Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Hezie Johnson, an American original

Hezie Johnson is ready to tour the world in his 1931 Rolls Royce, according to this 1973 ad in Billboard magazine. Who is Hezie Johnson, you ask? He was an ambitious country singer from Spartanburg, South Carolina, who released a total of one record, which has captured the imaginations of literally dozens of collectors of oddball private-label country recordings. 

"Muddy Mississippi River" b/w "Wedding Bells Are Ringing in My Dream World" was released on Hezie's own Hezie Johnson Record Co. and is a real humdinger, as they used to say. Hezie had a great hillbilly voice, kind of like a mumbling Wayne Raney, but Hezie was on his own plane, musically speaking. He rushes through his unmetrical lyrics apparently oblivious to the rhythm of the band playing behind him. Hezie's singing and the Shaggs' drumming share a certain aesthetic.

"Wedding Bells" unexpectedly changes from a song to a recitation and back again. Dick Spottswood played this song on his popular country music radio show last year. 

Hezie's Billboard ad said, "Thousands and Thousands of Records sold Coast to Coast," but it isn't clear if those sales figures were for Hezie's record or for Echo Hill Music Promotion Co.'s records. The only other record I know of that Echo Hill Music Promotion promoted was Tommy Barnes' country remake of Tommy Sands' 1957 pop hit "Going Steady," on Big 5 Records out of Hickory, South Carolina. Big 5 was affiliated with Hickory's Southern Sounds Studio, which also recorded and/or released records by Billy Napier and gospel singer Randy Miller. (Was Tommy Barnes the same Tommy Barnes who co-wrote Tim McGraw's hit "Indian Outlaw"? Was Billy Napier the same Bill Napier from the Stanley Brothers who partnered with Charlie Moore?)

Someone must have been buying Hezie's record, because he ran an ad the following year in The Spartanburg Herald to thank everyone who bought it. The ad also posed the rhetorical question, "If a man, a dog and a bird can get along, why can't everybody?" Kind of a non sequitur, but that was part of the Hezie Johnson mystique.

John "Hezie" Johnson died in 2009, and you can read his obituary here. It includes a latter-day photo of Hezie (below). Hezie was born in 1941, so he was about 30 years old when he waxed "Muddy Mississippi River." He apparently remained in Spartanburg all his life.

The endearing thing about Hezie's short recording career was his audacious promotional campaign. Photographs of a dapper Hezie standing next to Cadillacs and Rolls Royces projected an image of the success to which he aspired. Pronouncements of his readiness to tour the word reflected the wishful wanderlust of a small-town boy who dreamed of making it big as a country singer. 

Hezie's two recordings are available on Hello Hell, a fan-made compilation of offbeat country singles that features a few known artists and a number of weird vanity singles.

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