Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Music Weird's best of 2020

For years I've done most of my music listening in the car while commuting or traveling, but in 2020 I didn't go anywhere, so I had to carve out time to listen to music in a way that I haven't in the past. It was worth the effort.

In the interest of posting this in a timely manner, I'm not going to write about all these tracks individually, many of which are singles and all of which got lots of spins by me this year, but I will mention my three most-listened-to albums of 2020 in order of release:

Woods – "Strange to Explain" (May 22, 2020)

I'm a longtime fan of Woods, but they hit it out of the park with Strange to Explain, their best album since 2009's Songs of Shame in my opinion (although they released a lot of great music in between). I had this playing on repeat all through the summer.

Waifu Shrine - POP (October 9, 2020)

POP has a ramshackle DIY vibe that takes me back to the days of Blackbean and Placenta Tape Club but has plenty of traditional pop songcraft too. Underneath it all, "Spring Arrived Right in Time" is a future pop standard worthy of Tin Pan Alley, and "Toy Keyboard" has one of the best uses of a chipmunk voice since We're Only in It for the Money or even "Martian Hop."

Beach Vacation – I Fell Apart (November 13, 2020)

Just lovely from start to finish. It's not as much of a loss that Wild Nothing no longer sounds like Gemini when we have bands like Beach Vacation creating similarly gauzy, dreamy music that is simultaneously nostalgic and new. 

Music Weird's Best of 2020 Spotify playlist


  1. Beach Vacation – "Break the Ice" – I Fell Apart
  2. Spring Reverb – "Bric-A-Brac" – single
  3. Nessie Next Door – "Love Rind" – Dot the Eye and Cross the Tea
  4. Waifu Shrine – "Toy Keyboard" – POP
  5. Jan flu – "Lacrosse" – single
  6. Corey Flood – "Heaven Or" – Hanging Garden
  7. Love Tan – "What's the Point" – Love Tan
  8. I Saw You Yesterday – "Wander" – single
  9. Breakup Films – "All Kinds of Flowers" – single
  10. Hank Midnight – "New City" – Gardens EP
  11. Black Currants – "Carousel" – single
  12. Secret American – "Heavy Feels" – Heavy Feels
  13. Grazer – "Fever Dream" – single
  14. Choo – "Fool" – single
  15. GRMLN – "Sun" – Goodbye, World
  16. The Francine Odysseys – "Hide Your Eyes" – What If We Were Wrong
  17. Keeps – "Light in a Dream" – Affectianado
  18. Lunchbox – "Dream Parade" – After School Special
  19. Emma Kupa – "Nothing at All" – It Will Come Easier
  20. The Memories – "In My Heart I'm Sailing" – Pickles & Pies
  21. Grrrl Gang – "Love Song" – Here to Stay!
  22. The Very Most – "Her Three-Year Old Laugh or the Time the Microphones Played in My Living Room" – Needs Help
  23. Northern Portrait – "At Attention" – single
  24. Woods – "Where Do You Go When You Dream" – Strange to Explain
  25. Terry vs. Tori – "High Tide" – Leap Day
  26. The Sweet Serenades – "City Lights" – City Lights
  27. Tycho – "Weather" – Simulcast
  28. Echo Delta – "After 15" – Subluminal Projections

Best reissues

Various artists – Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987

Various artists – Iconic Pop Standards in Stereo and Iconic Country Originals in Stereo (full disclosure: I worked on these, but they are pretty amazing)

Finally, a new Cozy Catastrophes track from the last days of the year:

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Religious Santa songs

"Perhaps the thing about Christmas that bothers Christians more than anything else," says the Christian Research Institute, "is Santa Claus. Is Santa a hopelessly pagan idea, or can Santa Claus be saved?"

Even though Santa Claus is partly based on the fourth-century Christian bishop Saint Nicholas, the modern Santa is a secular figure who appears in many thoroughly secular contexts, including numerous horror films and even some adult films. 

Some songwriters have tried to "save" the secular Santa by writing songs that place him in an explicitly Christian context. These songwriters, whether or not they viewed Santa as a secular rival of Jesus, usually tried to mend the perceived rift between the two by grafting religion onto Santa or grafting Santa onto religion. 

But some of these attempts to mix Santa and religion seem to confuse rather than clarify. For example, is the vintage greeting card pictured above suggesting that Santa hears our prayers? 

Today on Music Weird, we'll listen to some of the efforts to combine Santa and religion. A few are earnest and a few are jokes, but all are unusual. In these songs, you'll hear a number of offbeat revisions to the Santa and God stories: God is Santa, Santa is God, Santa is immortal, Santa is guided by prayers, etc. 

Pat Boone – "I Saw Santa Prayin'"

I've never seen Santa prayin', but I did see Pat Boone perform this song in concert years ago, and he introduced it by saying that he wrote it as an attempt to reconcile, for kids, the two main figureheads of the Christmas season. How did he do that? By depicting Santa as a prayerful Christian man and servant of the Lord. The chorus is "I saw Santa prayin'/I saw Santa kneel before the Lord." Many years after I first heard it, Boone recorded the song for his 2007 album The True Spirit of Christmas

Hank Snow – "God Is My Santa Claus"

In this 1966 song by Canadian country star Hank Snow, a young schoolboy teaches us that God is Santa and Santa is God. The lyrics not only state that "God is my Santa Claus" but also that the "real Santa" is God.

Restless Heart – "Santa's Prayer"

In the 2013 Restless Heart song "Santa's Prayer," Santa himself decries the commercialization of Christmas and hopes that people will remember its true meaning. A reviewer on Amazon calls this "One of the Best Christmas Songs ever written." 

Jimmy Boyd – "I Said a Prayer for Santa Claus"

Jimmy Boyd, who recorded the original version of the perennial hit "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," recorded this religious Santa song in 1953. In it, Boyd prays to keep Santa safe, healthy, and warm as Santa goes about his business at the North Pole and delivers presents to the kids. I particularly like the part where he expresses concern that Santa might run into a television antenna.

Carson Robison – "Will There Be a Santa Claus in Heaven?" 

This tearjerker is about a dying child who asks if Heaven has a Santa Claus. A video of a recording of it by Jerry House used to be on YouTube and claimed that House wrote the words and music, but the song was actually written by Carson Robison and appeared in his 1936 songbook Tip Top Album of Carson J. Robison Songs. No audio is available online at this time, but quite a few people remember and search for this song. David "Stringbean" Akeman wrote and published a different song with this title in 1968 but doesn't appear to have recorded it. A contemporary song that asks the same question is Marshall Fike's "Is There a Santa in Heaven."

Red Sovine – "Faith in Santa"

This is another Christmas song like "Will There Be a Santa Claus in Heaven?" about a dying child. In this dreary recitation from 1978, a homeless boy tells Santa that his father is in prison for shooting his mother's boyfriend, that he prays for Santa, and that he'd like to go to Heaven for Christmas. The boy gets his wish and passes away at the end of the song. It's unclear whether the song is asserting that Santa can send souls to Heaven if that's their Christmas wish.


James Brown – "Santa Claus Is Definitely Here to Stay"

This weird, rambling song declares that Santa Claus is here to stay and also urges people to keep the season strong with faith. You could interpret that as faith in Santa, but I don't think that's the intended meaning. Even though the relationship between Santa and faith is murky in the lyrics, the song is included here because most Santa songs don't mention religious themes such as faith at all.

The Penguins – "A Christmas Prayer"

The Penguins' "A Christmas Prayer" from 1955 features an odd mixture of prayer and a desire for material gifts as the Penguins pray that their girl comes home for Christmas and puts her presents under their Christmas tree. (Is that a euphemism?) The song doesn't mention Santa by name, but Christmas gifts fall within Santa's dominion, so I think it counts. 


Jimmy Martin – "Daddy Will Santa Claus Ever Have to Die?"

In addition to having one of the cheesiest music videos ever committed to VHS tape, this 1980 song by the King of Bluegrass, Jimmy Martin, informs us that Santa is an immortal being like God. 


Pearl Jam "Santa God"

This song by Pearl Jam, from a limited-edition Christmas single released in 2007, is the mirror image of Hank Snow's "God Is My Santa Claus." Hank said that God is Santa, but Pearl Jam says that Santa is God. For kids who are greedy for presents, that might be true.

The Santa and Jesus duet from South Park

This duet between a cartoon Santa and a cartoon Jesus pits a number of religious Christmas carols, including "Joy to the World" and "Away in the Manger," against "Up on the House Top." Santa becomes angry that Jesus has more songs than he does, but Jesus smooths things over in the end and the spirit of Christmas prevails. 


Saturday, December 5, 2020

Helen Beasley: Early Indiana blues artist or not? (1929)


Indiana is not known as a hotbed of the blues, but I was surprised while browsing the book
Blues: A Regional Experience to see that only one blues singer was listed for the entire state: Helen Beasley, who waxed a single record in 1929. However, after looking into her biography a bit, I'm not sure that Indiana can claim her.

Beasley made three recordings in her brief recording career, all of which were cut in a Chicago studio for Brunswick Records. The recordings were unadorned, consisting only of Beasley's vocals and a piano that was probably played by fellow Brunswick recording artist Frances Wallace, according to Blues & Gospel Records, 1890-1943, Fourth Edition.

Her first session was a test recording of a song called "California Bound Blues" on April 18, 1929. A week later, on April 25, she recorded "Tia Juana Blues" and "Rambling Mind Blues," two original compositions that Brunswick released on a 78 as Brunswick 7077. 

Because of the similarities between the lyrics of "Tia Juana Blues" and the title of "California Bound Blues," some have surmised that they're actually the same song.

As Wim Verbei points out in his book Boom's Blues: Music, Journalism, and Friendship in Wartime, "Tia Juana Blues" has a odd stylistic quirk that recurs throughout. Beasley, instead of breaking up her couplets where a pause would normally be expected, pauses in the second couplet. So, instead of singing this:

I'm going to California, sweet man / just to wear you off my mind


She sings this:

I'm going to California, sweet man, just to / wear you off my mind

This unconventional phrasing is clearly an artistic choice on Beasley's part, because she repeats the formula throughout the song.

The other side of the single, "Rambling Mind Blues," is a bit quirky, too, because of Beasley's nearly constant use of the vocal technique known as scooping

After that, she either moved on to other things or didn't garner enough sales to merit an additional release, because that appears to have been her only single.

Beasley's listing in Blues: A Regional Experience provides very little biographical information, but it's nevertheless more information than I found anywhere else. Unfortunately, it also appears to be incorrect. It says she was born Helen Slaughter in Indiana on April 25, 1895, and died in Los Angeles on February 3, 1972, but adds that this information is tentative. On the basis of my research, I don't think any of this information relates to Helen Beasley the blues singer, which calls into question whether Beasley was from Indiana at all.

Slaughter's obituary in the February 5, 1972, issue of the Bakersfield Californian doesn't mention anything about singing, but more significantly, it gives her husband's name as Paul Slaughter, which means that Slaughter was her married name, not her birth name. Also, Paul was white, and although interracial marriages weren't unheard of in mid 20th century America, they were uncommon.

SLAUGHTER, HELEN MARIE — Rosary will be recited at 8 p.m. Sunday at The Hopson Mortuary Chapel and Requiem Mass will be said at 11 a.m. for Helen M. Slaughter, 77, who died Thursday in a Los Angeles convalescent hospital. Msgr. Patrick Hannon will officiate, and interment will follow in Union Cemetery. Mrs. Slaughter, a native of Indiana, had resided in California 50 years. She had been a resident of Bakersfield many years prior to making her home in the Los Angeles area three years ago. Mrs. Slaughter had been self-employed in the antique business for many years. Her husband, Paul, died in 1963. Survivors include one daughter, Ann Jensen of Los Angeles; four grandchildren; a sister-in-law, Mrs. Blyth Slaughter of Modesto, and several cousins. Mrs. Slaughter was a member of the Altar Society of St. Joseph and the Third Order of St. Francis. 

I also found some ads for the antique store, Old House Antiques, that Helen Slaughter ran with her husband. Here's one from 1949: 

Interesting, but most likely irrelevant to the blues. Although it seems questionable to me now whether Helen Beasley came from Indiana at all, the state can claim Scrapper Blackwell as a native son. Wikipedia lists his birthplace as Syracuse, South Carolina, but other sources say he was born in Indianapolis where he grew up, recorded his first record in 1928, and died in 1962 after being shot during a mugging.

Beasley's two commercial recordings are included on the Document Records CD Blue Girls, Volume 1: 1924-1930 and can be heard in the YouTube videos below. Her test recording of "California Bound Blues" remains unreleased.


Wednesday, December 2, 2020

"Booby": Curious 1950s novelty ads in Billboard

In 1950, Billboard magazine ran a number of curious advertisements for a "soft, fleshlike" rubber doll called "Booby: The Bouncing Bombshell Queen of Burlesque."

Although Billboard came to be exclusively associated with music in later years, it also used to be a trade magazine for carnival operators and vendors of novelties and gaming devices such as pinball machines. During this time in the late 1940s and early '50s, it carried advertisements for some surprisingly adult-oriented novelties.

Seeing these risque ads in the music trade magazines is surprising not only because the ads are explicit for their time but also because the music trades would periodically rail against smutty records (typically in reference to double-entendre R&B singles), so it seems hypocritical that they published ads that could also be accused of being smutty.

The text of the Booby ad at the top of this post says: 

The Hottest Selling Novelty Item of the Season!


The Bouncing Bombshell Queen of the Burlesque

Delightfully realistic, made of soft, fleshlike plastic rubber. Looks lifelike and feels lifelike . . . with DELICATE MOULDED CURVES and LOTS OF OOMPH!! 6" in height. She WIGGLES, she SHIMMIES, she SHAKES, she BUMPS and GRINDS! A real burlesque THRILLER! You make her do all these fascinating movements with a cleverly concealed mechanical device. This item is copyrighted and any infringement will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. $7.20 sample dozen. $72.00 per gross. Send $1.00 for sample. 

ORDER NOW . . . be the first in your territory. 

The Harris Mfg. Co. that marketed this compelling novelty item was previously known as the Harris Novelty Company. The company might have changed its name to avoid being confused with another Harris Novelty Company that operated out of Philadelphia.

Billboard reported in July 1950 that the company's Johnny Harris said that Booby was "becoming one of the hottest items on the market." The article also said that the company was adding carnival merchandise to its product line. 

Another product that the company allegedly would soon market was Pete the Poodle, "a fur covered dog that runs in circles and sits up and begs." I haven't seen any ads for this product and don't know if it was ever manufactured.

The following month, Billboard reported that Harris Manufacturing Company had hired additional staff to accommodate the flood of orders for Booby. As a naturally cynical person, I assume that Billboard's ongoing coverage of Booby during this brief time in 1950 was related to Harris Mfg.'s constant ad buys in the publication. 

Also in August 1950, Billboard ran another item that reported on Harris Mfg. Co.'s introduction of "Salome, a two-inch-high soft rubber plastic item." This new novelty promised to be so enticing that Harris expected it to "run close to the Booby, Queen of Burlesque item that hit top sales." 

The Salome figure was a similarly risque "harem dancer" who, ads proclaimed, "WIGGLES and SQUIRMS." 

The address for Harris Mfg. Co.—5864 Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood, California—was the same address as that of Heinz Distributors, a company that advertised other risque products in Billboard. Heinz sold a 40-page pictorial magazine of "Hollywood's best figure models" that included so-called "Art Nudes." Billboard ran an item about this product too, describing it as a "magazine that is complete with photographic data," which presumably means "photos of naked ladies." Billboard added that the magazine provided instructions "for taking Hollywood glamour photos." Hm. Interesting.

In October 1950, Harris introduced Fifi the Fan Dancer, a "flesh-like soft, plastic rubber . . . realistically molded" figure with a "feather fan." The illustration in the ad was fully nude. Clearly, Harris was marketing its products to the audience that would later make the
RealDoll a viable business endeavor.

Longtime readers of Billboard—at least those who are familiar with the magazine's moralizing stance regarding "smutty" content—might be astonished to see that in 1950 the magazine ran ads that featured illustrations of fully nude women. Just a few years earlier, in 1944, the magazine ran an article about the inability of radio to tap nightclub performers for on-air performances because "the night club guys ... have been entertaining with smut so long their thinking along lines of showmanship is not clean."

Yet Billboard itself didn't hesitate to run illustrations of nudes in its magazine in 1950. It just seems kind of weird. 

Also in 1950, the 5864 Hollywood Blvd. address of Harris Mfg. Co. appeared in ads in Modern Screen magazine for lists of personal home addresses of Hollywood actors and in The Elks Magazine in ads for Hollywood Film Exchange, a seller that suggestively offered "home movies (all types)." 

In 1951, the address appeared in ads by Zusser Mfg. Co. in Popular Photography and Home Movies magazines for 8 and 16 mm film. That same year, Hollywood Film Exchange also ran an ad for its enigmatic "home movies" in The American Legion Magazine

There seemed to be a common thread between these risque businesses that all operated out of the same Hollywood street address. And although the Elks and the American Legion are perceived as conservative social clubs, it's not hard to imagine them as potential audiences for illicit stag films, if that's what these "home movies" actually were. The website of the Museum of Sex in New York says that "screenings of stag films ... were clandestine events that ... would gather together in American legion halls."

Bringing things back to music, the 5864 Hollywood Blvd. address was also used for Crystalette Records in 1953-54, presumably after Harris moved out, but who knows? The address still exists to this day and has been the home to a number of businesses over the years, but it will always be remembered, at least by me, as the home of Booby, the Bouncing Bombshell Queen of Burlesque.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz's surprising contributions to music, 1977-1999

Earl Butz served as the Secretary of Agriculture for President Richard Nixon and President Gerald Ford, but if you hear his name today, it's probably in reference to an unsavory joke he made in 1976 that cost him his job. This joke, oddly enough, reverberated through the music scene for years afterward and culminated in Butz himself becoming a recording artist!

The story of Butz and his joke had weird connections to the music industry from the beginning. If you haven't heard the story before, this is it: 

After the 1976 Republican National Convention, Butz was on a return flight with Pat Boone, Sonny Bono, and John Dean, the latter of whom had been Nixon's White House Counsel, and after testifying in the Watergate hearings, became an author and political commentator.

In their conversation, Boone wondered aloud why Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln, were unable to attract more black voters, and Butz, who was notorious for his crude and racist humor, let loose with the reply that led to his resignation from political office. Repeating the punchline of an old joke, Butz said, "I'll tell you what the coloreds want. It's three things: first, a tight pussy; second, loose shoes; and third, a warm place to shit."

Dean reported on the interaction afterward, and amid the ensuing outcry, Butz was forced to resign. Don't feel too bad for poor ol' Butz, though, because despite the controversy, he returned to his home state of Indiana and became dean emeritus of agriculture at Purdue University, began hosting a daily syndicated radio show about agriculture that aired on about 70 stations, served on the board of ConAgra as well as that of an insurance company and a real estate company, and became a popular speaker to civic groups and at banquets.

But back to Butz's joke. Exactly how old was this joke, and where did it come from? 

I'm not sure, but it was referenced in a 1972 article in Rolling Stone about The Rolling Stones in which novelist Terry Southern, who worked on the screenplay of the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is quoted. 

In the article, Southern says that when he first met actor Slim Pickens in 1963 during the shooting of the film, Southern asked Pickens if he was settled in, since this was Pickens' first trip to England, and Pickens replied, "What you know me. Gimme loose fittin’ shoes, a taght pussy, and a warm place to shit and I’m fahn…." In Pickens' telling, the joke was directed at himself and lacked the racial dimension of Butz's version. 

When Butz repeated this joke in 1976, it received a lot of coverage in the media. Robin Williams referenced it in his 1977 roast of Richard Pryor. It soon became a reference point in a couple different songs too.

One was a 1977 song by G.T. Walls that was released as a single in the Netherlands. It's from an album called Rhythm & Booze that includes songs and singing by Dutch music journalist and novelist Jip Golsteijn. Although the song was almost certainly inspired by the Butz controversy, given the timing, the song is in the spirit of Pickens' version of the joke, not Butz's. It's a wry commentary on modern existence in which the narrator concludes that a more enlightened life would consist of the titular "tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit."

More famously, Butz's punchline became the inspiration for the title song—not to mention the title itself—of the 1978 film Loose Shoes, later retitled Coming Attractions.

The song, sung by David Downing and filmed in sepia tone in the style of a 1930s Cab Calloway film, didn't just recycle the punchline for comedic effect—it explicitly commented on Butz and his racism. In the song, Downing ironically sings about how he'd trade all his accomplishments and his place in society for the creature comforts that Butz listed. "I'm not usually invited to a Republican bash," Downing concludes, "unless they have tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit."

It's a brilliant dramatic reenactment of the joke that hilariously inventories obnoxious stereotypes of African-Americans. And as a musical adaptation of a joke, it beat Mr. Show's "The Joke: The Musical" to the punch by almost 20 years.

Loose Shoes was a film like Amazon Women on the Moon, Kentucky Fried Movie, The Groove Tube, and Tunnel Vision that presented a series of sketches, fake commercials, fake television-show trailers, and such. It featured appearances by past and future comedy icons such as Buddy Hackett and Bill Murray and a few musical figures like Van Dyke Parks and Jaye P. Morgan. The title song was even released as a single as "The Love Theme Loose Shoes."

But possibly the craziest part of this whole controversy was that Butz himself released a record in 1978. After returning to Indiana in disgrace following the "loose shoes" debacle, Butz recorded a single called "Farmers Are the Roots of America... Make No Mistake About It!" for a tiny label in Alexandria, Indiana, the home of Bill Gaither and his gospel family. 

The record was the brainchild of John Govro, who ran Pinebrook Studio in Alexandria, and Clarence Phairas, who had a company called Reality of Indiana, Inc. The duo composed both sides of the single, and Govro sang the B-side. Butz's side featured musical backing over which Butz delivered a recitation about "improving farming income, expanding farm export markets and minimizing federal encroachment into farming," according to an August 12, 1978, article in the Anderson Herald Bulletin that was headlined, "Earl Butz sets his caustic comments to music."

The record was released on August 17 at the Indiana State Fair, where it sold for $4. Govro said it would be sold through state fairs in addition to receiving national distribution, and he expected robust sales. "...[I]t could be any figure," he said. "We're open for millions. Why not?" He also said that they might record an entire album if the single became a big seller. Fans of dreary political recitations by crotchety old men will be disappointed to learn that this album never came to pass.

That was it for Butz and his joke for a while, but he lived to see at least one more musical reference to his most notorious contribution to public life: In 1999, Alex Chilton, the former lead singer of The Box Tops and Big Star, titled an album Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy. 

It is unknown whether or not Butz ever saw this album, but he could have, because he lived until 2008. In the years between his recording debut in 1978 and his death, Butz pled guilty to tax evasion and received yet more negative publicity in the 2007 documentary King Corn, which highlighted his role in increasing the amount of high-fructose corn syrup in American diets.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Johnny Folkston's short recording career (1960)

Johnny Folkston released three-and-a-half records in 1960 and then seemed to disappear. None of his records had any chart success, but one of his songs, "April Fool," has a small following today, even though it wasn't very favorably reviewed upon its release. I'm a fan of this record, so today's Music Weird will cobble together whatever information I can find.

Johnny Folkston was the stage name of Olen Davis, Jr., and he was the first signing of Davco Records of Hilliard, Florida, in 1960. As for the origin of his show name, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the town of Folkston, Georgia, is only a 15-minute drive from Hilliard.

Folkston might have come to Davco's attention because of his debut recording for Jacksonville, Florida, label Magnum Records, "If I Had Never Met You." I haven't heard this record, and it doesn't appear to have gotten any press, but I'm assuming that it was released in early 1960 before Folkston started recording for Davco, because his releases for Davco continued through the end of that year.

An article in the Aug. 15, 1960, issue of Billboard about the founding of Davco identified the label's owners as Frank Walker, son Hampton J. Walker, nephew Wendell Walker, and Folkston himself, who was said to have a stake in the label.

The label's first release was Folkston's "Dance Little Leaves," a song Folkston co-wrote with Mae Boren Axton, the mother of Hoyt Axton and the composer of Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel." "Dance Little Leaves" is the only composition for which Folkston has a writing credit in the BMI song publishing database. (He's not listed in the ASCAP or SESAC databases at all.)

The song's publisher was Dellwood Music, Mae Axton's music publishing company, which she named after Dellwood Avenue in Jacksonville, Florida, where she lived. Jacksonville is about 40 minutes from Hilliard. 

The song was recorded in Nashville at Bradley Studio with the Anita Kerr Singers and seasoned Nashville session players such as Floyd Cramer, Hank Garland, Kelso Harston, Junior Husky, and Buddy Harmon, who were billed as The Skyrockets. Producing were Teddy and Doyle Wilburn, AKA the Wilburn Brothers.

Cash Box, July 30, 1960
An ad for the record in Cash Box spelled Folkston's first name as "Jonny" and identified Jim Atkins, sales manager of Jacksonville's WAPE, as Folkston's personal manager.

The B-side was "You Said I'd Never Love Again." Cash Box gave the two sides B+ and B ratings, respectively, describing "Dance Little Leaves" as a "[c]harming ditty" and a "cheerful romantic ditty which deserves airtime." "You Said I'd Never Love Again" was described as a "country-sounding ballad."

Billboard listed "You'd Said I'd Never Love Again" as the top side, giving it a two-star review and criticizing Folkston's singing as being "in a rather flat style." Billboard also gave "Dance Little Leaves" a two-star rating and blandly described the tune as a "mild ditty done at a faster tempo."

Folkston's early labelmates on the Davco label were Merlene Garner and Jimmy Strickland, and all three were featured alongside each other in trade ads. Garner was a teenage protege of Mae Axton. Axton managed her and toured with her for a while and also co-wrote her first release for Davco, "You're It." Axton was also a co-writer of Strickland's first Davco release, "A Little Too Late," as well as a number of other songs throughout Davco's existence.

Folkston's second Davco record, "The Freezing Twist," was a dance tune that invited dancers to alternately twist and freeze, two dances that were introduced in 1958 with Hank Ballard & the Midnighters' "The Twist" and Tony & Joe's "The Freeze." Again, the song didn't make much of a splash, and in 1961 the Palais Royals would do Folkston one better by combining the twist, the freeze, and the boogie into "Twistin' Freeze Boogie." Here's an excerpt of Folkston's "The Freezing Twist":

Cash Box described "The Freezing Twist" as "teen-dance steps ... employed to good rock advantage," and praised the instrumentalists as a "pro sock combo." 

However, the other side, "April Fool," received only a C+ rating and was described as a "lost-love opus ... relayed with teen-fervor...." 

Billboard was less complimentary, giving "April Fool" a one-star review and writing that Folkston sang it in "so-so fashion." Billboard liked "The Freezing Twist," though, giving it three stars and praising it as "worth spins."

Despite the poor reviews, "April Fool" has been Folkston's most enduring tune, relatively speaking. It is the only one of his recordings to be anthologized, having been included on the German CD compilation Teen-Age Dreams Vol. 25. It is as of this writing one of only two Folkston songs on YouTube (not including my excerpt of "The Freezing Twist"), and has been uploaded twice. ("Dance Little Leaves" is the other one.) 

In my opinion, "April Fool" is a minor masterpiece of orchestrated pop-folk. Folkston's vocal on this record is appealingly nasal, and the string arrangement, vocal chorus, and minor-key melody are lovely. The song was written by Sid Kessel and Jimmy Rule, the latter of whom had enjoyed some earlier songwriting success with Kitty Wells' "Paying for That Back Street Affair," an answer song to Webb Pierce's "Back Street Affair" that became a Top 10 country hit in 1953. Kessel, coincidentally, also co-wrote a Top 10 country hit in 1953: Faron Young's "I Can't Wait (For the Sun to Go Down)." 

"April Fool" and "The Freezing Twist" bombed, though. I know of no station where either side of this record received significant airplay. 

It stands to reason that Folkston would've gotten some airplay in Jacksonville, but I haven't been able to find any radio surveys that list his recordings. His Davco labelmate Merlene Garner had two singles chart on Jacksonville, Florida, stations; "You're It" and "My Search Has Ended" both registered on WPDQ's weekly survey in late 1960. The other initial Davco signing, Jimmy Strickland, fared about the same as Folkston but went on to record for much longer, cutting singles into the early 1970s for other independent labels and even one single for Dot Records in 1966.

For Christmas 1960, Davco released a split single with two Christmas songs by different artists, one of whom was Folkston. The A side, "A Child's Christmas," was another Mae Axton composition sung by Folkston. The B-side, "Little White Deer," was recorded by an artist named Mike Flynn. Davco would continue to release records for a few more years, but Folkston had no further releases. 

In early 1961, Folkston performed for two nights in Fayetteville, Arkansas, at the Rockwood Supper Club. A newspaper advertisement ran for two days in the Fayetteville Northwest Arkansas Times and identified Folkston as an artist on Impecca Records, a label I can find no information about. The Rockwood Supper Club was a locally famous rockabilly club that booked performers such as Carl Perkins, Wanda Jackson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Ronnie Hawkins, Scotty McKay, and Sid King & the Five Strings

That appears to be the end of Folkston's recording career, but Davco soldiered on, releasing singles until at least 1964. In August 1961, Cash Box reported that Davco had moved from Hilliard to a new office on 716 Bugbee in Jacksonville. The staff had changed somewhat; Hampton J. Walker was still the label's head, but Folkston was no longer in the mix.

Johnny Folkston discography

If I Had Never Met You / I Saw You Out Last Night – Magnum MAG-41860, 1960

Dance Little Leaves / You Said I'd Never Love Again – Davco DR-7479, 1960

The Freezing Twist / April Fool – Davco DR-101, 1960

A Child's Christmas / Little White Deer (recorded by Mike Flynn) – Davco 45-102, 1960

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Joe Dowell's brief stint with Monument Records (1966)

Joe Dowell's brief stint with Monument Records in 1966 was his last hurrah as a major recording artist. He had scored a handful of hits for Smash Records in the early '60s, including the #1 hit "Wooden Heart," but the label unceremoniously dropped him in 1963 and he wasn't immediately picked up by another label.

He didn't give up, though. In 1964 he released a folk album, Joe Dowell Sings Folk Songs, that was financed by the owner of a furniture store. The album wasn't widely available, but it was something, and it marked his transition from teen idol to folk singer, the latter of which was how he billed himself for years thereafter. He also started a half-hour radio show, Joe Dowell Sings, that aired on stations such as WTHI-AM in Terre Haute, Indiana, and KASI-AM in Ames, Iowa.

When country star Jim Reeves died in a plane crash that same year, Dowell arranged a meeting with RCA-Victor A&R executive Neely Plumb. Despite Joe's reputation as a teen idol, he had developed a smooth pop balladeer vocal style and a liking for folk music, and he wanted to record a tribute album to Reeves.

To Joe's horror and surprise, Plumb was outraged by the suggestion and accused Dowell of trying to capitalize on Reeves' death. When Joe told me this story 40 years later, he was still obviously wounded by Plumb's reaction and dismayed that his intentions had been so profoundly misunderstood. Joe felt sincerely moved to memorialize Reeves, but the timing, to Plumb, must have seemed opportunistic, considering that Dowell was without a label at that time.

Dowell's idea wasn't an original one, though. Many Jim Reeves tribute records were released within two years of Reeves' death, including ones by Del Martin (1964), Del Reeves, Faron Young, Kitty Wells, Joe Reagan, Bobby Bond, The Blue Boys (Reeves' band), and Dean Manuel.

Tribute singles appeared too, including Larry Cunningham's "Tribute to Jim Reeves" in 1964. In the decades that followed, artists continued to record tributes to Reeves, including Ronnie Milsap in 1981 and Charley Pride in 1991.

After Joe released his private-label folk album, two years would pass before he would make another commercial recording. In 1966 he finally got a new recording contract with Monument Records, Fred Foster's Nashville label (it was actually located in the Nashville suburb of Hendersonville) that released a variety of music but was strongly identified with country.

For the first time in his career, Dowell, who was a songwriter as well as a singer, was given the opportunity to release one of his own songs as a single A side. In the early '60s when he recorded for Smash, he was sometimes allowed to put his own songs on the B sides of singles, but until the Monument deal, his own recording of an original song had never received the promotional backing of a major record label.

The top side of his Monument single was "If I Could Find Out What Is Wrong," a song of peace that referenced the Vietnam War. Cash Box gave the single a favorable review:

Joe Dowell could stir lots of interest with this message filled tune that searches for the key to today's problems. This emotion provoking outing should get play via a variety of outlets.

If the song had a shortcoming, it was that it wasn't really a "message filled tune." It was a message song in search of a message. The lyrics stated that if "I could find out what was wrong, then I'd put it in my song," but it never identified what was wrong.

In that respect, "If I Could Find Out What Was Wrong" was similar to his 1973 novelty "Those Darn Inflation Blues"; Dowell was determined to stay in the middle of the road and avoid offending or upsetting anyone, so his topical songs were not very pointed except in their conviction to avoid taking a position. Still, Dowell's attempt to connect with protest folk and message-oriented music showed his willingness to stretch and keep up with the times.

The B side, "Indian Summer Days," was not only the better song of the two but also one of the best songs Dowell ever wrote. It's a light acoustic pop tune that Cash Box described as "pretty" and "touching." Looking back at Joe's compositions throughout his career, songs like this and "Just Love Me" and "Two Hearts" and "Jesus in the Midst of My Day" were his forte and rose to the top of the list of his finest works.

Unfortunately for Joe, "If I Could Find Out What Is Wrong" flopped and didn't get any airplay that I know of, but he continued to perform in the region around his home in Bloomington, Illinois. In March of 1966, he performed at an American Field Service event in Creston, Iowa. In June of that year he performed at the Amana Corporation's 47th anniversary celebration in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where some copies of Dowell's new Monument single were given out as prizes. In September he performed at the Great River Days festival in Muscatine, Iowa. At Christmastime he performed at a Teen Challenge program in South Bend, Indiana.

Also in 1966, Dowell was active in pitching his services as a singer of jingles and PSAs and recorded some songs for the National Wildlife Federation. His most unusual effort in this area was penning a campaign tune for Kansas gubernatorial candidate Robert Docking ("Our great future's door he's unlocking, vote for Docking, friend, and we'll walk through"). Docking won the election and served as governor of Kansas from 1967-1975. I haven't heard this song, but a campaign song is included among Docking's papers at the University of Kansas's Kenneth Spencer Research Library, and that might very well be an acetate or sheet music of Dowell's composition.

Dowell's performance schedule tapered off after 1966, but he continued to perform for years, although most of his appearances began to consist of company and church events and oddball things like a 1968 performance for the Findlay Rotary Club in Findlay, Ohio. One of his higher-profile gigs after 1966 was an appearance as the star attraction at a 1967 talent show in Colorado Springs that was hosted by radio and TV announcer George Fenneman.