But a few ifs, ands, buts, maybes, how comes, and bad timing got in the way. My biggest problem was that I didn’t focus on a style, since I was singing all styles. How can anyone like and even play all styles of music, country, swing, Texas, jazz, classical, rock and Greek 7/8 and 9/8? I can and I did and I do (Sounds like a song title). That part has been easy for me. You have to like it or even love it to play it and/or sing it. I was raised on all kinds of music. My sister had me singing the pop songs of the day when I was six or seven years old. As I got older I’d sing like Bing Crosby, and loved the pop swing bands of the day like Woody Herman as much as I loved Bob Wills, and all the other country and western bands and singers of the day like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. We had an old piano, so I took some lessons and then my Mom bought me a big old jumbo Gibson guitar that I then learned to play when I was getting into my teens.
But first, I believe it is rather timely that I talk about this racial thing. It was bad enough being wartime and going to the movies and hearing the audience roar when a German or a Japanese pilot was shot down. It was also about that time in my life that I really saw and witnessed the racial and ethnic hatred that existed all around me, very much of which had a lasting impression on me of asking “why?” We are all made the same. Those “others” were human beings, the same as everyone, and were treated with such total disrespect and hatred. And I could not get with this thinking. My mother, rest her soul, had an African American maid come to the house often and she had to go around to the back door to come into the house. When Mom would send me to the store, she would say, “Son go over to the (and she’d use the “d” word for Italian) store and get some bread,” or whatever. These acts of our parents, historically, were supposed to be learned and become a part of us. But some were and some weren’t. Some, I remember as being totally against all logic.
It was the day before my birthday, June 15, 1943, when my big brother, who was 17 at the time, told me he was going out and raise hell and beat up some (and he used the “n” word). It turned out to be a huge race riot when thousands marched on city hall. He was among the whites who were armed with guns, axes, and hammers. They terrorized black neighborhoods and many blacks were assaulted, and many buildings were burned.
The next day, my 12th birthday, he bragged to me about how they beat up the blacks and that they killed one. News reports are varied about how many people were killed, however ONE SUCH REPORT stated that 21 (twenty-one) were killed. So, my home town of Beaumont joined New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Mobile, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, as sites of bloody race riots in the summer of 1943. Aside from two alleged rape cases, the Ku Klux Klan had planned to host a regional convention of the Klan two weeks later on June 29 in Beaumont, and expected to bring 15,000 to 20,000 Klansmen from all over the South to hear the “imperial emperor” of the KKK, speak.
Without a doubt, huge media attention on this intensified racial tensions. And there I was, growing up in this deep seated hatred, meant to be passed along from generation to generation with total brainwashing. And I hated it. Later in high school, when riding the school bus, every day several of the boys would shout out racial slurs to every black person they would see along the way. And this is just a small sample.
Thank God I wasn’t influenced by all of this to follow that Deep South brainwashing, which I despised more and more as I got older. My thinking never changed and I am even more against it now than ever before.
Well, back to trying to grow up in a polluted environment. I started playing guitar and singing and met Clyde Brewer, stepson of Shelly Lee Alley of Shelly Lee Alley and the Alleycats, a prominent band in that day. Shelly invited me to work with them. One night the bass player got stoned on booze and chewing Benzedrine, and Shelly turned to me and said to play bass. What the hell? I never played bass. So I thumped around and finished the night with big blisters, but figured after that I might like to learn the bass.
Clyde told me the story of when Shelly turned to him one night and said to play fiddle, and he had never played fiddle before. So, I learned on my own with no lessons and I’ve been playing ever since. I bought an old beat up bass and really started learning, and was playing with country and pop bands and even playing with the Lamar College (now U.) dance band in Beaumont when I was 15. In high school, I was singing just about everything, and high tenor and operatic in the choir.
J.P Richardson, later the Big Bopper, and I were side by side tenors and became great friends. The irony here is that J.P. stayed in Beaumont and became a big star and I went to New York and “also ran.” My director set me up with a scholarship to North Texas State, but although I could sing classical I just didn’t want to sing it and tie down for four years, so I turned it down. In those days people were also prejudiced with their music. Either you liked classical or you didn’t. And I just couldn’t get with classical, however I played classical bass in the high school orchestra.
I couldn’t wait to leave town after graduation, and after several road band experiences and some bass lessons, I arrived in New York at age 19, and found a room on Sixth Avenue in the block north of Radio City Music Hall, between 51st and 52nd Street. How lucky I was to be right across the street from all the famous jazz joints. I would carry my bass over to the Three Dueces
and sit in with Sol Yegged, and then over across the street to Jimmy Ryans. What a damn thrill that was. I’d walk a block the other way to Radio City Music Hall, and for fifty cents, I could see a movie, the Rockettes, the Corp de Ballet and the orchestra.
I learned from the road that when you get to New York, you go and hang out at Charlie’s Tavern, and meet other musicians.
Guys mostly never bought anything, and Charlie didn’t mind if you just hung out. I met Everette Hull, who had just formed the Ampeg Bassamp Company. He took me over to show me his first prototype of his bass with a mic mounted inside. I was later working for him building amplifiers. As I related in my last post about six months later I landed a gig at the famous old Hotel Astor in Times Square, with the highest paying pop dance music job in town. A year later, after the big bands, the Grand Ole Opry cast and band came to the Astor Roof and we were the relief band. Imagine, one of the hottest and biggest dance spots in New York, with all the Hee Hawness of the typical Country and Western music of the day, with our band there playing all the pop music of the day. And the Dixie Dinner Special was $2.00, while a full coarse dinner was $3.75
New York just wasn’t quite ready for country and western music. But it was a most fabulous experience for me and I hadn’t even turned 21. I got to know everyone including Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Eddie Hill and all the Nashville musicians. Eddie Arnold came over with his manager, Tom Parker, to catch the show and also our pop band.
It was at the same time that RCA Victor’s country A & R producer, Steve Sholes, heard my demo of my song, That Long Long Road of Love and signed me to record that and three other sides. So, one night, my publisher, Al Gallico, Steve Sholes, Charlie Grean, who was Steve’s boss at RCA and his bass player, and Colonel Tom Parker were all seated there discussing plans for developing my career. Parker wanted to manage me but I had recently signed a management contract with big band manager, John O’Connor, in New York and I wasn’t sure if I could get out of it. Actually, that turned out to be a bust trying to get out of the contract. Sholes and Parker had already set it up for me to go down and be a regular at the, Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, Louisiana, where Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and a bunch of others sprang from. Sholes and Parker brought Elvis in to the Hayride two years after me. Yeah, we both were getting paid $18 a Saturday night. It was later called the “Cradle of Stars.” I would have to pull up newly established roots in New York and head back to Texas and Louisiana, and spend some time building a following on the “Hayride.” Sholes and Parker had great plans to build me into a star, the way that they did Elvis later.
I had to stay signed with John O’Connor in New York but since he wasn’t doing anything for me I was still trying to get out of it. I gave my notice to Alan Holmes at the Astor and headed to my old home at my mom’s in Beaumont. I’d commute to the Louisiana Hayride on Saturdays and try to set up with some bands there to work with and travel and build a following.
Well, I got some boots and a Stetson, loaded my bass into its coffin, got on a train again, guitar in hand and headed for Texas. I couldn’t pass through Lafayette, Louisiana without stopping and spending some time with my big brother, Dan, and his family, and then it was on to Beaumont with wild anticipation about the Hayride.
The moment I stepped off the train to a bunch of waiting relatives in Beaumont, the first words out of my mom’s mouth were, “Son, you got your draft notice.” Shit, there goes everything I’d been working for and hoping for, out the door. I’d have to report in less than two months. So, I went to the Hayride halfheartedly a half dozen times and had to hear from Horace Logan that I had to get back into southern country mode. I’d been up north a little too long I guess. Meanwhile, Tom Parker was losing interest because of the Army. And Steve Sholes wasn’t excited either, since we couldn’t plan anything.
TO BE CONTINUED