When the Opry fired Hank Williams in 1952 for drinking too much, Horace Logan hired him for the Louisiana Hayride. When the Opry told a teenage Elvis Presley to stick to truck-driving, Logan gave him a break, but of course with the same help that Steve Sholes and Tom Parker gave me earlier. And it was at the same $18 a show that he had paid me two years earlier. The experiences with the two stars, Hank Williams and Elvis Presley, provided Logan’s title for his 1998 memoir, “Elvis, Hank and Me: Making Musical History on the ‘Louisiana Hayride.'” Others may have referred to the “Hayride” as the “Junior Grand Ole Opry.” Logan preferred to call the Opry “the Tennessee branch of the ‘Hayride.'” Twenty-seven radio stations in four states were carrying the Hayride and in December of that year, 1952, the CBS Radio Network picked up the Hayride. Boy, did I miss out.
What a bad pill to swallow, having to leave the Hayride. I went on to Fort Sam Houston, Texas Army Reception Center on August 19, 1952, and my vocal talents were immediately accepted and recognized there. I filled in for Vic Damone on the weekly Fourth Army Band broadcasts while he was on furlough. Then, they told me they wanted me there after basic training to replace Vic Damone. Fine with me, I thought.
We were there two weeks, then they shipped us to Camp Rucker, Alabama in the Third Army area for four months of basic training, with assurances that I would then go back to Fort Sam. It didn’t happen. There were other plans for me to stay in the Third Army area. I found out later by chance who orchestrated this and why.
Commanding General A.R. Bolling’s chauffeur, a sergeant, bunked with our show cast and band at Third Army Headquarters, and was also just one of the guys we’d hang out with. One night, the two of us struck up a conversation, and I told the story of how I was supposed to go back and replace Vic Damone at Fourth Army. He said he would tell me a little secret about me being where I was if I promised to never ever tell anyone
He proceeded to tell me that he had overheard a telephone conversation with his boss, General Bolling, back in late ’52 or early ’53, talking to whom he thought was Fourth Army General White. He indicated that it appeared to be a very heated conversation about this singer that the other general had wanted back at Fourth Army to sing with the band there. The sergeant said his boss told the other general that he was sorry but he needed this guy here in Atlanta for his traveling show and also to sing with his band. The sergeant indicated that the singer was me. I was so damned important and didn’t even know it.
We did seventeen weeks of basic which ended the last week in December, 1952, and a much deserved furlough, and I was assigned to the Camp Rucker Band when I would return. I had made plans to meet Steve Sholes and Chet Atkins in Nashville on my furlough after basic, the first week in January to do my record session. But I developed a bad cold and laryngitis and had to cancel. So I headed for my mom’s house in Beaumont on a bus. I’ll never forget while passing through Hank Williams boyhood hometown of Montgomery, Alabama on January 1, 1953, and hearing the news of his death.
There would be no more days off to go to Nashville for a while. It so happened that I’d have a couple days off after the talent contest in Fort McClellan, mentioned in another post. So I set it up to be in Nashville on Valentines Day 1953, the day after the contest. It turned out to be a double session with Porter Wagoner in the morning and me in the afternoon. Here’s how Porter’s sessions were listed: 14 February 1953 [09:30-12:30] Thomas Productions, 109 13th Ave. North, Nashville, TN – Porter Wagoner (Chet Atkins, Velma Smith, Don Davis, Charles Grean, Dale Potter, John Gordy. Producer: Stephen Sholes) and it lists the songs. Evidently, it was Porter’s band plus Chet and Charlie Grean.
I was all set to record all of my own songs when Sholes threw out all but one, That Long Long Road of Love. He wanted me to do a cover on Seven Lonely Days, which was climbing the charts. I was proud as could be to be recording with Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley, Tommy Jackson, and Jerry Byrd. There were some great solos by Chet and Tommy Jackson, and Sholes used that long echo that he used later on Elvis. I wanted to modulate and go up a half step but they wouldn’t let me. Modulating a country song to another key was unheard of. It was like a curse and not country. It is commonplace today to change keys and it would be interesting to know who was the first country artist to do it. I wanted to be but it was too New York at that time. Thinking back on it, since the song was in the key of G, they’d have to go up to Ab and I wondered if some of the players could play in that key. It wasn’t a so-called country key.
So, I braved the rest of the Army days, singing with the band and working at the service club. That final day was arriving fast. I couldn’t decide whether to head for Nashville or New York.
TO BE CONTINUED