Good rockin' last night
They greet one another like combat veterans. Their hugs are tentative but warm; their smiles, always broad. Sitting beside the crackling fireside in a holiday-decorated North Dallas home during the last week of 1999, these men reminisce for a while, tossing around names like kids playing catch. They pore over old photos and concert programs in which they appear as young men. Too often, they end their sentences by explaining, "Oh, he died last year." Then they pause and move on.
"There ain't too many of us left," says 86-year-old Marvin "Smokey" Montgomery, who looks years younger than his birth certificate would indicate. The banjo player, a member of the Western-swing pioneering Light Crust Doughboys since God was a toddler, stands beside 80-year-old Ed Watt and 60-year-old Ronnie Dawson -- men he has known for more than 40 years. "You're looking at the last of the guys from the Big 'D' Jamboree," Montgomery says, his deep voice full of pride.
"My God, I haven't seen you since you were a kid. Lookatchu -- ya still are a kid." Watt, who wears his 80 years like the faded leather jacket wrapped around his broad shoulders, beams as he talks to Dawson, the forever-young rockabilly who will always be the Blond Bomber to these men. The last time Watt saw Dawson was in 1960, not long after Dawson, then known as the teenage, flat-topped Ronnie Dee, first took the Sportatorium stage and put a screaming audience of 5,000 in his back pocket.
All three met in a wrestling arena at the corner of Cadiz and Industrial Boulevards, back when the Sportatorium played host every Saturday night to big-name talent and local heroes on their way up and down. From 1946 until the mid-1960s, the Sportatorium housed the Big "D" Jamboree, a three-and-a-half-hour weekly revue that introduced this town to the likes of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Wanda Jackson, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Hank Snow, Rose Maddox, Ronnie Dawson, Lefty Frizzell, and so many others who left their footprints in the footnotes of local music history. And, yeah, there was that skinny kid from Tupelo, Mississippi, by the name of Elvis Presley.
Ed Watt knew them all. He booked the talent at the Jamboree from 1953 until it exhaled its final breath some 13 years later. Smokey Montgomery knew them all too; as bandleader for the Jamboree from 1949 until 1960, he backed the acts big and small. Watt and Dawson, of course, will tell you Montgomery didn't learn anything from them big-name fellers -- he was better than all of them put together.
If yesterdays look larger the further we travel from them, then the Big "D" Jamboree exists now as a mythological moment. It was where country turned into rock and roll, where hillbilly begot rockabilly, where small men blossomed into enormous stars. One performer from the Jamboree, Orville Couch, recalls the first time Elvis played the Sportatorium, in the spring of 1955. He was a scrawny kid who drove a log truck for a living. His car might have been a Ford, though Couch says, "it looked like it had been turned over."
"We sat backstage one night and visited, and he talked about all the things he wanted to do," recalls the 64-year-old Couch, who now lives in Combine and still records gospel music in his high-tech home studio. "I don't think he ever dreamed he would become what he became."
Dallas seems to think history is something that comes with an expiration date. This city paves over its yesterdays, reducing historic monuments to rubble and parking lots; ours is a town that confuses progress with amnesia. Soon enough, the old-timers who remember when will disappear, and all that will be left are inaccurate history books, if even that.
But as the 20th century gives way to the 21st, a double-CD set arrives in stores that conjures up still-vibrant echoes of a golden age. On January 18, local record producer David Dennard -- a 49-year-old man who has spent the last three years of his life dusting off local music's best, lost moments -- will release The Big "D" Jamboree Live Volumes 1 & 2, featuring never-before-heard 1950s performances from no less than Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent and Wanda Jackson and Ronnie Dawson and other lesser-knowns. The collection is nothing short of a modern miracle. It's easily the most important local release in years, less an album than a living-and-breathing-and-kicking historical artifact.
Divided into two thrilling discs -- one titled "Hillbillies," another titled "Rockabillies" -- The Big "D" Jamboree Live makes tangible those reverberations the old men speak of. Along with the numerous never-before-seen photos crammed into its accompanying booklet, the collection acts as a sort of time machine, allowing audiences to listen in as Cash performs his latest Sun Records single ("I Walk the Line") or as a young Dawson wraps his high twang around "Johnny B. Goode" or as Perkins stomps his "Blue Suede Shoes." Perhaps just as important, The Big "D" Jamboree Live -- compiled from acetate discs rescued from the bowels of the Library of Congress -- resurrects the likes of Sid King & The Five Strings, Johnny Dollar, Orville Couch, the Bellew Twins, Charlene Arthur, Tommy Mitchell, Johnny Carroll, and others relegated to the margins.
Those artists on the disc who are still alive -- and many have since died -- can't believe such a thing even exists. After all, it took almost five decades for these performances to surface; that, and the dogged perseverance of a relatively young man who never even set foot in the Big "D" Jamboree.
"I even asked David, 'How old are you? Did you ever come to the Jamboree?'" Couch says. "He said no, and I said, 'Why you fooling with this?' He told me, 'Man, this is history.' He was really wrapped up in it, and that's fantastic. You do so many things through the years and don't think about someone going back 45 years later and finding it, but I'm real tickled that he did. Maybe someone will play this record. It can't hurt, can it?"
It's astonishing to consider how little we know of our own history -- how much of it remains a secret, buried beneath dust and debris. Or, for that matter, how much of it even now remains hidden away in someone's closet, where it just waits to be discovered by the persistent or, simply, the very lucky. One would think that there's nothing left to find, that all the scraps have been gathered and placed in the dustbin of history. But who could have imagined that in the year 2000, we would only begin to hear how a young Johnny Cash sounded on a Dallas stage in 1955?
Perhaps it's not too surprising that the Big "D" Jamboree would be relegated to passing mentions in history books. After all, it didn't really create any stars; it merely borrowed them. It had neither the clout of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville nor the cachet of the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport. Indeed, the latter remains far more famous because it has long been considered the barn dance built by Elvis, Cash, and Hank Williams. In his 1998 book Louisiana Hayride Years, former Big "D" Jamboree announcer Horace Logan even dismisses the Jamboree, claiming it "never measured up to the Louisiana Hayride in quality" and that "it copied the idea of the Hayride." Logan insisted the Jamboree existed for only one reason: "to make money" for its bossman Ed McLemore, who ran the Sportatorium and the Jamboree and controlled pro wrestling in this town for years.
Ed Watt, of course, would dispute Logan's assessment of the Jamboree. He waves away Logan's words, claiming he was just a bitter guy who was jealous "because he wasn't in charge," as he had been at the Hayride. Besides, what does it matter? History has a way of setting right such petty disputes.
The Jamboree wasn't even called that when it first began in 1946; it didn't have a name when Ole Top Rail Club owner Slim McDonald and radio personality Gus Foster began booking acts into Ed McLemore's Sportatorium just after World War II. Back then, country music was only beginning to become a big business. According to historian Bill C. Malone in his indispensable Country Music U.S.A., no fewer than 64 record companies were releasing country albums in 1946. By 1949, at least 650 radio stations were broadcasting live country-music shows.
Such rapid growth led to the creation of dozens of regional "barn dances" that would feature up-and-comers. The Grand Ole Opry's popularity gave rise to the likes of the WSB Barn Dance in Atlanta, Town Hall Party and Hometown Jamboree in Los Angeles, the Louisiana Hayride, and what would eventually become the Big "D" Jamboree. But in 1946, it was known only as the Texas State Barn Dance -- though men who claim to have been there at the beginning also refer to it as the Lone Star Barn Dance.
Watt says McLemore had little interest in music; his loves were money and wrestling, in that order. And Horace Logan was right, to a point: McLemore started the Barn Dance because he wanted to make a little dough. Still, that never diminished its impact -- or his employees' respect for the man, who died in 1968.
"I remember when my younger son got polio -- he was 5 years old -- and the first person to call me was Mr. McLemore," says Montgomery. "He was really good to me all the time I was there. He asked if I needed money. He was always that way." He recalls how McLemore insisted on paying the band $30 for a performance with Elvis over Colonel Tom Parker's objections, since scale was a mere $18. "I never liked Colonel Parker from then on," Montgomery says."
"Mr. McLemore was just a hell of a guy," says Ed Watt. "He always had a nice shirt on, a tie, and he always wore a cashmere jacket. He was a classy guy, and everybody loved him."
At its inception, the Texas State Barn Dance was as hillbilly as a pair of overalls and a straw hat. Among its earliest performers were brothers Bill and Joe Callahan, who looked and sounded as if they had just fallen off a mountain and landed in the big ol' city. Also hanging around the Sportatorium were comedian-singer Bob Shelton, guitarist Buster White, and singer Riley Crabtree. But no one was more important to the show's initial success than Al Turner, a DJ at KLIF-AM who took over booking the show in 1948 and got the show on the radio -- on WFAA-570. The Jamboree would eventually move to KLIF, which also broadcast McLemore's wrestling programs.
According to Western-swing historian Kevin Coffey, writing in the liner notes to The Big "D" Jamboree Live, the Big "D" Jamboree made its debut on October 16, 1948, thanks to Johnny Hicks, a longtime local disc jockey who had taken over the Jamboree (with Al Turner) and even renamed it. "It was kind of euphonious," Hicks once said of the new name, "and it stuck." Not long after that, the Jamboree took off, booking the likes of Ray Price and Lefty Frizzell -- back when only their mamas knew their names. In 1949, even Hank Williams showed up on the Sportatorium stage: He had been kicked off the Opry for his excessive drinking, and he needed a place to play. It was at the Jamboree, say old-timers, that Williams heard Price and convinced him to go to Nashville, where, soon enough, he'd become a star with "Crazy Arms."
Marvin Montgomery joined the Jamboree in 1949, when his side band had been asked to play as a house band at the Sportatorium. It was never meant to be a full-time gig; he was playing with the Light Crust Doughboys at the time, as he had since the 1930s, around the time Bob Wills and Milton Brown left the Doughboys. But soon enough, the renamed Country Gentlemen (then The Texas Stompers) became one of two house bands at the Jamboree.
"I never expected to stay so long -- oh, no," Montgomery says of his tenure on the Jamboree. "But I was glad I did. I didn't have anything else to do. I was just trying to be a musician. I lived in Fort Worth, and all the work was over here in the 1950s." It became Montgomery's job to assemble the three-and-a-half hour Saturday-night shows -- and he had only two hours to do it, teaching his band every song on the evening's program just minutes before showtime.
In 1951, Johnny Hicks -- who can be seen on the cover of this issue, standing behind Elvis and Scotty Moore and Bill Black, wearing his cornpone cap -- swung a deal with CBS' radio network that brought the Jamboree to the nation's airwaves every third Saturday night, as part of its Saturday Night Country Style program. (Indeed, Dennard's two-disc set emulates the original broadcasts -- though CBS broadcast only 30 minutes of the show to a nationwide audience.)
Two years after the broadcasts began, the Sportatorium burned to the ground; Watt and Montgomery speculate that a rival wrestling promoter started the blaze. For a while, the Jamboree broadcast out of the Fair Park Livestock Pavilion, until McLemore built a new, four-sided Sportatorium where the old octagonal building used to stand.
Watt met McLemore in 1953 while working for a tile company in Chicago. Watt was related to McLemore -- distantly, by marriage -- and took him up on his offer to book the Big "D" Jamboree, though Watt had little love for country music. He preferred the soothing strains of Guy Lombardo to the "corny" sound of hillbilly music. Nonetheless, it wasn't long before Watt was booking the talent at the Jamboree. His signature is at the bottom of contracts for the likes of Cash, Perkins, Haggard -- all of whom were paid only a few hundred bucks to play the Jamboree and various other Texas venues (Elvis' contract guaranteed the kid a mere $225).
Watt became, in essence, McLemore's right-hand man. Among his duties was to baby-sit McLemore's client, rockabilly star Gene Vincent; book the touring acts; and sober up some of the touring guests, among them the then-pill-popping Cash. "Anything with Gene Vincent was hectic," Watt says. "Gene was a great talent, but he was like all these guys you see nowadays: They make too much money too soon, and it goes to their heads."
If anything, those men who lived at the Sportatorium on Saturday nights during the 1950s do not romanticize that period; it's impossible to mythologize a drafty memory. They recall the thin, tin walls; they remember how they had to place their amps on Coke crates and turn them toward the ceilings so the sound wouldn't bounce off the walls.
"The sound in there was terrible," says Couch. "It was a tin building, and we played on the wrestling arena ring. All they did was take the posts down. But we had big guests. We had a big night when Johnny Cash was there, the last time he came. They had two shows, and he packed both of them out. It was fantastic. The night he was on, it was raining real hard -- it sounded like that tin building was gonna collapse -- and he came out and said, 'How high is the water, Mama?' He had them in the palms of his hands."
Usually, the locals would play only one or two songs a set, unless the applause demanded an encore. The touring guests would play a handful of songs; Perkins offers five on the "Rockabillies" disc. But the old regulars don't talk about how country music gave way to rock and roll in the mid-1950s, because, as Montgomery says now, "Music is music. What did it matter?"
"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."
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."
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!'"
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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