Sunday, September 15, 2019

Robbie Dee Smith Jr.: Whale rider, country songwriter

Robbie Smith riding Newtka the Killer Whale
through a ring of fire

It's safe to assume that very few whale riders became country music songwriters. One who did was Robbie Dee Smith Jr. 
Smith's yearbook photo

In the early 1970s, Smith rode Newtka the Killer Whale and was part of a high-diving act at Seven Seas Amusement Park in Arlington, Texas, as seen in the photo above. He was also a singer and songwriter who wrote a tune called "Freedom Lives in a Country Song" that attracted quite a bit of attention in the mid '70s, although it ultimately did not become a hit.

His story shows how tantalizingly close to success an artist can get in the music business without quite making it.

Seven Seas Amusement Park
Smith was born in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, but grew up in Waco, Texas. He was highly athletic from an early age, winning state championships in swimming and diving and playing high school football. He was also musical from an early age and credited his vocal ability to singing along with Chipmunks records as a kid. He started playing in bands at the age of 12 and sang at his high school's homecoming assembly.

His diving skills led to a job at Seven Seas, where he worked until 1975. He was working there when he wrote "Freedom Lives in a Country Song."

Somehow, Smith got this song published and heard by a number of Nashville elites. Maybe his exotic persona as a killer-whale-riding high diver helped him gain an audience with the down-home Music Row crowd in Nashville.

However it happened, Country Music Hall of Famer Grandpa Jones recorded Smith's song in 1974, and at least three other artists recorded it in the years that immediately followed.

Grandpa Jones cut the song for Warner Bros. Records after leaving Monument Records, where he had been a fixture for over a decade. Produced by Chips Moman at Moman's famous American Studio, where Elvis Presley had revitalized his career by recording "Suspicious Minds" a few years earlier, "Freedom Lives in a Country Song" was Grandpa Jones' only release for Warner Bros. When the single flopped, the label dropped Jones, effectively ending his recording career. (Despite Jones' television success on Hee Haw, he hadn't had a chart hit since the early '60s.)

Smith's song wasn't finished, though. Gary S. Paxton of "Alley Oop" fame recorded it for RCA in 1975 with Chet Atkins producing. "Freedom Lives in a Country Song" was the B-side, but Paxton must have liked the song, because in 1976 he produced a recording of it with R.W. Blackwood & the Blackwood Singers for Capitol Records.

In addition to being released as a single A side, Blackwood's version of "Freedom Lives in a Country Song" was also included on his 1976 album We Can Feel Love, which contained the minor country hit "Memory Go Round" and the Top 40 country hit "Sunday Afternoon Boatride in the Park on the Lake," a Cowsills sound-alike that is probably best described as bubblegum country. The inclusion of "Freedom Lives in a Country Song" on this album was probably the peak of the song's commercial success.

The only other recording of "Freedom Lives in a Country Song" that I know of is the most obscure one and, ironically, the one with the most audio floating around online. It's by Lloyd Watts, who included the song on his album Leaving Caroline, recorded for the independent Adonda label in the mid-to-late 1970s. The album's title track was also released as a single. This entire album is available digitally from Amazon and iTunes.

If the Lloyd Watts who recorded for Adonda is the same Lloyd Milton Watts who cut the single "You'll Never Lose Someone" b/w "Feeling So Blue" for the Lubbock, Texas, label Uptown Downtown Country, then he was a Plainview, Texas, artist who started out as a rock 'n' roller before moving into country music. This article gives some background on Watts and the Plainview music scene of the '60s and '70s.

Unfortunately for Smith, Watts' album gave songwriting credit for "Freedom Lives in a Country Song" to Gary Paxton, which suggests that Watts learned the song from Paxton's record rather than from Grandpa Jones' or R.W. Blackwood's.

After three singles releases and two album appearances, the song had run its course.

"Freedom Lives in a Country Song" was Smith's most successful song, but it wasn't his only song. As Waco Smith, he copyrighted a song called "Country Soul" in 1973. In the following years he copyrighted several others: "Cowboy Love," "Glory's on Her Way," "Sunday Drivin' Chevy," and the intriguingly titled "UFOs Don't Rock." In collaboration with Hall of Fame lyricist John Bettis and country star RC Bannon (a frequent duet partner of Louise Mandrell), he wrote "Love Love Love," which Bannon does not appear to have recorded. 

Somehow in all this, Smith doesn't seem to have ever released a commercial recording of his own, but friends say that he recorded an unreleased album as well as a presumably self-released CD, the latter under his old nom de plume Waco Smith. He also composed a number of gospel songs that were never published.

With Nashville behind him, Smith became a diver in the Navy from 1981-1984. He returned to Waco and, in 1996, was struck and killed by a car while walking to the 7-Eleven. His high school class has a loving tribute page to him here that has many more photos and other details about Smith's life.

Friday, September 6, 2019

The 1950s record hop for crippled kids

Billboard called it "one of the most moving and unusual record hops in the field today—an annual 'dance' for a crippled children's hospital." 

Did you notice the ironic quotation marks around the word "dance"?

The contemporaneous coverage of this annual dance shows how far we've come in talking sensitively about people with disabilities, because some of the reporting about this event seems pretty cringeworthy today, even though the event itself was laudable.

Norman Wain
The disk jockey behind the dance was Norman Wain of WDOK in Cleveland. He was mentioned last week on Music Weird in this post about the time in 1958 that he joined with fellow Cleveland jock Phil McLean of WERE to create a novel stereo program by using the two stations' AM and FM transmitters simultaneously.

Wain's record hop for kids with disabilities must have started in 1953, because Billboard reported in 1956 that it had been an annual event for three years.

The record hop was staged at Camp Cheerful, a summer camp of the Society for Crippled Children in Strongsville, Ohio. The society was founded in 1907 and kept the antiquated name Society for Crippled Children until 1988, when it became known as the Achievement Center for Children.

Wain said in 1956, "I was aghast at the thought of a dance for crippled kids at first, but after my first dance I realized that the deepest desire of these poor kids is to be as close as possible to other normal youngsters in everything they do."

Wain described the dance thusly:
I conduct the dance just like any other hop. I put on a good rock and roller [record], and they wheel each other out on the floor and make believe they're dancing by pushing their wheel chairs around, while those who can walk at all make an attempt at dancing with one another or with a buddy in a chair.
Wain hosted a number of uncommon musical events during his time with WDOK, including a studio party for the editors of local high school newspapers, but he might have found this annual record hop the most rewarding of them all. He said, "These kids have so much enthusiasm and heart that it makes you ashamed that you ever complain about anything."

Wain might even have encouraged some of these kids to pursue music careers themselves. A number of musical figures throughout the years came from the ranks of "crippled children." Richard Berry, the composer of "Louie Louie," attended a summer camp for crippled children after a hip injury forced him to walk with crutches. Singer and songwriter Melvin Endsley spent two years in the Memphis Crippled Children's Hospital after contracting polio. Country and bluegrass artist Mac Wiseman also had polio as a child and was able to study music theory, piano, and radio broadcasting thanks to a scholarship from the National Foundation for Polio. And those are just a few that immediately sprang to my mind.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Two Cleveland radio stations teamed up for a unique stereo broadcast in 1958

In 1958, two Cleveland, Ohio, radio stations teamed up to provide a unique stereo program to listeners who had access to multiple radios.

The two stations were competitors WDOK and WERE, and the unique program took place just before midnight on Oct. 27, 1958.

The Dukes of Dixieland on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1958
Both stations regularly simulcast on AM and FM, so they had four frequencies—two on the AM band and two on the FM band—available between the two of them.

By joining forces, they were able to broadcast the left and right stereo channels of a live performance separately across the four frequencies. 

This unusual arrangement allowed listeners to use either two AM radios, two FM radios, or one AM and one FM radio to tune into the appropriate stations and receive the right and left stereo channels at the same time. The result, barring any time lags or problems with reception, would be true stereo sound.

Norman Wain
There's no way to know how many people took full advantage of this broadcast, but it was only 40 minutes long and was broadcast at 11:15 pm on a Monday night, so it might have been more of a gimmick and a publicity stunt than anything.

Also unknown is how wide the stereo separation was between the two stereo channels. I'm guessing that the stations kept the stereo spectrum fairly narrow in order to accommodate listeners who would be tuning in with only one radio.

Still, it was an interesting exercise and a sign of the growing interest in stereo on the part of both the broadcasting community and the listening audience.

The program itself was a live performance by the Dukes of Dixieland at the Modern Jazz Room, a club at 2230 E. 4th St. in Cleveland that was owned for a time by jazz drummer Eugene M. "Fats" Heard and was previously (like many such establishments nationwide) called the Cotton Club.

Phil McLean
The hosts of the stereo program were Phil McLean for WERE and Norman Wain for WDOK

Regular readers of the Music Weird will recognize McLean as the artist behind the "Big Bad John" parody "Small Sad Sam," which is mentioned here. Wain is credited with helping to bring The Beatles to Cleveland in 1964 and later became a co-owner of WDOK.

As novel as this 1958 stereo program may seem, it wasn't even close to being the first attempt of its kind to overcome the limitations of monophonic sound in radio. In 1924, WPAJ of New Haven, Connecticut, did essentially the same thing by broadcasting the left and right channels of a stereo program individually over two transmitters, which, again, required listeners to use two radios to experience the effect.

In 1997, The Flaming Lips took this concept to the next level with their album Zaireeka. The album was released on four compact discs that could be played on four different audio systems simultaneously to create a multidimensional sound experience designed to overcome the limitations of stereo playback.

The Flaming Lips Zaireeka

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Country's money men: Johnny Cash, Johnny Dollar, Johnny Paycheck, etc

Billboard's Hot Country Singles chart the week of June 4, 1966, included hits by Johnny Cash, Johnny Dollar, and Johnny Paycheck.
Billboard's Hot Country Singles – June 4, 1966

Johnny Cash's hit was "The One on the Right Is on the Left," Dollar's was "Stop the Start (Of Tears in My Heart)," and Paycheck's was "The Lovin' Machine."

This string of monetized names seems contrived, but in fact, Cash and Dollar were the singers' real surnames. 

Paycheck, on the other hand, was born Donald Eugene Lytle. He was only one of several artists over the years who adopted or capitalized on money-related names that echoed Cash's. Some of these artists parodied Cash's name while others merely used names that were in the same vein.

Johnny Cash parodies 

Mac Wiseman – "Johnny's Cash and Charley's Pride"

Cash's name was occasionally a source of humor, as in Mac Wiseman's novelty song "Johnny's Cash and Charley's Pride," which was a Top 40 country hit in 1969-70.

Johnny Credit – "Hello, I'm Johnny Credit"

An artist whose name parodied Johnny Cash's was Johnny Credit, who released one single, "Hello, I'm Johnny Credit." Credit's real name was Johnny McCollum, and the single was a noncharting novelty that appeared on Plantation Records in 1971. The song title is a reference to Cash's 1970 Columbia album Hello, I'm Johnny Cash.

The Great Pretender with the Tennessee Two and a Half – "All Over Again, Again"

Cash's distinctive vocal style; the minimalist guitar style of his guitarist, Luther Perkins; and his band's name, The Tennessee Three, were parodied too. Mitchell Torok recorded an early one, "All Over Again, Again," under the name The Great Pretender with the Tennessee Two and a Half for Columbia Records in 1959. The song title referred to Cash's 1958 single "All Over Again." (The B-side, "You Can't Get There From Here," was credited to only The Great Pretender and is not a Johnny Cash parody but does pertain to money.)

John C. Reilly – "Walk Hard"

The title song from the film Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007), performed by John C. Reilly, was conceived as a Johnny Cash parody as well. Reilly's character isn't based on Johnny Cash—it's a pastiche of Cash, Elvis, Brian Wilson, and other icons of popular music—but this song was meant to sound like Cash. As for the name Dewey Cox, it might be a riff on Dick Trickle, but who can say?

Phil Ochs – "How High's the Watergate, Mama"

Too many of Cash's songs have been parodied for me to list them all here, but here's Phil Ochs' topical "How High's the Watergate, Mama," a parody of Cash's "Three Feet High and Rising."

The lyrics even mention Cash:
In the Swiss bank the money's stashed
18 minutes of tapes were slashed 
They've even taken in Johnny Cash

Other money men

Norville Dollar

Another money man who was active in country music in the 1960s was Norville Dollar, who recorded for Starday and Nugget Records. As with Johnny Dollar, Dollar seems to be Norville's real name. His sound was more similar to Johnny Dollar than to Johnny Cash.

Eddie Money

You could add Eddie Money (real name Edward Mahoney) to the list. He didn't begin recording until the 1970s and isn't a country artist, although in 2008 it was widely reported that he was going to release a country album that apparently never came to pass.

Jonny Dollar

England's Jonny Dollar (real name: Jonathan Peter Sharp) was a latter-day trip-hop producer and songwriter who also adopted a money name.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Easter songs of the 1940s and 1950s

In 2017, Bear Family Records released an odd compilation called Easter Bunny Hop. Known for its thoroughness and attention to detail, Bear Family usually has the last word on reissues of vintage American music, but this compilation mostly missed the mark by presenting miscellaneous non-holiday songs about chickens and rabbits instead of songs about Easter.

You might think that the compilation was padded out of necessity, because how many Easter songs are there, really? Unlike Christmas, Easter doesn't have many well-known songs. "Easter Parade" and "Peter Cottontail" are probably the best-known ones.

In reality, a lot of obscure Easter songs exist, many of which were recorded by major artists. Some of the most prolific purveyors of Easter songs were Gene Autry, Rosemary Clooney, and Jimmy Boyd.

Easter has passed, but I started thinking about Easter songs because of the previous Music Weird post about the flood of recordings by child performers in 1953. A number of those recordings were Easter novelties, many of which barely have been heard since their original release.

Today's Music Weird rounds up many—if not most—of the Easter songs and novelties that were recorded in the 1940s and 1950s. I didn't even try to catalog every recording of "Easter Parade" from that period, so for that song, at least, the list is very incomplete.

Song title
Label/catalog number
Gisele MacKenzie
Capitol F1997
Benny, the Magic Bunny
Kenny Roberts
Coral 60660
McGuire Sisters
Coral CRL 57097
Bunny Bunny Bunny
Betty Clooney
Golden R80
Rosemary Clooney
Columbia 90145
Bunny Round-Up Time
Gene Autry
Mervin Shiner
Columbia CL 2568
Decca 27482
Milton Estes
Rita Faye
MGM 10646
MGM 12203
Easter Bunny Day
Leslie Uggams
Rita Faye
MGM 11437
MGM 12203
Easter Bunny Song
Baby Pamela Rich
Mercury 71024
Jimmy Wakely
Capitol CAS-3090
Columbia GL 521
Easter Lillies
Bill Brown’s Chorus
Kem 2712
Liberty 55011
Gene Autry
Columbia CL 2568
Easter Parade
Eydie Gormé
Red Nichols
M. Whiting & J. Wakely
Andy Russell
Roy Elridge
Jimmy Lunceford
Eddy Duchin
Sammy Kaye
Harry James
Ken Griffin
Ray Noble
Rosemary Clooney
André Kostelanetz
Johnny Long
Tommy Sosebee
Guy Lombardo
Bing Crosby
Ethel Smith
Fred Waring
Freddie Mitchell
Durning String Band
R.A.O.C. Blue Rockets Ork.
George Wright
Malcolm Lockyer
S. Vaughan & B. Eckstine
Ray Charles Singers
Eddie “Piano” Long
Del Wood
Roy Rogers & Dale Evans
Perry Como
Frankie Carle
Cesar Concepcion
Joe Cain
Kern & Sloop
Del Wood
Neil Lewis
New York Percussion Trio
George Feyer
Malcolm Lockyer
ABC-Para. 273
Audiophile AP 7
Capitol 1382
Capitol 15034
Cleff 8975
Columbia 35484
Columbia 35705
Columbia 39186
Columbia 48007
Columbia 50054
Columbia 50092
Columbia CL-6053
Columbia J-234
Columbia ML 4241
Coral 60957
Coral 64080
Decca 23817
Decca 23819
Decca 24321
Decca 29063
Derby 733
Guy 1313
HMV 5790
King 395-504
Mercury 20205
Mercury 20316
MGM 12202
Rainbow 140
Republic 815
RCA Victor 21-0423
RCA Victor 47-3226
RCA Victor EPA-784
Seeco 4164
Seeco 6020
Tempo 904
Tennessee 815
Tico 245
Vox VX.25.740
Vox VX-800
Wing 12202
Nat “King” Cole
Capitol F1994
Kenny Baker
Decca 18591
The Easter Time
Jimmie Dodd
Disneyland DBR-86
Mitchell Torok
Abbott 156
Eggbert, the Easter Egg AKA Egbert the Easter Egg
Gisele MacKenzie
Rosemary Clooney
Mervin Shiner
Betty Clooney
Ray Heatherton
Roy Rogers
Capitol F1997
Columbia 90145
Decca 27977
Golden R80
Playtime 383-PVD
RCA Victor 45-5336
Eldo the Easter Bunny
Rita Faye
MGM 12203
Art Carney
Columbia J 4-241
Gene Autry
Columbia CL 2568
Gene Autry
Columbia CL 2568
I Want a Bunny for Easter
Guy Lombardo
Decca 18645
Little Cindy
Columbia 4-41346
Vaughn Monroe
HMV 9894
Jimmy Boyd
Columbia J4-199
Just About Easter Time
Jimmy Bell’s Trio
Aristocrat 1901
Let’s Go to Church
M. Whiting & J. Wakely
Red Foley & J. Martin
Capitol 1382
Decca 46235
Jimmy Boyd
Columbia J 4-199
Mister Easter Bunny
Sammy Kaye
Honey Dreamers
Lawrence Welk
Guy Lombardo
Mervin Shiner
Derry Falligant
Columbia 39186
Columbia 40668
Coral 57066
Decca 24951
Decca 46221
MGM 10675
Jimmy Boyd
Columbia 39955
Rosemary Clooney
Columbia MJV 4-95-2
Peter Cottontail
Jimmy Wakely
Gene Autry
Rosemary Clooney
Sammy Kaye
Ray Heatherton
Roy Rogers
Del Wood
Capitol CAS-3090
Columbia CL 2568
Columbia J-234
Columbia 39186
Playtime 383-PVD
RCA Victor 21-0423
Tennessee 815
Peter Rabbit
Rusty Draper
Mercury 70300
The Rabbit with the Two Buck Teeth
Mervin Shiner
Decca 27977
Dick Todd
Rainbow 90088
Fred Waring
Decca 41046
Gene Autry
Columbia CL 2568
Gayla Peevey
Columbia J 4-198
Two Easter Sunday Sweethearts
Jimmy Boyd
Vera Lynn
Columbia 39955
London 1434
Gayla Peevey
Columbia J 4-198