Standing in the Shadow of The Buckaroos: The Ballad of Bob Morris

Buck Owens had a friend in Bob Morris. Without the Newton County native, Buck would have never had his signature theme song, “Buckaroo.” There would have been no “Made in Japan.”

Bob Morris publicity photo.

Owens would have had to settle on a different bass player for his early albums, find someone else to manage his Blue Book Music publishing and trust that someone nearly as capable could run his studio.

Some say this made Morris a bona fide member of Owens’ backing band, the Buckaroos. In fact, he was credited as such on sporadic pressings of Buck Owens’ 1965 LP, I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail, along with sidemen guitarist Don Rich, drummer Willie Cantu, pedal steel guitarist Tom Brumley and bassist Doyle Holly – probably the most heralded lineup of all the Buckaroos’ incarnations.

When Morris recorded with Merle Haggard, he was definitely credited as a Stranger, as in Merle Haggard and the Strangers. Merle, and countless others, sang his songs.

Remember The Champs? The rock ’n’ roll group best known for its iconic, one- hit wonder, “Tequila”? Morris was a member of them, too.

And if this sounds like another one of those Arkansans-who-left-the-state-for-bigger-success-only-to-never-return stories, guess again.

Bob Morris came back.

‘TOO MUCH TEQUILA’

Hasty, located a few miles east of the northwest Arkansas town of Jasper in Newton County, is a typical rural Ozark community. Hills. Streams. Winding roads. The only real sign of activity comes from Arkansas 123, which stretches by a small post office and bisects a smattering of county roads – some paved and some gravel.

Random buildings are located acres apart amid fields and meadows. The Buffalo River flows through here, and there’s even a designated point where whitewater enthusiasts can launch their kayaks and canoes.

The Champs in late 1959 (clockwise from top left): Bob Morris, Dash Crofts, Glen Campbell, Jerry Cole and Jimmy Seals.

This is also the birthplace of Robert Dean Morris. The journey began February 3, 1930, when Morris was born into a family of 12 children. Music was a love, especially the fiddle, which he picked up at an early age with his talents extending to guitar. His family moved to Oklahoma, and he attended high school in Bixby, a town a few miles southeast of Tulsa. To be located near the city where Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys had a home base at the famed Cain’s Ballroom had to have made an impression on young Bob. One of his early jobs as a musician occurred circa 1953 when he played guitar for Bob Wills’ younger brother, Johnnie Lee Wills, who had a radio show on Tulsa radio station KVOO. Morris appeared on a few of Wills’ singles recorded at the station and for the RCA Victor record label.

Morris relocated to California and, by the late 1950s, fell in with the Latin-inspired, frat rock instrumental group The Champs, best known for the hit song, “Tequila.” Morris missed out on the band’s initial success, joining the rotating lineup a couple years later as the band struggled to produce a hit as worthy. The group recorded for Challenge Records, a Los Angeles label started by cowboy singer Gene Autry, who just happened to be The Champs’ manager.

Challenge Records, probably feeling the pressure to squeeze out yet another hit for The Champs, put its money into a promotional music video – long before music videos became standard fare. What resulted was this slightly bizarre film – with weird laughter and all – of the group lip-syncing (and musical instrument-syncing) a highly choreographed answer song to “Tequila.” That would be, of course, “Too Much Tequila.” Morris is the one playing bass guitar on the far left.

 

By the time Morris joined The Champs, it’s worth mentioning that its lineup would have constituted a “super group” of sorts had it been the 1970s. In addition to Morris, the band included Jimmy Seals (tenor saxophone) and Dash Crofts (drums), who would later become the 1970s soft rock duo, Seals and Crofts, known for their hit songs “Summer Breeze” and “Diamond Girl.” In fact, Morris and Seals would pen several songs together, including the very listenable, pre-surf instrumental, “Jumping Bean.” Also joining was fellow Arkansas native Glen Campbell (guitar), who would dominate the late 1960s to 1970s pop and country music scenes with songs like “Wichita Lineman” and “Rhinestone Cowboy.”

While The Champs’ success ran out of gas, another genre was gaining momentum some 100 miles north of Los Angeles. Morris would be one of its key players.

 THE BAKERSFIELD SOUND

As both an Arkie and Okie, Morris had a lot in common with many of the country musicians around him. Many were children of the Great Depression – a time when droughts, floods and dust storms in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas prompted many to journey to The Golden State for migrant farm work (think The Grapes of Wrath). And when looking at many of the Bakersfield, California, musicians who gained fame, there’s often a direct, or indirect, connection to Arkansas. Two of the city’s biggest stars – Buck Owens and Merle Haggard – both had mothers who were born in Arkansas (Vilonia and Harrison respectively).

Buck Owens, a Californian at heart, led a movement. He felt there were many West Coast country musicians who could rival the honkytonk heroes and heroines of Nashville’s Music Row. In fact, some were saying what was being produced in Nashville in the early 1960s wasn’t country at all. What’s with the lush, orchestral strings backing the smooth vocals of Jim Reeves? Where were the weepers and barroom brawlers? Where were the fiddles?!

The Bakersfield Sound was being birthed. In addition to Owens and his Buckaroos, other Californians entered the scene: Merle Haggard, Wynn Stewart, Freddie Hart, Jean Shepard and more. All would help put this farm town on the musical map.

No longer a member of The Champs, Morris was putting his songwriting chops to good use, and trying to figure out what all he wrote is near impossible – he was that prolific. As noted, Morris wrote several with Jimmy Seals. Some were covered by The Champs, others, apparently placed in a publishing catalog for others to pursue. One of the more popular Morris-Seals compositions, though never charted, was a number called “True Love Never Dies.” A quick YouTube search brings up versions by Paul Anka, The Walker Brothers, The Cascades and Jerry Fuller.

Morris also teamed up with former Okie, Eddie Miller, a musician who is probably best known for his torch song megahit, “Release Me,” which has been recorded by a plethora of musicians from Ray Price to Tom Jones. (Miller also penned the Ernest Tubb hit, “Thanks a Lot.”) The duo’s tunes were sought out by many of Bakersfield’s biggest. One of their most popular songs they wrote together was “Playboy,” which was covered by Wynn Stewart, Roger Miller and Buck Owens, to name a few.

In 1963, Morris signed to Capitol and continued to write and record on his own along with his wife, Faye Hardin, a gorgeous blonde who could stun audiences with her yodeling and then turn around and belt out lead vocals and harmonies reminiscent of Connie Smith. She and Bob complemented each other, and their chemistry was evident. Listen to their songs like “Let’s Do What’s Right, Even If It’s Wrong” and “We Can Love (Again),” fine honkytonk worthy of any tavern jukebox. This is real country – the stuff country music purists try to resurrect today. It should also be noted that Faye got top billing on these singles, as in “Faye Hardin & Bob Morris.” There was some real love going on here.

‘BUCKAROO’

Needless to say, Morris’ talent was well known in California’s country music circles. In 1963, he performed as a solo artist in an all-star concert emceed by Cousin Herb Henson that also included Buck Owens, Glen Campbell, Roy Clark, Jean Shepard and Merle Travis. The concert was recorded and released on LP as Country Music Hootenanny. (And check out this Toys for Tots benefit concert that aired in 1967 on Bakersfield radio station KUZZ. Morris and Hardin appear at the 14:30 mark.)

This was also when Buck Owens began using Morris on recording sessions at the Capitol Tower Recording Studio in Los Angeles. You can hear Morris’ bass licks in “Down, Down, Down,” “Love’s Gonna Live Here” and “Together Again” and several other songs. In the studio, Morris frequently took the place of regular Buckaroo bassist Doyle Holly, whom Owens believed performed better live. Holly was reassigned to rhythm guitar on recording sessions.

On one particular session, with 15 minutes studio time remaining but no more tunes to record, Owens asked his bandmates if they had anything. “I’ve got one,” Morris said. This was not in character for Bob, but the band was curious. Morris changed out his bass for a guitar and began picking a catchy little riff. The band chimed in, and the engineer pressed the “record” button. When they were done, they had a complete instrumental, which Owens temporarily titled “Paris.” That little tune would forever be associated with Buck Owens and was eventually knighted “Buckaroo.” It became the first instrumental to hit No. 1 on the country charts and personifies the Bakersfield Sound to this day.

In addition to the Buckaroos, during 1965 to 1968, Morris played bass on no fewer than 10 recordings with Merle Haggard – a designation that would earn Morris the status as a “Stranger” as in Merle Haggard and the Strangers. His work can be heard on Haggard’s “A House Without Love is Not a Home” (with Bonnie Owens) and “Hobo’s Meditation,” to name a few. On Haggard’s 1968 album, Sing Me Back Home, Haggard covers Morris’ and Eddie Miller’s song, “If You See My Baby.” Merle recorded another, written entirely by Morris himself, called “What’s Wrong with Stayin’ Home,” which appeared on the 1969 album, A Portrait of Merle Haggard. (Morris also recorded it as a single under the extended title, “What’s Wrong with Stayin’ Home [With Julie]” for Capitol.)

To get an idea who all has covered his songs, and with whom he has played, just go to his “Credits” page on allmusic.com. While his biography is nonexistent, be prepared to scroll quite a while viewing Morris’ contributions. You’ll see the names Charlie Louvin, Rick Nelson, Wynn Stewart, The Byrds, Moe Bandy, Ernest Tubb, The Wilburn Brothers, Jean Shepard and others. And if Morris didn’t write the songs, then he was likely providing the bass licks for those artists.

AWARDS AND TV SHOWS

While both Buck and Merle were well aware of Morris’ talents, it was confirmed when the first Academy of Country Music Awards was held in 1965. And it wouldn’t have happened without Faye. She and Morris were nominated as Best Vocal Group in the inaugural event, losing to the powerhouse Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens. Morris was also voted Best Bass Player in 1965 and 1966. He and Hardin, who would also be nominated for Most Promising Female Vocalist three years straight, continued to receive ACM nominations for their musicianship through 1968.

Owens’ fandom of Morris didn’t wane. He invited Morris and Hardin to his pre-Hee Haw television program, The Buck Owens Show (sometimes called The Buck Owens Ranch Show, though not its official name) a number of times, including this one that features a rollicking performance of “Fishin’ on the Mississippi.” Buck lavishes Morris with praise, and check out Morris and Buck Owens’ sideman, Don Rich, duke it out on fiddles on “Orange Blossom Special.” They’re having a blast!

 

While Morris’ association with Haggard wound down by the late 1960s, his affiliation with Buck extended into the 1970s. When Buck’s catalog was slow to produce any more hits, a little tune written by Morris and Hardin provided some promise. Morris sang the song for Don Rich and Jim Shaw, who joined the Buckaroos as a keyboardist in the late 1960s. It started with “My transistor radio comes from far away, and when it’s night over there, over here it’s breaking day …” Rich and Shaw worked up a demo and played it for Buck, who took an immediate liking to it. The Buckaroos recorded it in the studio and then released it as a single.  In 1972, “Made in Japan,” as sung by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, bolted to the No. 1 position on Billboard’s Hot Country chart.

It would be another 16 years before Buck would earn another No. 1 hit — his last. Morris had a hand in that one as well but, this time, not as writer.

‘THE STREETS OF BAKERSFIELD’

Stories of what exactly happened varies, but what is known is that Morris was managing Buck’s studio in the early 1970s when he encountered a young musician named Homer Joy, who had signed to Owens’ Blue Book Music, which was, by this time, also managed by Morris. Joy (a Heber Springs, Arkansas, native) agreed to record an album of Hank William’s songs in Buck’s studio in exchange for some studio time to record his own material with the Buckaroos. Joy recorded those Hank Williams songs, but when he returned repeatedly to the studio to record his own music, the Buckaroos were nowhere to be found. Feeling dejected, he went back to his hotel room and penned a song to vent his frustration. When Joy returned to Buck’s studio once again, Morris asked Joy to go ahead and sing him something. As Joy sang the chorus, “You don’t know me, but you don’t like me,” Morris quickly recognized the potential of “Streets of Bakersfield.” He informed Buck that, hey, you really need to get down here. The Buckaroos made good on the promise and backed Joy on the song, which was released as a single. Unfortunately, it failed to chart. Buck Owens tried his hand at recording the tune. Again, nada. The song sat around for years. Then, in 1988, a young, popular country artist, and diehard Buck Owens fan, provided the magic touch. Dwight Yoakam accompanied Buck on a Tex-Mex version of “Streets of Bakersfield,” and it was a smash. It would also be Owens’ last No. 1 hit.

BACK HOME IN THE OZARKS

By the early 1970s, “Bashful Bob Morris,” as Owens dubbed him (Owens often gave nicknames to his band members – Don Rich was “Dangerous Don Rich”), along with Faye and their children, moved back to his birthplace of Newton County. He and Hardin stayed with the music business, however. They had already been on a package tour with Merle Haggard, performed various dates with the Buckaroos, and Morris managed Buck Owens’ publishing catalog – sometimes a struggle over a rural Newton County telephone line. The couple also performed throughout Northwest Arkansas, including several appearances at the Ozark Opry, located in the old Palace Theater on the Fayetteville square, and venues in the Harrison area. It was clear that Morris championed the music in the Arkansas Ozarks.

In a newspaper interview, Morris said he came back to Newton County to retire. In addition to performing locally, he and Hardin produced records for other musicians and even appeared on a TV special for Arkansas’ PBS affiliate in 1979.

On October 22, 1981, the Baxter Bulletin of Mountain Home ran a foreboding article noting that Freddie Hart – a Bakersfield music giant whose hits included “Easy Loving” and “My Hang Up is You” — would appear at Marble Falls Convention Center near the now-closed Dogpatch USA amusement park south of Harrison in an “appreciation concert” for Morris, with proceeds to benefit medical costs. The article also mentioned that a fire had recently destroyed Morris’ home, including his musical collection.

What wasn’t mentioned was that Morris was in very poor health and had less than two months to live.

When Morris, 51, died from cancer on December 3, 1981, at the Boone County Hospital in Harrison, the Associated Press and Billboard magazine produced small articles. He was buried in the Sand Hill Cemetery in the community of Yardell in Newton County, Arkansas. The same year of his passing, his song “The Matador,” recorded by Sylvia, reached No. 7 on Billboard’s U.S. Hot Country Singles.

His songs continue to be woven in the fabric of popular culture – and some in surprising places, like when “Made in Japan” was featured in a segment of the movie, Jackass. “Buckaroo” has also been performed by countless musicians, ranging from Duane Eddy to The Flying Burrito Brothers. His work can also be found on the music compilations such as Original Country and Western Music and Original Country and Western Music, Volume 2, both on the Elite Special label.

In 1995, Sundazed Records produced a reissue of Buck Owens and the Buckaroos’ I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail album. It features bonus tracks, including one written and sung by Morris, “This Ol’ Heart.” Buck and the gang back him up – a nod to Morris that he was, indeed, a Buckaroo all along.

***

 

Information for this article came from (in no particular order):

Buck ‘Em! The Autobiography of Buck Owens with Randy Poe (Backbeat Books). Published 2013.

Harrison Daily Times, Aug. 4, 1972, “Old Country Boy from Hasty Doing Alright in California,” p. 6.; June 28, 1974, “People from All Over Come to Come to Hear ‘Bob and Faye’ and Country Music,” p. 16.

Arkansas Democrat, Dec. 20, 1979, “Best Bets” TV listing, p. 21A; “Bob Morris, 51, Hit Songwriter, Hasty Resident” (Associated Press), p. 9B.

Baxter Bulletin (Mountain Home, Arkansas), “Freddie Hart Coming Oct. 29 to Marble Falls for Benefit,” p. 58.

The Bakersfield Californian, Feb. 10, 2006, “Robert Price Column: Two Men, Two Recollections of How Buck’s Hit Was Born,” accessed April 30, 2016.

Cashbox, Feb. 2, 1963, “Capitol Adds New Femme, Male Voices,” p.  40.

Billboard, Nov. 30, 1963, “Country Music Hootenanny.”

Praguefrank’s Country Music Discographies

Allmusic, Eddie Miller, https://www.allmusic.com/artist/eddie-miller-mn0001347196, accessed June 29, 2018.

Seals and Crofts, http://www.sealsandcrofts.com/champs.html, accessed June 29, 2018.

Academy of Country Music, https://www.acmcountry.com, accessed July 2, 2018.

 

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Posted in Arkansas, Bakersfield Sound, Bob Morris, Boston Mountains, Buck Owens, Don Rich, Homer Joy, Merle Haggard, Music, Ozarks, Tequila, The Champs | 6 Comments

Levon and the Hawks: “A Real Treat in Store”

Levon Helm takes lead vocals with The Hawks with “Further On Up the Road.”

This blog has been rampant with references to Ronnie Hawkins, one of the Ozarks’ most famous rock ‘n’ rollers, even if he’s more of a household name in Canada than the United States. It can’t be stopped. He was, and still is, an interesting character.

As Hawkins settled for a music career up north, his backing band, comprised of mostly Canadians, became a household name in the United States. But there was one member, anGhosts of the Rockwood Club Arkansan, who also stood out, both through his music and, later, his acting roles, which included blockbuster movies like “The Right Stuff” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

But it’s unlikely that Levon Helm, an Arkansas Delta native who spent considerable time in the Arkansas Ozarks, had any idea what direction his career would take once his music partners – Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel – would break away from Hawkins to start their own group. So, by the end of 1964, Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks became Levon and the Hawks.

This was a risky move.

Levon and Hawks Ad

An an open-letter advertisement encouraging people to check out the new version of The Hawks with Levon Helm as front man, replacing Ronnie Hawkins. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Hawkins had always been  the star of the group, with his outrageous stage antics, which often included body flips and other gymnastics. He took lead vocals with the group’s only major hit song, “Mary Lou.” People came in droves to Hawks concerts in anticipation of what “The Hawk” might do next.

An open letter advertisement taken out by Dayton Stratton, owner of The Rockwood Club in Fayetteville, shown to the left, indicates there was some worry about this new incarnation of the band. Here, Stratton made a plea to the public to come listen to the group, which was scheduled to perform a Christmas Eve show, even if it no longer had its original front man:

“This will be the first time the HAWKS have toured this area without their former leader and no doubt many will be hesitant to attend some of the dances for which they will be playing because of the absence of Ronnie Hawkins,” the open letter said. “For those of you who do not let skepticism stand in the way, however, there is, I believe, a real treat in store.”

Four years later, the group would be known as The Band.

From there, the group’s music would continue to evolve profoundly following their association with Bob Dylan as his backup musicians as well as the influences of Woodstock, New York, where they spent much of their time. The album Music from Big Pink would birth majestic pieces like “The Weight” followed by a self-title album that birthed more classics such as “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” There were many others.

But long before The Band would give its 1976 historical performance as shown in Martin Scorsese’s documentary, “The Last Waltz,” five musicians were just hoping there would be a good showing on an early winter’s night at The Rockwood Club.

Posted in Arkansas, Levon Helm, Rock and Roll, Ronnie Hawkins, The Band, The Hawks | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Ozark Mountain Folkfair: ‘Chicken Train’ Went Into Hyperspace

The Earl Scruggs Revue perform in this unidentified concert that would have been very similar to the one they gave in 1973 at the Ozark Mountain Folkfair near Eureka Springs.

***

New York had its Woodstock. Monterey, California, had its Pop Festival. In 1973, Arkansas, always a few years behind the rest of the nation, was about to have its own megafestival.

A very impressive concert lineup was announced for the Ozark Mountain Folkfair, a three-day event to take place that Memorial Day weekend at Oak Hill Eco Park, 10 miles north of Eureka Springs near the Arkansas-Missouri border. Performers included The Earl Scruggs Revue, James Cotton Blues Band, Clifton Chenier Cajun Band, Johnny Shines, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Big Mama Thornton, John Hartford, Jimmy Driftwood, Mason Profitt, Rambin’ Jack Elliot, and John Lee Hooker. (Photo galleries of the festival can be found here and here.)

Filmmaker Les Blank, known for his music documentaries, would be honored each night. Also featured at the event would be an arts and crafts village consisting of several master artisans through the Midwest with demonstrations and a farmer’s market.

Helping build the excitement was the approval of the Arkansas State Legislature, which presented to the event’s sponsor, the Ozark Mountain Folklore Association, a citation where it expressed its “full endorsement and appreciation.”

Mike “Supe” Granda, bass player and vocalist for the Springfield, Missouri-based Ozark Mountain Daredevils, recalled in his book, It Shined: The Saga of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, that the performers were housed in Eureka Springs’ Crescent Hotel, where impromptu music jams ensued as thunderstorms and tornado warnings hampered performances on that opening day. Concert-goers – somewhere from 20,000 to 30,000, according to newspaper accounts – were less fortunate and had to hunker down in their tents and cars. But when the rain subsided, the music resumed … with plenty of mud in the hills.

“When we hit the stage that Saturday afternoon, we were ‘the local boys make good’ portion of the show. A wonderful congregation of friends and neighbors gathered on the mountain. The sight of them, stretched out on a hill in front of us, put lumps in our throats and shot us into overdrive. The music elicited wild dancing. ‘Chicken Train’ went into hyperspace, transforming into a tribal chant. We stomped the shit out of our set. The crowd stomped the shit out of the mountain.”

But an Associated Press article about the event presented a slightly less cosmic view. The big news wasn’t that local service had run out of gasoline as a result of the crowds. Higher up in an article was a report of a woman being removed by ambulance from complications of a botched abortion three weeks earlier. The Crisis Intervention Center reported few bad drug trips – just three had to be “talked down” from LSD. That there were only three reported drug problems in an audience of up to 30,000 was still too many in the eyes of a few locals, who viewed the festival differently. A letter to the editor in the Eureka Springs Echo decried the event:

“I weep for these young people, not for what they do to me, but for what they apparently are doing to themselves. They seem to be rushing headlong into an abyss of hollow laughter and synthetic good times. The abyss may become deep and wide, and everlasting.”

While the author of the letter was disgusted, the Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce was livid. It was reportedly uncooperative with the event from its inception. Following the festival, the chamber’s sentiment prompted the resignation of its president, possibly the only sympathetic member to the festival, 26-year-old Don Watson, the Harrison Daily Times reported. Watson told the Chamber he would have liked to have had an opportunity to consult with Folkfair organizers to make the festival “more appealing to families and less appealing to longhairs.” To prove he hadn’t defected to the other side, possibly to appease chamber members, he added, “The board members don’t like hippies.”

The Chamber was apparently more than glad to see Watson step down and accepted his resignation unanimously, adding that their decision to lambaste the festival was “in harmony with a firm resolution pass earlier by the chamber.”

The resolution was probably related to an advertisement the chamber had placed in The Eureka Springs Echo:

“The Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce believes that the Memorial Day Folkfair that took place 10 miles north of Eureka Springs, as conducted, was detrimental to our future growth as a retirement community, our tourist industry, and our general economy. If you share these feelings … voice your opinions. Write your State Representative and State Senator and urge them to work for passage of legislation or taking other possible steps which would help to control such events.”

The Associated Press reported the Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce officials released a poll among its members showing there was “overwhelming support” of the chamber’s opposition to the festival. Adding to the controversy was festival organizer Edd Jeffords’ attempt to join the chamber, which was being stalled, and his claim that the poll was distributed to members who were known opponents of the festival.

But that didn’t stop folks from trying to put on another festival, Granda wrote. There was talk, but that’s all there was. The Ozark Mountain Folkfair never returned.

(Note: For more information, check out the blog entry about the Ozark Mountain Folkfair by April Griffith, library assistant for the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale, and her connection to it.)

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Those Lonely Weekends Spelled Short Stint at University of Arkansas

In the late summer of 1951, the University of Arkansas was gearing up for the onslaught of students preparing to further their education. They came from every corner of the state, including a hamlet outside of Forrest City called Colt.

Charlie Rich UA

Photo taken of Charlie Rich while a student at the University of Arkansas.

There was no easy commute from the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta. Interstate 40, which now runs through Forrest City, was barely an idea. But one young student from the St. Francis County town made the journey after he lost his  football scholarship to what is now Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. The young musician, listed in the Arkansas Razorback yearbook as Charles Allan Rich, switched gears and enrolled at the University of Arkansas in the Ozark foothills of Fayetteville. While there, he successfully pledged the Kappa Sigma fraternity on Dickson Street, where he lived in Room 121, and became a saxophone player for the Arkansas Razorback band. He also would have been one of the first students to take music classes on the top floor of the university’s new fine arts building, designed by famed architect Edward Durell Stone.

That Charlie Rich would be known as “The Silver Fox” in the 1970s when he had a string of hit songs from “Behind Closed Doors” to “Most Beautiful Girl” was on nobody’s radar, let alone his. But his music and style was evolving as a Kappa Sig. Unlike his 1970s persona as a “countrypolitan” crooner, his main influence was straight-up jazz, which was evident in some of his early recordings in the late 1950s at Sun Studio in Memphis, where he drew an easy comparison to Frank Sinatra and other jazz singers before delving into rock ‘n’ roll and R&B, such as this song here:

There’s a strong likelihood that Rich was also exposed to some of Fayetteville’s music talent. New pledges and their dates were honored with an informal dance at the Uark Bowl on Fayetteville’s Dickson Street with jazz musician Buddy Hayes, who inspired many area performers, including Ronnie Hawkins.

The Kappa Sigma fraternity president at the time was Charles Allbright, a journalism student who remembered Rich as a young pledge. (Years later, Allbright would become a household name statewide as the Arkansas Traveler columnist for the Arkansas Gazette and, later, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.) Allbright, in 1995, wrote how fellow fraternity brother Charlie Jones — yes, also a Charlie —  and Rich attempted to write a song after Jones was inspired by seeing “Singing in the Rain” several times. The song writing session occurred one afternoon at the fraternity house’s living room.

“We spent all that Sunday afternoon at the piano in the living room,” Jones recalled. “He was trying to write music and I was pacing about, trying to write words. After five hours he had maybe three bars, and I had two words — `beautiful waterfalls’ — and that was it. We gave up on being songwriters.”

Rich, shortly thereafter, gave up on college.

He was missing his high school sweetheart, Margaret Ann, and was failing his freshman English class (though he was reportedly making A’s in his music classes). He dropped out of school, joined the Air Force and got married. When his military service ended, he moved to West Memphis to take up farming. Rich didn’t give up music, however. In the evenings, he performed at the local nightclubs only to till the fields bleary-eyed the next day.

Just across the Mississippi River, a Memphis studio owner named Sam Phillips, the man who gave Elvis Presley his first recording contract, saw talent in Rich and hired him to be a session musician. Rich played piano on numerous musicians’ recordings, including Jerry Lee Lewis, wrote a hit song for Johnny Cash (“The Ways of a Woman in Love”) and had a hit song himself with the Elvis Presley-inspired “Lonely Weekends.” His career, however, ran dry until 1965, when he had his second Top 40 hit, “Mohair Sam.” (Trivia: This was the song Elvis Presley listened to repeatedly on his jukebox when The Beatles paid him a visit to his Los Angeles home in 1965.)

Rich managed to stay connected to the University of Arkansas, at least musically. Around the time of “Mohair Sam,” he recorded a 45 rpm record titled “Callin’ the Razorbacks,” written by his wife, Margaret Ann, which was reportedly a promotional record given out by RCA television dealers in Central Arkansas shortly after the Arkansas Razorbacks took the national football championship. The musical act was listed as The Hog Callers, but Rich’s voice is unmistakable, along with the song’s melody, which is strongly similar to “Mohair Sam.” We also hear Rich give a rousing “soooooie!”

Rich returned to the University of Arkansas at least once. Again, after the release of “Mohair Sam,” Rich had difficulty getting back on the charts. In 1967, the Northwest Arkansas Times ran a small article noting that Rich would perform a “psychedelic concert” at the University of Arkansas Men’s Gymnasium. Why the psychedelic reference? There would be a vast assortment of colored lights for the show, the article noted. At this point, Rich had temporarily abandoned jazz and pop music to focus on R&B and, yes, even funk. Having lost contracts with RCA and Smash (A Mercury subsidiary), he was now recording for Hi Records, a smaller, soulful Memphis label that would be best known for its star performer, Al Green. While there, Rich recorded his own material as well compositions by up-and-coming songwriters Isaac Hayes and David Porter. His 1967 UA concert may have included this song:

Rich, however, was on the eve of success. In the late 1960s, he signed with Epic Records, had solid premature white hair, grew massive lamb chop sideburns and had a string of hits from “Behind Closed Doors” to “Keep on Rollin’ with the Flow” (written by Springdale, Arkansas, native and musician Jerry Hayes).

Rich, who went into semi-retirement in the 1980s and 1990s, recorded a highly acclaimed jazzy R&B album, “Pictures and Paintings,” in 1992. Though not commercially successful, many consider it to be one of his best.

Sadly, Rich’s career was cut short. He died in 1995 from a blood clot to his lung at the age of 62.

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Ghosts of The Rockwood Club: The Emcees



In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, The Emcees were mainstays in the Northwest Arkansas music scene. They made regular appearances at Fayetteville’s Rockwood Club and followed the footsteps of Ronnie Hawkins by going to Canada to play before enthusiastic crowds. On a historic note, at least for Arkansas, they performed at a New Year’s Eve party in Dallas, Texas, sponsored by the University of Arkansas Alumni Association in late 1964 thatGhosts of the Rockwood Club also served as a pre-Cotton Bowl celebration. (One journalist described the event to be divided by those who did the fox trot and others who danced the Watusi. More partying would ensue the next day as the Arkansas Razorbacks clenched the national championship by defeating the Nebraska Cornhuskers.)

No doubt, people dug The Emcees or, The MC’s, as they were sometimes billed early in their career. Led by Tommy McClelland, a trumpet player and singer, he first performed in The Dixieland Rebels in the 1950s. The group evolved into the McClelland Combo with his brothers, Leon and Mel, in the lineup — hence, the name MC’s, or Emcees, as they would become known.

At this point, not enough can be said about Leon McAuliffe’s promotion of rock ‘n’ roll in Northwest Arkansas and, arguably, being a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer in his own right as evidenced by some of his rockabilly-swing compositions. A steel guitarist for Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, McAuliffe and his manager G. Don Thompson, who co-owned with McAuliffe radio station KAMO in Rogers, announced through Billboard magazine in June 1959 that they were resurrecting their music label, Cimarron Records, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by signing The Emcees as Cimarron expanded its repertoire to include both country and western and pop.

A 1961 ad for The Emcees at the Rockwood Club. Note the announcement at the bottom of the ad about Ronnie Hawkins.

A 1961 ad for The Emcees at the Rockwood Club. Note the announcement at the bottom of the ad about Ronnie Hawkins.

The first release of the restructured Cimarron Records was The Emcees’ tune, “IFIC,” named for “American Bandstand” host Dick Clark’s IFIC Club. A sponsor for the show was Beech Nut chewing gum, which had a slogan of being “flavor-IFIC.” The song title indicates The Emcees, McAuliffe and Thompson may have saw a strong potential with getting the single played on the show. (This was not an uncommon ploy. Arkansas native and former Fayetteville resident Charlie Rich, before he turned to country music, wrote and recorded a rock ‘n’ roll song around that time called “Philadelphia Baby” with hopes that “American Bandstand,” which was based in Philly, would give it some attention.)

At least one other Emcees’ single, “Wine, Wine, Wine,” appeared on the Cimarron label (shown above). Several lineups took place throughout the 1960s as well, as detailed in this article about Fayetteville’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Pioneers by Bill Wright, who later became a band member.

While The Emcees may not have received any attention from Dick Clark, one can only assume that they, and other Cimarron recording artists, received considerable airplay on KAMO.

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Taking a Chance on Fayetteville’s Talent

In the 1950s and 1960s, Sam Phillips and Leonard Chess both started small record labels (Sun and Chess records respectively) that made big stars. Arkansas was filled with small record labels, too, such as Rimrock, founded by musician Wayne Raney, who was profiled the other day. Surprisingly, several of the small Arkansas record labels received press in Billboard magazine, the famous music trade publication.

A 1960 ad for a John Tolleson, who performed in the area throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s.

A 1960 ad for a John Tolleson, who performed in the area throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Fayetteville, of course, is a college town and, as it does today, had many rock ‘n’ rollers playing the local clubs and fraternity houses. In the early 1960s, a man named Phil Eagle took advantage of the talent by setting up shop on East Center Street in Fayetteville to form Chance records, which bore a pair of dice in its logo. His first featured artist was John Tolleson (listed as Johnny Tolleson), a musician so popular for his singing and piano playing that even Ronnie Hawkins was intimidated by him (Hawkins would gain much of his fame after relocating from Fayetteville to Canada, where he continues to live today). The result was a 45 rpm record with the songs  “Summer Love ‘N’ Summer Kissin'” and, on the flip side, “You’re in Love with Yourself (And Not in Love with Me),” the latter of which is featured in the video above. A 1961 article in the Northwest Arkansas Times listed the musicians on the two songs to be drummer Charles Conine, guitarist Chalky Dearien, Ken Clark on bass and Troy Brand, a saxophonist who also “handles special effects.”

Ken Owens and the Del Reys Mhoon 71 ad

A 1962 ad for Ken Owens and the Del Reys, the latter of whom would evolve into The Cate Brothers Band.

It was also reported in the Northwest Arkansas Times that Eagle was hitting the road, promoting the record.

At least one other 45 rpm record was released a year later, and it was of Ken Owens and the Del Reys with the songs “You’re for Me” and “That’s Tough.” The Del Reys, which featured Earl Cate on lead guitar and twin brother Ernie Cate on the organ, would evolve into the widely popular Cate Brothers Band. Musicians also listed were Lonnie Watson on bass guitar and Randy Favorite on drums.

Posted in Arkansas, Music, Ozarks, Rock and Roll, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Wayne Raney: Up with Jesus, Down with Rock ‘n’ Roll



Wayne Raney of Wolf Bayou in Cleburne County made a name for himself with his harmonica and 1949 hit song, “Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me,” which peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard country music chart. He penned boogie songs (“Lost John Boogie” and “Jack and Jill Boogie”) with harmonica solos that could rival those of many Mississippi bluesmen. His song, “Shake Baby Shake,” is outright rock ‘n’ roll, making him one of those unsung heroes of the genre.

Jack Holt - Wayne Raney ad 1952

Wayne Raney performed at a 1952 campaign rally on the Fayetteville square for Arkansas gubernatorial candidate Jack Holt. In the ad, Raney is billed as a “harmonica wizard from Grand Ole Opry, composer, entertainer and recording star.”

Which is why his 1958 gospel revival single on Starday records is an interesting one. Was he fed up with the direction music was taking, the one he helped create? Or, as has been the case with many recording artists later in their careers, did he feel he could tap into a new market by recording religious material? Whatever the case, it worked. The result was “We Need a Whole Lot More of Jesus (And a Lot Less Rock ‘n’ Roll”), which has since been covered multiple times by many music artists, including, of all people, Linda Ronstadt.

As a child, Raney’s musical ambition was intense. When he was 13, he hitchhiked to Eagle Pass, Texas, to transcribe transcription records at XEPN, a south-of-the-border radio station with a range that covered much of the United States. While still a teen, he teamed up with Lonnie Glosson of Judsonia, with whom he established a mail-order harmonica operation before moving on to record with the Delmore Brothers. The year “Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me” became a hit, Raney performed on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and, shortly after, toured with country musician Lefty Frizzell. By the early 1960s, Raney returned to Cleburne County, continued to record gospel music and set up his own studio and record-pressing plant. In the 1970s, he made occasional appearances on the TV variety show, Hee Haw, before his health deteriorated, causing him to leave the music business altogether. Raney died of cancer in 1993 in Batesville.

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