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AKA Woodrow Wilson Sovine, born Jul 17, 1918 in Charleston, WV, died Apr 4, 1980 in Nashville, TN.
Though he had a long, distinguished career in country music, singer/songwriter and guitarist Red Sovine is best remembered for his earnest, funny and, at times, highly sentimental odes to the life of the American trucker. Born to an impoverished family in Charleston, West Virginia, he was inspired as a child by WCHS radio musicians Buddy Starcher and Frank Welling. Sovine and his childhood friend Johnnie Bailes joined Jim Pike's Carolina Tar Heels and performed as "the Singing Sailors." It was not a particularly successful venture and Sovine later became a factory worker. He also continued to put on a local radio show while his friend Johnnie went on to form the Bailes Brothers.
Bailes continued to encourage Sovine to return to music, and in the late '40s, he finally began pursuing a radio career again. He landed a job at KWKH, Shreveport, but they gave him an early morning spot and his performances went unnoticed. Frustrated, he was ready to quit the business when Hank Williams helped him get a better position at WFSA in Montgomery, Alabama, where he soon developed a large following. With Williams' help, Sovine landed a contract with MGM Records in 1949, and over the next four years he recorded 28 singles, mostly honky tonk, that didn't make much of a dent on the charts but did establish him as a solid performer.
When not recording, Sovine starred on Shreveport's Louisiana Hayride.
In the early '50s, Webb Pierce, one of his fellow Hayride performers, began a string of Top Ten country hits. Pierce convinced Sovine to lead his Wondering Boys band and also helped Red sign to Decca in 1954. He continued recording but had no hits until cutting a duet with Goldie Hill, "Are You Mine?," which peaked in the Top 15 in 1955. The following year, he had his first number one when he duetted with Webb Pierce on George Jones' "Why Baby Why." Also in 1956, Sovine had two other Top Five singles and started a brief stint on the Grand Ole Opry. After producing close to 50 sides with Decca by 1959, Sovine signed to Starday and began touring the club circuit as a solo act. It took him five years to produce a hit for the label with "Dream House for Sale," which reached number 22 in 1964, nearly eight years after his last hit.
In 1966, Sovine at last found his niche when he recorded "Giddy-up Go," his very first spoken-word truck driver song. The single spent six weeks atop the country charts and even crossed over to become a minor pop hit. Subsequent truck-driving hits included the ghost story "Phantom 309" and the tearjerking tale of a crippled child's CB-radio relationship with caring truckers, "Teddy Bear." The latter was his biggest hit since "Giddyup Go," spending three weeks at the top of the country charts in 1976 and reaching number 40 on the pop charts. He followed "Teddy Bear" with "Little Joe," the tale of a blinded trucker and his devoted canine friend, which became his last big hit. Sovine died in 1980 as the result of suffering a heart attack while driving his van. -Sandra Brennan
Born Dec 26, 1922 in Rayne, LA. Died Jul 17, 1951 in Austin, TX. Harry Choates was not only one of the most influential musicians in the history of Cajun music but one of its most tragic figures. A wild, imaginitive, fiddler, Choates wrote such classic tunes as the cajun national anthem, "Jole Blon" and popularized such songs as "Allons A Lafayette." Recording for Gold Star, DeLuxe, D.O.T., Alklied, Cajun Classics, Macy's and Humming Bird, Choates introduced western swing, blues, jazz and country music to the two-steps and waltzes of southwest Louisiana's bayous, influencing nearly every Cajun musician who followed in his footsteps.
Like Hank Williams, Choates balanced his musical talents with painful struggle in his real life. An acute alcoholic, he sold the rights to "Jole Blon" for $100 and a bottle of whiskey. His habit of missing concerts led him to be blacklisted by the musicians union in San Antonio and resulted in his band breaking up. His death was equally tragic. Failing to make support payments of $20 a week for his son and daughter, following his divorce, he was jailed by a judge who found him in contempt of court. After three days of being forced to curtail his drinking habit, he began beating his head against the cell bars and fell into a coma. He died a few days later on July 17, 1951.
Born in either Rayne or New Iberia, Louisiana, Choates moved to Port Arthur, Texas, with his mother in the 1930s. Rather than going to school, Choates spent much of his childhood in bars and tavers, listening to honky tonk and blues records on the jukebox. By the age of twelve, Choates was playing fiddle in barbershops for tips.
Launching his professional music career in Cajun bands led by Leo Soileau and Leroy "Happy Fats" LeBlanc, Choates formed his own group, The Melody Boys, in 1946. The same year, he rewrote the classic Cajun tune, "Jolie Blone," for his daughter, Linda, and recorded it for the Gold Star label. Although the tune became a country hit when covered by Aubrey "Moon" Mulligan, Choates had given up all rights to the song and received no further compensation for his composition. Choates and The Melody Boys continued to record at a prolific rate, releasing more than two dozen songs for Gold Star in 1946 and 1947. Adapting the western swing of Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys to Cajun music, Choates became known as "the fiddle king of Cajun swing".
Although he performed with Jesse James And His Gang on radio station, KTBC, after the disbanding of the Melody Boys in 1951, Choates suffering ended a few months later. His grave was left unmarked until 1980 when money was raised for a gravestone with the bi-lingual inscription, "Purrain De La Musique Cajun - The Godfather of Cajun Music"
In the mid-1960s, Cajun musician Rufus Thibodeaux was one of the first to pay homage to Choates' influence when he recorded an album of Choates' songs, A Tribute to Harry Choates. -Craig Harris
Born in Newton, North Carolina, Hicks took up the fiddle after being dropped as the mandolin player in his brother's band. Self-taught, Hicks' perseverance paid off when he was brought into Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys in 1954, earning Monroe's deep respect. In 1960, he moved on from Monroe to join Porter Wagoner for three years, after which he settled in Las Vegas as the bandleader for the Judy Lynn show, a position that kept him occupied until 1970.
On the road until 1975, Hicks finally chose to return to North Carolina, where he developed a friendship with Ricky Skaggs and released the well-regarded Texas Crapshooter in 1977 (reissued in 1994 by County Records). Darkness of the Delta, a twin fiddle set with Kenny Baker, followed in 1980, as did the Bluegrass Album Band, a traditional bluegrass project that saw Hicks joining guitarist Tony Rice and others. Hicks left the informal band in the four years between the production of The Bluegrass Album Vol. 4 and The Bluegrass Album Vol. 5, but would return for 1996's The Bluegrass Album Vol. 6.
In 1981, Hicks was drafted into the Ricky Skaggs Band, which evolved into Kentucky Thunder over the years, with Hicks being the only original member left. While remaining a member of the Skaggs recording and touring unit as of 1998, Hicks has continued to play on sessions, as well as recording and releasing the star-studded 1998 solo set Fiddle Patch, on which he uses his now-standard five-string fiddle, a 1976 custom creation of the late Harvey Keck. -Steven McDonald
Born Jul 21, 1899 in Flatwoods, VA. Died Jan 8, 1979. As a member of the Carter Family, Sara Dougherty Carter laid the foundation for modern country music. During the fourteen years (1927 to 1941) that she recorded with then-husband Alvin Pleasant "A.P. " Delaney Carter and her cousin and A.P.'s sister-in-law Maybelle, Carter helped to turn the sounds of rural America into an international phenomenon.
The saga of the Carter Family began on July 31, 1927 when Sara, A.P. and Maybelle drove their Model T Ford from their home in Maces Spring, Virginia to Bristol, Tennessee, where Ralph Peer, a talent scout for Victor Records, was auditioning new acts. Passing the audition, the trio recorded three tunes on August 1 and 2, returning to their farm afterwards. When the songs proved commercially viable, they were signed by the label and brought to Camden, New Jersey where they recorded several additional tunes, including "Wildwood Flower." Singing lead and playing autoharp and guitar, Carter provided a rhythmic accompaniment to Maybelle's distinctive guitar melodies and the songs that A.P. had collected. The 273 songs that Sara recorded with The Carter Family for Victor remain a treasure chest of country music classics.
According to legend, Sara first met A.P. after he spied her sitting on her front porch playing autoharp and singing a folk song, "Engine 143." As a teenager, she had performed often with her cousin, Maybelle Addington. After she and A.P. were married on June 18, 1915, they performed as a duo at local parties and social gatherings. When Maybelle married A.P.'s brother, Ezra, the trio was launched.
Financial difficulties during the Great Depression of the late 1920s took their toll on Sara and A.P.'s marriage. Although they divorced in 1933, they continued to work together. In 1935, the Carter Family switched to the ARC (later Columbia) label, for whom they recorded 40 tunes, mostly remakes of their earlier material. The following year, they moved over to the Decca label and became one of the first artists to be paid a royalty for their recordings. In the late 1930s, the Carters increased their influence through their many appearances on radio stations along the Texas-Mexico border. In 1939, Sara married A.P.'s cousin Coy Bayes and moved to California. The Carter Family concluded their recording career in 1941, returning to the Victor label and recording fourteen songs in a New York studio on October 14. The session marked the first time that Sara received credit as a songwriter.
In 1952, Sara and A.P. came out of retirement and, joined by their children Joe and Janette, attempted a comeback. Signed by the Kentucky-based Acme label, they recorded more than 90 songs. When their efforts proved diappointing, they retired again in 1956. A.P. Carter died four years later. Sara's final public performances came in 1967, when she and Maybelle recorded an album, An Historic Reunion. She died twelve years later. Along with the Carter Family, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970. -Craig Harris
Born Jul 21, 1895 in Vevay, IN. Died Mar 23, 1973 in Woodland Hills, CA. America's first singing cowboy, Ken Maynard starred in over 300 films and though his recorded legacy is far less overwhelming, he did appear on several sides for Columbia. Born in tiny Vevay, Indiana (he later claimed a Texas birthplace), Maynard was a rodeo champion and trick rider for both Buffalo Bill and the Ringling Brothers Wild West shows. He came to Hollywood in 1923 and became popular quite soon, appearing in more than 20 films by the end of the decade. By 1929, Maynard became the first cowboy crooner (on 1929's The Wagon Master), and he entered Columbia studios in Los Angeles one year later to record eight sides, including several from his recent films.
Though he never entered a recording studio again, Maynard remained popular in the film world, winning the top moneymaker award for Westerns in 1936 and 1937 (the first two years the poll was taken). He taught John Wayne the art of stunts, and also provided for Gene Autry's film debut with 1934's In Old Santa Fe. By the end of the '30s however, Maynard's popularity decreased. He made a few more films during the mid-'40s, then retired from active moviemaking. Legendary folklorist Harry Smith later included one of Maynard's recordings, "The Lone Star Trail," on his 1952 folksong compendium Anthology of American Folk Music. -John Bush
AKA real name: Bill Browder. Born July 20, 1944 in Humboldt, TN.
After working his way through the record industry, T.G. Sheppard emerged in the mid-'70s as one of the leading country-pop singers, bringing the music closer to the rock-influenced, cosmopolitain sounds of urban cowboy. A native of Humboldt, Tennessee, Sheppard headed off to Memphis after high school, getting involved in the record business on several different levels. He tried recording as a pop artist, and even signed with Atlantic Records under the name Brian Stacy, opening shows for the Beach Boys. A few years later, he took a job with a Memphis record distributor, then ended up in record promotion, where the job entailed calling radio stations and trying to persuade them to play his company's records. In that capacity for RCA, he helped break Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds," Perry Como's "It's Impossible," and John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads." After "going independent," he came across a demo tape of "Devil in the Bottle." He tried to talk a number of artists into doing the song, and when no one was interested, he decided to do it himself on Motown's fledgling country division, Melodyland Records. Primarily a recitation, "Devil in the Bottle" became a number one hit in 1975, but within three years, the company folded, and Sheppard's career was in limbo. Connecting with record producer Buddy Killen, he signed with Warner, and starting in 1979, the two churned out some of country's best-crafted singles over a four-year period. Sheppard gradually moved away from recitations and grew significantly as a vocalist, though the press often ignored his achievements. He changed producers several times in the mid-'80s and, after a divorce in 1987, took a couple of years off for personal reflection. When he returned, Sheppard found it difficult to regain his earlier momentum.
As the nephew of the Grand Ole Opry comedian Rod Brasfield, T.G. Sheppard (b. William Neal Browder, July 20, 1942) was exposed to music at a young age and throughout his childhood, his mother gave him piano lessons. At the age of 16 he ran away from his Humbold, Tennessee home, arriving in Memphis where he became a backup vocalist and guitarist in the Travis Wammack Band. During this time, he was billing himself as Brian Stacy, and that was the credit on his first singles for Sonic Records. The label dropped him after all of his records failed, and he moved to Atlantic's Atco divison, where he released the rock & roll single "High School Days" in 1966. Though it didn't break nationally, it was a hit in the south and soon he was opening for the likes of the Beach Boys and the Animals, while befriending Elvis Presley.
Instead of leading him toward a performing career, the minor success of "High School Days" made Sheppard decide to work behind the scenes in the record industry, and later in 1966 he became a record promoter for Hot Line Distibutors. Initially, he worked for Stax, but he quickly became the Southern Regional Promoter for RCA, where he helped push records by his friend Presley, as well as John Denver. While he was working for RCA, he also founded his own production and promotion company, Umbrella Productions. While working at promotion for Umbrella in 1972, he discovered a song by Bobby David called "Devil in a Bottle." Every record company he directed it to over the next year and a half turned the song down, so he decided to record a version himself. Eventually, he convinced Motown's developing country subsidiary Melodyland to license the record. Deciding to use T.G. Sheppard as his performing name, the vocalist released the record in the fall of 1974. "Devil in the Bottle" unexpectedly climbed to number one early in 1975, followed shortly by another number one single, "Tryin' to Beat the Morning Home." Later in the year, "Another Woman" reached number 14 and "Motels and Memories" peaked at number seven, establishing Sheppard as a promising artist. Shortly after the release of "Motels and Memories," Motown was sued by a Los Angeles church over the right to use the name "Melodyland," and the label had to change its name to Hitsville. Sheppard had four other hit singles on Hitsville - including a cover of Neil Diamond's "Solitary Man" and the number eight "Show Me A Man" (1976) - before Motown finally decided to shut the label down.
By the time Hitsville collapsed, Sheppard was on his way to becoming a star - Cash Box magazine named him Best New Male Artist of 1976 - so he was immediately snapped up by Warner. T.G. became a genuine country star at Warner, paritially because the label promoted him correctly and partially because his sound - a smooth fusion of R&B rhythms, pop production and country songwriting - became the blueprint for the Urban Cowboy movement that became country's most popular genre of the late '70s. After having two number 13 singles ("Mister D.J.," 'Don't Every Say Good-Bye) early in 1978, Sheppard released "When Can We Do This Again" in the summer. The single started a streak of 15 straight Top Ten hits that ran for the next five years. During that time, he had no less than ten number one singles: "Last Cheater's Waltz" (1979), "I'll Be Coming Back for More" (1979), "Do You Wanna Go to Heaven" (1980), "I Feel like Loving You Again" (1980), "I Loved 'Em Every One" (1981), "Party Time" (1981), "Only One You" (1981), "Finally" (1982), "War Is Hell (On the Homefront Too)" (1982), and the Karen Brooks duet "Faking Love" (1982). Over those five years, his style rarely changed - every record was well-crafted, highly-produced country-pop highlighted by Sheppard's smooth croon.
T.G. Sheppard continued to chart well throughout the latter half of the '80s, and between 1986 and 1987 he had a one number one single and three number two records in a row ("Strong Heart," "Half Past Forever (Till I'm Blue in the Heart)," "You're My First Lady," "One for the Money)," after he switched labels and signed to Columbia. However, his audience dipped dramatically in 1988, when his radio-ready sound became usurped by a number of new traditionalist performers like Dwight Yoakam, Randy Travis and George Strait. Between 1989 and 1990, he didn't record at all, and he was dropped by Columbia. In 1991, he returned to the charts with the Curb/Capitol single "Born in a High Wind," but he didn't remain with the label long. For the remainder of the '90s, he continued to tour and play concerts across a country, all the time lacking a new record contract. - Tom Roland
Born 1925 in Mexia, TX. The dean of Texas songwriting, Cindy Walker wrote over 100 country songs, including "Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)," "Bubbles in My Beer," "Take Me in Your Arms (And Hold Me)," and "In the Misty Moonlight," covered by Lone Star institutions like Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, Ernest Tubb, and Al Dexter, as well as Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow. Born in Mexia, TX, in 1925, Walker wrote more than two dozen songs for Wills, and released her own singer/songwriter album, Words and Music, in 1964. She is a member of the Country Music Association Hall of Fame. -John Bush
AKA born: Joseph Emmett Mainer. Born Jul 20, 1898 in Weaversville, NC. Died Jun 12, 1971. Fiddler J.E. Mainer and his Mountaineers were one of the most popular string bands of the early '30s, an important link in the transition from old-time string music to bluegrass. Mainer was born in Buncombe County, North Carolina, and was raised in the mountains. He left home at age 12 to work in a cotton mill; he married in 1922 and settled down in Concord. He started out playing banjo with his fiddle-playing brother-in-law Roscoe Banks at local gatherings, but soon took up the fiddle himself. When Mainer's younger brother Wade moved to the area, the two siblings began playing together; joined by guitarist/singer "Daddy" John Love and Lester and Howard Lay, they eventually formed the first incarnation of the Mountaineers.
After winning several talent contests, the band played on radio stations in Gastonia, Charlotte, New Orleans, and Ashville; upon returning to Charlotte, Love and Zeke Morris replaced the Lay brothers.
The Mountaineers made their recording debut with Bluebird in 1935, cutting 14 songs; the most popular was "Maple on the Hill," an old Victorian standard featuring J.E. on the fiddle. In 1936, Wade and Zeke left to form the Sons of the Mountaineers, while J.E. and his new lineup, consisting of Snuffy Jenkins, George Morris and Leonard Stokes, spent over a year playing with radio stations in Spartanburg and Columbia. Mainer left the band and in 1939 recorded again for Bluebird with Clyde Moody and Jay Hugh Hall. He assembled a new band the following year, which worked on various radio stations. During the 1940s, Mainer returned to Concord and stayed there for nearly twenty years, playing fairly locally throughout the Carolinas and neighboring states. He recorded for the last time for fifteen years in 1946 with a band featuring his sons Curly and Glenn.
The Mountaineers were rediscovered during the folk revival in 1962 by Chris Strachwitz of the California-based Arhoolie label. At that time, Mainer & His Mountaineers recorded The Legendary Family from the Blue Ridge Mountains, which introduced his music to a whole new generation. Five years later, Mainer recorded several more albums and made appearances on the radio and at festivals, and continued to play until his death in 1971. -Sandra Brennan
George Hamilton IV
Born Jul 19, 1937 in Winston-Salem, NC. Proclaimed the International Ambassador of Country Music thanks to his world tours in the '70s, George Hamilton IV began his career in the late '50s as a teen-oriented pop star. After his first hit, "A Rose and a Baby Ruth," hit number six on the pop charts in 1956, he toured with Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. However, his later pop efforts stalled on the charts, and in 1959, Hamilton joined the Grand Ole Opry. Top ten country singles like "Before This Day Ends", "Three Steps to the Phone (Millions of Miles)" and "If You Don't Know I Ain't Gonna Tell You" paved the way for 1963's "Abilene," which topped the country charts for four weeks and hit 15 on the pop charts.
The following year, Hamilton charted three singles and returned to the Top Ten with "Fort Worth, Dallas or Houston." Folk music inspired Hamilton's late-'60s hits, including the Gordon Lightfoot-penned "Steel Rail Blues" and Joni Mitchell's "Urge For Going." Except for 1970's number-three hit "She's a Little Bit Country", chart success eluded him during the '70s, so George Hamilton IV took country music around the world. Besides more than ten tours of Great Britain and several BBC-TV productions, Hamilton became the first country artist to perform behind the Iron Curtain; he also toured Africa, the Orient, New Zealand, Australia, and even the Middle East. For the rest of his career, Hamilton concentrated on gospel recordings. His son, George Hamilton V, toured with his father's backup band and charted a single in 1988. -John Bush
Born Jul 19, 1939 in Okemah, OK. While Billy Parker was a mainstay on country radio, his claim to fame was as an influential disc jockey, not as a performer; ironically, for all of the Top Forty hits he spun over the course of his decades on the air, not one of them was his own. Born July 19, 1939 in Okemah, Oklahoma, he began playing guitar as a child, and by the age of 14 had made his professional debut on the Tulsa radio program Big Red Jamboree. A few years later, he began performing in clubs, and in 1959, landed his first deejay work.
By 1963, Parker was the regular daytime disc jockey on Wichita, Kansas' KFDI, and also hosted a Tulsa television program. In the same year, he cut his first single, "The Line Between Love and Hate," and was named "Mr. DJ U.S.A." in a nationwide poll, which helped land him at Nashville's WSM. After releasing another record, "I'm Drinking All the Time," in 1966, Parker began playing with Ernest Tubb's Troubadors in 1968, and stayed with the group for three years, when he joined Tulsa's KVOO.
In 1975, Parker was named "Disc Jockey of the Year" by the Academy of Country & Western Music; he won the award again in 1977, 1978 and 1984. In 1976, he scored his first chart hit with "It's Bad When You're Caught (With the Goods)," from the album Average Man. A series of singles followed, including a tribute to Ernest Tubb titled "Thanks E.T. Thanks a Lot; " while most charted, none came in higher than #50. In 1982, he scored his biggest success with the title track from the LP (Who's Gonna Sing) The Last Country Song, an album of collaborations with the likes of Darrell McCall and Vassar Clements.
After a record of duets, 1983's Something Old, Something New, he retreated from performing to focus on his work as KVOO's program director, but returned in 1988 with the album Always Country. In 1990, he released a gospel record, I'll Speak Out for You, Jesus; two years later, he was inducted into the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame. At about the same time, he was appointed KVOO's executive director. -Jason Ankeny
AKA Eva Sue McKee. Born, 1926 in Nevada, MO. Singer/guitarist Sue Thompson was involved in country music since she was a girl and was most popular during the 1960s. Her unique singing style has a breathy, almost little-girlish quality. Born Eva Sue McKee in Nevada, Missouri, whe raised in San Jose, California. Thompson began singing and playing guitar on stage at age seven and worked on San Francisco's Hometown Hayride TV series while still a teenager. As a young woman, she worked in a defense plant, married and had a daughter at age 20. Three years later, Thompson divorced and began singing in clubs around northern California. In San Jose, she attracted the attention of Dude Martin after winning a local talent contest. He eventually asked her to join his band in San Francisco and then married her. Thompson first recorded with Martin, but also put out a few fairly successful solo singles, including "If You Want Some Lovin'" and "Tadpole." When her husband added comic/singer Hank Penny to his act, Penny and Thompson fell in love; he became her third husband in 1953. They hosted their own television show until 1955, when they moved to Las Vegas to work the Nevada casino circuit. Although they became popular live performers, chart success eluded them.
Thompson worked with Red Foley on the Grand Ole Opry in the late '50s. She signed with Hickory in the early '60s and had her first major hit on the pop charts in 1961 with the Top Five "Sad Movies." Her follow-up, "Norman," did even better, peaking at number three. (Both hits were penned by John D. Loudermilk.) She recorded four more pop hits through 1963, the most popular being "James (Hold the Ladder Steady)." In 1965, Thompson made her last appearance on the pop charts with Loudermilk's "Paper Tiger." Her career was dormant until the early '70s, when she made minor entries on the country charts with such songs as "Candy and Roses" and "Big Mable Murphy." Between 1972 and 1975, she released nine successful duets with Don Gibson, including "I Think They Call It Love" and "Oh, How Love Changes." In 1976 she had her last hit with "Never Naughty Rosie." Soon afterward, she returned to playing Nevada casinos. During the 1990s, Thompson continued to perform live on occasion. -Sandra Brennan
AKA William Orville Frizzell. Born Mar 31, 1928 in Corsicana, TX. Died Jul 19, 1975 in Nashville, TN. Lefty Frizzell was the definitive honky-tonk singer, the vocalist that set the style for generations of vocalists that followed him. Frizzell smoothed out the rough edges of honky tonk by singing longer, flowing phrases - essentially, he made honky tonk more acceptable for the mainstream without losing its gritty, bar-room roots. In the process, he changed the way country vocalists sang forever. From George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson to George Strait, John Anderson, Randy Travis, and Keith Whitley, hundreds of artists have emulated and expanded Lefty's innovations. Frizzell's singing became the foundation of how hard country should be sung.
Despite his influence, there was a time when Lefty Frizzell wasn't regarded as one of country's definitive artists. Unlike Hank Williams - the only contemporary of Lefty that had greater influence - he didn't die young, leaving behind a romantic legend. After his popularity peaked in the early and mid-'50s, Frizzell continued to record, without having much success. However, his recordings continued to reach new listeners and his reputation was restored by the new traditionalists of the '80s, nearly 10 years after Lefty's death.
Lefty Frizzell (born William Orville Frizzell) was born in Corisicana, TX, in 1928, a son of an oiler; he was the first of eight children. During his childhood, his family moved to El Dorado, AR. As a child he was called Sonny, but his nickname changed to Lefty when he was 14, because he won a schoolyard fight; it was later suggested that he earned his nickname after winning a Golden Gloves boxing match, but that was eventually proven to be a hatched publicity stunt by his record company. Initially, Lefty was attracted to music through his parents' Jimmie Rodgers records. He began singing professionally before he was a teenager, landing a regular spot on KELD El Dorado.
Frizzell spent his teenage years playing throughout the region, singing on radio shows, in nightclubs, for dances, and in talent contests. He travelled throughout the south, playing in Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, and even Las Vegas. During this time, he was refining his style, drawing from influences like Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb, and Ted Daffan. Lefty's career was going fine until he was arrested in the mid-'40s, serving a jail sentence for statutory rape.
Frizzell's run-in with the law led him away from music, as he temporarily worked in the oil fields with his father. However, his time as an oiler was brief and he was soon performing in clubs again. By 1950, he had landed a regular job at the Texas club Ace of Clubs, where he developed a dedicated following of fans. At one of his concerts at the Ace of Clubs he caught the attention of Jim Beck, the owner of a local recording studio. Beck recorded music for several major record labels, and he also had connections within the publishing industry. Impressed with Lefty's performance, he invited the singer to make some demos at the studio. In April of 1950, Frizzell cut several demos of his original songs, including a new song called "If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time," which Beck took to Nashville. Beck intended to pitch the song to Little Jimmy Dickens, but Dickens disliked the song. However, Columbia record producer Don Law heard the tape and liked Frizzell's voice. After hearing Lefty live in concert, Law signed the singer to Columbia; within a few months, he had his first recording session.
"If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time," Lefty's first single, climbed to number one upon its release. It was a huge hit - its B-side, "I Love You a Thousand Ways," even hit number one - with other artists hurrying into the studio to cut their own versions; over 40 performers wound up recording the song. Within 17 days of the single's release, Columbia had Frizzell record another single. The result, "Look What Thoughts Will Do"/"Shine, Shave, Shower (It's Saturday)," wasn't as big a hit, but it did reach the Top Ten.
By now, the Lefty Frizzell sound was being perfected by the vocalist and Don Law. Frizzell was working with a core group of Dallas-based studio musicians, highlighted by pianist Madge Sutee. In the beginning of 1951, he formed the Western Cherokees, which was led by Blackie Crawford. Soon, the Western Cherokees became his primary band for both live and recording situations. Lefty was in the studio frequently, recording singles. His third single, "I Want to Be with You Always," was number one for 11 weeks and its follow-up, "Always Late (With Your Kisses)" spent 12 weeks at number one. At one point in early 1951, he had a total of four songs in the country Top Ten, setting a record that was never broken. Frizzell was a popular concert attraction, playing shows with the Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry. He had three more Top Ten hits in 1951 - "Mom and Dad's Waltz," 'Travelin' Blues," and the number one "Give Me More, More, More (Of Your Kisses)."
The hits continued throughout 1952, as "How Long Will It Take (To Stop Loving You)," "Don't Stay Away (Till Love Grows Cold)," "Forever (And Always)," "I'm An Old, Old Man (Tryin' to Live While I Can)" all went to the Top Ten. Even though he was at the peak of his popularity, things began to unravel for Lefty behind the scenes. Frizzell fired both his manager and his band. He joined the Grand Ole Opry, but he decided he didn't like it and left almost immediately. Lefty was earning a lot of money but he was spending nearly all of it. He worked with Wayne Raney, but the sessions were a failure. In early 1953, he moved from Texas to Los Angeles, where he got a regular job on Town Hall Party. That year, he had only one hit - the Top Ten "(Honey, Baby, Hurry!) Bring Your Sweet Self Back to Me."
Early in 1954, he reached the Top Ten with "Run 'Em Off," but it would be his last Top Ten record for five years. During the mid-'50s, Frizzell felt burned out and he didn't have the energy to invest in his career. He had a total of two hits between 1954 and 1959 - "I Love You Mostly" in 1955, "Cigarettes and Coffee Blues" - because he decided to stop recording. Lefty was frustrated that Columbia wasn't releasing what he believed to be his best material, so he simply stopped writing and recording songs. However, he did tour sporadically, occasionally with his brother, David Frizzell.
Deciding it was time for a change, he began working with Jim Denny's Nashville-based Cedarwood publishing company in 1959. Cedarwood gave him "The Long Black Veil," a song written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin that had overt folk music influences. Lefty recorded the song and it became a surprise Top Ten hit in the summer of 1959. Encouraged by its success, Frizzell moved to Nashville in 1961, after Town Hall Party closed in 1960. He began touring and recording at a more rapid rate, although it only resulted in a couple of minor hits. Lefty's last big hit arrived early in 1964, when "Saginaw, Michigan" climbed to number one and spent four weeks on the top of the charts. After that, he came close to the Top Ten with 1965's "She's Gone Gone Gone," but he usually struggled to have any of his songs break the Top 20 for the next decade.
Frizzell didn't stop recording, but he did develop a debilitating alcohol problem that came to plague him throughout the late '60s and '70s. However, alcohol wasn't the only thing holding his career back - Columbia was only releasing handfuls of albums and singles, though Lefty was recording an abundance of material. Since his records weren't as successful, he drastically cut back the number of concerts he performed. In 1968, he cut some songs with June Stearns under the name Agnes and Orville, but none of the tracks became hits. The lack of success helped him sink deeper into alcoholism.
In 1972, Lefty left Columbia, signing with ABC Records. Though the change in labels helped revitalize him artistically, he didn't sell that many more records. However, he did have the enthusiasm to record albums, as well as play concerts and television shows. Frizzell's alcohol addiction worsened and he developed high blood pressure, but he wouldn't take the medication because he thought it would interfere with his drinking. As a result, he looked older than his 47 years when he died of a stroke in 1975.
Years of mediocre and mis-marketed records had diminished Lefty Frizzell's reputation, but after his death, a new generation of artists hailed him as an influence and an idol. Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and George Jones had all sung his praises before, but in the mid-'80s, the kind words of George Strait and Randy Travis were supported by a series of reissues, beginning with Bear Family's 14-LP set, His Life - His Music (later replaced by the 12-CD Life's Like Poetry). In 1982, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, but the greatest testament to his music remains the fact that his voice can be heard in every hard country singer that followed. -Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Born Jul 18, 1954 in Cordell, KY. By the time he was in his mid thirties, Kentuckian Ricky Skaggs had already produced a career's worth of music. At age seven he appeared on TV with Flatt & Scruggs; at 15 he was a member of legendary Ralph Stanley's bluegrass band (with fellow teenager, the late Keith Whitley). None of his '80s peers, male or female, had better musical credentials than Ricky. The term "multi-talented" lacks the power to characterize this extraordinary singer and instrumentalist. Not only can he sing and pick with the best in progressive country, his broad and deep experience in traditional music separates him from the crowd. In the estimation of many, he is without peer as a combination vocalist and intrumentalist (guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo). After playing with Ralph Stanley for three years, Ricky moved on to progressive bluegrass bands, the Country Gentlemen and J.D. Crowe & the New South. With his own band, Boone Creek, he mixed the old and the new, adding Django Reinhardt. Ricky took Rodney Crowell's place in Emmylou Harris' Hot Band in 1977, and the band's excellent Roses in the Snow album showcased Ricky's versatility. Two number one hits came out of his 1981 album Waiting for the Sun to Shine, and the awards started arriving. Skaggs is largely responsible for a back-to-basics movement in country music. He showed many that a bluegrass tenor with impeccable taste and enormous talent could sell traditional country in the '80s, a time when pop music had invaded the land of rural rhythm.
Ricky Skaggs began playing music at a very early age, being given a mandolin from his father at the age of five. Before his father had the time to Ricky how to play, the child had learned the instrument himself and by the end of 1959, he had performed onstage during a Bill Monroe concert, playing "Ruby Are You Mad at Your Man" to great acclaim. Two years later, when Skaggs was seven, he appeared on Flatt & Scruggs' television show, again to a positive response. Shortly afterward, he learned how to play both fiddle and guitar, and began playing with his parents in a group called the Skaggs Family. In addition to traditional bluegrass, Skaggs began absorbing the honky tonk of George Jones and Ray Price and the British Invasion rock & roll of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. In his adolescence, he briefly played in rock & roll bands, but he never truly abandoned traditional and roots music.
During a talent concert in his mid-teens, he met Keith Whitley, a fellow fiddler. The two adolescents became friends and began playing together, with Keith's brother Dwight on banjo, at various radio shows. By 1970, they earned a spot opening for Ralph Stanley. Following their performance, Stanley invited the duo to join his supporting band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, and they accepted. Over the next two years, they played many concerts with the bluegrass legend and appeared on his record Cry from the Cross. Skaggs also appeared on Whitley's solo album, 2nd Generation Bluegrass, in 1972.
Though he had made his way into the bluegrass circuit and was actively recording, Ricky had grown tired of the hard-work and low pay in the Clinch Mountain Boys and left the group at the end of 1972. For a short while, he abandoned music and worked in a boiler room for the Virginia Electric Power Company in Washington, DC, but he returned to performing when the Country Gentlemen invited him to join in 1973. Skaggs spent the next two years with the group, primarily playing fiddle, before joining the progressive bluegrass band J.D. Crowe & the New South in 1974. The following year, he recorded another duet album with Keith Whitley, That's It, and then formed his own newgrass band, Boone Creek, in 1976. In addition to bluegrass, the outfit played honky tonk and western swing. Boone Creek earned the attention of Emmylou Harris, who invited Skaggs to join her supporting band. After declining her several times, he finally became a member of her Hot Band once Rodney Crowell left in 1977.
Between 1977 and 1980, Skaggs helped push Harris toward traditional country and bluegrass, often to great acclaim. Ricky also pursued a number of other musical venues while he was with Emmylou, recording a final album with Boone Creek (1978's One Way Track), two duet albums with Tony Rice (1978's Take Me Home Tonight in a Song, 1980's Skaggs and Rice) and, finally, his first solo album, Sweet Temptation, which was released on Sugar Hill. Sweet Temptation was a major bluegrass hit, earning the attention of the major label Epic Records. The label offered him a contract in 1981, releasing Waitin' for the Sun to Shine later that year. The album was a big hit, earning acclaim not only in country circles, but also in rock & roll publications. By the end of the year, Ricky Skaggs had become a star and, in the process, he brought rootsy, traditional country back into the consciousness of the country audience.
During 1982 and early 1983, he had five straight number one singles - "Crying My Heart Out Over You," "I Don't Care," "Heartbroke," "I Wouldn't Change You If I Could," Highway 40 Blues" - as well as earning numerous awards. Later in 1982, he was made the youngest member of the Grand Ole Opry. For the next four years, he was a major artistic and commercial force within country music, raking up a string of Top Ten hits and Grammy-award winning albums. His success helped spark the entire new traditionalist movement, opening the doors for performers like George Strait and Randy Travis. Toward the end of the decade, Skaggs wasn't as charting as frequently as he had in the past, but he had established himself as an icon. Each of his records sold well, and he collaborated with a number of musicians, including Rodney Crowell, the Bellamy Brothers, Johnny Cash, Jesse Winchester and Dolly Parton.
During the early '90s, Skaggs and his traditional music was hit hard by the slick sounds of contemporary country and, consequently, his records ceased to sell as consistently as they had ten years earlier. Columbia Records dropped the musician from their label in 1992 due to poor sales. However, Skaggs continued to perform concerts and festivals frequently, as well as hosting his own syndicated radio program, The Simple Life, which hit the airwaves in 1994. The following year, Ricky Skaggs returned to recording with Solid Ground, his first album for Atlantic Records. Life Is a Journey followed in 1997, and two years later he released Soldier of the Cross. Big Mon: The Songs of Bill Monroe followed in 2000. -David Vinopal
Born Jun 7, 1934 in Morrisville, MO. Died Jul 17, 1985 in Hendersonville, TN. Wynn Stewart was one of the leading figures of West Coast country music, developing in the early '50s the style that would later become known as the Bakersfield sound. Along with Tommy Collins and Buck Owens, Stewart stripped down the sound of honky tonk, taking away the steel guitars and relying on electric instruments, a driving beat and loud, energetic performances. For most of the late '50s and early '60s, Wynn released a series of independent singles that performed respectably, yet failed to break him into the mainstream. By the end of the '60s, he had modified his sound slightly, bringing himself closer to country-pop territory. The shift in style was successful, resulting in his lone number one hit single "It's Such a Pretty World Today," but Stewart wasn't able to become a genuine country star, despite his steady stream of records during the '70s and '80s. At the time of his sudden death in 1985, he was preparing for another comeback, which may have resulted in some long-overdue critical and popular acclaim. Even though he never received those accolodes while he was alive, his early singles like "Wishful Thinking" and "Big, Big Love" clearly inspired contemporaries like Owens and Haggard, as well as '80s neo-traditionalists and alternative country musicians like Dwight Yoakam and k.d. lang, which guarantees him a place in the history of contemporary country music.
Stewart was born in Morrisville, Missouri and spent most of his childhood moving around the country with his sharecropping family. Following World War II, he spent a year working for KWTO in Springfield, Missouri, before moving to California in 1948 with his family. Originally, Wynn wanted to become a professional baseball player, but he suffered from a hand disease and was too short to play ball professionally, so he concentrated on a musical career. While he was still in high school, he formed a band and began playing clubs around California. Eventually, he met steel guitarist Ralph Mooney, who joined Wynn's band; rounding out the group's lineup were guitarist Roy Nichols and bassist Bobby Austin. In 1954, Stewart signed a contract with the independent label Intro, where he released "I've Waited a Lifetime" and "Strolling." The second single drew the attention of Wynn's idol Skeets McDonald, who was arranged an audition at Capitol Records for Stewart. By the summer of 1956, he had signed with Capitol and released his first single for the label, "Waltz of the Angels," which spent one week at number 14 on the country chart; the song was later a hit for George Jones and Margie Singleton. Subsequent singles were released on Capitol, but none of the records made any impact, and Stewart left the label.
With the help of Harlan Howard, Wynn signed with Jackpot, a subsidiary of Challenge Records, in early 1958. Occasionally employing Mooney on steel guitar, Stewart made a series of singles that explored a number of different styles, from rockabilly and pop to pure honky tonk. In late 1959, he finally had a hit with "Wishful Thinking," which climbed to number five early in 1960. Shortly after the success of "Wishful Thinking," he moved to Las Vegas, where he hosted a local television show and opened the Nashville Nevada Club. By the early '60s, Stewart's reputation, if not is sales, was considerable and he continued to have a string of moderate hit singles, including the Jan Howard duet "Wrong Company," "Big, Big Love" and "Another Day, Another Dollar." In 1962, Merle Haggard joined Stewart's band as a bassist, and Wynn eventually gave him "Sing a Sad Song" for his debut single.
After his Vegas ventures went bankrupt, Stewart headed back to California in 1965, re-signing with Capitol Records. Early in 1967, he had his first significant hit for the label, "It's Such a Pretty World Today," which spent two weeks at number one. Following its success, Stewart conceentrated on softer, more commercially acceptable material, and result was a string of hit singles that ran into the early '70s. By 1972, his sales were beginning to decrease and Wynn switched record labels, signing with RCA. Over the next three years he released a number of singles, none of which cracked the Top 40. In 1975, he signed with Playboy Records, scoring a comeback single with the Top 10 "After the Storm" the following year. He stayed with Playboy for two more years, which resulted in only one other hit single: his own version of "Sing a Sad Song."
Stewart launched his own independent label, WIN, in 1978 and his first single, "Eyes Big as Dallas," scraped the bottom of the Top 40. Though the musical climate of the '70s was changing rapidly, leaving Wynn behind, he also wasn't able to achieve more success because of his developing alcoholism. Eventually, he decided to step back from performing in the early '80s, using the time away from the spotlight. During the mid-'80s, Stewart decided to launch a comeback with an extensive tour and a new album on his Pretty World record label when he died suddenly of a heart attack on the eve of the tour. Following his death, the posthumous "Wait Till I Get My Hands on You" became a minor hit. -Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Tony Joe White
Born Jul 23, 1943 in Oak Grove, LA. Tony Joe White has parlayed his songwriting talent into a modestly successful country and rock career in Europe as well as America. Born July 23, 1943, in Goodwill, LA, White was born into a part-Cherokee family. He began working clubs in Texas during the mid-'60s, and moved to Nashville by 1968. White's 1969 debut album for Monument, Black and White, featured his Top Ten pop hit "Polk Salad Annie" and another charting single, "Roosevelt and Ira Lee (Night of the Moccasin)." That same year, Dusty Springfield reached the charts with White's "Willie and Laura Mae Jones." Brook Benton recorded a version of White's "Rainy Night in Georgia" that hit number four early in 1970; the song has since become a near-standard with more than 100 credits. White's own "Groupie Girl" began his European success with a short stay on the British charts in 1970.
White moved to Warner Bros. in 1971, but success eluded him on his three albums - Tony Joe White, The Train I'm On, and Homemade Ice Cream. Other stars, however, continued to keep his name on the charts during the 1970s: Elvis charted with "For Ol' Times Sake" and "I've Got a Thing About You Baby" (Top Five on the country charts), and Hank Williams Jr. took "Rainy Night in Georgia" to number 13 on the country charts. White himself recorded Eyes for 20th Century Fox in 1976, but then disappeared for four years. He signed to Casablanca for 1980's The Real Thang but moved to Columbia in 1983 for Dangerous, which included the modest country hits "The Lady in My Life" and "We Belong Together."
Tony Joe White was inactive through much of the '80s, but worked with Tina Turner on her 1989 Foreign Affair album, writing four songs and playing guitar and harmonica. He released Closer to the Truth a year later for his own Swamp label, and toured with Eric Clapton and Joe Cocker to very receptive French crowds (Closer to the Truth has sold 100,000 copies in that country alone). His 1993 album, Path of a Decent Groove, was released only in France, though Warner's The Best of Tony Joe White earned an American release the same year. Lake Placid Blues (1995) and One Hot July (1998) were Europe-only efforts until 2000, when Hip-O Records brought out One Hot July in the U.S., giving White his first new major label domestic release in 17 years. -John Bush
Born Jul 23, 1940 in Cleburne County, AL. Died 1997. Johnny Darrell was never a major country star, but he and his producer Bob Montgomery did have a rare talent for choosing songs; many, such as "Green Green Grass of Home," went on to become country standards when recorded by others. Darrell began his career at age 14 by teaching himself to play the guitar. After joining the Army, he entertained at base clubs. In 1964, he was hired to manage a Holiday Inn in Nashville, which allowed him to make contact with people in the music industry. A year later, one of the contacts referred Darrell to Bobby Bare, who in turn recommended the aspiring artist to United Artist Records.
His debut was "Green Green Grass of Home; " his next single, "As Long as the Wind Blows," made it to the Top 30 in 1966. In 1967, he hit the Top Ten with "Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town," a Mel Tillis-penned tune which became a smash hit for Kenny Rogers two years later. Darrell scored a Top 25 hit in 1968 with "The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp" as well as a crossover hit with Bobby Goldsboro's "Pen in Hand," which later became a monster hit for Vicki Carr. The following year, Darrell scored four hits, including his duet with Anita Carter, "The Coming of the Roads." He also joined Hank Snow, Willie Nelson, Nat Stuckey, and Wes Buchanan at Opry's Party Night, an English concert celebrating the birthday of the now defunct Opry magazine. In 1973, Darrell had two more minor hits, "Dakota the Dancing Bear" and "Orange Blossom Special," before fading into obscurity. -Sandra Brennan
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