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Charles Sawtelle played for about a dozen years with the bluegrass band he helped found in the 1970s, Hot Rize. Called "the Bluegrass Mystery," the guitarist and producer was working on his own solo album before he passed away in 1999 after a long battle against leukemia. Friend Laurie Lewis, a vocalist and fiddler, acted as producer for his first solo work. She continued to work on the project and helped piece the album together after Sawtelle's passing, calling on the truckload of talent evident in his loyal friends, a large group that included musicians such as Peter Rowan, Michael Doucet, and David Grisman. The album was released in 2001 by Acoustic Disc as Music From Rancho DeVille, a reference to Sawtelle's fondness for Cadillacs, especially his 1958 Coupe deVille, as well as to his studio near Boulder, CO, a stone structure that once was the site of a house of ill repute. The posthumous release includes songs made famous by Ralph Stanley, Lefty Frizzell, and Woody Guthrie, as well as such Cajun-flavored tunes as "Jolie Faye" and "Chez Seychelles." The liner notes are a small but powerful homage to Sawtelle from those who loved him, and they feature memories and photos, as well as a biography of Sawtelle penned by Pete Wernick of Hot Rize. Sawtelle, Wernick, and fellow Hot Rizers Nick Forster and Tim O'Brien also performed together under the name Red Knuckles & the Trail Blazers, with Sawtelle adopting the persona of a hard-core country musician named Slade. After Hot Rize split, Sawtelle pulled together and led a band called the Whippets. He also toured and recorded with Rowan. He started out in 1976 with the Drifting Ramblers. -Linda Seida
AKA Hillybilly Waltz King, Born Sep 19, 1915 in Cherokee, NC, Died Apr 7, 1989, Best remembered as one of Bill Monroe's original Blue Grass Boys, singer/songwriter/string player Clyde Moody also played in almost every other subgenre of country music during his over fifty-year career, and even performed as a solo artist. During the '40s, he was known as the "Hillbilly Waltz King" after his song "Shenandoah Waltz" became a certified gold hit.
Moody was born and raised in Cherokee, North Carolina, and was very influenced by the traditional mountain music he heard there. During the mid-'30s, he and Jay Hugh, the brother of Roy Hall, teamed up to appear as the Happy-Go-Lucky Boys on the radio in Spartanburg, North Carolina. They then joined Wade Mainer, and with fiddler Steve Ledford they became the Sons of the Mountaineers. Moody joined Monroe in 1940 and performed with the Blue Grass Boys at WSM and at the Grand Ole Opry. About this time, Monroe and his Boys were becoming a bluegrass band, and the changes can clearly be heard in Moody's mandolin playing on the classic "Six White Horses." A year later, Moody spent a few months in Burlington, North Carolina playing radio duets with Lester Flatt. He later returned to the Blue Grass Boys and remained with them until again attempting a solo career in 1945.
He joined the Opry as a featured artist for a few weeks and then recorded for Columbia. He had his biggest hit, the sentimental "Shenandoah Waltz," in 1947, and followed it up with a series of similar tunes such as "Cherokee Waltz" and "I Waltz Alone." He had a few more hits through the end of the decade and then moved to Washington, D.C. to work for Connie B. Gay. In 1952, Moody signed with Decca, but only had a few singles up through the mid-'50s, when his health began to fail. He left music to become a mobile home salesman, but returned in 1962 with a solo album. He then tried a modern country album. During the folk revival, he played at bluegrass festivals and moved back to Nashville in 1972, where he performed both bluegrass and country music until his death in 1989. -Sandra Brennan
AKA Clyde Julian Foley. Born Jun 17, 1910 in Blue Lick, KY.
Died Sep 19, 1968 in Fort Wayne, IN. Red Foley was one of the biggest stars in country
during the post-war era, a silky-voiced singer who sold some 25 million records between
1944 and 1965 and whose popularity went far in making country music a viable mainstream
commodity. Born Clyde Julian Foley on June 17, 1910, in Blue Lick, KY, he began playing
guitar and harmonica at a young age, and by the time he was 17 had taken first prize
in a statewide talent competition. While attending college in 1930, he was spotted by
a talent scout from Chicago's WLS radio and was tapped to sing with producer John Lair's
Cumberland Ridge Runners, the house band on the program National Barn Dance.
After seven years with the Ridge Runners, Lair created a new show, Renfro Valley Barn
Dance, especially to showcase Foley's talents. The singer remained with the program
until late 1939, performing everything from ballads to boogie to blues. At the same
time, he became the first country artist to host his own network radio program,
Avalon Time (co-hosted by comedian Red Skelton), and performed extensively in
theaters and clubs and at fairs. After exiting the Renfro Valley Barn Dance,
Foley returned for another seven-year stint at the National Barn Dance show.
In 1941, the same year he made his film debut with Tex Ritter in the Western
The Pioneers, he signed a lifetime contract with Decca Records. His first
chart single, 1944's "Smoke on the Water," topped the charts for 13 consecutive
weeks; in 1945, he was the first major performer to record in Nashville.
In 1946, Foley signed on to emcee and perform on The Prince Albert Show, a
segment of the Grand Ole Opry program broadcast on NBC; his popularity with
listeners is often credited with establishing the Opry as country's pre-eminent
radio show. Beginning in 1947, he began recording with his backing band,
the Cumberland Valley Boys, earning another number one single with "New Jolie
Blonde (New Pretty Blonde)." With the group, he recorded seven Top Five hits
between 1947 and 1949, including "Tennessee Saturday Night," a chart-topper in
1948. Again recording solo in 1950, he issued the song that would become his
trademark tune, "Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy," which stayed in the number
one position for 13 weeks.
In 1951, Foley's second wife Eva Overstake committed suicide, reportedly
over the singer's affair with another woman. In order to devote the majority
of his time to raising a family, he cut back considerably on his performing
commitments, although he continued to release hit after hit in a variety of
musical styles, including rockabilly and R&B; "(There'll Be) Peace in the
Valley (For Me)," a 1951 smash, was the first record ever to sell one
million copies on the gospel charts. In the same year, he also released his
first LP, Red Foley Souvenir Album. After several years spent in virtual
retirement, in 1954 Foley was named to host The Ozark Jubilee, a country
showcase for ABC television; the show was a hit, and ran through 1960.
Also in 1954, he recorded the chart-topping "One By One," the first of many
duets with Kitty Wells.
After The Ozark Jubilee went off the air, he spent one season co-starring
with Fess Parker in the program Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Although Foley
continued recording throughout most of the 1960s, his hit-making days were
largely behind him. In 1967, he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
After a performance in Fort Wayne, IN, on September 19, 1968, Foley died of a
heart attack. Among the survivors were his daughter Betty, a popular country
vocalist in her own right, and another daughter Shirley, the wife of pop
crooner Pat Boone. Red's other two daughters were Jennie and Julie. -Jason Ankeny
AKA Cecil Ingram Connor. Born Nov 5, 1946 in Winter Haven, FL. Died Sep 19, 1973 in Joshua Tree, CA. Gram Parsons is the father of country-rock. With the International Submarine Band, the Byrds, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons pioneered the concept of a rock band playing country music, and as a solo artist he moved even further into country music, blending the two genres to the point that they became indistinguishable from each other. While he was alive, Parsons was a cult figure that never sold many records, but influenced countless fellow musicians, from the Rollings Stones to the Byrds. In the years since his death, his stature has only grown, as numerous rock and country artists build on his small, but enormously influential, body of work.
Gram Parsons was born Cecil Ingram Connor on November 5, 1946. Parsons was the grandson of John Snivley, who owned about one-third of all the citrus fields in Florida. Snivley's daughter married Coon Dog Connor. As a child, Gram learned how to play the piano at the age of nine, the same year he saw Elvis Presley perform at his school; following that performance, Parsons decided to become a musician. When he was 12, Gram's father committed suicide. After Connor's death, Gram and his mother moved in with her parents in Winter Haven, FL; a year after the move, his mother married Robert Parsons, who adopted Gram and the child legally changed his name to Gram Parsons.
At the age of 14, Parsons began playing in the local rock & roll band the Pacers, which evolved into the Legends. During its time together, the Legends featured Jim Stafford and Kent Lavoie, who would later come to fame under the name Lobo. In 1963, Parsons formed a folk group called the Shilos who performed throughout Florida and cut several demos. In 1965, Parsons graduated from high school; on the same day he graduated, his mother died of alcohol poisoning.
Following his graduation, Gram Parsons enrolled at Harvard, where he studied theology. Parsons only spent one semester at Harvard and while he was there, he spent more time playing music than attending classes. During this time he formed the International Submarine Band with guitarist John Nuese, bassist Ian Dunlop and drummer Mickey Gauvin. After he dropped out of college, he moved to New York with the International Submarine Band in 1966. The group spent a year in New York, developing a heavily country-influenced rock & roll sound and cutting two unsuccessful singles for Columbia. The band relocated to Los Angeles in 1967, where they secured a record contract with Lee Hazlewood's LHI record label. The group's debut album, Safe at Home, was released in early 1968, but by the time it appeared in the stores, the group had already disbanded.
Around the time the International Submarine Band dissolved, Parsons met Chris Hillman, the bassist for the Byrds. At that time, the Byrds were rebuilding their lineup and Hillman recommended to the band's leader, Roger McGuinn, that Parsons join the band. By the spring of 1968, Parsons had become a member of the Byrds and he was largely responsible for the group's shift towards country music with their album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Originally, the album was going to feature Parsons' lead vocals, but he was still contractually obligated to LHI, so his voice had to be stripped from the record.
Gram Parsons only spent a few months with the Byrds, leaving the band in the fall of 1968 because he refused to accompany them on a tour of South Africa, allegedly because he opposed apartheid. Chris Hillman left the band shortly after him and the duo formed the Flying Burrito Brothers in late 1968. Parsons and Hillman enlisted pedal steel guitarist "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow and bassist Chris Ethridge to complete the band's lineup and recorded their debut album with a series of session drummers. The Gilded Palace of Sin, the Flying Burrito Brothers' debut album, was released in 1969. Although the album only sold a few thousand copies, the group gathered a dedicated cult following, which was mainly composed of musicians, including the Rolling Stones. In fact, by the time the album was released, Parsons had begun hanging around the Rolling Stones frequently and became close friends with Keith Richards. Prior to his time with the Stones, Parsons had experimented with drugs and alcohol, but in 1969 he dove deep into substance abuse, which he supported with his huge trust fund.
Parsons recorded a second album with the Flying Burrito Brothers, but by the time the record - titled Burrito Deluxe - appeared in the spring of 1970, he had left the band. Shortly after leaving the group, he recorded a handful of songs with producer Terry Melcher, but he never completed the album. Following these sessions, Parsons entered a holding pattern were he acted the role of being a rock star instead of actually playing music. He spent much of his time either hanging out with the Stones or ingesting large amounts of drugs and alcohol; frequently, he did a combination of the two. In 1971, he toured with the Rolling Stones in England, attended the recording of the band's Exile on Main Street, and it appeared that he would sign with the band's record label. Instead, he headed back to Los Angeles late in 1971, spending the rest of the year and the first half of 1972 writing material for an impending solo album. In 1972, he met Emmylou Harris through Chris Hillman and Parsons asked her to join his backing band; she accepted.
By the summer of 1972, he was prepared to enter the studio to record his first solo album. Parsons had assembled a band - which included Harris, guitarist James Burton, bassist Rick Grech, Barry Tashian, Glen D. Hardin and Ronnie Tutt - and had asked Merle Haggard to produce the album. After meeting Parsons, Haggard turned the offer down, and Parsons chose Haggard's engineer, Hugh Davis, as the album's producer. The resulting album, G.P., was released late in 1972 to good reviews but poor sales.
Following the release of G.P., Parsons embarked on a small tour with his backing band, the Fallen Angels. After the tour was completed, they entered the studio to record his second album, Grievous Angel. The album was completed toward the end of the summer. A few weeks after the sessions, Parsons went on a vacation near the Joshua Tree National Monument in California. He spent most of his time there consuming drugs and alcohol. On September 19, 1973, he overdosed on morphine and tequila, and was rushed to the Yucca Valley Hospital - he was pronounced dead on arrival. According to the funeral plans, his body was to be flown back to New Orleans for a burial. However, Parsons' road manager stole the body after the funeral and carried it back out to the Joshua Tree desert, where he cremated the body. Phil Kaufman revealed that the cremation had been Parsons' wish. Kaufman could not be convicted for stealing the body, but he was arrested for stealing and burning the coffin.
In the two decades following Gram Parsons' death, his legacy continued to grow, as both country and rock musicians built on the music he left behind. Everyone from Emmylou Harris to Elvis Costello has covered his songs and his influence could still be heard well into the '90s. -Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Born Aug 18, 1918 in Birmingham, AL. Died Apr 17, 1992 in California. While he never achieved the kind of success enjoyed by fellow bandleaders like Bob Wills or Spade Cooley, during the late '40s and early '50s Hank Penny ranked as one of the foremost practitioners of the Western Swing sound. Born Herbert Clayton Penny on August 18, 1918 in Birmingham, Alabama, his father was a disabled coal miner who inspired young Hank with his skills as a guitarist, poet and magician before his death in 1928. By the age of 15, Penny was performing professionally on local radio; in 1936, he moved to New Orleans, where he first fell under the sway of Western Swing pioneers like Wills and Milton Brown. A friendship with steel virtuouso Noel Boggs only served to further his enthusiasm for the swing form.
After a few years with New Orleans' WWL as a solo performer, Penny returned to Birmingham, where he formed the group the Radio Cowboys, which featured guitarist Julian Akins, steel guitarist Sammy Forsmark, tenor banjo player Louis Damont, bassist Carl Stewart, and vocalist, guitarist and fiddler Sheldon Bennett. In 1938, the group (minus Akins) first entered the studio under the guidance of legendary producer Art Satherly to record numbers like "When I Take My Sugar to Tea" and Penny's own "Flamin' Mamie." After the Radio Cowboys joined the cast of the Atlanta-based program Crossroad Follies, Forsmark left the group, to be replaced by Noel Boggs; at the same time, they also welcomed a new fiddle player by the name of Boudleaux Bryant.
After turning down offers to take over vocal chores for both Pee Wee King's Golden West Cowboys and the Light Crust Doughboys, Penny moved the group to Nashville in 1939, where they again recorded with Satherley. Shortly after, Boggs left the group to join Jimmy Wakely, and was replaced by Eddie Duncan. After recording songs like "Tobacco State Swing" and "Peach Tree Shuffle" in Chicago in mid-1940, the band was forced to dissolve after most of its members were drafted. Penny remained in Chicago working as a disc jockey before assembling a new group for a 1941 session in North Carolina, which generated the songs "Why Did I Cry" and "Lonesome Train Blues."
After signing on with the Cincinnati station WLW's programs Boone Country Jamboree and The Midwestern Hayride, Penny formed a new band called the Plantation Boys, which included Radio Cowboy Carl Stewart on fiddle along with guitarist/bassist Louis Innis, fiddler Zed Tennis and lead guitarist Roy Langham. In addition to work with the Delmore Brothers, Merle Travis, Bradley Kincaid and Grandpa Jones, they also backed WLW's pop singer Doris Day. After the departure of Langham, in 1944 the band toured with the USO before Penny traveled to California at the urging of Merle Travis. There, he became enamored with the music of Spade Cooley, and met Cooley's onetime manager Foreman Phillips, who offered Penny work as a bandleader. After a brief return to Cincinnati which led to a brief recording date, Penny returned to California to assemble another band which included Noel Boggs; however, when Phillips began ordering Penny how to play, the bandleader balked and the group promptly disbanded.
Soon, he was fronting an all-girl band at a Los Angeles club, but was quickly approached by Bobbie Bennett, Cooley's then-manager, to lead one of several groups formed to play at the bookings Cooley and his Orchestra were themselves too busy to fulfill. While Tex Ritter led one band and Travis led another, Penny fronted the Painted Post Rangers, which scored a pair of significant chart hits with "Steel Guitar Stomp" and "Get Yourself a Redhead." When the Painted Post Club went bankrupt, he moved to lead the large house band at the Riverside Rancho. In 1946, he joined Slim Duncan's ABC network show Roundup Time as a comedian. After moving first back to Cincinnati and then to Arlington, Virginia, he returned to California and took a deejay position. He also formed yet another new band, the Penny Serenaders, which included guitarist Speedy West as well as accordion player Bud Sievert, fiddler Billy Hill and bassist Hank Caldwell. Together with club owner Amand Gautier, Penny opened also opened his own dance hall, which featured Bob Wills on its opening night.
In June 1948, Penny joined Cooley's massively popular television program, where he performed as a comedian best known for his backwoods character "That Plain Ol' Country Boy." A year later, he entered the studio to record a number of songs, among them "Hillbilly Bebop," the first known bop effort cut by a country act, and the 1950 hit "Bloodshot Eyes." After he and Gautier opened another club, the legendary Palomino, he reformed the Penny Serenaders, which included singer Mary Morgan, later known as Jaye P. Morgan. The group issued "Remington Ride" and "Wham Bam! Thank You, Ma'am" before calling it quits and then reforming again, this time with guitarist Billy Strange and steel guitar whiz Joaquin Murphy. In 1952, Penny left Cooley to join Dude Martin's program; after first stealing Martin's wife, singer Sue Thompson, he began hosting his own series, The Hank Penny Show, which was cancelled after only seven weeks.
By 1954, Penny had moved to Las Vegas, where he began a seven-year run as a performer at the Golden Nugget Casino, fronting a band which included the likes of Roy Clark. He also continued to record, even cutting a jazz record in 1961. After divorcing Thompson, he also recorded a comedy album before moving to Carson City, Nevada in 1970 to begin performing with his protege Thom Bresh, the son of Merle Travis. After leaving his band to Bresh, Penny moved to Nashville, where he was in the running for a slot hosting Hee Haw but lost out, ironically enough, to Roy Clark. After a tenure on radio in Wichita, Kansas, he and fifth wife Shari returned to California in the mid-'70s, and for the most part he retired. Hank Penny died of a heart attack on April 17, 1992. -Jason Ankeny
Born 1953 in Louisville, MS. Carl Jackson, an accomplished bluegrass instrumentalist and songwriter, was born September 18, 1953, in Louisville, MS. While playing in his father's bluegrass band at the age of 14, he was approached by Jim & Jesse to join their backing group, the Virginia Boys. He accepted and spent most of his teenage years playing banjo for Jim & Jesse and other groups at the Grand Ole Opry. Jackson's talents earned him a contract with the independent Prize label, where he recorded the album Bluegrass Festival in the late '60s.
In 1971, Jackson left to play with the Sullivan Family, but after less than a year, he moved to Ohio to form the Country Store with Keith Whitley and Jimmy Gaudreau. A short time later, he jumped at the chance to join Glen Campbell's backing band. He spent 12 years with Campbell, but during that time he also recorded the albums Banjo Player and Old Friend for Capitol. In 1981, Jackson signed with Sugar Hill and released his tribute to Earl Scruggs, Banjo Man. The following year brought Song of the South, and in 1983 he joined with old friends Jim & Jesse for Banjo Hits.
After signing with Columbia in 1984, Carl Jackson left Glen Campbell and began to hit the charts. His Lefty Frizzell cover "She's Gone, Gone, Gone" reached number 44 in 1984, though three later singles never matched its relative success. (Jackson did write the hit "(Love Always) Letter to Home" which peaked in the Top 15 for Campbell in May 1984.) During the late '80s, his rich harmony vocals brightened recordings by Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Garth Brooks, Roger Miller and many other acts. In the '90s, Carl Jackson began to be rewarded for his years of work. He earned the International Bluegrass Association's 'Song of the Year' award in 1990 for "Little Mountain Church Home," recorded by Ricky Skaggs & the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2, and won a 'Best Bluegrass Album' Grammy the following year with John Starling and the Nash Ramblers for Spring Training. -John Bush
AKA born: Sidney Louis Gunter, Jr. Sept 18, 1925 in Birmingham, AL. Hardrock Gunter was a key figure in the development of rockabilly, and is best remembered as the composer of standards like "Baby Let's Play House," "Birmingham Bounce," and "Jukebox Help Me Find My Baby."
He was born Sidney Louis Gunter, Jr. in Birmingham, AL, and earned his nickname "Hardrock" when a car hood fell on his head and left him without a scratch. As a youth, Gunter was influenced by Hank Penny, and had his first band, the Hoot Owl Ramblers, as a teen. Later he joined Happy Wilson's popular Golden River Boys, and in time came to manage the band. In 1949, Gunter began appearing on a local television show, and later in the year made his recording debut. One of his earliest hits was "Dad Gave My Hog Away," a spoof of the T. Texas Tyler story Dad Gave My Dog Away. He also recorded "Birmingham Bounce," but it didn't become a major hit until Red Foley recorded it for Decca, with whom Gunter signed in 1951 and began singing boogie-style country. That year he and Roberta Lee teamed to become one of the first country acts to record an R&B hit, "Sixty Minute Man."
After serving in the army, Gunter returned to record on Sun and MGM, but had no chart success on either label. During the early '50s, he spent time as a deejay at WJLD Birmingham and at WWVA Wheeling, West Virginia on the Wheeling Jamboree. In 1955, he recorded his own version of "Jukebox Help Me Find My Baby; " it seemed to have all the makings of a hit, but Sam Phillips leased it for Sun and re-edited it, and the song went nowhere. Gunter continued recording on different labels through 1964 without success. He soon quit music to run his own insurance agency. -Sandra Brennan
Wilson "Lefty" Perkins
Lefty Perkins, born Robert Wilson Perkins, was most famous in the 1930's for his work with Bill Boyd & The Cowboy Ramblers, with whom he recorded "New Steel Guitar Rag" in 1937. He started his professional career playing steel guitar, but in the 1940's switched over to conventional guitar. Perkins joined the Lightcrust Doughboys out of Fort Worth, where he specialized in playing western swing. Beginning in 1951, he was heavily featured on radio when the Lightcrust Doughboys were picked as the second house band (calling themselves the Country Gentlemen) for the Big D Jamboree out of Dallas, which broadcast on KRLD. The Doughboys' line-up in those days, in addition to Perkins, included Carroll Hubbard (fiddle) and Paul Blunt (piano, steel guitar). He switched his playing vocabulary easily in those busy year, and in 1956, Perkins played electric guitar on a trio of Buck Griffin rockabilly numbers, "Stutterin' Papa, " "Watchin' The 7:10 Roll By, " and "You'll Never Come Back, " for the Lin label, which were issued by M-G-M Records. -Bruce Eder
The Forester Sisters
Formed 1982 in Lookout Mountain, GA. Group Members: Christy Forester, June Forester, Kathy Forester and Kim Forester. The four Forester Sisters - Kathy, June, Kim and Christy - began performing together professionally in 1982 and had numerous hits. All of the sisters were born and raised in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, where they later miantained their base of operations. Elder sisters Kathy and June first began singing in the choir of the local United Methodist Church. Both worked as schoolteachers after college, and at night played with a local band at parties and clubs. The band frequently changed male personnel, and soon after Kim joined in 1978, the sisters decided to form an all-female group. After Kim and Christy finished college, the older sisters quit teaching and the foursome began to pursue music careers in earnest.
While performing at an arts festival, the Forester Sisters were spotted by songwriters Bobby Keel and Billy Stone, who gave them a song that would eventually appear on their debut album, "Yankee Go Home." The group cut a demo at Muscle Shoals and signed to Warner Brothers in 1984. The Foresters then toured as the opening act for the Gatlin Brothers. In early 1985, their debut single, "(That's What You Do) When You're in Love," hit the Top Ten; their self-titled debut album soon followed and produced three more hits, including "Just In Case." That year, the Bellamy Brothers asked them to sing on "Too Much Is Not Enough." The two acts then toured together in 1986. The Sisters' second album, Perfume, Ribbons & Pearls, didn't do as well, producing only the hit "Lonely Again," but their third album, You Again, proved a solid rebound. They continued to appear on the charts at least once or twice a year through 1991. The Forester Sisters continued to tour and occasionally perform throughout the '90s, releasing the LP More Than I Am in 1996. -Sandra Brennan
Formed 1951. Group Members: Little Roy Lewis Janis Lewis, Polly Lewis, Roy Lewis Sr., Talmadge Lewis, Travis Lewis, Wallace Lewis, Lewis Phillips and Miggie Lewis.
Take the best of bluegrass, add the best of traditional Appalachian gospel, and you have the Lewis Family. In the mid-'50s they gained recognition through their TV show in Augusta, GA, their hometown. Starting in the early '70s they became regulars at bluegrass festivals across the country, touring widely with at least seven members of the family, led by Pop Wallace and featuring Little Roy Lewis (a great talent) on banjo. Along with Carl Story, the Lewises have specialized in bluegrass gospel and, with their tight harmonies, female leads, and quality instrumentals, are at the top of their genre. -David Vinopal
Born Mar 5, 1925 in Moultrie, GA. Died Sep 22, 1980. With steel guitar wizard Speedy West, guitarist Jimmy Bryant formed half of the hottest country guitar duo of the 1950s. With lightning speed and jazz-fueled taste for improvisation and adventure, Bryant's boogies, polkas, and country swing - recorded with West and as a solo artist - remain among the most exciting instrumental country recordings of all time. Bryant also waxed major contributions to the early recordings of singers like Tennessee Ernie Ford, Merrill E. Moore, Kay Starr, Billy May, and Ella Mae Morse, and has influenced country guitarists like Buck Owens, James Burton, and Albert Lee. While he enjoyed a career that spanned several decades, it was his sessions with Capitol Records in the early '50s that allowed him his fullest freedom to strut his stuff. -Richie Unterberger
Group Members Homer: "Pappy" Sherrill Wiley Morris, Zeke Morris and George Morris. The Morris Brothers were a popular fraternal duo during the late 1930s best known for their song "Let Me Be Your Salty Dog," which later became the bluegrass standard "Salty Dog Blues." Zeke and Wiley Morris were born three years apart in Old Fort, North Carolina. Their eldest brother George was the first to get into music, working with J.E. Mainer and his brother Wade. Mainer's fiddler, John Love, tried to convince George to join the band, but Love instead ended up with 17-year-old Zeke, who remained with the Mainers for three years and participated in the band's first recording session for Bluebird in 1935. Wade Mainer and Zeke soon left to form their own group, adding fiddler Homer Sherrill.
They continued recording for Bluebird and also worked at a Raleigh radio station. After Mainer left, Morris, Sherrill and the rest of the group stayed together to appear on a Danville station. By 1938, Wiley Morris had joined them, and Wiley, Zeke, and Homer recorded several singles for Bluebird, changing their name to the Morris Brothers a few months later for a nine-song session that included the first version of "Salty Dog Blues." The Brothers continued appearing on local radio stations, occasionally joined by George.
During their career, the Morris Brothers usually worked as a duo and didn't always have a backing band; sometimes they even led separate groups. The two split up in Knoxville in the early 1940s; Wiley joined the Dixie Pardners, while Zeke joined a band at Johnson City radio. The Morris Brothers recorded together for the last time in 1945 for RCA Victor. Among the songs was a new version of their signature tune, plus "Tragic Romance" and "Somebody Loves You Darling." They went into semi-retirement, eventually moving to Black Mountain, North Carolina and opening an auto body shop. They did perform infrequently through the '60s and '70s at various festivals, and in 1972 recorded an album featuring the fiddle playing of Homer Sherrill. They also joined Earl Scruggs and appeared on a PBS-TV special on which they recorded yet another version of "Salty Dog Blues." In 1985, the Morris Brothers appeared at a Charlotte radio old-timers reunion for their final performance. Five years later, Wiley died; Zeke remained at his body shop and expressed no further interest in performing. -Sandra Brennan
Born Feb 16, 1914 in Mineola, AR. Died Sep 23, 1982 in Mission Hills, CA. Jimmy Wakely was one of the last vocalists to make it in movies as a singing cowboy or transform a movie contract into a successful recording career. A protege and discovery of Gene Autry, he was never remotely as successful as Autry in movies, nor did his record sales approach those of his mentor, but Wakely was successful as a crossover act, his voice and repertory attractive enough to find favor with pop as well as country-and-western audiences.
James Clarence Wakely was born in Arkansas on February 16, 1914, but was raised in Oklahoma, where he spent much of his early life in a succession of odd jobs while he nursed his ambitions for a career in music. Eventually he joined up with Dick Reinhardt and Johnny Bond to form the Jimmy Wakely Trio in 1937. The group's main influence was the Sons of the Pioneers, and their singing and playing proved attractive enough to land them a regular broadcasting gig in Oklahoma City. Having achieved some recognition locally, they managed to parlay that into a meeting with Gene Autry when he toured Oklahoma in 1940, and the singer was impressed enough with their work to invite them to California. Wakely and company became regulars on Autry's Melody Ranch radio show and also began appearing in his films for Republic Pictures. Strangely enough, despite Wakely's later success, Johnny Bond became the first member of the trio to get a recording contract in 1941. Wakely got his own recording deal in 1942, shortly after he left the Autry fold, and had his first hit a year later with a cover of country yodel star Elton Britt's wartime anthem "There's A Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere."
At the time, despite - or perhaps because of - the omnipresence of World War II in peoples' lives, the singing cowboy image movies that Gene Autry established was still thriving. The public on the homefront, especially the kids, liked them, and there was money to be made. Autry was serving in the U.S. Army Air Force, but Roy Rogers and Tex Ritter both continued riding and singing their way through screen adventures, and other small studios were in the market for their own singing cowboys. Monogram Pictures, Republic's major competitor among B-movie studios, approached Wakely with a contract in 1944, and his first picture, Song of the Range, was a modest success, leading to a five-year stint in front of the cameras. Wakely was never as natural an actor as Autry or Roy Rogers, but his voice was attractive and his 28 westerns were reasonably successful in their time. Amid Wakely's work in B-westerns, his recording career thrived, as he began recording a uniquely sophisticated array of country, cowboy, and pop songs. His string began with his own "Song of the Sierras," a richly atmospheric ballad that presented his voice in a deep, serious light. His first major cross-over hit followed a year later, in 1948 with "One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart)," a touching song about a tragic romantic triangle, which reached the top spot on the country-and-western charts and the top 10 on the pop charts. Wakely became especially closely associated with the music of honky-tonk songwriter Floyd Tillman, and one cover, "I Love You So Much It Hurts," spent five weeks at the No. 1 spot on the country charts in 1949.
It was producer Lee Gillette who thought of teaming Wakely up with songstress Margaret Whiting in what proved to be a very successful partnership. Their first song together, the infidelity story "Slippin' Around," set the pattern for their partnership, the effervescent Whiting and the smooth, laid-back Wakely - who, by that time, was becoming known as the Bing Crosby of country-and-western music - balancing each other perfectly. "Slippin' Around" spent 17 weeks at the No. 1 spot on the country charts and a week at the No. 1 pop chart position, and the two had nine subsequent hits together, including "Wedding Bells" and "When You And I Were Young Maggie Blues." It was inevitable from all of this success that Wakely would become a media star. In 1952, he became the star of The Jimmy Wakely Show on the CBS radio network. After co-hosting the ABC television network series Five Star Jubilee in 1961 with Tex Ritter, he continued to record for his own Shasta Records label, which he founded as a mail order distribution company in the mid-'60s. He continued to perform live in an act that included his son and daughter, and remained popular during the 1970s, until age and health problems began taking their toll. Wakely died of emphysema in 1982. -Bruce Eder
Born Jul 13, 1895 in Garrard County, KY. Died Sep 23, 1989 in Springfield, OH. Bradley Kincaid, originally from the hills of Kentucky and armed with a wealth of folk tunes and mountain ballads, prefered to refer to himself as a folksinger. While at college in Chicago he began regularly appearing on the WLS Barndance (later National Barndance). In 1936 he discovered Lewis Marshall Jones and promptly renamed him Grandpa Jones. Though he retired from the road in 1953, he still played folk festivals and recorded from time to time. In fact, over 4 days in 1963 he recorded 162 songs. He died in September 1989 in Springfield, Ohio. -Jim Worbois
Born Sep 25, 1933 in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Half of the early-'60s folk group Ian & Sylvia, Ian Tyson retreated from performing and recording after the duo disbanded in the mid-'70s to become a rancher in the foothills of Southern Alberta, Canada. He quietly returned to music-making in the 1980s, releasing a series of albums that focused on detailed songs about the concerns of the working cowboy.
Tyson was born in Victoria, British Columbia. As a child he was involved in rodeo, not music - he didn't learn to play the guitar until he was recovering from rodeo-related injuries. In the late '50s, he began performing as a folk singer. In 1961, he met singer/songwriter Sylvia Fricker and the two musicians began performing together; they also married three years later. Ian & Sylvia and their band, Great Speckled Bird, became popular on the folk scene and released their self-titled debut album in 1962. In 1963, they released Four Strong Winds; the title track, written by Tyson, became a folk standard. Ian & Sylvia successfully recorded together through the mid-'70s. The duo also began hosting a television show, Nashville North, which became the Ian Tyson Show when the couple split up in the middle of the decade.
After Ian & Sylvia's break-up, Tyson recorded Ol'Eon. He temporarily retired from recording in 1979 to work his ranch, but returned with Old Corrals and Sagebrush in 1983. In 1984, he toured with Ricky Skaggs and also released an eponymous album. Tyson released a third album, Cowboyography, two years later, and in 1991, he released another popular Canadian album, And Stood There Amazed, which contained the hits "Springtime in Alberta" and "Black Nights." Subsequent releases include 1994's Eighteen Inches of Rain, 1996's All the Good 'Uns and 1999's Lost Herd. -Sandra Brennan and Michael McCall
Group Members: Jeannie Kendall and Royce Kendall. The Kendalls were a successful father-daughter vocal team. Father Royce Kendall was born in St. Louis, Missouri. He began playing guitar as a Merchant Marine. During the late '50s he and his brother Floyce, a mandolin player, formed the Austin Brothers and went to Los Angeles to appear on the television show Town Hall Party with Cal Smith and Hank Cochran. Two years later, Kendall went back to St. Louis to be with his wife and attend barber school. Eventually they started up a barber shop/beauty salon. Jeannie, Kendall's daughter, was also born in St. Louis. As a child, she developed an interest in folk and country music. She and her father formed a duo when she was 15.
Following a visit to the Grand Ole Opry, the Kendall family decided to pay for a recording session. Afterward, they sold their record through mail order, and it sold very well. The Kendalls also began performing in St. Louis. A local deejay brought them to the attention of Stop Records in 1970. The label signed the duo and released their cover of John Denver's "Leavin' on a Jet Plane." After the song became a minor hit, the family moved to Nashville. Although they had a promising start, the Kendalls didn't really find success until 1977, when "Heaven's Just a Sin Away" climbed to number one on the country charts and crossed over to become a minor pop hit. For the next eight years the duo had a string of Top 40 singles, including the number one hits "Sweet Desire" (1978) and "Thank God for the Radio" (1984). During the latter half of the '80s, the duo continued recording, but had no Top 40 hits. During the '90s, the Kendalls continued to tour and occasionally record. -Sandra Brennan & David Vinopal
Born Sep 25, 1947 in Lebanon, OH. One of the finer lead singers in contemporary bluegrass, Larry Sparks filled in with Ralph Stanley's band after the death of the great Carter Stanley, and later went on to head the traditional bluegrass group the Lonesome Ramblers. Sparks was born and raised in Lebanon, Ohio, and began learning to play guitar as a child. In his teens, he played in bluegrass, country and rock bands. In 1966 he cut his first bluegrass single and began his association with the Stanley Brothers' Clinch Mountain Boys. He recorded five albums with the band and stayed through 1969. After that he formed the Lonesome Ramblers. After the mid-'80s, he began recording less frequently and eventually moved to Richmond, Indiana, where he continued to perform on the bluegrass circuit; earning a reputation as one of the premiere bluegrass players, he remained dedicated to preserving the traditional styles of the Stanley Brothers. -Sandra Brennan & David Vinopal
AKA Leonard Raymond Sipes. Born Sep 28, 1930 in Bethany, OK. Died Mar 14, 2000 in Ashland City, TN. Along with his contemporary Wynn Stewart, Tommy Collins was one of the first country musicians to establish a distinctive Bakersfield, California sound. During the course of the '50s, he released a series of hit singles that lightened up the tone of honky tonk with bouncing back beats, novelty lyrics and electric guitars. Collins explored a more serious side with his ballads, yet they continued to sound slightly different than his peers - though they weren't as polished as the countrypolitain coming out of Nashville, they didn't have the grit of honky tonk. Legions of West Coast country performers - most notably Buck Owens, who played guitar on several of Tommy's hit singles, and Merle Haggard - built on the sound that Collins established in the early '50s. Collins wasn't able to cash-in on the Bakersfield craze of the '60s. By then, he had already quit the music business once, and was mounting a marginally successful comeback. Nevertheless, his influence loomed large, particularly on Haggard, who took Collins' "Carolyn" and "The Roots of My Raising" to the top of the charts in the early '70s.
Collins (b. Leonard Raymond Sipes) was born just outside of Oklahoma City, spending his entire childhood in Oklahoma, where his father worked for the county. As a child, he began to sing and write songs, eventually appearing on local radio shows. Following his high-school graduation in 1948, he attended Edmond State Teachers College while he continued to perform music. During this time, he made a handful of singles for the California-based record label, Morgan. In the early '50s, he was in the army for a brief time, before he moved to Bakersfield, California with his friend Wanda Jackson and her family. Shortly afterward, the Jackson family moved back to Oklahoma, leaving Tommy Collins alone in Bakersfield.
In a short time, Collins had begun to make friends and contacts within the city, eventually becoming friends with Ferlin Husky and the pair roomed together. After recording a handful of Collins' songs, Husky convinced his record company, Capitol, to offer Tommy a record contract and the fledging singer/songwriter signed to the label in June of 1953; at the time of signing, he adopted his stage-name of Tommy Collins, since it sounded more commercial than Leonard Sipes. Capitol and Tommy immediately assembled a backing band, which featured a then-unknown Buck Owens on lead guitar. Following one unsuccessful single, Collins' released the jaunty "You Better Not Do That," which became a huge hit in early 1954, spendind seven weeks at number two on the country charts. Since the song was a success, Collins continued to pursue a light-hearted, near-novelty direction with his subsequent hits and the formula initially worked. Between the fall of 1954 and the spring of 1955, he had three Top 10 hits - "Whatcha Gonna Do Now," "Untied," "It Tickles" - and in the fall of 1955, the double A-sided single "I Guess I'm Crazy" and "You Oughta See Pickles Now," which both reached the Top 15. In addition to these hit singles, Faron Young had a huge hit with Tommy's "If You Ain't Lovin'," which was one of many songs that Collins wrote but didn't record that became hits.
Collins was on the fast road to major success, but it stopped just as soon as it began. Tommy had a religious conversion in early 1956, and much of the material he recorded that year was sacred music; occasionally, he recorded duets with his wife Wanda Lucille Shahan as well. In 1957, Collins enrolled in the Golden Gate Baptist Seminary with the intention of becoming a minister. Two years later, he became a pastor. During all of his religious teachings, Collins continued to record for Capitol, but neither himself or the label were much interested in promoting his records, and he had no hits. When his contract with the label expired in 1960, he stopped recording and enrolled as a student at Sacramento State College. For the next two years, he studied at the university.
In early 1963, Collins decided he was unfulfilled by the ministry, so he left the church and headed back to Bakersfield with the intention of re-entering the music business. Capitol agreed to re-sign him and in 1964, he returned to the lower reaches of the charts with "I Can Do That," a duet with his wife Wanda.
With the help of Johnny Cash, Collins switched labels and signed with Columbia in 1965; the following year, he had a Top 10 hit with "I Can't Bite, Don't Growl." For the next few years, he had a string of minor hit singles, none of which cracked the country Top 40. During this time, he also toured with his protegees, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, acting as their opening act. By the early '70s, both Collins' professional and personal lives were on the verge of collapse, due to his increasing dependency on drugs and alcohol. In 1971, Wanda filed for a divorce, sending Tommy into a deep depression.
Collins began to recover by continuing to write songs, many of which were recorded by Merle Haggard, including the 1972 number one hit single "Carolyn." In 1976, Tommy moved to Nashville, where he was able to secure a contract with Starday Records. Later that year, he released Tommy Collins Callin', a collection of his own versions of songs he had provided for other artists. Following the album's reelase, Tommy turned almost entirely to professional songwriting. In 1981, Merle Haggard had a hit single with "Leonard," his tribute to Collins. After the release of "Leonard," the spotlight again turned to Collins, who was now sober. Tommy signed a songwriting contract with Sawgrass Music, where his most notable success was Mel Tillis' Top 10 1984 hit, "New Patches."
Throughout the '80s, Collins kept a low profile, though his songs continued to be recorded. George Strait recorded no less than two of Tommy's compositions during the decade, taking his new version of "If You Ain't Lovin'" to number one on the country charts. European record companies like Bear Family began reissuing his recordings, which led to an appearance at the 1988 Wembley Country Music Festival in England. In 1993, Collins signed a new publishing contract with Ricky Skaggs Music and continued to write songs professionally throughout the mid-'90s, dying at his home in Ashland City, TN on March 14, 2000. -Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Born Sep 29, 1910 in Fannin County, TX. Died Dec 7, 1977 in Dallas, TX. For true fans of Western swing music, Bill Boyd rates with his contemporary Bob Wills, even though the two utilized very different styles; whereas Wills and his Playboys often used horns and recorded songs from a variety of genres, Boyd remained true to his western roots, using only a string-band, the Cowboy Ramblers.
Born on a ranch near Ladonia, Texas, Boyd grew up as a working cowboy, learning the traditional songs from the impromptu campfire jam sessions of the ranch hands. Both he and his younger brother frequently sang with the cowboys, as did their parents. The boys got to be pretty good and in 1926, made their debut on KFPM in Greenville. The family moved to Dallas in 1929, where Boyd played in a band that included fiddler Art Davis. By this time, Boyd knew he wanted a career in music, first joining a band on WFAA and then the first incarnation of the Cowboy Ramblers in 1932 on WRR. Included in Boyd's new band was his brother Jim on bass, Davis on fiddle, and Walter Kirkes on tenor banjo. When not actually performing, Boyd was out recruiting new sponsors and in this way managed to survive the Depression.
In 1934, he and the band moved to San Antonio to record for Bluebird, cutting hits including the standard "Under the Double Eagle," and "Going Back to My Texas Home." In the late '30s, their membership increased to ten; among their better known members was fiddler Carroll Hubbard, piano player Knocky Parker, and steel guitar player Wilson "Lefty" Perkins. During their long association with RCA, Boyd and the Ramblers recorded over 229 singles; in the early 1940s, they appeared in six Hollywood films, including Raiders of the West and Prairie Pals. The popularity of live radio in Dallas began fading in the 1950s, causing Boyd to become a deejay. -Sandra Brennan
Born Sep 29, 1895 in Bristol, TN. Died Jun 2, 1967. A medicine show performer in the 1910s and 1920s, Clarence (Tom) Ashley influenced the urban folk revival when his early recordings were included on the Folkways album Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952. Although he had retired from the medicine show circuit in 1943, he made a successful comeback in t
Ashley, who took his last name from the maternal grandfather who raised him, was inspired by the jokes and songs that he heard played by transients who boarded in his family home. His mother's two older sister taught him songs and instructed him on the banjo. Joining his first medicine show in 1913, Ashley traveled by horse and buggy through the southern Appalachian region, playing songs while "the doc" sold his elixirs. In 1914, he married Hettie Osborne and settled in Shouns, Tennessee.
Although he supplemented his income as a musician by farming and working at a sawmill, Ashley continued to perform. By 1927, Ashley was performing with numerous string bands including the Blue Ridge Entertainers. He recorded as a member of Byrds Moore and His Hot Shots and the Carolina Tar Heels. His solo debut came in 1929 when he recorded "The Cuckoo Bird" and "The House Carpenter" for Columbia. Signed to a solo contract by both Columbia (as Clarence Ashley) and Victor (as Tom Ashley), he recorded for both labels until 1933.
Retiring from the medicine shows in 1943, Ashley bought a truck and, with his son J.D., hauled coal, furniture and lumber. His performances were limited to working as a comedian with Charlie Monroe's Kentucky Partners and the Stanley Brothers.
While his songs were revived by string band instrumentalists in the 1950s, Ashley disappeared almost completely from the music scene. Attending the Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers Convention in 1960, he met folklorist Ralph Rinzler, who, with folk song collector Eugene Earle, set up a recording session at Ashley's daughter's home in Saltville, Virginia. Ashley invited Watson to accompany him on guitar. The session marked the acoustic guitar debut for Watson, who had previously played electric guitar in rockabilly and country bands. Beginning in 1961, Ashley and Watson, joined by fiddler Fred Price, performed at northern folk festivals, coffeehouses and clubs. Their concert at New York's Town Hall was recorded and released as their second album. Ashley recorded an additional album with fiddler Tex Isley. -Craig Harris
AKA Orvin Gene Autry. Born Sep 29, 1907 in Tioga Springs, TX. Died Oct 2, 1998 in Studio City, CA. Gene Autry was more than a musician. His music, coupled with his careers in movies and on radio and television, made him a part of the mythos that has made up the American identity for the past hundred years - John Wayne with a little bit of Sam Houston and Davy Crockett all rolled into one, with a great singing voice and an ear for music added on. He defined country music for two generations of listeners, and cowboy songs for much of this century, and American music for much of the world. He was country music's first genuine "multi-media" star, the best known country & western singer on records, in movies, on radio, and television from the early-'30s until the mid-'50s. His 300 songs cut between 1929 and 1964 include nine gold-record awards and one platinum record; his 93 movies saved one big chunk of the movie industry, delighted millions, and made millionaires of several producers (as well as Autry himself); his radio and television shows were even more popular and successful; and a number of his songs outside of the country & western field have become American pop-culture touchstones.
The biggest selling country & western singer of the middle of the century was born Orvon Gene Autry on September 29, 1907 in the tiny Texas town of Tioga, the son of Delbert and Elnora Ozmont Autry. He was first taught to sing at age five by his grandfather, William T. Autry, a Baptist preacher and descendant of some of the earliest settlers in Texas, contemporaries of the Houstons and the Crocketts (an Autry had died at the Alamo). The boy's interest in music was encouraged by his mother, who taught him hymns and folk songs, and reading psalms to him at night. Autry got his first guitar at age 12, bought from the Sears, Roebuck catalog for eight dollars (saved from his work as a hired hand on his uncle's farm baling and stacking hay). By the time he was 15, he had played anyplace there was to perform in Tioga, including school plays and the local cafe, but made most of his living working for the railroad as an apprentice at $35 a month. Later on, as a proper telegraph operator, he was making $150 a month which, in those days, was a comfortable income in their part of Texas.
He was working the four-to-midnight shift at the local telegraph office in Chelsea, Oklahoma one summer night in 1927 when, to break up the monotony, he began strumming a guitar and singing quietly to himself. A customer came into the office; rather than insisting upon immediate service, he motioned for Autry to continue singing, then sat down to watch and listen while he looked over the pages he was preparing to send. At one point, the visitor asked him to sing another. Finally, after dropping his copy on the counter, the customer told Autry that with some hard work, he might have a future on the radio, and should consider going to New York to pursue a singing career. The man, whom Autry had recognized instantly, was Will Rogers, the humorist, writer, movie actor, and one of the most popular figures in the entertainment world of that era.
Autry didn't immediately give up his job, but just over a year later, he was in New York auditioning for a representative of RCA-Victor. The judgment was that he had a good voice, but should stay away from pop hits, find his own kind of songs and his own sound, and get some experience. He was back six months later, on October 9, 1929, cutting his first record, "My Dreaming of You"/"My Alabama Home," for Victor. Two weeks later, Autry was making a demo record for the Columbia label of Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel No. 5." Present that same day in the studio were two up-and-coming singers, Rudy Vallee and Kate Smith. Autry found himself being pressured to sign an exclusive contract with Victor, but chose instead to sign with the American Record Corporation. Their general manager, Arthur Sattherly (who would later record Leadbelly, among many other acts), persuaded Autry that while Victor was a large company and could offer more money and a better marketing apparatus, he would be lost at Victor amid its existing stable of stars, whereas ARC would treat him as their most important star. Additionally, Sattherly - through a series of arrangements involving major retail and chain stores across the country - now had the means to get Autry's records into peoples' hands as easily as Victor.
His first recordings had just been released when his mother, who'd been ill for months, died at the age of 45, apparently of cancer. Autry's father began drifting away soon afterward, and he became the head of the family and the main supporter of himself, two sisters, and a younger brother. In early December of 1929, Autry cut his first six sides for ARC. The music was a mix of hillbilly, blues, country, yodel songs, and cowboy ballads. His breakthrough record, "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine," co-written by Autry and his friend Jimmy Long one night at the railroad depot, was released in 1931. The song had sold 30,000 copies within a month, and by the end of a year 500,000 had been sold, an occasion that American Records decided to mark with the public presentation of a gold-plated copy of the record. Autry received a second gold record when sales later broke one million. And that was where the notion of the Gold Record Award was born. The record also led him into a new career on the radio as Oklahoma's Yodeling Cowboy on the National Barn Dance show sponsored by WLS out of Chicago. It was there that Autry became a major national star - his record sales rose assisted by his exposure on radio.
During the early years of his career, Autry took a number of important collaborators and musicians aboard. Among them were Fred Rose, the songwriter (later responsible for "Your Cheatin' Heart") with whom he collaborated on many of his hits; and fiddle-player Carl Cotner (who also played sax, clarinet, and piano), who became his arranger. Autry had a knack for knowing a good song when he heard it (though he almost passed on the biggest hit of his career), and for knowing when a song needed something extra in its arrangement, but it was Cotner who was able to translate his sensibilities into musical notes and arrangements. Mary Ford, later of Les Paul fame, was in Autry's band at one time, and in 1936, Autry signed up a 17-year-old guitar player named Merle Travis, the future country star and songwriter.
By the early '30s, Autry became one of the most beloved singers in country & western music. By 1933, he was getting fan letters by the hundreds every week, and his record sales were only going up. Autry's career might've been made right there, but fate intervened again that year, in the form of the movie business. The western - especially the "B" western, the bottom-of-the-bill, low-budget action oater - had been hit very hard by the coming of sound in the years 1927 to 1929. Audiences expected dialogue in their movies, and most western stars up to that time were a lot better at riding, roping, and shooting than reading lines. Not only did producers and directors need something to fill up the soundtracks of their movies, especially on the limited budgets of the B-westerns, but something to substitute for violent action, which was being increasingly criticized by citizen groups.
Cowboy star Ken Maynard, who was a great trick rider and stuntman but no singer, had tried singing songs in a few of his movies, and the producers noticed that the songs had gone over well despite his vocal limitations. Maynard was making another western, In Old Santa Fe (1934), for Mascot Pictures, and producer Nat Levine decided to try an experiment, putting in a musical number sung by a professional. By sheer chance, the American Record Company and Mascot Pictures were locked together financially, though indirectly, and with the help from the president of ARC, Levine was steered toward Autry.
A phone call brought the young singer and another ARC performer - multi-instrumentalist/comedian Smiley Burnette - out to Hollywood, where, after a quick meeting and screen test, the two were put into In Old Santa Fe. Autry had only one scene, singing a song and calling a square dance, but that scene proved to be one of the most popular parts of the movie.
Levine next stuck Autry and Burnette into a Ken Maynard serial, Mystery Mountain, in minor supporting roles. But Autry's next appearance was much more important, as the star of the highly successful 12-chapter serial The Phantom Empire. Perhaps recognizing that Autry was no "actor," and that he had an audience of millions already, he, the writers, and the producer agreed that he should simply play "Gene Autry," a good-natured radio singer and sometime cowboy. The success of Autry's early films was not enough to save Mascot Pictures, which collapsed under the weight of debts held by Consolidated Film Laboratories, which did Mascot's film processing. In 1935, Consolidated forced a merger of Mascot and a handful of other small studios and formed Republic Pictures, with Consolidated's president Herbert J. Yates at the helm. Republic thrived in the B-movie market, ultimately dominating the entire field for the next 20 years. And central to Republic's success were the westerns of Gene Autry.
His first starring western for the newly organized Republic Pictures, Tumbling Tumbleweeds (released Sept. 5, 1935), which also included the singing group the Sons of the Pioneers, was a huge hit, and was followed by Melody Trail, The Sagebrush Troubador, and The Singing Vagabond, all released during the final three months of 1935. Autry settled into a schedule of one movie every six weeks, or eight-per-year, at $5000 per movie, and a formula was quickly established. The production values on these movies were modest, in keeping with their low budgets and tight shooting schedules, but within the framework of B-westerns, and the context of their music, they were first-rate productions. By 1937, and for five years after - a string that was only broken when he enlisted in the army during World War II - Autry was rated in an industry survey of theater owners as one of the top ten box-office attractions in the country, alongside the likes of James Cagney and Clark Gable. Autry was the only cowboy star to make the list, and the only actor from B-movies on the list.
For Republic Pictures, his movies were such a cash cow, and so popular in the southern, border, and western states, that the tiny studio was able to use them as a way to force "block booking" on theater owners and chains - that is, theaters only got access to the Autry movies scheduled each season if they bought all of Republic's titles for that season. It was Autry's discovery of this policy (which, in fairness, was practiced by every major studio at the time, and led to the anti-trust suit by the government that ultimately forced the studios to give up their theater chains) in early 1938 that led to his first break with Republic. The problems had been brewing for some time, over Autry's unhappiness at never having gotten a raise from his original Mascot-era $5000-per-movie deal, and contractual clauses - which had never been exercised, but worried him nonetheless - giving Republic a share of his radio, personal appearance, and endorsement earnings. After trying unsuccessfully to work out the problems with Yates, Autry walked out of the studio chief's office and thereafter refused to report for the first day's shooting on a movie called Washington Cowboy, later re-titled Under Western Stars when it became the debut of Roy Rogers.
After eight months of legal sparring, Autry was left enjoined from making live appearances. Republic, however, found itself with an uprising of theater owners and chains on its hands-without a guarantee that they would have any Autry movies to release, the studio's entire annual distribution plans were jeopardized. By the fall of 1938 the two sides had come to terms, with raises for Autry and freedom from the most onerous clauses in his old contract. Despite his best efforts, however, he couldn't help the theater owners over the block-booking policy, for it was now entrenched in the industry and an integral part of Republic's business plan.
Meanwhile, his recording career continued, often in tandem with the movies. Whenever Republic could, they licensed the rights to whatever hit song Autry had most recently recorded to use it as the title of his newest picture - when they did this, they always charged the theater owners somewhat more for the film, and they paid it, because the song had "pre-sold" the movie to the public. The songs kept coming, sometimes out of the movies themselves, and not always his own: Autry's friend Ray Whitley had written "Back in the Saddle Again" for a 1938 George O'Brien western called Border G-Man, and when Autry was looking for a theme song for his own radio show, he went back to Whitley's song, made a few changes, and recorded it himself. Along with "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine," it was the song he would be most closely associated with.
Autry's career was interrupted by his service in the military during World War II, but when he returned to the recording and movie studios in 1945, he resumed both his singing and film careers without skipping a beat. He was still a name to be reckoned with at the box office, although he was never again ranked among the top-ten money-making stars of movies. The cultural dislocations caused by World War II and their effect upon rural and small-town America, and on the movie business, as well as the impending arrival of television, had shrunk the B-movie market to a shadow of its 1930s glory. His movies still made money, however, and he kept making them right into the beginning of the 1950s, after which he moved into television production - Autry had already begun buying up radio stations before the war, and by the early '50s he was owner of several television stations, a studio, and his own production company, where he made his own television program as well as others that he owned.
His singing career was bigger than ever, however. Even before the war, Autry had occasionally moved away from country music and scored big, as with his 1940 hit version of "Blueberry Hill," which predated Fats Domino's recording by 16 years. After the war, he still did cowboy and country songs such as "Silver Spurs" and "Sioux City Sue," sprinkled with occasional folk songs and pop numbers. In 1949, however, Autry scored the biggest single hit of his career - and possibly the second- or third-biggest hit song ever recorded up to that time - with "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," a song by Johnny Marks that Autry had recorded only reluctantly, in a single take at the end of a session.That same year, he cut "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky," a number by a former forest ranger named Stan Jones, which became both a country and pop music standard, cut by everyone from Vaughan Monroe to Johnny Cash.
By the mid-'50s, Autry's career had slowed. Rock & roll and rhythm & blues were attracting younger listeners, and a new generation of country music stars, heralded by Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins, were beginning to attract serious sales. Autry, then in his forties, still had his audience, but he gradually receded from the limelight to attend to his burgeoning business interests. He died October 2, 1998. -Bruce Eder
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