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.

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