Sunday, 22 February 2009

Warren Smith - when it hits, it drives the cool cats wild

It was February 1956 and the patrons of The Cotton Club in West Memphis, Arkansas were enjoying the sounds of their regular band, Clyde Leopard and The Snearly Ranch Boys. The band had recently been augmented by a young country singer who some felt had the potential to go beyond these settings. So impressed had been Ranch Boy steel player and songwriter, Stan Kesler, that he had called the attention of local record man Sam Phillips. Following an audition where they had performed a hillbilly ballad penned by Kesler, I'd Rather Be Safe Than Sorry, Phillips had told them to get some more material. This particular night, Phillips actually turned up at the club with Johnny Cash and at the interval had invited the singer, Warren Smith to join them at their table. Cash was armed with a song he'd written (or purchased from George Jones!) called Rock 'n' Roll Ruby and he offered it to Smith and the band. Looking back now, it's funny to think that Johnny Cash, being more country than rock, didn't fancy the song himself but offered it to Warren Smith who was probably as pure a country singer as any that stepped through the hallowed doors of Sun Studios.

Born in Humphreys County Mississippi near the blues-drenched Yazoo City on February 7th 1932, Smith had been raised in Louise, MS with his grandparents following the divorce of his parents. After a spell in the Air Force, and with music very much his passion, he made the move to the tune-town known as Memphis, Tennessee determined to make his fortune.

The following Sunday (5th), Warren and the Snearly Ranch Boys, Buddy Holobaugh, Stan Kesler, Jan Ledbetter, Smokey Joe Baugh and Johnny Bernero, drafted in to play drums instead of Leopard who may have felt his nose out of joint, converged on Union Avenue ready to cut. After Phillips and Cash turned up late, the session began with the band running through Ruby a couple of times. An early out-take exists which shows the band well on the way to perfecting the tune, Baugh's piano solo being particularly on the money. The master truly is a rockabilly classic with Holobaugh's guitar driving the track, together with Benero's drumming. The second song tackled was one they were familiar with, I'd Rather Be Safe Than Sorry. A country weeper, Smith's vocal's are perfection, he starts the tune in a high key and maintains it without a quiver. Sufficiently pleased with the debut cuts, Phillips released them on 25 March 1956 as Sun 239. Billboard magazine predicted "another Sun candidate for rock 'n' roll - country and western stardom" adding that "Smith sells Rock 'n' Roll Ruby with sock showmanship and a strong, driving beat." Two weeks later in it's May 5th issue, Billboard reviewed it again raving "Sun has done it again! This country rock 'n' roll record is showing all the signs of being a Presley-type success. Already on the Memphis and Charlotte territorial charts, it should soon hit the national charts."

By the 26th of May it was number 1 on the Memphis charts, helped no doubt by exposure from the local jocks and personal appearances all over town. After selling over sixty eight thousand copies by July, it was obvious that another session was needed to re-enforce this encouraging start. None of Sam's other stars had sold more copies with their debut, Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins…. The summer included a mouth-watering week long tour of the Memphis area with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Eddie Bond and new boys, Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings whose Ooby Dooby had just been released on Sun. Not a bad night out for the local's! The tour culminated with a show at Overton Shell park in Memphis in which Elvis made a non-performing appearance.

In order to get more widespread exposure, the rest of summer '56 was spent on the road as Smith and Orbison undertook a gruelling tour of Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi. Once the royalties had been collected, it was obvious that Smith felt he was the man and that the Snearly Ranch Boys were coincidental. This aggrieved the band who understood an unwritten agreement existed in which the band would be on equal terms with royalties split equally. Not one to worry about upsetting others, Smith duly severed his connections with them and assembled his own band featuring Al Hopson on guitar, Marcus Van Story on bass and drummer Johnny Bernero.

It was this new line-up which recorded two separate sessions in August producing the goods for Sun 250. The a-side was a Johnny Cash styled take on the old English standard, Black Jack David. Charles Underwood, a student at Memphis State University, had provided the song Ubangi Stomp bathed in racist lyrics, but Smith hadn't been impressed with it at first. However, with nothing in the bag, Smith tried the song out of desperation and surprised himself with a performance which he felt got better with every take. Released on September 24th, and despite another encouraging review from Billboard, sales were disappointing with only thirty eight thousand takers.

The first year in the big time ended with a five day gig at the Malco Theatre at home in Memphis with Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison followed by some dates in Huntsville and Sheffield, Alabama with Carl Perkins and someone destined to steal Smith's thunder, a cocky young piano pounder who'd just started to make an impression in Memphis, Jerry Lee Lewis.

1957 started with an unproductive (single wise) session with The Darkest Cloud and an early take on So Long I'm Gone remaining in the can. Another session in January had the same affect and with the second single having failed to click, the pressure was on to come up with something strong. In February, with a different line-up Smith had another crack at So Long I'm Gone, a song from the pen of Roy Orbison. With Jimmie Lott now on drums due to the unwillingness of Bernero to tour, and with Jimmy Wilson on piano, the rhythm was strong and was helped by the dual guitar of Al Hopson and Roland Janes. It's a classic mid-tempo country rocker and was commercial enough to have a chance at the charts. Breaking from tradition, Sam chose not to release the single with a rocker on one side and a country song on the other. Instead the flip was the wild Miss Froggie, the rockinest item he ever recorded, helped in no small part by Al Hopson's brilliant guitar.

Released as Sun 268 on the 15th April '57, Billboard advised it's readers to "watch both of these." Smith certainly would have been watching as the single showed great promise and in May broke into the Hot 100 at number 72. This was the big break he'd been after and the already healthy ego must have started busting at the seams. As luck would have it, fellow Sun star Jerry Lee Lewis' second single Whole Lot Of Shakin' Goin' On had been released the previous month and was now sitting on top of the Memphis charts. Sensing a potential hit, Phillips and his brother Judd, got Jerry Lee a shot on national TV. On Sunday 28th July, he performed a wild, sneering, chair throwing version of Shakin' on the Steve Allen Show. Following the show, demand for the single grew too big for Sun to cope. In order to meet the orders Sam made the decision to concentrate on Jerry Lee and therefore ending any chances of So Long I'm Gone going any further. Smith was numbstruck and apparently became so outraged at hearing the Jerry Lee hit all the time on the radio that he started smashing any copies he came across. According to Jimmie Lott "Warren was an egotist - the biggest egotist I've ever met. A caring man and a good man, but an egotist. Warren wanted recognition. He painted WARREN SMITH - THE ROCK 'N' ROLL RUBY MAN on the back of his car - a seven or eight thousand dollar Cadillac sedan."

Smith returned to the Sun studio in October and with Hopson and Janes working in perfect harmony, cut a brilliant version of Slim Harpo's Got Love If You Want It. With a tender ballad from the pen of Hopson, I Fell In Love, on the flip, Sun 286 was released in December. This same month, Sun also released Johnny Cash (Ballad Of A Teenage Queen/Big River), Sonny Burgess (My Bucket's Got A Hole In It), Roy Orbison (Chicken Hearted) and Carl Perkins (Glad All Over). However, it was to be old sparring partner Jerry Lee Lewis that caused the problems again, as this time he was riding high with Great Balls Of Fire. Again, promotion of Smith was limited and resulted in a poultry seven thousand copies being sold. The wheels were starting to come off and bass man Marcus Van Story quit, being replaced by Will Hopson, brother of guitarist Al. Lott had also had his namesake and for future shows, drummers were picked up from local bands. Smith also parted company with Stars Inc. and handed over his bookings to the Charlotte based G.D.Kemper who immediately fixed up some dates in Canada with cowboy Lash Larue. An appearance on the influential Ed Sullivan Show was a step in the right direction but then Kemper severed contacts with Smith following the latter's booking his own dates in Maryland.

Musically, he was still producing great stuff like Uranium Rock, Golden Rocket, Dear John and Do I Love. On January 7th 1959, Smith went into the studio with Billy Lee Riley and Sid Manker (guitars), Cliff Acred (bass), Charlie Rich (piano) and the great Jimmy Van Eaton (drums). The results were as good as one would expect from such a line-up. Both the perfect Goodbye Mr Love and the poppy, chorus laden Sweet Sweet Girl were ideal for the time and in mid-Feb they were released as Sun 314. Billboard again enthused "Chances are Warren Smith'll have the top money-making record of his career in this Sun outing. One end, a top drawer, middle beat country offering finds Warren sadly singing "Goodbye Mr Love". On the other half, a terrific Don Gibson-penned, all-market rocker, Smith sez that his ex-gal was a "Sweet, Sweet Girl" to him. Great vocal and musical support for Warren's ultra-commercial ballad and beat offerings." Given that kiss of death, sales were again negligable and with his contract at an end it was no surprise that Smith and Sun parted company. In later interviews, he contested that he always wanted to cut country music but that Sam wasn't interested. Well, he had cut country, some of which was as good as any country music cut in the decade. From Sam's point of view, he was right to cut Smith as a rocker, his vocals were perfect for the genre. Sun wasn't amune to releasing singles aimed squarely at the hillbilly market, Ernie Chaffin had had four singles in the same time-span, it's just that the rewards for a big pop hit far out-weighed the rewards for a country hit.

Following in the footsteps of buddy Johnny Cash, Smith packed the misses into the Caddie and headed west to California. He landed a deal with Warner Brothers and cut three low key singles (including a Xmas 45) under the name Warren Baker. The new life had not started too well professionally, but socially they settled down quickly in Sherman Oaks, spending a lot of time with the Cash's. Cash offered him a slot on his package show, but was turned down, Warren Smith still had plans and they didn't include playing second fiddle to anyone else. Whilst appearing at the Town Hall Party in Compton, CA, he was spotted by an executive of Liberty Records who were planning to launch a country division. Smith duly signed, becoming their first country act and on March 9th 1960, entered the Radio Recorders studio in Hollywood. He had moved two thousand miles from Memphis, but the music had moved a million. The new sound was real country, fiddles a-plenty and stone country vocals. With the top west coast pickers (Ralph Mooney, Johnny Western, Jim Pierce), they laid down three tracks from which Liberty 55248 was released. I Don't Believe I'll Fall In Love Today/Cave In was released late summertime and rose to number 5 in the country charts. With no Jerry Lee to disrupt his sales, Smith had the pleasure of seeing his next release Odds And Ends (Bits And Pieces), Liberty 55302, also reach the top ten, peaking at 7 early in '61. Both hits had been written by country tunesmith, Harlan Howard and Smith, never a prolific writer, ceased to write his own stuff.
Both artist and label must have been bubbling, and decided the next move was to cut an album. The majority of the album was cut on 4th May at Radio Recorders with the same gang and with the two hits added was released as The First Country Collection Of Warren Smith. The playing's fine and the singing's great, it just lacks any sparkle. The same can't be said of the next single, Liberty 55336, which coupled two excellent songs in a revisited Old Lonesome Feeling (written by Stan Kesler) and Call Of The Wild. It was the b-side which took, eventually making the 26 spot. The follow up single was a duet with Shirley Collie, George Jones' Why, Baby, Why which again stalled in the twenties (23).

Despite his career blooming, things were starting to come undone as he became addicted to amphetamines (any Johnny Cash influence!!) and Smith failed to appear for a scheduled session with Collie. Willie Nelson took his place and also seemed to take husband Bill Coffie's place as well. With the first seeds of unreliable being sown, his next single, cut in Nashville, was Bad News Gets Around (!) and despite a great reading it failed to chart. Same fate for the next single, 160 lbs Of Hurt and its flip, Book Of Broken Hearts.

The next single was marvellous. The a-side That's Why I Sing In A Honky Tonk, climbed to 25 in November '63 and the b-side Big City Ways followed it to 41. This being despite the fact, that radio at first gave it the cold shoulder due to Smith's long, emphasised pronounciation of the first sylable when describing his - country girl. I'll bet the boys back in Memphis enjoyed the moment.

In April '64 he cut his final single for Liberty back in Hollywood. Blue Smoke is real '60's country and justifiyably rose to 41 in the charts, a fine swan-song. The label didn't renew his contract, his life was being ruined by drugs and Liberty was doing okay without needing a risk artist. It's a shame because Smith's vocals were in peak condition and his sound was sounding as fresh as anything being generated in Nashville.On 17th August 1965 in LeGrange, Texas at 8am, Smith's '65 Pontiac skidded off Highway 77, just missing another car before slamming into a steep enbankment. He was rushed to Fayette Hospital with severe back injuries and facial lacerations. He was out of action for the best part of a year, having to learn to walk again.A comeback of sorts was arranged with Slick Norris' Houston based label, Slick. She Likes Attention suffers from a poor vocal but Future X is a good track. Nothing came of the release, not surprising as promotion/distribution must have been limited.

A single came out on Mercury, who now had Jerry Lee, but this time there was no competition. Smith's chart days were over despite his health problems not affecting his voice as much. Now mixing drink with his drugs, Smith was now being arrested on a regular basis and ended up doing an eighteen month spell in a Huntsville, Alabama jail. His long-term marraige was over, but on his return to civilisation, he met and married a new woman. Trying to restart his life, he got work as a Safety Director for Trinity Industries in Longview, Texas, only singing on stage at weekends. In the early 70's he cut a couple of low-budget, low-profile singles for Jubal Records.
In 1976 he got an offer from Mike Cattin of the Carl Perkins Fan Club to record only his second album, for the Lake County record label. Due to his work commitments the album had to be recorded on Sundays and started in December '76 and was finished in June '77. Smith was very disappointed with the results, the tracks ranging from remakes of Sun/Liberty songs to a few originals.

In April '77, Warren Smith arrived in Britain to play a rockabilly show with Jack Scott, Charlie Feathers and Buddy Knox. Smith was completely overcome by the reception he received and was invited back the following November with fellow Sun artist Ray Smith. Again, the shows went well and a rejuvenated Smith was scheduled to return in April.
Unfortunately this tour never materialised as on the last day of January 1981, Smith was admitted to hospital with chest pains. Before the day was over, he suffered a massive heart attack and died. He was 47.

There's no better way to sum him up than a couple of quotes from Mr Sam "Quote Unquote" Phillips:

In an interview with Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins; "He was probably the best pure singer for country music I've ever heard. He had a pure country voice and an innate feel for the country ballad. With that music he was as goos as anyone I've heard before or since. So Long I'm Gone was just a wonderful country record. He was a difficult personality, but just interesting enough that I liked him a whole lot."

In an interview with Trevor Cajiao, talking about Sonny Burgess, Billy Lee Riley and Warren Smith; "..I should have followed through with Warren Smith too although he was much more of a country-flavoured guy in a way. The guy had the ability to make it. That, I guess, in a way, I regret somethin' like that because these were people with unique abilities and I coulda' made 'em' even if there's such a thing as a little more unique. I was probably a bit deficient in the fact that I didn't take a little more assistance and probably I coulda' pulled some of these guys, and done a little more with 'em. Those three guys I know had hit records in 'em."

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