Wednesday, May 31, 2017

SITTIN' BESIDE THE GOVERNOR

We decided it was time.  Everything had moved from the Ryman to the brand new Opry House at Opryland the year before and a man we knew had been nominated for a song he had written. 1975 would be the perfect year for the hillbillies to dress up in their finest and attend the GOSPEL MUSIC ASSOCIATION DOVE AWARDS.  I ordered the tickets well in advance so we would get the best of the seats we could afford. The whole thing was pretty exciting to us (Daddy, Momma, and me) but we were trying to act like we belonged there and everyone we were seeing was no big deal.  The usher showed us our seats and imagine my surprise to find I was elbow to elbow with a stately older gentleman and his lovely wife who weren't merely nice folks to sit beside.  Both were music legends I had loved my entire life!  Shucks!  My Daddy had listened to them most of his life!  During the evening I found  them both to be very friendly and down-to-earth people.

I won't say too much about the wife in this column (even though she has always been one of my idols, tried to sing like her and even had a secret crush on one of her sons) because she is a story all her own.  Most people younger than my generation haven't had the pleasure of hearing the velvet voiced gentleman sing hymns on every TV show on the air like I did.  Keep in mind as you read this, he was from a different time and a place that was much different in those days.  

James Houston Davis was born on September 11, 1899 -- maybe.  Nobody really knows for sure exactly what year.  He was one of eleven children born to Sarah Elizabeth Works and Samuel Jones Davis in the then town of Beech Springs in northern Louisiana.  His family was very poor and so large that they couldn't even remember what year when young Jimmie was old enough to ask.  He never really knew for sure himself though the census records in 1900 attest that he was born in 1899.


He was the embodiment of the clique' "I was just a poor sharecropper's son" but he graduated from Beech Springs High School, , Soule Business College, received a bachelor's degree in history from the Baptist affiliated Louisiana College and a master's degree from Louisiana State University.  His master's thesis in 1927 was called COMPARATIVE INTELLIGENCE OF WHITES, BLACKS, AND MULATTOES.  During the late 1920s, he taught history and yodeling at the Dodd College for Girls in Shreveport.

Jimmie stayed at Dodd College for a year before taking a job as court clerk in Shreveport.  While working there during most of the 1930s, he became interested in politics as well as music.  Though he could neither read nor write music, he began to write his own songs and went to Memphis to make some trial recordings.  He married Alverna Adams who played classical music on the piano.  She helped him put his music on paper.  He had some success with songs like "Nobody's Darling But Mine" (thought that was an old cowboy song didn't you?) and "It Makes No Difference Now".  Other top singers of the period including Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, Guy Lombardo, and  the Andrews Sisters also recorded his songs.   We remember his country and gospel songs but some of his early work was bluesy and raunchy like "Red Nightgown Blues" which some of his later opponents tried to use to discredit him.  He wrote and recorded "There's a Gold Mine in the Sky" in 1938. That same year, Davis was elected as Shreveport's public safety commissioner making him head of the police and fire departments.

On February 4, 1940 recorded a song he had just finished writing called "You are My Sunshine".  (I know some people say it was an old folk song but Jimmie Davis always insisted he had written it and he was given credit for doing so.)  It became an immediate hit.  So did the versions of the song recorded by Bing Crosby and Gene Autry.  Over the next 60 years that song would be recorded by more than 350 artists, sell millions of records, and be translated into 30 languages. 



In 1942 he was elected to the Louisiana Public Service Commission but left two years later to begin his first term as governor.  Jimmie Davis' run for governor did not sit well with the remnants of the Huey Long machine who wanted to continue the power they had held for twenty years.  His opponents tried to convince voters he wouldn't make the governorship his first priority and he was likely to just leave for Hollywood at any time.  They played his songs that were considered to have raunchy lyrics but the crowds would just start dancing and ignore the words.  He won easily.  During his first term in office 1944-1948, he did set an absentee record by going out to Hollywood to play in B westerns as the singing sidekick of cowboy hero Charles Staret. He also continued to write and record songs like "Is It Too Late Now" and "There's a Chill on the Hill Tonight".  His hit song "There's a New Moon Over My Shoulder" was released in 1945.  He often sang at campaign stops and was known as the Singing Governor. The major accomplishment of his first term in office was to see to it that all drivers of automobiles in the state of Louisiana were required to have a license.  To show how important it was, Governor Davis received the first driver's license ever issued in the state.

He was not allowed by law to succeed himself as governor so he continued to concentrate on his music and his business interests in Shreveport.  His music had made him rich but he bought 450 acres of land just in case things went bad and he had to resort to farming.

Davis rejoined the political scene to run for a second term as governor of Louisiana in the 1959 - 1960 campaign. He once donned a white cowboy hat and rode his horse Sunshine up the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol to sing the praises of his legislative agenda. With a pledge to fight for continued segregation in public education, he won the Democratic nomination over a
crowded field and easily defeated the Republican candidate Francis Grevemberg in the general election.  He signed segregation bills that basically gave local schools boards the power to determine which schools stayed open and which would be closed due to Federal Court orders to admit black children.  This was part of the theory of "interposition" which insisted the states could interpose themselves between federal law and the people who found the law to be too burdensome.  In spite of the rhetoric, desegregation was handled smoothly so that there was no violence and no closed schools during the transition.

Some of the major issues during his second term included his veto of right-to-work legislation and getting the taxpayers to pay for a new 12 bedroom 18 bathroom Governor's Mansion.  It was said he got the Legislature to approve the million dollar expenditure by threatening pet projects in their districts.  

There were some major accomplishments during this term including keeping taxes down, taking steps to preserve forests from rapid depletion, building hospitals, repairing and creating roads, raising teachers' salaries, and setting up the state's first civil service system.  He built the Sunshine Bridge and the Toledo Bend Reservoir even though these were not popular projects at the time.  He coordinated the pay periods of state employees who often had not been receiving their paychecks on time.  

After leaving office for the second time, Jimmie Davis continued to sing mostly at churches and did guest spots on various TV shows.  He recorded several southern gospel albums and served as president of the Gospel Music Association in 1967.  His admirers were disappointed in 1968 when a bill to make "You Are My Sunshine" the Louisiana state song was vetoed because the song didn't mention Louisiana in the lyrics.  The song  later shared the honors as state song with "Give Me Louisiana" by Doralice Fontane who mentioned Louisiana repeatedly.

Jimmie's wife Alverna Davis passed away in 1967.  Two years later he married the also widowed Effie Juanita (Anna) Carter Gordon.  (Now you know why I said the wife deserved a column all to herself!)

Davis ran for governor of Louisiana again in 1971.  The Democratic gubernatorial primary was crowded with new political prospects.  He finished in fourth place with 11.8 percent of the vote.  His days as a politician were over.  


During his career Jimmie Davis received many awards and honors.  The Jimmie Davis Bridge atop the Red River was named in his honor during his second term as governor.  Jimmie Davis State Park is located on Caney Lake.  A replica of the Davis homestead and the Peckerwood Hill Store that served his community (which is no longer there) was erected at the site of the Jimmie Davis Tabernacle in Jackson Parrish.  Davis was inducted into the Delta Music Museum Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. He was among the first thirteen inductees into the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in Winnfield. 

My favorite gospel song by Jimmie Davis




Jimmie Davis lived 101 years and 55 days departing this life on November 5, 2000.  The statesman, actor, singer, songwriter wanted to be remembered as "someone who scattered a little sunshine along his path".








Monday, May 1, 2017

THE FIRST COUNTRY MUSIC SUPERSTAR

These days there are so many awards shows on TV it makes your head spin.  There are awards for this, that, and whatever.  Celebrities from all walks of life dressed up to see and be seen. The most recent (as I write this) was the ACM (Academy of COUNTRY Music) awards show.  I heard they gave a very stirring tribute to ROCK music.  I wouldn't know I gave up watching years ago.  My ears can't suffer through three hours of loud rock or rap or whatever mish-mash that stuff they call "country" music these days just to hear a couple of songs from real country singers.

Record companies have so many ways to promote artists now with social media and pre-sales.  It is nothing for a "project" ( for the sake of all my older readers I will continue to call them records) to be released at Platinum (one million copies) level.  In the early days of recording and into the late 1950s it was a very big deal for a singer to move 500,000 copies of their record.  How very much they wanted that shiny GOLD record for their wall!  Gold records were given to the artists by their own record companies to publicize their sales achievements.  Later the awards were presented by the Recording Industry Association of American (RIAA) like they still are today.  More facts and figures would get you into quicksand so let me tell you about the very first COUNTRY music SUPERSTAR!

Marion Try (called Try) Slaughter II was born in Jefferson, Texas on April 6, 1883.  His father Robert Slaughter was a rancher.  His grandfather was a Ku Klux Klan member and a well-know bully.  He learned to ride, shoot, and play the harmonica at an early age.  When he was ten, his father was killed by his mother's brother because of a bitter feud over the way Robert mistreated his wife.  A couple of years later, Try and his mother moved to Dallas where he studied at the Dallas Conservatory of Music and worked to support himself and his mother.  He married Sadie Lee Moore in 1902.  They soon had a son and a daughter.  The family moved to New York City in 1910.  Try worked in a piano warehouse and took occasional singing jobs.  He made an attempt to record for Edison Records but was rejected.

When he got his first principle part in an opera touring company he needed a name that would look good on the program.  He took the names of two Texas towns where he had worked as a cowboy.  That's how he became the person we know as VERNON DALHART.  He toured all over the US and Canada singing in English, French, or Italian as the opera required.  He left the Century Opera Company to play in the Hippodrome's version of H.M.S. Pinafore.  This was his most outstanding stage success. 

He soon made another attempt to record but it was shelved and forgotten.  When his opera tour ended in January 1915, Vernon again tested for Edison and was rejected but his name did appear in the EDISON DIAMOND DISC CATALOG.  His first record finally came out in December of 1916 on Columbia not Edison.  From 1916 until 1923, he made over 400 recordings of light classical music and early dance band vocals for several different record labels.  In 1924, he heard a recording of THE WRECK OF THE SOUTHERN OLD 97 a ballad about the derailment of fast mail train No. 97 near Danville, Virginia in 1903.  He talked the Edison company into letting him record it.  In August of that year, Victor records asked him to record that song for Victor and put an old folk song he had gotten from his cousin on the reverse side.  

The B- side of that record was THE PRISONER'S SONG.  That song was the number one song for twelve weeks in 1925-26.  It became such a runaway hit, that Vernon decided to sing country songs almost exclusively.  He recorded that song 18 times and it was issued on 53 labels in the US and also in Canada.   That record (78) went on to sell SEVEN million copies which was a HUGE number for the 1920s!  This was the first "southern" song to become a national hit.  It also alerted the record companies to the market that was available for country music and caused them to seek out other country artists like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.




 The Wreck of the Old 97






The Prisoner's Song


 Sadly, the stock market crashed in 1929 and Edison Records went out of business.  Many singers tried to make a living by doing personal appearances.  Vernon Dalhart did no personal appearances but within two years he had a radio show with a female singing partner Adelyne Hood.  After two months they left the show and headed for England.  They made eight recordings there with four being released.  One song THE RUNAWAY TRAIN later became the theme for a British radio show and was popular enough to be re-released in the 1940s.

When they came back to the states they made a few more recordings but no big hits for the duo.  Vernon signed an exclusive contract with RCA-Victor in 1938.  The records didn't sell well and one THE LAVENDER COWBOY ( a song about a cowboy with two chest hairs indicating he wasn't "manly") was barred from the airwaves.  When war came he worked a security job in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  After the war, he tried teaching, singing and voice placing without much luck.

Vernon Dalhart died of a heart attack on September 15, 1948 without achieving his former  success.  He is buried in Bridgeport's Mountain Grove Cemetery as TRY SLAUGHTER, SR APRIL 6, 1883 - SEPTEMBER 15, 1948.

THE PRISONER'S SONG  was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA for selling seven million copies. (The first COUNTRY song to qualify)  Vernon Dalhart was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 1970.  In 1981, he was finally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.  THE PRISONER'S SONG was placed in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.  It was the biggest selling non-holiday song for the first 70 years of recorded music.

Vernon Dalhart has been largely overlooked for his role as an early pioneer who paved the way for other "southern" recording artists.  He was indeed the the FIRST COUNTRY MUSIC SUPERSTAR!





Saturday, April 1, 2017

Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes?


In the summer of 1976, I was in an outdoor drama called BY WAY OF THE VALLEY about the early settlers and famous historical figures who lived in Elizabethtown and Hardin County Kentucky. Among my fellow cast members was a tall, handsome, dark skinned man with smiling eyes. He was always helping some of the less experienced actors with their makeup, their costumes, and assisting the director with whatever was needed. Rumor had it that he was a famous TV star and was living in the area because he was married to someone from Elizabethtown at the time. He didn't look familiar to me but he was nice so I liked working with him. I later researched his television career and discovered I had not been paying attention.

Abel Gonzalez Fernandez was born in Los Angeles, California on July 13, 1930. His mother, a Yaqui, died when Abel was born. His father was a Native American from Mexico. Abel attended Belmont High School in Los Angeles until the age of 16 when he enlisted in the United States Army. He became a paratrooper and started boxing. He won the Middleweight Boxing Champ of the Asiatic Forces.

After being discharged from the Army in 1950, he began boxing professionally.  He won the Los Angeles Times Golden Gloves Tournament and was runner-up in the national Golden Gloves event held in Chicago.  He boxed professionally as a light heavyweight until he grew tired of participating in the sport in 1953.  After putting three men in the hospital, he had gotten to the point where he feared hurting opponents so he dropped out of boxing to try acting.  In spite of that, he was inducted into the California Boxing Hall of Fame in October 2013.

Abel's acting debut was in a Robert Mitchum film called SECOND CHANCES in 1953.  He had a scene that included a fierce boxing match with the star under the blazing Mexican sun.  Mitchum later wrote that Abel knocked him out three times during the filming.  In the Humphrey Bogart classic boxing movie THE HARDER THEY FALL, he played Chief Firebird a Native American boxer who is hesitant to throw a fight.  His other movie credits include ALASKA SEAS opposite Robert Ryan (1954), FORT YUMA (1955),  MANY RIVERS TO CROSS with Robert Taylor (1955), THE TIJUANA STORY with James Darren (1957), PORK CHOP HILL with Gregory Peck (1959),  APACHE UPRISING (1965), DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND (1966), MADIGAN (1968), and QUICKSILVER (1986).

One game I have played ever since I realized just who he really was is trying to spot Abel in one of his many television roles.  It isn't always that easy because he might be covered in warpaint and feathers or he might be playing a totally unexpected part.  If you would like to play along, some of the places to look would be guest roles on old shows like DANIEL BOONE, THE ADVENTURES OF RIN TIN TIN, BONANZA, TIME TUNNEL, GUNSMOKE, BATMAN, THE VIRGINIAN, TALES OF WELLS FARGO, HAVE GUN -- WILL TRAVEL, or  MARCUS WELBY, M. D.. You might spot him on WAGON TRAIN where I saw him recently.  He played an Indian (nobody said Native American in those days) who stuck both hands into the fire because he had just touched a baby with smallpox.  It is possible that you might remember his role as Airman Abel Featherstone in the NBC series STEVE CANYON a live-action show based on the comic strip.

Abel's most memorable role was that of  Native American federal agent William Youngfellow on  the 1959 - 1963 ABC television series THE UNTOUCHABLES.  Set in the 1930s, Youngfellow was one of the Prohibition agents working with Elliot Ness played by Robert Stack.  The character of Youngfellow was based on Native American Federal Agent William Jennings Gardner, who was a member of the real-life Untouchables squad.   The Desilu Productions show aired 80 episodes some of which you can watch on YouTube.   Click on the video below to watch an outstanding episode featuring Abel as Youngfellow.




Abel spent his later years producing theatrical shows for disadvantaged children.


Abel Fernandez passed away on May 3, 2016 from lung cancer at a hospital in Whittier, California.  He was 85 years old.  I just read a tiny paragraph noting his passing.  No big deal about it like some stars.  Paul Peterson (Jeff Stone on the DONNA REED SHOW) was the only other person I saw mention it.  Paul wrote how the sound stages for the DONNA REED SHOW and THE UNTOUCHABLES were next to each other and he would go over whenever he got a break.  He told about how nice Able was and the sound advice he gave him about his acting career.  I never worked with Abel or even saw him again (except on TV) after that summer but I greatly mourned his passing. I was very happy to know he remained the man Paul and I once knew -- a kind-heart man who was always willing to pass along what he had learned to younger actors.



BY WAY OF THE VALLEY CAST PHOTO 1976

 Abel is the tall guy in the almost center back and I am the woman with all the dark hair right in front of him.







Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes?

When Mr. Nashville mentioned he was looking for writers for a new website he was developing I
raised my hand like an excited child. Pick me! Pick me! I started to get cold feet when I realized
it had been years since I had been out in the land of celebrities. Most of the names I don't even
recognize anymore. Larry started giving me ideas for subjects my column could be about. He
suggested I write about music legends. I know plenty of those. He suggested maybe I could even
write about TV stars of the 80s and whatever became of them. The 80s????? WHOA! If he
thinks the 80s is the “olden days” I sure DO have something to contribute! I really didn't think I
was that old but I remember when people actually had to have talent in order to become a
celebrity. Actors could act, singers could sing, and musicians actually played instruments. True
LEGENDS the likes of which probably will never be again!

My first subject readily came to mind and why he was worthy to be included started immediately
forming into my first article. Then four famous people who influenced me greatly over the years
passed away in the space of a month. I decided I needed to tell you about a couple of them right
away. I will get back to the first guy later.

John Allan Seay, Jr. was born in Gulfport, Mississippi on July 15, 1940. His father's job forced
the family to travel quite a bit so he got his schooling in Georgia and Florida. He quit school
during his senior year to join the LOUISIANA HAYRIDE in 1957. He won a talent contest at
the Georgia Jubilee at Eastpoint, Georgia beating out of all people Bill Anderson. His prize was
$50.00. This turned out to be a major break. He was offered a recording contract and the
privilege of appearing on the LOUISIANA HAYRIDE and the GRAND OLE OPRY. His first hit
on the country charts was “Frankie's Man Johnny” in 1959. He scored again in 1960 with
“Nobody's Darling But Mine”. After that, he left the music business behind for a while. He
moved to the Hollywood area and became a cowboy working on a ranch belonging to the fatherin-law of actor Ben Johnson. He loved ranch work but hadn't gotten the music out of his blood.
He went back to Nashville and began recording again in 1964. “My Baby walks All Over Me”
and “My Old Faded Rose” were country hits. It was about then that I discovered Johnny Seay. I
was a young girl in the teenybopper stage and he was a gorgeous young man with thick curly hair
and a deep rich voice. I still have my copy of the issue of COUNTRY SONG ROUNDUP with the
two page story about him. A lot drooling on my part I can tell you!

In 1966 Johnny recorded a song called “Day For Decision”. At this time the country was in
turmoil with student unrest and protests of the war in Vietnam. This song was a very patriotic
call back to respect for the flag and the country. The record went gold (a HUGE deal back then)
and earned a Grammy nomination. You can find this song on You Tube if you would like to hear
it.


1967 brought an opportunity to co-star in a movie called “What Am I Bid?” with Leroy Van
Dyke, Tex Ritter, Al Hirt, and Faron Young. Johnny had several more hits among them “Willie's
Drunk and Nellie's Dying” a song written about his neighbors when he lived outside Nashville.
He became disillusioned with the music business after realizing he could have hit after hit and
still not make any money. He left the music business behind and went to Texas to work as a
cowboy on the Miller Ranch for a couple years. He had a career on the railroad first as a
conductor and retiring as a steam locomotive engineer. He became a pilot and was Commander
for the 131st Air Search and Rescue Squadron, U. S. Air Force Auxiliary and Civil Air Patrol. He
became an artist, sculptor, and engraver of fine guns. Most of all he enjoyed flying crop duster
aircraft.

I became Facebook friends with Johnny in 2011. He was still very active and handsome at age
70. It's amazing how people who have never met can find many things in common and hit it right
off like longtime buddies! For five years we talked often about things we both had on our minds:
the state of the country, the 2nd Amendment, music, growing older, family, tragedy, wavering
faith, miracles, and finding faith again, his joyous love for flying. He never failed to offer words
of encouragement when I was having difficulties in my own life.
Johnny died doing what he loved. On May 14, 2016 he was dusting a field near the town of West,
TX when his plane hit a cable from a cellphone tower and he was ejected from the plane. The
news reached me late that night via a Facebook post from a mutual friend. I was devastated like
I had lost a brother!

Johnny Seay lived a life of adventure and satisfaction. He left behind his beloved wife Star, nine
children, nineteen grandchildren, two great grandchildren, and many, many friends. I was
honored to be one of them.