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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Episode 41 - And the Angels Sing

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Except for passing references to Ruth Brown, Rick Nelson and Bob Wills, there's nothing particularly TTRH-related in this episode of Dreamtime. But I suspect Our Host shares my respect for these ladies of rockabilly and r&b. So, with Season 2 just underway, hang in there with me for a bit longer, if you will, and let me tell you the stories of four forgotten angels this week. I don't think I'll disappoint you.

I've said it before: it's not easy being a professional musician. It's even tougher if you're a woman in the business. People want to pigeonhole you. You're a delicate songbird. You're a hard rockin' mama. You're a sex kitten. You're a dyke. Anita O'Day remarks in her great biography High Times, Hard Times that rumors started flying that she was a lesbian after she began wearing a variation of the Benny Goodman band's uniform - pants and jacket - because keeping the traditional evening gown clean on the road was costing her too much money.

And of course, if you're a woman you're getting hit on by fans - and, more regularly, by the boys in the band, and managers, club owners, publicists, record flacks, god knows what all. And even if you fell in love, or thought you were, you couldn't afford to get knocked up. That is, if you wanted to keep your career. Until relatively recently your choices were limited to one of two if you were a singer who got pregnant - you could have an abortion or you could have the baby. And quit the business.

There are dozens of male rockabilly and r&b performers whose time was the `50s and `60s and who have now faded away into obscurity. Who remembers the Emeralds or Wes Holly And His Rhythm Ranchers anymore except hard-core fans? But maybe because they had so far and so high to climb, the women who fell - or the ones who never quite made it to the top - have a particular attraction to me.

There are eight million stories in the Big City. Here are four of them.

[Fay Simmons - And the Angels Sing]

Fay Simmons - Who is She? Where is She?

Fay Simmons is a challenging - frustrating - subject for any dedicated researcher. The most detailed information about her on the Web begins with the lines, "Fay Simmons - Who is she? Where is she from?"

It's hard to believe that someone with that voice, sometimes reminiscent of Dinah Washington, could somehow disappear off the face of the planet. Today her best-known song is the novelty number, You Hit Me Baby Like an Atomic Bomb, that wasn't even discovered and released until the `90s. No other evidence of her existence except a pile of brightly-colored 45s from labels with names like Jordan, Rainbow, VTone, Ruthie, and the ironically named Gone. All gone now, as gone as Fay Simmons.

Her first known recordings were released in 1954, so she was probably born somewhere between 1930 (if she got a late start - late if you're a girl singer) and 1938 (if she started her professional career at the the tender age of 16). She'd be in her early to late `70s now in 2007, so she could well still be alive.

She may have been born in Philadelphia. All the evidence points to her starting out her career while a Philly-area resident. If she worked the Philadelphia club circuit, the evidence is buried in attics, back rooms and garages, and in old-timer memories. But she was recording in Philadelphia studios, and with Philly-based musicians such as Doc Starkes and His Night Riders.

Sometime around 19 and 57 Simmons may have moved to New York to try her luck. Maybe. New York City is an easy train trip from Philadelphia. Easy enough car or bus ride, even in the late `50s. But she was there in `57, recording for the New York-based Port and Gone labels. She may have still been in the city up till 1962, as she did sessions with both the Jordan and Senca labels, both based out of New York City.

The early `60s looked like they were good years for Fay Simmons. She released 10 singles in 1960, including And the Angels Sing. In March of 19 and 60 she was part of one of New York DJ Tommy Smalls' - known on the air as Dr. Jive - legendary Apollo Theater shows. Simmons shared the bill with the Emeralds, the Coasters, the Isley Brothers, Jimmy Reed, the Cruisers, and the Clickettes. The show was so successful it was held over for a second week.

Simmons also had her single, Everybody's Doin The Pony hit some local charts in 1961 on the Eastern Coast, including taking the Number #1 position slot on the "Soaring Seven Singles" for WABC in New York. She beat out Elvis, even it was just on a local radio chart for just a short time.

By late '62 it looked like Fay Simmons had headed back to her Philadelphia home base. There was one last possible New York recording session released on Bill Grauer's Pop-Side label in 1963, but her remaining recordings were all done for small Philadelphia-based labels.

The Fay Simmons story ends in 19 and 65, with the re-release of And the Angels Sing.

The rest is silence.


[Drugstore Rock-'n-Roll - Janis Martin]

Janis Martin - The Rise & Fall of the Female Elvis

Billed as "the female Elvis," a title that Presley himself reportedly approved, Janis Martin had a short but memorable rockabilly career during the mid-'50s. Born in 1940 in Sutherlin, Virginia, Martin began playing guitar at age four, having to hold it upright like a bass fiddle because it was too large to get her hands around.

By age 11, she was a regular on the Old Dominion Barn Dance radio show, second only to the Grand Ol' Opry in popularity among country music listeners. Still performing on the Barn Dance into her teens, Martin began to tire of country and move towards a r&b sound, sometimes confounding an audience still expecting the old, slow ballads with songs like Ruth Brown's (Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean.

At the age of 15, Martin cut her first record. Two announcers at WRVA - the Virginia radio station home of the Barn Dance - asked Martin to sing a song they had written, a rockabilly ditty called Will You, Willyum, on the show. The two songwriters taped the performance and sent the demo off to New York, which resulted in a recording gig for Martin with RCA. Will You, Willyum turned into Martin's biggest hit, selling three-quarters of a million copies, and charting into the Top Forty on the 1956 Pop Singles chart.

On the B side of Will You, Willyum was a song that Janis Martin herself had written, Drugstore Rock-n-'Roll.

"I wrote that song in about 10 minutes," Martin later said in an interview. "Everything in that song is actually the scene that was happening for us as teenagers."

With a hit single, appearances on American Bandstand, The Today and Tonight Shows and voted "Most Promising Female Artist of 1956," it looked like the 16-year-old had nowhere to go but up. But Martin had secretly married her boyfriend that same year, and became pregnant at age 17 after visiting her soldier husband during a USO tour. Unable to do live performances in her obvious delicate condition, Janis Martin recorded her last songs for RCA in 1958, in her eighth month of pregnancy, and RCA dropped her like a very pregnant hot potato as soon as the last notes faded away.

The female Elvis' career was over less than two years after it had started. But Martin's story would eventually have a happier ending. In the late `80s, now in her mid-40s, with two failed marriages behind her and on her own, Janis Martin formed a new band and struck out on a European tour, where she was greeted by enthusiastic neo-rockabilly audiences. She became a regular at rockabilly conventions, still belting out the old songs, saw her complete recordings compiled and re-released by the respected Bear Family label, and married for a third time to a man who had first seen her perform as a teen at the old Barn Dance show in Virginia. This time the marriage stuck, and they remained together until her death in 2007.

"She was a cute little old gal in a ponytail just belting out that music that nobody else was doing," her husband told the papers.

Timi Yuro - "This is your last song, young lady."

[Timi Yuro - Hurt]

The phrase "blue-eyed soul" was coined for Timi Yuro, one of the least remembered r&b singers of the early `60s. Dinah Washington once said of her, "Timi's voice doesn't come from the throat, but from the heart. She doesn't just sing the song, she lives it." She was one of Elvis Presley's favorite singers, with the King reserving a ringside table for every night of Yuro's Vegas performances. Presley would later have a Top Ten Country hit with his version of Yuro's signature song, Hurt.

Born Rosemary Timotea Yuro, in 19 and 40, Yuro's family moved to Los Angeles in 1952 where she became the resident singer in the family restaurant by age 14. Her mother was less enthusiastic about the teenager's nightclub gigs, breaking up one performance by shouting, "This is your last song, young lady!"

But Yuro had just started. Frankie Laine's vocal coach was so impressed after hearing her that she offered Timi free training, and Yuro quickly caught the ear of record scouts. Signed to the Liberty label at age 19, she was saddled with recording lightweight pop hits totally unsuited to her style. A frustrated Yuro took matters into her own hands and broke into an executive meeting, threatened to tear up her contract, and broke into an A Capella version of Hurt , a 1954 hit for Roy Hamilton that Timi had wanted to record since first hearing it.

She got her wish, with Hurt going to #4 on the Billboard singles charts in 19 and 61, and a follow-up hit in 1962 produced by Phil Spector - What's a Matter Baby (Is It Hurting You)? - charting to the #12 position. But Yuro's career didn't seem to pick up much traction past that point. Possibly because many of her listeners thought she was black. Possibly because the early waves of the British Invasion were turning popular taste elsewhere. Possibly because Yuro continued to innovate and stretch her musical boundaries, releasing an album of country and blues standards in 1963 (and incidentally introducing some of Willie Nelson's first songs). Make the World Go Away was praised by the critics, and the single of the title track made the US Top 30, but Yuro would not release another album until 1968, and she quit the business altogether in 1969.

A decade later Timi Yuro prepared a comeback, but it became increasingly difficult for her to sing. Doctors eventually discovered she had throat cancer. Her last recording was 1984's Timi Yuro Sings Willie Nelson, produced by her old friend. Timi died in her sleep at her home in Las Vegas on March 30, 2004.

Lorrie Collins - Rockabilly Kid Phenom

[The Collins Kids - Rock Boppin' Baby]

Lawrencine "Lorrie" Collins and younger brother Larry were a pair of rockabilly kid phenoms in the late `50s. The crew-cut Larry was an accomplished guitar whiz by age 10, known for playing a double-neck Mosrite guitar just like his mentor, Joe Maphis, and bouncing around stage, as one YouTube commentator memorably puts it, "like Beaver Cleaver on speed."

At age 12 Lorrie was equally at home singing country-western standards or red-hot rockabilly numbers. In fact, some of Lorrie's rockabilly performances were so steamy that they sparked complaints among her audience. It also probably didn't hurt that the pre-teen resembled a cross between Ann-Margaret and Tuesday Weld.

The Collins' parents moved their family to California in 19 and 53, when Lorrie was all of 11 and her brother 9. A year earlier the popular "Town Hall Party" barn dance-style program had begun broadcasting from Compton, CA over both radio and TV. Larry and Lorrie entered a talent contest sponsored by the show one Friday night in February 19 and 54 and were immediately hired to perform for the "Town Hall Party" the next day - ultimately appearing in every episode thereafter into 1957. Thanks to the show, the duo signed a recording contract with Columbia in 19 and 55 and churned out singles into the early `60s.

Even though they never hit the charts, the Collins Kids were a popular stage act and regulars on other television variety shows, including the Arthur Godfrey, Perry Como, Dinah Shore and Steve Allen shows. They made it to the Grand Ol' Opry and toured with both Johnny Cash and Bob Wills.

Wills unfortunately threw up on Larry in the back seat of a limousine during that tour. While Cash apparently had better control, their joining his tour would eventually lead to the Collins Kids' downfall.

After Rick Nelson spotted Lorrie at the "Town Hall Party", he had her cast as his girlfriend in his parents popular sitcom, "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet." Even as wholesome as the Nelsons were, the brothers had an eye for good-lookin' girls. Rick's brother, David, would eventually marry June Blair, a 1957 Playboy centerfold, who would also play his on-screen wife.

Rick and Lorrie were also briefly engaged in real life and the story, probably apocryphal, goes that Nelson recorded his first single, a cover of Fats Domino's I'm Walkin', in order to impress Lorrie. But Lorrie - in a move somewhat reminiscent of Janis Martin - would start a relationship with Johnny Cash's manager while on tour when she was just 17, marry him, and give birth to their first child at age 19, effectively killing the Collins Kids' career.

Larry would turn to songwriting, and have more than a little success, penning Delta Dawn which would become a #6 Country hit for 13-year-old Tanya Tucker, as well as a #1 Pop hit for Helen Reddy in 19 and 73. Again, like Janis Martin, brother and sister Collins would re-ignite their careers and reunite regularly at rockabilly revivals and conventions, where they remain a popular act to this day.

Sources and Further Reading/Listening:

Top photo: Detail from Johnny Mercer's grave site, Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, GA.

Fay Simmons: Almost all the information on Fay Simmons is taken from the "Fay Simmons Record Label Shots" page at About the only new thing I was able to discover was an appearance of Simmons at the Apollo as part of a 1960 Dr. Jive show, as noted in one of Marv Goldberg's R&B Notebooks. If you haven't already, check out Dreamtime Episode 39 - The Lost Theme Time iPod - to hear You Hit Me Baby Like An Atomic Bomb.

If you have any information on Fay Simmons at all, please write to Dreamtime!

Janis Martin: My sources on the "female Elvis" include Janis' page at the Rockabilly Hall of Fame; her MySpace page maintained by her granddaughter; and her obituary from The Boston Globe.

Timi Yuro: We lost a wonderful voice when we lost Timi. My sources included her Wikipedia entry and various fan pages, primarily this one from Tom Simon. Various videos - usually slideshows accompanied by her music - are available around the Web.

The Collins Kids and Lorrie Collins: The always-useful Rockabilly Hall of Fame was a primary source; this article from The Washington Post is the source of the story that Bob Wills once threw up on a young Larry. Happily many of the Kids' performances at the "Town Hall Party" were preserved, and can be viewed on YouTube and other sites. Lorrie Collins, there ain't nuthin' about that woman I don't like.


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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Who remembers Wes Holly And His Rhythm Ranchers anymore except hard-core fans? I do. If you have any pictures or information on Wes Holly, please email me! Thanks! - Rich