Legendary stardust cowboy
Early last week, Arnold Joseph Poovey held in his hands the compact disc that was going to rescue his name from the dustbin of rock-and-roll history. The disc, titled Greatest Grooves, summed up his career, all 40-plus years of it, in one rollicking 55-minute burst. It revealed a rockabilly kid who became a country-music adult who became a Dallas-music legend, if you define legend as someone whom people have only heard of, yet never heard.
He and producer David Dennard--who has extricated so many other lost songs out of the scrap heap, having compiled best-and-rest-ofs by Ronnie Dawson, Johnny Dollar, and Gene Vincent (with his Lost Dallas Tapes)--sat around just a few days ago listening to old songs, sorting through black-and-white photos, imagining the day when Poovey would once again step on a stage. They sat around, sipping on Coke, talking about what might happen once the world got hold of Greatest Grooves.
Two days later, on October 6, "Groovy" Joe Poovey died in his sleep. Joe was discovered by his wife, Peggy, and he was buried last Friday.
He was not at all old, just 57, but in a moment, a man who was so much a part of making history in the 1950s, sharing the Big "D" Jamboree stage at the old Sportatorium with the likes of Elvis Presley and Hank Williams and so many other immortals, had become history. So much for the triumphant comeback. "It's a drag," Dennard says with so much understatement. "It blows my mind...He's the history of Texas music."
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"Groovy" Joe Poovey--the name sounds like some cornball leftover from the 1950s, a spectral symbol instead of a flesh-and-blood performer. He would also go by such monikers as "Jumping" Joe Poovey, "Texas" Joe Poovey, even Johnny Dallas when a producer thought Poovey sounded too "corny." But among the rockabilly faithful, perhaps the most fanatical and devoted of all rock and roll fans, Groovy Joe was the real thing--the bastard son of Ernest Tubb and Elvis Presley, a man who stood at the crossroads of hillbilly and rock and roll and decided to boogie forever at the intersection.
In the United States, especially his hometown of Dallas (he was born May 10, 1941, at St. Paul Hospital), Poovey's name is barely known at all. Until Greatest Grooves hits stores, most likely early next year, there exist no CDs featuring his music. Unlike a Ronnie Dawson or even Mac Curtis, homegrown contemporaries of Poovey's during the 1950s and '60s, he had yet to be discovered by the rockabilly purists in the United States. Oh, but they loved him in England, where boys still slick up in greaser duds, roll cigarettes in their sleeves, and spin poodle dolls around the dance floor. In Europe, they adored Poovey, even worshiped him. Old friend and bandmate Bryan Freeze recalls that one time, they stepped off a plane in England and were treated "like you might treat a superstar over here--they carried our stuff and treated us like royalty."
But here, he's just another lost relic from the 1950s, which is a damned shame. Old friend Willie Nelson will tell you that. So will Johnny Paycheck and even George Jones, both of whom recorded Poovey's tracks a very long time ago.
"There were probably maybe eight guys in that Big 'D' circle--men like Gene Summers, Ronnie Dawson, Johnny Carroll, Mac Curtis--and Joe was one of those guys," Freeze says. "And that's a pretty small circle, so I wouldn't say Joe was any better than they were, and they weren't any better than he was. They were all unique in their own way, but headed in the same direction--even if they didn't know what that direction was. They just knew they made music that made the girls scream and made the guys jump around."
Poovey was a country performer when he was just 12, playing the Big "D" Jamboree with his band, the Hillbilly Boys. In 1951, he even recorded two Christmas songs with country performer and family friend Earney Vandagriff: "Santa's Little Helper" and "Christmas Filled with Cheer," both of which appear on Greatest Grooves. "Santa's Little Helper" is a delightful little novelty, full of out-of-key honky-tonk piano, slide-guitar echoes, and the vocals of a little kid singing high, sweet, and deliriously; the fiddle-heavy "Christmas Filled with Cheer" is sort of creepy, though, with Poovey talking directly to Santa Claus about how "my daddy's dead [and] I hide where no one will see my tears." Both tracks were recorded at Jim Beck's studio on Ross Avenue--the same place where Lefty Frizzell recorded "If You've Got the Money (I've Got the Time)."
Poovey would remain a country singer till 1955, when he opened for Elvis at the Big "D" Jamboree and decided he wanted to become a rock-and-roll star--though back then, no one called it rock and roll. And so he traded the white cowboy hat and the frilly Western shirts (with fringes dangling from his chest and sleeves--old pictures reveal him to look like a child playing Roy Rogers) for a jar of hair grease and shiny pegged pants. He looked flashy and played tough, even with the scarf tied around his neck; no one dared call him a dandy.
"Do you know what it was like to follow Elvis on stage in those early days?" Poovey said in 1987. "Well, it was tough. Elvis performed, and the crowd went wild over him. Those were his early days on Sun Records. Then, I went on stage. The 6,200 people weren't interested in anything but Elvis. His performance just stunned them."
While hanging around the Sportatorium, where he was a regular, Poovey hooked up with Jim Shell, who had been recording artists for Starday Records (George Jones' label, and home to Dallas' own Sid King and the Five Strings) and Imperial; they began collaborating, with Shell writing the lyrics and Poovey contributing the music. In 1957, Poovey began recording for the Dixie label, a subsidiary of Starday, and released his first single, the swingin' "Move Around." The track sounds like the typical rockabilly of the era, country music set to a hand-clapping beat, and Poovey's twang defines the song as much as the music; he still has one foot in the honky-tonk.
"He was country, period," says Sid King, who met Poovey in the mid-'50s, when the Five Strings began headlining the Big "D" Jamboree. "He was more country than rockabilly. Of course, we didn't call it rockabilly at the time. Rock and roll hadn't come along, so we didn't call it that either. We called it 'be-bop.' But we all came from country roots. So did Ronnie [Dawson] and Buddy Holly and Elvis."
In 1958, Poovey recorded his finest track, the one that could have, maybe even should have, made him a star: "Ten Little Fingers." Yet it likely didn't succeed for the very reason it was such a dynamite track. Written by Shell and Poovey, "Ten Little Fingers" sounds like a Jerry Lee Lewis throwdown with a Chuck Berry narrative ("Way down in Texas in a little border town is a cat that plays the coolest piano around..."), with pianist C.B. Oliver banging his instrument till the keys bled; Shell was even shameless (or maybe smart) enough to make reference to "Johnny B. Goode." And so the song went nowhere, and so did Poovey, which is perhaps why history has treated him with such disregard.
"He didn't make a wrong turn, but he zigged instead of zagged," Freeze says. "He could have been as equally well known as the big guys. It was the beginning of all the rock and roll and country and rockabilly, and he was there when it was being formed, and I believe to this day he was an integral part of it even though he wasn't as well known. All those guys started with an acoustic guitar and a slap bass--that was the backbone of the music--and Joe didn't invent it, but he sure was one of the first guys doing it."
Poovey recorded several more tracks for Dixie, Azalea, and the Sims labels, and kept playing around town at the Sportatorium and the Majestic Theater. But rockabilly didn't even treat its biggest heroes well--Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent would never record songs as successful as their biggest hits. Its lesser-knowns were forced to return to playing country to pay the rent, and most disappeared altogether. They took day jobs, played random stops to nowhere at night, and tucked their stardom dreams away in old boxes with publicity photos and acetate recordings--where, maybe, guys like David Dennard would one day find them and treat them like newfound treasures.
Poovey did indeed go back to writing and playing country and had some success--which, in his case, meant playing the Grapevine Opry (two tracks from his appearances there in the late 1970s appear on Greatest Grooves, including a rousing rendition of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken"). He also resumed his career as a disc jockey, which he began in 1962. Poovey would end up working for KMAE-AM in McKinney, KJIM-AM in Fort Worth, and KPCN-AM in Grand Prairie, spinning country discs at the beginning of the outlaw movement with Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and their dope-smoking lot.
"He was a very, very powerful country disc jockey in this market for a number of years," says Roy Stamps, who booked Nelson into a number of clubs around the area and also promoted Nelson's first Fourth of July picnic in Dripping Springs. "That station in Grand Prairie put a heck of a product on the market. One time, when he was at KPCN, he beat Ron Chapman at drive-time, back when Ron was at KLIF. Joe had a good following, an excellent following. One day Joe was doing a remote in Garland, and Willie and I were driving around, and we decided to drop in on him. Willie said 'We'll scare him to death.'"
But like all Texas rockabilly heroes, Poovey did not quite disappear into the shadows. That will never happen as long as the Brits are around to rescue one old single from oblivion. A tiny label in Sussex, but of course, reissued "Ten Little Fingers" and turned Poovey into a bona fide hero overseas in 1980. Same thing happened to the likes of Mac Curtis and Ronnie Dawson, who found acclaim in England when they couldn't even find a gig over here. Poovey started touring in England and even recorded a few tracks there, including a slap-and-tickle version of "You Are My Sunshine."
Poovey joined the Teamsters and eventually got a job as transportation chief for a number of the production companies filming around town. He worked on Dallas; Walker, Texas Ranger; and Born on the Fourth of July, often appearing as an extra. He wouldn't record again till 1990, when he and Freeze went into Freeze's home studio in Fort Worth and cut a few tracks, including "From the Jungle to the Zoo." They're sturdy enough recordings, but Poovey's voice sounds a little thin, like an old man trying to keep pace with a child's memory. By the 1990s, his voice had become better suited to straight country; he had aged...like 100-proof bourbon. He released his final single only last year--titled, eerily enough, Final Vinyl, which contained three tracks, including "Deep Ellum Rock" and "Deep Ellum Blues." He also performed at the Bar of Soap celebrating its release. It would be one of the last times he ever stood on a stage: Last August, he went to Parkland Memorial Hospital to have his blood pressure checked--and had a heart attack as soon as he stepped in the door. "He basically died, and they brought him back," Stamps says. "Somebody was lookin' after him." Unfortunately, not long enough.
A decade ago, Poovey told an interviewer that "it's probably best that not much happened" to his career, because he was able to glide through life doing whatever he wanted. "My neighbors came over the other night with a magazine. The story told about how most of the rockabillies never made it. They said, 'Gee, Joe, it's such a shame that nothin' happened. Aren't you sad you wasted your whole life?' Ha!...I always say that you'd better enjoy the music business, because you can't make a living in it. I've enjoyed it, though. I have no intention of quitting. Of course, I have no intention of being a star, either."
When it began in 1993, Wake Up, Dallas! was a great, essential idea. How could you not get behind two nights of local bands coming together at the Galaxy Club--for free, no less, with John Freeman acting as master of ceremonies? (Even better, bands played for just 15 minutes. If only.) But five years later, the adorable small-time rock-and-roll circus has evolved into an industry free-for-all called the North Texas Music Festival, which features not only two nights of industry showcases scattered throughout Deep Ellum this weekend, but also the NTMF Topaz Music Award Show at the Granada Theater on Thursday night, a $65-per-head dinner on Friday with producer-engineer Eddie Kramer (known for his work with the Rolling Stones and, gad, KISS), an industry softball game on Saturday, and a Sunday-morning gospel brunch at the Hard Rock Cafe. Smells like...South by Southwest.
Now, we're a little skeptical of any event that calls itself the North Texas Music Festival and features at least 25 acts hailing from such places as Houston, Tulsa, and Little Rock. We're also a little skeptical about a North Texas music award that includes one Austin label among its nominees (Sandwich Records) while excluding the local-jazz haven Leaning House, and one that includes such categories as "Best-Dressed Band," "Best Stage Presence," "Most Likely to Succeed," and "Best Hair Statement." So is at least one nominated musician, who refers to the awards as a "circle jerk--what struck me was how it's like high school yearbook voting. Like, best-dressed band, best stage presence, most likely to succeed? Is that not high school yearbook shit?"
This is probably a good place to mention that the awards show ("a black-tie gala"--and John Freeman should go wearing only a black tie) is a real highfalutin affair. "Toni and Guy will give the look," reads the NTMF pamphlet, "internationally renowned choreographer Kent Whites will set the mood...and 50 of Dallas' hottest restaurants will line the walls" of the Granada. Like anyone will be able to eat. We can't go. Tuxes make us scrachity.
Don't get us wrong--we disagree with some of the winners of our music awards too. (You think we would give Grand Street Cryers an award? Yeah, maybe--for most suckity.) But at least the readers vote on those, bless them. The Topaz Awards are voted on by "1,600 local music-industry professionals," according to NTMF organizer Paula Moore. Does this town even have 1,600 local-music fans? (Someone should also tell these professionals that Matt Pence, not Dave Willingham, produced Centro-Matic's Redo the Stacks, before Willingham wins the best producer award for which Pence should have been nominated.)
"I am trying to do this as right as possible," says Moore, who also works as an A&R rep for MCA Records. "This is beneficial to the music community, and they want to vote on who has been successful or who is worthy of merit. It's something where the music business can get together."
The showcases, which take place at venues throughout Deep Ellum on Friday and Saturday (and include an outdoor show by Tripping Daisy on Saturday at 9:30 p.m.), are hit or miss, like most weekend nights. I wouldn't mind catching Willie Nelson's daughter Paula on Saturday at the Gypsy Tea Room at midnight, but since when did a band named Ashtray Babyhead from Little Rock get a headlining spot at the Curtain Club (on Saturday at 1:15 a.m.)? And yes, you can judge a band by its name. Oddly, a good hunk of this town's best bands aren't even participating in the weekend, despite the promise (OK, threat) of A&R execs and lawyers and publishers descending upon Deep Ellum like locusts. Which is why we get Beaver Nelson from Austin instead of, say, anyone else.
"I am striving to make this a multigenre and multicultural event, but I am sticking with what I know," Moore says of the rock-heavy fest lineup (though there is an "urban showcase" Friday at the Gypsy Tea Room and a smattering of country bands throughout the weekend). "It is limited right now, but it is something supported primarily in the rock community."
Hey, I'm not trying to be a jerk about this, really. But we've lived through this nightmare before, when it was called Dimensions of Dallas during the early 1990s. Do we really need industry toadies coming to town (Eddie Kramer's so old he bleeds oil) listening to bands they'll never sign? Hey, Moore's an A&R rep for one of the biggest labels in the world--and the two bands she's trying to sign aren't even from Dallas.
"There are a lot of good local bands, but I think they're all developing," Moore says. "Unfortunately, we're living in the age of the hit single, and I have to do my job. I don't want to throw anybody to the wolves." Wake up, Dallas.
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