My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Category Archives: Fellow Travelers

Fellow Travelers: Louis Jordan

Louis JordanThis is the seventh in a series of short articles about artists who, although not country artists, were of some importance to country music.

WHO WAS HE ?
Louis Jordan was the very successful purveyor of the variety of rhythm and blues usually referred to as “jump blues”, the essential link between big band swing and rock and roll. Jordan was enormously successful during the 1930s and 1940s with several singles that were million sellers. He had eighteen #1 records on Billboard’s R&B/Race charts with another fifteen that reached the top three and several more that stalled out at number four or five. Billboard has Jordan as the fifth most successful R&B chart artist of the twentieth century. Billboard didn’t start its R&B charts until October 1942 and Louis had several big records before that date. His records spent a total of 113 weeks at #1 on Billboard’s R&B charts – Stevie Wonder is second with 70 weeks at #1. From July 1946 – May 1947, Jordan scored five consecutive #1 songs, monopolizing the top slot for 44 consecutive weeks (“Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” held the top slot for eighteen weeks).

On the pop charts Louis Jordan reached the top ten on nine occasions with “G.I. Jive” reaching #1 and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” reaching #2. Many of his songs were used in movies and Jordan made numerous “soundies”, the precursor to modern-day music videos.

Chuck Berry regarded Louis Jordan as one of his primary influences, and if you were to change the instrumentation on many of his records replacing Jordan’s alto sax with an electric guitar, you would have rock and roll music. B.B King recorded a tribute album to Louis Jordan. English “New Wave” artist Joe Jackson’s 1981 album Jumpin’ Jive was dedicated to Louis Jordan and was an early harbinger of the ‘Swing Revival’ that occurred about fifteen years later. It also revived interest in Jordan leading to the successful Broadway (US) / West End (UK) musical Five Guys Named Moe that ran during the early 1990s and was based entirely on the music of Louis Jordan.

WHAT WAS HIS CONNECTION TO COUNTRY MUSIC?
Louis Jordan only charted three times on the country charts with “Ration Blues” and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” both reaching #1.

Louis Jordan had considerable influence on latter day western swing bands, although even pioneering western swing artists such as Bob Wills borrowed some of his material. You can clearly hear the influence of Louis Jordan in the recordings of Asleep At The Wheel, whose debut single “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” was a cover of Jordan’s biggest R&B hit. They’ve recorded other Jordan songs such as “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” in their albums and continue to perform them in their live shows. Other more jazz-oriented country bands also carry his songs in their repertoire. Jordan wrote much of his own material, but songs credited to Fleecie Moore (one of his wives) are also Louis Jordan compositions.

Louis Jordan died long before the digital age, but much of his recorded output is available. There is a fansite dedicated to keeping his memory alive.

Fellow Travelers: Gordon Lightfoot (1938-)

gordon lightfootThis is the sixth in a series of short articles about artists who, although not country artists, were of some importance to country music.

WHO WAS HE?

Gordon Lightfoot arguably is Canada’s most successful folk performer with a long string of pop successes in the United States and Canada and some hits in Australia and the UK as well. Gordon had many hits in Canada before breaking through as a singer in the US, but many of his compositions were made hits by American artists including songs such as “Ribbon of Darkness” (Marty Robbins) and “Early Morning Rain” (Peter, Paul & Mary, George Hamilton IV) . Among the other artists who have recorded Lightfoot’s songs are Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr., The Kingston Trio, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis, Viola Wills, Richie Havens, The Dandy Warhols, Harry Belafonte, Tony Rice, Sandy Denny (with Fotheringay), The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Scott Walker, Sarah McLachlan, John Mellencamp, Toby Keith, Glen Campbell, Anne Murray, The Irish Rovers and Olivia Newton-John.

As a singer, Gordon’s most successful records were “Sundown”, “If You Could Read My Mind” and “The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald”, the first two reaching #1 in the US and Canada and the latter (a Canadian #1) reaching #2 in the US despite its six-minute length.

WHAT WAS HIS CONNECTION TO COUNTRY MUSIC?

Although Gordon Lightfoot charted eight times on Billboard’s Country charts, only “Sundown” cracked the top fifteen. His real importance to country music is in the huge number of country artists who recorded his songs. George Hamiliton IV recorded many of his songs on various albums scoring hits with “Steel Rail Blues” and “Early Morning Rain”. As noted above, Marty Robbins scored a #1 hit with “Ribbon of Darkness, a song also recorded by Connie Smith, Jack Greene and countless others. Glen Campbell had a hit with “Wherefore and Why”. Legendary bluegrass artists Mac Wiseman and Tony Rice each recorded entire albums of nothing but Gordon Lightfoot songs. Country albums of the late 1960s and the 1970s frequently included a Gordon Lightfoot song.

Gordon doesn’t seem to have an official website but there is a fan site. The site is a bit disjointed but contains much information about Lightfoot, including tour dates.

Fellow Travelers: Gene Pitney (1941-2006)

gene pitneyThis is the fifth in a series of short articles about artists who, although not country artists, were of some importance to country music.

WHO WAS HE? : Gene Pitney was a successful singer-songwriter whose peak American success occurred during the 1960s. As a songwriter, Pitney supplied hits to a number of prominent artists including “He’s a Rebel” (The Crystals) “Today’s Teardrops” (Roy Orbison), “Rubber Ball” (Bobby Vee) and “Hello Mary Lou” (Ricky Nelson).

As a singer, Gene was a very dramatic balladeer, whose powerful voice bought the songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David to prominence with such hits as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”, “Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa” and “Only Love Can Break A Heart”. “Only Love Can Break A Heart” was Gene’s biggest US pop hit, reaching #2, kept from the top, ironically enough by the Crystals’ recording of “He’s A Rebel”. All told Gene charted twenty-four tunes in the US Hot 100 with four songs reaching the top ten.

Although Gene had considerable success in the USA, he was even more successful in the UK with eleven songs reaching the top ten including his 1963 recording of “That Girl Belongs To Yesterday”, the first ever hit for the songwriting duo of Mick Jagger & Keith Richards, and a #1 duet with Marc Almond in 1989 of “Something’s Got A Hold of My Heart”. Gene died of an apparent heart attack in 2006 while on a successful tour of Great Britain.

WHAT WAS HIS CONNECTION TO COUNTRY MUSIC? : Gene listed Moon Mullican among his early influences. Although he was raised in Connecticut, he recalled listening to the WWVA Big Jamboree on some Saturday nights.

Gene was the flagship artist for Art Talmadge’s Musicor label, which had only two consistently bankable artists in Gene Pitney and (after 1965) George Jones. Both artists were grossly over-recorded, often releasing five or more albums per year. Somewhere along the line, someone had the bright idea to record George and Gene together, releasing the records under the name ‘George & Gene’. This duo charted four songs on the country charts, the biggest being a #16 charting remake of the old Faron Young hit “I’ve Got Five Dollars and It’s Saturday Night” (it also reached the Billboard Hot 100). George Jones and Gene Pitney would record a total of seventeen songs together; however, all of their work together was in the recording studio as they never appeared in concert together.

Gene would also have another duet country chart hit, this time with another Musicor label mate, Melba Montgomery, on “Baby Ain’t That Fine”. Gene and Melba recorded several songs together.

Although Gene’s success on the country charts was limited, several of his pop classics were covered by country artists with success. Sonny James took “Only Love Can Break A Heart” to #1 Cashhbox/#2 Billboard in 1972 and in 1979 Kenny Dale took it to #7. Randy Barlow took “Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa” to the top twenty in 1977 and several other artists had some lower places with covers of Gene’s hits, plus his songs show up as album tracks on country albums throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

There is an official website where you can find out more about Pitney and listen to samples of his music. If you’ve never heard Gene Pitney, you’re in for a treat. He’s not really comparable in style to anyone I can think of, maybe somewhere between Jackie Wilson and Roy Orbison, but unique and distinctive.

Fellow Travelers: Dean Martin

deanmartinThis is the fourth in a series of short articles about artists who, although not country artists, were of some importance to country music.

WHO WAS HE?
If Michael Jackson was the King of Pop (which I doubt) then Dean Martin was the King of Cool, a suave urbane singer and actor, one of the two leaders (Frank Sinatra was the other) of the “Rat Pack” . Born in Steubenville, Ohio in 1917 as Dino Crocetti, Dean Martin was about as famous as is humanly possible.

Dean’s career in show business was delayed by a stint in the US Army during WW2. After being released from the US Army (he was drafted in 1944), Dean became a lounge singer on the east coast. At some point he met up with Jerry Lewis and the pair became a duo singing (mostly Dean) and comedy (mostly Jerry) for sellout crowds across the nation. The Martin-Lewis duo also made several successful motion pictures. During this period Dean had a number of hit records as a solo performer including “That’s Amore” (#2 – 1953) and “Memories Are Made of This (#1 – 1955)

Going solo in 1956, Dean recorded a number of successful records. Although rock and roll had largely wiped out the market for classic pop, Martin persevered. “Volare” went to #12 in 1958; then after a dry spell, Dean signed with his pal Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label in 1961. A few singles had minor success; then someone had the notion to recast a song on the acoustic Dream With Dean album using a big band arrangement. To the surprise of everyone, “Everybody Loves Somebody“ nudged The Beatles out of the #1 slot on August 15, 1964. The song stayed at #1 for one week on the pop chart and eight weeks on the adult contemporary chart. While Dean never again had another #1 pop hit, his songs continued to chart on the pop charts and five more reached #1 on the adult contemporary charts (“The Door Is Still Open To My Heart”, “You’re Nobody Til Somebody Loves You”, “In The Chapel In The Moonlight” and “In The Misty Moonlight”). Another fifteen songs reached the top ten on the adult contemporary charts after 1964, including his 1969 recording of “Gentle On My Mind” which reached #2 on the British pop charts and stayed in the top ten there for many weeks.

In 1965 NBC TV launched The Dean Martin Show, a musical variety show which ran for nine seasons and 264 episodes. Although the genre was already largely dead, Dean’s show was in the top twenty-five shows for five of its nine seasons and in the top ten for two of those seasons. After this show was off the air, NBC ran occasional celebrity roasts under the title The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast for another ten years, approximately three times per year.

Dean also had great success in motion pictures appearing in a number of successful westerns and starring in the Matt Helms series of spy movie spoofs.

WHAT WAS HIS CONNECTION TO COUNTRY MUSIC?
Although Dean only had one recording chart on Billboard’s country charts, a 1983 recording of “My First Country Song” which was written by Conway Twitty and featured a guest vocal by Twitty on the last chorus, Dean Martin recorded many country songs, introducing them to audiences which would otherwise been unaware of them. Reprise albums such as Dean “Tex” Martin: Country Style, and Dean “Tex” Martin Rides Again were at least 50% country songs, and most subsequent albums prominently featured country songs, with six straight albums being named for a country song contained within the album. Many of Dean’s recordings were covered by country singers, Charlie Walker enjoying a big hit with “Little Ole Wine Drinker Me”.

Dean’s son Dino (of Dino, Desi & Billy fame) died in a plane crash in 1987, completely killing off Dean’s interest in performing, and life in general. Dean died in 1995. All of his Capitol and Reprise recordings have been in print at some time during the last fifteen years. Nearly eighteen years after his death, he is still the King of Cool.

There is an official website but for more than anybody would likely ever want to know about Dean check out ilovedinomartin.

Fellow Travelers: Anne Murray

annemurrayThis is the third in a series of short articles about artists who, although not country artists, were of some importance to country music.

WHO IS SHE?
Anne Murray was born in 1945 in Springhill, Nova Scotia, Canada. She and Hank Snow are the two Nova Scotians to have had the most impact on the country music charts, although Hank was unabashed country and Anne was a folk/middle of the road singer, whose thick contralto and unaffected single style found great favor with American country audiences. She started out as a folk performer on the Canadian television show Singalong Jubilee. Her initial recorded hits were on the Canadian adult contemporary charts. In 1970 Capitol Records issued her first US single “Snowbird” which went #1 on the US adult contemporary charts and #8 on the pop charts. Along the way country audiences discovered the song and it started getting airplay on country radio reaching #10 (Cashbox had it reach #1 on their country chart). Subsequent singles were marketed to country and pop audiences by Capitol. Some songs, such as “You Needed Me” and “Danny’s Song” charted higher on the pop charts than the country charts. Trying to maximize Anne’s chart activity, Capitol went so far as to issue singles with two A sides, one side being marketed pop/adult contemporary and the other side marketed country, the two most notable examples being “He Thinks I Still Care (#1 country) backed with “You Won’t See Me (#8 pop) and “Son of A Rotten Gambler” (#3 country) backed with “Just One Look” (#50 adult contemporary/#86 pop). Anne also had a number of songs that did not chart country but charted pop and/or adult contemporary. Anne fell off the US country charts after 1991, although she continued to chart on the Canadian country and adult contemporary charts.

WHAT WAS HER CONNECTION TO COUNTRY MUSIC?
Anne Murray was on the country top forty forty-one times placing her second to Hank Snow among Canadian-born artists. She had ten Billboard #1 country songs. While few of these songs were very country or featured steel guitar or fiddle, there were many story songs (“Cotton Jenny”) among them and those songs fit comfortably within the loose definition of country during the period 1970-1984.

After 1984, the chart hits on any of the charts became fewer and smaller although country radio remained fairly loyal to her.

WHAT NOW?
In 1993 Anne released Croonin’, an album of pop standards from artists such as Patti Page, Peggy Lee, and other pop standard acts of the 1940s and 1950s. This was to remain her general direction for future albums, although not quite as decidedly retro as Croonin’. Anne largely retired from performing about five years ago, although she remains busy with various charitable commitments.

You can check Anne’s official website for charitable events and merchandise – she has recorded little in recent years, and those recordings have either been religious, Christmas or adult contemporary/pop standard albums.

While I don’t consider Anne Murray to be country, she was the most successful artist to ever cross over and receive country airplay from the adult contemporary/easy listening side of the business. She was a great singer, regardless of genre.

Country music’s fellow travelers: B. J. Thomas

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This is the second in a series of short articles about artists who, although not country artists, were of some importance to country music

WHO IS HE ?

Billy Joe (B.J.) Thomas (b. 1942) was born in Hugo, Oklahoma, but raised in Rosenberg, Texas, near Houston so he grew up surrounded by both pop and country music. Active in music during his teen years, his commercial breakthrough came when he signed with Pacemaker Records and released a very soulful (and not at all country) cover of the Hank Williams classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. The single sold over a million copies, reaching #8 on Billboard’s pop chart and #2 on the Canadian RPM pop chart. The success of this record caused Scepter Records to obtain B.J.’s contract. B.J. provided another twenty pop hits for Scepter before leaving at the end of 1972 including three number one adult contemporary hits in “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head “ (also #1 pop and #1 Canadian pop), “I Just Can’t Help Believing” (#8 pop) and “Rock and Roll Lullaby”.

The hits dried up for the next few years until he signed with ABC Records in 1975 and recorded “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song”. This record swept the boards reaching #1 on Billboard’s pop, country and adult contemporary charts and the top three on the Canadian pop and adult contemporary charts. This song marked B.J.’s first appearance on the country charts, although after this record, some of his pop records would appear on the country charts. During this period B.J. also started focusing on religious music, with his religious music being released on the Myrrh label and his pop material being released on ABC or MCA (which absorbed ABC).

WHAT WAS HIS CONNECTION TO COUNTRY MUSIC?

B.J. always was always more than a bit of a country boy and after the second wave of pop success subsided, he started pointing his efforts at the country charts. Two 1981 singles for MCA, “Some Love Songs Never Die” and his cover of Tommy Cash’s 1973 hit “I Recall A Gypsy Woman” both hit the top thirty. In 1983 Cleveland International Records released a pair of country chart toppers in “Whatever Happened To Old Fashioned Love“ and “New Looks From An Old Lover”. A third single, “Two Car Garage”, did almost as well reaching #3 and the fourth single “The Whole World’s In Love When You’re Lonely” made it to the country top ten. After that, B.J. appeared on Columbia which started pointing him back into a pop direction with “(Hang Up) My Rock And Roll Shoes”, a duet with Ray Charles

Since 1985, B.J. Thomas has remained active as a performer making appearances at venues as diverse as Las Vegas and the Grand Ole Opry (he’ll appear June 26, 2013), with a share of large theaters, county fairs and private appearances thrown in.

You can check B.J.’s official website for tour dates and merchandise – he has some interesting new recordings available.

B.J. Thomas also has a very active fan club.

B.J. and his wife Gloria have been married since December 1968 with three children and five grandchildren.

Country music’s fellow travelers: Burl Ives

burl ivesThis is the first in a series of short articles about artists who, although not country artists, were of some importance to country music. In a sense, a previous article I wrote about Patti Page would logically belong in this category. First up, America’s troubadour Burl Ives.

WHO WAS HE ?
Burl Ives (1909-1995) was the Renaissance Man among folk singers. Not only was he a folk balladeer but he also had success on Broadway, television and movies. Mostly though, he was a folk singer and anthologist , publishing several books of folk songs and recording dozens of albums of folk music, sometimes by themes (Folk Songs of Ireland, Folk Songs of Australia, Women: Songs About The Fair Sex, Down To The Sea In Ships) and other albums that were simply collections of songs. The warm friendly voice of Burl Ives could sell any song, without faking accents or use of any artifice. So wildly popular was he that Queen Elizabeth II requested that he perform at her Coronation Concert in 1953.

WHAT WAS HIS CONNECTION TO COUNTRY MUSIC?
In the days before folk became too politically left-wing, many radio stations billed themselves as paying country and folk music, so his records got some airplay on country radio stations. Also he often recorded some country songs on his albums, placing on Billboard’s country charts in 1949 and 1952 and recording country material on some of his 1950s albums. In the early 1960s, his records were produced by noted producer Owen Bradley, who marketed Burl’s records to the country music market with some success as the 52 year old Ives hit Cashbox’s top slot (#2 Billboard) with Hank Cochran’s “A Little Bitty Tear Let Me Down”. This was followed by two more top ten country singles “Funny Way of Laughing” and “Mr. In Between” and several more charting singles, including the amusing “Evil Off My Mind”, an ‘answer’ song to Jan Howard’s biggest solo hit “Evil On Your Mind”. His otherwise 1964 country album, Pearly Shells and Other Favorites, produced a surprise pop hit with the title track, a Hawaiian song written by Webley Edwards and Leon Pober.

Since Ives never stayed anchored too long in any one realm, Burl drifted off into other areas of folk music, recording albums of children’s music, seasonal music and yes, another album or two of country music.