinsel Town he filmed his cameo spot in the romantic wartime comedy film No Leave, No Love starring Van Johnson, performing Louis Jordan's then current hit "Caldonia". Reviews for Sugar Chile's 90 seconds on screen were glowing, and MGM tried to persuade his father, Clarence, to countersign another contract for seven years, but the future looked bright and Clarence refused to tie his son to such a long sentence…and the same was true for the many recording contracts which came his way in the mid- to late 1940s. While in Los Angeles in November 1945, however, Frankie hooked up again with Hampton, and was featured with the bandleader and with Harry "The Hipster" Gibson on several AFRS radio transcriptions.
In March 1946 Sugar Chile performed at a star-studded bill in Washington DC for President Truman, contributing four full numbers including his speciality "Caldonia" during which he shouted out, "How'm I Doin', Mr President?" which became something of a catch-phrase. 1946 was a halcyon year for little Frankie, with star spots on syndicated radio shows and his own revue at Detroit's Downtown Theatre. Within a week of playing for President Truman, he headlined for a week at Chicago's
Regal Theatre and grossed over $36,000, a record that remains the biggest one-week attraction of the theatre's entire history easily beating the jazz royalty of the day like Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and he began smashing box office records wherever he appeared; by August he was out in California, employing the likes of Sammy Davis Jr and Dorothy Dandridge to appear in his revue! At the year's end, his earnings were reported as $148,000.
1947 was much the same, with guest spots on many popular radio programmes and even an operetta My Maryland, while touring the nation's theatre circuit with his father as manager and chaperone. Also in 1947 his success was celebrated with the filming of a seven-minute film featurette simply entitled Frankie "Sugar Chile" Robinson; a fine showcase for his talents, but still no contract resulted from the US recording industry.
Throughout the whole of 1948 the AFM strike meant that the recording studios were out of bounds to musicians. Not that that would have bothered Frankie anyway, as he was still too young to belong to the musicians union - Union boss J C Petrillo personally provided written consent for him to be included, making him the youngest ever member of the AFM at that time. With his special dispensation, in July 1949, he made his first records for the Capitol label in Los Angeles, when, in the consummate company of Leonard Bibbs on bass and drummer Zutty Singleton, Robinson took his first two releases into the Billboard R&B chart in late 1949; "Numbers Boogie" made it to number four, while "Caldonia (What Makes Your Big Head So Hard?)" only reached number 14.
Robinson toured with Count Basie in 1950 and made a celebrated musical short with the Basie Sextet and Billie Holiday in Hollywood in September to showcase his hits. The Christmas season of 1950 witnessed Sugar Chile's first European release and "Christmas Boogie" c/w "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" sold well enough to spark a two-month tour of the UK in the summer of 1951, including rave reviews for his spot at the London Palladium, guest spots on BBC TV and a Melody Maker interview. He was a big hit on US radio and TV all through 1951 and was asked to return to Britain for the summer season of 1952, but it was the beginning of the end.
He was growing up and was at that awkward age, as a teenager, when his novelty effect had worn off, but he was still too young to be seriously considered a jazz musician. He still received a lot of fan mail from Europe and Africa, but at home in the US he was struggling. He had also missed out on a childhood, and he begged his Father to allow him to stop the touring and go to school. He told music historian Dan Kochakian:
"I stopped recording after the Capitol sessions in 1952. All during that time I had a tutor, so even on the road, I was studying. That wasn't what bothered me. I wanted to go to school…I wanted some school background in me and I asked my Dad if I could stop and I went to school because I honestly wanted my college diploma. I was ahead of my age group in school. I graduated from Northern High School at age 15 and most of my friends were seventeen or eighteen when they graduated.
I graduated from Olivet College here in Michigan around 1960. I have a degree in psychology."
His last single release was issued in August 1952, shortly followed by a 10" compilation LP of boogie woogie that featured many of his 1952 recordings. There were one or two more reports in the trade papers of the day - he played four engagements in 1953, followed in 1954 by another three engagements, one of which,
in August 1954, was at The Blue Note in Chicago with modern jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. Now billed as Frank Robinson, he played just two engagements throughout 1955 and 1956 - and at the ripe old age of eighteen he retired from show business.
In the 1960s he got a job with WGPR-TV, selling TV commercials, and briefly regained some contact with the music business, by co-owning the Detroit-based Lando and Lendo labels, which released 45s by Rufus Wonder - cousin to Stevie - and Carl Carlton. On the strength of these minor successes, Frank opened his own recording studio and started the AutoCap label, which also enjoyed a minor hit with "Don't Walk Away" by The Superlatives.
Nothing more was heard of "Sugar Chile" for many years and the worst was feared, until July 2002 when the 63 year old former child star made a surprise appearance at a special concert celebrating the pre-Motown legends of Detroit music and then, in 2007 for the first time in fifty-five years, he was persuaded out of retirement to make the journey across the Atlantic to perform once again for his European fans at the "Rhythm Riot" weekender, where he delighted a generation of rock 'n' roll fans who had spent the last thirty years dancing to his popular club favourites such as "Numbers Boogie", Whop Whop" and "Go Boy Go".
With grateful acknowledgement to "Prodigy at the Piano: The Amazing Story of Frank "Sugarchile" Robinson" by Robert Obojski (1962).
It's always thrilling to follow the steps of a comparatively new artist who is well on his way to achieving the goals already attained by many star personalities who have tread the same path. Charlie Feathers certainly is now in the process of gaining the success he well deserves for his untiring efforts in the field of Country music. On every rendition that Charlie does, whether it's a tear-jerker or a bouncy Rhythm and Blues, he pours his heart out on each note; for his great love for music stems from the heart. It's a great thing to hear him, as well as to see him perform. Charlie is now recording with Meteor Records; his latest release being "Tongue-Tied Jill", backed with "Get With It". Many of the critics predict this to be the "one" for Charlie, and we're hoping it is; for it couldn't happen to a more wonderful person.
Hillbilly Harmony (1956 article)
Poor tenant farmers, Leonard and Lucy Feathers lived and worked in Marshall County in North Mississippi near the townships of Blackjack and Slayden, just south of the Tennessee border and just north of historic Holly Springs which lay on US Highway 78, an important road that ran from Birmingham, Alabama, through Tupelo, Mississippi, and straight into Memphis, situated barely 40 miles to the North-West. On 12th June 1932 their son, Charles Arthur Lindbergh was born; named in celebration of the nation's great hero and pioneering aviator. How could they know that, in later years, their baby boy little Charlie Feathers would come to be a hero of a different sort to succeeding generations of rockabilly music fans the world over.
One of seven children born to Leonard and Lucy, Charlie's earliest musical inspirations were divided equally between the spiritual music at church and country music on the radio. As a child, Charlie became interested in the guitar and an aunt showed him the rudiments of playing country music when he was about ten years old. His first musical hero was Bill Monroe and his dextrous bluegrass, but like many of his generation, as Feathers entered his teenage years black music began to exert an irresistible influence, and the twin focus of that magnetism was embodied in neighbouring sharecroppers Obie Peterson and David Kimbrough Jr. Little is remembered today about Peterson, but due to his comparative fame in the years before his death in 1998, Junior Kimbrough is a known quantity. A singer and guitarist two years older than Feathers, Kimbrough began to teach the awestruck youngster how to play the blues on his guitar and, uncharacteristically, Charlie would later admit that Kimbrough basically taught him all he knew. He never lost his admiration for the Mississippi bluesman he dubbed "the greatest blues singer in the world", and even arranged for Kimbrough to teach his son, Bubba, when the lad began to take an interest in learning to play the guitar.
Having left school by the age of ten to help his parents on the farm, Charlie found work in the local area hard to come by and left home to travel north to Illinois to lay oil pipes in the late 1940s. It was while playing for the other itinerant pipeliners after work that Charlie discovered his musical talent and he began to toy with the idea of making music his vocation. Around 1951 he decided to return to Memphis, where he met his wife-to-be, Rosemary Hardy and discovered that his new brother-in-law, Dick Stuart, was program director of radio KWEM across the river in West Memphis, Arkansas; Dick introduced Charlie to a host of new influences in the pursuit of his business, notably bluesman Howlin' Wolf who made a big impact on Feathers. In order to support his new family, Charlie was working in a local box factory but lost his employment when a bout of spinal meningitis laid him up in hospital for several months. It was while convalescing that he wrote his first song, "Peepin' Eyes", and made a deal with himself that he would seriously give his music a go as soon as he was discharged. He was aware that Howlin' Wolf and many of the other KWEM blues musicians had begun recording over at the Memphis Recording Service on Union Avenue, so from late 1954 Charlie began hanging around the MRS building which was now also home to Sam Phillips' latest business venture: Sun Records.
At this time, Charlie teamed up with local musicians and songwriters Bill Cantrell (fiddle) and Quinton Claunch (guitar) and began to make home demos of their jointly-composed ballads, such as "Defrost Your Heart" and "I've Been Deceived". By the early months of 1955, Sam Phillips had been persuaded to let Charlie loose in the Sun studio and, backed by Cantrell, Claunch and steel-guitarist Stan Kesler, Feathers recorded his own song "Peepin' Eyes" along with "I've Been Deceived" for his debut single (Flip/Sun 503) which Phillips released on both Sun and on the doomed subsidiary, Flip Records. It sold reasonably well but even so, Phillips waited almost a year before releasing a follow up single. In the meantime, Feathers made himself available to Sun by composing original, wittily-titled songs, cutting demos and once even displaying an unusual talent for playing the spoons, when he backed The Miller Sisters on their debut release, "Someday You Will Pay" (Flip/Sun 504).
Most successful was a song written by Feathers and Stan Kesler for Sun's hottest new property, Elvis Presley. Although their "I Forgot to Remember to Forget" (Sun 223) would prove to be Presley's swansong for the label, it also proved to be his biggest success yet, reaching the top of the Country chart early in 1956 after he had left the label. Sadly, Charlie's demo of the song has never been found and is now believed destroyed, but the demo of another wordy song the pair wrote for Elvis as a follow up, "We're Getting Closer to Being Apart" fortunately survives as a rough acetate. In November 1955, as they waved Elvis off to RCA, Sam took another chance on Feathers, yet strangely, two stone country ballads by Cantrell and Claunch were chosen for his second single (Sun 231) rather than something in the rockabilly style that Elvis had popularised and with which Charlie had already begun experimenting. The second single sold poorly and, as 1956 dawned, Charlie made the decision to try rock 'n' roll. His demo sessions at Sun in early 1956 display a beatier, more uptempo performer trying out such material as "Frankie and Johnny" and the first of his attempts at his later rockabilly classic "Bottle to the Baby". Sadly for Feathers, Sam Phillips regarded him as simply a country artist and, by this time, had his hands full with Carl Perkins, who was generating big business with his anthemic "Blue Suede Shoes"; he consequently had little time to develop or even listen to Charlie's experimental rockabilly. To add insult to injury, most of what Charlie recorded at Sun during this period seems to have been recorded over by Sam when recycling old tapes.
By early 1956, Charlie had jettisoned the fiddler and was employing a new, leaner aggregation, the Musical Warriors, who consisted of new pals Jody Chastain (steel guitar), Jerry Huffman (lead guitar) and Shorty Torrance (bass), and was managed by brother-in-law radio announcer, Dick "Poor Richard" Stuart. Taking Elvis' core group as a blueprint, Feathers next step was to trim the group further into that of a hepcat-friendly rockabilly quartet, so out went their short, bald bass-player and the steel was dumped being no longer de rigeur. Jody Chastain took over on bass and young Jimmy Swords came in periodically on drums. This line-up cut the lively demo of "Corrine Corrina" at Sun in February or March of 1956, just before leaving the indifferent Phillips to sell their services to the local rival Meteor Records. Jody and Jerry didn't want to risk upsetting Sam by jumping ship, but Charlie placated them by insisting they would just use the Meteor studio to record some demos of their hot new rockabilly songs, "Get With It" and Tongue-Tied Jill". Whether this was true or not, these demos were released in June 1956 as Meteor 5032 and sold reasonably well in the local area for an independent label rockabilly release, but the royalties earned were much less than expected so, certain that they were being duped by the tiny label, the Warriors decided it was time to aim a little higher.
Now a tight, exciting, professional rockabilly combo, The Musical Warriors attracted the attention of the major independent label, King Records, which had its eye fixed on Memphis for some of that Sun/Presley action, and in July 1956 they travelled to the label's headquarters in Cincinnati feeling for all the world that they were on the cusp of hitting it big. They would later complain about the terms of the contract, the unnecessary vastness of the studio and, even, about Charlie's propensity for overdoing his now-trademark shrieks and hiccups, but the fact remains that the King recordings - particularly those cut at that first session - were arguably the finest rockabilly sides Charlie Feathers and his Musical Warriors ever laid down. The much-rehearsed "Bottle to the Baby" found its defining moment, the powerful "One Hand Loose" was the pinnacle of hot rockin' cool and even the eldritch "Can't Hardly Stand It" still manages to chill the spine and make the small hairs stand to attention.
The rockabilly sound was polished further (some would say, it was a veneer too much) at their second King session. Recorded at the RCA building in Nashville in January 1957, drummer Swords was replaced by the late Buddy Harman and the vocal group backing - which was becoming increasingly ubiquitous in rock 'n' roll - was provided by an unnamed black group led by Johnny Bragg. Jerry Huffman is said to have hated the session because he was denied the expensive studio equipment and had to use his beat up old amplifier instead, but the distorted roughness of his lead guitar tone actually imbues the session with much more rockabilly attitude than it would otherwise have achieved. Two more singles resulted from this session, but they too sold poorly and whether dealing with pure, unvarnished rockabilly or the commercial rock 'n' roll sound, the King label - more used to promoting R&B - seems to have been out of its depth; whoever should shoulder the blame, the Feathers group was dropped at the end of their contract period.
The next few years were lean ones for Charlie, when his rockabilly group split up in 1958 after one final throw of the dice with Charlie Kahn's new Kay Records recorded at Radio WHBQ. Actually it was more like two throws of the dice with a back-to-form rocking coupling by Charlie on the inaugural Kay 1001 and a more orthodox novelty rock 'n' roll single issued under Jody Chastain's name on Kay 1002, on which Charlie played rhythm guitar. After an engagement with the new Hi label proved fruitless the work quickly tailed off. Rockabilly's brief moment in the sun was swiftly drawing to a close and, without a recording contract or a band, Charlie went back to cutting the odd demo and, back with Cantrell and Claunch, his next single released in 1960 on Walmay was issued under the pseudonym "Charlie Morgan". Unable to fit in comfortably with the new, smooth countripolitan sound, Feather's 1960s releases became more infrequent with one-shot deals for the Memphis label (1961) and Holiday Inn (1963) preceding an arid spell until he cut his great version of the Memphis rockabilly anthem "Tear It Up" for Philwood (1968), while the following year he even took the time to record a session with his old mentor, Junior Kimbrough.
By the early 1970s, Charlie had become a hero to a small, informed band of European rockabilly collectors, like Breathless Dan Coffey, who paid huge amounts for the privilege of owning copies of his rare Meteor and King singles. Coffey, indeed, made pilgrimages to Memphis to record Charlie again in the old rockabilly style, and in Europe Charlie Feathers' star would continue to rise with the release of the LP shared with Mac Curtis on Polydor in 1974, entitled Rockabilly Kings, which would help to ignite an unlikely popular revival in the forgotten music style which spread like wildfire throughout Europe. Revitalized himself by these events, Charlie began touring again, playing local gigs with a band featuring his son Bubba and daughter Wanda, and they travelled to California at the invitation of Ronny Weiser for a whirlwind session that resulted in "That Certain Female" (Rollin' Rock 025) - a sparkling return to form. European tours, TV appearances, documentaries, more hero worship and many more fine recordings would follow in the two decades left to him, but sadly he didn't live long enough to witness his acceptance by the mainstream, when his recordings were prominently featured in the soundtracks of the Quentin Tarantino Kill Bill blockbusters; Charlie died aged 66 on 29th August 1998 in a Memphis hospital following complications of a stroke he had suffered a few days earlier. His friend and blues tutor, Junior Kimbrough, had died in Holly Springs just six months before.
"Rockabilly is different. Nothin' can touch it, man; and it don't take a big band to do it….a lead [guitar] man and a good acoustic rhythm and a big slap bass. Can't beat it, man! The simpler, the better..." or in other words "…you pick the tune, and you slap the bass; I'll play the rhythm and I'll set the pace, but we gotta get with it - got no time to waste!"
I doubt that anyone who loves Charlie's seminal rockabilly music would argue with any of those sentiments, nor with those he once expressed as, "Rockabilly - hey man, they can say what they want about the blues, but blues is in rockabilly, bluegrass is in rockabilly, country is in rockabilly. When you hear it, you hear it all, Jack! That's the reason I say it's the beginning and the end of music."
"I was a greenhorn. I had a hit record and no sense. That was the truth. You see I recorded from working local. I had never been on the road with nobody, had never seen what professionals do. [I thought] I was pretty good at what I was doing as far as saxophone playing, but I found out I wasn't very good at all - I was lucky enough to get 'Rocket 88'"
Jackie Brenston was born on 24th August 1930 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. His date of birth is sometimes given as 1927, but it is believed that, in order to join the US Army in 1944 before he was old enough he gave the earlier date falsely; a lie that has been perpetuated on government documents. After spending three and a half years in the Army, Brenston returned to Clarksdale with the burning ambition to be a musician and there in his hometown he met a local alto-player named Jesse Flowers who taught him to play saxophone.
"I had this $30 horn with a hole in it, I plugged the hole up with chewing gum. Flowers kept teaching me and the next think you know, Ike Turner - that's when I ran into this cat - Ike was building a band. I couldn't play very good, but that guy took enough time to make everybody learn."
A year younger than Jackie, Ike Turner had promoted his ex-school band, The Kings of Rhythm with a great vocalist, O'Neal Johnson (AKA Johnny O'Neal), but Johnson had been lured away from the band in late 1950 to sign for King Records and the Cincinnati-based label didn't want the other Kings of Rhythm - not yet anyway! In truth, Turner didn't really need another sax man - his old pal Raymond Hill already held that role - but he did need a new vocalist, so he hired Jackie and the band were soon tearing up the local dance halls and juke joints. At one such, The Harlem Club in Chambers, Mississippi, a particularly exciting performance was witnessed by young B B King who suggested they travel across the state border to Tennessee to audition for Sam Phillips of the Memphis Recording Service, where King had cut his popular "B.B. Boogie".
In March 1951 the new Kings of Rhythm with their latest recruit, Jackie Brenston, headed north on legendary Highway 61 for a date with destiny. Ever in search of a new, commercial sound from his artists, Sam Phillips liked what he heard and recorded five tracks; two featuring Ike Turner singing and three by Jackie Brenston, including a show-stopping car song inspired by a 1947 recording by Jimmy Liggins called "Cadillac Boogie" which Turner had re-written as "Rocket 88". Taking Liggins' hit as a template, Turner decided that they needed to change the model of car to avoid accusations of plagiarism and someone - possibly Brenston - suggested that the latest Oldsmobile, the Rocket Super 88, was a good choice. The ubiquitous promotional imagery of Oldsmobile's Rocket 88 gave the impression of a latent power that could be judged as both technologically advanced and sexual at the same time. The song would get a free ride on the back of automobile advertising which would appeal to motor-heads, sci-fi nuts, sex-maniacs and R&B fans all at the same time…and it worked a treat! Sam Phillips later admitted:
"'Rocket 88' was the record that really started it off for me as far as broadening the base of music and opening up wider markets for our local music. I had great, great artists that I was working with like B.B. King, Rosco Gordon and Howling Wolf, but 'Rocket 88' was the one that opened up the possibilities for us. It was a song that Ike Turner and his band came in with. Ike wanted a record out real badly, but I said, 'Ike, man, you can't sing. You're a hell of a piano-player, and play guitar real good, you just can't sing. Now Jackie here has a vocal that we can really go somewhere with…"
The birth of Sam Phillips' own legendary Sun label was still a year away, so the masters were pitched to Chess Records, and the Chicago-based label decided to issue two releases from the Memphis session; one as by Ike Turner & his Kings of Rhythm, while the other - featuring the crowd-pleasing "Rocket 88" - was released as by Jackie Brenston & his Delta Cats. Already stung by Sam Phillips' criticism of his vocal ability, the change of artist and writer credit did nothing to appease the fiery Ike Turner's temper, but when Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" soared to the top of the Billboard R&B chart for five weeks in June 1951, while his own Chess release sank without trace, the Brenston/Turner partnership was doomed.
The Chess brothers sent word to Phillips to record more Brenston material with the band, but didn't want any Turner vocals and things went from bad to worse when Raymond Hill departed followed by most of the other musicians. Trying to hold it all together, Ike employed Hank Crawford and Calvin Newborn to back Jackie, but the pressure was too great and Brenston decided to make a clean break with Turner; after all he was the star! With his new "Delta Cats" built around the nucleus of the Newborn family (Calvin on guitar, Phineas Sr on piano and Phineas Sr on drums) Jackie Brenston continued recording at Memphis Recording Service until the end of the year, but when no further hits were forthcoming, he moved to Chicago to pursue his career with the Chess label proper.
During his two years at Chess, Jackie Brenston recorded some impressive tracks, usually in the company of the jazzy Newborn family, but of the 26 known masters, the label saw fit to issue just ten sides, one of which wasn't a Brenston recording at all! In addition to the inevitable "Rocket 88" chasers such as "My Real Gone Rocket" and the still unissued "Rocket 202" from a one-off session in 1955, his repertoire included the Louis Jordanesque "Leo The Louse" and "Tuckered Out", the Johnny Otis-like "Lovin' Time Blues, soulful ballads such as "True Love", tough blues like "The Blues Got Me Again" and the competent instrumentals "Starvation", "88 Boogie" and "Jackie's Chewing Gum" - the letter in memory, no doubt of his first candy-repaired saxophone. Knowing the admitted provenance of his big hit, it is also no surprise to find Jackie doing "You Won't Be Coming Back", a thinly-disguised cover of Jimmy Liggins' follow-up to "Cadillac Boogie", "Move Out Baby".
While in back in Chicago in 1955, he hooked up again with Ike Turner who was, this time, genuinely looking for a saxophone-player and they decided to put their differences behind them and Jackie was, once more, among the Kings of Rhythm where he stayed for the next seven years. When Ike hustled a recording contract with King Records' Federal subsidiary in 1956, Jackie's past glories secured him a four-track session for the label, during which his matured, soulful voice excelled on the slower tempo'ed "What Can It Be?" and "The Mistreater", while his hoarse, Little Richard-inspired rockers "Much Later" and "Gonna Wait For My Chance" have been favourites with rockers ever since. As fine as the Federal recordings were, none of them were hits and within a year or so Ike Turner had discovered his next star, Tina Turner.
Brenston made some long-unissued recordings with Ike in 1958 for Cobra/Artistic and in 1961, still with Turner, Jackie Brensten(sic) enjoyed an almost-hit on the Sue label with the powerful "Trouble Up The Road" and toured Europe with the Ike & Tina Turner revue, while his final release, supported by the Earl Hooker band in Chicago two years later was the inaugural release on Mel London's Mel-Lon label. Shortly after he accepted a gig with an old Clarksdale homeboy Sid Wallace, who was leading a band called The Shakers and felt sorry for his one-time hero. By this time Jackie was reduced to driving a truck between gigs to make ends meet and to fund his alcoholism.
His glory days as a musician and million-selling hit-maker long over, in the 1970s Jackie was only in his forties, but looked decades older, hanging out with the other bums and winos. His old boss from The Shakers, Sid Wallace, remembers reading the Billboard trade magazine reporting on Sun Records' million selling artists, featuring Jackie's name on the cover and, feeling sorry for him, thought he might get a blast out of seeing his name in a current music publication. "So I said, I'm gonna find him and show him this. So I drove over to East St Louis and saw who, but him, over there on the corner with the winos. And when I pulled up and saw him standing there, I didn't even show him. I said, 'Hey! What's the big idea?", y'know, I just drove on…"
Leaving East St Louis due to poor health brought on by his alcoholism, Jackie was back home in Clarksdale when he suffered a heart attack and was rushed to the Kennedy V.A. Hospital in Memphis , where he died on 15th December 1979.
While Brenston may have gotten an early boost when the Chess Brothers credited "Rocket 88" to him, at the expense of Ike Turner, the reverse now seems to be the norm: the song is still regularly cited in documentaries for its arguable status as the first rock 'n' roll record, but poor Jackie's name appears to have been written out of the history and the song is usually referred to now as 'Ike Turner's "Rocket 88"' (the recent ITV Young Elvis in Colour being a case in point). But Jackie was a great vocalist and Sam was right; with Ike singing, that real gone rocket may have conked out at the end of Union Avenue…
Dave Penny - July 2007
I had some national Country hits on King Records in the early 1950s, including "Seven Lonely Days" and "Tennessee Wig Walk". I got them into the Top Ten in '53. But when the rockabilly thing got popular in '55, King directed me that way. "Daddy-O" was my big one, in '55, but there were other records too, like "La Dee Dah" with Rusty York. The people at King always got the songs for the artists. They told us what to record. King had a lot of Country and Rhythm & Blues artists then, you see, and sometimes both black and white would play on the sessions. It was so hard to keep the records Country…
Bonnie Lou - Cincinnati, Ohio, October 1987.
Too pop to be whole-heartedly embraced by the rural community and too hick to appeal strongly to sophisticated city-slickers, Bonnie Lou's recorded output in the 1950s occupied that small niche of early country rockers that eschewed the backwoods hillbilly boogie style and, instead, created something more unique. Featuring a swinging country rhythm overlaid with horn solos and King's trademark handclap boosted off-beat, Bonnie's sound was often closer to Bill Haley or label-mate Boyd Bennett than that of the other mid-west rockabillies. Her recordings were perhaps sometimes overburdened with new recording techniques like double-tracked vocals or teen-friendly vocal group backings, but her endearing signature yodel left the listener in no doubt as to her rural origins.
Born Mary Jo Kath in Towanda, near Bloomington, Illinois, on 27th October 1924, as a child she learned to play the fiddle and to sing Old Time country songs. Her biggest influences at that time were Patsy Montana on WLS Radio's National Barn Dance from nearby Chicago (Montana was, herself, a singer, yodeller and fiddler with her group The Prairie Ramblers) and the Goad Sisters - Millie and Dolly - from Mount Carmel in south-eastern Illinois, professionally known as The Girls of the Golden West and also made famous by their appearances on National Barn Dance in the 1930s, before defecting to Radio WLW's Midwestern Hayride by the time Bonnie became an avid fan.
My parents used to take me to festivals and lodges just to perform. I learned to yodel from my grandmother, who came from Switzerland. As a child I was known as The Yodelling Sweetheart, Mary Jo.
By the age of eleven, Mary Jo was learning to play guitar in emulation of those local heroes The Girls of the Golden West and continued to carry on the yodelling cowgirl tradition through her teens, entering talent shows and finally winning a weekly spot on Radio WMBD in Peoria in 1939. In 1940 she found a job closer to home on Radio WJBC in Bloomington and shortly after graduating from high school in 1942 she got her big break when she joined the Brush Creek Follies on Radio KMBC in Kansas City. At KMBC she broadcast under the name of "Sally Carson" - a pseudonym owned by the radio station - as both a solo performer and as a member of the station's country group The Rhythm Rangers.
Her lively contemporary performance of the 1929 Jimmie Rodgers' song "Train Whistle Blues" was heard by rival radio executive Bill McClusky who subsequently hired her in May 1945 to star on the still popular Midwestern Hayride on Radio WLW in Cincinnati, Ohio - the same show that young Mary Jo had enjoyed the previous decade! With her professional name owned by KMBC, "Sally Carson" was left behind and Mary Jo became "Bonnie Lou" on WLW and began performing alongside her idols The Girls of the Golden West.
As a regular radio performer on a top-rated show it may seem surprising that it took her so long to begin a recording career, but according to her King biography, she had married during the war years and her husband had returned from active service overseas seriously ill with malaria, so she sidelined her own career and went into semi-retirement to care for him. Her first recordings were finally made for the Chicago-based Mercury label in 1949, billed as Bonnie Lou & The Dixie Partners, where she cut two 78s neither of which was particularly successful commercially. In early 1953, however, that other big Midwestern indie label, King Records, come calling and the results were much more satisfying. Her first release, "Seven Lonely Days" c/w "Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms)" soared to #7 on the national Country chart and both songs have gone on to become standards with the former having been recorded by just about every female Country singer from Patsy Cline to Billie Jo Spears to k d lang, while the latter saw revival hits for Faron Young, Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline before being reinvented as a soul classic by Solomon Burke in 1960.
None of her later recordings reached the heights of her King debut, although her third release, the quirky novelty dance instruction "Tennessee Wig Walk" did rise to #6 on the Country chart in the fall of 1953. Despite cutting sparkling cover versions of songs such as Sheb Wooley's "Don't Stop Kissing Me Goodnight", Blackie Crawford's "Huckleberry Pie" and "Two Step Side Step" from the pen of Murry Wilson (father of the Beach Boys' Brian, Carl and Dennis) or even the resurrection of her lucky song "Train Whistle Blues" in 1954, she failed to break her duck.
A change of direction was obviously needed and in 1955 Bonnie Lou began cutting records geared more towards the urban teenage market, frequently backed by black vocal harmony group The Harmonaires Quartet, starting with her exciting cover of top R&B tune "Tweedlee Dee" a hit for its originator LaVern Baker and something of a minor rock 'n' roll standard performed by everyone from Elvis Presley on down. Consequently, Bonnie Lou was moved from the maroon-labelled King country series to the mainstream blue pop series in late 1955, debuting with an original song, "Daddy-O", which hit both the national Billboard and Cashbox Pop charts and spawned a hit cover version by the Fontaine Sisters. It would be Bonnie's final significant chart success.
The same in-house writing team tried to recreate "Daddy-O" fever in 1956 with the similar-sounding "Little Miss Bobby Sox", but neither that nor another R&B cover from Fats Domino ("Bo Weevil") or arguably her best rockabilly performance "One Track Love" was successful during that year. The following year, her five year contract with King drawing to a conclusion, her releases were not well supported by the label, despite good teen-friendly pop releases such as "I Want You", "Kit 'n' Kaboodle" and "Teenage Wedding". Her final King 45, a duet with Rusty York on a cover of Billy & Lillie's R&B hit "La Dee Dah" was released in January 1958 along with her first and only LP Bonnie Lou Sings, whereupon she left King for a spell with another Cincinnati-based independent, Fraternity Records, with whom she released two 45s in 1958 including her well-loved risqué rock 'n' roll swan-song "Friction Heat" accompanied by the Lew Douglas Orchestra.
The record releases slowed to a dribble in the 1960s, although Bonnie Lou was still a popular local personality with her appearances on the still-running Midwestern Hayride (which finally closed the barn doors in 1966) and her involvement in concurrent WLW-TV shows Ruth Lyons' 50/50 Club, the Walter Phillips Show, the Good Morning Show and the Paul Dixon Show, as well as presenting her own children's TV show the Six Star Ranch and recording occasionally for local labels such as Wrayco Records, all based in the Cincinnati region, her adopted home town:
[In 1958] I was supposed to sign with RCA Victor but instead I went with Fraternity Records just because it was local. I should have had more sense. I've always wanted to stay in Cincinatti, though, because of my family and profession. There is a loyalty in Country music that you don't find in other fields, you see, and, besides, Country was me. So I remained in town, doing radio and television, and I have never regretted not moving to New York. People still call and say they love my work. It's gratifying. I've always admired and respected my public.
Dave Penny - December 2008
In the pantheon of artists who helped to midwife the difficult birth of the Big Beat in the early 1950s there are many who have been subsequently forgotten. Even huge, encyclopaedic "History of Rock" style tomes inevitably concentrate on the younger, sexier, more commercially successful artists of those halcyon days and neglect the experienced older performers - some of whom had been playing in a style approaching rock 'n' roll for many years before its official birth in the mid 1950s. One case in point is the much-maligned Bill Haley and his Comets, who fortunately spent too long on the charts on both sides of the Atlantic to allow them to be ignored completely, but that hasn't stopped many of the Sixties-centric rock historians trying to minimize The Comets contributions to the beginnings of their chosen genre.
Another such artist, who sadly didn't enjoy the immortality bestowed by a run of chart hits, is the now obscure Chuck Miller who, like Haley and his gang, was slightly older than the likes of Presley, Vincent, Cochran and Holly. He was already a veteran musician before those named made their debut, and - with the trio he fronted for bass-player Robert Douglass - they had already begun to weave the elements of the older music of their generation into something new, exciting and danceable for the restless teenagers of the 1950s.
Charles Nelson Miller was born in rural Wellington, Kansas - "Wheat Capital of the World" - on 30th August 1924 and little is known of his early life. One of four children, he learned to play piano as a child and by the mid 1940s had become a professional musician in the Los Angeles area, alongside other singer/pianists such as Nat Cole and Charles Brown. He became friendly with saxophonist Big Dave Cavanaugh and formed a bond with Cavanaugh's bass-player, Robert Douglass, who would become instrumental in helping Miller form his own trio for personal appearances and became the group's chief arranger as well as playing the bass. They began touring as the Chuck Miller Trio in the late 1940s, but California was awash with similar groups and record deals were hard to come by.
As luck would have it, in the early 1950s their friend Dave Cavanaugh became employed as A&R man for Capitol Records, and he was swift to sign his talented old friends to a recording contract. Chuck Miller began recording for Capitol with Cavanaugh's band and the first singles, released in 1953-54, were firmly in the MOR pop and novelty moulds, heavily inspired by Miller's twin influences of Bing Crosby and Dean Martin. Chuck's third release however was a cover of Wade Ray's "Idaho Red" - a hillbilly truck-driving song written by a real truck driver, Frank Kauzlaric. Wade Ray's original recording had been in the western swing style, but Miller's more urbane arrangement sold well too and caused Capitol to swiftly scour their stockpile of unissued tracks for a lively follow-up. Chuck's self-penned "Hopahula Boogie" had been cut by the trio in a break from the usual orchestral fare and, although it wasn't a big seller, it set the style for much of what Miller would produce in the next few years.
In early 1955 Chuck Miller left Capitol for a new recording contract with Mercury Records. His debut with the label paired his own classy pop song, "Can't Help Wonderin'", with the hip revival of Freddie Slack's old swing-era classic "The House of Blue Lights" - both arranged by Robert Douglass - which would soon prove to be his most successful single. It did so well during the summer of 1955 - spending 14 weeks on the Best Seller chart, peaking at #9 - that Capitol Records rushed out a fifth single from their stockpile, but the sides remaining with his debut label were a bit corny compared to what Miller was then laying down for Mercury.
Having proven his success with cover versions, Mercury next had Chuck cover Bobby Lord's jaunty country rocker, "Hawk-Eye" written by Boudleaux Bryant, which they paired with another solid Miller-penned ballad "Something To Live For". The single was nowhere near as successful as the first, so for the follow-up they decided to expand the sound of the Chuck Miller Trio to include horns and the resulting single was quite spectacular, with another rocked-up swing-era classic, Gene Krupa's "Boogie Blues" coupled with an eldritch novelty full of voodoo symbolism called "Lookout Mountain". The latter was so unusual that RCA's chief A&R executive, Steve Sholes, sent the record to the young singer he had just signed (but not yet recorded) to consider for his upcoming debut session. Sadly, as far as is known, Elvis never recorded the appealingly sinister song written by one Seymour Lazar, even though "Heartbreak Hotel" had been cast from the same mould.
By 1956, due mainly to that boy Elvis, rock 'n' roll was running rampant and Miller was now teamed in New York City with Hugo Peretti's small studio orchestra to sample the charts and run the gamut from the out-and-out motor-head madness of "Bright Red Convertible", the Tennessee Ernie-like "Baltimore Jones", the MORish "Good Mornin' Darlin'" and the bubbly "Baby Doll", the latter composed for the controversial Elia Kazan film of the same name. Hugo Peretti also arranged Chuck's fine cover of Leroy Van Dyke's country novelty hit "The Auctioneer", which gave him his only other taste of national chart success when it peaked at #59 on the Hot Hundred in December 1956.
On another occasion in Chicago in 1956, with support provided by David Carroll's orchestra, Chuck covered Bob Temple's King rocker "Vim Vam Vamoose" (which alludes to Presley and "Heartbreak Hotel") and the minor rock 'n' roll classic "Cool It Baby!" which had been featured by The Treniers in the movie "Teenage Rebel" and would achieve celluloid rock excellence with Eddie Fontaine's version in the mighty "Girl Can't Help It" movie later in the year. During that year Mercury honoured Chuck with his first LP; an album called Songs After Hours With Chuck Miller (Mercury LP MG-20195), on which he and his trio indulged their love of swing-era music ("I Can't Give You Anything But Love", "Cow Cow Boogie", "September In The Rain", etc.) as well as cutting loose with a couple of breakneck eponymous rockin' boogies and a very nice version of "Re-Enlistment Blues", famous for the rendition by Merle Travis in the 1953 Columbia film From Here To Eternity.
In 1957, with support from Carl Steven's studio band and the Dick Noel Singers, Miller covered another Boudleaux Bryant song; the Everly Brothers' smash hit "Bye Bye Love", and a surprise success by The Cellos vocal harmony group, "Rang Tang Ding Dong (I'm the Japanese Sandman)". The penultimate Mercury release was among his best; "Plaything", was a good cover of an obscure Phoenix rocker by Ted Newman, which was also covered by Bobby Helms and Nick Todd in the US and by Terry Wayne here in the UK, while "After Yesterday" was an early effort from the combined pen of Diane Lampert and John Gluck, who would go on to write Eddie Fontaine's rock 'n' roll classic "Nothin' Shakin' (But The Leaves On The Trees)" amongst others. During this year Miller was also instrumental in introducing Jimmie "Honeycomb" Rodgers to Hugo Peretti, helping to broker the young singer's contract with Roulette Records.
Chuck Miller's swansong for Mercury Records was another old Freddie Slack boogie woogie classic from the early 1940s, no doubt recorded in an attempt to recapture the glory days of his "House of Blue Lights" from three years earlier. Miller's pounding version of "Down the Road A-Piece" was backed by an energetic take on "Mad About Her Blues", a gender-switch on a song made famous by Dinah Shore in 1942. Inexplicably, like his previous releases, the single went nowhere and he was dropped by Mercury at the end of his contract, but was swiftly snapped up by California-based Imperial Records where he cut a variable LP called Now Hear This! Songs Of The Fighting 40s (Imperial LP 9072(mono)/12017(stereo)) which presented dreary versions of "For Sentimental Reasons" and "Lili Marlene" rubbing up against sparkling, teenage-friendly tributes to Louis Jordan ("G.I. Jive" and "Saturday Night Fish Fry"), Ella Mae Morse ("Shoo Shoo Baby"), and his other favourite crooners ("How Many Hearts Have You Broken?", "Swingin' On A Star'" and "Five Minutes More"). Another hero, Hoagy Carmichael, was celebrated with an affectionate "Heart and Soul" and a quirky "Up a Lazy River", on which Miller impersonated the likes of Louis Armstrong, Vaughn Monroe and Nat "King" Cole.
The Imperial deal seems to have contracted for just one album and subsequently Chuck Miller faded into obscurity. After relocating to Boise, Idaho, for a long residency, the Miller trio - still featuring Robert Douglass on bass - broke up in 1959, and the leader moved to Anchorage, Alaska, in the 1960s, before retiring to Hawaii where he lived in Lahaina, Maui. He died aged 75 in the Maui Memorial Hospital on 15th January 2000, where a very modest obituary appeared in the local Honolulu Star Bulletin newspaper, in which he was described as a "self-employed entertainer". So perhaps he played that fat boogie woogie until the very end.
When his greatest success was climbing the Billboard Pop chart in 1955, even the venerable Time Magazine was forced to report on it:
A boogie-woogie in uptempo, with some nonsense words about boogie-woogie. The disk is a bestseller. Does it herald the decline of rock 'n' roll?
Of course it didn't, but Chuck Miller's stock-in-trade was good, well-played, well-performed teenage dance music with a great beat, which is why his recordings have been rock 'n' roll club staples since the 1970s revival.
With grateful acknowledgement to the research and assistance of Eric Leblanc and Stuart Colman and to Cynthia Douglass Mosley.
I MUST BE DREAMIN' - THE ROBINS ON RCA, CROWN AND SPARK 1953-55
"The Robins had recorded our second song in 1951, and they were an existing group, and we had worked with them at RCA Victor, and when we formed our own label, they were a group that we knew were around so we started working with them [at Spark Records]. When Atlantic offered us the opportunity to work with them and produce records, two of the guys came with us and the rest of them went with their manager who formed another label that didn't survive for very long.
We needed two other people to give us the right kind of voices. So we did form The Coasters, but we didn't form The Robins."
Mike Stoller, interviewed at the NFT, June 2001.
A Top 10 R&B chart act in December 1955 with their Leiber & Stoller produced "Smokey Joe's Café", the history of The Robins vocal group goes back a decade before that to Northern California's Bay Area, where baritone-voiced brothers Billy and Roy Richard (born Houston, Texas, 1928 and 1929 respectively) hooked up with a school friend, tenor "Ty" Terrell Leonard (born Jackson, Mississippi, 1930), to form a smooth vocal group, smartly dubbed "A Sharp Trio". Soon realising that their Oakland home held little opportunity for stardom, the boys moved south to Los Angeles in 1947 and began haunting The Barrelhouse Club in Watts in the hope that owner Johnny Otis would help them get some much-needed gigs. Otis thought the trio had potential, but told them they needed a fourth voice - a bass singer - to anchor the harmony vocals. This was the dawn of the "bird groups" of the doo-wop era and by 1948 the likes of The Ravens and The Orioles were consistently hitting the national charts with their updating of the old Ink Spots sound, so when deep-voiced blues shouter Bobby Nunn (born Birmingham, Alabama, 1925) was added to complete their quartet, the group dropped the wise-ass sophistication of "A Sharp Trio" and became "The 4 Bluebirds" for their debut recording "My Baby Done Told Me" (Excelsior 540), issued in April 1949 under Johnny Otis' name.
The following month, with an ornithological name change to the catchier "The Robins", the group cut a consummate session for Aladdin Records, backed almost certainly by Otis and his usual rhythm section, which resulted in quick-fire releases on both Aladdin and sister label, Score. Sadly these releases failed to sell, but their services were still required in the Otis aggregation and things were about to get very exciting…
One of the first independent record operations on the West Coast, the Rene Brothers' Exclusive/Excelsior labels had enjoyed a run of outstanding success in the immediate post-war years with Joe Liggins' massive hit "The Honeydripper", Ivory Joe Hunter's "Blues at Sunrise" and a whole string of R&B charters by Johnny Moore's Three Blazers. By 1949, however, the company was broke and by the year's end the receivers had been called in, just as Johnny Otis and his band were on the verge of a major breakthrough.
Otis Rene had signed the young drummer/bandleader to his first recording contract in 1945, but apart from the successful "That's Your Last Boogie" (Exclusive 51x) - a Top 10 hit in late 1948 for singer Joe Swift accompanied by the Otis band - Johnny Otis had failed to impress the record-buying public with either his big Count Basie-styled orchestra or with his stripped-down R&B combo. In mid 1949, when it became plain that there would be no future in remaining with the failing Exclusive/Excelsior set-up, Otis took his orchestra and his latest talent-show discovery, Little Esther, to local rival Modern Records for a one-off session; the first of two Modern 78s was issued in late 1949 once the expiry of the Excelsior contract allowed, but by then Otis had been wooed by East Coast record mogul Herman Lubinsky, and the whole caboodle - orchestra, singers, featured instrumentalists…and The Robins - had been signed to Savoy Records of Newark, NJ, and the second release under the new contract, "Double Crossing Blues" by Little Esther and Bobby Nunn, was a smash hit which topped the Billboard R&B chart on 4th March 1950 and stayed for nine weeks.
As part of the Otis aggregation, The Robins also had their fair share of feature vocals; they even enjoyed the very first release under the new Savoy contract, but although "If It's So Baby" didn't reach the dizzy heights of its successor, it did peak at a very worthy #10 in January 1950.
Several more releases by The Robins on Savoy followed through to September 1950, but almost before their hit was cold, The Robins had flown the Otis nest in a dispute over pay, and began looking for their next best-seller. But it was a long time coming; they flew straight out of the frying pan and into the fire by hooking up with the notorious John Dolphin, and then began moonlighting as The Nic Nacs on RPM Records in late 1950. In December 1950, under the extremely thin pseudonym of The Robbins, the group recorded the cod-gospel "That's What the Good Book Says", an early effort by local teenagers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and while it failed to hit, it did bring the group within the radar of the ambitious and precocious Leiber & Stoller and would prove to be an invaluable contact. For right now, though, the former hit-makers were disillusioned by the label-hopping and lack of funds, so all of them to a man - except for Bobby Nunn who had also maintained a respectable solo career - entered military service for a couple of years, while their stockpile of recordings for RPM/Modern and Recorded In Hollywood kept them in the public eye…if not in the charts!
Ready to return for another attempt at the big time, and now with a fifth voice (high tenor Grady Chapman) added to the group, in January 1953 the newly demobbed Robins were signed to RCA Victor, kicking off with their cover of "A Fool Such As I", a big country hit for Hank Snow in late 1952 and an even bigger smash for Elvis in 1959. The three sessions for RCA were all cut at the Corporation's Hollywood studio; the first was musically directed by Shorty Rogers, the second by Maxwell Davis and the third by Danny Kessler.
The most dominant lead vocalist on the resulting twelve recordings was certainly new boy Grady Chapman and his dramatic high tenor, but Bobby Nunn was still a popular choice and he shared lead with Grady on "A Fool Such As I", and sang lead on several others, including the group's recut of their debut song "My Baby Done Told Me". Coupled with "I'll Do It", "My Baby Done Told Me" was scheduled for release in October 1953, but when RCA discovered that the song had been issued before (and, worse, had been copyrighted by another record company), they withdrew the release.
The Robins' final RCA session, from September 1953, reunited the group with Leiber & Stoller who had written another song for them called "Ten Days in Jail" and who had persuaded Kessler to let them into the studio to produce the song. It would prove to be the first of several "Jail" collaborations that would prove fortuitous - the seeds of The Coasters had been planted.
With the final RCA disc being released in December 1953, The Robins were released from their contract and returned to the Bihari brothers who teamed them again with Maxwell Davis' band to record for their Crown subsidiary and, again, Grady Chapman's McPhatter-like tenor stole the show with the derivative-but-irresistible "Double Crossin' Baby" and the more original "Key to My Heart". By the time these records had been released in 1954, however, Chapman had had to leave the group temporarily when life imitated art and it was necessary for him to spend a little more than "Ten Days in Jail". He was replaced by Texan Carl Gardner, who had been singing with Johnny Otis' band; Gardner was reluctant to sing R&B, but he was eventually talked around, and became so distinctive that they asked him to stay even after Chapman returned from his incarceration.
Early in 1954, with four years industry experience under their belts, the still-teenaged Leiber & Stoller formed their own record label with mature partner Lester Sill and signed their favourite vocal group just as soon as they were able. Recorded at Los Angeles' Master Recorders in the spring of 1954 with a band that comprised Gil Bernal (tenor sax), Chuck Norris (guitar), Ralph Hamilton (bass), Jesse Sailes (drums) and Mike Stoller on piano, The Robins' debut session for Spark Records produced the risqué "Hatchet Man" (Bobby Nunn lead), "One Kiss" and "Wrap It Up" (both with Carl Gardner lead) and the now famous "Riot In Cell Block #9". The lead vocal of the latter was refused by Bobby Nunn who was reportedly angered at such a stereotypical song penned by two white kids, and was eventually taken by Richard Berry in default who agreed to sing it in Nunn's place.
Surprisingly, "Riot" didn't chart nationally, but it sold strongly in several territories before being widely banned due to its subject matter. A second session took place in the summer of 1954, resulting in three fine sides led by Carl Gardner ("Just like a Fool", "Loop De Loop Mambo" and "I Must Be Dreamin'"), while Bobby Nunn happily overcame his bruised pride and sang lead on the court room saga "Framed". Again, although a good regional seller, the strong "Framed" didn't break out nationally - probably due to the song's implications that black people were treated unfairly by the white justice system.
The group's third and last Spark session was held in late 1954, by which time Grady Chapman was back in the fold…as opposed to the pen! Now a sextet, the lead vocals were split equally between Grady Chapman ("I Love Paris" and "Whadaya Want") and Carl Gardner ("If Teardrops Were Kisses" and "Smokey Joe's Café"). Although "Smokey Joe's" was quite obviously pure gold, for some reason Leiber & Stoller delayed its release, issuing the other tracks first; they were made to withdraw "I Love Paris" when the publisher of this Cole Porter standard alleged that the arrangement demeaned their copyright. Finally, in late August 1955, Spark coupled "Smokey Joe's Café" with the earlier "Just like a Fool" and it began to sell strongly in Los Angeles. It caught the attention of Nesuhi Ertegun of Atlantic Records who was in town, and he bought a copy to take back to New York City to play to his brother Ahmet and Jerry Wexler. Within days, they had contacted Leiber & Stoller, making a firm offer to buy their record company and also offering the youngsters a job with Atlantic as producers. The deal was struck on 28th September 1955 and "Smokey Joe's Café" was repressed on Atlantic's Atco imprint - by early December it had not only gone Top 10 on Billboard's national R&B chart but had also crept up to #79 on the mainstream Pop Hot 100.
As is frequently the case in such situations, The Robins' big break was the beginning of their end; Lester Sill, the group's new manager, wanted to sign the group over to Atlantic, but quickly discovered that founding member Terrell Leonard had copyrighted the group's name. Moreover, Leonard and the Richard brothers decided that they didn't want to relocate to New York City to record for Atlantic and persuaded Grady Chapman to remain with their group, The Robins. Carl Gardner would have stayed with the group too, but he was lured away by Leiber & Stoller and, with Bobby Nunn, formed the basis of a new novelty vocal group to boost the fortunes of Atlantic Records Corp.
Following the split, The Robins hooked up with new manager Gene Norman and recorded for his new Whippet Records before a swift slide into obscurity, while Nunn and Gardner, with new harmony buddies Leon Hughes and Billy Guy, directed by Leiber, Stoller and Sill, formed the first version of The Coasters. Within a few short months, The Coasters' debut release was in the Billboard R&B Top 10 and, to add insult to injury, The Coasters' eponymous first Atco LP - issued in November 1957 - included seven of The Robins' Spark recordings, which had been sold to Atlantic by Leiber & Stoller…
With thanks to the invaluable research of Marv Goldberg and Todd Baptista
For more information direct your browser to http://home.att.net/~uncamarvy/Robins/robins.html
A WELL-REHEARSED RIOT…THE TRENIERS
"We started singing a song called 'Good Rockin' [Tonight]' in 1947, and came to Chicago to play the Blue Note. But no one knew how to describe what we were doing. So, the owner of the Blue Note, who had been playing Duke Ellington, Basie, Raymond Scott, says 'How can I introduce you?' We told him to say anything he wants. So, he says, "We'll just call you the rock 'n' rollin' Treniers…'
While the Southern rockabillies where heavily influenced in equal measure by downhome blues and hillbilly artists, the first flush of Northern rock 'n' roll bands, like The Comets, The Bellboys and The Rockets, had been inspired by the smoother, more visual strains of urban jump blues and r&b…and specifically the sights and sounds of what one critic called "a well-rehearsed riot" - those crazy Treniers.
A large, highly musical family from Mobile, Alabama, the senior Treniers were father Denny and mother Olivia, who played trumpet and piano respectively, and among their large, talented, happy family were Denny Jr, Buddy, Milt and twins, Claude and Cliff.
Born on 14th July 1919, the twins grew up in a house full of music. While they were still young, their older brother Buddy became a professional singer and although their parents insisted on a good education for their children, the twins' minds were set on a showbiz career long before they were kicked out of Alabama State Teachers College in 1941 - leaving with the college band in tow. Among the alumni of this version of the Bama State Collegians were Joe Morris and Joe Newman (trumpets), Reuben Phillips and Lucky Thompson (saxes) and two musicians who would figure large in the Treniers' story: alto saxophonist Don Hill and pianist/arranger Gene Gilbeaux.
Initially making a hit on the local Mobile/Montgomery area scene, The Collegians lasted until WWII intervened and Uncle Sam enlisted Claude into his service, but his skill with a love song had not gone unnoticed, and upon being demobbed he was offered a job as replacement for the popular Dan Grissom in Jimmie Lunceford's swing orchestra, with whom he made his recording debut for US Decca. Occasionally getting Cliff to dep for him with Lunceford, it wasn't long before both twins were being employed by the bandleader, however their recording debut as a duet was left in the can until their first flush of success as solo artists.
Unemployed when Lunceford disbanded in 1945, Cliff returned to work his local home area in Alabama while Claude, always the most ambitious, tried his luck on the West Coast. His relocation to Los Angeles coincided with the area's unprecedented post-war boom in independent record labels, and by the end of the year he was featured vocalist on a handful of releases by Big Jim Wynn, Barney Bigard and Charles Mingus. After Claude had replaced Wynonie Harris at the Club Alabam, he realised that things were looking up, and he contacted Cliff and told him to come join him and to bring along Don Hill and Gene Gilbeaux.
Making an immediate splash with their acrobatic and energetic stage act, the Trenier Twins were signed to Mercury Records in 1947, but rather than being allowed to perform their show-stopping proto-rockers like "Good Rockin' Tonight", they were encouraged to make use of Claude's balladry and cute swing era ditties. The Mercury releases didn't sell and after six tries, the twins were dropped by the label on the eve of an AFM recording ban.
In early 1950 and back on the West Coast, the group that was now simply called The Treniers was contracted to the US arm of the ancient Decca Record Co from England, and the lone release on London 17007, the rocking "Everybody Get Together" coupled with the comedic "Why Did You Get So High, Shorty?" was much more representative of the act than the Mercurys had been…but still it didn't sell!
A year later the boys had signed a new contract with Danny Kessler who had been employed by US Columbia to revitalise their old OKeh imprint and this time their record company understood what The Treniers was all about; the debut release, the wild "Go! Go! Go!", entered the Billboard Rhythm & Blues chart on 1st September, reaching #10 - it would be their first and last national hit…
Between June 1951 and June 1955 they had fifteen top-notch OKeh single releases, including such birth-of-rock nominations as "It Rocks! It Rolls! It Swings!", "Rockin' On Sunday Night", "Rockin' Is Our Bizness", "Hi-Yo Silver!", "This Is It!" and "Rock A-Beatin' Boogie" (ON JUKE BOX) (written for them by admirer, Bill Haley), but none but the first got a whiff of chart action. In August 1955 Columbia moved the group to its new Epic subsidiary and brought in hot new arranger/musical director Quincy Jones to work his magic, but there was still nothing shakin' - not even a blasting big-band arrangement of their hit "Go! Go! Go!" or, at last, their long-performed version of the Roy Brown/Wynonie Harris classic "Good Rockin' Tonight".
The Treniers had a hot stage revue that was in demand from Los Angeles to New Jersey; their summer residencies at The Riptide Club in Wildwood NJ - immortalised in "Everything's Wild in Wildwood" - was studied by the likes of Freddie Bell (on whom they bestowed the nickname "Ding Dong"), Bill Haley and Charlie Gracie on down. They were heavily featured on US TV on shows such as Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Steve Allen and Martin & Lewis, and when the rock 'n' roll exploitation movies came along in the mid 1950s, nobody was in greater demand than The Treniers, whose celluloid career included Don't Knock The Rock (showcasing "Out Of The Bushes" and "Rockin' On Sunday Night") and The Girl Can't Help It in 1956, Calypso Heat Wave (1957) and Juke Box Rhythm (1959), yet commercial chart success eluded them. When, after their rip-roaring performance of "Rockin' Is Our Bizness" in The Girl Can't Help It, "Legs" Wheeler tells them that he can assure them of another gold record, you can't help feeling the boys' smiles are a little wry.
Along the way the Trenier twins had added family members and by the late 1950s, brothers Buddy and Milt and nephew Skip (son of Denny jr) were all rockin' and rollin' along to the groove provided by Don on sax, Henry on drums, Jimmy on bass and Gene on piano, and all got the chance for a solo spot amongst the mayhem that was the average Treniers show. On record, Milt and his powerful voice had tried to carve a solo career in 1953-54 on RCA's Groove subsidiary, and when The Treniers' contract with Columbia had run its course in 1956 they switched to RCA themselves, landing on the new Vik imprint, where they tried a complete cross-section of their stage act; from covers of old r&b hits, new pop and rock 'n' roll hits, original jump tunes and even their refreshingly disrespectful arrangement of the classical "Sorrento", with poor Don Hill trying to blow a straight one for once.
The standard option was not renewed after a year, and The Treniers found themselves once again with another ancient race records label revitalised for the modern teenage market - this time US Decca's old Brunswick imprint, where the manic "Rock, Calypso Joe!" failed to chart despite being the highlight of the film Calypso Heat Wave, and Buddy's rare solo feature "Oo-La-La" along with an attempted revival of the perennial "Goodnight Irene" fell on similarly stony ground.
Off the back of their rock 'n' roll films, however, they became familiar faces to an international audience and, when their busy schedule allowed in 1958 they unluckily flew to the UK to tour with Jerry Lee Lewis…just before he was exposed for marrying his 13 year old cousin! The tour was not a great success and The Treniers stayed away from overseas touring for almost four decades.
By the late 1950s, the Treniers were veteran entertainers and, by now in their 40s, too old for teen idols. Sidelined by a fickle singles market in the late 1950s they concentrated on their residencies and the occasional LP; their first had been The Treniers On TV in 1955 and this was succeeded by The Treniers Souvenir Album (Dot 1958), After Hours with the Fabulous Treniers and The Treniers by the Sea (Hermitage 1963), Wild and Live at The Flamingo (Mobile, 1969) and Popcorn Man (TT, 1972). The band remained a loyal and vital force until the 1970s, but time takes its toll and Milt left the band to run his own nightclub in Chicago. Cliff died of lung cancer in 1983 - just as the groups old recordings were beginning to be appreciated in the European rock 'n' roll clubs - and reissue LPs began appearing from both legal (Edsel) and illegal (Gemini) sources. Cliff's passing was followed by that of Gene in 1991, while Buddy decided to retire from the group (he died in 1999), leaving Claude, Skip and Don to carry on with a small group of new faces to replace those missing. Their engagement diary was still very busy and they rarely got the chance to tour outside the US, but I finally got to see them perform live around ten years ago at the Rhythm Riot and Hemsby, and even at 80 years old, Claude was still bringing down the house with his powerful voice, acrobatic dance steps and hilariously pornographic little ditties such as "I Saw Her Snatch…her suitcase from the hall", backed by the antics of Skip and Don. Their popularity amongst the new breed rock 'n' roll fans was such that it opened up a brief final chapter in the career of The Treniers, in which they played rock 'n' roll festivals, being asked to play songs they hadn't performed for over half a century.
The driving force behind the family unit, Claude Trenier passed away in 2003 at which point Don and Skip retired, but Milt is still out there performing, being kept busy with guest spots and solo residencies around the Illinois area.
An international star as a teenager with her debut "Cow Cow Boogie", Ella Mae Morse followed up with a succession of hip-kitty war-time ditties such as "Mister Five By Five", "The House Of Blue Lights", "Shoo-Shoo Baby" and "Buzz Me" in the mid 1940s before she retired to devote her time to her new husband and resulting children. When she returned to her singing career in late 1951, the era of the big swing bands was on the way out and the first stirrings of rock 'n' roll were being felt. So, still being a very young, hip, kitty with a love of African American jazz, blues and r&b, Ella Mae didn't find it much of a stretch to accept a job helping to introduce white teenage America to the music from the other side of the tracks.
By the time her mother moved to
Her extreme youth was undoubtedly her main problem; no
bandleader wanted to be responsible for the moral care of a teenage girl
touring in a bus full of horny young men, so when she auditioned for Jimmy
Dorsey in 1938, just after her 14th birthday, she claimed to be 19. Her mature
voice and precocious physical development helped the deception and Dorsey took
her on tour…until a letter from her school board caught up with Dorsey in
By early 1942, Freddie Slack was leading his own
successful swing band and became one of the first acts signed to fledgling
Capitol Records. His new boogie-based style demanded a hip, blues-inflected
vocalist and he remembered the spunky little
Several more hits followed with more film appearances, and many more Capitol sessions headed by Freddie Slack or Paul Weston, Billy May, Buddy Cole or Big Dave Cavanaugh before she retired from the music business on the eve of the 1948 AFM recording ban to bring up her young family.
In late 1951, with the blessing of her husband and eager to pick up where she had left off, Ella Mae Morse returned to Capitol Records and was set to work with Nelson Riddle on new songs that, at first, were simply an extension of her 1940s hits. But "Love Me Or Leave Me", "Love Ya Like Mad" and the very popular "Blacksmith Blues" made way for some surprising covers of Country hits like "Tennessee Saturday Night", "A-Sleeping At The Foot Of The Bed" and, particularly, the hot "Oakie Boogie" which gave her an in into the world of Cliffie Stone's hillbilly jazzers. Heard here in two incarnations; the first version of "Oakie Boogie" remained unissued for many years, despite some great steel-work from Speedy West, but the issued cut from a couple of months later was less frenetic and more authentically hillbilly-cum-rockabilly with just Riddle's trumpets remaining from his big band which had dominated the earlier cut.
Even more exciting were the two songs she cut with Tennessee Ernie Ford at her next session, with a pure Hollywood Hillbilly band led by Ford's bandleader Cliffie Stone, but later in 1952 Ella Mae's career shifted direction again in order to cast her as Capitol's cover artist for the many rhythm and blues songs that were becoming popular among the white teenagers. Considering that much-maligned era of white covers from the likes of Gale Storm, Pat Boone, Patti Page and, even, Elvis, was still several years away, Capitol Records' decision to begin marketing cover versions of the hot r&b hits of the day, performed by their hippest white singer must be regarded as quite a ground-breaking move.
Often under the leadership of the great Big Dave Cavanaugh who provided a good integrated band, over the next few years Ella Mae made fine versions of Amos Milburn's "Greyhound", Louis Jordan's early "Bounce The Ball", Hadda Brooks' "Jump Back, Honey", The Dominoes' "Have Mercy, Baby", The Drifters' "Money Honey", The Ravens' "Rock Me All Night Long", The Clovers' "Lovey Dovey", The Spaniels' "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight", Danny Overbea's "40 Cups Of Coffee", Lavern Baker's "How Can You Leave A Man Like This?", Ruth Brown's "Daddy Daddy", "5-10-15 Hours" and "Teardrops From My Eyes", Nappy Brown's "Piddly Patter Patter", Fats Domino's "Ain't That A Shame" and The Coasters' "Down In Mexico", as well as Link Davis' surprise cajun-country hit, "Big Mamou".
By 1955, Ella Mae Morse had also begun covering songs by the early rock 'n' roll bands like Bill Haley ("Razzle-Dazzle") and Boyd Bennett's Rockets ("Seventeen"), groups that she had undoubtedly influenced, as it was possibly her versions of the often hard-to-access r&b recordings that had inspired the likes of Gene Vincent (a later Capitol artist who would cover "Jump Back, Honey" on his debut album), Elvis Presley (who reputedly told her that he had learned to sing listening to her records) and Bill Haley, who covered "40 Cups of Coffee" a full three years after Ella Mae had cut the song. She had also begun getting new compositions directly from the big r&b composers, amongst which was "Give A Little Time To Your Lover", "Heart Full Of Hope" and "When Boy Kiss Girl (It's Love)"
Although her 1950s singles and her iconic 1954 LP, Barrelhouse, Boogie And The Blues (Capitol T-513) sold fairly well, there was no more chart action and she made her final sessions for Capitol in 1957, reverting back to swing-era fare such as "Jersey Bounce" and "You Go To My Head" and resulting in another album, unimaginatively titled The Morse Code before being dropped by the label. Without being allied to a record company, Ella Mae maintained a healthy touring schedule in the late 1950s, making appearances more sporadically in the 1960s and 1970s, and even touring Australia with Billy May's orchestra in 1986. Her final gig took place in 1987 at a private club in California, backed by her old friends, Gerry Wiggins on piano and Red Callender on bass - the same musicians who had backed her on "Money Honey", "Have Mercy, Baby" "5-10-15 Hours" and many of her early 1950s Capitol sessions.
Spending over a decade "in happy obscurity", Ella Mae
Morse died at her home in