Where I grew up, in central Illinois, there was one question that inevitably came up whenever you met someone new. The answer was central to your identity, and could make or break friendships. The question was: Cubs or Cards? My family came down firmly on the Cards side. We had a completely irrational hatred for everything Cubbie, and reveled in their perpetual failure. The Lou Brock trade? Haw haw! But even the most rabid Cards fan had to respect first-ballot hall of famer and lifelong Cub Ernie Banks. I got to meet him at a parade when I was 10 or 11 years old, and I got his autograph. In honor of Ernie Banks’ passing today, here is an interview with him from the early 60s in which he gives the youngsters some batting tips. This is from a 45 released by the Topps baseball card/bubblegum empire. It has Stan Musial on the other side!
Ronnie Dawson is best remembered as a Texas rockabilly legend, and rightly so. But his career was long and varied, and C&W fans should not overlook the few sides he cut for Columbia in the mid 60s. Dropping the diminutive from his first name is symbolic of what these sides were shooting for – adult themes for the countrypolitan audience. The lush production here presages Billy Sherrill, and really fits the mood of the song. And that’s really what this record has going for it, mood. Ron’s close-miked vocal is intimate and vulnerable, and the arrangement emphasizes the push/pull of tension/release in the melody. Listen through a couple times and see if you don’t agree – countrypolitan doesn’t get much better than this.
Haven’t seen this one elsewhere on the web – Larry Steele’s original recording of his goofball shuffle classic “Daylight Losing Time”. Larry cut this during a brief stint in the mid-60s when he was tied in with Aubrey Mayhew, and it came out on Pickwick’s Hilltop label, the imprint Mayhew used before he formed Little Darlin’. Most Hilltop releases were reissues of tracks of sketchy origin, licensed from folks like Four Star’s Bill McCall, destined for bargain bins; but for a brief window, Mayhew used it to put out new singles intended to compete on the erstwhile C&W charts. This is one of those, and it’s a fine one. The lyric is a little silly in its high-concept way, but I still think it’s effective. Larry’s a good singer, and the steel playing is great, even if it is too far back in the mix. Steele went on to release a rash of 45s on K-Ark in the second half of the 60s, some solid C&W and others in a poppier, rockier vein. He later revisited this tune on his own Air Stream label in the early 1970s, which was a smart move on his part. That version actually scraped the charts and sold a bit, so it is a lot easier to find. But here it is, his first stab at cutting it…enjoy!
How about a murder song tonight folks? Wayne Kemp cut a terrific version of this for MCA, but here’s the original, by its author “Wild” Bill Emerson, on the Ace of Hearts label. There were at least three musical Bill Emersons: the renowned virtuoso bluegrass banjo player, the R&B guy who cut a few sides for Sun, and this fellow. Dig around on the web a little, and you will see the bluegrass Bill Emerson and Wild Bill often lumped together, confused and conflated, but they are different dudes. I remember reading a short bio of Wild Bill a while back that said he got his start in Detroit during the rockabilly explosion of the 50s; that’s where he got the “Wild” nickname, he had a reputation for crazed dancing-on-the-tables performances. But like a lot of those guys, after that initial burst of rock & roll energy dissipated he simmered down and started cutting country in the mid-60s. He made several nice sides for Nashville-based Topic Records circa 1965 (I may post one or two of those sometime), went quiet for a few years, then had a flurry of releases on Ace of Hearts beginning in 1972. He recorded steadily thereafter for about a decade, so if you like this there is more out there to dig for. But be careful: no man’s ever lived long enough to tell about runnin’ his woman around.
From the Republic label comes this little gem of a ’60s C&W oddball. A toe-tapper with some nice guitar that tackles the day to day life of a lady hobo. Life experience? Inspired by someone she knew? Adventure fantasy? Or had she just read “Sister Of The Road” by Boxcar Bertha? I have no clue. If it draws you in with its oddity, it just might hold you with its stripped down arrangement, clickety-clackety train groove, and Lynn’s plainspoken, unaffected vocal delivery. It’s a charmer.
I may have written this one up on my old website – it’s a longtime favorite of mine. Written by comedian Don Bowman, I first learned this song from Charlie Rich’s uptempo bopper version, cut late in his tenure on Sun; but here Snuffy gives it a very different treatment. It’s arranged as a shuffle, played at a slow midtempo, and damn does it hit the pocket and stay there. It’s as deep as any soul groove, I swear! Snuffy was mostly a drummer, and later a studio engineer, and didn’t step out to the lead singer’s microphone very much. Maybe he just didn’t crave the spotlight? I like his voice on this track, he really puts this song over with a combination of Ray Price passion and Twitty-ish groan.
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Are you ready for some fuzzzz? An over the top wicked guitar riff kicks off this groovy little version of “Do Die”. This tune was written by Bobby Austin, Bobby George, and Roy Nichols, cut by Austin, then by Wynn Stewart. Somehow it wound up with Dollar as well, who gives it far and away the most rambunctious ride. Short and to the point, no muss no fuss, this record spews a delightfully nasty saturated Fuzzrite tone.
Time for a kick-ass shuffle. Bobby Harden’s career got off the ground in the mid-60s when the Harden Trio, the group he formed with his sisters Arlene and Robbie, took the place of the Browns on the Louisiana Hayride. They signed to Columbia and had a big hit right off the bat with “Tippy Toeing” and then…nothing. Who knows why, blame the fickle public I guess, as I think a number of the Harden Trio sides are quite worthy. Before long Arlene successfully went solo, Robbie got out of the business altogether, and Bobby kept hacking away in the trenches. After hopping from label to label, dropping 45s here and there, I think he eventually settled into a behind-the-scenes role as a song plugger for publishing interests. This is a record he cut for Starday shortly after the dissolution of the family band, and I think it’s excellent. The shuffle grooves hard, the steel player is really kickin’ it, and Bobby’s vocal is impassioned and rueful. He sounds great, doesn’t he? Sounds like Earl Sinks on the harmony vocal.
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Now here is a killer song that I haven’t seen celebrated nearly enough. I first learned it from Charlie Rich’s version, cut for his first LP on Epic with Billy Sherrill producing. Charlie’s version is masterful, but this original recording by Ben Peters (the song’s author) equals or surpasses it. I don’t understand why it wasn’t a huge hit. Clearly it was inspired by the success of the erstwhile collaborations of Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb, what with its combination of a specific place name in the title, a sad narrative story, a tenor lead vocal, and a swirling countrypolitan arrangement. But to me it wildly exceeds the mere imitation of an already proven formula. Great chord changes, a long slow build of story and melody, not a word wasted or out of place, a perfect bridge, and then that stirring melodic vocal climax at the end…what a marvelous piece of songcraft. And yeah, the essential truth that San Francisco can indeed be a very lonely place for all of the people who flock to it…what can I say, this terrific little record just speaks to me.
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Recent finds include a nice 45 on MGM of a dude named Walt Conklin (no, I’ve never heard of him either) doing a great version of the Willie Nelson classic “Half A Man”. Willie’s original on Liberty was a slow waltz with a full, lush string arrangement, but ol’ Walt reworked it here as an almost shuffle. He sings it high & hard with lusty vibrato, ala Johnny Bush or Curtis Potter. The chord changes are altered a little, to make it work better when played this way. I love it, I think it’s a great version of the tune, and I’ve been playing it with this arrangement at my Lucky Horseshoe shows lately. The overwrought Glen Campbell-ish A-side may not be my cup of tea, but the keen reworking of “Half A Man” makes this 45 a real keeper.