Tommy Allsup, Guitarist for Buddy Holly and Other Hitmakers

“It’s So Easy” LIVE–Watch on YouTube

I’ve been to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA, the club where Buddy Holly performed his last concert before his tragic death in an airplane crash. As a member of Holly’s band The Crickets, Tommy Allsup was at that performance, too, and would have perished as well had he not “lost” a coin toss with Richie Valens to see who would get the last seat on the plane.

surf-ballroom

(Friend Brian outside the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA.)

Allsup joined The Crickets after a few original members decided they weren’t up to moving to New York with Holly, opting to stay home in Texas. Allsup shows up in time to make it on a few key tracks, “It’s So Easy” being a notable one.

“It’s So Easy” on Spotify

Allsup’s a big of a “Zelig”-type figure, showing up on a number of classic tracks by artists in pop and country.

The Everly Brothers “Cathy’s Clown” on Spotify

Charlie Rich “Behind Closed Doors” on Spotify

Kenny Rogers “The Gambler” on Spotify

Zagar & Evans “In The Year 2525” on Spotify

Allsup (November 24, 1931-January 11, 2017) played in the rockabilly and western swing styles. Out of high school, he was recruited by Jimmie Lee Wills, Bob Wills’ brother, to play at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa. It was kind of a training ground for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

Kay Starr, Pop Singer Who Mixed Jazz, Country and Blues

On The Colgate Comedy Hour (1952)–Watch on YouTube

For decades Kay Starr was a jukebox favorite, racking up millions of record sales. When RCA-Victor lured her away from Capitol in 1955, they guaranteed her $250,000 a year, a stunning sum at the time. Her popularity was based on her ability to ebb and flow with musical tastes and trends, from swing to country to blues and even to the edge of rock and roll.

She started with big bands, making her first recording while a teenager with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. She replaced Lena Horne in Charlie Barnet’s swing orchestra and played with the Capitol International Jazzmen (including Coleman Hawkins and Nat King Cole). In the late 1940s, she went and scored big hits with songs like “Bonaparte’s Retreat” and “Wheel of Fortune.”

Starr (July 21, 1922-November 3, 2016) was a favorite of Patsy Cline and Elvis Presley, according to her obituary in The Washington Post. She performed at the inauguration of Harry Tuman.

 

“Wheel of Fortune” on Spotify

Curly Putman, Wrote “Green, Green Grass of Home” and Other Country Classics

“Green, Green Grass of Home”–Watch on YouTube

Curly Putman’s classic hit, “The Green, Green Grass of Home,” was first recorded by Johnny Darrell in 1965. But it has had a long life, with interpretations by a lengthy list of stars, including Elvis, Porter Wagoner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom Jones, Gram Parsons and even the Grateful Dead.

Putman (November 20, 1930-October 30, 2016) was no one-hit wonder. He either wrote or co-wrote some of country music’s most-enduring classics, including Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

Putnam’s songwriting earned him a spot in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1976. Mostly known as a songwriter, Putman did have a short recording career, beginning with a minor hit “The Prison Song,” which he recorded in 1960 for the Cherokee label.

“Made for Loving You” (feat. Dolly Parton) on Spotify

Jean Shepard, Honky Tonk Star of the Grand Ole Opry

“Second Fiddle To An Old Guitar”–Watch on YouTube

Ollie Imogene “Jean” Shepard was a member of the Grand Ole Opry for over 60 years, longer than any other artist. She was a country music pioneer–one of the first women to perform solo, to release a concept album (Songs of a Love Affair1959) and was only the third woman to join the Opry.

Born in Oklahoma, Shepard (November 21, 1933-September 25, 2016) grew up in California, where she formed  The Melody Ranch Girls. While performing in Bakersfield, she was seen by country star Hank Thompson, who used his clout at Capitol Records to get her a record contract. “A Dear John Letter,” a 1953 duet with Ferlin Husky, went to #1 on the country charts and crossed over into the Top 10 on the pop charts.

While she had a number of charted hits in the 50s and 60s, she never made it back to the top. Country veered in a more cosmopolitan direction, and Shepard doggedly stuck to her traditional country roots. When Olivia Newton-John won best female country vocalist in 1974, the Association of Country Entertainers was formed and Shepard became its president. The New York Times quoted an interview she gave the Edmonton Journal: “She’s a very sweet lady, I’m sure. But what she sang wasn’t country music.”

“I Don’t Apologize For Loving You” on Spotify

Sonny James, Consistent Country Hitmaker

“Young Love,” 1965 TV Performance

The “Southern Gentleman” Sonny James had a string of consecutive #1 country hits in the 1960s and 1970s. Only the band Alabama has ever surpassed that number. In all, James (May 1, 1928-February 22, 2016) had 26 #1s, 16 of which were in a row.

“Runnin’ Bear” on Hee Haw

James was a country crooner, producing his records in the sophisticated style that was popular in Nashville during his reign. He was associated throughout his career with Capitol Records, with whom he began playing backup fiddle for bluegrass acts like Jim & Jesse.

“Endlessly” on The Johnny Cash Show

James looked occasionally to R&B, soul and blues for inspiration. He was inspired and became friends with fellow-crooner Nat King Cole. His hit “Endlessly” was a cover of a song by soul singer Brook Benton. James sought to introduce songs by African-American artists to a largely white audience and to promote amity among the races through music.

Red Simpson, Truckstop Troubador From Bakersfield

“I’m A Truck”

I’m a sucker for truck-driving songs, which is one of the reasons I have a fondness for neo-classic country acts like Junior Brown and Dale Watson. But besides Dave Dudley (of oft-covered “Six Days On The Road” fame), I’m less familiar with some of the original practitioners of this subgenre. I just discovered one: Red Simpson.

“The Sounds of Bakerfield” Concert (at 1:11:03)

Simpson’s most-famous song is “I’m a Truck,” a ballad from an 18-wheeler’s point of view, which he recorded in 1971. Other popular songs include “Roll, Truck, Roll,” the duet “Truck Driver Man and Wife” with Lorraine Walden and his last charted hit, 1979’s “The Flying Saucer Man and the Truck Driver.”

“Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves”

Simpson (March 6, 1934-January 8, 2016) was part of the Bakersfield sound, a particular flavor of country that was popularized by Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and others in the Bakersvield area who reacted to what they felt was the over-produced sound coming out of Nashville.

Bonnie Lou, Country Yodeler and Rockabilly Singer

“Tennessee Wig Walk,” 1953

Bonnie Lou (aka Sally Carson, Mary Kath) learned to yodel from her Swiss grandmother while growing up on an Illinois farm. She took up guitar at age 11 and by the time she was a teenager was appearing on country radio in Peoria.

“Lonesome Day” with Buster and Bonnie Lou

Bonnie Lou (October 27, 1924-December 8, 2015) migrated to Kansas City and then to Cincinnati, where she was a fixture for many years on the nationally syndicated “Midwestern Hayride” show and on the locally loved “Paul Dixon Show.”

Interview with Bonnie Lou

While busy with her local TV career, she passed on an RCA recording offer, which limited her reach. She did record for the King label and her “Tennessee Wig Walk” charted at #6 in the US and #4 in the UK. One of the first female rock-and-roll singers and among the first to cross over from country, Bonnie Lou was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

 

Billy Joe Royal, Sang “Down in the Boondocks”

“Down in the Boondocks”

Billy Joe Royal was a Georgia-born singer, who found success in the pop, R&B and country genres. Like so many young singers, he was inspired to pursue his career once he saw the success of Elvis, whom he eventually got to know while they were both performing in 1970s-era Las Vegas.

“I’ve Got to Be Somebody” on Shindig

Royal (April 3, 1942-October 6, 2015) began his professional career in Atlanta, appearing at a New Year’s Eve concert that also featured Gladys Knight. He was a friend and colleague of singer-songwriter Joe South, who wrote “Down in the Boondocks” and persuaded Royal to record it.

“Funny How Time Slips Away”

The success of that hit (it made it to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart) earned him a spot on Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars, a package tour of mid-1960s pop stars like Herman’s Hermits, Peter and Gordon and Tom Jones. “Down in the Boondocks” has been covered by Penny DeHaven (1969), Kenny Loggins (1978), Ry Cooder (1980) and U.S. Girls (2012).

Jim Ed Brown, Country Crooner

“Three Bells” by The Browns

Jim Ed Brown (March 1, 1934-June 11, 2015) had a series of Top 10 hits over the course of three decades, beginning with No. 1 “Three Bells,” which he recorded with his sisters Maxine and Bonnie as a member of The Browns.

“Pop-A-Top” on “The Marty Stuart Show”

He eventually left the family group to forge a solo career in the mid-1960s. The beer-drinking song “Pop-A-Top” made it to No. 3, but he didn’t chart nearly as high until the early 1970s with “Morning.”

He got back to No. 1 with a 1976 duet with Helen Cornelius, “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You,” an ironic anthem to “free love.”

In between his infrequent hits Brown hosted his own TV show, “The Country Place,” and formed a backing group called the Gems at Sahara Tahoe’s Juniper Lounge.

“I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You” with Helen Cornelius

Johnny Gimble, King of the Western Swing Fiddle

Johnny Gimble profile on “Waco Remembers”

There are a lot of musicians whose music I know, but whose names I don’t. I’ve come to know some of the people behind the music, thanks to a recent series of documentaries and videos on the Muscle Shoals studio musicians, LA’s Wrecking Crew, bassist Carol Kaye and the backup singers featured in “Twenty Feet from Stardom.”

For me, fiddler Johnny Gimble falls into this category. I’ve  probably heard him playing off and on for over 40 years–with the cast of “Hee Haw,” on my college roommate’s Bob Wills and Asleep at the Wheel records, on “Austin City Limits” or “The Prairie Home Companion.” And who knows how many other Nashville recordings I’ve heard him on.

“Take Me Back to Tulsa” with George Jones

But while Gimble (May 30, 1926-May 9, 2015) may have been a stranger to me, he obviously was no secret to the country elite. And he was no stranger to awards, either, having racked up five Best Instrumentalist Awards from the Country Music Awards, nine Best Fiddler Player awards from the Academy of Country Music and two GRAMMY Awards for collaborations he did with Asleep At The Wheel.

“San Antonio Rose,” Asleep at the Wheel with Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys