Ernest Tubb Goes Electric
And 51 more moments to remember from Texas’ rich musical past.
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Everyone knows that Buddy Holly shaped rock and roll, and Willie Nelson revamped country. Sure, Leadbelly championed the blues, and Bob Wills personified swing. But what about the dozens of, well, unsung, moments that mark Texas’ musical history? Kinky Friedman, for example, who outraged thousands with songs like ‘Ride ‘Em, Jewboy’ and ‘Get Your Biscuits in the Oven (and Your Buns in the Bed)’ was the only performer whose Austin City Limits episode was too racy to air. In 1979, at age 67, bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins played Carnegie Hall. Houston’s Johnny Nash primed the U.S. for reggae with his 1972 hit ‘I Can See Clearly Now.’ And Michael Nesmith, the Lennonlike member of the Monkees, defied his TV producers by revealing in 1967 that the teeny-bopper heartthrobs faked their instrument playing. With diverse cultural influences, including lively conjunto, sultry blues, zippy zydeco, and good country music from Amarillo and Ab-o-lene, Texas has sired musical marvels unmatched by any other state. Herewith, a medley of melodious moments about riff-loving riff-raff, rhapsodies by bluesmen, and other Texas fortes.
By the mid-forties Ernest Tubb, born in Ellis County, decides to try electrical amplification for his guitar so his Texas Troubadours can be heard over the din in rural honky-tonks. The musical break-through spreads to other genres, notably jazz and blues.
A Star is Born
1965 The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, a.k.a. Norman Odam, performs on the steps of Lubbock’s Monterrey High School for an audience of kids who show their appreciation by throwing pennies—real hard. In the crowd: Joe Ely. Odam achieves greater fame when he guest-stars on Laugh-In and sings ‘Paralyzed,’ which was promoted—justifiably—as the world’s worst record.
1972 Lyndon Baines Johnson commits to vinyl his folksy monologue ‘Dogs Have Always Been My Friends,’ becoming the only U.S. president ever to record a single.
1966 The 13th Floor Elevators, headed by Roky Erickson, become Texas’ preeminent acid rockers with the release of their single ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me.’ Years later, Erickson spends three years at the Texas State Hospital in Rusk after pleading insanity on possession-of-marijuana charges.
1964 J. Frank Wilson of Lufkin records ‘The Last Kiss,’ one of rock and roll’s greatest teenage death songs. Wilson died in 1991, penniless and forgotten.
1989 Julius Tupa, publisher of Texas Polka News, urges polka lovers to boycott Coors after the beer company pokes fun at his favorite dance form in a series of TV commercials.
1958 In pursuit of a singing career, Baldemar Huerta of San Benito changes his name to Scotty Wayne, then to Freddy Fender (after the guitar). But he is best know as El Bebop Kid and the brown Elvis Presley in acknowledgment of his Spanish version of ‘Don’t Be Cruel.’
1959 The admission of Alaska to the Union necessitates a change in the lyrics of the Texas state song, ‘Texas, Our Texas,’ from ‘Largest and grandest’ to ‘Boldest and grandest.’
In 1932, twenty-year-old Woody Guthrie, having failed algebra, English, and Latin, drops out of Pampa High School and hits the road.
1958 On the way to a Houston recording studio, Port Arthur deejay the Big Bopper (J. P. Richardson) dashes off a song to back his would-be hit ‘The Purple People Eater Meets the Witch-Doctor.’ The side B tune: ‘Chantilly Lace.’
1981 Bill Haley of ‘Rock Around the Clock’ fame dies of a heart attack in Harlingen. Neighbors and police know him not as a rock pioneer but as an aging drunkard who ate every day at Sambo’s. In 1991 songwriter Tom Russell pens a ballad, ‘Haley’s Comet,’ about the pathos of the rocker’s decline.
1970 Changing times and raised consciousness allow a Temple band to revel in its ethnicity by changing its name from Little Joe and the Latinaires to Little Joe y la Familia.
1975 The premiere of Austin City Limits stars Willie Nelson instead of B. W. Stevenson and Willie. Stevenson, whose ‘My Maria’ had been a Top 40 hit, can’t fill the house; Nelson packs it.
1962 Delbert McClinton teaches John Lennon to play harmonica after the Beatles open for Fort Worth’s Bruce Channel (‘Hey, Baby’) during a tour of the United Kingdom.
1936 Delta blues singer Robert Johnson records the songs that will become his masterworks in a room at a segregated San Antonio hotel.
1985 George ‘No Show’ Jones, born in Sarasota and considered the greatest male voice of country music, records a country novelty song, ‘Yabba Dabba Doo’ (chorus: ‘Yabba dabba doo/The King is gone/And so are you’). Hanna-Barbera, producer of the Flinstones cartoon show, threatens to sue for copyright infringement.
1965 Doug Sahm, Augie Meyer, and three other members of a San Antonio group get Beatle cuts and buy double-breasted suits to pass off their band, the Sir Douglas Quintet, as British.
1925 Governor Pat Neff listens to hard-timer Leadbelly sing and pardons him on the spot. The bluesman had been incarcerated in a Houston-area prison for murder, during which time he wrote “The Midnight Special.”
1967 Texas radio chain owner Gordon McClendon sets out to clean up rock lyrics after a friend’s young daughter asks the meaning of the Rolling Stones hit ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together.’ He bans questionable songs like the Kingsmen’s ‘Louie, Louie’ and Peter, Paul, and Mary’s ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’ from all of his stations.
1929 Jimmie Rodgers, a.k.a. the Blue Yodeler and the Singin’ Brakemen, moves to Kerrville for health reasons. He succumbs to tuberculosis four years later.
Live Fast, Die Young
Down in flames Buddy Holly, rock and roll trailblazer, dies in 1959 along with J. P. ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson and Richie Valens (‘La Bamba’) when their plane crashes near Clear Lake, Iowa, en route to a concert in North Dakota. Gentleman Jim Reeves, who hailed from Panola County, dies in 1964, when his private plane crashes outside Nashville. The private plane of Ricky Nelson crashes and burns near Dallas on New Year’s Eve, 1985. Stevie Ray Vaughan, bluesman extraordinaire, dies in 1990 in a Wisonsin helicopter crash following a late-night concert.
1951 Harry Choates, who popularized what is perhaps the most often recorded cajun song ever, ‘Hole Blon,’ is discovered dead in the Travis County jail, where he had been incarcerated for failure to pay child support. Officials claim he choked on food.
1954 R&B crooner Johnny Ace, whose ballad ‘Pledging My Love’ was a number one hit, blows his brain out backstage at Houston’s City Coliseum on Christmas Eve while playing Russian roulette.
1960 Tyler native Johnny Horton (‘The Battle of New Orleans’) dies in car wreck at age 31 after leaving Austin’s Skyline club.
1966 Bobby Fuller, of El Paso’s Bobby Fuller Four (‘I Fought the Law’), is found dead in his car outside his Hollywood apartment, doused with gasoline and asphyxiated. The coroner rules it an accident.
1969 Janis Joplin, who got her start with hootenanny singing at Kenneth Threadgill’s gas station and beer joint in Austin, returns as a superstar to her old stomping grounds to honor her musical mentor. Within a year the Port Arthur native is discovered dead of a drug overdose in a Hollywood hotel.
1958 In Galena Park, playing in a high school football stadium with a wretched sound system, hothead Jerry Lee Lewis pitches a fit onstage. A third of the audience walks out.
1990 Vanilla Ice (real name: Robert Van Winkle) claims he grew up on the mean streets of a Miami ghetto. In fact, while attending high school in Carollton, he cruised the mean streets of Forest Lane.
1940 Francis Octavia Smith of Uvalde, rechristened Dale Evans, heads to Hollywood, where an agent suggests that she pass off her twelve-year-old son as her little brother. After that, it’s ‘Happy Trails.’
1910 Musical folklorist John A. Lomax publishes Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, which becomes a classic reference and makes him the authority on cowboy music. However, several of the songs Lomax included, such as ‘Little Joe the Wrangler,’ had appeared two years earlier in a collection by N. Howard ‘Jack’ Thorp, whose contributions to the genre Lomax fails to mention.
1924 Marion Try Slaughter, who changed his name to Vernon Dalhart after two Texas towns, records what will become country music’s first million-selling single, ‘The Prisoner’s Song,’ backed with ‘Wreck of the Old ‘97.’
Twenties To bolster their authenticity, the Girls of the Golden West, a popular country duo, claim to hail from Muleshoe. They’re actually from Illinois.
Three-year-old Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Kilgore’s favorite son, stuns his mother in 1938 by perfectly executing a piece she had attempted to teach to one of her piano students.
1956 Leopold Stokowski and the Houston Symphony make the first U.S. recording of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.
1968 Houston Symphony conductor Andrè Previn and live-in lover Mia Farrow raise eyebrows citywide.
1939 New York City’s Metropolitan opera deigns to add Dallas to the list of cities visited on its annual tour.
1936-47 Houston Symphony conductor Ernst Hoffmann insists on wearing for each performance the same pair of black shoes, which he keeps in a felt-lined box. He refuses to lead the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony because, years earlier, he learned of his father’s death after a performance of that piece.
Jingle Jangle Jingle
1986 The Austin advertising agency GSD&M introduces the slogan ‘Don’t Mess With Texas’ and its accompanying brainstorm: using celebrities to push the anti-litter campaign. Lending their services are Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jerry Jeff Walker, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, even George Foreman. Texas’ favorite ice cream, Blue Bell, follow suit and includes singers such as Alvin Crow and Tish Hinojosa in its homespun spots.
1931 Bob Wills, before his Texas Playboys days, touts Burus Mills’s Light Crust Flour, backed up by the namesake Light Crust Doughboys, and also shills for mill owner and future governor W. Lee ‘Pappy’ O’Daniel.
Hypesters On the way up, many a musician has turned to advertising to put bread on the table. Willie Nelson sang a ditty for Austin’s McMorris Ford in 1972, and four years later, Christopher Cross, pre-‘Sailing,’ recorded a jingle for Dyer Electronics, also of Austin.
Fifties Fort Worth’s Metropolitan Baptist Church dismisses Willie Nelson from his position as Sunday school teacher after complaints of his sinful appearances playing guitar in local beer joints. Before establishing his career, Willie was a disc jockey (at KBOP in Pleasanton, among other stations), a hog farmer, a tree-trimmer, and a saddlemaker. He even sold Bibles, encyclopedias, and vacuum cleaners.
1972 Rody Kennedy hosts the first Kerrville Folk Festival at his Quiet Valley Ranch. Despite rain-outs and floods, the annual event quickly becomes an institution, introducing such stars-to-be as Michelle Shocked, Lyle Lovett, and Nanci Griffith.
Thirties Swing fiddler J. R. Chatwell of San Antonio, alias Chat the Cat, swears he’ll never play farther west than Amarillo, even if it means he’ll never make it big. He never makes it big.
Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley meet in 1955 when the future King appears in Holly’s hometown of Lubbock. Elvis’ sex appeal so enrages West Texans that they fill the gas tank of his brand-new pink Cadillac with sugar.
Late forties Jazz saxophonists King Curtis (a.k.a. Curtis Ousley) and Ornette Coleman play in the I. M. Terrell High School Panther Band.
Circa 1912 Leadbelly meets Blind Lemon Jefferson in Dallas’ Deep Ellum, and they start performing together on the street.