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.

My Memories of Leon Russell in 11 Songs

 

I first discover Leon in the record bin of Boury’s Appliance Store in Wheeling, WV. I’ve never heard of him before, but I’m struck by the man looking back at me on the album cover. When I put needle to vinyl, I’m as captivated by his music as I am by him.

My friend Eddie and I chance upon Mad Dogs & Englishmen, the documentary about Joe Cocker’s world tour, at the Victoria Theater in Wheeling. In his stovepipe hat, Holy Trinity basketball jersey, Les Paul Gibson, and  his “hippy commune” of musicians and singers, he represents the type of free-spirited life I aspire to.

B.B. King is my other teenage musical idol, and I’m thrilled to see Leon playing piano for him as King performs a Russell song, “Hummingbird,” on The Mike Douglas Show. 

Here’s Leon’s original version.

During my freshman year at West Virginia University, a friend and I spend the better part of the year listening to Leon Live while drinking daiquiris and learning the Swahili chorus of “Out in the Woods.”

I see Leon for the first of five times at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. He and his carnival of a band open for Three Dog Night, which seemed a reversal of the natural order. One of the things that appeal to me about Leon is how he blends and celebrates country, rock, blues, classical, jazz and gospel, as he does when he gives the stage here to the Rev. Patrick Henderson.

Leon goes on tour to promote The Wedding Album, an record he produced with his then-wife Mary McCreary. I see them at Northrup Auditorium at the University of Minnesota with my then-wife. They would also perform the song on one of the earliest episodes of Saturday Night Live.

In the early aughts, I catch Leon at the Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis. He has aged considerably, is drawing a much smaller crowd and rushes through his setlist on an electric piano. A highlight for the audience (and I’m sure him) is one of his daughters, who supplies backup vocals and a few solos. After playing sold-out stadiums and mingling with musicians from George Harrison to Eric Clapton, he must have felt like he was in a strange land indeed.

A Netflix documentary, The Wrecking Crew, celebrates a largely unknown group of LA studio musicians who backed and provided the sound to many of our favorite songs. Turns out, Leon was one of them, recording on tracks for The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Monkees–even Sinatra and The Rolling Stones.

At the Trylon Microcinema, I see A Poem is a Naked Person, the surrealistic rock documentary by Les Blank. Produced by Russell and Denny Cordell, Leon kept it from release for 40 years. While the film  was ostensibly about Leon, he’s rarely in it. With his subject on a worldwide tour, Blank didn’t have the budget to travel along–most of the footage focuses on Russell’s home base and studio in Tulsa.

Leon has a late-life revival, when Elton John repays the kindness Leon had showed him as a young artist. Their joint album, recorded as Russell recovered from brain surgery, is highly acclaimed and puts Leon back in the spotlight. John makes sure Leon can afford to tour in a respectable bus with a real grand piano. Leon is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (introduced by Sir Elton) and Songwriters Hall of Fame.

I see Leon for a few last times, at the Dakota and Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. He seems happy to be on stage with an adoring audience before him. RIP, Leon, I will miss you, but your music will always live on for me.

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

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