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.