Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Buck Griffin - RIP

One of the first articles I ever wrote was about rockabilly/honky tonk singer Buck Griffin, which in turn led me to my proud association with Joe Leonard. Griffin was a great artist who unfortunately struck out before making the major leagues, despite going to bat for Lin, MGM and Holiday Inn between 1954 and 1962. He tried his hand at both country and the newly emerging rockabilly style but was destined to remain relatively unknown.

Born Albert C. Griffin in Corsicana, Texas on 23rd February 1923, his formative years were spent moving throughout Oklahoma and Kansas. Whilst still in his teens, A.C. as he was known, formed and fronted a country band with three schoolmates. After leaving school and holding down jobs on pipelines and oil fields, he started to play the local honky tonks and eventually got a gig on radio station WKY.

Throughout the forties and fifties radio had bred many stars who once they were groomed and polished, moved on to better things, leaving the station manager to find a replacement. WKY probably had this in mind when they copyrighted the name Chuck Wyman and had our Mr Griffin use it for all his broadcasts. Once he left the station, singers like Paul Brawner and Pronger Suggs took over the role and the sponsors continued backing the shows. The public must surely have noticed whenever a new Chuck arrived, but after a hard days toil in the cotton fields or rounding up cattle, I don't suppose they cared.

Local entrepreneur Joe Leonard Jr. who owned radio station KGAF in Gainesville, Texas had started his own publishing company and had released four singles on his fledgling Lin label. Leonard liked what he heard in Griffin and in early '54 took him to Dallas where they cut two Griffin originals at the WFAA Studio. It Don't Make No Never Mind featured both horn and piano solo's but suffered from a pedestrian pace. The jazzier western swing cut Meadowlark Boogie was catchier but when they were released as Lin 1005 they went nowhere. Unperturbed by the lack of success they returned to the studio on 17 September 1954 to cut four more slabs of hillbilly, again all written by Griffen. Cut at the Jim Beck Studio in Dallas, two singles were issued with Lin 1007 coupling the slow Rollin' Tears and the lively One Day After Payday with it's great backing (including Sonny James on fiddle), and clever lyrics. Lin 1008 again suffered the same fate despite two more Hank-like numbers.

Thinking that perhaps Buck's songs weren't commercial enough, Leonard chose to cut the next session using others writers, but then strangely used two gospel styled tracks. It proved fruitful in that the Woodrow Patty, writer of one of the cuts, Next In Line, would write such rockabilly classics as She's A Going Jessie, Old Deacon Jones and the classic Rockin' Rollin' Stone all recorded by Leonard artists.

When they returned to Jim Beck's studio a couple of months later they cut the brilliant country bopper, Let's Elope Baby, a track which gained greater recognition via Janis Martin's cover for RCA. It's thought that the backing band for the session provided by Bill Wimberley comprised of several ex-Texas Playboys including Johnnie Gimble on fiddle. The results are thus very polished and were Buck's best efforts to date. Bawlin' And Squallin' the flip of Elope was another swinger, as was the marching Go-Stop-Go another penned by Patty and Cochise was out of the Kaw Liga. Little Dan was very commercial with driving fiddle and great, playful vocals and could have been a contender if luck had played more of a part in his career. The flip Neither Do I was another dip into the Hank Williams book of songwriting.

Despite poor sales Buck received the boost of Hank's label MGM offering to release his records. Obviously keen to produce the goods and get his career going in the right direction, Buck must have anticipated great things when he travelled to the Clifford Herring Studio in Fort Worth, Texas on 9th May '56 with Leonard and regular guitarist Merl Shelton. All his recordings had shown a versatility but this session really offered a new sound with the classic Stutterin' Papa kicking off the proceedings. This rural rockabilly with great guitar throughout had lyrics which kids could actually relate to, someone which most of his records failed to have. Issued as MGM K 12284, the top side Watchin' The 7:10 Roll By featured high lonesome wails and a good country boogie guitar. It looked good for the guys as the single picked up a very encouraging review in the June 30 issue of Billboard who awarded Watchin' The 7:10 Roll By, 82/100 in their Commercial Potential Ratings. Reviewed in the New C&W Records section, they enthused "Griffin uncorks a wonderfully effective train-rhythm blues job. The rhythmic figure repeats for solid spin and sales potentialĂ–.New on the label, the performer is impressive and the country band backing swings."

The same gang returned to the session on July 6th, cutting four more Griffin originals. Bow My Back and Old Bee Tree were couple as MGM K 12439 but again no chart action was forthcoming. Both were strong hillbilly songs, aimed at the country market with Bow My Back being particularly clever. For the third and final single on MGM proper, a song from each of the Fort Worth session's was chosen. The top side Jessie Lee is now rightly considered a classic with groups copying it to this day. Backed with You'll Never Come Back the coupling was reviewed in the 23 December 1957 issue of Billboard who described it thus "Country blues, slow in tempo. Griffin has a very authentic feel for the genre, and plenty of individuality in his vocal. Solid wax, and merits real exposure." They also featured it in their "This Week's Best Buys (Pop)" section where they referred to him as "a solid new.

The backing of national radio still eluded him and despite the favourable review in Billboard and his appearances on the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, the sales were only sufficient for MGM to issue his next single on their Metro subsidiary. Cut in January 58, both The Party and Every Night were poppier than anything previously attempted with backing vocals and sounding a bit like Gene Vincent. It should have come as no surprise when this also bombed and probably getting disillusioned, Buck didn't return to the studio until the turn of the new decade when he returned to Lin label. The Nashville sound was evident on First Man To Stand On The Moon and Twenty Six Steps. Another two years passed before Joe Leonard produced a single which came out on the Holiday Inn label, formed by hotelier Kemmons Wilson and god, Sam Phillips. Pretty Lou was a really neat sax led rocker with Girl In 1209 being an attractive slowy. It's a shame that Sam Phillips only fits in this story as an aside because the mouth waters at the thought of what he could have achieved with Buck Griffin. That voice was made to be backed by Roland Janes, Billy Lee Riley et all.

Since those days Buck has sold bibles, started his own Rotary label, hosted a Kansas based NBC TV show and settled in Erick, Oklahoma.In 2000 the love of his life, Mildred Griffin, his wife for 58 yrs pasted away at the age of 76. Buck himself passed away this week - I've only just heard so I don't even know what he died from. Anyway, thanks for the music Buck, and rest in peace.

Recommended listening: Bear Family's brilliant Let's Elope Baby (BCD 15811).

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