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The Early Rock ‘n’ Rollers of Amarillo, Texas - by: Robin Brown

Early Rock ‘n’ Roll Music of Amarillo

   Amarillo, Texas has produced several rock musicians, singers, and songwriters that succeeded in a big way. Most everyone has heard of J. D. Souther, Jimmy Gilmer, and Terry Stafford, but the early history of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Amarillo can be told through lesser known musicians of the city. Lets begin with a Talented musician, a hot shot drummer who graduated high school here in c.1958. I first heard Swafford play in 1960 when he was with the Fayros, a four peice band that played Venture and Surf music well. Within a year this group was destined to have a single on the big RCA label. Besides Swafford, the group consisted of another Amarilloan, the left handed guitarist Earl Whitt who was joined by two brothers from Turkey, Texas, Joe Bob and Ted Barnhill. 

Gary Swafford

Gary Lee Swafford

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   I must admit that when I jammed with Gary in the summer of sixty four I had no clue that I was in the company of someone so close to Amarillo’s Rock ‘n’ Roll history. I say that because, he had been playing around Amarillo during the early days of rock music, when it was still called “Rockabilly”. Sort of a fixture of the early rock scene. Yes, Swafford had been around in the days of the “Rhythm Teens” and “The Nighthawks” and had studied druming under the “Hawk’s” excellent drummer, Mike Hinton. This Band had recorded in Clovis in 1958 while Holly was still alive and his foursome consisted of Eddie Reeves, Bob Veneable, John Thompson along with Hinton. 

Nighthawks-1958 L-R Eddie Reeves (rhythm) Mike Hinton(drums) John Thompson(bass) & Bob Venable(lead)

left to right: Earl Whitt, Ted Barnhill, Joe Bob Barnhill, and Gary Swafford

    Rick Tucker had founded the “Rhythm Teens” even earlier, in c.1956, and was playing the Clover Club when Buddy Holly played there as an obscure and unknown Lubbock, Texas musician. Holly had arrived without a bass player and Tucker set in with Holly’s band. Another famous singer actually became a membber of the “Rhythm Teens” c.1959. Terry Stafford had sung with the band before going to California where he found great success when he covered an Elvis Presley song “Suspicions”.

left to right: Bob Venable, John Thompson, Mike Hinton, and Eddie Reeves

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Terry_Stafford 1

Terry Stafford

Buddy Holly & The Crickets 2

Buddy Holly and The Crickets

   While its true that Swafford might be called only a regional success at best, nonetheless in his teenage years he had already been associated with two musicians that would someday have international fame, Norman Petty and Jimmy Gilmer. Back in fifty nine Swafford  had  been playing  in  a   group with Earl Whitt, Steve Dodge, and Jimmy Gilmer, called “The Spartans” when he decided to travel out to Clovis, New Mexico and record. After producer/musician Norman Petty heard the group he obviously had been impressed with Swafford’s drumming and soon hired him to playwith his famous group, “The Norman Petty Trio”. This job wasn’t too demanding and Gary was able to continue playing Rock ‘n Roll.

   After Gilmer left the “Spartans” and joined the “Fireballs”, Swafford and Earl Whitt hooked up with the Barnhill Brothers and they recorded the big band classic “Skokiaan” as a Surf Style instrumental. RCA records released the song as a single in c.1961 and it became a regional favorite, but not a chart hit. It did give the band the opportunity however to sign a booking contract with the Norman Petty Agency and tour West Texas and Eastern New Mexico. (Skokiaan would be reissued forty years later on ACE Records and is today something of a surf classic.)

   During this same period Jimmy Gilmer became the lead singer of the Fireballs and in sixty three they recorded a song two Plainviewan’s had written which was destine for greatness. It was the pop ballad “Sugar Shack” and this song propelled Jimmy Gilmer into international fame. It went to number one and became the best selling song of 1963 in it’s field. Since the birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll less than ten years prior, Amarillo finally had matched Lubbock’s success. Lubbock had produced Buddy Holly and Amarillo now had Jimmy Gilmer.

   In the early sixties a young Amarillo native Ray Ruff (aka Ray Ruffin) formed his own rock group, “The Checkmates”. He had become interested in music in the mid fifties upon meeting Buddy Holly after a Sandie’s baseball game, probably during Ruff’s  Senior year  at  Amarillo  High  School.   For several years after  forming  “The Checkmates” band, Ruff chased the Holly sound and made numerous recordings in Clovis, New Mexico trying for a hit. A hit was not to be, but Ruff did get singles on a  legitimate Texas label, the  LIN  label of Gainesville, Texas and  also the Norman label

JGilmer & The Fireballs

Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs

Ray Ruff & The Checkmates Bobby Hacker drums on Merty Robbins Show

Ray Ruff and The Checkmates on the Marty Robbins Show

of St. Louis. Being an excellent promoter and booker Ruff was also able to establish his own studio and label in Amarillo by 1964. At this same time the Checkmates were touring in the northern states, money was pouring in and Ruff’s name was beingheard nightly on KOMA radio. Although numerous Panhandle musicians played with Ruff, the early Checkmate band consisted of Ray Ruff - vocals, Charles McClure - lead guitar, Chuck Tharp - guitar, Bobby Hacker - drums, and Tom Beck - bass.

  Soon after the Ruff label had been established in Amarillo, Buddy Knox came home to the panhandle seeking opportunity. By this time his career was on the decline and he became associated with Ruff in his new recording enterprise. At least two recordings from “Checkmate” studio were pressed into a single which featured Buddy Knox on the Ruff label. Although the songs went nowhere, today this 45 rpm record is a rare collectible. It is also interesting to note that “Glen Fry”, “J. Frank Wilson”, “The Blue Boys”, and “The Trolls” also recorded at Russ’s Amarillo studio before he sold out to Larry Cox and moved  to California. Local bands that

also recorded at the studio include the Tiaras, The Illusions, The Checkmates and The Poole Brothers of Canyon. (While attending college in Canyon I also recorded here with the Poole Brothers of Canyon.)

   When I moved to Amarillo in sixty four a young man by the Name of Bob Rackley had opened a teenage nightclub here. It was called the BoRa Club and was in the old Nat Ballroom off Georga Street.   This dance club was   the hot spot  for local bands to play and show

stuff. I recall dancing to the Music of Sammy Cooper and The Emeralds who had a local hit, “Miss Tiny Tears” at this time. Cooper had an excellent voice and looked a lot like Frankie Avalon which won him a lot of fans. I was also impressed with J. D. Southers group “The Cinders” who  also  played   the   BaRo  club. They too had a record out “Good Lovin’ Is So Hard To Find”. Souther, Charles Bates, along with Steve Dodge could really rock the joint. Of course,  sometime after 1966 Souther and Bates went to California and Dodge graduated and left the band.

The 'NAT' Ballroom (W. 6th at Georga)

   There were a number of other good rock groups playing Amarillo / Canyon in the mid sixties including the “Cords”, “Tiaras”, “Deuces Wild”, “Soul Seekers”, and the “Gimini Five”. The “Cords” even signed a contract with Norman Petty and recorded there  for about five years.  This was Billy Stull’s band  and included Glen Wilbanks,  Danny Meadows,  and

The Cords - c.1966

The Cords - 1966

David Handley. Some of their Clovis recordings were eventually released on Roulette and Ace. Also “Jackie Dallas And The Tiaras” were quite a popular Amarillo band at this time and they had a couple of singles on Alliance Records, “Bullmoose” and “Mexican Rock”. Along with Earl Whitt the members were Jack (Carter) Dallas, Gail Adams, and Delwin Steele. Although “The Tiaras” are long past, Whitt has continued to perform in Amarillo and plays Western Swing and Country at the VFW, among other places

   In conclusion, if I can speak for a generation, I can only say, “Yes, like the Hula hoop the music of the sixties is mostly stored in dusty boxes, out in the garage and in our fading memories. Yet, although the “Fireballs, “The Tiaras”, and “The Cinders” are no longer around, some of their members are and the music and wonderful memories still live on.

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