The Mysterious Musician
Now let's revert back to the early sixties, before I enrolled at WT in Canyon. In the late fifties and until 1964 my brother (Bennie D. Brown) lived in Amarillo and worked at a government plant here. Being ten year older than myself, he began playing guitar a decade before I did. He got his first guitar in the late forties, an old hand-me-down 'Kay' from a cousin. After graduating high school in fifty-five he got married. Then in 1961 he and Myra were living in Amarillo and he was playing Chet Atkins instrumentals. He also was dreaming about hitting the 'bigtime music scene'! At about this same time Bennie also purchased a new, Webcor recorder and when I was visiting in Amarillo we would make home-recordings and have a blast! Like a couple of idiots, we even sent one such tape (of standards songs) to Norman Petty hoping to break into the music biz. Of course, since none of the songs were 'originals' and the recordings were amateurish we just received a big negative! Norman said something like, "We can't use the songs, nevertheless someone plays good guitar ... keep practicing!"
Still for a fifteen year old kid and his older brother, this was the beginning of a life-long hobby. Namely, playing guitars and recording. Our ultimate dream was to record in fine studios someday and achieve the mystic title... 'Recording Artists'! But were we abnormal because of our outlandish dreams? I don't think so!
Aside from playing guitar, my brother's other hobby was to 'frequent music stores' where he could meet and associate with other musicians. The one thing Ben (and myself) liked about as much as jamming was 'fanatically talking music'. My recolletion is a little vague but in about sixty-one or two, I was visiting in Amarillo when my brother had met a young guitar-picker named Chuck at some music store or pawn shop. He had invited this Chuck cat over to his home to do some serious jamming. The Mesa Verde edition that my brother lived in was in the eastern part of town, north of Amarillo Blvd. There was an auto race track west, within a few blocks of their house, as I recall.
Nevertheless, when Chuck arrived at Ben's place he was full of music and stories. First, let me try and give an accurate description of this mysterious person. He was sorta tall, skinny, had red hair and a rough completion. I think he played on a Fender telecaster or strat and he played a lot of Venture & Fireball instrumentals. This fell right in place for me, as I knew 'Walk Don't Run', 'Perfidia' and 'Torquay' better than I knew my own brother! Although I eventually played lead on these songs, on this occasion I just played rhythm and let Chuck do his thang! Afterall I was only about 16 years old at the time. As I remember, he did a credible job of playing these songs & I guess I hung in there pretty good because he wanted to 'hire me' before the evening ended!
Anyway, this same cat told me and my brother that he had done a lot of recording in Clovis and had played with the Fireballs. He bragged about also knowing Norman Petty as well. Since a lot of musicians like to fabricate stories and accomplishment we didn't really know if the guy was lying or not, so we just ate it up like a couple of country bumpkins. Since he was basically a rock guitarist and since my brother leaned toward country, after that day I don't know if they ever jammed together again. As I stated, I was just in town visiting for the week when all this had occurred.
About forty years after this little jam session, I wrote a letter to the Petty estate on another business matter one day. When they answered my letter they included a post card which had a photo of the original Fireballs on it! When I saw the kid in front, my mind raced by to the long ago jam. I began to suspect that the mystery Chuck we had jammed with, might actually have been 'Chuck Tharp' (pictured on the card as an early Fireballs)! I soon asked my brother if he remembered this long-ago meeting and he couldn't. I told him the guys name was Chuck, and he thought it might have been another Amarillo guitarist (Chuck McClure).
I let the issue ride for a couple years and then while reading through Bill Grigg's booklet recently I discovered that Chuck Tharp had quit the Fireballs and was in the Amarillo area in 1961, where he became associated with Ray Ruff! Suddenly the mystery Chuck and the real Chuck Tharp began to merge into one!! Today I am 99% convinced that the noted musician Chuck Tharp did attend that long, ago jam session at my brother's home in Amarillo and we played some Fireball & Venture music together!! Anyone want to make a wager?
The Ill-Fated Denver Tour
In the summer of 1965 a fledging high-school rock group in Canyon, Tx (the Cavaliers) approached me about going on tour with them. The grand plan was to go on a tour to Denver, Colorado and play some bookings there! I was skeptical but their lead-man was short on skills and I decided to play with them temporarily and see what developed. They had heard me play with the Westwinds and recruited me. Since J. Holcombe had been kicked-out of school and wouldn't be back, I was in between bands and agreed to play with them for the summer. So, in a few weeks we worked up a number of 3-chord rock songs such as 'Rockn'roll Music' and 'Louie Louie' and were soon on our way to Denver with our sponsor and psuedo-manager, Ted Kelley and Mike Morrison.
This thrown-together group consisted of Lynn Kelley (rhythm guitar) Charles Knight (bass) Billy Cawthon (drums) and myself (Robin Brown) on lead guitar. I was unfortunately forced into singing as they couldn't play & sing simultaneously, if you get my drift. When we arrived in Denver in mid-summer we were in for a great shock! Our young manager (a former resident of Denver) had setup a schedule of phony bookings in which no jobs had actually been secured! It seems that the reason he had conned us into traveling to Denver was mainly so he could return home and visit his old friends and former classmates! Dumb, idiot!!
When we first got into the city we checked into a motel and got permission to practice in a cellar beneath the laundry. Practice was something we desperately needed, as you might suspect. When we found that we had no actual bookings we soon began auditioning at various night-spots for a job. After a few days in town Mr. Kelley became too ill to travel so he kept 'footing the bill' while we scouted around Denver for a gig. Ok, we also tested a little 3.2 beer which was available at the time.
After auditioning in several teenage night-clubs (and being rejected) we decided to hang-around and hear the house-band at one popular club. We noticed that the stage was filled with enough Fender equipment to stock a music store and surmised that if the band was as good as their equipment, we were in for a treat. Sure enough, when this 5-piece band kicked-off with the latest Beatle hits we were totally knocked-out! They sounded just like Paul, John, Ringo & George! They had the music down pat and their accents were perfectly 'english'. Us country rockers from West Texas just sorta slunk down in our seats and began to question our talents and musical ambitions. We began asking ourselves, "How could the Beatles sound ANY better? These guys are light-years ahead of us...she-it again."
Finally, toward the end of the week on a Thursday night (I think it was) we happened upon the Cinamon Club, a split-level structure that set on the side of a steep ravine. Our manager (whom by now we wanted to kill and disect) made a desperate pitch to the manager and they reached an agreement for us to play there, that very night. Play for a percentage of the gate, that was the deal. No audition was required, so we started to unpack the U-haul trailer. It had been days since any of us had even seen a good, square meal much less eaten one. We had been living off of fifteen-cent Coo-Coo burgers, which were not much larger than a silver dollar. I felt rather weak as we unloaded the equipment but carried on anyway out of desperation.
When we finally kicked-off the music that nite we began to understand how we had gotten the job so easily. The crowd consisted mostly of long-haired teenage cats that huddled around the bar and made snide remarks at the end of each song. They simpy refused to applaude. There were virtually no girls or young ladies present on this off-nite and the gate was very small. Fortunately, the club manager got tired of hearing our 'hick rock band' from Podunk, Texas and said after the first set, "You dudes don't have to play anymore if you don't want to!" I think he was getting tired of our noise but did I feel rejected? No! I felt quite releived! I was tired of being the 'front man' on a ship that was sinking faster that the Titanic! Yes, those wise acres that surrounded the bar were hard to face and even harder to play for!
Although our booking at the famous Cinamon Club was less than gallant we did make just enough money to get out of town. We loaded up our equipment, the ailing Mr. Kelley and headed back to Texas the very next day, a rather disillusioned group of young rockers. I drove the Mercury & trailer at break-neck speed, I was so anxious to get back to Texas. Yes, we were a pitiful sight as we drove along. However, just before we reached Canyon Lynn Kelley said, "When we get into town, let's brag about playing the Cinamon Club and not let anyone know about all the crap we encountered on our fraudulent, crappy tour!" It wasn't hard to reach agreement on this and Lynn continued, "If our friends find out what really happened in Denver we'll be the laughing-stock of the whole town!" So, anytime someone asked about the Denver tour, we simply 'lied through our teeth' and said, "It was great, it was just faaaannnnntastic!
Amarillo College Dance c.1967
The Gimini Five
When we had returned to Canyon from Denver and got over the trip, I started teaching Kelley & Knight how to play their guitars with more skill. I had first picked up a string instrument (a mandolin) at age six and they had picked theirs up not so long ago. It was claimed that I was a 'natural musician' and I guess I was to a certain degree (but I was no Jimmy Hendrix). I was impressed with the fact that Lynn could sing good harmony and Billy Cawthon was a trained and skilled drummer. Furthermore, Mr. Kelley had bought a PA system that improved our sound.
When school started that fall, I decided to continue with these 17-18 yr. old 'kid musicians' because they did show promise. They sorta thought of me as the old man of the group but I was barely 20, I should add. We soon asked my old friend Ronnie Hester to join the band, as lead-singer & rhythm. I wanted to concentrate on playing good leads so I limited my singing to harmony. Soon we five were playing all around the Canyon-Amarillo region as the 'Gimini Five'. I must admit we were a striking group with our long hair, pure-white coats & red turtle kneck sweaters. We took on the looks of an English group, no doubt. Since I could sing harmony (as could Lynn) we soon were singing 3-part harmony and imitating the Beatles, the Kinks, the Zombies, Beachboys & various other rock groups of the era. Aside from Canyon & Amarillo, we also played good jobs in Childress, Borger, Pampa, and Plainview during the next year. We did college jobs at Frank-Phillips college and the Lamda Chi's fraternity at Canyon signed us for half-a-dozen jobs that year. We became their unofficial fraternity band! We loved playing all their parties for the whole year. Thanks Mike Moreland, Robert Brandon & the rest of you old frats for all the memories at WT! In retrospect, I feel the Gimini Five was a good dance band but we made no studio recordings or attempted to release a record. The only recording that may have been made of Gimini Five (or the Westwinds) was made at a senior-prom in Tulia, Tx in 1965-66. This recording was made by the local radio station (KTUE) and excerpts from it were played later on the air, as I recall.
After Billy Cawthon quit the Gimini Five we replaced him with David Whatley temporarily, a drummer from the WT stage band. He played good solo's and also loved to play rock music but his style didn't really jell with our band. Cawthon concentrated on laying a good beat and minimized rolling around. Whatley could certainly play a better solo however. I stayed with this band until the summer of 1966 then I became disallusioned and quit, without notice. As I recall Ronnie Hester also departed and the Gimini Five soon folded and became history. Lynn Kelley got married and Charlie Knight moved on to bigger and better things.
The Soul Seekers:
At this same time (1966) a bass player named Bill Coleman became manager of a new, music store in Canyon, Tx. He also had aspirations to form a rock band. Ronnie Hester soon joined this group which would also would include Bill Waldrop (lead), a keyboard player (Pat) and a drummer named James. I heard the Soul Seekers play many times around the campus and although they started-out rough they matured into a good rock band. Coleman's store outfitted the group with super-beatle amps and a quality PA and this enhanced their sound greatly. On one occasion when they were playing regularly at the Bat Cave Club in Amarillo they called on me to sit-in for the night. As it happened, Bill Coleman was unavailable to play so Waldrop moved over on bass and I filled in on lead. This was the last time I ever played a job with my old hometown friend, Ronnie Hester the first teenager I had ever met that could play good back-ground for me. We had first picked together when I was 13 and he was 14, back in fifty-nine at Matador, Tx! Can you believe it? Fifty years have almost passed since then. Although our professional association had ended we did remain friends a long time. I would meet up with Bill Waldrop again however, not far down the road.
Meeting The Viscounts:
When Charlie Knight left the Gimini Five he fell in love with the new 'soul music' that was making the charts. Such artist as Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and others were hot on the top forty about then. At this same time a new group arrived on the Amarillo music scene. They were the 'Viscounts' and he soon had opportunity to join this fine band (on bass). In the fall of 1966 I found myself back at Checkmate Studio (Amarillo) to record two of my original rock songs (Man of Steel / To Say Know). This time Larry Cox, a local DJ had taken over the studio and when we arrived we noticed that a bus was in the alley, behind the studio. This turned out to be the Viscounts and we immediately enlisted their drummer (Scot) to help us on the tracks we were to cut. When the session began Robt Ashcraft was on bass, I was on electric guitar and Scot was on drums. After I over-dubbed the lead guitar part, Max Barton sang lead and we begin to sound something like 'Paul Revere & the Raiders' as I recall. Later we sent these same recordings to our ol' friend (Joe Bob Barnhill) in California. He had landed a job with United Artist after leaving this area and he had become the 'ginney-pig' for all his old musician buddies back in Texas, trying to get a break. All us idiots expected him to take time-out of his busy schedule and make us 'stars', just cause he knew us back when!
After some effort the only positive thing he reported was that my songs had been considered by the producer of 'Dino, Desi & Billy'. They eventually were rejected however because they were too hard to play, at least that's what I was told. "Ain't life unfair," I muttered when I got my rejection notice!!?? I now wish that Max Barton and me had released those songs on a 'local label' and went from there. As it happened, we tried to start at the top and now the masters are lost and our acetates are worn-out. Stupid, stupid move!! Max, don't you agree?
The Viscounts were a large group of about 7-8 players which included brass instruments and saxaphones, along with drums, bass & guitar. Their leader Deryl Moon played trumpet (and sang?) while Charlie Knight was on bass and Scot was the hot drummer. I've forgotten the rest of their names but I think some of them were originally from the Dakotas. We met up with these same cats again (onstage) in Ruidosa, NM at the end of 1966 but that's another story! The circumstance of their arrival in this area is unknown to me but I do know that Deryl Moon was attending WT the fall of 1968. In conclusion I will say that the Viscounts were a fine band that played around Amarillo during the mid-late sixties . They were more equipped to play advanced music than most of the bands that were active around Amarillo at the time. They could sound like or imitate James Brown's fabulous Flames and also play 'Blood, Sweat and Tears' type music, too. The last information I have on the Viscounts is that they had played Friday's Steak House & Lounge (on W. 10th in Amarillo) in late summer of 1968, just after I had left Max Barton & Gary Swafford's band there. In early 1971 I received my last message from my old friend Charlie Knight while I was living in Lubbock. He was still living and playing in Amarillo and was wanting to start a new band! Some thirty years later I must say, "Hats off to you Charlie Knight! I knew you when you were a 'beginner & an amateur' but you went on to become one of Amarillo's finest bass players!"
Jeckle And The Hydes
A strange, rock band came to Canyon and played at the SUB during the mid-sixties. This group had been formed by two brothers, Dennis and Lloyd Watts in Plainview, Tx (some 80 miles south of Amarillo). Both played guitar and Lloyd also sang, while Dennis played lead. These were a couple of youngsters that had first taken guitar lessons at the Mary L. Spence music store there and they showed some unusual abilities. By age 16 they were copying the Fireballs and String-a-longs really well and playing teenage dances at the American Legion building in Plainview. They seemed to be so enamored with Fireball music that they named their first band after one of Tomsco's songs, 'Torquays'. Under this tag they played all around the Plainview area and were popular for a couple years while still in High School. About the time they graduated they reorganized their band and attempted to become a show-band under the strange label, 'Jeckle and the Hydes'!
The singer (Lloyd Watts) would come onstage in a cape and put-on a wild show to highlight each performance. I still recall seeing the 'Hydes' in the Ballroom of the SUB (in 1965-66) and they were playing some good, english sounding music at the time. I don't know if they made any rock recordings but Lloyd Watts went on to write & record a couple of original songs in Lubbock in the early seventies which were released on a single. He later traveled to Nashville and recorded a pop-country album ('Leaving Caroline' in 1976) which Joe Bob Barnhill promoted. The title song (by Barnhill) reached the charts in Reno, NV but otherwise the album was unsuccessful. About this same time Lloyd was playing bass in Lonnie Brown's blues band (Flick) at the El Toro club in Plainview when I returned there. After Lloyd moved to Padre Island and late in life he began to write again and he placed some original songs on the internet which have some credibility. A mutual friend, Wallace Shackelford told me not long ago that Lloyd Watts had met his fate and was no longer alive. I must say, "We didn't know you well Lloyd, ol' fellow musician but you have won a vote from us for your efforts and perservernce. You chased your dream to the end and never gave up, you sure did!"
Canyon's Gimini Five update:
About 6 months ago (or near the first of 2008) I became determined to track down some of my old musician pals, to relive some of my favorite memories of rock'n roll! I had a second motive in mind too, namely I was tired of 'skeptical people' refusing to beleive I once had excelled at something & had done things that many local musicians only dream of. Since I have no 'gold records' to hang on the wall or fancy photo's to display (or big stacks of money to flash) I guess I was just considered a petty musician that specialized in lying!!
Anyway, after consulting the internet I came-up with a couple of phone numbers and soon located my old friend 'Ronnie Hester' who now lives in Dalhart, Tx. We had a nice visit but he couldn't refer me to any other musicians we had played with, some forty odd years ago. I had asked Ronnie about some old recordings we had made but he never sent anything, so I guess they are now lost. The first rock band he, Roy Morrison & myself formed was 'The Shadows' of the Silverton-Quitaque area of Texas (c.1962-64). Later we added Kenny Thornton on bass & played locally & around Plainview, where he was attending college. Roy currently lives in Lubbock and I met his wife & daughter just last Sunday, but Roy wasn't present. Glad to hear he was 'still kickin' anyway! Where Kenny Thornton is now, I have no clue.
As I wrote in another article, I played in a band called the Gimini Five in 1965-66 amd we worked out of Canyon, Tx. Besides Ronnie Hester & myself, three CHS students also played in the band: Lynn Kelley, Charlie Knight and Billy Cawthon. About the same time I was visiting with Hester, isn't it ironic that Lynn Kelley (who now lives in Atlanta, Georgia) started searching for me also! We finally made connections when a friend of my brothers mentioned me on her internet blog. Cora Gail (who now resides in NM) came to a home-town jamboree last March where we played & she mentioned this on her website (it appears). Anyway, Lynn wrote and asked about contacting me. Cora forwarded the letter 'general delivery' & it arrived in my local post office, just a couple weeks ago (July 2008)!
I noticed in his return address, that Lynn is now working for a big, stockbrocking firm there. So, being just a local roustabout I was a little intimidated about answering his letter. Nevetheless, I did and was glad to discover he is doing well & still treasures our rock'n roll days together! I had gotten to know Lynn's parents very well as we practiced regularly at their beautiful home in Canyon. I didn't expect them to still be alive but it was a real shock to find that our fellow bandmate Charlie Knight had died in Viet Nam, before the war ended (years ago). I had always envisioned Charlie as having a successful career as a musician and it broke my heart to know he had 'died young'. It was near Christmas of 1968 the last time he and I jammed together in Canyon & by then he was playing really fine bass!! It looked as though he was headed to the top. Strange thing is, I recall being told in late 1970 that Charlie was wanting me to join his new band in Amarillo. But I guess I may be wrong about the 'date'. Anyway, Life is so unpredictable & if it is true Charlie!.... and life dealt you such a tragic fate, remember 'You gave it your best while you were with us & we salute you & will always remember you'!
After exchanging a few e-mails I finally called Lynn and we had a fine visit! Although Lynn's mother worked in the Registar Office at the college and his dad was an educated man, he chose to marry at seventeen. Aside from Lynn's parents, the Gimini Five wanted him & Ricky to wait at least another year, but they wouldn't have it. Anyway, Lynn went to work and studied at night to receive his HS diploma! I believe his brother had forfeited his education for ranch work. Nevertheless, Lynn soon made a life-altering decision. He applied for a salesman job at Fedway Shoes in Amarillo, Tx. He did so well in the business that he either was transferred to St. Louis or he took another job there, in management. To make a long-story short, he did well enough in Missouri that an opportunity in NY City opened up for him, while he was still in his mid-thirties. There he rose to the top of the heap once more and eventually would organize a syndicate to buy-out a large Shoe Company, headquartered in Atlanta. This company specialized in a popular line of women's shoes. After expanding the companie's chain of stores, he sold out his controlling interest and by age 45 was able to retire. Thus becoming one of Canyon High School's most successful drop-outs! Hats off to you, Lynn Kelley for proving that hard work, patience & endurance does pay off!
Anyway, during our lengthy conversation I learned that Billy Cawthon had continued playing drums and now lives in Las Vegas. Lynn also stated that Billy had played in numerous professional bands over the years and I guess his training at CHS really paid off. Aside from playing with Gimini Five, Billy had been the main drummer in the high school band in Canyon during the 1964-1965 era. I should also add that Ronnie Hester continued to play in secular bands until about age thirty-five. Then he became a born-again christian and joined a Church. Today he is a music minister at a baptist church in Dalhart, Tx. After Lynn Kelley got married in the summer of 66, he quit the Gimini Five and retired temporarily. But after playing a few jobs in a club trio, the following year he quit playing onstage. Today Lynn does still own a guitar and a set of drums and he still plays as a hobby. I myself played my last 'paying-job' at the Cross Roads motel in Amarillo in early 1970. Since then, I still do a lot of dreaming about the 'good ol' days' and periodically I play onstage at local Jamboree's and parties. In fact I am scheduled to appear on the 'Turkey Jamboree', August 2, 2008 with my brother Bennie Brown, another avid guitar picker! We play JUST FOR FUN!
Amarillo-Canyon Music #2
by: Robin Brown
Stories include: Macaslin Dorm Party-1964 / Gig at Fridays Lounge in Amarillo-1968 / Recording in Clovis
Christmas Party at Macaslin Hall
Back in sixty-four when I was still playing with big John Holcombe and Ronnie Hester we were hired to play a christmas dance at Macaslin Hall in Canyon. This was a girl's dormatory (on campus) that set right across the street from the Panhandle-Plains Museum. As I have stated earlier Big John Holcombe (as he liked to be called) had a 'wild streak' and we didn't know what to expect anytime we played a dance or party with him.
When we were pulling up to Macaslin dorm to unload someone said, "Hey Big John, let's park in back and get them to open the fire-door, our equipment is heavy." Holcombe ignored whomever and instead pulled his car near the front entrance and got out. "Wait here while me and Hester check the situation out," he said with a half-crazy grin. At this point I think they retrieved something from the trunk and he and Hester went inside. It seemed like an eternity before they returned but perhaps in ten minutes they came back snickering. I noticed instantly that Hester's face was almost as red as the dickey around his neck. (We were wearing dickeys and sport coats at the time.)
Big John piled in and said, "You were right Brown we're supposed to unload in the rear!" He then circled around the dorm and we found a janitor awaiting with the back door ajar. When we got unloaded and the amps setup, me and Hester went back outside to have a smoke while Holcombe helped Gene Hefner setup his drums. At this point Hester began to explain why his face had been red earler! He said that when they entered the lobby no one was at the desk so Holcombe said, "Hey short-stuff follow me!" Hester said he did as told and they went into a private hallway which fronted all the girl's rooms.
A lot of the doors were standing open and naturally they peered into each room as they passed by. They got a 'good show' according to Hester and the dorm mother hadn't even caught them! When Holcombe had spotted a half-nude coed he'd say, "Heeeeey sexy baby! I'll see you at the dance tonight!"..........or........."I shore like that negligee, it fits just right!"
It seems that Big John had used the gig at Macaslin Hall to indulge in his other hobby, girl-watching! He used to stare into Playboy magazines every chance he got and look at Playmates with unveiled desire! Anyway, when the party began it went off without a hitch and we weren't arrested! Everyone seemed to like Hester's imitation of Johnny Rivers and we jamed down on some good Venture instrumentals also. We played for about 3 hours, I beleive. Most all the girls present had dates and when the party ended their dates gave their goodbyes and went home. By then the coeds were confined to the dorm because it was almost midnight. This meant that Big John's invitations of love couldn't be acted on (at least on that very night). There however was one final treat in store before we loaded-up and headed back to Jarrett Hall though.
The Westwinds were invited to attend the opening of the presents under the Christmas tree! Holcombe figured nothing could equal what he and Hester had already seen (meandering down the private hall of the all-girls dorm) so he declined the invitation and headed home. What he didn't know was that the other girls that hadn't attended the dance were waiting around the Christmas tree. So, when the gifts were handed out, all us boys (except Holcombe) got a 'birds-eye view' of some of the latest fashions in coed bedtime apparel. Those gals had on some of the cutest negligees and pajamas us ol' country boys had ever seen! It reminded us of when we used to sneak a look at the lingerie section of our mamma's Sears-Roebuck catalogues! When we told Holcombe about it later he darn near 'had a runaway' he was so mad!!
Big Gig at Friday's Lounge
I think it was in the summer of sixty-six that I came into contact with an old friend of mine, Max Barton. We had played a little music together back in 1958 when we were both in grade school. He played a snare drum with a set of hair-brushes and I played a Silvertone electric through an airline amp. I suppose some might ask, "You boys shore weren't too well equipped were ya?" Our first and perhaps only public performance was during the annual Variety Show there at Matador school. Although we could struggle through one early rock song 'Party Doll' we chose instead to play our other number, on the show... 'Steel Guitar Rag'.
Max was three years younger than myself & some of the kids in my class made issue of the fact that I had chosen to play with a 'kid'. So, at the end of the song they 'booed' rather loudly from the balconey and created a commotion. We didn't place. Not long after, our little duo became history but we remained friends until I left town in sixty-one. Nevertheless, some six years later Max was entering his senior year at MHS and anticipating coming to WT to study. By then he had a big drumset and his voice was better than I could have ever imagined. He was copying the best singers of the day and I was optimistic that Max might have enough talent to replace Lucky Floyd of the Sparkles someday! He had enough range to sing Righteous Brother's songs and he could imitate Smokey Robinson, no small feat for a white boy!
When Max came to Canyon in the fall of sixty-seven we roomed together at Mrs. Dee's boarding-house and began scouting around for musicians. We soon enlisted Robt Ashcraft and some unknown drummer to play a job with us at a club on east Amarillo Blvd. We hired a drummer so that Max could concentrate on just singing initially. (Max had potential as a drummer but it was never realized). About all I remember about our first Amarillo gig together was that Ashcraft's brother came along and critiqued us while we played. His only comment after the job was, "Yawl sounded purty good, but Max needs to learn the lyrics to most of the songs!"
Yes, since we were another 'thrown-together group' and we had put Max into the position of having to ad-lib lyrics, just like we were ad-libbing the music!! Anyway, we got paid and we didn't get tossed out by the big floor-bouncer so we were happy! On the way home Max said something like, "You know Brown, playing these-here clubs is easier than swiping Uncle Alfred's water-mellons. It shore 'nuff is fun!"
During the next school year we played a few more jobs around Amarillo and Canyon, with some success. Jobs like the one at the Ross Hotel's lounge in Amarillo we played. Then as the summer of sixty-eight approached we decided we needed to find a steady 'club job' or else we'd to have to go home and work on our pappy's farms. The former option sounded a lot easier than the latter, so I hastily put together a trio behind Max. Since Ashcraft would be going back home (to Midland, Tx) for the summer we had to replace him with another guitarist & WT student, Bill Waldrup (from Monahans, Tx). This musician had played lead in the Soul Seekers with Hester but he was glad to move over and play bass behind me. On drums we began with an inexperienced black drummer (a Karate expert) that had quick hand, but his quick reflex was better for 'striking blows' than at 'keeping time' we later learned. After a disastorous audition at Luigi's we landed a steady job at Fridays Lounge on West 10th in Amarillo). I told Max, "Let's call the Swaffords and see if my old friend Gary is back in town, we've got to get a better drummer!"
Max agreed and we soon found that Swafford had just arrived back in Amarillo (from California) after hearing the news that his father had a terminal illness. Swafford said he'd be glad to play just as long as he was in town and his father didn't need him at his bedside. This completed the line-up of our new group, the Soultions. I was on lead guitar, Bill Waldrup was on bass guitar, Gary Swafford was on drums and Max Barton was on vocals when we took the stage at Fridays. We began playing 5-6 nights a week but initially the crowd was light. So after about a week or so we approached the manager with an idea.
"The crowds aren't gonna get any better if something isn't done soon," one of us told the short, stocky manager. She replied, "Well, do you'll have a fool-proof plan then!" We told her that since Gary was quite famous in and around Amarillo, we needed to advertise that he was playing at the club nightly. We then decided that the best way to do this was to simply call our group, "The Gary Swafford Band". Soon KIXZ or KPUR radio was called and some spots were purchased.
The radio ads ran something like this: "Come out to 'Fridays Steak House & Lounge' tonight and hear the fabulous Gary Swafford Band. They will be playing from nine 'till midnight . Come on out and hear Amarillo's legendary drummer and his new band! If you purchase drinks in the bar before nine pm there will be no cover charge."
When we drove in sight of the parking lot of the club that next night I immediately felt a surge of stage fright! The place was covered with every kind of fancy automobile you can imagine. Max said something like, "Well Brown, I think your advertising idea is beginning to pay-off!" Why there must have been a thousand people waiting for us inside it seemed as we squeezed in the side-door. Of course I am exagarating as the club couldn't hold half that many people, even when sardine packed. But on this particular night, yes the place was packed with people just like sardines in a can. There were people lining the walls even in the pool room, looking for a place to sit down. The manager had a watermellon smile on her face when we took the stage.
I don't remember too much about our performance that night except that it was made more difficult by the fact that a relatively large number of Amarillo musicians had turned out to see what kind of magnificent band Swafford had surrounded himself with. Unfortunately, I know we certainly disappointed most of those present that were expecting such a knocked-out band. We certainly weren't polished and we certainly weren't magnificent but we did get the people on their feet dancing. The small dance floor was packed from the start and it turned into a good party before the night ended, it sure did!
Ted Barnhill had brought his whole band out (The Barons) and Swafford's old friend Mike Hinton (the assistant DA of Randall county) was also present. We invited a few musicians to sit-in and Hinton replaced Swafford for a few numbers but I don't think any of the Barons ever got onstage. I want to tell you, that Mike Hinton could drum!! When midnight finally arrived and the crowd disapeared I was one releived cat!
Somehow we got through that first, big night and the manager was satisfied that we were pretty good and that advertisement pays! We however wanted to be better so while we played at Fridays that summer we used the disco-turntable to learn a lot of current hits. We learned popular soul songs such as "Ain't No way" by Aretha Franklin and Aaron Nevel's "Tell it like it is". Max had an exceptional ear for picking-up melodies of soul songs and we did a lot of current soul hits. He could even imitate Aretha. We also played some watered-down versions of Jimi Hendrix, Iron Butterfly and the Cream. I think we also played ''Born to be Wild' as it was quite popular about this time. Of course, we also inserted some 3-chord stix such as 'Mustang Sally' and 'Stormy Monday' to fill out the program. Although we weren't flashy nor fabulous, we did play some advanced songs like 'Misty' and 'We've lost that Lovin Feelin' so perhaps we did gain some respect from those musicians that did venture into Fridays to hear Swafford's fabulous band! I still ain't sure on this point, but just maybe....just maybe...hmmm.
After about 2 months (and dozens of performances) I grew restless and decided to leave the band. Bill Waldrup had also grown tired of the grind so we 'cashed in our chips' on the same week. We told Max and Swafford we were quiting and I moved back to Canyon and he left for parts unknown. I learned later that Ruff's old lead man (Larry Marcum ) replaced me at Fridays Lounge & Charlie Knight had replaced Bill Waldrop on bass. I was also told that Knight brought along other members of the Viscounts including Deryl Moon on trumpet. In fact, Moon told me himself that he had played some with Max and Swafford at Fridays Steak House and Lounge, after I had left the band.
By summer's end the gig at Fridays was history as Max went off to college at Nachodoches and Swafford returned to California (his father had died during the summer). My friend Max Barton continued his singing career and by the early seventies he was jamming with a blues band in Plainview (Tx). Lonnie Brown, Lonnie Dale Brown and Tony Poston were playing the El Toro Club there and Max had done some singing with them. After Max married Poston's sister, he left the stage for about twenty years but while living in Ft. Worth he joined a quartet of fine singers called 'Flashback'. They do all the old pop-rock hits of yesteryear and sing all over the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex today. Max, Ol' Rockin Robin salutes you & your excellent group... Flashback!!
Recording at Norman Pettys Studio
My first encounter with the legendary Norman Petty of Clovis,NM happened just this way. In 1963 while I was still in high school I was playing in a rock group with three teenagers of Silverton,Tx. Our band (The Shadows) had been playing local dances and we had just bought some new Fender equipment in Lubbock, Tx. Overcome with enthusiasm and local success someone said, "Hey! We're gittin good, so let's go out to Clovis and audition for that famous feller, Mr. Norman Petty. He'll probably give us a recording contract!"
So, like country bumkins we loaded up in Ronnie Hester's new Ford car one weekend and headed for New Mexico. Thank god for a 'big trunk' and 'little amps'! We had obviously never heard of the standard business method of 'making an appointment'! I guess one might say we were just a mite naive about the music biz. We knew nothing about how to conduct business and what we might be getting into as we headed westward ho!
I can't recall exactly how we got to Clovis but I think we drove 100 miles west and hit the Lubbock-Clovis highway somewhere near the Texas-New Mexico line. Us four young-buck musicians were hell-bent on auditioning and getting into big-time music, we shore were! Things got complicated however when we arrived in Clovis sometime before noon on a Sunday morning. Everyone (except us) knew it runs counter to protocol to try and conduct business on a Sunday, especially without notice or appointment. Nevertheless, there us four amateur-idiots were crammed into Hester's car with microphones and cords hanging out the windows, waiting for Mr. Petty to magically appear. Roy Morrison said, "You know boys, maybe we should've picked a weekday to come out here. They may not even open the studio on Sundays, reckon!" In unison we all replied, "Oh she-it."
Luck and providence were on our side, however. Not long after Roy had made his brilliant deduction a young man came across the patio and unlocked the studio door and went inside. At that moment Ronnie said excitedly, "Hey! That there feller looked a lot like Jimmy Gilmer of the Fireballs! Gilmer's the fellow that sings on their hit 'Sugar Shack'. I'd luv to get his autograph, if that's him!" As we stared at the studio door we saw the 'closed sign' was still in place. Kenny Thornton our bassman next blurted out, "Why don't someone go knock on the door and see if Mr. Petty is available and if we can get inside?"
Just as we were flippin-a-coin to see who was gonna knock on the door, the young man with wavey blond hair came out the door and meandered along the sidewalk toward our car. Hester said, "HEY that IS Jimmy Gilmer! Let's get out and meet him!" As improbable as it may seem we had arrived in Clovis during the very week that 'Sugar Shack' had hit #1 in Billboard! Yet, when we confronted Gilmer out in front of Petty's studio that day he acted just like a regular feller. After introductions his first statement was, "Do you guys play in a band somewhere? You'll sure look like traveling musicians to me?" Another brilliant deduction.
When we answered yes and then confided in him that we were on a mission to meet Mr. Petty and to possibly audition for him, he was sorta taken back for a moment. After regaining his composure he said something like, "Well, we are fixing to listen to some 'playbacks' from last night's session. Let me ask Norman, if he minds you'll coming into the studio and listening also!" Man o' man! This sounded just like what we had been waiting for! Getting into the front door of that grand little studio was goal #1, it shore was.
Gilmer returned in a few minutes with good news! Petty had agreed to let us come into the lobby and listen to some Fireball recordings. He however soon nixed the notion of an audition by saying, "I don't audition band's live. You boys will need to send a tape to: N. Petty Studio, Box 926, Clovis, NM"
At the time we were a little discouraged about not getting to audition for Norman Petty until he played the Fireball's version of "Wishing" over those big Altec speakers. Suddenly we were 'glad' our guitars & drums were still in the car and not in our hands! The Fireballs recordings sounded so wonderful and so ahead of our music, our first impulse before leaving town was to 'hock our equipment' and never come back! Luckily, all the pawn shops were closed in Clovis on that fateful day when the magnitude of our talents came into question. The Shadows returned home somewhat disillusioned but happy to have met Jimmy Gilmer, George Tomsco and Stan Lark (The Fireballs). Meeting Mr. Petty was okay, too.
Our impressions of Mr. Petty that day had been more/less unanomous. To us he seemed distant and acted like a big-shot. Whereas Jimmy Gilmer and the rest of the Fireballs could not have been nicer or warmer. They were total contrasts of each other. In defense of Norman Petty perhaps we had expected this successful recording artist, successful writer, successful producer and discoverer of Buddy Holly to cater to us, like we were his equal. It just didn't happen!
The second time I met Mr. Petty happened more/less this way. I finally was invited to record at the Clovis studio by my friends (Ted Barnhill, Gary Swafford & Nelson Wertman) the following summer in 1964. Finally I got to see Mr. Petty, the engineer in action. When we got into the studio that morning he set a Wollensack recorder on the floor and instructed us to learn 4-songs. The two singers we were backing-up had no original songs to record so Petty offered these which some amateur-writer had sent him. In my opinion the songs were very marginal, at best. Anyway, I always had a knack for identifying the key most any song was being played in and the chord arrangements. Right-away I figured-out the key and the chord pattern to the first song.
Although I had been enlisted to play 'rhythm guitar' I soon was teaching the other musicians the 'chord arrangements' of the songs we were to record. When the big moment came, Petty entoned through the intercom, "OK, I think we're ready for a test cut. Count it off Ted!" With these instructions Ted counted-off and led in with a good, bass run while me, Swafford and Nelson joined in. About half-way through the song, Petty broke in and said, "OK, that's enough for the moment. Ted your A-string is a little flat." With these new instructions we began again and this time we made it through the song without being interupted. After one more take, we played the complete song and seemed to have made a fairly good backup track! As I recall this same method of learning, tuning and recording went on all day long (except for lunch).
By about 5:00 pm the singers were working on their tracks and Ted, Nelson and myself decided it was time to head back to Amarillo. Gary was riding later with the singers as I remember. Nevertheless, before we left I was impressed that the duo was beginning to sound like the Everly Brothers, even though the Everly's sound was out-dated by 1964. Being my first session in a professional studio, I guess I was easily impressed! I was however playing with some very good musicians that day. They were: Gary Swafford on drums, Ted Barnhill on bass, Nelson Wertman on lead and I (Robin Brown) was on rhythm. The two singers were Dale Gardner (of The Kitchen Sinq) and Carrol Reams. My view of Norman Petty didn't change much after actually recording there but I did note that he was quite professional at his job and obviously a 'hard worker'! He sat at the mixing console for darn near 8 hrs straight that day and was still there when we left!
Some four years later I was visiting Swafford's home in Amarillo and guess what he produced? He produced an acetate of our Clovis session and played it! I believe he also stated that the 'Amarillo duo (Gardner & Reams) whom we backed-up that day had gotten a 45 rpm release on two of the songs (which they hadn't). I think I asked Swafford what 'label' the songs were on and I should have asked him to write down the 'singer's names' and the song titles, as it took 40 yrs to that find out! I suppose it is possible the songs may have been re-issued on a CD more recently as the masters are still in Petty's archive. I know the two singers joined Mark Creamer & formed 'DC & The Gents' soon after our '64' session. Then after Reams departed the band, they became the Illusions and then later became 'The Kitchen Cinq' and recorded for LHI label in California! (Refer to youtube.com). I guess my only claim to fame from the session is that I did record with Gary Swafford & Dale Gardner, who became the lead singer of.... The Kitchen Cinq!
The infamous BoRa Club of Amarillo, Tx
Not long after arriving in big Amarillo in the summer of 1964 I found myself outside the entrance to the BoRa Club, a popular teenage hangout. This club was in a large building that had originally been the Nat Ballroom. Once inside the Castle-fronted structure I found there was a spacious dance floor, a large stage and many of the accoutrements of a New York speakeasy. Although it was primarily a Rock'n Rollers hangout I soon learned that many of the big bands of the Swing-Era had performed at the Nat in the thirties & forties. Bands and orchestras such as Benny Goodman, Bob Wills and Glen Miller had once played here. It was quite an intrigueing place to a greenhorn musician from rural Texas for sure! At the time, I had just graduated high school and was a lone guitar player looking for a band to play in and a stage to play on! As luck would have it I soon met up with a couple of other wannabe-stars from Phillips, Texas. Lynn and Phil Johnson were singer-guitarists that could do close harmony, much like the Everly Brothers. The owner of this teenage establishment was none other than Gumbo Hacklett & he was acting as the Johnson's manager. Since they all liked my guitar playing I was soon cajoled into playing lead-guitar for them! Since they had no actual bookings, as an added bonus I was also hired to do 'odds jobs' around the club (or at least I thought that was the deal we made)! So, when myself and the Johnson brothers weren't working on our act, I worked around the club at various jobs, mainly janitorial in nature.
During the week the kids at the BoRa danced to the Wurlitzer juke box but live bands played on weekends, as I recall. Celebrity artists were also occasionally booked into the club, including such acts as Roy Orbison, the Fireballs and Jimmy Gilmer. It was a thrill to hear all these bands perform! Even the local ones such as The Cinders & Emeralds were good too.
My routine was basically this! I would show up around ten each morning and stay 'till about 5:00 pm. The hours were ideal but I was having to walk about 3 miles every morning just to get to work, and also walking home. My chores consisted of such things as sweeping the ballroom, stocking the coke machine, etc. Since my boss seldom showed up during the daytime, I essentially just worked at whatever I wanted! It was a real picnic of a job, at least I thought so for awhile. One strange thing I noted about Mr. Hacklette's operation was that he had a couple of young 'tuffs' that always hung around the club, at all hours.
I noticed after a couple of days these two juveniles favorite hobby was to linger near the doorway and 'shoot the bird' at any and everyone that drove by on Georgia Street. I finally decided that they were mostly trying to provoke a confrontation it seemed. Whenever someone answered their challenge for confrontation, these idiots would run down to a nearby park and rendezvous for a big rumble! Then a 'quick fight'would ensue before they returned!! Yes, these two cats just loved to bust heads! Although I never saw any of their fights, I certainly saw their bruised hands and scuffed knucles afterwards and listened to their inflated descriptions of what had happened! Accordingly, they certainly followed no 'rules of etiquette' and would gang-up on a single person, if that's what winning required!
Neverthess, I had been working at the BoRa for about three weeks and hadn't gotten paid so I casually asked one of the tuffs, "When does the 'boss' pay us employees around here, nohow?" The tuff and his partner kinda looked at each other sheeplishly and then one replied, "Ah…we don't know exactly how to break the news to you but...Mr. Hacklette is not a real businessmen, nobody ever gets paid 'round here, except the bands... And sometimes they have to sue fer it!" When he told me this I could have whipped both of them idiots and Gumbo Hacklette at the same time! Yes, I was steamed big-time. By minimum wage I had earned at least a $100 and there I was being bilked by a self-styled businessman that was operating like Al Capone!! Was I ever mad! That was my last day as an associate of smarty-pants Hacklette and the infamous BoRa Club! I bid farewell to the local tuffs, packed my gear and furiously headed home. As I recall, the Johnson brothers soon split also, one went into the army and the other joined Ray Ruff's band, the Checkmates. Whatever happened to the BoRa Club and the slippery Gumbo Hacklette... I do not have a clue! I do know that at one time Club BoRa was a jumping nightspot that the Cinders, Sammy and the Emeralds, Roy Orbison and the Clovis 'Fireballs' once performed at.
I should also mention that the Johnson brothers & myself played the BoRa once, on a Sunday afternoon show. This performance marked my stage debut in Amarillo and I went on to play many gigs in and around Amarillo over the next six years. Some of the clubs I played in (for real money!) included the Top-Hat Club, Fridays Lounge, Ross Hotel Club, Bat Cave, N. Fillmore Club, Crossroads Motel Club & the Airman's Club out at the air base.
Ray Ruff: Producer, Promoter & Recording Artist
Recording artist, record producer and promoter Ray Ruff was born in Amarillo, Texas on March 24, 1938 and grew up in the Panhandle of Texas. He first made some waves on the local music scene in the early sixties that is worth reviewing. To gain insight into who the enigmatic Ray Ruff really was, it is necessary to know some early, local facts. During Ruff's late teens, some of the local rock musicians that were gigging around Amarillo were the popular Nighthawks. This early rock group was composed of Eddie Reeves, Mike Hinton and Bob Venable. Wihout a doubt, if Ray didn't know these musicians he certainly heard their music! He very possibly also knew or heard the Trojans play. This second rock group included the still unknown Jimmy Gilmer with Earl Whitt on guitar, Gary Swafford on drums and Steve Dodge on bass guitar. They also played a lot of jobs around Amarillo during this time! Of course, Jimmy Gilmer soon was to join the Fireballs in Clovis and it seems possible that Ruff would have run across him there when he also began recording in Clovis in c.1960. Also we know that Ray was about 19 years old when Elvis and Holly had their first national hits and the era of rock'n roll moreless began. This was in 1957 and whether he liked Elvis's style is irrevelent but since Amarillo is just over a hundred miles from Lubbock (hometown of Buddy Holly) it was most natural that he would like Buddy Holly and his music!
Not much else is known (by the author) about his early life except that he took an interest in singing and rock'n roll music during his later teen years. According to the same source Ray Ruff (aka Ray Ruffin) was playing baseball for the Amarillo Sandies when he first met Buddy Holly. This had occurred after a game between Amarillo and the Lubbock Westerners and is said to have been in 1956, while Holly was still just a local musician of Lubbock. It has also been stated that this meeting with Holly led to Ruff's association with other early West Texas rockers, including Buddy Knox and Roy Orbison. Perhaps it was during this meeting that Ruff learned about the Norman Petty studio in Clovis and this is more likely where he became acquanted with Knox. It is a fact that in 1964 Knox was associated with Ray Ruff because one of his records was released on the Ruff label, which Ray founded. During this time period Knox's career was on a decline and he was back in the Canyon and Amarillo area booking some local jobs with Billy Stull's band, the Cords. Finding a connection to Roy Orbison might be a little more difficult as Orbison had done no more recording in Clovis by the time Ruff arrived there. By then Orbison was recording for Monument records in Nashville and no longer was a resident of West Texas. It has been stated that Ruff became associated with Norman Petty when he was just 18 years old, but his discography does not support this assertion either as his first recordings in Clovis were done in either late 1959 or 1960. Whatever Ruff's connection to Holly and Orbison was, we do know for a fact that Ruff adored the Buddy Holly sound and made a number of recordings in Holly's style in the early sixties.
After Ruff had completed his first recordings in Clovis and got his first release on Bolo (or the Norman label) in sixty-one his next dream was to put together a show band so that he could tour. There has been some discussions and even contradictions as to who the first Checkmates were! But knowing a number of the early musicians of Amarillo I am inclined to beleive the drummer Bobby Hacker. He claimed that Ruff's first band consisted of himself on drums, Chuck Tharpe on rhythm guitar, Chuck McClure on lead guitar, Tom Beck on bass and Ray on guitar-vocals. Actually, since Ray could probably only play a few chords a story has circulated about him using his guitar as a prop. Since he was basically just a singer and front-man, when he came onstage his guitar was plugged into a 'dead channel' on one of the amps. It is claimed that Ray beat on the guitar so hard during his performance that he frequently broke strings. Finally, this problem was solved when the band members strung his guitar with baling wire!
From 1961 through 1963 Ray Ruff and the Checkmates had at least six singles on the Norman label of St. Louis and many of these were recorded in Clovis. On the first releases on the Norman label however the Checkmates were not credited or mentioned. Then the record released in Dec. 1962 was credited to 'Ray Ruff and the Checkmates'. After the six singles by Ruff had been issued, in sixty-four some of his masters were leased to the Lin label of Gainvilles, TX and at least three records were released on this Texas label over the next year. I am told that one song 'Beatle Maniacs' on this label is the only Ruff song that ever charted. This was in 1964 long after he had begun touring across the midwest. Sometime, in perhaps late 1964 Ruff seems to have became dissillusioned with the labels he or Norman Petty had been signing him with and it is said that he founded 'Storme Records' during this time. It is a fact that he did have at least one release on the Storme label but by 1965 he had established both the Ruff label and a recording studio in Amarillo. So, whether he actually founded or ever owned the Storme label is a mystery (to the author) but this label was later based in Hereford, TX. But Ray was releasing singles on the Ruff label by late 1964.
It was at his Checkmate Studio on NE 24th street where he expanded his skills and gained some experience as both a producer and an engineer. A number of Amarillo rock groups gravitated to his small, multi-track studio and he released as many as two dozen singles in about a 2--3 year period on the Ruff label. Some of the groups included Mark Creamer's band (The Illusions) but the record was credited to the Ya'lls. He also recorded Jackie Carter's band 'The Tiaras', the Page Boys, the Blue Things, Buddy Knox and of course Ray's own band 'The Checkmates'. Although none of these records ever hit the top forty several are highly prized by collectors today!
It has been stated that Norman Petty chose Ray Ruff as the heir apparent to Buddy Holly's music but this does not seem likely considering that several other singers became Crickets after Holly had been killed but not Ray Ruff. Among others Earl Sinks, Jerry Naylor, Larry Trider & Sonny Curtis actually recorded and toured with the Crickets after Holly was killed in 1959. Each of these musicians were fine singers in their own right. Since Ray Ruff never had this opportunity we must assume that his relationship with Norman Petty probably began like most other unknown singers and musicians of West Texas. One day he must have decided he wanted to make a record. He'd heard of Petty's Clovis studio and he contacted him and setup a recording session. This is generally the way most singers arrive in Clovis. Contrary to popular belief Norman Petty was not a talent scout and any discoveries that he made was from people contacting him and proving they were good!
Since it was cheaper to furnish your own band when any singer went to Clovis, Ray probably used some of the early Checkmates on his Clovis recordings. Some of the Amarillo area musicians who have stated that they did record with Ruff in Clovis during this time include: Bobby Hacker, Jerry Hodges and Larry Marcum. Bobby Hacker states also that Chuck Tharpe, Chuck McClure and Tom Beck were in Ray's first band and they possibly played on some of Ruff's earliest recordings also.
During the early or mid-sixties Ray Ruff devised a rather ingenous plan as a way to become a regional rock star! Although he had no records on the top-forty at the time, it appears that he rented VFW's and old dance halls across the central USA and began running gaudy advertisements over KOMA radio in Oklahoma City. These ads gave him and his band regular air-time over the 100,000 watt station and gave their schedule of appearances over a rather large area of the midwest and a couple of Canadian provinces. Suddenly, although most listeners had never heard his music on radio 'Ray Ruff and the Checkmates' name became almost a household word to the tens of thousands of teenagers who listened regularly to KOMA! When his band played nearby, hundreds of teenagers would flock to his dances and stage shows! There is little doubt that this enterprise was successful and proceeds ran into the thousands after just a few weeks on the road.
In late 1966 while the English invasion and other nearby countries were swamping the American market with their unique music it occurred to Ray that there might be some big dollars to be made as a manager and/or booking agent of just such a group. Somehow he got a lead on the Irish group 'Them' which had recorded the song Gloria back in 1964 so Ruff contacted them about coming to America and touring under his under his guidance. Soon they were headed to Texas! Van Morrison had been in the original group but during their stay in Amarillo (late 1966-1977) this important rocker may have already left the group as his solo hit 'Brown eyed Girl' appeared about this same time. Nevertheless, Ray Ruff appears to have recorded this band and also sent them touring the USA for awhile. Tom McCarty, a member of the Amarillo band 'Page Boys' recalls vividly opening for Them across several states. At about this time Ruff also had acquired the Sully label of Oklahoma City and at least two singles by Them were released on this label, which was more established than the Ruff label. The liner notes on one of 'Them's' album states that they moved from Amarillo to LA in late 1967. This date also seems to coincide with Ray Ruff's departure from Texas and subsequent residency in California. Johnny Stark (Amarillo) one of Rays associate musicians states that he and another musician from his band The Illusions had also toured as a member of the band 'Them' during this period of time. In fact, he states that the band he toured with was the 'American Version' of Them, which implies that there may have been more than one band touring as the famous Irish band! Nevertheless, both Stark and Jim Parker have made the same claim as having toured as a member of the famous rock band 'Them' in the USA. Since they were members of the same Amarillo rock band that recorded with Ruff at Checkmate studio, one can easily see how natural it was for them to become substitutes when needed. Their band 'The Illusions' had also moved to California at about this same time and had several records with Lee Hazelwood while in Los Angeles, as the Kitchen Cinq. None of these records were hits so they may have been strapped for jobs when Ruff called Stark the drummer and Parker a guitarist.
The Blue Things of Hayes, Kansas also recorded in Amarillo at Checkmate Studio during it's existence. They had become regionally known through John Brown's Mid-Continent Productions of Lawrence, Kansas. It is said that Ray Ruff patterned his promotions over KOMA after the Blue Things ads run by Mid-Continent! Whatever the truth is, he signed the band to both his Ruff label and later his Sully Label. Today these 45 rpm releases are collectible! In fact they are possibly more in demand than the Blue Things recordings on RCA, except perhaps their one album on the big label. Val Strecklein, the bands lead vocalist suffered a nervous breakdown and by 1968 the original band was on the ropes. But John Brown didn't want to give up a good thing, so as the owner of the 'Blue Things' name he recruited new members and kept the band touring several years after Strecklein ended up in California where he recorded an album for Dot records. This album failed to score. By c.1970 the Blue Things were mostly history. It is interesting to note that the Hayes group had initially chose the name 'Blue Boys' but later found out a country band was using this name and they abandoned it. They initially had done some recording at Damon Studio (in Kansas or Oklahoma) before they changed their name, but these recordings were never released, except as demo acetates.
A Palo Duro High School Dance -- Early Sixties
DC & the Gents
Thanks to an encounter with Charlie Bates of the famous 'Cinders' trio of Amarillo, I can now update some of my recent stories about another local band! It now appears that Amarillo rockers Mark Creamer, Johnny Stark and Jim Parker founded a band and did some recording in Clovis,NM in 1964. At this same time a couple of young Amarillo singers (Dale Gardner & Carrol Reams) had also booked a session at Petty's studio there. These two male singers had enlisted bassist Ted Barnhill and drummer Gary Swafford to furnish the backup band which also included Nelson Wertman on lead-guitar and Robin Brown on rhythm-guitar for their 4-song session.
Not long after this Clovis encounter it appears that Gardner & Reams united with Creamer's group into a bigger band. These five musicians began booking under the name DC & the Gents and soon were playing at a teenage niteclub off Duniven Circle in Amarillo and elsewhere. These cats played a lot of the early Beatle stuff, songs like 'Twist & Shout' as I recall. Incidently, the DC in the name stood for Dale & Carrol! As it now appears James Carrol Reams played guitar and sang in the group for awhile but was eventually replaced by Dallas Smith. By 1965 perhaps, the band had changed it's name to The Illusions and had about 5-6 members including the front man, Troy Dale Gardner. One of their favorite places to play was the Student Union Building in Canyon and this band was the 'most english' sounding group playing around Amarillo at the time! They also made another name change during this time and evolved into 'The Kitchen Cinq'. By c.1967 they had moved to Los Angeles and had signed with Lee Hazelwood on his international label "LHI". A number of the Cinq's records are listed in collectible guides today on the LHI label. They also had at least one single release on the Amarillo label.. 'Ruff ' which is probably hard to find today as it is not credited to the Illusions, but to Y'all. My assessment of this band is this: They were a top-notch group of talented rockers that could play most anything they wished. By the mid-sixties they were probably Amarillo's finest Mercy copy band and had many die-hard fans!
The Gimini Five update
About 6 months ago I became determined to track down some of my old musician buddys, to relive some of my favorite memories of rock'n roll! I had a second motive in mind too, namely I was tired of 'skeptical people' refusing to beleive I once had excelled at something, playing the guitar. Since I have no 'gold records' to hang on the wall or fancy photo's to display (or big stacks of money to flash) I guess I was & am just considered a petty musician that specializes in bragging!!
Anyway, after consulting the internet I came-up with a couple of phone numbers and soon located my old, musician friend 'Ronnie Hester. He now lives in Dalhart, Tx. We had a nice visit but he couldn't refer me to any other musicians we had played with, some forty odd years ago. He couldn't remember their last names or knew where they might now be. At this point I was beginning to doubt my own memories. Anyway, I also asked Ronnie about some old recordings we had made but he never sent anything, so I guess these are now lost, too. Let's get the facts straight anyway, the first rock band Ronnie, Roy & myself formed was 'The Shadows' of the Silverton-Quitaque area of Texas (c.1962-64). Later we added Kenny Thornton on bass & played locally & around Plainview, where he was attending college. In about 1963 we recorded at KVOP radio station in that town and the crazy DJ aired our recording (without consulting the station manager).! He claimed the kids loved this little, surf instrumental I had written. Anyway, that is a little thumbnail sketch of my first rock band. Roy Morrison currently lives in Lubbock and I met his wife & daughter just last Sunday, but Roy wasn't present. Glad to hear he was 'still kickin' anyway! Where Kenny Thornton is now, I have no clue.
As I wrote in another article, I played in a band called the Gemini Five in 1965-66 and we worked out of Canyon, Tx. Besides Ronnie Hester & myself, three CHS students also played in the band: Lynn Kelley, Charlie Knight and Billy Cawthon. About the same time I was visiting with Hester, isn't it ironic that Lynn Kelley (who now lives in Atlanta, Georgia) started searching for me also! We finally made connections when a friend of my brothers mentioned me on her internet blog. Cora Gail Gunn (who now resides in NM) came to a home-town jamboree last March where we played & she mentioned this on her website. Anyway, Lynn wrote and asked about contacting me. Cora forwarded his e-mail letter 'general delivery' & it arrived in my local post office (July 2008)!
I noticed in his return address, that Lynn is now working for a big, stockbrocking firm there. So, being just a local roustabout I was a little intimidated about answering his letter. Nevetheless, I did and was glad to discover he is doing well & still treasures our rock'n roll days together! I had gotten to know Lynn's parents very well as we practiced regularly at their beautiful home in Canyon. I didn't expect them to still be alive & but it was a real shock to find that our fellow musician Charlie Knight had died in Viet Nam, before the war ended. I had always envisioned Charlie as having a successful career as a musician and it broke my heart to know he had 'died young'. It was near Christmas of 1968 the last time he and I jammed together in Canyon & by then he was playing really fine bass!! It looked as though he was headed to the top. Life is so unpredictable.
After exchanging a few e-mails I finally called Lynn and we had a fine visit! Although Lynn's mother worked in the Registar Office at the college and his dad was an educated man, he chose to marry at seventeen. Aside from Lynn's parents, the Gimini Five wanted him & Ricky to wait at least another year, but they wouldn't have it. Anyway, Lynn went to work and studied at night to receive his diploma! I believe his brother had forfeited his education for ranch work also. Nevertheless, Lynn soon made a life-altering decision. He applied for a salesman job at Fedway Shoe Store in Amarillo, Tx. He did so well in the business that he either was transferred to St. Louis or he took another job there, in company management. To make a long-story short, he did well enough in Missouri that an opportunity in NY City opened up for him, while he was still in his mid-thirties. There he rose to be the company president and eventually would organize a syndicate to buy-out a large shoe company, headquartered in Atlanta. This company specialized in a popular line of women's shoes. After expanding the companie's chain of stores, he sold out his controlling interest and by age 45 was able to retire wealthy. Thus becoming one of Canyon High School's most successful drop-outs! Hats off to you, Lynn Kelley for proving that hard work, patience & endurance does pay off!
Anyway, during our lengthy conversation I learned that Billy Cawthon had continued playing drums and now lives in Las Vegas. Lynn also stated that Billy had played in numerous professional bands over the years and I guess his training at CHS really paid off. Aside from playing with Gimini Five, Billy had been the main drummer in the high school band in Canyon during the 1964-1965 era. I should also add that Ronnie Hester continued to play in secular bands until about age thirty-five. Then he became a born-again christian and joined a church. Today he is a music minister at a baptist church in Dalhart, Tx. After Lynn Kelley got married in the summer of 66, he quit the Gimini Five. After playing a few jobs in a club trio, the following year he quit playing onstage. He does still own a guitar and a set of drums, which he still plays on, as a hobby. I myself played my last 'paying-job' at the Cross Roads motel lounge in Amarillo in early 1970. Since then, I still do a lot of dreaming about the 'good ol' days' and periodically I play onstage at local Jamboree's and parties. In fact I am scheduled to appear on the 'Turkey Jamboree', August 2, 2008 with my brother Bennie! NO PAY.........JUST FOR FUN!
My Nashville Music Trip --1971
In 1971 I was living in Lubbock, Tx when I suddenly decided that I would travel to Tennessee and become a successful Nashville songwriter! Aside from the irrationality of this idea, this also wasn't a wise decision since I was mainly a rock'n roller. Nevertheless I had saved about $400 while working at a machine shop in Lubbock and that was a fair amount of money at the time. I had also written about a half dozen songs I thought were 'country hits' but I needed to make some good demoes of these before I left. At the time I had a Sony-630 recorder but I needed better recordings (I thought) so I paid $250 down on a new Revox A-77 stereo recorder. I'd been toying with the idea of buying a Revox ever since I tried one out in Odessa. I was convinced that such a machine would enhance my songs and put me on the road to music success!
Soon I had the new machine sitting on my dresser (in my rented duplex) and I began a series of 'midnight recording sessions' in the downtown area of Lubbock. Why did I record at such a late hour? I lived on a busy street and the noise didn't die down until this late hour. Luckily, the only other person in the house was my landlady way back in the back apartment and she never complained. Within a couple of weeks I had a half dozen songs on tape and I was ready to head for music city. First though I had to return the Revox to the dealer as my financing didn't come through. I was so pleased with the demoes that I left the recorder at the Hi-fidelity shop and let them keep my $200 down payment as a rental fee.
I left town in my Mustang with my Yamaha guitar, my Sony recorder and several demo tapes, hellbent on success! As I was leaving I could certainly identify with the Mac Davis song... 'Happiness was Lubbock, Texas in my rear view mirror' ! After stopping in Plainview to say goodbye to my ol' college girlfriend Rhonda I cut through the country and hit the east Texas highway near Childress. I didn't want to go through Dallas-Ft. Worth because of traffic so I chose a route that led through Sherman, Paris and Texarkanna. Unfortunately, the road from Texarkanna to Little Rock was under construction and I arrived there near midnight, totally exhausted. Next day when I neared Memphis I also hit a detour that led south around this big city. I hadn't planned to stop there anyway, so this was no problem. Later it occurred to me that I should have done as many tourist do and visited Graceland, Sun Studio and Beale Street in Memphis. It was about ten years later before I learned that I had missed seeing these three Icons of American music! To say I was a young and uninformed greenhorn is an understatement. I didn't know didley about the history of rock, blues or country music yet I was convinced that I was destined to succeed big time in the business! Yes, I was a little naive.
When I finally arrived in Nashville, I immediately encountered a problem. The alternator on my car want out and I had to spend $30 to have it replaced with a used one. I was soon back in my car and looking for a place to stay on or near Music Row (16th avenue south). In 1971, Nashville's famous 'Music Row' was just a section of old 2-3 story houses that contained residences and music related businesses. I had expected skyscrapers but there were none nearby. The only building of any size was the RCA studio and the old building that housed 4-Star record company. I think these were on 17th Ave. however.
About 3 blocks south of where the Country Music Hall of Fame was initially located, I found a three story house and a sign that read 'bedroom for rent'. This was to be my home, for a couple months! I didn't know it when I entered the turn of the century house (which seemed like a mansion to me) that I had arrived at 'Miss Jenny's Rooming House', a landmark on music row! This was a place where many aspiring musicians and songwriters before me had lived (and possibly died or at least became quite discouraged)! This turn-of the-century house was here when Hank Williams first rolled into Nashville in the late forties. The old house had been here when Waylon Jennings and Johnnie Cash roomed together in Nashville and would still be around long after I was gone, I surmised.
At this particular time the house was being managed by Miss Jenny's jigalo boyfriend (let's call him Fred as I've long since forgotten his name) and he met me with a southern hello and said, "If you need a room, we have one vacancy!" Fred soon informed me that the weekly room rent would be $15 and I gladly shelled out the money and soon was unloading my car and moving into the spacious bedroom on the ground floor. The room had the usual furnishings along with large bay windows on the north and a polished, hardwood floor under foot. I had to share the only bathroom and kitchen with other renters. Soon I was unpacking my clothes and guitar. After a bath in the claw-footed tub, a shave and clothes change I drove to a drive-in restaurant nearby.
Soon I was sinking my teeth into a tasty hamburger. While eating I noticed a sign on a nearby building that stated 'Nashville Productions'. I decided after I finished my meal I'd see exactly what type business it was, surely it had something to do with music (I thought). Sure enough, when I entered the building I discovered I had entered a factory where records were pressed! "Why this is precisely what I've always wanted to do...... make records," I told myself!!
Soon an employee asked me what my business was and why I was there. I told him I had no real reason to be there except that I had had an interest in making records since childhood. In fact, I had become interested in records the day Tab Morrison brought his 'record making machine' to our farmhouse and recorded our family singing some gospel songs. The man replied tersely, "There currently are no job openings for any unskilled persons here."
His attitude sorta offended my sensitive country feelings and I countered, "Oh, I'm not unskilled! I have a perfect pitch ear and can prove it if you'll let me get my guitar." This didn't impress him one bit and he replied, "The speed and pitch of our records is determined by electronic meters, gauges and mathematics. Even if you have perfect pitch, it won't help you here at Nashville Productions. I suggest you move on out of the work area, as we are busy." I thought to myself, 'Someday, just someday a million of my records will roll off the presses. I'll have many records pressed but not by these idiots!"
As I was preparing to leave the building per his request I noticed a stairway that led to some up stair offices. It appeared that several publishing companies were also housed in this same building also. So, after retrieving a demo tape from my car I returned to the building and ventured upstairs and entered one of the offices. There I found a man that was friendly and willing to listen to a couple of my songs. After the song had finished he said, "You've got a good hook on this song and the melody isn't bad either. I think with a little lyric change you might have a hit!" He suggested that I take the song home and revise it. Before I left he asked what part of Texas I was from and when I told him he replied, "Yes I know exactly where that is, Bob Will's hometown is just ten miles from there... correct? " I answered that this was true. He went on to say that he had played guitar in Bob's band at one time. When I inquired if he was from Texas, he replied no but said had lived in Odessa, Texas just before coming to Nashville. If he gave me a business card I didn't keep it long enough to remember this musicians name but I now am quite certain that it was Tommy Allsup, the famous Oklahoma picker. This guitarist had also played with Buddy Holly, Waylon Jenning and had owned a successful studio in Odessa, Tx during the sixties prior to moving to Nashville. (I was to visit with Mr. Allsup on several other occasions but made no progress with him or his company).
After my visit with the rude employee of Nashville Productions still echoing in my head, I found myself back on the street less interested in the pressing of records than writing hit songs. "I've got to find a good publisher that is desperate for some good songs, then I'll be in business," I told myself in a short pep talk. Soon I was peering up at a sign that read Sawgrass Music and wondering if this company had ever produced a hit song. When I entered the office a rather friendly receptionist ventured this query, "I'll bet you're an aspiring writer or musician?" I admitted that I was a little of both and naively asked, "Has your company ever been approached by a hit-maker before?" She grinned at my cute remark and informed me that Mel Tillis was their main writer and owner. I knew she was referring to none other than the multitalented guy that I watched weekly on Glen Campbell's Goodtime Hour! Tillis was Glen's side kick. He stuttered when he wasn't singing but otherwise was quite a talented fellow! Soon I was playing some songs for these folks at Sawgrass and they showed some interest in one of my songs. After a couple more visits, nothing materialized however as no contracts were offered so this ended my brief encounter with Mel Tillis's associates and Sawgrass music.
Meeting Mr. Clements
My next stop on the trail to stardom was back on 16th avenue and a company called Sure fire Music. Here I was sent to see an older man (Mr. Clements) whose office was on the second floor of a rather rickety building. I didn't know until later that this affable man was something of a legend in the music biz but like all musicians/writers/producers his importance had grown obsolete with the passing of time. I had no inkling at the time but every amateur, unknown writer that entered Sure-fire's door was detoured through his office. So, I myself spent several hours visiting with this character of the bygone days of Gene Autrey and Roy Acuff.
Mr. Clements was a nice, cordial man and he listened patiently each time I brought him a new song and he was never really critical. Yet his main interest (in me) was just having someone to sit and listen to his stories about the good, ol' days of Nashville and the Grand Ol' Opry! I didn't know it at the time but he was reliving 'true stories and events' that had happened years before during his illustrious career. I wish now that I had made notes! Anyway, after meeting a lot of negative people in the business, I kept dropping by Sure fire to visit with the kind Mr. Clements during my stay in Nashville. It is true, he didn't show much interest in my music but he was never discouraging either unlike a lot of other people in Nashville. I really never thought he had any pull in the business but I did keep his business card in my billfold long enough to remember his name. It was a great surprise to me (20 years later) when I saw in an Encyclopedia of Country Music that he was listed! After reading his bio I realized that all the stories he told me about his musical connections and acquaintances during the early days of Nashville & Hollywood were true! Mr. Clements also told me (and countless others obviously) that he had been raised on a farm and had come to the big city so he could walk down sidewalks and escape always having mud on his shoes.
Meeting My First Song Shark
Some weeks later, after being rejected by most of the big Nashville publishers I decided to visit a little company headquartered in a run-down house on the row. I didn't think Vanity Music could help me but I said to myself, "What the hey... I'll have a little fun while I'm killing time and messing around!" So, like a country fool I carried my demo tape inside and found myself staring at an over-weight receptionist. When I advised her as to who I was and what my intentions were, she only glanced at me cynically, lit a cigarette and reached for the intercom. I could faintly hear her tell an associate of my presence. After I fidgeted with my tape a few moments she suddenly announced, "Mr Howser will see you in the next room."
When I entered the next room I was prepared to encounter a well attired businessman that would offer at least a perfunctory handshake and something of an Emily Post greeting. Instead , upon entering I encountered a skinny, fortyish face staring at me between a pair of Mexico boots propped in the middle of an oak desk. It seems that I was so important to Mr. Big shot Howser that he didn't even have the courtesy to remove his feet from view and offer a handshake.
"Where you come from boy and what the hell business you got in Nashville no how," he said in a mock country accent? I tried to tell him politely that I was a musician from West Texas and that I was a songwriter to which he replied, "Shtttttt kid....... this town has been full of third-rate songwriters since the Tin Pan Alley days and it damn sure don't need another pseudo talent like you!" I recoiled and told him, "Everyone back home thinks I am another Hank Williams and all I'm asking is a chance to prove it!" But he continued his tirade saying, "This city don't need anything you got boy...my advice to you is simply this: be on a Greyhound headed west when the sun sinks behind the the Nashville skyline this evening!!"
My quick response was this, "Mr. Howser I know I'm a really talented writer and all I request from you is the opportunity to prove it." At which time I shoved my demo tape at him. He accepted it reluctantly and slapped it onto a nearby Webcor recorder and clicked it on. As he did this I thought to myself, "Now I 'm about to show this smart urbanite.... something about real talent and real music. I'll show this Tennessee snob what real talent is all about!"
About half-way through the first song he turned the machine off suddenly and said, "Oh hell...that's just a straight old rock beat.....you're plagiarizing Bill Haley & the Comets...that's nothing new man....shttttt!" This startled me but I wasn't going to let his negative attitude discourage me just yet ....so I suggested that we move to the second song, which he gladly did. About halfway through this number he shut the machine down again. At this same time I lost control and shouted,...."Now, that's a hit....ain't it, Mr. Howser ....isn't that a hit song?" For the first time he nodded his head to the affirmative, grinned like a growling bulldog and said, "Yea...it mighta been about forty years ago!" Defensively I countered, "Hey, I didn't even exist....forty years ago, Sir." To which he countered, "If country music had depended on songs like these it would have never existed either.
To be quite honest I was beginning to grow tired of all his cynicism but I held my country temper and pleaded, "Oh Mr. Howser won't you please listen to just one more song....please?" So, once more he rolled the tape forward and listened to most of the third song then casually commented, "The melody isn't too bad but your story line is ....weak. Try writing something like Tom T. Hall writes....now he's a real songwriter!" This final insult cut me deep and I wanted to kill the son of a biscuit but I merely got up, retrieved my tape and reluctantly left. As I walked out the door, I heard my mother say...."The world out there is filled with heartaches and disappointments but don't get discouraged easily son."
For the first time in my life, I was beginning to understand exactly what her prophetic words meant. I was certainly feeling disappointed and heartsick but in my heart I vowed, "Someday this smart old critic is gonna see my name in lights...neon lights, down at the Opry! Then he most certainly will be the one that is heartsick...cause he won't own a piece of the action....no siree....not one red penny of it!" I said my farewell to Vanity Music in the hallway by spitting on the carpet then I entered the street once more.
Aftermath of this story: One year later I was back on music row and came across Vanity Music again. My curiousity about whether or not the same guy was running the place brought me to his desk again. Another reason I ended up at Vanity Music again is probably more psychological. Perhaps I deal better with negative people than I do with back-slappers. Anyway, this time when I entered he jumped up and gave me a warm handshake and warm greeting. I kept wondering, 'Does this man remember our last encounter...or what?" Then he anxiously asked if I had any original songs in my satchel. When I replied 'yes' he demanded to hear one immediately! Why, I couldn't believe the treatment I was receiving from this same, rude man. Obviously he didn't remember or recognize me! Nevertheless, I once again handed him my demo's and he acted quite enthused when he heard them. In fact he immediately suggested that I let his partner hear the songs also. After his partner agree they had potential, they went into a private discussion while I mulled around the office. I noticed stacks and piles of 45 rpm records in some nearby bins, that bore a common Label and I assumed it was Vanity's private label. At this point I surmised that they acted as publishers, promoters and also a record company. Perhaps they'd do anything to get your money, I wondered?
When the two men returned they gave me some astounding news. "We like two of your songs... 'The Final Curtain' and 'Days of Rhonda-Robin'.....and we want to release them as a single! We think they are hits!!" I could hardly believe my ears...this was precisely what I had been hoping for...but a little voice inside told me.... beware! I was also confused because these were the same songs that Mr. Howser had rejected on my first trip to Nashville only a year ago. Had the music trends (and his ideas) changed that much in just 1 year, I kept asking myself? Yes, having a 'record release' sounded great to me but there was one final stipulation (or catch) before an agreement could be signed. I soon found out that Vanity Music wanted me to put up $500 in advance and pay more when the record was promoted. I told them that I would have to call my father in Texas for the financing of the record and I'd let them know by the next Monday.
As I was leaving the offices I began to add up the clues and question their sincerity. "Why was I treated like a bum off the street the first time I approached Vanity Music and why was I now being treated like a musical discovery," I wondered? Finally as I got into my Mustang I looked down and saw the new, western suit I was wearing & my fancy boots. Then I had the answer. The first time I visited Vanity Music I had been more/less living on the street for several weeks. I was wearing dirty, blue jeans and appeared to have no money or no car. Therefore they saw no potential in messing with me, at the time. Now however, I was driving a nice car and wearing nice clothes and appeared to have money. I was perfect game for these two song sharks that preyed on suckers 'just like me'! But they didn't fool me this time! I gave Howser and the rest of the gang at Vanity Music the universal hand sign as I drove off, as my answer to their proposals.
Almost Losing My Country Cool
Once while in Nashville I also almost landed in the City Jail for beating up a guy. It happened something like this! I'd went into Buckhorn Publishing to promote a song one day and had been ushered into the office of a young man they called 'Buck'. I think he was the owners son. He was a petite little cowboy that appeared to be of the Drugstore type, I guess he was within five year of my age of thirty. I also describe him as kind of stand-offish. Nevertheless, he agreed to listen to one of my song I'd just written titled 'Tumblin Tears'. During out conversation I mentioned Chris Christofferson and how he had become a millionaire overnight with his 4-song bonanza (during 1971). The hits included one Buckhorn had published ... 'For the Good Times'. He let me know right away that this wasn't true and that Christofferson's royalties didn't pay near that much.
Anyway, when he clicked on my song he began to listen intently and tap his foot lightly. Near the end of the song he also began to smile pleasantly so I asked excitedly and naively, "What do you think? Is my song commercial At that moment his smile turned into a scowl and he repeated the same insult I'd been subjected to before, "It might have been about forty years ago!" Well, to say I considered this insult intolerable (at that moment) is an understatement. It totally infuriated me for this youngster to make fun of my personal music. Then he pushed me a little further by saying, "Why do you guys keep coming in here trying to push stuff like this off on me, Man! Who do you think you're dealing with anyway, an idiot?" At this point my blood pressure shot up and I was fit to be tied! I could have knocked him clean over his desk. It took all of my self-control to keep from going after this smart-ass kid. As I reached the office door I turned toward him and said, "You may be right in saying this song is no hit, but I plan to write a HIT....I sure do!" I heard him say as I closed the door, "Well it better be different from this."
The aftermath of this story is this: Some years later I wrote some really good gospel songs that I knew Buckhorn Music would love (they published & made a fortune on Gospel music) but I could not in good conscience let them make a penny off something I'd written. So, after my fateful meeting with Buck, I never approached them again nor recommended them to anyone else.
Meeting The Legendary Bennie Hess
In 1971 I traveled to Nashville to promote some original songs I had written. I planned to stay for about a month in music city and at the time there were a few brick buildings that housed music related businesses on 16th & 17th avenue south. There were also countless old houses that had signs in the yards which indicated that publishers, songwriters and even artists were housed there. I'm not talking about big fancy, neon signs! A lot of the signs appeared to have been hastily painted and erected by people that had made very little money in the music biz.
One day after being down near the University I noticed an unusual sign in front of an old house on 18th avenue that caught my eye. I pulled over and found it was the residence of a middle-aged man named Bennie Hess. The sign in his yard proclaimed that his young son Troy, was the world's youngest recording artist! Since Mr. Hess was something of a congenial man I spent some time visiting with him and listening to his amusing stories. As I recall, he had a lot of bins in his house that were filled with records and I guess he told me he had been in the record business for many years...playing guitar, singing and recording. I had no idea that he had traveled to California and appeared in B-movies as a singing cowboy or that he had his own radio show on a number of Texas stations years before.
Nevertheless, at the time I met Hess he was about 55 years old and I myself hadn't turned 26 yet so our musical tastes were light-years apart. Anyway, I found him to be interesting & empathetic which is something I needed after all the rejections I'd met in Nashville. I kept coming back to visit him regularly on my initial Nashville sojourn. At one point he produced an old Martin guitar that had the name 'Jimmy Rodgers' inlaid on the fret-board and he stated that it was the singing brakeman's original guitar. Rodgers was his Idol he also confessed! I was impressed with the guitar and I can't recall if he let me play it or not, but he did play and sing me a couple of Jimmy's yodeling songs that day. On one of my visits he invited me to attend a jam session at his house the following night but I can't recall now if I did or didn't go. I do remember meeting a couple of the musicians that he played with, one being a mandolin player from Kansas and the other seemed to be a sight-impaired Cajun (at least that was my impression). Anyway, Hess kept talking about an upcoming recording session for his young son Troy and he may have asked me to play, but I don't recall for sure. I didn't figure a 6 yr. old kid could produce a hit so I wasn't too interested in playing. In retrospect I wished I had played. it would have been a good way to get some experience playing and recording in Music City!
I was back in Nashville in 1975 and one day a local reporter was interviewing David Allen Coe. As they passed by the Hess home, Coe stated that it was ridiculous the way that the man was trying to make his young son (Troy) into the world's youngest recording star. The words Coe used were harsh and crude and I think Hess tried to sue him over it later. The interview was televised and I happened to see it and knew Coe was criticizing my old friend Bennie Hess! This was the last I'd heard of Bennie Hess and had actually forgotten his name until just recently.
Being from West Texas, in the last decade I had/have turned to collecting old 45 rpm records from the Odessa, Abilene, Lubbock & Amarillo areas. A few days ago I heard of a couple of rockabilly singers (Royce Porter & Ray Doggett) from Sweetwater, TX that had made some credible rockabilly records back in the fifties. Since I cut my teeth on early Elvis and Twitty, I wanted to investigate these cats! During my hunt I discovered that an independent record label down in Houston called 'Spade' had released several records for these Sweetwater lads! As I was reading about the records it stated that a colorful character named Bennie Hess had owned the Spade label (and several more, during his lifetime) when these songs were released. When I heard the name Hess, a little bell rang in my head that said. "Hey this Hess feller sounds familiar and interesting, I better check him out!" So, after an internet search I found some biographical information on him. As I read about him I begin to read 'facts' that jogged my memory back to 1971. One clue was the Jimmy Rodgers guitar, another was the fact that Hess was an imitator of Jimmy Rodgers, another clue was the physical discription that said he was near 6 ft. six. Then finally, when the article stated that in later life he billed his young son Troy as 'the youngest country & western singer"! Then I knew that I was on to something. The final clue came when I found one of Troy's records on the Show-Land label, which was also one of Bennie's labels. Guess where the record was released from? On the label it gives an address as 18th ave. south in Nashville, the exact same street where I had met Bennie & Troy Hess in 1971!