ONE: Passion Trove
“Don't part with your illusions. When they are gone you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.” –Mark Twain
In Mr. Brown’s 8th-grade shop class I built a crystal radio that required an antenna be installed on the roof of our house to enable reception of local radio stations. The antenna was a copper wire strung between two boards attached to opposite ends of the highest point of the gable roof with one end of the wire running down the side of the house nearest my bedroom. The wire was securely attached to a metal rod implanted in the ground to prevent lightening damage or personal injury, and from there it ran through the bedroom window to the crystal radio. The novelty of this homemade device was soon dampened by lack of good reception and the need to wear earphones that were poorly designed. Still, sometime during that year of 1954 curiosity led me to attach a small, white Zenith radio to the antenna and from that one small action a vast, new universe emerged—transformation as stark as automobile to airplane. I had been radio driving. Suddenly I was radio flying.
I heard XERF from Del Rio, Texas with its broadcast tower in Ciudad Acuna, Coahuila, Mexico where 100,000 watts of broadcast power (increased to 250,000 watts in 1959) was lawful while U.S. stations were limited to 50,000 watts. In 1962, Brooklyn radio disc jockey Bob Smith began his career at XERF as the soon famous Wolfman Jack. Some offerings advertised by the station were outrageously comical, including 100 baby chickens for $3.95 and a miracle bug killer consisting only of two small wooden blocks. Some listeners have claimed an autographed photo of Jesus Christ (presumably autographed by an on-air personality) was offered by this radio station that had no FCC (U.S. Federal Communications Commission) oversight.
I listened to WKY Oklahoma City, WLS Chicago, WBAP Dallas, and KWKH Shreveport, Louisiana where I first heard “Earth Angel” by the Penguins on Dootone Records. For several nights running I didn’t turn off that little Zenith radio until I heard “Earth Angel”—a #1 record for three weeks on the R&B charts in early 1955 and one of the first R&B records to “crossover” to the pop charts when white teenagers first began listening to the music of black artists. The Penguins’ record only reached #8 on the pop charts due in part to the common practice of white artists covering the hits of black artists during those evolving days of rhythm and blues. Most white kids heard the Crew Cuts version of “Earth Angel” as it made its way up to #3 on the pop charts.
At the start of my sophomore year at Amarillo High School in the fall of 1955, the more serious nature of high-school basketball was evidenced by team practices being held throughout the school year. During one afternoon practice teammate Mike McCauley mentioned something about “EP.” Who’s EP?” I asked. “You never heard of EP? Why that’s Elvis Presley.” The next day Mike and our friend Jerry Meyer dropped by my home with a 78-rpm record of “Baby Let’s Play House” by Elvis. While listening to the record in my bedroom, Mike fell backward onto the bed sort of raving, nearly swooning about EP. His excitement, and Jerry’s, was so over-the-top that I paid scant attention to the music filling the room. We played the record three or four times and when leaving my friends insisted I keep the record.
There were few records in our home—only old ones belonging to my parents and a 78-rpm, three-record album of the story of Robin Hood that years earlier I’d received as a gift. I played the Elvis recording a few times and soon realized what possibly had fueled my friends’ excitement—the risqué nature of Nashville blues artist Arthur Gunter’s lyrics, the driving electric guitar riff of Scotty Moore, the rhythmic thumping of the acoustic standup bass by Bill Black, the alternating volume level of the acoustic rhythm guitar of Elvis, and the sensual emoting and sound of Elvis’ vocal that all together combined to create an aural rendering sufficient to consort a teenage fertility rite.
After hearing the record many times I configured the record player to repeatedly play “Baby Let’s Play House” as I readied myself for school each morning and while doing homework each evening. Eventually, I listened to the flip side, “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone,” and after two or three weeks of musical monotone Mom offered both a plea and a dollar. “Your dad and I are tired hearing that record and hope you’ll buy another one.” At Panhandle Radio & TV I purchased “Mystery Train” by Elvis for 79¢ and both 78-rpm Sun Records are still in my possession although in ruinous condition from literally having been played to death. Surely any musical interest subtly residing within me was greatly energized when Mike and Jerry played “Baby Let’s Play House,” although none of us could have known that for me this event was the impetus of a rich, 40-year music business adventure.
On Saturday October 2, 1954 Elvis Presley made his one and only appearance on the Grand Ol’ Opry in Nashville. The audience politely applauded his R&B influenced version of country music, but many country fans thought his gyrations were vulgar. The Opry general manager suggested Elvis return to his former job as a Memphis truck driver, causing Elvis to vow he’d never again return to the Opry—and he didn’t. Just after this Opry fiasco—a collision of country music’s conservatism and the liberalism of rhythm and blues—Elvis’s personal manager, Bob Neal, along with special advisor, Col. Tom Parker, signed a deal for Elvis to appear on Shreveport’s weekly Louisiana Hayride beginning Saturday, October 16, 1954. But it would be a full year later, in the autumn of 1955, that I finally sampled the Saturday evening offerings of KWKH and discovered the loud, constant, nearly hysterical screaming of Elvis’ fans during a Hayride performance. It was a bit of musical history in the making for which the Zenith radio provided a front-row seat.
With a wire recorder some family member had abandoned in our garage storeroom I recorded some of the music emanating from the Zenith radio. A tape recorder functions by a piece of plastic tape covered with metal powder passing across a magnetic recording head, but the recording media for a wire recorder is simply a very thin, round, shiny metal wire that is wrapped onto a spool (like a spool of thread) and as such can easily become entangled. Prior to the one catastrophic tangle that ended my wire-recording sessions, I recorded a few of Elvis’ Hayride performances although the audio quality was lacking from both the radio signal fading in and out and the inferior electronics of the wire recorder.
The Louisiana Hayride was followed by a blues-records show hosted by Frank “Brother Gatemouth” Page, one of the Hayride announcers. Some confusion has existed between Frank “Brother Gatemouth” Page and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, a well-known blues artist. In addition to being an announcer, Frank Page, a white man who some listeners believed was black, was the “Gatemouth” deejay for the KWKH blues show. Stan’s Record Shop (“Stan the Man”), a mail-order record business located on Texas Blvd. in Shreveport sponsored this blues record show that was my introduction to the music of Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Slim Harpo, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf, Lonesome Sundown and other blues greats. The music pouring from that little radio changed my life although I can’t know if my life would have been better or worse had I not built the crystal radio in Mr. Brown’s shop class and connected the roof antenna to the Zenith radio allowing me to discover the new, ardent world of Louisiana Hayride and blues records on KWKH. But I do know my life would have been very different.
Tuning in one Saturday night early in 1956 to catch Elvis’ performance on the Hayride, I heard the usual audience screams—not as loud and frenetic, but an abundance of screaming nonetheless. Surprisingly, Elvis was not performing, but instead a singer previously unknown to me. Bob Luman was performing Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” and I wondered why the screams for Luman approached what previously had been reserved for Elvis. From the wildly aggressive performance of Luman’s lead guitarist I feared he’d tear the strings right off his guitar, and this hot, on-fire performance served as my introduction to soon-to-be-famous James Burton, who along with drummer Butch White and bassist James Kirkland comprised Luman’s backup band, the Shadows.
A few weeks later Luman performed again on the Hayride just after his return from Hollywood, where he appeared in the motion picture Carnival Rock performing his new single, “Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache” released by Imperial Records whose roster included both Fats Domino and Ricky Nelson. Luman explained that while in Hollywood the Shadows had been hired by Ricky Nelson—a fact attested to by the mediocre performance of the musicians backing Luman on the Hayride that evening. Especially noticeable was the absence of James Burton, who as Ricky Nelson’s lead guitarist, provided the inventive work heard on Nelson’s early hits such as “Believe What You Say” and “Poor Little Fool.” Burton also made his mark on the history of memorable guitar riffs with Dale Hawkins’ “Suzie Q,” although his famous lick is much influenced by Hubert Sumlin’s guitar riff on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning.”
Years later, in about 1990, I won a Gibson guitar at a charity-event raffle, and because I was more a fan of Fender guitars than Gibson, friend Joe Bob Barnhill offered to locate an inexpensive Fender Telecaster to trade for the Gibson. Joe’s friend James Burton just happened to accompany him during his guitar search and after playing a few Telecasters “manufactured in Mexico” Burton said, “Joe, this is a pretty good one.” After trading guitars I couldn’t help but think of the associated events—hearing Elvis on the Louisiana Hayride, discovering Elvis’ replacement Bob Luman whose lead guitarist was James Burton, owning a guitar that Burton himself played (if for only a few seconds), and having a copy of the original Fender Telecaster purchased in 1956 by Bob Venable at the birth of our rock ‘n roll band. Later Burton was lead guitarist for Elvis on both the recordings and live performances during Elvis’s Las Vegas years.
In early 1956 Elvis returned to Shreveport’s Municipal Auditorium where he had performed on the Louisiana Hayride more than 50 times from the fall of 1954 to the end of 1955. It was a homage performance shortly after his first national hit “Heartbreak Hotel” became a 1956 anthem leading to six national television appearances during January, February and March on the Dorsey Brothers “Stage Show” on CBS. During this Hayride appearance Elvis sang “Heartbreak Hotel” and the B side of this RCA single, “I Was the One,” which was the first time I heard an artist comically change the lyrics of a hit song. In substitution of the original lyric “and who learned his lesson when she broke my heart, I was the one,” Elvis sang, “and who learned his lesson when she broke my neck, I was the one.” I recorded this performance on the wire recorder and later transferred it to magnetic tape with my new Webcor tape recorder. I also transferred the Hayride performance of “Maybellene” by Bob Luman with James Burton and the Shadows, but somewhere along the way I either misplaced or recorded over both performances—recordings I wish still existed, especially James Burton’s performance on “Maybellene.” He was a talented young kid with a unique style and he was on fire.
Although Elvis performed in Lubbock, Texas five times during 1955 and once in 1956, he performed in Amarillo only three times—Thursday, June 2 and Thursday, October 13, 1955 and on Friday, April 13, 1956 with the latter appearance occurring after the national success of “Heartbreak Hotel.” I attended the October 13, 1955 concert at the Amarillo Municipal Auditorium with friends Don Riley, Lehmer Dunn, Mike McCauley, Jerry Meyer, and possibly others. We sat in the first row of upper-level seats near stage left (from the performers point of view) and positioned ourselves on the concrete wall supporting the metal guard rail in front of the first row of seats with our legs, donned in cowboy boots, dangling down the auditorium wall.
Throughout the southern states Elvis received heavy radio airplay of “Baby Let’s Play House” and his following single (and last one for Sun Records), “Mystery Train,” which was released two months prior to the October 1955 concert in Amarillo. Other performers on the show were “hillbilly” artists—Jimmy Newman (“Blue Darling”), Wanda Jackson (“If You Don’t Somebody Else Will”), Porter Wagoner (“Satisfied Mind”), Bobby Lord (“Hawkeye”), steel guitarist Jimmy Day, piano player Floyd Cramer (The Last Dance), and the mostly unknown Sun Records’ recording artist Johnny Cash who’s first single “Cry, Cry, Cry” released three months earlier was en route to #14—its peak position on the country charts and seven months before his first major success with “I Walk the Line.”
Along with girlfriend Mary Thomas I also attended the April 13, 1956 show where our seats were about half way back in the middle section of the main floor. When Elvis altered the lyrics to Chuck Berry’s hit song, "Maybellene," the crowd went wild. “Why is everyone going so crazy?” Mary asked, but I pretended not to know. Instead of “Maybellene, why can’t you be true, you done started back doing the things you used to do,” Elvis sang, “Vaseline, why can’t you be glue so Maybellene baby I can stick with you.” The following morning the headline of an inner-page article of the Amarillo Daily News queried, “Why Buy a Cow When You Can Get Milk Through the Fence?”—Elvis’ cheeky response to the question “Do you plan to ever get married?”
Elvis loved Cadillacs and during the 1956 concert two were parked behind the Municipal Auditorium. The crowd’s exuberance prior to the first show caused a glass door at the auditorium entrance to break resulting in serious cuts to a few fans. During the time between the two shows the hoods of both Cadillacs were trampled and glass panes of a backstage door were broken. Crazed fans chanted, “We want Elvis,” while waiting in line for autographs—a session totally contrived by Life Magazine to obtain photos of Elvis signing autographs. Realizing the danger of the situation Elvis told the Life photographer, “We’d better stop now. They’re getting hurt.”
But Elvis’ love of Cadillacs didn’t stop him from buying a Mercedes Benz early in his success at a time when a Mercedes in Memphis was like a polar bear in the tropics. While stopped at a red light in his Mercedes one of Elvis’ high school friends pulled up beside him and hollered, “Hey Elvis, where’d you get that Hudson?” Unlike Mercedes, a Hudson was not a highly regarded auto and a Memphis boy in the late 1950s or early 1960s could easily have mistaken Elvis’ German import for a Hudson. Elvis never drove the Mercedes again.
Jimmy Gilmer and I attended a Chuck Berry concert in Amarillo at the Clover Club on Northeast 8th (now Amarillo Blvd. East). We each paid the dollar admission as we entered and Jimmy asked, “Did you see that?"
“See what?” I replied.
“Look at the guy taking the money at the door.” I looked closely at the tall, thin black guy wearing an overcoat with the collar turned up high and a beret pulled down low. It was Chuck Berry collecting the admission money—money that most likely was his fee to play the gig. Later, during my music business career I learned that many club owners and club managers didn’t provide honest counts of the total admissions collected, and evidently Chuck Berry had learned this particular lesson early on.
Another Clover Club show in 1956 featured Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings, a Sun recording artist known for “Ooby Dooby” and “Down the Line.” They performed that evening for almost an empty venue—no more than 10 or 12 people—and seemed surprised by such meager attendance. “We’re gonna give ya a great show anyway,” Orbison promised, and they did. The band played their hearts out and seemed to be playing as much for their own entertainment as for the paltry audience. Many times during my music career I’ve recalled Orbison’s professionalism and positive tack demonstrated that evening.
Road bands go to great extremes for entertainment during long, sometimes monotonous, tour schedules. Musician and record producer Emory Gordy told of one such event that happened during a Roy Orbison tour. Orbison set the key for each song so that the highest note in the song was the highest note he could sing well, and did so in order to create the greatest possible vocal tension in those grand ballads that were his stock in trade. After sound check at one gig, the band conspired to tune their instruments, including Orbison’s guitar, one half-step higher than usual, which meant the highest note in each song would be one note higher than Orbison usually sang. Emory claimed there were but two differences in Orbison’s performance that evening. The first was when Orbison hit the highest notes in each grand ballad he would rise up on the balls of his feet—evidently an involuntary physical reaction caused by reaching for a note too high in pitch. Emory’s position onstage enabled him to see behind Orbison’s dark glasses, where Emory observed the second difference of Orbison’s eyeballs markedly bulging outward as he raised up on the balls of his feet struggling to reach the highest notes with his magical voice. Backstage after the performance Orbison was asked, “How’re you doing, Roy?” to which he replied, “Oh, I don’t know. I think I’m losing it.” His words left the band feeling so badly that at the next sound check they returned to regular tuning and never told Orbison about their prank.
Buddy Holly and the Crickets recorded “You’ve Got Love,” the first song written by Johnny “Peanuts” Wilson—rhythm guitarist for Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings from January to December of 1956 and singer of “Cast Iron Arm” released by Brunswick Records on November 27, 1957. The record has become a favorite among rockabilly record collectors, and “Peanuts” became a successful country songwriter in Nashville until his death from a heart attack in September 1980.
During the popularity of “The Streak” in 1966 I made a trip from my office in Manhattan to Nashville to plug songs for United Artists Music. “Streaking” was the act of running nude through a public space and then quickly disappearing. A rumor circulated throughout Nashville’s Music Row that a “streak” would happen at noon from Combine Music to Columbia Records, two companies located across from one another on Nashville’s famed 16th Avenue. By noon a crowd of about a hundred onlookers, a television news crew and two policemen awaited the rumored “streaker” with the lawmen prepared for an impending arrest. Tensions grew and news cameras readied as the seconds ticked past noon. Suddenly “Peanuts” shot through the front door of Combine Music and quickly ran down the front porch stairs as the large crowd parted way for his “streak” across 16th Avenue. Naked from only the waist up with the words “HALF STREAK” painted across his bare chest, he “half-streaked” to the crowd’s delight and roaring approval during a time when Music Row was a small, friendly, tight-knit community prior to the New York and Los Angeles music-business corporate takeover that eventually brought great change—much of it negative—to the social fabric of Nashville’s unique country music community.
In August 1956 Little Richard brought his show to the Nat Ballroom at SW 6th Avenue and South Georgia Street in Amarillo. He made some of the best records I heard back then—great vocals, fun songs, and an explosive, driving band—so I was excited about the prospect of seeing Little Richard’s live performance. The Nat was a small venue and it was packed. The entire audience stood since there was no seating, and this coupled with a stage riser of only a foot or so in height created poor visibility from my position at the back of the ballroom. The band was awesome and played on and on, but not the music I wanted to hear. Some kids began wondering if Little Richard ever would appear until finally the red-hot band broke into the introduction of a Little Richard hit immediately recognized by all, causing wild excitement to soar throughout the much extended instrumental introduction. Little Richard’s entrance was wild. Wild as in “wild animal”—one released from its cage for the sole purpose that its inordinate pent-up energy could ignite an explosion of the throng’s most primal passions. I don't know whether or not Little Richard was high on drugs, but his demeanor was one I had never seen and have rarely seen since.
Several police officers were standing just inside the Nat Ballroom entrance and their serious demeanor seemed to loom large over the crowd of teenagers. It was sweating hot inside the club where during Little Richard’s second or third song he removed his coat and shirt and lay down on the stage floor. The crowd went wild but from my poor vantage point I couldn’t observe his prone antics, although several possibilities occurred to me. The police immediately rushed the stage, placed Little Richard in handcuffs and led him away. Today such police action might incite a riot but the Nat Ballroom was filled with good kids and as strongly as the excitement had built, it quickly and quietly dissipated. There was disappointment and some asked for a refund but most of the kids simply drifted away. Oh how exceedingly innocent were those days way back when.
Trip to Amarillo turns sour for Little Richard
By Karen D. Smith, Globe-News Feature Writer
Richard Penniman couldn't wait to get out of Amarillo, and it seems some in Amarillo couldn't wait for him to leave. The words "Hepcat Handcuffed" dangle above an Aug. 24, 1956, Amarillo Globe-Times photograph of an open-shirted Penniman, a serious expression replacing the spirited smile usually gracing the face of the man known to generations of rock 'n' roll fans as Little Richard.
Little Richard, his manager and two band members were jailed the night before on charges of resisting arrest, vagrancy and engaging in lewdness. In Justice of the Peace C.W. Carder's courtroom the next morning, the group paid a collective $76 in fines after pleading guilty to a disturbing-the-peace charge. The other charges were dropped. The singer and manager Aubrey Prince said they only pleaded guilty because they had a Lubbock performance that night.
An accompanying story by Staff Writer Loyal Gould:
The cats jumped last night," Gould began. "In fact, they rocked way out to Cloud 19, then rolled away the inhibitions with the help of Little Richard and his orchestra. In the stratospheric twilight of the Nat Ballroom, some 400 teenagers and a few old-timers in their 20s bopped to the rhythms of three weaving saxophonists, two steel-guitar men, a drummer and a pianist. Fellows with ducktail haircuts and turned-up collars, girls with tight skirts, went through sundry gyrations, contortions and deep knee bends. They looked like Halloween goblins in a puppet show. And they really flipped when Little Richard, wearing a Mediterranean-blue suit, white shirt and brown suede shoes, delivered the three songs which have brought him close to the top of the rock 'n' roll hierarchy: ‘Tutti Frutti,’ ‘Slippin' an' Slidin'’ and ‘Long, Tall Sally’.
Bob Venable, Billy Sansing and I were on the Amarillo High School basketball team, and even though Bob and I attended different junior high schools we were introduced by friend-in-common Tommy Price in the summer of 1955 a few weeks before the start of our high school sophomore year. Sometime during this time I heard Bob play both guitar and piano at his home. Self-taught on guitar he mostly played chords but on piano he was quite accomplished as demonstrated by his performance of the entertainingly complicated “Kitten on the Keys.” Six weeks of piano lessons in the second grade had not set me on the path Bob had so fruitfully traveled.
During 1955 radical change was occurring for American teenagers, partially fueled by new movies: Blackboard Jungle released March 25 featuring Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock”; East of Eden (based on John Steinbeck’s novel) starring James Dean released on April 10; and Rebel Without a Cause, also starring James Dean along with Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, released October 27. Probably more than any other factors, these three movies fostered dramatic cultural change for teenage language, cars, clothing, music, and a fairly radical new way of thinking. Sun Records released Elvis Presley’s first record in July 1954 and his final two and most successful Sun singles, “Baby Let’s Play House” on April 10, 1955 and “Mystery Train” on August 6, 1955. The first instance of rock ‘n roll appearing on the Top 40 pop music charts was in 1953 with “Crazy Man, Crazy” by Bill Haley (#12) and “Goin’ Home” by Fats Domino (#30), and followed in 1954 with succeeding entries by Bill Haley, the Drifters, and the Midnighters. But it was in 1955 that the tide of teenage musical taste began strongly flowing away from the more banal music of Eddie Fisher, Perry Como, Doris Day, the McGuire Sisters, Nat King Cole, and other easy going pop-music recording artists toward the revolutionary new rock ‘n roll music.
The inclusion of “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets in Blackboard Jungle created a national teen anthem and made way for more music embracing radical musical change—Fats Domino’s first Top-10 pop hit “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Earth Angel” by the Penguins, “Tweedlee Dee” by Lavern Baker, and Chuck Berry’s first hit, “Maybellene.” Bill Haley and the Comets had several Top-40 hits during this year while Elvis’ fourth and fifth singles on Sun Records sold over 500,000 copies each with almost all sales occurring in the South because Sun Records had no national distribution. However, Elvis’ southern success created enough attention that powerhouse RCA Records signed him, and in January 1956 released “Heartbreak Hotel,” his first national hit.
As this revolution gained momentum in the fall of 1955, I was playing basketball, making excellent grades, allowing my hair to grow longer, listening to Saturday night KWKH radio broadcasts of the Louisiana Hayride and the blues records show from Shreveport, Louisiana, and listening each morning and afternoon to “Baby Lets Play House” and “Mystery Train” by Elvis. I also began visiting record stores in search of other rock 'n roll music.
At basketball practice I suggested to Bob Venable that we start a band and explained his musical adeptness would enable him to play lead guitar and to teach me to play guitar. I also explained our drummer would be 11th-grade teammate Billy Sansing who played drums in junior high school. Bob laughed at the idea and asked who would be the singer. “I will,” which prompted Bob to emphatically respond, “I’ll be the singer as soon as you will.” I suggested we take turns singing lead and sing some duets, but Bob showed little enthusiasm for my idea while adding, “I definitely won’t be teaching you how to play guitar.”
My relationship with my Grandmother Reeves was very close so she knew of my interest in learning to play guitar. For Christmas that year she and Aunt Bonnie gave me a $10 Kay acoustic guitar—about $90 in 2016 and still a modest sum for an acoustic guitar. Immediately I began learning to strum rhythm with a guitar pick while forming chords learned from a guitar chord book borrowed from Bob and still in my possession. Practice sessions ended only when the fingers of my left hand were painfully sore and deeply marked with the impressions of the guitar strings and on some occasions even bleeding due to the Kay guitar strings being positioned so high above the fret board. I had difficulty properly tuning the guitar, but eventually learned to listen intently enough to hear the slight differences when a tone was a bit sharp or a bit flat. Driven by insatiable desire I was soon strumming along with simple three-chord songs of Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins. Sitting at the piano I discovered an E chord on a six-string guitar consists of only three notes on a piano—some basic music theory that soon had me pounding out piano chords to Little Richard and Fats Domino records.
With guitar tuned and the ability to play the five basic chords required for the keys of E, A, and D, I invited Bob and Billy Sansing to a practice session, although prior to Billy’s first participation Tommy Price may have beat out rhythm with two wooden sticks on the open end of a trash can covered by the cardboard from one of Dad’s freshly laundered shirts while Bob and I played our acoustic guitars and sang. We fooled around with a few different songs, but more importantly dipped our toes into rock ‘n roll waters just enough to excite our collective enthusiasm. At minimum, Bob had been convinced that one way or another I was hell-bent on playing rock ‘n roll.
Not long after that first session Bob purchased a 1955 or 1956 Fender Telecaster guitar and Fender amp. Billy put a new drumhead on his junior high school snare drum and purchased a stand for the snare drum, a cymbal, a cymbal stand, some drum sticks, and a drummer stool. I bought a 1955 Martin D-18 acoustic guitar, and a Tex electric pickup like Elvis had on his Martin D-28 guitar pictured on the iconic cover of his first RCA album. I paid Tolzien’s Music Store on Polk Street $189—$20 down and $10 per week until paid in full. We were ready for more serious practice sessions that alternately took place at Bob’s home and my home with our generously game parents taking turns tolerating the loud intrusion of drums, electric guitars and amplified vocals from youngsters learning to ride the waves of a new kind of music.
In the spring of 1956 we learned “Tear It Up” and “You’re Undecided” by the Johnny Burnett Trio on Coral Records, and soon added songs by Elvis, Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins to our repertoire. Bob sang Lonnie Donegan’s “Long Lost John” with harmony on the chorus added by me, but by the following year Bob’s vocal creativity lent itself to our performance of several Everly Brothers’ songs with Bob masterfully providing the harmony.
As we worked hard to sharpen our skills Bob’s mother invited us to perform at a Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) meeting at Austin Junior High School. With little forethought we accepted, and my first experience performing on stage was both baffling and depressing. There we were delivering the flavor and texture of this revolutionary new idiom to an adult-only audience whose collective facial communication seemed to ask, “What in the world is this we are seeing and hearing?” They offered politically polite applause for an affair that was as much a non-event as ever one could be.
We practiced throughout the summer of 1956 and by the beginning of our junior year, and Billy’s senior year, we were prepared to perform for anyone, at any place and any time. Some of our friends hung out during the practice sessions and their positive response helped steel our confidence regarding our little rock ‘n roll band. We purchased another Fender amplifier and an ElectroVoice microphone to serve as a meager PA system. We fretted some about a band name and finally settled on the Combo Kings. I don’t know why we found this name acceptable, but we did.
A common destination after Friday night football games or Saturday night movies was one of the dances sponsored by the YWCA on Friday nights (“The Cellar”) or the YMCA on Saturday nights (“Drift Inn”), where music was served up by a jukebox. Sometimes one of two talented Amarillo High girls trios performed three or four songs a cappella—songs like “Sincerely” and “He” from the McGuire Sisters, “Mr. Sandman” from the Chordettes, and “Hearts of Stone” of Fontane Sisters fame. Either “The Cellar” or “Drift Inn” invited the Combo Kings to perform—an invitation seemingly holding more promise than one from the PTA.
Following the vocal performance of a girl trio, the Combo Kings with guitars and drumsticks in hand walked into the large room where 50 or more friends parted ways for us to access our drum and amps in a corner of the room. I felt my heart race with excitement as we approached our first public performance for our peers—possibly the same feeling experienced by football players running onto the field between two rows of cheerleaders in their first high school game. Encouragement ran wild—many slaps on the back and enthusiastic comments with none more supportive than those of friend J. M. Gilbert, who in some fanciful change of fate could have been our Col. Tom Parker, our Brian Epstein.
Electricity filled the air and raced through my entire being as we played and sang our hearts out. It was a blast—a rocket blast into a teenage, deep-space time warp as we took our friends along for the ride. I didn’t see our band as soon-to-be rock ‘n roll stars, but instead as a rock band for our high school friends. There were many student-activity groups at Amarillo High—football, basketball, track, wrestling, golf, tennis, baseball, bowling, skiing, cheerleading, band, orchestra, choir, ROTC, honor society and Ken Club (scholastics), student council, La Airosa (yearbook), Sandstorm (student newspaper), press club, creative writers, Quill & Scroll, debate club, science club, Spanish club, Latin club, speech club, library club, Thespian Society (theatre), Future Teachers of America, Future Farmers of America, Future Nurses, Internos (photography), Secretarial Training Club, Archeology Club, Los Viajeros (equestrian), Operetta, Modern Music Masters, Square Dance Club, Y-Teens, Allied Youth, Tri-Hi-Y, Stamp Collectors Club and possibly others. And now for the first time in school history Amarillo High had a rock ‘n roll band.
We continued to practice, learned new songs, and played more brief shows at “The Cellar” and “Drift Inn.” Soon Bob and I quit basketball, although Billy continued playing. We were not potential basketball stars so our decision was of no serious importance to the team or to us. A few days before we quit, Coach T. G. Hull stopped an afternoon practice and directed the team to the benches, which usually meant some serious words would be coming our way. After the team was seated and had directed its full attention to Coach Hull, he paced back and forth a few times with head bowed down as he seemed to search for the precise words of wisdom and possibly to let some silence speak to the seriousness of the moment. Then, in a low, soft voice he calmly stated, “I really like all my boys so I’m willing to put up with just about anything you do.” Coach Hull paused, and then continued, “But there is one thing I will not tolerate. I will not have any duckbill hepcats on my basketball team.” As he said, “duckbill hepcats” he looked directly at me with that insightful look he made such good use of—a facial expression that drilled his point home into the depths of one’s conscience.
It’s a difficult task for teachers to keep pace with the vernacular of the young, but I think “duckbill hepcat” was good enough for Coach Hull to make his point even if ducktail, as in a particular hairstyle of the time, was the descriptive term he was after. He was spot on with “hepcat,” a term meaning “hipster” that entered the English language in 1937.
Sometime in late summer or early autumn of 1956 Billy Sansing introduced us to Jimmy Sandlin, his friend and fellow high school senior. Jimmy was a handsome young man who played electric rhythm guitar and was a great singer. He began practicing with the Combo Kings and soon the four of us were playing various school functions and floorshows.
The newly constituted Combo Kings were introduced to Allen Fairchild, who claimed to be starting a record company. Using fairly primitive sound equipment at local radio station KFDA, Allen recorded two songs with our band—Lavern Baker’s “Jim Dandy” with Jimmy singing lead vocal, and Carl Perkins’ “Gone, Gone, Gone” on which I sang lead. Even though the sound quality was inadequate even for 1956, the experience of our first recording session was a thrilling event. A few acetates were created on a cutting lathe and each affixed with an Alfair label for what appeared to be “homemade” 45-rpm records. Other than playing the recordings for our friends nothing more was accomplished, and we continued our practice sessions and performing for school events.
At the start of ‘57 Jimmy Sandlin’s family moved to Florida and the Combo Kings were again a band of three. Allen Fairchild offered to record two more songs but wanted original material, which led Bob to come up with “When Your Baby’s Gone” and me to contrive the lame teenage ballad “Pretty Babe.” We recorded again at KFDA radio station studio but with the addition of a girl trio composed of Sylvia Ramsey (sister of friend Buck Ramsey), Sybil Todd, and Gracie Newman along with talented classmate Ann Roberts playing piano, although nearly no piano is audible on these recordings. Once again we were excited about our recording experience, but other than receiving a few acetates nothing happened.
As the school year drew to a close in the spring of ’57, Bob and I realized the next evolutionary move for our band was the addition of a full set of drums to embellish Billy’s bare bones configuration of snare drum and one cymbal. We offered to purchase additional equipment with the band’s earnings but Billy’s hard-working, single mom was concerned that his participation in a rock ‘n roll band would interfere with his studies at Amarillo College beginning in September. We understood her concern and realized a new drummer was essential were we to continue our fun playing rock ‘n roll music.
RAVENS & NIGHTHAWKS
During the early days of the Combo Kings in 1956, two other rock ‘n roll bands appeared on the Amarillo scene and I’m not certain which of these three early Amarillo bands was first to perform publically. The Fayros (note the unusual spelling) were composed of Earl Witt - lead guitar, Gary Swafford – drums, and the Barnhill brothers from Turkey, Texas (hometown of Bob Wills) with brother Ted on bass and Joe Bob as lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist. Having seen the Fayros perform I knew Gary Swafford was a dynamite drummer who Bob and I invited to join our band. His loyalty to the Fayros was unshakable but he suggested we contact Mike Hinton, a young drummer who recently had moved back to Amarillo from Kansas City. Gary raved about Mike’s drumming skills but warned he only played jazz.
We located Mike at his parent’s home on Julian Boulevard where a set of Pearl drums dominated his large bedroom—two floor toms, two clamp-on toms, a clamp-on bongo, three Zildjian cymbals (one riveted), kick drum, high hat and snare. We were greatly impressed with his Rolls-Royce set of drums.
Mike demonstrated his awesome talent and showmanship by playing along with a jazz record. True to Gary’s assessment, Mike knew nothing about rock ‘n roll and had no idea what a rock drummer should play but his masterful skill as a drummer was unquestionable. We assured him that given his prodigious talent the transition from jazz to rock ‘n roll would be easily accomplished. We supplied Mike with a few rock ‘n roll records and scheduled our first practice session. Bob and I hadn’t known if it was possible to find a drummer in Amarillo who could meet our expectations, but our good fortune to have stumbled upon Mike Hinton was far beyond our most fervent wishes.
Years later, during a band break while performing for our 25th high school reunion, Bob philosophized to our friend Buck Ramsey, “If you have Mike for a drummer, you don’t need much more to have a rock ‘n roll band.” Although Bob’s insight rang true it unfairly discounted his own remarkable talent as a musician. But Mike truly was a great showman as well as a great drummer, and it all seemed so effortless—ability one can only be endowed with at birth. He played unbelievable licks, which enabled him to play amazing, entertaining solos; he was lightning fast and twirled his drumsticks with great flair; his handsome features and boyish ways had all the young ladies wanting to take him home with them; and Mike possessed as much energy as any person or drummer I have ever observed. Bob and I were excited about our renewed prospect of our continued indulgence performing rock ‘n roll music.
Boyd Hinton, Mike’s older brother by twelve years, invited us to practice at his home on Rusk Street where his wife Pat and young sons, Mark and Michael, would become curious observers at our rehearsals. They were gracious hosts and these practice sessions produced some of the most treasured memories from my high school days. Often we were joined by Mike’s younger sister Jayne, her friend Phyllis Vigna, Mike’s girlfriend Sandra Daherty, and Boyd’s friend Rufus Gaut, an unusually quiet man who after a few beers sometimes entertained us with his unique dancing. And Boyd allowed us to take a beer from the fridge so long as we minded the limit of one each.
Mike introduced Bob and I to the genius of Ken Nordine’s Word Jazz on Dot Records—creative, “beat” stories written by Nordine and told in his rich voice over a music bed of cool jazz. Nordine, a voice-over man for many well-known advertisements and an on-air radio personality in Chicago, was Linda Blair’s vocal coach for The Exorcist, and later would inspire Tom Waits’ spooky, spoken-word pieces.
One day as I visited with Mike and his friend Mouse in the driveway of Mike’s home, a speeding car suddenly stopped and two guys jumped out. Menacingly approaching Mike, one threatened, “I’m gonna whip your ass.” Judging by name only I thought it possible Mouse might be of limited value in such circumstance and that possibly Mike was more “lover” than “fighter.” In fact, that “lover thang” was what had this guy so hot—something about a young lady. As the guy neared Mike I interrupted, “You might whip Mike’s ass, but first you’re gonna have to whup mine.”
Surprised by my challenge, the guy looked me up and down contemplating the situation. Now I’d never been a “fighter” and frankly I was a bit surprised by the boldness of my threat, but this guy didn’t look all that tough. My coming to Mike’s defense probably had more to do with protecting our band’s new-found drummer than protecting my new friend. When Mike’s threatening enemy completed his assessment he offered nothing more than a look of bewilderment before departing as quickly and deliberately as he had arrived. I was relieved he’d retreated, even though I’d been ready and willing to fight. Mike seemed impressed by my courage of the moment and this event may have helped cement a bond of friendship lasting many years.
One afternoon as I entered the Hinton home to visit Mike I noticed his dad, Charlie, who Mike often referred to as “Cigar Charlie,” pacing back and forth in the living room with a drink in his hand. Since it was about four in the afternoon I asked, “Are you home early from work Mr. Hinton?” to which he replied, “No, I haven’t gone to work yet today. My taxman says the money I earn the first seven hours each day goes to the government in taxes and I only keep what I earn the last hour. So today I’m only working the hour I get paid.” Indeed, the top personal U.S. income tax rate in 1957 was 92%, which seems unfathomable today. The Hintons’ beautiful home and its fine appointments hinted at their affluent financial status while Mr. Hinton’s comments also hinted at his witty, dry sense of humor.
Not long after Mike joined our band we recruited standup bass player John Thompson, a quiet, nice young man who lived on the north side of Amarillo. John wasn’t a great musician but the addition of the standup acoustic bass added a deep rhythmical resonance to our music and lent a familiar, yet unique, visual image. But like all rock bands in those days, there was the problem of transporting such a huge musical instrument in one of our cars. The drums were difficult enough but at least it was possible to dissemble a drum set into smaller parts. But the large bass—well, it was just very large and very cumbersome.
At some point the YMCA and YWCA sponsors began paying us to play the Friday and Saturday night dances with a 50-50 split of the 25¢ admission. Our share each dance was about $10.00 ($85.00 in 2016), which we divided equally. Such meager income hardly paid for guitar strings, drumheads and drumsticks, but our true reward was the great fun we had. These were some of the best days of my life—a time filled with discovery, creativity, risk taking and adventure. And like most of our peers we eventually would come to realize that the burden of responsibility we bore during those days was exceedingly small. Life was about as good as it gets.
We’d usually play three, 50-minute sets with each separated by a 15-minute break. Having only a few ballads in our repertoire caused the repetition of some as requests for slow songs increased toward evening’s end. “You Cheated, You Lied,” “Earth Angel,” “Send Me Some Lovin’,” “The Fool,” and “Who You Been Lovin’ Since I’ve Been Gone?” (aka “Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache”) are ballads we performed most often, while up tempo staples were “Rave On,” ‘Peggy Sue,” “It’s So Easy,” “Maybe Baby,” “That’ll Be the Day,” “Oh! Boy,” “Early in the Morning,” “Maybellene,” “You Can’t Catch Me,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Breathless,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Summertime Blues,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Baby Let’s Play House,” “Mystery Train,” “Bye Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Susie,” “Leave My Woman Alone,” “Be Bop A Lula,” “Woman Love,” “Splish Splash,” “La Bamba,” “Do You Wanna Dance?” “Work With Me Annie,” “Sexy Ways,” “Mary Lou,” “Money Honey,” “Let the Good Times Roll,” “My Babe,” “Bo Diddley,” “Pretty Thing,” “I Got a Woman,” “Matchbox,” “Honey Don’t,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Gone, Gone, Gone,” “Party Doll,” “The Fool,” “Bony Moronie,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Tutti Frutti,” “Long, Tall Sally,” “Keep A-Knockin’,” “Searchin’,” “Suzie Q,” “Tear It Up,” “Sweet Love on my Mind,” “Ooby Dooby,” “Rock House,” “Bop, Bop Baby,” “Go Go Go (aka “Down the Line),” “Ubangi Stomp,” “Down on the Farm,” and “Black Jack David.”
During breaks we hurried to our car where iced-down Country Club malt liquor was stashed. We learned chug lugging two beers during a 15-minute break too readily brought about nature’s call during the next set, thus leading to our preference of malt liquor that produced the same, or possibly more, “kick” with less liquid consumed. After having performed our first set stone cold sober, we’d each chug-lug two cans of malt liquor—the proper amount to help generate our best performance—and by the third or fourth song of the second set we were “in the zone.” Two more chug-lugs on the second break kept us “cookin’” although sometimes contributed to a bit of sloppiness during the final set. Bob and Mike were consistent in their use of alcohol throughout their lives (often in excess) and sometimes the same was true for me up to about age 45. I don’t know if some genetic predisposition determined our abuse of alcohol or if the great fun we experienced playing music had conditioned an indulgence we adopted as a required necessity of social comportment. Possibly both, but certainly Country Club malt liquor was the drug of choice for Amarillo High’s first rock ‘n roll band.
The addition of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” to our repertoire in the spring of 1958 fomented a signature song performed at the opening and closing of each show, and engendered the adoption of the Ravens as our new band name. But later, when Norman Petty informed us that the “Ravens” was already in use by another recording group, we became the Nighthawks—a name suggested by Bob.
Our record of “When Sin Stops” enjoyed enough local airplay and sales during the latter part of 1958 to land it at #1 on the Top 40 record chart of radio station KLYN and brought an offer to play a Christmas gig in Amarillo on December 20th. John Thompson was a good guy and gave what time he could to our band. He played bass on the Nighthawks’ initial recording session on July 25, 1958 at the Norman Petty Recording Studio, on the 1958 Christmas gig, on our second and last recording session in February 1959, and for the last time at an Amarillo show in the summer of 1959. During the next few months I had little contact with John, and eventually none. When the Nighthawks performed for our 20th high school reunion my attempts to contact him failed. Someone said he’d moved to Houston but I wasn’t able to locate him.
The Nighthawks’ second and final recording session began on Sunday evening February 1 and ended in the early morning hours of Monday, February 2, 1959 at Petty’s studio. At about 1:00 a.m. on February 3—only a few hours after our session ended—a plane crash in an Iowa cornfield near the town of Clear Lake, Iowa took the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, J.P. Richardson (known as the “Big Bopper”) and the local 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson. Later Petty told me that during our recording session he was having severe headaches, which he attributed to a psychic warning regarding Buddy Holly’s impending disaster.
BUDDY & WAYLON
The Nighthawks’ 1958 recording venture led us to the Norman Petty Recording Studio—the only recording studio near Amarillo capable of producing high quality professional recordings. There in the God-forsaken town of Clovis, New Mexico major hit records had been hatched by Buddy Holly, Buddy Knox (“Party Doll”), and Roy Orbison (original recording of “Ooby Dooby”). In the spring of 1958 Bob and I played two original songs for Petty—“When Your Baby’s Gone,” written by Bob, and my own lame teenage ballad, “Pretty Babe.” Petty judged the songs not strong enough and advised better songs were needed to land a recording contract with a major record company. Within days after our visit to Clovis Bob wrote “When Sin Stops” and I came up with “All’a Your Love.” With Petty’s acceptance of our new efforts we paid him $250 and signed a contract naming him our personal manager and record producer for which he would receive 50% of all monies earned from recording royalties and personal appearances. In return, Petty agreed to record the two new songs with our band and to use his best efforts to obtain a major-label recording contract for the Nighthawks.
On one visit to Clovis I waited in the recording studio reception room for Petty’s availability while Bob, and possibly Mike, waited in the car. The studio reception room had two doors—one leading to the small recording room and the other to the studio control room. As I stood in the doorway between the reception room and the control room viewing with wonder the electronic recording equipment, Buddy Holly, Jerry Allison (the Crickets’ drummer and co-writer of the hit “Peggy Sue”) and Joe Maudlin (bass player for the Crickets) entered the recording room from a rear door that led from an apartment where Buddy, the Crickets, and other recording artists sometimes stayed. At first I didn’t realize the slight, curly-haired guy in a white t-shirt and jeans was Buddy Holly. He walked toward the window between the control room and the recording room and sat down on the Leslie box of the studio organ while Jerry Allison attempted to pay up on a bet he obviously had lost to Buddy. The reception room door leading to the recording room was open enough that I could clearly hear their conversation. Jerry was offering Holly a $100 dollar bill that Holly refused to accept. “Keep the money, Jerry. I was just a-foolin’ ya’. Go on, you keep the money.” Jerry repeatedly insisted that Holly accept payment, but Holly continued to refuse. I’m certain they were unaware of my presence and after a few minutes they returned to the back apartment. Later the Roses, a singing group who performed on some of Petty’s productions, told me that after Holly was financially successful he always carried a $1,000 bill that he sometimes offered for payment of small purchases such as newspapers, magazines or cigarettes. They claimed he delighted in people’s reaction to a $1,000 bill, a denomination not distributed by the Treasury Department since July 14, 1969.
On another occasion while I waited in the recording studio reception room for a meeting with Petty, Holly entered the recording room of the studio from the rear apartment door and sat down at the 9-foot Baldwin grand piano. The door between the reception room and recording room was open about a foot or so and I’m certain Holly wasn’t aware of my presence as he began playing the piano intro of Little Richard’s hit, “Slippin’ and Slidin’.” Holly played the single root bass note to each chord with his left index finger and the three-note chords with three fingers of his right hand, not using his thumb or little finger. The sound of the grand piano with lid propped wide open filled the small room, but when Holly sang I swear his voice soared above that grand piano like a siren over loud traffic. It was the loudest singing voice I had ever heard and in that moment it made all the sense in the world to me that the little guy banging away on that grand piano was a rock ‘n roll star and I wasn’t. Yet still, he seemed much too ordinary—just a simple country boy dressed in a white t-shirt and old jeans with his dark, curly hair hanging down his forehead. I couldn’t help but wonder how Buddy Holly could loom so large in my mind and seem so ordinary in person.
At about 6:00 p.m. on July 25, 1958 our band arrived at Petty’s studio, unloaded our equipment and set it up in the recording room. Petty's secretary, a strange woman named Norma Jean, directed us to rehearse until Petty arrived. About an hour later he appeared and suggested we continue rehearsal until he returned. After performing our two songs for the best part of an hour we stopped and wondered when Petty would return. We thought our recording session should already have been well underway and completed not long after midnight or so. As the time slowly passed we nervously wandered about the studio and began to wonder if Petty would ever return. Finally sometime after 10:00 p.m. Petty appeared and requested we perform our two songs, after which he determined our session would begin with “When Sin Stops.” With some direction from Petty, the vocal group, the Roses consisting of David Bigham, Robert Linville and Ray Rush, created their vocal parts after which Petty began recording our repeated performances on a single monaural track. The serious consideration of recording in stereo had only begun five months earlier in March 1958 when the first mass-produced stereo vinyl records became available for purchase by the U.S. general public.
I don't know how many takes Petty recorded or if he saved any outtakes, but we repeatedly performed “When Sin Stops” for several hours. Eventually Petty had a take he deemed acceptable, and after a short break we began rehearsing "All'a Your Love.” Again, we recorded take after take until about ten o’clock the next morning when the session ended with Petty’s acceptance of a take of our second song. To our dismay our recording adventure had taken all night long and had been much more physically and emotionally draining than we ever imagined. Years later I realized Petty's process was counter to the very essence of rock 'n roll, which is at minimum a spontaneous emotional explosion of teenage feelings and thoughts—one not planned and carefully hammered out by adult engineering seeking form and coherence. We were but a few of the many white kids imitating the sounds and licks of older black men whose blues music inundated pop music during the late 1950s, and to which the young, white bands added a potent dose of teenage histrionics.
After the session we drove back to Amarillo and returned with friends in tow a few days later to hear to our recordings. With the exception of the prominence of the Roses’ background vocals and the lack of prominence of Mike’s drums, we were satisfied—especially the great improvement in sound quality compared to the Alfair recordings. In addition, I learned from the Roses that the day after our session while they were hanging out with Holly in the back apartment they suggested listening to our recordings, which they described as “an Amarillo band with a lead singer that sounds a little like you, Buddy”—a comment I thought complimentary in light of his unmistakable influence on my vocals. Holly chose to continue watching television, but when the sound of our recordings floated into the back apartment he joined the listening session.
On my next visit to Clovis a few days later, the Roses said that Holly informed Petty he wanted to record “When Sin Stops” as a possibility for his next single. Petty replied he was compelled to obtain the songwriter’s permission, since we not only had we paid Petty $250 to record our band and attempt to secure a recording contract and commercial record release, but also the U.S. copyright law demanded that a songwriter’s permission be obtained for the first instance a song is offered for sale to the public. Petty called to explain Holly’s interest and I replied that Bob was writer of the song in question. “Talk to Bob, let me know his decision,” Petty responded.
After sharing the news with Bob I added, “I’d be really happy if Buddy Holly wanted to record my song, and we can write more songs.”
A long silence was finally broken by Bob’s answer, “No, he can’t have our song. It’s our song and Holly can find another song. He can’t have our song.”
I was surprised and a bit stunned. Buddy Holly was a huge rock ‘n roll star and any songwriter would have been thrilled to have their song recorded by this rock icon. “Bob, are you sure? It’s okay with me if he records it and maybe it would help promote our band.”
Bob dryly replied, “No, it’s our song and Norman needs to get us a recording contract. That’s what we paid him to do.”
Norman did obtain a recording contract for the Nighthawks with Hamilton Records, a subsidiary of the fairly successful Dot Records.
There is much misinformation about old records, especially obscure records like "When Sin Stops" by the Nighthawks, and one website advertises Buddy Holly as the lead guitarist for our recording. I don’t know if this misinformation is a record collector attempting to increase the value of our obscure recording or simply honest confusion since we recorded Bob’s song during the same time and at the same studio where most of Holly’s and the Crickets’ recordings were produced.
Meanwhile, Buddy Holly had promised to produce a recording session at Petty’s studio with a Lubbock friend who was a disc jockey at KLLL radio station (K triple L). In September 1958, Holly brought New York sax man King Curtis to Clovis for the session. Originally a jazz saxophonist who recorded with Nat Adderley and Wynton Kelly, King Curtis was famous for his sax performances on hit recordings by the Coasters (“Charlie Brown,” “Yakety Yak’” and others) and on hit records by many other rock ‘n roll artists. Two songs were recorded at this session—“Jole Blon,” a well-known Cajun song and “When Sin Stops,” which may have spoken to Holly’s diminished interest in recording the song himself, although still enough interest to record it with his Lubbock friend. With the impending release of the Nighthawks’ recording on Hamilton Records, permission from the songwriter was no longer required for other recordings of the song to be released.
Holly played the recordings for Dick Jacobs, creative head of Decca Records in New York City where Holly was under contract as a recording artist. The great success of "That'll Be the Day" by the Crickets on Decca’s subsidiary, Brunswick Records, and “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly on their Coral Records label, had created enough political capital to ensure a recording contract for Holly’s Lubbock friend. In April 1959 “Jole Blon” and “When Sin Stops” were released by Brunswick in what would be the first ever record release for new recording artist and eventual country music icon Waylon Jennings. These two recordings by Waylon are included in the original Buddy Holly box set issued on vinyl.
The efforts of the Nighthawks to attain rock ‘n roll fame and attendant financial reward did not materialize. The final history was hometown radio airplay enough to generate sales of about 1,500 records and no royalties from Hamilton Records. Even though I received royalty payment from Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) in the amount of $13.54 for radio airplay of “All’a Your Love,” Bob received nothing for “When Sin Stops.” BMI had classified his song as “restricted,” meaning it was censured due to “suggestive lyrics” resulting in Bob’s loss of airplay royalties. Possibly this was BMI’s attempt to dissuade sexually suggestive lyric content but from 1958 until now BMI’s censure standards have undergone radical change. The most sexually suggestive lyric in Bob’s song is, “Umm honey that’s what I needed, oh mercy I begged and pleaded.” Restricted? Censured? Over time those ultra conservative social mores of 1958 would be swept away in the oncoming rock ‘n roll tsunami.
Waylon Jennings and I first met in either April or November 1967 at the Black Poodle, a club in a downtown Nashville area known as Printer’s Alley. I initially visited Nashville the previous year to play songs published by United Artists Music for Nashville record producers and while there I worked from the offices of U.A. Records headed by producer and musician Kelso Herston. After his departure from U.A. sometime in 1966 to head the Nashville operation of Capitol Records, he was replaced by Bob Montgomery, a successful songwriter and record producer who had begun his music career in Lubbock, Texas where he and high school friend Buddy Holly performed as the duo Buddy and Bob.
During one of my two 1967 trips I played songs for famous Nashville record producer Owen Bradley who recorded one written by Kenny Young with country artist Marion Worth. Although released as a single it generated no success. One evening Bob Montgomery invited me to join him and recording artist Bobby Goldsboro for a beer at the Black Poodle. Soon Waylon joined us but after a few minutes Bob and Bobby left to talk to some young ladies, leaving Waylon and me there at the bar. To break an uncomfortable silence I said, “Waylon, the two of us have something in common.”
“What’s that, hoss?”
“The first song you ever recorded and released as a record is the first song I ever recorded that was released as a record.”
Waylon thought a moment, then named a song—likely his first country release on RCA Records.
“No, that’s not it.”
He named another song—possibly the “B side” of his first RCA release, and again I replied in the negative.
With a puzzled look and a slight tilt of his head Waylon asked, “What song are you talking about, son?”
“When Sin Stops,” I proudly replied.
Without speaking a word, Waylon turned, walked away and disappeared somewhere in the crowd at the Black Poodle. I didn’t know what to make of his behavior. Did I say something wrong? Did he just not like me? Was he just a weird guy? To save myself any further consternation in this unfamiliar music business environment, I mention nothing of this to Montgomery or Goldsboro.
A few years later in about 1972 or 1973, as I entered Martoni’s, a famous Hollywood music business hangout and my favorite watering hole during those years, my friend and RCA Records pop radio promotion man Ray Anderson greeted me from one of the booths near the entrance. “Eddie, come have a drink and let me introduce you to someone.” This was not long after my 1971 success with “Don’t Change On Me” by Ray Charles, “Rings” by Cymarron, and “All I Ever Need Is You” by Sonny & Cher. Having lived in Hollywood for four years while working for United Artists Music publishing company along with my songwriting successes, I had become a known entity on the Hollywood music business scene and knew most of the music business crowd.
Ray introduced me to RCA country recording artist Waylon Jennings with a rave review of my recent songwriting success and then explained that he was taking Waylon to visit pop radio stations in an attempt to create crossover airplay of Waylon’s current country record. I looked directly at Waylon and said, “You and me have something in common.”
“What’s that, hoss?”
“The first song you ever recorded and released as a record is the same song I first recorded that was released as a record.” As he computed the information with wrinkled brow I quickly recounted our previous meeting at the Black Poodle in Nashville’s Printer’s Alley. Waylon laughed and explained that in 1967 his success as a country recording artist was so tenuous he felt it not in his best interest to be part of a discussion regarding what he considered an “awful recording,” even if produced by Buddy Holly. Waylon said, “When you mentioned that song all I could think was, ‘Get away from this guy.’” And he did. Waylon was a great sport and I respected his honesty. Lots of folks would have given some line of bull in such situation, but not Waylon. He was the real deal.
Twelve years later after I joined Warmer Bros. Records Nashville as General Manager, one of the first events that occurred was the filming of the Hank Williams, Jr. video of “All my Rowdy Friends are Coming Over Tonight.” The shoot location was a house with grand pool and exotic landscaping on Buffalo Road near the Nashville suburb of Bellevue. Several Warner Bros. employees were on scene to oversee the production and to mingle with Hank and his “rowdy friends,” including Waylon and Willie. En route to the food and drink area I saw Waylon walking toward me. “Waylon, I’m Eddie Reeves with Warner Bros. Thanks much for being here for Hank Jr.’s video.” He replied he was happy to participate and I countered, “Waylon, you and me have something in common.” “What’s that?” he asked. I replied with my well-worn line about the first song he ever recorded to which Waylon responded as he intently looked into my eyes, “Oh, you’re that guy.” We both laughed and spoke for a while and that was that.
I’ve told this story time and again over the years and one such telling was to my good friend, Jim Ed Norman, when he was head of the Nashville operation of Warner Bros. Records. In about 1996 and about 12 years after the Hank Jr. video shoot, Jim Ed and I were backstage at the Starwood Amphitheater in Nashville for a Travis Tritt concert when Waylon and his son Shooter entered the backstage area in a limo. With a sparkle in his eye Jim Ed said, “Eddie, you’ve got to do your thing with Waylon.” By then, Waylon had experienced serious health issues and had recently been hospitalized so I chose not to accept Jim Ed’s invitation to add one more chapter to the nearly 30-year-old saga.
Waylon introduced Shooter to Jim Ed and Jim Ed introduced me to Waylon, who showed no sign of remembering me. After all, it had been 12 years since our last encounter. We all talked for a while and then Waylon’s attention was diverted elsewhere. Jim Ed urged, “Eddie, you’ve got to do your Waylon thing.” Waylon’s attention soon returned to us and I did “my Waylon thang” to which his reaction was simply an underwhelming blank stare. That’s all—just a blank stare. And then he moved on to introduce Shooter to the other country music figures gathered backstage. Later as I thought about my four separate Waylon encounters over the years, I realized that the first and last ones had much in common—neither engendered a response from him. “When Sin Stops” played as minor a role as anything could have in Waylon’s eventful career, but a song that was best forgotten for fear of dampening the start of one career was the same song that helped ignite another.
I was sad about Waylon’s passing. After my communication with Joe Nick Patoski who placed my story about “When Sin Stops” and Waylon on his website, I received an email from Karen Conway who was doing publicity work for Waylon’s brother, Tommy Jennings. She had read my story online and said Tommy wanted to meet me. The three of us spent an afternoon at the Longhorn restaurant (now closed) near Music Row in Nashville, where we had fun trading music business stories and telling jokes. Although I can’t be certain, I think Tommy enjoyed my story about, “Waylon, you and me have something in common.” “What’s that hoss?”
When Sin Stops
Well my fever gets high about a hundred and four
Every time that you come through my door
You thrill me honey you fill me with desire
Don’t stop rollin’ those eyes
Don’t stop tellin’ those lies
It’s not right I know it’s a sin
When sin stops love begins.
Well I love you honey in the day and the night
I love when things are wrong or right
I love you honey I need you all the time
Your lips are so good for me
Your lips are all I see
It’s not right I know it’s a sin
When sin stops love begins.
Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop, yeah….
Well open the door and walk right in
Where we left off that’s where we begin
Umm honey that’s what I’ve been waiting for
Umm honey that’s what I needed
Oh mercy, I begged and pleaded
It’s not right I know it’s a sin
When sin stops love begins.
©1958 Nor Va Jak Music
127th & ST. NICHOLAS
Clay Willis and my dad were close friends and sometimes they’d take Clay’s son Bobby and me to the pro wrestling matches where we’d see Dory Funk, Frankie Hill Murdock, and a time or two the world champion Gorgeous George. Dory Funk was famous for his flying drop kick and Frankie Hill Murdock for his sleeper hold. Bobby and I spent time together from the fourth grade through high school where Bobby played football and was a Golden Gloves boxer. Together we protected our nation by serving in the Texas National Guard.
Toward the end of my senior year, friend Buck Ramsey invited me to ride the freight trains with him (and hobos) to New York City—a trip he and his friend Dwayne Tedford made the previous summer of 1957. Dwayne had remained in New York City and Buck returned but was ready for a repeat journey in the summer of ‘58. I readily agreed to participate in this great adventure to celebrate my high school graduation that May. My parents were understandably apoplectic regarding my wild plan to travel across America with Buck and the hobos, and in response they offered mom’s ‘55 orange and cream-colored Oldsmobile for safe transit to the big city. But Buck would have none of such a watered-down adventure, so at my parent’s insistent urging I enlisted friends Bobby Willis and Don Riley to share the adventure of driving to New York City just to see what the heck it was all about.
This was before the Interstate Highway System existed and in the poor state of Arkansas we drove on rough, narrow, two-lane highways. We’d drive for several miles straight east and then the highway would turn 90-degrees to the north and after another mile or more would turn 90-degrees back to the east—a highway most likely laid out along the section boundary lines of the land. This zigzag repeated over and over as we passed small sharecropper houses only about 12 feet in width and some known as “shotgun shacks,” because if a shotgun were fired through the front door everyone inside would be killed. Many of these shotgun shacks had television antennas on the roof and large, older-model American automobiles—Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, or sometimes a Cadillac—parked in front. It was slow going on these Arkansas roads en route to our first destination of Memphis, Tennessee, which was home to Sun Recording Studio where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded many of their great records. Don and Bobby had no interest in Sun Recording Studio but after receiving Elvis’ 78-rpm record of “Baby, Let’s Play House” in the fall of 1955, I bought many 45-rpm singles by Sun recording artists including Warren Smith and Billy Lee Riley. These were the records I strummed along to while learning to play rhythm guitar, so a pilgrimage to Sun Recording Studio was of the highest order.
Late in the morning of our second day when we pulled up in front of 706 Union Avenue I knew chances were slim a recording session would be in progress so early in the day. While Don and Bobby waited in the car I entered the studio to find no one present. I stood there in awe of that shrine and wondered if the piano was actually the one that Jerry Lee Lewis played on his recordings. After being mesmerized for a minute or two I called out, “Is anybody here?” But there was no reply. I thought it strange that this famous recording studio would be left completely unattended and vulnerable for any passerby to violate its sanctity. More loudly I repeated, “Is anybody here?” And this time a sound floated from a back room, “Just a minute.” Soon, what seemed to be an elderly, bald-headed man appeared.
“Can I help you with something?” queried a gentle, kind voice.
“I’m Eddie Reeves from Amarillo, Texas and I play in a rock ‘n roll band. I’ve bought a lot of Sun Records and wanted to see this place. What do you do at the studio?”
“I help some of the artists with their recordings and I’m also a recording artist.”
I thought, “This ol’ man doesn’t look like a recording artist.” “Who are you?”
“I’m Bill Justis.”
I was amazed. I had bought “Raunchy,” his 1957 instrumental hit, but would have never pictured Bill Justis, the recording artist, as a bald-headed old man in his 40s. He was polite in the extreme, showed no hint of superstar egotism, and confirmed that the studio piano was the one Jerry Lee Lewis played on his hit records. I stood silently, looking about not knowing what else to say. “Do you have any other questions?” Justis asked. Since I couldn’t think of one I replied, “No, I don’t. Thank you.” Exiting through the front door I thought, “Sun Studio is a much smaller place than I had imagined.”
I visited Sun Recording Studio only two other times—in 1990 and 2007. I was pleased to learn it was basically unchanged in both condition and arrangement. Later during my music business career in Hollywood I played golf a few times with Bill Justis and he was still the same nice man he’d been in 1958. No matter how poorly I hit a golf shot, he had something positive to say—“Well, you kept your head down that time,” or maybe, “nice slow back swing.” Bill was a talented musical arranger who contributed to many hit records and his hit, “Raunchy,” made history as the first rock ‘n roll instrumental hit record, reaching #2 on the Billboard Pop chart. Eventually I learned at the time of my 1958 visit to Sun Recording Studio at the age of 18, Bill Justis was only 31 years old, not the old man my youth-prejudiced mind had perceived.
Although I had plenty enthusiasm about visiting New York City, I thought it likely the high point of the trip for me had already occurred with my visit to Sun Recording Studio. How very wrong I would be.
During our first day in Manhattan we wandered around mid-town wearing cowboy boots with Don and Bobby also wearing cowboy hats. In reaction to what we thought was obnoxious behavior of “those damn Yankees,” we often countered with some Texas-style obnoxious behavior of our own. One afternoon we walked the four-plus miles from Wall Street to mid-town to familiarize ourselves with the massive concrete jungle that we found difficult to fathom, but not endearing. We visited the top of the Empire State Building, rode the subways, saw Central Park, and ate at the Horn & Hardart Automat—an automated cafeteria that we likened to a walk-in vending machine. We stayed at the Taft Hotel located just north of Times Square on 7th Avenue between West 50th and 51st Streets, which is now (in 2016) an historic building and part of the Executive Plaza consisting of The Michelangelo Hotel and a modern 440-unit condominium.
I had brought a sport coat for proper attire of a night out on the town—to hear some jazz, experience big city nightlife and possibly to meet a young lady. Bobby and Don were lukewarm about jazz and Birdland but on our last night in the big city I announced, “I’m going to Birdland with or without you guys.” They opted to watch television at the hotel and I headed for the famous jazz spot Buck Ramsey had raved about. Some of the seating at Birdland consisted of long, narrow tables extending uninterrupted across the room where club patrons sat facing the stage from only one side of the narrow tables. Shortly after seating me, the maître d’ led two young girls about my age to vacant seats next to mine, and as the music of jazz trumpeter J. J. Johnson filled the room I politely introduced myself. In response the girls quietly giggled and with inquisitive eyes peered out from under the coyish cover of heads cocked downward and slightly to one side.
Possibly these two young, seemingly naïve girls served as emotional neutrons striking a critical mass of emotional fuel stockpiled from a long chain of momentous personal events—high school graduation, cross-country adventure of young colts finally turned loose, Sun Recording Studio, Manhattan’s concrete jungle, looking out from atop the Empire State building, riding the subways, dining at the automat, Manhattan’s legal drinking age of 18, and landing at Birdland where the power of emotional fission floated me up out of my seat and above the crowd as though physical presence had evaporated. It was an otherworldly experience where happiness reigned and I was fully feeling my oats.
When J. J. Johnson finished his set I invited the girls to join me for a drink and explained we’d pick up my friend at the Taft Hotel. Their non-committal reply consisted of some prudish giggling, but no words spoken. After a few minutes I again extended my invitation, inducing only more giggling. “I’ll wait in front of the club a few minutes. Meet me outside if you wanna go.” After waiting about ten minutes I reluctantly took my first steps in the direction of the Taft just as the girls appeared. Much later I would appreciate the likely fact that of all the young people in Manhattan on that particular evening, these two young girls were the only ones who knew even less than I did about the ways of the big city.
At the Taft I led the girls through the lobby and up the stairway to the mezzanine level appointed with several comfortable chairs and sofas. “Wait here while I get my friend.” Neither Bobby nor Don wanted to go “out on the town” but at my urging they quietly made their way down the hallway for a sneak peek at the objects of my procurement. “Eddie, which one is our date?” but of course, I had reserved the most physically attractive for myself and the other one didn’t exactly pique the fancy of either friend. They drew high card with the proviso that the winner could stay behind and the loser head out for a night on the town with the girls and me. Bobby lost and Don laughed with glee as we departed.
We headed downstairs to the Taft Hotel bar, where for the first time in his young life Bobby consumed a beverage containing alcohol. Each of us had a Tom Collins after which the girls requested we escort them to their hotel, the Henry Hudson at 237 West 58th Street (now the Hudson Hotel)—built in 1928 by Anne Morgan, daughter of famous financier/banker J. P. Morgan, as a residence for young women in Manhattan and the clubhouse home of the American Women’s Association.
We grabbed a cab and while Bobby paid the fare the girls and I slowly made our way to the hotel entrance. As I called upon my most persuasive rhetoric in an attempt to convince the girls to invite us up to their hotel room, my plea was interrupted by loud yelling and profanity. “What do you mean, tip? I’m not giving you a tip,” yelled Bobby. The cab driver responded with obscenities and Bobby answered by tossing him a quarter, which the cabbie threw back at Bobby as he peeled away in a U-turn. Bobby didn’t know about tipping cab drivers and thought he was confronting yet more obnoxious Yankee, big-city manner.
Eventually the girls rejected our vigorous urging (and urges) and we parted company. I have wondered if the spirit of Anne Morgan and a few of her clubhouse patriots were watching over these two young ladies on this particular evening.
Even though Bobby and I were at minimum a stone’s throw less than sober, we decided to walk the eight blocks to the Taft while stopping at every bar along the way. After three or four bars providing a like number of drinks, we entered one on West 51st adjoining the Taft, where today a Ruth Chris Steakhouse is situated. Having just missed the 4:00 a.m. last call, we headed around the corner onto 7th Avenue with arms slung ‘round one another like two drunken sailors stumbling and bumbling along, when only a few steps from the hotel entrance a small black man passing by said something to us. We swung around and hollered at him as we verbally considered what price we’d extract had he insulted us.
“What’d you say?”
“White girls, black girls, Puerto Rican girls—just two subway stops.”
“Twenty dollars.” (Over $165 in 2016.)
“Follow me at a distance and if a cop asks why we’re talking tell him you’re asking for directions. It’s just two subway stops to the girls.”
We’d taken the subways enough to know there were local subways and express subways, so as we whizzed by the first local station or two we realized our trip would not be the short distance imagined. Exiting at 125th and St. Nicholas Streets in Harlem, we followed the small black man two blocks north to 127th and St. Nicholas, and then walked east on 127th Street to a four or five-story tenement building located on the north side of the street—a location I eventually learned was but two blocks north of the famous Apollo Theater on 125th Street. Our man crossed the street, quickly walked up the building’s front stairs, looked up and down the street, and then motioned us to join him.
Inside the tenement he announced, “I’ll go up and get the girls ready.” In a minute or so he returned, but without the jacket he’d been wearing and with his shirtsleeves rolled up—all good evidence that this was his place. He handed us two small, well-worn envelopes and the stub of a barely-functional, wooden pencil.
“Put all yo’ valuables in here—yo’ money, watches, billfolds—and write yo’ name on it.”
This idea didn’t sit well with us, so we took a few steps away to privately confer. “We’re not putting our stuff in the envelopes,” we announced.
“I can’t help ya if one ah the girls steals somethin’.” Again, we declined. “Well put ya tweny dollar in.” After handing him the envelopes containing our money he said, “I’ll go git da girls ready.” He quickly moved up the stairs, but this time I heard him continuing up more than one flight, followed by what sounded like a heavy door slamming shut.
“Bobby, he’s taken our money and gone out on the roof. He’s stolen our money.” Bobby would have none of my paranoia and insisted we wait for the girls.
After a few minutes Bobby more seriously entertained my assessment and we climbed the four or five flights of stairs to the top floor where a metal door led out onto the roof where a fire escape was affixed to the side of the building—an escape obviously having more utility than means to escape a fire. Still, Bobby refused to believe we’d been scammed and in his drunken incoherence thought the small black man, the girls and our money were in one of the many rooms of the shabby tenement. We launched a room-to-room, floor-by-floor search knocking on many doors in the dead quiet of the early morning (about 5:00 a.m.). Tenants hollered from behind locked doors as we continued our inebriated foray. On a lower floor we encountered two cleaning women with mops and buckets and complained that we’d been robbed and intended to search every room until the culprit was found. They just didn’t know what to make of us as their eyes grew wide with wonder and concern. Finally we exited the front door of the tenement where I grabbed the top of the wooden screen door and snapped it in half in a senseless, drunken act of vandalism.
Hard lesson learned and now streetwise, we felt impervious to big-city scams. But after walking west on 127th Street for only half a block we encountered a young black woman closely followed by a young Puerto Rican woman as they casually strolled from a building doorway across the street directly across our path. The young black woman questioned, “Are you sportin'?” We hadn’t heard that particular term in Amarillo and our lack of coherence that particular evening was of no help in deciphering the verb “sportin’”—even in such an extreme unsavory environment. While I spoke to the young black woman Bobby conversed with the other and soon he stepped toward me to convey, “She wants to get a room with me.” Suddenly a young black man appeared to negotiate on the women’s behalf and a price was soon agreed upon. Then, for the second time within the last hour, we entered yet another tenement building where we each rented a room. Sometimes young folks insist on learning life’s lessons in the most difficult manner possible, and in such conditions lessons not learned are in direct proportion to future pain assuredly suffered.
The room was small—no windows, no bathroom. Two pieces of furniture, a bed and small dresser, left barely room enough to enter the dimly lit, claustrophobic space. Extreme inebriation prevented successful engagement in the proposition at hand and during my bungling the pimp repeatedly knocked on the door. After ten minutes or so the young woman departed and the pimp entered the room. In what seemed a slow-motion movie scene he very deliberately closed the door by slowly leaning back against it, so as not to lose visual contact for even a moment with his intended prey. It was a way-cool move right out of a gangsta movie.
“I'm gonna haf’ ta charge ya’ fo’ too many times."
“Hell, I didn’t do it once.”
“Well then, I’m gonna haf’ ta charge ya’ fo’ ova-time.”
“I’m not paying any overtime.”
“Gimme yo’ bill-fo’.”
I opened my billfold and opined, “Look, there’s no money in it.”
He grabbed the billfold, turned it inside out, and found three $20 bills hidden away. A drunken illusion shot through my brain—an illusion that had me quickly withdrawing the long, black comb from the inner pocket of my sport coat hoping the pimp would believe I had a knife. It was an incredibly insane idea, but no more insane than other events of that evening. With madness having vanquished any dwindling semblance of reason, I quickly took the comb from my pocket, positioned it just behind my right thigh, and demanded, “Give me my money.” I clumsily fumbled the comb, and even if I hadn’t the pimp would clearly have seen it was a comb, not a knife. He then reached into his shoe or sock and pulled out a real knife—a switchblade. He popped it open and said, “You a real player ain’t ja’? Now lay down on da flo’ an’ count to a hun’erd befo’ comin’ outta da room. Don’t come out ‘til ya’ count a hun’erd. I don’ wanna hurt ja’ but if I hafta, I will. That’s my job.”
I waited a few seconds before running down the hall where over a second-floor railing I saw Bobby in the lobby below. “Bobby, the guy robbed me.” The pimp and women had just exited the front door and Bobby gave chase. By the time I reach the lobby, Bobby had returned. “They left in a cab but I got the license plate number.” Not exactly a Sherlock Holmes move, but it could well have been if ever Sherlock were as intoxicated as we were during our big-city folly. And this eventful evening was the first time in Bobby’s young life he had ever experienced the consumption of alcohol—a most spectacular initiation into the annals of foolish, drunken behavior. If only I could conjure up some reason that so simply and clearly explains my own behavior, but as of this writing I have found none.
After leaving our second tenement building of the evening, we saw a cop.
“I was robbed.”
”What are ya’ two white boys doin’ up here ‘n Harlem? People git cut up or killed ‘round here at night jis ‘cause they don’ like how ya’ look. How much’d he git?
“Sixty dollars.” ($500 in 2016)
“Sixty dollars? He had ‘im a priddy good night? All I can do is take ya’ to the station an’ make a re-port. If ya’ got a police re-port ya’ can de-duct it from ya’ taxes.”
I thought, “Oh yeah, that's just what I need. ‘Dad, be sure to take a $60 tax deduction for that pimp robbing me up in the Harlem.’”
Don Riley laughed all the way back to Amarillo about our night out on the big city—especially about stopping in Norman, Oklahoma for Bobby to get a shot for a particular problem that emerged. But Don is still laughing about the final chapter of this saga. Shortly after our return home I began my freshman year at the University of Texas where I joined the Delta Tau Delta fraternity. I lived in the frat house at 2801 San Jacinto during the spring semester where I received a letter (still in my possession) simply addressed to “Mr. Edward Reeves, University of Texas, Austin, Texas” and postmarked “Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, 4:30 p.m., April 9, 1959.” A line was drawn through “University of Texas” and at the bottom of the envelope “2801 San Jacinto” had been written in red ink—possibly the good deed of a conscientious postal worker determined the letter would reach its addressee. Here’s an exact transcription of this letter, which was handwritten in blue ink.
115 Highland Road W.
April 7, 1959
This will undoubtedly come as a great surprise to you. But being I correspond with penpals from different parts of the world I thought it would be pleasing “if possible” you could write to me.
Maybe I should mention that I’m Shirley whom you met in New York last summer. I didn’t know your correct address so if you don’t get this letter write back and tell me.
Feeling I don’t know you to well I remain
Say what? “…if you don't get this letter write back and tell me.”
Shirley, don't worry. I got it. Okay?
Bob, Don and I followed the Holland Tunnel out of New York City into New Jersey where looking back in wonder at the fierce skyline I felt something I did not clearly understand —something surreal. Maybe like the moment in 1924 when Edwin Powell Hubble discovered individual stars in the Andromeda nebula, proving the fuzzy patch in the sky was in reality a galaxy similar to our own Milky Way. Had my discovery of the New York City galaxy forever changed my own reality? Had the deciding all been done? Had fate bound me to some thing not yet discernible by the young, green kid gawking back one last time at the city skyline? Had adventure yielded just enough kindling to keep the wonder smoldering until fuel enough for fire had been gathered? If at the age of 18 the world was my oyster, then New York City was the pearl—and rock ‘n roll music sparkled like a diamond.