“I could hardly see across the street. Men had their hats over their faces. Women had their scarves over their mouths with one hand and held down their skirts with another. The dust was like a curtain. It was the middle of the afternoon, and Amarillo was almost dark. Everything was leaning – stoplights, elm trees, my momma and daddy. I was between them at a downtown Pontiac dealership.
“There was a curious crowd gathered around a flatbed trailer. They were listening to a salesman trying to make himself heard over the wind that was popping in a chrome microphone. I remember being fascinated with that strange crackling sound that was coming out of a bent speaker that was propped up between some concrete blocks.
“There was also this wild man pounding the dogshit out of this flimsy piano in a raging dust storm. The wind kept blowing over his mike stand, and I kept wondering if his piano was going to turn to splinters and blow on over to Oklahoma. It terrified me to no end, and I edged around back of my daddy. And this wild man kept pounding, hair in his face, with the wind howling around brand-new dusty automobiles.
“It was more than terrifying; it gave me a direction to follow.” –
—Joe Ely on seeing Jerry Lee Lewis
The past and the present, I’ve always thought, are very deeply intertwined. History is what happens when one of them gets a little ahead of the other. This is probably why inspiration is often borrowed in the strangest ways from other places and other times.
Before they were moptops, the Beatles cut their hair like Tony Curtis and took their name from the Lubbock, Texas, band the Crickets. One of the Beatle’s earliest, funkiest, most primitive-sounding demos reportedly was a cover of “That’ll Be the Day,” which was never released and remained “lost” over the years like a pearl in the snow. Recently, the original demo was sold at Sotheby’s to an unknown buyer for a price supposedly in the neighborhood of $40,000. Possibly a Japanese insurance company or someone with the soul of a Japanese insurance company.
The demo itself may no longer be important, but its reason for existing in the first place tells us something vital about the deep, gnarly, long-reaching roots of rock & roll. And it tells us something about the spirit of a time and a place far away. The song was written by a young Buddy Holly immediately after seeing a John Wayne movie. They say Texas is a state of mind, and maybe it is. The Texas tradition of music is so deep and multilayered it would require seven archaeologists with seven brooms seven years just to clear away the dust. When they got to the bottom, after digging through village upon village, they’d probably find king of Western swing Bob Wills’s cigar lying next to blues legend Mance Lipscomb’s guitar.
Being the oldest living Jew in Texas who doesn’t own any real estate, I recall growing up in the early Fifties as a bastard child of twin cultures. The only thing I could see that Jewboys and cowboys seemed to have in common was that they both wore their hats indoors and attached a certain amount of importance to it. Later I observed other similarities as the two ways of life melded into my own. The songs of both groups, it seemed, were invariably heartfelt, and the music was always of the traveling variety. I realized that cowboys and Jewboys were both wandering —– very possibly vanishing – gypsies of the soul, and whether you light campfires or candles as you walk the tortuous trail of this world, nobody really gives a damn whether you make it to the last roundup.
The influence of music on Texas and the music of Texas on the world, be it black, rock & roll or country, is enormous. Not only did Buddy Holly influence the Beatles and T-Bone Walker influence the Rolling Stones, but Texas’s early singing cowboys reached higher into the firmament than they might’ve known. A girl named Anne Frank, with just a fountain pen, touched the conscience of more people than did the entire propaganda machinery of Hitler’s Third Reich. After the war, local authorities checked the secret annex in which she and her family had lived. In Anne’s little corner of the annex, pictures of American cowboy stars were still fluttering on the walls where she’d left them.
Musically and culturally speaking, the Fifties in Texas were in many ways as insulated as Anne Frank’s world. When the decade was dawning, even Willie Nelson, who would become a symbol of Texas and much of its musical legacy by the Seventies, couldn’t find anyone willing to give him a tumble.
“In 1950, I was seventeen years old, fresh out of high school,” Nelson says. “A quick, miserable eight months in the U.S. Air Force and then back to Texas to restart my music career. On the way through the Fifties in Texas, I sold cars and books in Fort Worth, where I was fired as a singer in a North Side bar because I wasn’t commercial. I guess you could say the Fifties in Texas were noncommercial for me.”
But eventually Texas did become a financial pleasure for Nelson, and because of Texas, the rest of the world became one, too. Maybe it’s because Texas provided physical and spiritual elbowroom. Texas’s size and fierce independence of spirit often seem to produce an achingly vibrant expanse of time and geography, out of which it is sometimes possible to dream a little bigger. This is not only true for Willie Nelson; it is the only way the Buddy Hollys of this planet are born.
Buddy Holly grew up in the Panhandle of Texas in a simpler time. Cadillacs were getting longer, tail fins were getting higher, dreams were getting as close as they ever do to coming true. It was an era of boom and innocence. As Kent Perkins, an old friend of mine, observed: “Man had not discovered the moon, but he had discovered the moon pie.” And nobody remembered where they were the day Kennedy was shot.
Buddy Holly was a child of his times. Sonny Curtis, a member of the Crickets (and possibly the only American to have his songs recorded by both Bing Crosby and the Dead Kennedys), remembers that Holly had a wide appreciation of the musical forms, from bluegrass to early blues stylings by blacks. Curtis first met Holly in Lubbock, Texas, in 1951 and has vivid memories of staying up half the night in Buddy’s car, listening to Stan’s Record Rack, a blues program out of Shreveport, Louisiana. Holly’s love of early black music is obvious. He recorded “Rip It Up,” by Little Richard, and “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” by Chuck Berry, and often sang Ray Charles’s songs, including “I Got a Woman” and “This Little Girl of Mine.”
In 1956, Curtis went to Lubbock’s Cotton Club to see the blues piano player Charles Brown and remembers being “the only white face in the place.” Ironically enough, in early 1957, when Buddy Holly and the Crickets played the Apollo Theater, in Harlem, they were the only white group on the program because of a mix-up by the promoter, who thought they were black. The crowd didn’t mind, however. They loved them.
Holly’s harmonies also show a clear bluegrass influence. According to Curtis, Holly once tried unsuccessfully to copy Earl Scruggs’s stylings with just a flat pick and a four-string banjo. But two things happened in 1955 that turned Holly’s head around: One was meeting Bob Wills at the Clover Club, in Amarillo; the other was when Elvis Presley came through Lubbock.
Curtis remembers that Elvis wore red pants, an orange jacket and white bucks, and Holly and Curtis – both around seventeen at the time – thought that was about the coolest thing they’d ever seen. The two of them had opened the January 2nd, 1955, show, so they had backstage privileges, which included talking to Elvis and “getting right up in his face.” Elvis had recorded “That’s All Right (Mama)” on Sun Records, and Holly was already a big fan. Curtis also recalls that cotton bales were set up all around the stage and police were posted to keep women from attacking Elvis. Presley got paid seventy-five dollars for the show, which he split with Bill Black, his bass player, and Scotty Moore, his guitar player. The day after the show, according to Curtis, he and Holly started “playing Elvis full tilt.”
Holly was into leather work at the time, and Curtis remembers Buddy making a beautiful wallet trimmed in pink and black with Elvis in pink letters. A year and a half later, driving through Memphis on the way to Nashville, Holly dropped the wallet off for Elvis at Sun Records. By then, of course, Elvis wasn’t using wallets. He was using wheelbarrows. Sonny Curtis’s recollections effectively evoke the pure rock & roll innocence and exuberance of the times. “We used to rehearse in Holly’s garage because they had an old empty butane tank in there, and we’d get a great echo from it,” Curtis says of Holly’s first band in high school. “We were so excited. It was almost like something was looming in the future.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Larry McMurtry remembers the fifties in Texas as “a dying twinge of depression.”gray, dust blown, intolerant.” Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel recalls that Texas was “heaven, although hotter than hell the summer of ’58 to an eight-year-old Yankee who loved Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter and all singing cowboys.” Larry King, the playwright who wrote The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, remembers the times as being “superreactionary, segregationist and mean.” I remember taking jitterbug lessons in Houston, Texas, from a girl named Susan Kaufman.
Maybe all of us were right. But one thing is for sure: At the beginning of the decade, the black music and the white music were almost as completely separate as the segregated communities from which they came. With time, radio, the borrowing of inspiration, stylings and good looks and the help of undaunted early musical pioneers, the cultures grew together in the dusty laboratory of life into a wild, highly contagious new strain of music called rock & roll.
Huey P. Meaux, the legendary Houston record producer, saw no reason for the separation. He remembers blacks and whites crossing the tracks, picking cotton together, singing together in the fields, then going home their separate ways. He recalls sitting in the swamps as a child, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, listening to black people playing blues. That was as close as the times would let him get.
“Blues and country are the same thing,” says Meaux, “just the moods are different. It all comes from life experiences.” The early bluesmen were real, he believes; they bucked the system, they “could care less if the Russians invaded today or tomorrow.” This attitude was later adopted by the rockers of the Sixties, who widened the scope a bit: They didn’t care if the Martians invaded today or tomorrow.
Along with Alan Freed and Phil Spector, Meaux experimented with what was at the time labeled “mix-breeding music.” All three suffered for it, Meaux contends, but he adds that they eventually “broke a hole through the clouds.” It didn’t make much sense that Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Little Richard played mostly to white people and that T-Bone Walker, Percy Mayfield, Charles Brown and Big Mama Thorton played mostly for blacks. Why not widen the audience as much as possible?
The Big Bopper, J.P. Richardson, was the first disc jockey in Texas to play a mixed-format show that was so hot that nobody could touch his ratings with a barge pole. “The blue-chip white cats hated it,” Meaux says of the show on Beaumont’s KTRM and the changes it helped produce, “but black and white kids were going to the sock hops together.”
Meaux remembers the Big Bopper, who recorded for Mercury, getting ready for a session. They were all convinced that “The Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor” was going to be big hit, but the record needed a backside; forty-eight hours before the session, Richardson wrote “Chantilly Lace.” It was one of the first major commercial successes of black vocal stylings performed by a white artist.
Blacks were also beginning to embrace a different kind of music. Just a week before Buddy Holly first saw Elvis Presley, R&B crooner Johnny Ace lost his last game of Russian roulette. It happened backstage on Christmas Day at Houston’s Civic Auditorium, where the singer was appearing. Ace’s death remains a rather mysterious one, and many say that he was murdered. The twenty-five-year-old Ace had a huge hit song at the time, “Pledging My Love.”
According to Meaux, “Johnny Ace was the first black guy I know of, way before Ray Charles, who could country-tainted songs —– blues and country together. He cried a song, and it was a feeling you couldn’t forget. He had teardrops in his voice.”
The cross-pollination wasn’t limited to Texas: Imagine a line stretching from San Antonio to Baton Rouge to Macon, Georgia. Below that line is an area that has consistently turned out artists who appeal to both black and white listeners. The reason, Meaux says, is that every fifty to a hundred miles was a little enclave of Czechs, Bohemians, Poles, Mexicans or Cajuns who played Polish polkas, Mexican polkas, Cajun two-steps, boleros, waltzes, conjunton and many other unique musical forms.
“In those days,” says Meaux, “you had to learn to play different towns with different nationalities and musical stylings.” Singer and accordionist Clifton Chenier, whom Meaux produced, helped effect a special kind of musical hybrid, combining black and Cajun-style music to create what is now zydeco.
Black music and the blues have had so much influence upon the world that if you look at the whole cloth of today’s music, the black threads almost seem to hold the tapestry together. Those black threads go all the way back to the old bluesmen.
Some lacked education and couldn’t write down the lyrics, some often forgot them, and some probably liked to give the guys who were following them around with tape recorders a hard time. But one fact Huey P. Meaux knows for sure: “Old blues cats never sang the same song the same way twice.”
Back in the Fifties, the hard-shell Southern Baptists used to pull down their window shades when they were hosing, so nobody’d think they were dancing. We had religion in Texas in those days, but as far as I can remember, nobody was born again. Most of us figured it’d been tedious enough the first time around. The only thing wrong with Southern Baptists, I’ve always said, is that they didn’t hold them under long enough.
But there are many ways of “seeing the light” in this world, and one of them has always been through country music. Hank Williams’s death, on January 1st, 1953, struck a muted, lingering chord across the South. Williams was only twenty-nine when he died: younger than Jesus and Mozart. He wasn’t born in Texas, but his music will always live there. Maybe there’s something in the dreams and the distance of Texas that has helped Williams’s music carry across the years. His last hit became a cultural anthem for the people on the lost highway of the Fifties. It was “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”
There were other voices of the times, though, other stars in the Texas sky –— Bob Wills and Texas Playboys, Ernest Tubb, Hank Thompson and Charlie Walker, to name a few. In 1958, Walker, a boyhood hero of mine, had the big country hit “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down.”
“In the early Fifties,” Walker told me, “I had a country-music club, the Old Barn, in San Antonio. Hank Williams played for me there on his last birthday, September 17th, 1952. He had the Number One song in the country, ‘Jambalaya,’ and was paid $500.”
The roots of some of today’s most enduring country musicians in Texas easily reach back into the Fifties and further. Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Joe Shaver seem to have an almost karmic linkage with the storytelling singing cowboy. Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel have made new generations aware of the great tradition of the Western swing bands that once dominated the Southwestern musical landscape. Keyboardist Augie Meyer, who played with Doug Sahm, derived his style from Spanish country music, which features the accordion and the vajo sexto, a Spanish guitar fitted with twelve piano strings.
These distinctive styles nevertheless fall under the heading of country, and the country-music boom in the Fifties enriched them all. If country music truly stems from life experiences, then the fifties were vividly real, undecaffeinated times. The Fifties in Texas may not have been the Paris of the Twenties, but how many different kinds of sauces can you put on a chicken-fried steak?
In the end, all that seems to survive is the music. Where it originated, what its influences were, how it was passed along, we can’t always know for sure. But we do know that before the Beatles started listening to the Crickets, and before Huey P. Meaux and a few other brave souls began messing with the music and the minds of so many different kinds of people, still-earlier instances of “mix breeding” had occurred.
One such incident took place around 1935 and involved a twelve-year-old boy who would go further than he dreamed and a man named Tee-tot. Tee-tot was a black blues singer who literally sang for his supper, and on the streets of Greenville, Alabama, he taught Hank Williams how to play the guitar.
If Williams’s death brought the Fifties in with a dull, gray morning, Buddy Holly’s plane cresh over Clear Lake, Iowa, on February 3rd, 1959, was the other spiritual bookend to the decade. What Buddy Holly, Hank Williams, Johnny Ace or, for that matter, Mozart and Jesus might’ve become had they lived is something about which we can only speculate. As Will Rogers once remarked: “Longevity has ruined as many men as it’s made.”
Some things change, and some things remain the same, and some you always seem to miss the first time around so you’re never sure what happened to them. “Hell, in the Forties we were still riding horses to school,” says Larry King, “but by the Sixties we’d be riding, stoned, in new cars on new freeways.” The Don’t Spit on the Floor sign that graced the wall inside the Medina, Texas, post office disappeared sometime in the late Fifties. There are still occasional We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to Anyone signs in little out-of-the-way greasy spoons around Texas, but they hang rather forlornly and mostly just gather cobwebs these days. And the oldest Methodist church in Kerrville has had the cross lopped off the top of it and an aluminum drive-through window installed and is presently a savings and loan, Now that’s progress.
You’ll be pleased to know, however, that according to the Kerrville Bus Company’s posted regulations, it is still prohibited to transport bull semen by bus.