Good rockin' last night

A new CD resurrects the echoes of the long-gone Big "D" Jamboree, where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and some forgotten heroes made Saturday nights swing

"We sort of took it for granted," says Sid King, whose Denton-based band was signed to Columbia Records during the 1950s and often performed at the Jamboree and the Hayride. "If you're right there when it's happening, you don't think much about it. It starts happening, and you just roll with the flow. I mean, when I think of all the photos I could have had with Elvis..." Sid King, a man who had plenty of his own hits, laughs softly.

On September 17, 1955, music-industry tabloid Cash Box celebrated the Big "D" Jamboree's anniversary by paying homage to Ed McLemore's "faith in the folk music business." It promised that the Jamboree "is growing -- and growing," insisting you should "keep an eye on the Big 'D' Jamboree." That the thing stuck around another decade was almost astonishing: Television had come along and rendered the barn-dance concept almost obsolete. But the Jamboree pushed on through the 1950s and 1960s, featuring early performances by unknowns such as Willie Nelson, Ronnie Dawson, and Merle Haggard and venerable legends such as Ernest Tubb and Bill Monroe.

When the Jamboree closed up in the mid-1960s, Ed Watt stuck around the Sportatorium with McLemore, going to work with Fritz Von Erich as a wrestling promoter. "It was fun and different -- it wasn't like an ordinary job," Watt says. "From the time I started there till I walked out of there in 1989, I never had a Christmas or Thanksgiving off. That's when your biggest shows were."

The Blond Bomber: Ronnie Dawson first played the Jamboree in 1958, after winning the talent contest.
The Blond Bomber: Ronnie Dawson first played the Jamboree in 1958, after winning the talent contest.
David Dennard has spent three years and thousands of his own dollars to preserve a long-lost piece of Dallas' musical past.
David Dennard has spent three years and thousands of his own dollars to preserve a long-lost piece of Dallas' musical past.

Around 1970, a relative of McLemore's tried to resurrect the Jamboree by bringing in the likes of Hank Snow, but it was a no-go. Its time had come and gone. Probably never helped that the Sportatorium didn't have air-conditioning.

Not too long ago, David Dennard devoted his career to looking for The Next Big Thing. For a while, Dennard and his partner Patrick Keel, with whom he formed Dragon Street Records, had a track record like Michael Johnson, signing and recording the likes of Tripping Daisy and Hagfish.

But Dennard, who had his own recording career in the 1960s with the locally based Novas and again in the 1980s with Gary Myrick & The Figures, found such pursuits unrewarding. That was especially true after stumbling across a review of Ronnie Dawson's 1994 album Monkey Beat!, then available as a British import. Dennard, then working for Crystal Clear Sound, worked a deal to license the disc and release it domestically. He also re-released Dawson's 1988 "comeback," Rockinitis, which previously had been available in England.

"When I started finding out more about Ronnie, I started finding out about the Big 'D' Jamboree, which I had heard about, having been born here, but I had never gone there," Dennard says.

"When I first met you," Dawson says, motioning toward Dennard, "you didn't know nothin' about the Big 'D' Jamboree." Dawson, who debuted on the Jamboree in 1958, flashes a huge, toothy grin.

"The more I got to diggin' in Ronnie's past, the more I made contact with Smokey and Ed Watt, because I was lookin' for pictures of Ronnie," Dennard says. "In looking for those, I met Jeanne, and that led to all of this."

In 1996, Dennard began compiling a double-disc Dawson anthology for Crystal Clear; titled Rockin' Bones, the collection would feature myriad unreleased Dawson tracks. All Dennard was looking for were old pictures of Dawson performing on the Sportatorium stage. What he found, once he contacted Jeanne Bullington -- the daughter of Ed McLemore -- was far more than he expected: recordings Dawson and other musicians had made for McLemore's Big D Music publishing company. She asked Dennard whether he'd like to take the tapes, one of which displayed a label reading only "G. Vincent." Not even a fool would have declined the offer.

Jeanne had been sitting on the tapes for years, keeping them hidden away in a closet. She had been given them by Ed Watt, who considered them nothing but yesterday's detritus. "I didn't think nothing of 'em," Watt says, his voice tinged with the soft regret of a man who still can't believe their value. "I threw away hundreds of pictures, so much stuff. Who knew anyone would want this junk?"

Dennard, of course, coveted these lost tapes, which contained hours of unheard music recorded at the long-gone Sellars Studio near downtown. He was dazzled by what he heard: the likes of Johnny Carroll, Vincent, Dawson, and so many others who had worked with McLemore. Dennard worked with Jeanne to license the tapes, and when she died of cancer in 1997, Dennard struck up a friendship with her son Michael, the grandson of Ed McLemore, who died when Michael was only 8 years old.

Michael had little interest in the material; he barely knew his grandfather and never met any of the artists with whom Ed had worked. All he remembered of the Sportatorium was playing among the wrestling-ring turnbuckles as a child. The family "did not understand" the historical value of the old tapes and old photos. "We had no idea what was on those tapes," Michael says. "I assumed most of them were strictly demos."

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