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.