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

Big D Music -- for whom Ronnie Dawson, Sonny James, Gene Vincent, Jimmy Bowen, Johnny Dollar, and so many others had written material and recorded -- was still in existence as a publishing company but had been stagnant for 30 years. Every now and then, the family would receive a check for some Big D song that received some airplay or made it onto a compilation. One, Johnny Meeks' song "Say Mama," had been recorded by the likes of Gene Vincent and Jeff Beck; and Ronnie Dawson's 1958 hit single "Action Packed," written by Jack Rhodes, has surfaced on myriad compilations.

Once the Dawson set was completed in 1996, Dennard began working on the first volume of what would become his Legends of the Big "D" Jamboree series. The discovery of songs Gene Vincent had recorded during the rockabilly hero's days living in Dallas -- in 1957 and 1958 -- gave Dennard the idea to release what would become The Lost Dallas Sessions, a significant and revelatory collection of 19 Vincent performances. He scoured the city tracking down locally made recordings, only to discover, after so much detective work, that the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville had old acetate transcriptions of Big "D" Jamboree broadcasts that had been made by the Armed Forces Radio Network and sent overseas during the Korean War.

"I was sitting at my desk at Crystal Clear, and Ronnie Pugh [from the Hall of Fame] said, 'Yeah, I've got some transcriptions here from the Armed Forces Radio Network. I don't know what's on 'em. There's only one that has any writing on it: Big "D" Jamboree, Carl Perkins.'" Even now, three years later, Dennard talks about his discovery with the glee of a child finding a thousand presents beneath the Christmas tree. "I thought, 'Boy, if there's Carl Perkins, there's probably Elvis and Patsy Cline and Buddy Holly and Hank Williams in there!'"

Mark Andresen
Elvis Presley first performed on the Big "D" Jamboree stage in April 1955, when he was still a scrawny up-and-comer.
Mark Graham
Elvis Presley first performed on the Big "D" Jamboree stage in April 1955, when he was still a scrawny up-and-comer.

Dennard made an appointment with Ronnie Pugh, flew to Nashville, and began dropping the needle on the 16-inch transcriptions. He was dazzled at what he found -- and disappointed to discover the Hall of Fame had only 16 such discs, all of which were one-sided. But Pugh informed Dennard that the entire set was available at the Library of Congress, though, again, the acetates were unmarked, since many of them had never even been cataloged.

Dennard flew to Washington, D.C., and spent a few days listening to the Library's collection -- close to 120 discs of material, not all of which were from the Big "D" Jamboree. (Some came from the Louisiana Hayride, the Old Dominion Barn Dance, and other shows from the 1950s.) After Dennard obtained Michael Bullington's permission to license the material, the Library of Congress duped the Big "D" Jamboree discs to digital audio tape and overnighted him the lot -- all for about $600. Then he began the process of editing down the tapes and clearing the rights, from Johnny Cash to the "smallest artists," many of whom were dead. Often, that involved using obituaries as road maps.

Yet for all his diligence, Dennard has pressed up a mere 2,500 copies of The Big "D" Jamboree Live. Though he sold 6,000 copies worldwide of 1998's Gene Vincent collection, The Lost Dallas Tapes, recent additions to the Legends of the Big "D" Jamboree series have sold poorly. Indeed, his "Groovey" Joe Poovey compilation, released last year, sold only 400 units. Though Dennard dropped plenty of his own money into this release -- well into the five digits -- he's pessimistic about how well it will do, despite the allure of old Cash and Perkins material.

"This will sell a few, but over the years I've learned my lesson that these artists generally don't have the selling power that their reputation would normally convey," Dennard says. "People are on to other things. Dallas looks different. Everything in Dallas has been paved over. A lot of this went with it, so over time it just gets forgotten. You can talk to average people on the street, and they go, 'Big 'D' Jamboree? Huh?'"

But not much longer. Not if Dennard and his exuberant 45-year-old echoes have anything to say about it.

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